The unbearable burden of carrying secrets

Date

Olivia Clement

The process of disclosing secrets can be deeply cathartic.

The process of disclosing secrets can be deeply cathartic. Photo: Stocksy

When I was 19, my grandfather asked me to take a key from his bedside table and open one of his cupboards. We were in Paris, where he lived, and he was 85 years old. He was about to entrust me with one of his biggest secrets. Behind the locked door was a stack of magazines, photographs and some paperwork; among them was a sealed envelope. On it, the following words were written in French: "In the case of my death, to be thrown in the River Seine without opening". The envelope was bulky. I fingered it, curious as to what was inside. "Promise me you'll do it," he instructed me.

When he did pass away, a couple of years later, I retrieved the envelope and showed it to my mother. "Go and throw it in the Seine," she told me without hesitating. If she was tempted to open it, she didn't reveal that to me. I walked the 15 minutes from his apartment to the closest bridge. I stood in the middle, ceremoniously, and threw it. That was that. His secrets were gone.

I considered my own life – what secrets would I take to the grave? I thought about all the secrets one could accumulate in a lifetime. What has always fascinated me about my grandfather's envelope was that it needed to exist in the first place. It wasn't enough for him to hide his secrets in the dusty corridors of his mind; they had to be physically stored away, in the real world. I imagined him writing his confessional notes and feeling somewhat relieved. It made sense to me.

In 2004, Frank Warren launched an ongoing community mail art project called Postsecret. Since its inception, millions of people from all over the world have mailed him their secrets anonymously. They range from the trivial "I don't wear underwear at work" to "everybody before 9/11 thinks I'm dead". Warren is a TED speaker; in a recent NPR Ted Radio Hour podcast, he speaks about our innate need to divulge secrets. He says it's not so much about sharing them with the world, as it is about sharing them with ourselves. "What do we conceal, what do we reveal? It's a very human condition," says Warren.

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The episode explores the cathartic nature of disclosing secrets and conversely, the way in which carrying a secret can be "corrosive". Warren explains there is often a lot of energy that goes into concealing secrets. "I think it's great to see somebody share a secret and see that feeling of not just letting the secret out, but also all that guardedness, all the defences that were installed to protect that secret." Later in the episode, TED speaker Ash Beckham relates her own experience of being secretly "in the closet" for many years, and how this became an unbearable load for her to bare. When she decided to finally be open about her sexuality, it was as if a burden had been lifted.

Not too long ago, I came out of a relationship destroyed by the weight of too many secrets; my husband was having an affair. The web of lies he was spinning became more complicated every day. I watched, as he physically changed before my eyes, burdened by the immense task of keeping part of his life hidden from me. He began to look completely different: always exhausted; he lost the colour in his face and he was increasingly hunched over. His moods were more and more erratic. His transformation wasn't unique – research has found that carrying a secret can feel like literally carrying a heavy weight.

As Warren and Beckham mention in their TED talks, our desire to divulge secrets is often selfishly motivated: we need to rid ourselves of their oppressive nature. But what about the selfish nature of secret keeping? My mother has always told me that in life, it's important to cultivate a little secret garden, planted with seeds gathered over a lifetime. There are some things, she has insisted, you should keep only to yourself – things that don't need to be revealed to your best friend, partner, doctor, sister or Instagram followers. She's always taught me to be honest about everything, so it's taken me a while to understand exactly what she means.

What I've come to interpret her words to mean is this: sometimes, life gives us moments so rare, intimate and beautiful that we deserve to keep them to ourselves and ourselves only. They might be shared moments, but our experience of them is unique. Keeping them a secret is part of the fabric of the relationship we weave with ourselves. Other times, life may throw us such a curveball that we find ourselves feeling irretrievably estranged from our best selves. These moments are dark and our pain doesn't necessarily belong to us. While it might help some people to share these, for others, they're best kept secret – an almost-forgotten memory that belongs on the floor of a rotten riverbed.