No Honour in Secrecy about Personal Debt

DH = Dear Husband

“Honour” killing

I once taught a girl who was later killed by her brother in an “honour killing“. She was in a large grade 10 class of mine for a short period of time before the class was split into two smaller ones. News of the killing a few years later was utterly shocking. Just this past spring, a colleague of mine talked with me about his connection with the girl. “She came and sat in my class after school every day because she said it was the only place where she felt safe. I told her she needed to contact the police about her brother’s threats, but she said she couldn’t ‘dishonour her family’ like that.”

Secrets for family “honour”

Yesterday, I was on the phone with someone for close to 2 hours. I didn’t say much at all. A steady stream of words flowed out of this normally quiet woman whom I’ve known at a polite surface level for almost 2 decades. It was like a cork had been unplugged, and the family secret gushed out. A sibling who had always been “difficult” had been committing elder abuse against her parents, now in their 80s, for years. Emotional, psychological, financial, and physical abuse about which nothing had been done “because my parents couldn’t call the police on their son.”

The case of Atticus and Boo Radley 

Did you read To Kill a Mockingbird? Published in 1960, it tells the story of a girl and her brother being raised by their father through the 1930s in a very racist Alabama. I have always loved the character Atticus, and I’m not alone. Earlier this year, headlines in the UK declared, “To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch voted most inspiring character” in literature.

Atticus is the father of the main character, and Boo (a nickname) Radley is the son of a neighbour. Boo has been locked in his family home for well over a decade – punishment for his run-in with the law as a teenager. Atticus instructs his children, fascinated by rumours of the imprisoned neighbour they’d never met, to respect the Radleys’ privacy and to mind their own business. He clearly feels for the unfortunate inmate of the Radley family, but he accepts his neighbour’s right to do as he sees fit in his own household.

Shifting views on honour and secrets

Atticus balanced discretion and compassion with what would be called “honour” at the time To Kill a Mockingbird was published. But today, his silent acceptance of a neighbour’s abuse is confounding. If we could set the book in 2016, Atticus would have called the police and the Children’s Aid Society long ago. He would explain the situation to his children in plain English instead of being vague and telling them to mind their own business.

The times have changed, yet clearly, people today still feel bound by secrets. Secrets to protect family members who are abusive or alcoholic or drug addicted or mentally ill . . . And what a price we pay! “You’ve carried this anger and fear for years!” I said to my friend yesterday over the phone as she opened up about her brother’s elder abuse. “And acting like everything was normal must have been so draining. You must know it’s taken its toll on you.” She recognized that it had.

The price my student paid for her secrecy is unthinkable.

Keeping your debt problem a secret hurts you

Two years ago, I wrote a post about debt and personality type, and a woman who used the name “Anonymous”* left a comment like I have never seen before – so raw in its expression of discouragement. In it, she included these words: “I would die before I would reveal to anyone IRL (in real life) that I have a debt problem.”

Clearly, keeping your debt problem a secret is not like keeping abuse a secret. The neighbours have no obligation to call the authorities when someone is struggling with debt. But this is an area where we still keep very stubborn boundaries of, “It’s private. It’s my business. It’s not your business.” And while all of that is true, here is something else that’s true: Keeping your debt problem a secret hurts you.

No honour in secrecy about personal debt

There is no honour in secrecy about personal debt. How great it is that people can find a safe place to share their struggles with debt online! But the disconnect that can exist between online honesty and IRL secrecy is something to correct – to align. Whether you know it or not, you’ve been paying a price for “protecting your honour”.

I have lived the worry, the shame, and the hopelessness that debt can be. When carried in secret, this negative baggage is a draining dead weight. Talking about it – and I mean IRL – and not with everybody, just one or two trusted people – might amaze you with how much relief it offers. Taking on your debt is challenging enough on its own. Don’t carry a bigger burden than you need to as you take steps to pay it off. Lighten the load, and see how much easier it is to step forward.

Did your family give you the burden of secrets to keep? Have you ever tried to convince someone to stop protecting someone else’s secret abuse or addiction? Have you talked about your debt IRL? Or do you restrict your debt talks to the online sphere? Your comments are welcome.

Image courtesy of Rebecca Barray

*(Anonymous, do you still read this blog on occasion? I haven’t heard from you in a long time. I hope that you are making encouraging progress. I would love to know how you are doing.)

23 comments on “No Honour in Secrecy about Personal Debt

  1. I used to have a great aunt who would frequently talk about people that asked her things and would say “They don’t need to know my business.” I think for a lot of people it’s just about that more than anything. I think many people feel that it’s their business, and what that often turns into is that when they’re carrying a burden, they take on all of it.

    1. Your great aunt might have been talking about nosy people who just wanted tidbits of information for the gossip mill, and if that was the case, “They don’t need to know my business,” was a perfect response. But if they were asking her about bruises on her arms or the breaking of glass that they heard as they walked by her house, it was probably not a matter of nosiness, but of concern – in which case it would have been much better for her and everyone in her family if she had spoken up. If we’re talking about protecting family secrets of abuse or addiction, the whole “it’s my business” attitude has so many negative ripple effects. And if we’re talking about chronic money troubles, “it’s my business” often keeps people stuck and powerless in patterns they don’t recognize. (I hope you aunt was dealing with the lighter kind of nosiness.)

  2. I don’t like secrets. I’m not good at keeping them. I don’t like being asked to keep them. Sometimes someone will catch me off guard and ask me to keep one and I’ll say yes too fast without thinking first. Then if they blurt it out, it’s too late to go back. But if they don’t blurt it out, it gives me time to say, hmmm, on second thought, it would be better if you just didn’t tell me ‘cuz keeping secrets just ain’t my thang. I think if people don’t want to talk about their financial difficulties, that’s okay. Not everyone’s ready for financial light in their lives. Yet. As for dangerous issues, I say blab away! Rather someone was angry at me for helping than for someone to end up hurt or killed because it was easier for me not to get involved. Your posts are always so thought provoking.

    1. I bet people are surprised when you say, “It would be better if you just didn’t tell me” : )
      I’m interested in what you have to say here: “I think if people don’t want to talk about their financial difficulties, that’s okay. Not everyone’s ready for financial light in their lives.” In the case of “Anonymous”, she really was ready for “financial light” in her life – and was seeking it out through Dave Ramsey, pf blogs, etc. Despite the online effort, she couldn’t face that IRL communication about her struggles with debt. Do you see what I mean? There was what I think must have been too strong a sense of shame in her to bring herself to talk about it. With people who stubbornly keep their heads in the sand (as I did for many years), you’re right. They’re not “ready for financial light in their lives.” But people like “Anonymous” are, and they are missing out on so much fuel/encouragement/confidence by keeping it all hidden IRL.
      Thanks Kay. Your comment has been thought provoking too. (In fact, I’ve reworked my response to it I’ve been thinking about it so much : )

  3. Man oh man, does this strike close to home. I ended up spending 4 years going to a therapist at least once a week and even twice a week for a few years to deal with things that came from my family and childhood. It started by me needing to accept/deal with my father’s suicide, but after that now seemingly minor hurdle, Lord the twists and turns therapy took as we shone a light into nearly every dark corner I’d carried around for years.

    It was amazing for me and now I don’t mind talking about any of it, but you can probably only imagine the shocked looks on people’s faces (like your “Anonymous” commenter) when/if i do bring some things up. They’re shocked that I can easily say, my father killed himself, or talk about going thru depresssion myself, or dealing with my school loan debt ($64k worth), and all the other idiotic moves I’ve made financially (cashing out a 401k for instance). I don’t do it for shock factor, just to help and let people know that, Hey, we all have troubles, I can relate.

    My point is that we all make mistakes, and just because I’m in a better place now mentally and financially, it wasn’t without a lot of learning mistakes, dumb decisions, and hard work once I resolved not to be in that position anymore, mentally and financially.

    Talking about debt and investing at the office led a co-worker to put a plan together to pay down her $7k of credit card debt and start tracking her spending! Win!! She now has a plan to have that debt gone by end of summer, and knows where she can cut spending to let her save for a house downpayment quicker.

    That’s caused a ripple effect with my colleagues because now, more of them ask me questions about debt, investing, etc… and we just have open non-judgy conversations about it. It’s been refreshing and I like exposing people to the notion that they don’t have to strive for “the norm” and can choose their own path in life.
    Sorry for the long comment, lol. 🙂

    1. THANK you for the long comment : ) Mr. SSC, I’m very sorry to learn about your father’s suicide. What utter tragedy. How very wise it was of you to seek out therapy. I still have the impression that’s harder for men to do than for women. But you did it. I also appreciate what you share about what happened AFTER you resolved to strengthen your mental and financial position: “it wasn’t without a lot of learning mistakes, dumb decisions, and hard work…” It’s certainly not a smooth, flawless ride for any of us. Clearly, you have taken great strides towards the life you have now, and the one you continue to build. And if you hadn’t gone through the suffering part, I don’t think that you would be offering the constructive impact that you’re having on others at work. You’ve taken a negative cycle that was out of control and transformed it into positive ripple effects that now go well beyond you. Darkness can only be overcome by light, and you’ve allowed it to shine “into nearly every dark corner” that you’d carried. There’s a victory here that goes well beyond your great financial gains. Thanks again for sharing such an inspiring comment. Big blessings to you!

  4. Those are some sad situations listed above. My wife & I have the same thought process sometimes as we wonder if the habit of older generations being like Atticus and the proper thing to do was never air “dirty laundry.”

    It seems Gen X & Millennials are more transparent about their problems & this could help with finance, emotions, and life problems more than in the past.

    1. I agree with you, Josh. My parents were extremely discreet about many issues. Fortunately, we had no abuse or addiction going on in our household, but we did have “dirty laundry” that wasn’t “aired” – and as far as money goes, it was completely off limits to talk about it. It was a taboo topic. The “good old days” were worse, in this respect, than today.

  5. What a terrible story! I can relate to a lot of things you said though. My mom has been “protecting” my brother (and enabling him as well) for years! Now I think he has a prescription drug problem. When I was home a couple of weeks ago I could not help but get mad and say, “you know he is going to die young, right?” And she STILL shrugged it off! The only thing I can do is accept the situation. This is why I wrote about the health thing last Monday. People just don’t want to own certain aspects of their life.

    1. Tonya, you must be SO frustrated by the situation with your brother! I think that people in your mom’s generation have a really hard time letting their loved ones face the consequences of their actions. What they end up doing is enabling them – and so the problem behaviour persists. What a hard thing to have to “accept”!

  6. An excellent point!

    Of course, discretion is underrated in a world run by social media (of course I’m part of the problem), but discretion and fear aren’t the same. Shame feeds in dark and quiet places, not in the light.

    I’ve recently read a book by Brene Brown who differentiates between guilt and shame. Guilt is a feeling that helps you realize that you’ve done something wrong that needs to be corrected. Shame makes you believe that your wrong actions define your character.

  7. You’ve offered me an ah-ha! moment, Hannah. It would be truly great to be able to accept guilt, make things better, and turn away from the wrong behaviour – without latching on to shame for the long term. As for discretion, it’s a good thing . . . until it covers up something that needs to be confronted. Thanks for your comment : )

  8. Fortunately, my family was pretty open in general and about their debt and financial struggles. In fact, this is what made me decide to handle my money differently than my family. I decided I never wanted to have consumer debt as a result. My sister has been very open about the burden of her college loans and I’m glad that she feels able to do so. Thanks for covering this topic; it’s very sad to think there are people with no one to share their burdens with.

    1. Kalie, your comment is music to my ears! ” my family was pretty open in general and about their debt and financial struggles. In fact, this is what made me decide to handle my money differently…” Yee-haw! This is my hope for our own children – that our transparency about our previous flawed money-management and the long-term impact it has had would encourage them to handle money differently in their own lives. High-5 to your parents! And I really believe that your sister will overcome her college loan stress by facing it head-on taking it down. She’s got a great inspiration in you : )

  9. Very sad stories, Ruth. One of the key points I take away here is you mention sharing your secret with one or two trusted people, IRL. Seems obvious, but with social media and living much of our lives on the internet today, this is so important.

    It’s interesting – my grandparents had secrets galore, many of which I know I am not aware of and not sure if I want to know. Until my grandfather died 10 months ago, it appeared as if they were very well off financially. And, although my grandmother has enough to get by on (thankfully), they perpetually borrowed money to fund their lifestyles, even in their 80s. None of the family would have guessed this.

    1. You must have been taken aback when you found out about your grandparents, Amanda. To have always had the understanding that they were “very well off financially” and then discover that they “perpetually borrowed money to fund their lifestyles” would be a real shock. I wonder how much silent financial stress they carried? Thanks so much for sharing this story. I’m pretty sure that history will not repeat itself in your case.

  10. I’ve kept the secret of my family’s debt, though it was perhaps more of an open secret, by paying it off myself for nearly two decades now. I am pretty sure that the familial community knows about it, I don’t know how much my parents shared with their generation and contemporaries, but I may never ask.

    For myself, purely selfishly, I share freely online about it because I need to be able to be honest SOMEWHERE but I may always remain anonymous because, though it affected me deeply and drastically altered the course of my life covering for them, I don’t feel comfortable telling the world about it where they can’t defend themselves. I do my best to be evenhanded most of the time but I suppose the “benefit” of blogging anonymously is that I don’t have to always be fair, I can just be myself and work through the situation in a generally honest way until I get my feet back under me.

    There’s a way that secrets have of normalizing a bad, and even abusive, situation because you don’t have the reality check of people saying “that’s actually NOT normal and if there’s an alternative, you should probably consider it.” I was lucky that when I was in a highly abusive work environment, career friends were able to serve as that reality check, but few people understood the situation my family was in because we grew up poor among middle and upper middle class families.

    Like Tonya, my sibling is also likely a drug abuser (though who knows where he gets it from) and my parents refused to stop enabling him early enough to head off a permanently bad situation. It’s too late, now, he’s in a state that he’s convinced is normal and refuses all help. He too will probably die young and it’s the worst feeling in the world to know that that would be a relief considering all the possible alternate terrible nightmare scenarios that haunt me. He might steal or break in to steal money to support whatever habit he’s got and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He could snap and seriously hurt my dad, he could hurt someone we don’t know, he could father a child but he’d never be able to support it and he could hurt that child. There’s just an endless stream of fears that I can’t share with anyone offline because they grew up in well adjusted households and they have no clue what it’s like to deal with someone like that. In the end, it feels like I’m going to be burying the rest of my family soon, it’s just a matter of finding out when and under what awful circumstances.

    Clearly, I don’t really want to share this with people offline, can you imagine what a downer I’d be in conversation if I did?? 😛

    1. Revanche, I hope that you have at least one or two people with whom to share these things face-to-face. Don’t assume that all of your friends grew up in “well adjusted households”. I also make that assumption about people and then am so often taken aback by the truth about what they’re dealing with or have dealt with.
      I was really struck by what you had to say about your brother here: “He too will probably die young and it’s the worst feeling in the world to know that that would be a relief considering all the possible alternate terrible nightmare scenarios …” That is not a point to which everyone is brought in life, and I suspect you feel alone being there – but you’re not. Are your parents still enabling your brother financially or in any other way? I really hope not.
      Have you written a post that explains your family’s financial situation and how it is that you have taken on your parents’ debt? Part of me wants to say, “How good of you!” but another part of me thinks, “Why is their debt yours to pay off?” You say you grew up poor among middle and upper-middle class families. Was there a “keep up appearances” pride? Was there not the opportunity to move to a more modest home and neighbourhood?
      I hope that you are able to forge healthy, appropriate connections with your family of origin – ending relationships where necessary (probably in the case of your brother), and free to assert boundaries to prevent a life-sucking drain on you. If your family of origin cannot be a source of strength for you and the family you are now raising, it should at least not rob you of the strength you’ve found elsewhere. (I hope I’m not over-stepping here.)
      Thanks for sharing what you have, Revanche. Blessings to you.

      1. Thanks, Prudence. I think you found some of my Origin Story 🙂 but as a quick summary: I grew up in a culture where everyone who had more helped out those who didn’t where reasonable, generosity is valued, and where kids have always been traditionally expected to take care of their parents. Nursing homes for seniors are basically unheard of. It was a give and take ecosystem, very community based, and when you’re poor, kids always do their best to contribute back to their household. So that’s what my mentality was when I hit late teens and all the money stuff came out.
        It was never intended for me to take it all over, my parents tried their best to keep paying but they were hit by bad luck and bad health at the same time – their manager at their business embezzled huge sums and they couldn’t get it back, and then they weren’t employable for much income because they’d been entrepreneurs their whole lives. They’d made some mistakes: not saving for ourselves, trusting the wrong employee, helping others when they had more. Occasionally there were poor decisions too.
        I stepped in to help because I thought it was temporary and after a few years, it wasn’t anymore. Mom was way too sick to work and she would have killed herself trying to work anyway if I hadn’t insisted she stop. Dad had to take care of her. And so on.

        Dad won’t “abandon” my brother now that he’s incompetent, and I can still sort of empathize but I won’t let it rule my life anymore. He knows that I won’t fund my brother and I don’t allow him without six blocks of our JuggerBaby because I simply do not trust him. I’ve distanced myself from most of the blood family who are negative, I’ve built surrogate families with wonderful friends and it helps. It’s all a process.

        1. I’m seeing an Italian family, your parents having immigrated, and a closely-knit community – a mixture of healthy and unhealthy patterns all deeply entrenched and not about to change. I might be dead wrong, but that’s how I’m picturing your story. I’m so glad that you do not “fund” your brother (though I suspect some of the support you give to your dad goes to your brother). And the work that is still in process sounds wonderful – distancing where boundaries are needed; investing in new ties with people who are worthy of your friendship. So glad you are on the right track : ) Bright days are ahead, Revanche!

  11. This is a big topic that certain people find solace in keeping quiet. Because of embarrassment I suppose, but if they only knew to fix it all you have to do is accept it. By talking about it you begin accepting it. Good luck to all you debt sharers.

    1. It’s a lot like 12-step programs I think. Admitting to it is huge, and sharing with others is also huge in moving towards the solution. Thanks, EL!

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