My life as a secret keeper

by Carolyn on August 5, 2009

Solitude by Wendy Slee

Solitude by Wendy Slee

You can tell me anything.  Really, you can.  And chances are I won’t tell anyone.  I am a secret keeper and even when you don’t expect me to keep your secrets, I will.   My first lesson in secret keeping was taught by a pair of socks.  No, that isn’t a typographical error.  My socks taught me something important.  They taught me to think before I speak.  To think about what I am about to say and decide if it should be said.  To first determine if it is a secret or not.  Because secrets are for keeping, not speaking.  And I needed to be a keeper of secrets.

If I were to guess, I’d say I was seven; with both of my parents soon to be remarried.  Upon returning home from a weekend at my father’s, my mother was unpacking my bag.  She happened to notice that my socks hadn’t been worn and asked me why.  And without even thinking, I told her.  I’m sure I said it nonchalantly; as if I was relaying the weather.  Never stopping to consider the consequences of the secret I would share.  Never once contemplating if it was a secret at all.

You see, the explanation was that I’d had socks bought for me to be kept exclusively at my father’s house.  The opinion being that my usual socks weren’t kept white enough.  That’s how I had understood it, anyway.  I knew immediately that the news made my mother unhappy.  And it was the first time I can remember tangibly feeling the tension between her and my step mother.  A tension that put knots in my stomach and worries in my head.  I suddenly realized that I had betrayed one confidence and in doing so, had hurt another’s feelings.  I had caused pain and trouble for the people I loved.  The lesson was clear.  To me.

It’s funny how some moments speak to us throughout our lifetimes.  This was one of those moments.  The moment a new purpose called out to me.  When I became the secret keeper.

It is a learning curve all children come to in life with regards to their immediate families.  The question of what information is private versus what information is public can be a difficult one to decipher.  Each family has it’s own standards.  Some more willing to open the closets for public consumption than others.  But all families have topics that cause them to close ranks and pull all the curtains tightly shut.  And that’s a bit of an oxymoron for kids who are taught to always be honest.  Just beginning to grasp the concepts behind what we call social graces.  Finding the correct filter and then putting it to use takes a good deal of skill and practice.  Parents usually find this out the hard way by having their child say something that was never meant to be repeated at the most inopportune moment.

And then there’s the child of divorce.  Intimately involved and included in two separate immediate families.  And not just any two families, but families commonly connected amid an undercurrent of strain.  Each family with it’s own privacy requirements.   With the intricate threads of both coming together to weave the fabric of their life; blurring the lines of ‘us’ and ‘them’.  Turning it into ‘me’, ‘us1′, ‘us2′ and finally ‘them’.  Making it even harder to distinguish what should and shouldn’t be shared with whom.

And so a secret keeper was born.  I thought about everything I said.  Not much could escape my filter.  I learned to only share good news about any of them with the other.  And even then not to discuss anything at too great a length.  And since my life’s fabric was made up of pictures with each, I learned to hide myself too.  Hiding my mom’s version of me from my dad and vice versa.  Afraid that if they saw all of me, they wouldn’t approve.  Scared to share too much and expose more than I should.  Not wanting to betray or hurt anyone again.  Closing up for the benefit of all.  Sometimes even lying for the sake of a conversation that felt safe.

I was never asked to keep secrets.  Never given a list of acceptable and unacceptable topics to share.  But kids tend to see things in black or white.  I learned my lesson from socks and I wrote my own rules from there.  It was my self imposed duty I was trying to fulfill.  My role; the part I was supposed to play.  And I wanted to play to perfection:  Secret keeper; protector of all things private.  It has not been easy.  Things shift and change and I find myself suddenly wondering what I can and can’t share all over again.  My own rules don’t apply anymore.  I now have my own immediate family unit.  I’m no longer in either of their’s.  No longer privy to all the details that cohabitation provides.  They choose what to share and not share…with me.  I cling to my quest to keep secrets, yet I find myself opening more each day.  It’s an internal struggle.  A tug of war.  The decisions I was once so confident of have become obscured by change.

So where does that leave me?  Past secret keeper, present…?.  I wonder sometimes.  Secrets always made me feel set apart and now I’m working so hard to bridge the gap.  Can trust and openness wholly exist together?  I’m not sure and I don’t know where this road will take me.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Carolyn August 5, 2009 at 8:29 pm

I have an addendum I wanted to include but it didn’t quite fit in with the post itself. It has to do with my starting to question the need for secrets and confidences. It happened 10 years ago, shortly after I met my husband.

I need to preface this by writing that my husband’s family and family experience is very different than mine. Opposite even. First, his parents are not divorced. Second, he is the youngest of four children. His family system is very open. They don’t hide their feelings. They get angry and fight. Then they get over it and move on. It’s awe inspiring for someone like me to watch.

Shortly after we started dating, I invited him to a family dinner at my grandparent’s house. My mom had made her bean salad. A salad I wasn’t a big fan of because it was full of onion (a food I only like very well cooked). I had whispered in his ear before dinner ‘watch out, the bean salad is gross’.

Dinner started and everything was swell. Until my mother looked at my now husband and said ‘hey, would you like some bean salad?’. To my dumbfounded surprise he answered ‘well, I’m not sure. Carolyn said it was gross.’. I honestly couldn’t believe my ears. How could he have sold me out like that? Didn’t he realize that his little statement could jeopardize my entire relationship with her? I was petrified. Frozen. I didn’t know what would come next.

But you know what happened? Nothing. My mom laughed. So did the rest of the family. I’ve never let him live it down, but he did me a huge favor that day. He showed me the secrets, the masks, the walls weren’t always necessary. That I could be honest and everything wouldn’t fall apart. It was a giant first step and he had literally taken it for me.

I’m so incredibly lucky to have found someone who compliments me so completely and never fails in helping me to see another way. Thank you, Steve.

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2 Frank August 6, 2009 at 10:44 pm

That’s a hell of an addendum! I’m surprised he wasn’t wearing that bean salad after that comment!

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3 Tammy August 6, 2009 at 2:21 pm

The two of you are a perfect fit. I have to admit I am still laughing at the picture in my mind. I could just picture your face and Steve just smiling back at everyone, all sweet and innocent.

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4 Urchin August 15, 2009 at 12:47 pm

It’s good to have secret keepers though too. Someone you can talk to without fear of it going any further. I think maybe that’s why therapy is so popular. The whole thing screams “Trust me! Tell me anything, we’ll discuss it at length (so long as there’s time left on the clock and money in your pocket.)”

It’s good to know, for me at least, that there are people like you, Carolyn. Really.

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5 Carolyn August 15, 2009 at 9:46 pm

Thank you Urchin. There is that good side to it too. People really can trust me with things. Keeping confidences is second nature to me and I don’t even think about telling. The only bad side is when you start thinking you are a secret too. Hiding for fear someone might not like what they see.

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6 Urchin August 15, 2009 at 11:04 pm

I’m quite fond of what I see when you write. Sometimes a secret keeper needs to share too. :)

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