Secret Sickness

Secret Sickness

I participated in the (virtual) national conference for my professional organization last month. It was a good conference all things considered and one part in particular stood out as excellent. That was a keynote address by Patrick Kennedy, former US Representative, nephew of John F. Kennedy, son of Ted Kennedy, and long-time battler of addictions and bi-polar disorder. His struggle was very real, very public, and now, very inspiring to others who are either dealing with the same issues or those of us who are on the front lines of trying to help people with these sorts of trials.

This may not be the only blog in which I reference Mr. Kennedy but I want to share today a short sentence that he uttered in his talk. He said at one point, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” This, coming from a man who has spent his whole life in the public eye sharply focused on him and his family. His uncle a beloved President of the United States, his father a powerful senator who also battled demons of scandal and addiction, headlines and tabloids following Kennedy’s around like rock stars, and he has the misfortune of having bi-polar disorder and then becoming deeply addicted to drugs and alcohol while trying to remain in office.

He certainly had to believe at points along the way that these misfortunes must be kept secret or he would be finished in public service. He knows what it is like to feel ashamed and to fear what would happen if people really knew the truth. The problem was that the deeper the shame and the darker the room he tried to hide his struggles in, the more powerful they became. Finally, he reached a crossroad that was either deal with these issues directly or die. He chose to pull the shame from the dark box it was in and challenge it head on. It is true that he no longer holds public office and it is also true that the road of recovery and mental health was not easy but here he is; alive and using his formidable platform not to serve in the House of Representatives but publicly advocating for those who are living in the same dark place he was in.

Many people I work with are also dealing with deep shame and a deep fear for people finding out that they are seeing a therapist, or have a mental health diagnosis, or need to stop drinking. I tell them and I tell you the same thing. These things you are battling get stronger in the dark. No, I’m not saying that you have to tell everyone what you’re battling with but you do need to push past the shame and pull the struggles out into the light, whatever that means to you. It might be talking with your spouse or best friend or pastor. It might mean being willing to walk into the therapist’s office in front of a waiting room full of people. I don’t know what it might mean for you but I pray that you remember and heed the words of Mr. Kennedy. You’re only as sick as your secrets.