Do you know the Hidden Costs of Keeping Problem Drinking a Secret?
Over 200 years ago, Grigori Potemkin, a Russian general devised a scheme to hide a potentially damaging situation and win the favor of the powerful Empress Catherine II. He had hollow façades of villages erected in order to cover the slum-infested area along the Dnieper River where Catherine II was expected to be passing.
The cost for Potemkin was hundreds of thousands of rubles; the benefit he hoped for was to enhance his standing in the eyes of the Empress and solidify his power.
For Potemkin, carrying out this gigantic scheme was more important than the financial costs to his country, to his men, and to himself. Blinded to the cost, Potemkin was driven solely by the perceived benefits. Without proper planning, the project was abandoned before it was completed, his goal never realized.
You see secrets being modeled all around you.
Like Potemkin, the culture today is fixated on everyone “looking good” regardless of the underlying truth. When you cover the truth of little things, you can get into a habit of covering the truth of larger things – like the problem drinking in the family.
Why do you keep the drinking secret?
You and your family may have created a facade of wellbeing to cover up the chaos. This is a pretty universal strategy, but it is easy to personalize it. You may fear being stigmatized, being hurt, or somehow being more disadvantaged than you feel at present. There are numerous potential outcomes to fear; often high on the list is a fear that you will not be accepted or that others will not empathize, understand, or be supportive if you told the secret.
Our cultural myths often contribute to keeping the secret. Here’s the biggest myth: An alcohol problem is a sign of weakness. You may think that to seek help is to admit a shameful defect. In fact, alcoholism is a disease that is no more a sign of weakness than is asthma or diabetes. The sooner you can put the myth to rest, the better the chances are for beneficial change in the family.
On a personal level, often the most common reason the secret is kept is fear, masquerading as comfort.
What’s the benefit of keeping the secret?
Keeping the secret allows you to believe that that you can control the outcome. Too easily, you may deny the costs in hopes of the illusive benefits. You may keep secrets because you think that you will be better for it, gain an advantage, be more secure, or maybe that it is somehow more responsible to protect another by keeping the secret.
Be careful! A common alcoholic family pattern is to keep the secret for the benefit of others, expect they’ll do a favor in return, and resent it when they don’t.
What’s the cost of keeping a secret?
Keeping the secret takes its toll. Holding onto a secret delivers a cost to you, the drinker, and your family.
The cost to the family is the mental and emotional energy it takes to cover up the truth. It can result in either over-connection (enmeshment) or under-connection (disengagement). It’s a question of whether family members get energized from coming together or by going off with other friends. Either way, there is often a set of rules that pretend to insure family health. Often they don’t lead to optimal results.
The cost to the drinker may appear around obligations slipping with work, friends, or family. Then again all three of these areas may appear fine. Since alcohol reacts differently in different people’s bodies, you’ll see some people with debilitated outward effects while others will show little outward change. Despite the difference of outward appearance, excessive alcohol over time will slowly deteriorate physical systems in the body and create mental distortions in the mind.
The cost to you – the individual in the family who’s most likely to initiate positive change – can be as simple as requiring additional effort to maintain an image. On the other hand, the cost could involve the effects of carrying the burden in your body over many years.
Yes, it may be more comfortable for you to keep the secret. You may have some really important reasons. However, years of ignoring a drinking problem or suppressing your feelings about it can lead to depletion of your own energy that may eventually result in breakdown in your physical system.
Your costs spiral out to others.
Whether you tightly hold the secret within the family or expand the circle of people who are aware of the problem, your life is tremendously effected. Either way there will be an effect on:
- Your children (they will learn from watching you)
- Your potential (either limiting it or expanding the choices)
- How other people see you
- How you see yourself
- Your self-esteem
- How you deal with future challenges in your life
Secrets have a way of being transmitted from generation to generation. Will your children make the same choices about keeping secrets or different ones?
It is a monumental decision: To break the secret or not?
There have been many folks before you that have been confronted with the same decision. Regardless of what you decide, your decision will undoubtedly have an effect on the direction your life will take. There is no guarantee that the reasoning behind your decision will ensure anything.
Not making a conscious decision is making a decision to continue holding the secret.
Weighing costs and benefits: An exercise
If you are struggling with this decision (to carry a secret or not), you may want try an exercise.
Make yourself comfortable. Fix a cup of tea or soothing (nonalcoholic) beverage. Take a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle, and at the top label one column ‘costs’ and the other ‘benefits.’ Write down your own unique costs and benefits.
“I’ll never find time to do this exercise.”
This may not be an easy exercise for you. It is perfectly natural that while holding a secret from others, inertia is created that keeps you from knowing more about specific costs and benefits.
The change process is different for different people, and people are in different stages of change. Some people need time to contemplate and evaluate the pros and cons, while others put it off until the problem becomes unavoidable. Honor your style, but challenge your unhealthy habits.
Like Potemkin, you may hope your scheme to cover the problem will result in getting what you want. But has it?
You may have already made numerous concessions and paid significant costs to hide the drinking problem. At one level, hiding the secret may seem to work, while at another level you may start to see the costs.
Like other families, you and your family may have created a façade of wellbeing to cover the chaos. You have a choice: to continue presenting the exception as typical behavior or to take action to explore what might be best for you and your family right now.
You can succeed where Potemkin failed; don’t be blinded by the perceived benefits.
Summing it up.
Keeping secrets has been modeled in various walks of life. In terms of drinking, certain patterns and habits develop in an attempt to manage the drinking problem. There are situations where covering the problem works, seems to work, or it is just plain easier to choose comfort over addressing a potentially fearful situation.
But choosing the easy way is not without costs. Over time you will carry the burden in your body, and your physical and mental health will suffer. There are always costs and benefits to keeping a secret. You can create a cost / benefit sheet.
Acknowledging that help is needed for an alcohol problem may not be easy for you. Keep in mind that the sooner you start getting clearer about your personal costs and benefits of keeping a secret, the easier it will be to reach out when you determine the time is right.
Perhaps doing a cost / benefit summary of your personal situation is something you can do on your own; perhaps not. If in doing this exercise, questions arise, or if it seems totally overwhelming, consider coaching or counseling for assistance with your personal cost / benefit summary.
If you are interested in exploring what counseling or coaching might be like for you, please email me at email@example.com.
Jeff Jones MA, CACII
Nationally Certified Counselor
Certified Addictions Counselor
Family in a Bottle: Help when Drinking is a Problem