In my family, secrets are king. Currently, I am in possession of three major family secrets. Two were told to me by a family member, and one, I discovered unwittingly. One of them, I thought was an open secret in that I thought my extended family knew about it (it’s not a secret concerning my nuclear family, but a cousin of mine), but I recently found out I was wrong. It’s a full-blown secret, except, there are some family members who know about it (excluding me, obviously), but they just don’t talk about it. This is common in my family, and growing up, I just took it as normal. There are open secrets that you don’t mention, but you know everyone else knows about them. Even as adults, my brother and I don’t talk about them. I mentioned one of them in an oblique way several years ago, and we exchanged knowing glances. That was it, and we moved on to another subject.
Not only do we have major secrets, but my father is very big on saving face. He can’t abide appearing foolish or lesser than in anyone’s eyes, which meant that he was constantly on the lookout for any perceived improprieties. The one that sticks out in my mind the most is when he and my mom were out playing tennis with some friends. Another friend of theirs called and asked to speak to him. I said he was out playing tennis. No big deal, right? When my parents came home and I told my father about the call, he flipped out. He was pissed that I had told the second friend he was out playing tennis with other friends because he thought she would be upset that she wasn’t invited. Never mind that she didn’t live in our city or that you don’t have to invite all your friends to every activity you plan. In my father’s eyes, I had committed a grave sin, and I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned that day: Don’t tell anyone anything. I know it sounds ridiculous, but his overreaction to my action wasn’t just a one time thing.
He always thought he was right, and what’s more, he couldn’t fathom another way of thinking. I learned at a very early age that my mother’s life at home revolved around making sure my father wasn’t upset. That meant not telling him anything she thought he couldn’t handle. Again, it was hard to tell what would upset him and what wouldn’t. Simply asking him to finish up his bath (he takes up to an hour-long baths. He falls asleep in the bathtub) could elicit the silent treatment. We had a decades-long battle in which he would tell me to put on a sweater or coat because he was cold. He did not take kindly to my response of, “But I’m not cold.” He thought because he was cold, I had to be cold, too. He took it as a personal offense when I refused to put on a sweater or a coat. Side note: I was diagnosed with Grave’s Disease when I was fourteen, which means I had an overactive thyroid. One of the symptoms is never feeling cold. In other words, I had a medical reason to back up my non-coldness, not that it would have satisfied my father.
In addition to being secretive and placing a high value on saving face, my father also was the only one in the family who was allowed to be angry. Really, he was the only one allowed a range of emotions. Any time I raised my voice or sulked, I was soundly castigated for it. My mother was deeply depressed when I was a kid/teenager, and I was the manager of her emotions as well. I had to make sure nothing I did made her even more depressed, which was quite the burden for an eleven-year old girl. I remember begging her to divorce my father, but it simply wasn’t done in those days in a Taiwanese family.
Mixing these three ingredients make for a very potent secretive cake. I know that doesn’t make much sense, but bear with me. What we learn as children becomes the fabric of our adult personality. I learned that a) my feelings/opinions don’t matter; b) never tell anyone anything that might be even remotely questionable, and; c) don’t talk about secrets, even with people you know know about them. On the positive side, this means that I can keep a secret like no one’s business. If you tell me something you don’t want anyone else to know, it’s going to get locked so deep inside, it’ll never see the light of day. That makes me an invaluable listener if someone needs to vent. I’m a good listener in general because of my childhood and my psychology background, which is also a plus and a negative. It’s a plus for obvious reasons. I have a gift for opening people up and making them feel heard. On the negative side, that means I have people who think I’m their best friend when I don’t feel the same way. In addition, it also can mean me keeping my feelings inside because I’m too busy listening to talk.
I am much more comfortable writing than talking, which is another barrier to me actually talking about my feelings. Even in writing, however, I hold back. There’s a tiny voice in my head saying, “Nobody cares how you feel. Don’t write that.” I manage to tamp it down so it’s quieter than it used to be, but it’s still there. I also know that my feelings are very intense, so I’m afraid if I let them out at all, they’ll just spew all over the place. My last therapist said that’s part of the legacy of my childhood in which I was made to feel my emotions were dangerous–I’ve internalized that idea to the point of ridiculousness. It’s a vicious cycle, and one I’m having a hard time breaking.
When I was in the depths of my depression, I never talked about it with anyone except in the most general of terms. “I’m feeling a bit down.” “I’m having a hard time getting out of bed.” If I were being honest, I’d have said, “Wherever I go, death calls to me. I see it everywhere. When I’m driving, I have to stop myself from driving off the road or ramming into the meridian. When I arrive home, I sit in the car, tempted to leave it running. The fight to live is constant, and I’m losing to it bit by bit every day.” Even that is more poetic than what I really felt inside because I can’t help but pretty up my ugly feelings before expressing them. It’s partly the writer in me, but it’s mostly because I still feel it’s verboten for me to talk about my negative emotions.
How am I feeling now that we are in the era of President Trump? I’m terrified. He’s shown that he’s in it for himself and that the only thing that matters to him is what he gets out of it. He doesn’t care who gets hurt or crushed along the way because he simply doesn’t have the capacity to care about other people. We are all just props in his world, and the sooner we realize it, the better we’ll be able to combat it. I was hit with a deep depression once I realized he was going to win. It overwhelmed me in a way I hadn’t felt in a decade. I curled up in a ball and stayed fetal all night long. I emerged from it a few days later, stunned at how easy it was to fall into it again. Depression is my oldest friend, and it’s shown that it’s not going anywhere any time soon.
My conundrum is that I have a hard time talking about my feelings, but they only get worse if I don’t let them out somehow. If they’re left unspoken, they race in my brain on a continuous loop until I want to poke my eyes out. I’m fortunate in that I have a few people in my life with whom I can talk about, well, anything. It’s still on me to actually take the step and talk about the things that are bothering me. They’re more than willing to listen, but they’re not mind readers. It’s not up to them to intuit that I’m in crisis. Again, part of the problem is that I tend to disappear when I’m deeply depressed. If I’m able to talk to anyone at all, then I’m going to appear OK. I’ve had decades of perfecting the art of putting on a happy face when I feel like shit, and it’s a hard habit to break. Sometimes, I wish I could just scream, “I feel like shit! Please hug me and cook me sausages and biscuits and shrimp grits!” It’s an anathema to me to do something like that, though, so it’s definitely something I need to work on.
Let’s talk about secrets for a minute. Several months ago, I learned a humdinger of one by accident, and my immediate response was to slam it in the back of my brain behind a locked gate. “No, no, no. Not gonna think about it!” In fact, it happened in such a weird way, I was doubting myself that it had actually happened. I don’t want to get into it in detail*, but let me assure you that it was something I really would rather not know. My problem was and still is, what do I do with it? I can’t pretend I don’t know it–wait. Let me rephrase that because I can certainly not talk about it with anyone in my family, which is like pretending I don’t know it. But, I can’t un-know it in my own mind. I saw what I saw, and I know what it means. Do I tell anyone in my family?
The secret doesn’t affect me directly–that is, it doesn’t really have anything to do with me. However, it does affect other people in my family, and for that reason, I need to decide if I want to tell the afflicted parties. I resent having to make this decision. Very much so. I resent the casual way in which it was revealed to me. I resent that the knowledge is just sitting in the back of my head, taunting me. I’ve talked about it with friends, and they’ve helped me look at it from a multitude of perspectives. Just talking about it makes me feel better and I’ve had to deal with other things in the meantime, but it’s been bothering me the past few days because I learned about third secret I mentioned earlier–which also isn’t about my nuclear family, but about my extended one. That secret isn’t one I have to worry about personally, but it brought up the one that does affect my nuclear family.
Do I tell or don’t I? There lies the rub. I’ve thought about the possible ramifications if I tell and if I don’t, and I’m still not sure which is the better answer. Might I mention again that I resent having to make the decision? It’s emblematic of my childhood, oddly enough. I’m the keeper of the family secrets, and I’ve always had to walk the tightrope of what to tell and what not to tell. I don’t like that this is my position, and I’m hoping to find a way to give it up. I don’t know yet how I’m going to do it, but I have to find a way. Then, maybe I won’t even need to answer the question of whether or not I tell this secret because if I’m lucky, it won’t matter any longer.
*Yes, I realize the irony of talking about the negativity of keeping a secret while still keeping the secret.