Oh how we thrive on connection. Human bonding and relating. We all need to be witnessed. To be seen and heard, and to have people who “get” us.
After doing a lot of intense healing around living with a deep, dark family secret, I’ve begun sharing it with my family. With cousins. Sharing things anonymously, or somewhat anonymously online is easy for me. But sharing my secret with people who’ve known me my entire life – or thought they’ve known me, is scary as shit.
I didn’t create the secret and I’m no longer willing to keep it solidly cloaked in the darkness of shame and fear. It’s time to speak my truth and air it out. Let the light in. Why now? Because I healed to the point of needing to take steps to separate myself from my abusive older brother, which involved a legal procedure so I no longer share jointly inherited property with him. And because some of the property is also shared with a set of cousins, I let them know the “why” of the change. I needed to no longer be forced to be tethered to my brother.
Sharing my family’s deep dark shameful secret with other family has been for the most part positive. What I mean is, I was afraid to share a part of my childhood that’s long gone, yet has played a huge part in my life. It was banished to the closet of “yea shall never speaketh of this” decades ago. And for decades I didn’t. I was afraid that if I spoke my truth I wouldn’t be believed. How could something so big be kept such a secret? Or the truth would be so uncomfortable to hear that people’s ears and hearts would close. When someone’s reality is shattered or shocked, the first reaction is denial.
Part of why I didn’t even think of telling was for years I blamed myself for all the bad things that happened to me. I blamed myself for being molested. I thought it was my fault that my brother bullied me and did things to me that no child should ever have done to them. Because my brother was never caught in the act, and when I was little and complained about him to our mother, she didn’t do anything much, the only logical explanation was it was my fault.
I also blamed myself when my unmedicated bipolar mother took out her insecurity masked as rage on me. Why else would your mother go ape-shit on you? You must have done something to deserve it, right? I didn’t know she was mentally sick until I was sixteen and she was hospitalized for the first time. And even then I didn’t really understand it because no one talked about mental illness. Once again, no adult saw my mother verbally assault me, so no one realized this was going on. It wasn’t a secret that I was told to keep. In Mom’s case it was more of just how things were.
Screwing up my courage, a few weeks ago I wrote a three page letter to a cousin who’s about a decade and a half older than I, telling her about the dark family secret and about my healing journey. Because we grew up on opposite coasts of the country, and with our age difference, we didn’t grow up knowing each other well at all. But the summer after I gave birth to my incest-conceived daughter and gave her up for adoption – all kept very hush, hush to the point where even my younger brother didn’t know – my parents flew me across country to spend about a month with my West Coast aunt and uncle. I guess it was my reward for having spent the previous summer locked away in a home for unwed mothers.
By this time, from all outer appearances I was a normal fifteen year old teenager who was interested in things like boys, hair, and clothing. My aunt and uncle, almost a decade older than my parents were so welcoming and loving. I traipsed around after my uncle as he tended his avocado trees, and hung out with a neighbor girl just about my age. My aunt and uncle took me to Catalina Island on their sailboat for a few weekend sailing trips. And I got to spend some time with their eldest and only daughter, staying at her home near the beach. Because I don’t have a sister, it was really nice having an older female cousin to look up to.
Other than that summer, the only other time I regularly connected with my cousin was after her mother died. We stayed in touch for a few years with regular phone calls. And as can happen, life got busy for us between work and raising our families, and phone calls dwindled.
The letter I sent to my cousin detailed my healing journey: healing from relationships with both my mother and older brother. I spilled the beans about my having been molested, impregnated, giving birth in secret and giving up my daughter for adoption. And then I waited. I waited to reach out again because I’m well aware that it takes time to process shocking news. The day she read my letter she called. Reconnection.
As I saw my cousin’s name on the caller ID and answered the phone preparing myself for whatever reaction she had, it turned out that I was the one who would end up processing shocking news. She already knew. She’d known since the summer I’d visited. I was bowled over.
After telling me how she found out I was simultaneously pissed off yet relieved. I was pissed that after my father swore our entire family to secrecy, someone very close to him who knew, told my aunt. My mother never even told the secret. Both my parents took it to their graves. But that’s how secrets can go. You never really know who knows.
The beautiful thing about coming out and sharing my secret is the reconnection that’s happening. Reconnecting with family at a new and deeper level. I’m quite geographically distant from my family, so periodic visits every few years usually means catching up on what everyone’s doing, how the kids are doing, what’s going on work wise, and that sort of thing. Or peering into our lives through social media.
It’s truly a wonderful thing to be seen and recognized in a new and different way. Not just as the second to youngest cousin who used to work on ships and is now busy being a mother, but as someone who’s been through some real shit and has not only walked through it, but who is walking a healing path and is using it to elevate their life.
I feel fortunate to reestablish familial bonds that many people who grow up in dysfunctional families either lose or walk away from.