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Want To Know a Secret?

A secret-teller has a shameful secret of her own

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When I was younger, I was really bad at keeping secrets. It's not that I meant to be a terrible friend, but I've always loved stories and storytelling — the slow, dramatic unraveling of suspense in little details. I'm easily seduced by a narrative, which often leads me to forget the whole "this is between you and me" bit.

Which is why I frequently found myself finishing a tale with, "I probably shouldn't have told you this, so can you keep it to yourself?"

I never gave away state secrets, but I got caught — more than once — and learned my lesson the hard way after losing the trust of a friend. Permanently.

Here's the weird thing, though: I was really good at keeping secrets. Just not other people's. I kept my own secrets so well, I didn't even know the truth at the heart of the story.

I could tell you about traumatic events in my life that shaped me. I could weave the story like a film plot, filled with villains and heroes, adventure and rescue. How I worked things out in therapy, in yoga, in meditation. How I witnessed the strength that grew out of the pain, the bravery that grew out of vulnerability. How I built myself into who I'd always wanted to be: the girl who got through it all on her own. But the real truth? The secret I kept from myself, locked down tight?

I was a chicken-shit.

I was afraid that I was weak. I was afraid to be alone. I reached for anything that would give me a false sense of strength — extreme adventure, competition, challenging men, red wine. Most relationships with challenging men started out with too much wine, and I had no idea how to navigate one with honesty. I'd see the red flag, I'd recognize the red flag, and my friends would point out the red flag, and I'd run straight at the red flag.

I'd find myself stuck, over and over again. But I had to make it work, because I was strong and this was my fate, right? If I left, I'd be alone. And the irony is, my ego was propped on the false belief that I was an independent woman, a third-wave feminist of the tallest order.

Bullshit.

"Secrets make you sick." I don't know where I first heard this, but it devastated me. I'd always believed secrets were tools of power, and that if I held onto mine, I'd keep my power close, and only let others in so far. By revealing only what was on the surface — the easy part that makes everyone look good — the ugly parts would remain hidden. Then I'd win.

And then, like a bomb dropping, a big secret of mine — an affair — became gossip. That I even call it a "secret" is ludicrous, because we were not careful. We were reckless with our love, and the bomb's wreckage was well-deserved. But maybe for the first time in my life, my secret — my story — was in the hands of people I didn't know. People I didn't trust. It spiraled, and there was nothing I could say or do to make it go away.

What I wanted to do was stand on the highest rooftop, point my finger right back and shout, "You without sin throw the first stone," defending myself like a little Joan of Arc of Great Love. But I knew the truth was far from noble, and I withdrew into a very expensive bottle (or six) of cabernet, and I allowed shame to propel me into a darkness that I didn't know existed.

I was paralyzed. Numb. I wanted to apologize and make it better or make it go away, but I couldn't. I could barely wake up in the morning.

Being on the other side of the tale-telling was a hard pill to swallow, but it was the thing that changed my life. When I honestly faced that secret, I saw the other secrets that had piled up around it, secrets that I clung to. Instead of indiscriminately spilling out my confessions to everyone I knew, I got still. I got quiet. I got a really good therapist. I got honest. I prayed. I found a truth in there that scared me, and I embraced it — not alone, with the help of a handful of trusted fellow battle-scarred friends. I shared my secrets with them. I learned boundaries. I withheld nothing.

I wrote a record on the other side of this journey, after the wounds had healed, called That Kind of Girl, admitting that I was exactly that. My friend Stacie — a brilliant, fearless warrior of a woman — suggested I pose for a press photo in front of a piece of art, an old hotel room painting, gilded rococo frame, with a tear in the canvas and the word "flawed" spray-painted in black over the scene. I was scared, unsure. But when I saw the outcome, looking over Stacie's shoulder, I cried. It was if I was seeing myself for the first time. Flawed. Failed. Honest. Worthy.

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