The Curse of Secrets
“…persons of warmth and love for the human condition, help to draw out the secret, for they know it makes a wound that will not heal until the matter is given… witness.” — Clarissa Pinkola-Estes
The compliment I cherish from those paid to me across my career as a mental health counselor is, “I could tell you anything.” I do not judge secrets. I learned early as a counselor that the gift I offered secret holders, was to bear witness. Just that, no more.
When I opened the waiting room door and called for, “Martin*,” I knew right away from the look on his face and the proud bearing of his upper body, not to make a big deal of extra courtesies for the 40-something man, arms pumping rhythmically, who surged toward me in a non-motorized wheelchair.
A neuromuscular disorder had chewed Martin’s gristle and built his grit for nearly 20 years. His routine of getting ready for his day had stretched into hours. He needed an aide. He saw hiring one as a failure. I listened to his deliberations for two sessions.
I knew it often took two sessions for clients to decide if I was trustworthy. So, when Martin wheeled in for his third session and said, “I want to tell you that something I’ve never told anyone,” I was not surprised.
His spindled legs culminated in bony ankles that were splayed on the footstools of his chair. His bulky, strong, tattooed arms crossed his chest. The shed of warm light from the lamp on the table next to him, softened his “don’t mess with me” facade and exposed the translucent vulnerability underneath.
Dressed in a turquoise linen suit, I settled into my high-backed therapy chair with the abstract blue patterned fabric, relaxed, calm, waiting. The only sound in the spacious room came from the tiny, plastic, square black clock, ticking softly on top of a small bookshelf.
Martin cut to the chase. “I was raped by my father many times.” In tones that ranged from hushed embarrassment to pained shame to naked anger, he told his story in a hoarse voice and I bore witness.
I did not flinch at difficult details. I did not judge Martin, nor his perpetrator. I don’t remember what I said to him. I remember feeling a rush of love for him. At the end of his story, I asked Martin if I could hold his hand, and he reached out. We sat in silence as tears rolled down his face and dripped onto his tee-shirt. He did not wipe them away.
At his next session, Martin rolled in looking younger and lighter. He had come to say “good-bye” and “thank you”. He told me that telling his story had wrought magic. He felt cleansed, free. He had seen how strong and brave he had been. He had seen there was no shame in his secret. I had said none of this, it emerged from within him.
Martin said I had listened in a way he had never before experienced. It had felt to him like time stood still, like the world had dropped away and like he and I were the only people alive. Something about this mystical space had withered the inner drama of his story. He had gone home and, in a matter-of-fact way, called a service to arrange for an aide to help him bathe and dress in the morning.
Clients like Martin taught me that when I bore witness to secrets, unflinching, free of judgment, wisdom was released from within them during and right after.
These days, when I’m watching the news, I feel like I’m re-enacting the sacred sanctuary of my therapy office. I watch the world’s shadow stories, secrets, unfold in front of me.
There are so many: the tolerance and numbness we’ve had for mistreatment of women; the tolerance and numbness we’ve had for systemic racism; the tolerance and numbness we’ve had for sexual crimes – rape, incest, sex trafficking; the tolerance and numbness we’ve had for corruption and greed; the tolerance and numbness we’ve had for the abuse of our planet. The stories are raw, legion and they are being shared. I marvel that technology, the networking of a global world, has played a big role in unmasking our tolerance and numbness to secrets from far corners of the world — Secrets asking to be expunged by decisive action.
I do my best to bear witness. It’s hard to stay out of judgment and resistance. I want to hide in easy labels and generalities.
When secrets scream, their voice is often hoarse. Who has not had the kind of dream when we’re trying to cry out against a predator with paralyzed vocal cords? When we find our voices of struggle, they are often forceful, raw, anguished, and violent.
Behind the hoarseness, there is wisdom. If we can just hold out, avoid judgment, and BEAR WITNESS, wisdom will emerge, and decisive actions follow.
*Identifying details modified to preserve my client’s confidentiality
Copyright 2020: Linda Sandel Pettit, Ed.D.
Dr. Linda Sandel Pettit, a priestess-at-heart and retired counseling psychologist, can be found at www.thedrspettit.com. Linda loves putting her intuitive nature, spiritual understanding and clinical experience in service to others. She is available for on-line consultations. For information about fees and packages, visit BOOK NOW. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.