Can you still keep a secret in the 21st century? Well, I certainly can and do on a daily basis. For over 30 years, most of my adult life has been about keeping secrets. Although I have one or two of my own which I have shared with a couple of confidantes, for the most part, I am talking about other people’s secrets. I refer to myself as the “Keeper of the Secrets,” and I believe just about every therapist and most coaches would view themselves in the same way.
Those of us in the world of therapy often talk about the privilege of having people feel safe enough to trust us with new or buried secrets. Sometimes, they share a secret and never return. Many years ago, a woman came to see me and on her first visit revealed she had been sexually traumatized. This secret had never been shared with another soul. We scheduled a second appointment, but I had to change it. Another one was never made. Perhaps, she needed to disclose her excruciating secret and that was therapeutic in itself. Maybe and hopefully, she found another therapist who could take her on the next rung of a painful but ultimately healing journey. I will never know. Frequently, the “Keeper of the Secrets” does not learn about the end of the story. On those rare occasions when someone does not return after a few sessions, we chastise ourselves and question how we might have approached the situation differently. Many of us in the business tend to be highly sensitive and deeply introspective. Yes, being the “Keeper of the Secrets” is an honor, but at times, an uneasy one…We often remain in the shadows as we must.
Over a decade ago, I saw a lovely college student for a few intense years. She was from the West Coast and had suffered from trauma. Frequently, I saw her twice a week. Eventually, she graduated, and I saw her for a couple of more years until she got married. As expected, I was invited to the wedding and agreed to attend just the ceremony. I sat in the back of the church, and as she was walking up the aisle, she averted her eyes from me. Upsetting for me, yes, but more importantly, necessary for her. My role was not to be front and center but to be exactly where it was supposed to be discreetly in the background. At the end of the ceremony, I hurriedly departed from the church. As I was leaving, she and the groom came out, and I was able to snap a few photos. A couple of weeks later, this lovely young woman came to say goodbye. She was returning to the West Coast. I cried and sent her with blessings for a wonderful life.
Although she contacted me over the next few months, communication began to dwindle. During one of those intermittent contacts, she told me she would be returning to the area for a brief visit. I offered to meet her for coffee. She hesitated and said she needed to think about it. When I shared this with close friends who were also therapists, they gently reprimanded me and reminded me what I already knew: Leave it up to her to initiate any further meetings. In our next communication, I apologized and conveyed that message to her. Eventually, she was in the safe hands of a therapist close to home, and any outreach to me ended as it should have. I never saw this lovely woman again, but I am most grateful to have had the privilege of helping her. Every year, she sends me a picture of her beautiful family, and I cannot be more thankful for having a glimpse of her life story as it continues to unfold.
There are a few other clients who have afforded me this same act of kindness. Most, however, go about their lives with therapy being a very small piece of their life. On occasion, I have seen people for many years who leave without the ability to say goodbye. For several years, I saw a professional woman who was navigating the world of relationships. Eventually, she found love. A secret going forward came to light, and I delicately suggested she carefully consider how to approach the situation. She attended a couple of more sessions, but somewhat predictably, a few weeks later, she no showed. I called and left a voicemail. Because I sensed her withdrawal, I reassured her that she would not have to deal with me directly but requested she just leave a message about future sessions. She never did. I cannot say I blame her. I suspect that her life was complete, and therapy may have reminded her of painful times long past.
Being the “Keeper of the Secrets” is like a friend but not a friend. Many of the lovely people who have ushered through my office are just remarkable. They could be my friends in a different life, but for now the role of the “Keeper” is just that, a one-sided confidante. Often, however, if I have met them with others or with my husband or friends of mine, I introduce them as a friend.
About ten years ago, I attended a funeral of a courageous woman who had a chronic condition but died suddenly. I sat with family members shedding tears for the sudden departure of this valiant individual. Eventually, as I was leaving, one family member asked me how I knew her sister. As I got up and left, I looked at her and said vaguely, “She was a friend of mine.” Walking away, I went on rather quietly and stated, “I have many friends.” Being the “Keeper of the Secrets,” I said no more.