Last May I had the opportunity to give a talk called “It Hurts to Hurt Someone” at the TEDXUCLA conference. This was a big deal for me. I worked on the talk for several months, writing multiple drafts. Then I had to memorize it, since TED does not use teleprompters. I delivered the talk in UCLA’s famous Royce Hall before an audience of about 1,500 people, with lights and cameras following me. I was so nervous that I truly don’t remember most of it! It was quite a switch from the time when I kept my experience as a CADI a closely held secret.
Over 40 years ago, when I was living in Ohio, an 8-year-old child darted in front of my car on a rural highway. I hit him and he died before he reached the hospital. His family, and his community, was devastated. So was I. PTSD and guilt took over my life.
Two years later, I moved to California. I wanted a fresh start, and I resolved not to talk about what happened back in Ohio. The accident became my dark secret.
But I thought about the child who died all the time. I had intrusive images and flashbacks, I remembered the painful days and weeks immediately following the accident, and I thought about his family’s grief and how unfair it was that his life was cut short. I was terrified that I might hurt or kill someone else.
Keeping a secret was a way to protect myself from judgement. It was also a way to punish myself by refusing comfort and telling myself that I did not deserve support. The gap between what was going on inside my head and how I presented myself to the rest of the world made for years of loneliness. I didn’t allow myself to be seen or known, so I didn’t feel fully loved or authentic. Once I started opening up, I felt more connected to myself and others.
There are aspects of being so open about my experience that I don’t like very much. I feel exposed, and sometimes I do get angry and even hateful emails. More often, I’m uncomfortable that people I don’t know well and, sometimes, don’t trust can find out so much about me. Do they judge me or pity me? Maybe I shouldn’t care, but I do.
The opposite of secrecy is not openness. It’s discretion, making one’s own decision about when to share and when to keep our thoughts or feelings to oneself. I believe intuition is a good guide to this. Some people and places just don’t feel safe, and that feeling deserves respect. Keeping a secret is not inherently bad or harmful. It’s the distance the secret places between us and others that can become problematic.
If you’re keeping a secret, I invite you to reflect on why you’re doing so and how it’s affecting you. If your secret keeps you feeling disconnected and alone, you might want to start by confiding in a psychotherapist, who is trained to be nonjudgmental and can also help you plan what to say, to whom, where, and when.
You can also write to me privately here. It might take up to a few weeks, but I do write back.
Thanks for reading, and for checking out the TED talk!