‘I Had a Secret Addiction. Do I Have to Tell Anyone?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Ana,

I can easily admit, to myself, that I abused one of my prescription medications for over five years, but I have never told anyone else. In April of 2021, after months and months of telling myself that this month I am going to take the medication as prescribed, I told my partner and doctor that I just didn’t think the medication was working for me anymore. I suggested a different option that I knew was less effective but had a much lower risk of abuse. I have been off the medication I abused for over a year now, but no one knowing means that in the back of my mind, I know I could get that prescription again at any time — and that is terrifying.

During the time I was abusing my prescription, I excelled in all the external measures often used to signify success: I completed a master’s degree, started at a job in higher education. If anything, I was better at a lot of parts of my job then than I am now while sober. This made it incredibly easy to hide what I was really doing.

Now here I am, over a year after my decision to stop, still holding on to this secret.

I am thankful that I managed to stop without blowing up my life, but now I am afraid that telling anyone after keeping the secret this long will set off exactly what I was trying to avoid.

My question is: What are your thoughts on how to approach and address the things we kept hidden as a part of our addictions?

All the best,

Hide and Seek

Dear Hide and Seek,

Your question gets at one of the central tensions in recovery. On the one hand, “Secrets keep us sick.” On the other hand, “My recovery is nobody’s business but my own.” Honesty with ourselves and others keeps us grounded and free from the guilt that might drive us back to using. But privacy and discretion provide the space (sometimes literally, always metaphorically) to sort out our situation without other people judging us or entangling us in their opinions and their narratives.

How do we find the balance when this tension comes into play? Well, good news: The first step is to just tell someone; I am honored that you’ve confided in me. I would argue that it’s not a secret anymore — or not an actively malignant one. I hope you’ve released some of the pressure that you were keeping inside and can think more clearly about what to do next.

As I’ve written before in the context of making amends, there are a lot of instances (often around relationships) where sharing your secrets broadly isn’t helpful; it will just hurt people who weren’t hurt before. The situation you’re describing doesn’t sound like it fits into that category. However, I think you might be in the middle of more than one situation. This isn’t a case of “tell or don’t tell,” it’s who to tell and how much.

If I were in your shoes, I would definitely share my past abuse with anyone that could prescribe something abusable now. That’s using the truth to shut down one of the easier paths to relapse. You can never entirely relapse-proof your life, but you can make relapsing more of a hassle. (People would be surprised at how little it can take to keep temptation at bay.) As for how much to say? My guess is that it can be pretty minimal, though I can also see how a physician might want details about dosage or specific formulation in order to suss out the impact of the use on your overall health. Confiding in your doctor is also a great way to try the truth out with some training wheels: Medical professionals are obligated to keep your confidence and they probably aren’t someone you’ve caused any tricky emotional damage.

Then there’s the question of telling anyone else. Your partner is the only person you mention specifically, so perhaps that’s the only other person you’re really concerned about telling. For what it’s worth, that’s the only other person I’d put on my list to definitely tell. Everyone else? You’ll feel it out. You might never tell some people but then discover a deep connection to a friend who it turns out went through something similar. No one else has a right to know.

But back to your partner: Are you sure they don’t already know?

I completely believe that you were an all-around superstar on the outside even while abusing your prescription. I managed to keep up appearances for a long time myself, and I know plenty of others whose entry into recovery shocked non-immediate family and friends. I do not know anyone whose partner never knew anything.

You imply, after all, that there was an internal cost to your addiction. There has to have been, or why bother getting sober? You felt bad enough on the inside that you did one of the hardest things humans do. Even a mildly sensitive partner would have sensed something was off. And an even somewhat more sensitive partner should now sense things are better.

That your partner kept both their concerns and their relief to themselves during your journey could be overzealous boundary-keeping out of a desire to let you figure your own shit out. Or it could be a reaction born out of fear of confrontation. Or maybe they just didn’t want to say anything until they were sure about what was going on. Who knows? The point here is that, to some degree, you’re each keeping something from the other: You haven’t shared your struggle, your partner hasn’t shared how it affected them. Getting honest can go both ways.

Now, consider this: What, exactly, are you trying to avoid? When you worry that spilling your secret will “set off exactly what I was trying to avoid,” what is it you were trying to avoid that’s still on the table? Getting caught, getting into legal trouble, overdosing — it sounds like you’re out of the addiction woods now, so what’s still scaring you?

Your specificity about your external markers of success (which are impressive) and your implicit acknowledgment that they did not translate into feeling successful makes me think you, like me, have an impostor syndrome that can undermine almost anything … even, let’s say, the remarkable achievement of a whole year clean. A year! That’s more impressive than any fancy degree or job.

If I were in your position, I know my impostor syndrome would make me forget I accomplished something amazing and instead it would be telling me that my partner will judge me, that my partner will be disappointed, or my partner will realize what a total mess I really am and not love me anymore. My impostor syndrome is a real asshole.

If I could completely break up with it, I would. Just like I would break up with anyone who reacted to my telling them about my sobriety by judging me or being disappointed in me. Because anyone who reacted like that would also be a real asshole.

So if your hesitancy in sharing your story with the person closest to you is about the fear of rejection, ask where that thought came from. If it’s the impostor-syndrome voice inside your head, then push it aside. I believe your honesty will be rewarded. You and your partner will both get clarity on the arc of the relationship and feel closer to each other. A partner may have questions, there may be some hurts to heal or lies to set straight, and there may be a processing period — but, ultimately, this kind of revelation should deepen intimacy and not erode it. On the other hand, if your partner has given you reason to believe you’ll be rejected — well, maybe you should be talking to your partner (or someone else) about that.

I’d also pause if you have reason to think your partner can’t be trusted with your truth. If you’re worried about them telling other people without your permission, that speaks to a lack of trust in general, and it deserves a separate conversation as well.

Sharing this stuff isn’t easy. I’m not suggesting you rush into it right away. Talk it over with another sober person if you can; definitely talk about it with someone you trust and keep talking about it until you’re ready. You’ll know when that is. You might still be scared, but at some point you’ll want to free yourself from your secret more than you want to keep it. Oh, again: GREAT JOB. I am saying it a lot because the downside to not telling people about having gotten straight is that there are fewer people to congratulate you. So I’m trying to make up for it. You’re a rock star, don’t you ever forget.

More From This Series

See All
‘I Had a Secret Addiction. Do I Have to Tell Anyone?’