While we hold our secrets close to our hearts, sometimes they slip out. Five stories
As told to Russy Tendler
"If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and self-judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive,” says Dr. Brene Brown.
I was given my own opportunity to conduct this experiment, and I’ve found the conclusion to be accurate. That’s why I’ve decided to share my story, in the hope that it pokes at dormant empathy and arouses compassion, and perhaps overflows onto someone else’s Petri dish in desperate need of dousing.
I always knew we were the kind of family people envied. My wife and I loved hosting and socializing, sent our kids to great schools, and presented a picture of ease and happiness to the world around us. With five beautiful children, a solid income, and a communal leadership mindset, we were always well liked and could easily be described as the “perfect family.” And really, we would have been. Except for one not-so-little problem: I was thoroughly and completely addicted to gambling.
If I must trace it back to its beginnings, I believe it started when I was in yeshivah high school, when I’d spend my nights at a friend’s house, fervently playing video games and eventually setting the stakes high. We’d put money on winning, and each win, with its ten dollar boost, would spur another furious game, offering chances of more money and more of the adrenaline that accompanied the payout.
From then on, I found every possible opportunity to experience this rush. I began following sports teams around the world and betting on the outcomes of games. I’d bet on anything and everything, and each time I made more money, I knew I could make more if I just reinvested my winnings.
Often, this turned out in my favor, and it became a vicious cycle; gambling and earning, gambling some more and earning some more. There were losses too, of course, but the wins far outweighed them. As I pursued this path, I often felt sick to my stomach as I became more and more entangled in the web of lies and avoidance required to continue gambling at the pace and intensity I wanted to.
I continued through high school and into college. I was more aware than ever of my being blessed with incredibly generous parents when one day my father asked me to bring a large sum of my tuition to the finance office. On my way to deliver the money, an opportunity to bet on the outcome of a game arose. I knew I could likely double the money if I won; I thought of what it could save for my parents if I presented the office with double the amount my father had given me. I was good at this. I’d win this. I had it in the bag…
Until I didn’t. My team lost the game, and I, the money. I crumpled as I realized I had no choice but to share the truth with my parents. In so doing, I believed myself to be “cured.” Surely I couldn’t continue down this road after the humiliation and guilt of gambling away my father’s hard-earned money.
But it wasn’t enough. My shame made itself comfortable there on that Petri dish, with my secrecy, silence, and self-judgment aiding its growth. It followed me into my marriage, and at first, my wife was blissfully unaware of my addiction.
I was good with money; so good, in fact, that I worked my way up to becoming a partner in my hedge fund. I loved my job and the familiar adrenaline rush and satisfaction it brought me, but the addiction was affecting every aspect of my life.
I remember one particular family vacation; it was meant to be a week away from the frenzy of our every day, time to spend together without distractions. I wanted to put away my phone. I wanted to focus on my wife and my kids and to give them the attention they so desperately wanted and needed. But there was a big game that week, and I’d put a nice sum of money on the outcome.
I slipped away to “use the bathroom,” obsessively checking on updates and outcomes. I’d return to my wife’s questioning look, and try my hardest to brush away the shame and the pain that threatened to break me if I wasn’t careful.
Carrying the secret alone made the shame heavier than any financial loss I’d yet endured. Gambling was no longer enjoyable, and I felt as if I was constantly in chains, wanting desperately to move in another direction, but being held back by something bigger and stronger than I was. I wasn’t the father I’d always wanted to be, and I wasn’t the husband I knew my wife deserved.
The secret grew ever larger when Ben, a wealthy childhood friend of mine, asked me to invest a million dollars in the stock market. He knew I was a partner in a hedge fund and that this was my forte. He asked me to do it for him as a favor, and I was more than happy to help him.
It occurred to me that I could not only wisely invest his money, I could likely triple his money by gambling. I’d never touch his money for my own benefit; that wasn’t who I was. But I knew that I could really do something amazing for Ben, and I imagined his incredulous excitement if I were to triple his earnings.
But somehow, that didn’t happen. Instead, I lost every single penny of Ben’s money. It was the worst day of my life.
Looking back, the loss of that gamble was a tremendous gift. Revealing my secret finally forced me to get help. I had no choice but to come clean and share my incredible shame with Ben, with my wife, and with my family.
Ben could have ruined my future and ruined my family’s life, and he would’ve been justified in doing so. But he chose not to.
As a friend from way back, he was worried about me, and firmly but kindly insisted that as part of my pay back, I needed to get some real help. He arranged a payment plan so I could pay him back over a long period of time, and he checked in weekly to see how my recovery was going.
My life has turned around since that nightmarish day. I know now that I had to hit rock bottom to begin climbing out of the deep, dark hole I’d dug for myself. I’m still on the road to recovery, and I’ve recognized that I always will be. I’m here on this journey for life — and really, we all are.
I have no more secrets, as I’ve learned that secrets are where the danger lies. Bringing light to my darkness has diminished it — and, as it turns out, you’re only as shameful as your biggest secret.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 732)
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