Keeping Secrets that Shouldn’t Be



It was likely not intended to be an ironic gesture when my parents gave me a “Chatty Cathy” doll.  At age eight having to pull a string on a doll’s back to hear a saccharine voice say “I love you” and “please take me with you” grew old quickly.

While I didn’t particularly like little Cathy, I did identify with her chatty side.  Growing up, I became very familiar with the terms “talkative”, “gabby” and less kindly said, “blabbermouth”.

As someone who over-shared long before that term was invented, I wasn’t very good at keeping secrets either. I did not share them purposefully, nor because I liked to gossip, but because of my tendency towards candor. For ill or for good.

I had learned to hold my tongue by the time I became a lawyer. Client confidentiality was Law School 101. And 102, 103, 104, et al.

(A reassuring note here to my former law firm clients: my lips were always zipped and remain so.)

And it wasn’t only clients who shared their secrets with me.  Across from my desk there was a chair I had silently labeled the pregnancy chair. Female associates would take turns coming into my office, closing the door, sitting down in that chair and saying –

Nancy, I need you to keep this confidential.”

Probably they told me their mom-to-be news because I tend to give off those maternal vibes that invite younger women to confide in me. I kept their happy secrets, even though the rest of the firm had already guessed by seeing their sudden interest in baggy blouses.

I am also the frequent recipient of other kinds of secrets. Secrets that I also keep, all the while thinking they should not be so. Those secrets that arise out of feelings of social stigma.

Such as:

Please don’t tell anyone, I’m just not ready to share, the rest of our family doesn’t know that Sam has been diagnosed with bipolar.”


You can’t let any of our friends know that Rachel had to leave college because of her depression.”


My niece Emily has an eating disorder. My brother’s in denial. We don’t know what to do. Please don’t say anything.”

I get it, I do. Strangers, acquaintances, friends feel safe confiding in me the news that mental illness has reached their family because I’m an involuntary expert, an advocate for awareness of and an advisor on young adult mental health.

But it makes me angry, I admit, when people imply or outright tell me that mental illness should be kept a secret. That it is something that you don’t want to tell anyone for fear others will judge you, or wouldn’t understand or think less of you or of a member of your family.

I recently went to a funeral of a young woman who had mental illness. She did not take her own life but she did die as a result of her illness. It was, as we learned in law school, the “proximate cause” of her death.

Many friends and family shared their memories of her caring nature, her warmth, her intelligence. One or two of those who spoke made vague references to her “struggles”, to the “challenges” she had faced in the past few years.

But not one of those who offered tributes mentioned the words “mental illness”. Not one.

Yet all of the people who got up to speak were also intelligent. People with the best of academic pedigrees who well knew the meaning of the words “mental illness”.

What were they afraid of? If she had died of cancer or diabetes, surely the cause of her death would not have been hidden.  Do we fear talking about mental illness because people with cancer or diabetes don’t act oddly or worry to excess or often have to leave college before they graduate?

Of course, it was the choice of this young woman’s family to characterize her life – and her death –  in whatever manner they wished. Who am I to judge, I said to my husband when we talked after the service ended about what was said – and what was not said.

And I don’t judge, I never would. I know how extraordinarily hard her family tried to help her.

I am still left with this feeling of sadness, not only at her tragic and premature loss but that I know why she died as did probably every other person at her funeral.

Everyone kept it a secret. That secret that no one wants to talk about. The secret that too often keeps teens and young adults from seeking help, that stops families from reaching out, that limits the research that needs to be done, that prevents each of us from supporting each other when we most need it.

Far better, I think, if we all became Chatty Cathies as to mental illness.  If we can talk about it, the shame lessens, the stigma dissolves and young women and men might not have to die.




Filed under Adult Kids, College, Family, Lawyers, Mental Health, Mental Illness, Moms, Parenting, Women, Young Adult Mental Health

16 responses to “Keeping Secrets that Shouldn’t Be

  1. lamcal

    Thanks for sharing…have loved ones with mental health issues and I try to be honest about this with others. It can be tricky with adult children or siblings because at some point it is their information to share, not mine sometimes. My dad was an AA guy and one of my favorite take aways from his phrases was “You are as shameful as your secrets”…..there is no shame in mental health challenges and so they should never ever be secret.


  2. This a truth that needs to be broadcast everywhere. Until that stigma disappears there will be hurt and heartache and years of hiding. It needs the light to heal.


  3. Brilliant article. I totally agree. If we treated mental illness like physical illness then maybe a hell of a lot of people might still be here 😦


  4. Lerman, Steven A.

    Good post Nancy.


  5. Jules

    You are so right. Mental illness is present in our family along with addiction. Currently all those affected are well and sober, thank God. However, when they haven’t been I am Chatty Cathy. If someone asks so and so is doing they get an honest answer. Not a blow by blow description of their struggle or latest doctors or hospital or medication but the truth – well, unwell, sober or not. The most astonishing thing is no one has ever walked away from me in fear or disgust (well, not that I noticed!) and many, many times the reply has been about their family member with similar problems. It’s as if my honesty have given them permission to speak up. Recently a young friend’s sister died as a result of her mental illness. The ‘secrecy’ made me so sad. In fact it was no secret, we all knew but no one in the family would say it. If she died from cancer or diabetes there would likely have been a request for donation requested to fight the disease instead of sending flowers. I have yet to see that request made to fight mental illness. In this world of over-sharing why is this the last taboo? Thank you for bringing this out of the closet and starting the conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. sandy baker

    I don’t think I can thank you enough for writing this piece. Like your piece on a different kind of kvelling I could really relate. I had dinner with a group of women I have known since my teens. Of course the convo led to where our kiddos are headed for college and discussions of scores, scholarships and choices of majors. When it came to my turn I answered that we weren’t sure where my daughter was going to go in the fall. Not because of test scores, scholarships or choices of majors. We are not sure where she is going because she has a mental illness. All the other moms were concerned about underage drinking, being away from home etc. No one including me, said my biggest concern is whether my daughter will discontinue taking her meds and her life will spiral out of control. If she had cancer or diabetes everyone would assure me she will be fine but no one can reassure me about my daughter’s mental illness because I am too embarresed or ashamed to tell anyone about the latest taboo. Thank you so much for putting my thoughts and feelings into words.


  7. I think you are so spot on that the secrecy and whispered truth creates a cloud of shame around the topic. It’s such a deeply held belief for us a culture, that these things much be kept quiet, and I think it would take a lot to change that. Posts like this help.


  8. Pam

    Thank you for writing this column. Another piece that you wrote on kvelling really hit home too. If my daughter had cancer they would have a fund raiser to raise awareness. Too bad there isn’t a fund raiser for mental illness like “Light up the Night” and bring a candle to light on honor of a friend or family member that has suffered from mental illness. Again, I thank you for your insight.


  9. momof3

    such an important message to all those suffering with mental illness. This disease needs to get much more attention as there have been way too many deaths due to non-treatment and mis-diagnosis. Thank you!


  10. Bradd Silver

    Great post, as always. A plethora of explanations; “it has to be someone’s fault”, care is reimbursed by insurance companies like it is not a real disease, it cannot be diagnosed by thousands of dollars of lab and imaging studies. The toll of mental illness on our society is massive and yet is still treated like it is shameful.


  11. Love this!
    My sister is so ashamed that I write about nonverbal learning disorder and have it that I changed my name (which I hated) just so she might stop screaming—with her that can be impossible—and more importantly so I could continue seeing my niece.
    My sister claims “you’re not like those people,” and “how dare you bring dishonor on our dead parents.” Two things—-there are many people like me with this completely neurological disorder that causes mental problems because it’s mistreated.
    And our parents would have loved to have known. They completely supported me. I think she’s a bit jealous that I was “friends” with them.

    Thanks for this very relevant and thought provoking post.



  12. No

    maybe no one says anything out of respect for the person dealing with mental illness. It’s their story to tell not yours. Thoughts?


    • Interesting point – and I am always careful to tell my story when it comes to mental illness in our family, and not the story of the person who has it.

      But so many times it’s been my experience that keeping silent – whether it is the person with the MI being silent or his/her family members not talking, can lead to bad results.

      I appreciate your perspective!



  13. Glad to be dealing with it

    My 17 year old was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder and depression this year. He missed two months of his junior year. I have told everyone I know about his struggles, albeit with his permission. It’s so important that we understand that mental health issues are rampant and anyone is subject to them. Our community has experienced several deaths by suicide in recent years by high school students. It’s time for people to understand that mental illness is the same as diabetes, heart disease, etc.


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