Sharing family secrets very much seems like a betrayal. Ours was so woven into the fabric of my family’s makeup and into our portrayal to everyone else.
I assumed there’d be some blowback. My readers have primarily been supportive. One said I had written an article about an “infantile” act, which is fine. I believe wholeheartedly in, “Take what you like and leave the rest.” If cutting off contact doesn’t work for you, don’t do it.
I made the choice for myself and my children, not for anyone else. I chose not to forgive; I chose instead to remove myself completely from both the abuser and the enabler. Everyone gets to decide what is best for his or herself, and my experience is mine and mine alone. It won’t work for everyone.
I assumed too that I’d receive blowback from my family, and it finally came this morning when I checked Facebook. My sister, who is younger than me, had written me a terrible message, which I’ll excerpt below:
“…You are the most selfish person I’ve ever met. You do nothing but use people and cover it up by I was once abused. Oh, get over yourself. You’ve caused more pain to me and my family than anyone possibly could. I’m glad you don’t talk to mom and dad anymore because now your evil reign of terror has ended…I feel sorry that your children have to have you as a mother. I hope one day they can see you as you are and return the favor of cutting you out of their lives…”
I felt more confused than angry. We grew up in the exact same home.
One of my worst memories is of hearing my mother slam my sister’s head against a table because she was struggling with learning to read due to her learning disability. That moment has been branded on my mind since it happened. I remember the sounds of my mother screaming at her, of her head hitting the table, of her crying hysterically.
I remember, too, the decision I made because of that moment: that I was going to do all I could to have that not happen to her anymore. I would purposely act out, so that any violence that was going to be directed at her, was directed at me instead.
Because of that, when I was as early as nine years old, I felt personally responsible for keeping my family intact by not sharing what was really going on with anyone outside of our family.
Despite years of therapy and recovery for my own issues, I wasn’t truly free from the sickness of my family until I severed my relationship with my parents and shared honestly and completely.
But I’ve caused pain to “her and her family” (read: she and my parents), I committed an “evil reign of terror,” more than my mother’s nearly daily abuse ever did?
And, on top of that, she feels sorry for my children that they have me for a mother??
After sending me that message, she blocked me across all forms of social media as well as my phone number. I don’t know if I even would have responded if I’d had the ability to do so, because what would there have been to say? How could we possibly have such different views of the exact same experiences?
Beyond that, her comments were extremely cruel and vindictive. I know today to not open myself to be abused, and her comments were abusive.
I care deeply about being a good mother to my children, and my decision to remove myself from that family system was to protect myself and them. On top of that, she also said, “…send my regards to Don [my partner] because anyone worth two cents wouldn’t go near you,” so not only did she attack me, my role as a parent, but also my partner in just one message.
She’s not the kind of person I want in my life today.
Her reaction was much of the reason why I chose not to share such an intimate family secret for so long. I knew, at hearing what I’d shared, that my family would respond with only rage and denial. Thankfully, though, I had chosen to cut off my family well before her message, and I don’t have to fear exclusion from a family I already have no contact with.
Thankfully too, I am already committed to a practice of self-care that I’ve had to do while writing these kind of intimate vulnerable pieces.
Families shape our individual identity and ability to form close relationships. They teach us how to trust and communicate. Dr. Evan Imber-Black writes in The Secret Life of Families that when families keep secrets, from each other or the outside world, it can create long-lasting scars:
they can divide family members, permanently estranging them; they can discourage individuals from sharing information with anyone outside the family, inhibiting formation of intimate relationships; they can freeze development at crucial points in life, preventing the growth of self and identity; they can lead to painful miscommunication within a family, causing unnecessary guilt and doubt.
It is important in order to live a whole and healthy life to break a family’s veil of secrecy: “…breaking the rules of family secrecy is necessary to ensure the achievement of freedom and honesty crucial to making and sustaining authentic relationships.”
Keeping family secrets can actually affect a family in life-long damaging ways, and it can be a generational problem as well:
Keeping traumatic secrets can result in excessive stress and guilt for the person carrying the burden of knowledge... Physical symptoms such as anxiety, headaches, backaches, and digestive problems often can occur…both the person keeping the secret, as well as those who live with the secret-keeper, including young children, can experience similar physical and mental health issues.
You’ve probably heard before that “secrets keep us sick,” and family secrets keep us sick in both emotional and physical ways. They also impact our children, whether they know the secret or not.
I don’t have to be a secret-keeper today, and both I and my children are so much better for it.