The thing about a secret is that keeping it is often more painful than the secret itself.
I know from experience. When I was 10 my father died and I could not fathom it, despite mother’s reaction that “we have no daddy anymore.” I tried to understand but it made no sense that one second a living, breathing, complaining, drinking, working man would be alive and the next moment, gone. I didn’t ask why because I felt there was no answer.
So I did what I could and I denied to people, and probably myself, that he died. Friends would ask what happened to my father and I told them that he had moved away for a while. I was embarrassed to admit that I was different from my friends who all had functioning fathers. The thing this 10-year-old boy wanted most was to belong; the thing he feared most was to be cast out.
Keeping my father’s death secret led to other secrets. With my dad gone, I turned to my mother for support and comfort but I didn’t want anyone to know that I was for all intents and purposes a momma’s boy. So I over reacted and acted tough and all the while I had this paralyzing fear that other people would see through me and realize I wasn’t tough at all. If that happened, I might just disappear, so I kept it inside until I began therapy years later.
I’ve had another deep, dark secret for much of my life and that is that I have a dissociative identity disorder, similar to the disorder that looney bin Herschel Walker has. My disorder didn’t make me dumb or looney but it did make me feel as if I was always acting a part and never really playing the part of myself. It makes sense given how I felt I had to cover up at all costs for all the shame I felt for being so weak and dependent on my mother. The truth is I was not weak, weird or damaged, I was just using any tools I could find to survive.
I didn’t tell a soul about it until a few years ago, fearing people would think I was nuts. But I mustered the courage to open up to my wife. She suggested checking it out on Google and to my amazement, I found there is much written about dissociative disorders and plenty of self-help available. It helped to know I didn’t have to keep guarding my deep, dark secret although the disorder didn’t go away.
It fits the Mayo Clinic’s definition of dissociative disorders as usually developing “as a reaction to trauma and help (to) keep difficult memories at bay. Times of stress can temporarily worsen symptoms, making them more obvious.”
The Mayo Clinic further describes dissociative disorders as involving “a disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions and identity. People with dissociative disorders escape reality in ways that are involuntary and unhealthy and cause problems with functioning in everyday life.”
The Mayo Clinic explains that treatment may include psychotherapy and medication and that “although treating dissociative disorders can be difficult, many people learn new ways of coping and lead healthy, productive lives.”
Yes, I have had a generally healthy and productive life but I believe it could have been better if I was able to label my feelings, talk about them, understand that I was not alone and got treatment. But as far as I was concerned, I did not understand my feelings and I believed I was alone and would be that way for the rest of my life. Nobody could possibly understand how I felt if even I didn’t understand it.
Therecoveryvillage.com reports that dissociative identity disorder has been identified in 4 percent to 7.5 percent of patients in psychiatric residences and 2 to 6 percent of patients in outpatient settings.
An estimated .4 to 3.1 percent of individuals not linked with mental health services also have the disorder. But the report made it clear that dissociative identity disorder is believed to be widely undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, making it difficult to determine exactly how many people are affected by it. However you slice it, many people live their lives in confusion, shame and fear under the veil of dissociative identity disorder and never get the treatment they need.
All of this came to mind because of a podcast I heard the other day on eating disorders. Many of the people interviewed said they had found ways of coping with their eating disorders, even though their solutions were not always very palatable if you excuse the pun. But every one of them admitted that keeping their eating disorder a secret was as painful or even more painful that the eating disorder itself.
To a person, they felt shame, embarrassment, self-hatred, all because they suffered from a psychological condition that is hardly rare, afflicting an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men at some point in their lives.
“Eating disorders are serious but treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.” said the nationaleatingdisorders.org website. “While no one knows for sure what causes eating disorders, a growing consensus suggests that it is a range of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors.”
Those statement ring hollow with many, many people with eating disorders. Many deny they have a problem while others are convinced they can never change and are terrified that they will be ostracized if their secret is found out. In comparison, it’s different from alcoholism, which no longer has the same stigma of the past and for which there are many treatment programs. You have plenty of songs about hard drinking, hard working men but few extol hard binging, hard purging women or hard thinking, hard wondering people with dissociative identity disorder.
There is no general understanding of eating disorders, just like the public is generally unaware of the dissociative identity disorder. When people learn another has an eating disorder, their uneducated and cruel reactions are often something like “why don’t you just stop eating?” or “why are you so weak?” or “why do you pig out so much?” In fact, that is what each of the women with an eating disorder and interviewed for the podcast said they would say to themselves.
One 65-year-old woman interviewed on the podcast said she suffered since her early 20s and never told her husband. Instead, she would go out at night to a restaurant far from home where she would binge and then come home late enough to purge as quietly as she could in the bathroom.
Another woman said she would typically binge for a while and then become anorexic for a while before repeating the pattern. The woman said there was nothing in her life that could satisfy her like food and plenty of it and that anorexia was an acceptable consequence.
Nationaleatingdisorders.org reported that eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions that affect a person’s emotional and physical health.
“They are not just a ‘fad’ or a ‘phase.’ People do not just ‘catch’ an eating disorder for a period of time. They are real, complex, and devastating conditions that can have serious consequences for health, productivity, and relationships,” the website noted.
The podcast was as much about eating disorders as it was about how people keep secrets, even when it affects their health. People often guard talking about issues involving physical and mental health for reasons ranging from self-denial to fears of criticism from people who are uninformed and themselves fearful of mental illness. Keeping secrets can often have devastating effects from the many who die from anorexia nervosa to the number of LGBTQ adolescents who take their own lives.
The website healttap.com reported that death from anorexia nervosa is the highest of any mental illness but that precise figures are difficult to calculate accurately because people with eating disorders die of many things including heart failure, organ failure, malnutrition and suicide. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (www.Anad.Org) reports a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry that shows a mortality rate for anorexia of 4 percent.
The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health reported a consistent trend that lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender teens are at increased risk of suicide. The survey determined that 50 percent of LGBTQ teens (ages 13–17) seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. A total of 18 percent actually made a suicide attempt, twice the rate of suicide attempts among all U.S. teens.
“The new research sheds light on the critical importance of suicide prevention in LGBTQ youth. Parents, teachers, mentors, and policymakers must help ensure that LGBTQ teens receive ongoing support and access to mental healthcare resources,” the survey noted.
The thing is that everybody has secrets in some form. The secrets may not be so life-threatening as an eating disorder or dissociative identity disorder. But keeping secrets can still be devastating, like the spouse who, out of shame, never tells his wife of his alcoholic parents, creating a lifelong obstacle in the marriage. Or the man who never acknowledges his homosexuality and lives years of loneliness.
Truth be told, it’s better to lose a friend rather than keep one who reacts critically or negatively on learning of a person’s eating disorder, dissociative disorder, homosexuality, alcoholism or any other behavior that is still derided by many people.
An Aug. 29, 2017, story in Psychology Today, by psychologist Shahram Heshmat, noted that people either lie or keep secrets for many reasons, including:
1. Ignorance is bliss. People avoid or disallow information that might get in the way of progress, like the couple that admits to stay together “till death do us part” despite the high divorce rate.
2. Reality denial. Denial is used to create a false sense of security, as in people deny they have cancer or alcoholics who say they do not have a drinking problem.
3. Overconfidence. People may lie or keep a secret because they are overly confident that they will come out on top. For example, many smokers fail to quit because they overstate their willpower.
4. Self-handicapping. The opposite of overconfidence is the person who has low esteem and avoids doing the work, like being honest, that might reveal a low ability.
5. How I like myself to be seen. People are not truthful in order to be perceived favorably.
6. Cherry-picking data. People affirm information that supports their beliefs and deny forms of information that might contradict their beliefs.
7. Sour grapes. This the action of the person who does not want to acknowledge when something comes short of his beliefs. It is like the fox in Aesop’s Fable who tries to get the vine or grapes but failing, convinces himself that he really didn’t want the grapes.