Choosing Risk

Secrets Give Power to Stigma

Truth-telling is risky and difficult. When addiction impacts a family, the truth is often unclear and secrets can consume a household. A recent conversation reminded me of the damage that can be done when we choose silence and secrecy over the risk of telling the truth.

I currently run grief support groups for adults. In general, the people that attend are working through grief due to a recent death. Taylor’s situation was different. At 24-years-old she was grappling with complicated feelings around her father’s death 16 years earlier. She was interested in attending a grief support group and explained her story:

"My father was my hero. He was a talented artist and fun guy. He died of a drug overdose when I was eight. It was never clear if it was accidental or deliberate. He had a cocaine problem, and he just couldn’t stop. My mom took my 16-year-old brother and me away for the weekend, and that’s when it happened. My brother was the one that found him."

The most traumatic part of Taylor’s loss was not the death itself but the circumstances surrounding it:

"Nobody told me anything. There was no mention that my dad's erratic behavior was due to his drug use. When he died it was the same way. No matter how many questions I asked, I got no explanation. I was simply told that Dad had 'passed on.' I was so confused. My brother was instructed to keep it quiet and now he has a drug problem. I know it’s from all of the secrets he has had to keep and all of the feelings he must have had about our dad's life and death."

Taylor tearfully described how she finally found out about the cause of her father’s death. At age 13, during her first week of middle school, some friends broke the news. They scornfully described her father as a "deadbeat drug addict."

"When that happened I had to grieve him all over again. Not only that, I had to create a different relationship with him. He was my dad, and no matter what, I loved him. But clearly, his addiction and manner of death was too much for everybody else. I stopped talking about him and kept silent about what I had learned. I was never ashamed of my dad until then. That made me angriest of all. Why wasn't I given permission to love him and grieve for him, faults and all?"

Secrets give power to stigma, and stigma is a fuel for shame. When Taylor finally learned the family secret from her peers she came to a natural conclusion: the amount of time and energy her family spent on keeping quiet must have equaled the amount of shame that everybody felt about her father.

Taylor had an incredible amount of insight. She clearly identified a problem that so many children whose parents have struggled with addiction can relate to. The shame is overpowering. How hard is it to grieve over something that others have such difficulty both understanding and having compassion for? How do we make sense of our own personal story when the facts seem too laden with stigma for people to even acknowledge?

Taylor is quick to defend the well-meaning adults who hid the truth during a difficult situation. They most likely weighed the pros and cons and concluded that the risk of telling an eight-year-old the truth about her father’s drug addiction was just too great. Why expose her to more loss? Wouldn’t it make things worse?

The reality is that this choice compounded and complicated Taylor’s grief. Children grieve too. When not given all of the appropriate information, they often create their own (worse) stories. Taylor was no different:

“I spent years knowing there was something strange about his death. I knew there were problems at home but I didn’t understand why everyone was so hush-hush about everything. I thought there was something wrong with me. I felt like I was going crazy. If only I had been told the truth about my dad when I was eight. Things would have been very different for me. Maybe I would have a better understanding of who I am.”

This is a narrative familiar to children who experienced parental addiction. We may need to grieve the loss of a parent through death, the loss of a parent due to their disease, or the loss of our childhood. It is difficult to grieve when we aren’t given all of the facts. Disclosing the truth to a child about a parent’s addiction is not the risk. The greater risk lies in keeping the secret in an attempt to mitigate their pain.

Taylor ultimately chose risk. She now speaks the truth about her dad’s death and is working on making sense of her own story. Most importantly, Taylor has given herself permission to understand and love her father as the person he truly was: a man who struggled with a powerful and deadly disease, a human being with talents and imperfections, and a parent whom she never stopped missing.
Peggy McGillicudyPeggy McGillicuddy has worked with young children impacted by parental addiction as a counselor, consultant and trainer for the Betty Ford Center. Having experienced familial addiction herself, she feels strongly that family recovery means including kids in the healing process. With an emphasis on reducing stigma and building resilience, Peggy writes from both a personal and professional perspective. This blog explores issues related to childhood, addiction and recovery.
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