(Twentieth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
National secrecy. Communal secrecy. Familial secrecy. Cloaked as “Discretion” it perpetuates problems. What it did for us when we found out that our son was addicted to heroin was to create a puzzle that we were forced to try to put together in the dark with many missing pieces. No one was talking – not friends, parents, school leaders. When the drug bust happened at his high school in the spring of 2005, and the administration didn’t call a meeting of all parents to alert us to what was going on, one wonders what motivation was behind that decision? Clearly, it wasn’t what was best for the rest of the students, families, or our community.
Years ago, while working through our angst with the systemic problems in organized Christianity, and continuing to run into absolute resistance, secrets, and denial, we came upon a quote that finally explained why we were not, and never would be, making headway: “If you speak about the problem, you become the problem.” This wisdom came from an important and insightful book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. But the subtle power of abuse is not limited to churches: governments, schools, communities, families—no one wants to be seen as part of the problem, especially with drug addiction and alcoholism. So, if we just keep troublesome or messy things secret, if we don’t speak about them, we can all just get along.
Recent research tells us that keeping secrets affects not only our mental and emotional well-being, but our physical health as well. When we are hanging on to a secret, our mind wanders back to it and ruminates on it which results in a lack of well-being. This has been shown to lower our tolerance of pain, increase our body’s insulin and cortisol (stress hormones), cause heart palpitations and negatively impact our brain and cause depression.
More significantly in regard to addiction of any sort, the desire to not be viewed as “less-than” and rejected by others motivates a person to keep this most dangerous secret. Dangerous because survival is at the root of our behavior, and having positive relationships with others brings a sense of well-being. If we fear the likely outcome of being exposed will result in rejection, we will guard this secret with our life. And if we are the parents or loved one of someone who is addicted, we will likely become the “secret keepers” for the very same reasons.
I do understand why parents think they are doing what is best for their child by not disclosing the truth about their addiction, especially after a death, and covering it up like a blemish. But, as we remember from being teenagers with acne, the more goop you put on to try and cover it up, the more it stands out like a malignant growth. So, too, with addiction: the cover up adds more shame and perpetuates the diminishing of the person underneath. It invalidates them as a person and keeps them in the shadows. It says they deserve to be shamed; and, after a death, it doesn’t celebrate them and who they really were, nor does it allow friends and family to process their grief openly, which is the only path to real healing.