Speaking Out: Why Hiding Your Struggles Makes it Worse
At this point, the only real regret I have about my first marriage was that I didn’t know.
I regret that I didn’t know about his struggles with addiction and depression.
Because when it comes down to it, that is the real tragedy.
And unlike the bizarre secret life and the bigamy, hiding battles with addiction and depression* is exceedingly common.
And the consequences of trying to conceal these struggles are far-reaching and often devastating.
*I limit my emphasis here to addiction and depression partly because I believe those are the struggles my ex faced and because those are the two areas that I still witness the most stigma around. These same ideas hold true for most struggles – from weight loss to divorce, from anxiety to dealing with loss. These are the hard parts of the human journey. And they share a common language that we all speak if we’re willing to listen.
At this point, I can only guess at what happened. At what demons my ex was wrestling with behind closed doors and only witnessed with closed eyes.
I know that he was taught from a young age the skill of hiding. He covered for his father when he was drunk at his son’s birthday party. He created stories to keep classmates away from his house and its concealed secrets. He learned to keep his tears in and his shoulders up.
I knew these things. I saw these things. But I also thought he was different with me. That he could open up. Feel safe. He showed me some secrets. I mistakenly thought he revealed them all.
I learned otherwise when I opened the cupboard doors in the basement after he left. The clutter of empty bottles spoke of another side of my husband. A darker side. A struggling side.
A side he never let me see.
Part of me wonders if is some strange way, by living this other life in secret and then leaving suddenly, he was trying to protect me. Shield me from his shadow-self. He had always seen himself as my guardian.
Or maybe he was too ashamed to reveal his internal conflicts and fears. His concern with his outward appearance and perception increased while his downward spiral accelerated. Ever afraid as being seen as less-than, something he perceived in his own father.
Perhaps he was afraid at the repercussions of speaking out about his problems. I have to admit, I would not have taken it well, especially if it had been hidden for some time. He may have been fearful of my anger. My disappointment. And my own fear.
Or maybe it was more about the fear of being judged by his family. His friends and coworkers. The world. At being distilled down to a single word – “depressed”. Or “addict”. Instead of a singularly complex man.
Conceivably, his depression or addiction had him feeling spun out of control. And so orchestrating his own magic show of misdirection and misinformation became his way of exerting control. Of making the pain somehow a little more bearable. I’m no stranger to that trick.
Of course, he may not even have possessed that level of self-awareness, simply seeking refuge from his pain wherever it could be found. Doubtful that true help could ever be obtained. And instead of seeing himself as struggling in the moment, he may have seen himself as permanently broken. Or maybe he couldn’t even bear to face himself at all.
And that’s the part that breaks my heart.
For him. And for all the others like him that are too stoic or too afraid or too ashamed to speak out.
Because no matter what his reasons were for not speaking out, not reaching out,
Keeping it in only made it worse.
I Don’t Want to Hurt Them
It’s natural to want to shield those we love from excessive pain or ugliness. We care for them. We want the best for them. Even when it’s at the expense of ourselves.
There’s a magical thinking that can occur – if I can only keep this hidden from them, I’ll fix it on my own and everything will be the same. Yet upon reaching that point, things have already changed. For one, it’s impossible to be fully present when you’re presenting with a facade. You’re playacting. And that’s not fair to you or to them. Also, one of the strongest human drives is to be seen and accepted for who we are. And by wearing a mask, you’re isolating yourself.
We all need a human connection. We wither away without affection, attention and connection just as easily as we do without without food. When you make a decision to keep it in out of a sense of obligation, you’re starving yourself of the very sustenance you need to get better.
Furthermore, although you may believe you’re holding this in out of altruism, it’s ultimately a selfish act. You’ve decided that you are the one in control of their reality and you’re guiding it along based on your script alone.And when they find out – and they will eventually find out – the fact that you have kept the truth hidden from them will prompt anger, frustration, sadness and self-doubt.
Truly acting in their best interest occurs when you present them with the facts and allow them to reach their own decisions.
It is not your responsibility to ensure that others never feel pain. It is your responsibility to not willingly inflict needless suffering. And trying too hard to protect somebody often results in the pain magnifying needlessly.
I’m Afraid of Disappointing People
It’s not unusual for those stricken with depression or addiction to be people-pleasers. To want to be liked and often to find their own validation through that of others. And so when depression or addiction, with its inevitable impact on daily life and productivity, rears its ugly head, it can be easy to try to keep it under the covers for fear of letting down those around you.
You don’t want to go from being seen as “the smart one” to “the sad one.” From “the person who is always there for me” to “the person who never shows up.” Or “the responsible one” to “the don’t-trust-them-with-anything one.” And so you keep quiet. Keep the illusion.
Yet, just like you are not responsible for making sure that nobody ever feels pain, you are also not responsible for making others happy. For pleasing them. You do you and don’t worry so much about them.
Witnessing disappointment in the eyes of another is like a reflection of yourself that you have been avoiding. And maybe that’s exactly what you need to face.
I’m Afraid of Being Judged
And sadly, you will be.
By people who don’t understand, who believe that it can never happen to them and that you are somehow “less than” for letting it happen to you. By people that refuse to see you as a person with an illness rather than simply a walking label. By people who believe that strength is found in silence and that you are weak by speaking out. When in reality, their judgment is only because they’re cowardly with facing uncomfortable truths. By people that see depression and addiction as character flaws instead of character-builders. By people that have narrow minds because they are threatened by the inclusion of the unknown. By people that believe that they can control everything in their lives and are not willing to concede otherwise.
You will be judged.
Not because of who you are. But because of who the adjudicators are.
Don’t let them define your life for you. Be stronger than their fears and more forthcoming than their views.
Let them judge. And seek to prove them wrong.
I’m Ashamed of Who I Am
One of the most important things to realize about the illnesses of addiction and depression is that they lie to you. They devise reasons why it’s imperative that you remain secretive. Not because it’s better for you. But because it’s better for the illness. They grow stronger in the dark, unchecked by outside influence.
They tell you that because you have failed at something, you are a failure. They whisper that you’re hopeless and then feed upon your despair. They convince you that you’re broken, unlovable and that anyone would recoil upon seeing your true nature.
Shame is perhaps the most malignant of human emotions. It is the root of so many bad choices and behaviors as it tries to distract from its own misery while inadvertently feeding it. It is the wound that screams at the sight of the sun, when light is the very thing that will bring healing.
And here’s the thing with shame – it tells you that you are alone in your feelings. When in reality, they are feelings we have all shared. And it’s only upon sharing them that this truth becomes evident.
If you are suffering with addiction or depression currently, speak up and get the support and help you need. There is no shame in asking for help. In fact, recognizing your need for help and being brave enough to ask for it shows your strength. You are not your illness. You are so much more. Begin by refusing to listen to your illness’s orders to keep it hidden. Because that only makes it worse.
If you have suffered from addiction or depression in the past, speak out about your story. Do your part to help remove the stigma and assumptions about mental illness. Silence implies complacency with the status quo. So refuse to be silent. Allow your story to become one of understanding for those with a tendency to judge and one of inspiration for those further behind you. You don’t have to be perfect. In fact, it’s better if you show that you’re not.
If you love someone who is suffering from addiction or depression, speak with compassion. Facing a loved one’s struggles is hard. Accepting that you cannot control their decisions is scary. And setting and maintaining healthy boundaries is an on-going cycle of hope and heartbreak. Understand that they are not doing this to hurt you, they are doing this because they are hurting. So be kind. Both to them and to you. After all, we’re all in this thing together.
For all of you who have spoken out, I respect you and your courage. I hope my former husband has joined your ranks.