Open up one of your social media outlets at any given point on any given day and you will most likely find a news feed full of personal information: Friends spilling on their breakups or divorce, family members posting pictures of their ultrasounds for unborn children, old high school acquaintances taking big stands on religious or political topics. Turn on the television and you’ll see a long list of reality TV shows, delving into the personal problems in marriages, businesses and friendships. Everywhere you look, people have become immune to sharing personal secrets and opening up their lives to others with little restriction or reservation. The exception: Addiction. Families with drug or alcohol addictions are often families with secrets. Substance use and addiction thrive in the darkest corners; places where the only hope that remains is that everyone will stay silent, and the addiction will eventually fade away. We keep our loved one’s secret addiction from friends and other family members. We do things to “help” – like give money or bail them out of jail – and keep those actions from our spouses or other family members. We bottle up secrets and fight to keep them from being discovered.
Keeping an addicted loved one’s secrets.
When a family member or close friend becomes addicted to alcohol, heroin or pills, the addiction doesn’t typically happen overnight. It’s a progressive transition in his or her life. As their health and behavior decline, we gradually adjust to try to help. Each day we look for ways to comfort, try to gain control and try to keep the world from knowing just how bad the situation has become. There are a number of reasons we consider a loved one’s addiction a secret to keep:
- We’re worried about being judged by others
- We’re embarrassed because somehow we may be to blame for the addiction. (Troubled marriage, bad parenting, etc.)
- We’re concerned they’ll lose their job
- We’re afraid they’ll become angry with us if we tell anyone
- We’re worried we’ll expose their shame
- We feel that if we talk about it, it will be real
- We imagine that if we don’t talk about it, it will go away on its own
- We’re worried they may end up in jail if we reveal the secret
- We’re afraid they’ll stop loving us
While we may only see the negatives of revealing the secret, the truth is, bottling up the truth is a defense mechanism. The anxiety, stress and chaos of addiction become such a large part of our daily lives, we develop a way to function by avoiding exposure of the problem. Ultimately, our secret-keeping only compounds the stress. Keeping secrets doesn’t just make things worse, it keeps you and your loved one sick. The longer you hide their addiction, the longer they will continue to drink or use drugs. Keeping the secret allows the addiction to spiral further and further from the truth – and from help.
Keeping enabling a secret.
“You’re only as sick as your secrets” is a common saying in Alcoholics Anonymous – as one of the biggest symptoms of addiction is deception and denial. But what about the family members of the addicted person? The people who quietly pay the bills of an addicted son, while keeping it from their spouse? The people who turn the other cheek with jewelry or cash go missing? The people who lie about picking up a loved one from the bar every night or about calling in sick for him or her? The people who falsely promise other family members they’re not paying off drug dealers for their loved one? Unfortunately, those secrets are just as unhealthy as the secrets a person in active addiction may keep. If you are lying about the help that you are providing for an addicted loved one, it’s not because you have bad intentions: It’s likely out of desperation to control, help and change the situation. In families living with drug and alcohol addiction, keeping secrets about helping – or enabling – functions as a form of self-use.
Revealing the secret.
Breaking the silence about a loved one’s addiction isn’t easy. In fact, it may seem easier to just keep it in. However, never letting anyone know what goes on behind closed doors is toxic to your health – and the health of everyone in your family. While you don’t need to publicly announce your loved one’s struggles or call every single family member or friend to divulge in personal matters, you do need to find an outlet to release the secrets and feelings you’ve been hiding and bottling up. Here’s what you can do:
- Learn everything you can about addiction. Addiction is a manipulative and cunning disease that thrives in secrecy. Breaking your silence starts by reading as much as you can about addiction and engaging in meetings and support groups. Learn what role you are playing in your loved one’s addiction, and how you can do things differently to help – rather than perpetuate the situation.
- Go to treatment – even if they don’t. This may sound strange, but even if your loved one is resistant to seeking help for addiction, you can take the first step for yourself. By attending a family program, you’ll not only learn what does and doesn’t work for you in your relationship, but you’ll also gain the support from other parents, spouses, siblings, grandparents and friends of addicted loved ones. This support is vital to following through with the changes you need to make, and it can send a powerful message to your loved one.
- Involve professionals. By keeping secrets, you’re avoiding painful feelings and potential consequences for your loved one. It is easier to say “yes” and ease your guilt than to say “no” and face the problems. However, seeking the help of a therapist, counselor or recovery coach, you can gain the skills and confidence you need when faced with these situations. You can also use this therapy or counseling time to let out these secrets and feelings of guilt to an unbiased source that is vowed to keep your information confidential. Without a doubt, there is comfort in releasing the bottled up emotion, anxiety and tensions the addiction has caused you.
- Take care of YOU. Are you exhausted yet? Truly exhausted from the chaos addiction has thrown into your life? Exhausted from the emotion, the worry, and the shame? Hit the pause button when you are faced with difficult situations and make a healthier choice that involves conversations with the family, with support groups, and with your therapist.
Continuing to bury your loved one’s addiction isn’t healthy for you, for the person using, or for any member of your family. Addiction shouldn’t be your family’s secret. Harness your inner strength and talk about what’s going on. You are not alone.