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Is Your Client a Secret Keeper?
Written by John Howard Prin, LADC   
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Clinicians need information that will help them to determine the presence of secret-keeping traits in a client.

A new client is sitting in your office during an initial assessment for substance abuse. He looks you squarely in the eye but you sense that he is only telling you what you want to hear. You probe for straight answers but get carefully shaded remarks instead. Far from the deer-in-the-headlights kind of client who is stuck in denial or operating in a drug-induced fog, this fellow is well-groomed and delivers smooth replies to your questions. The more you hear, the more you suspect that he may be cleverly misleading you or using a calculated strategy to misinform. If he is intentionally concealing key facts or consequences, your diagnosis needs to reflect this analysis, otherwise his progress in treatment will be hampered and chances for successful recovery few. Moreover, your own treatment-planning and case-management will be confused and overly complicated.

You may have just interviewed a Secret KeeperSM.

In many cases, this common phenomenon is due to what is called "secret-keeping"SM. This term derives from clients who are leading carefully concealed secret lives. Besides their drinking or drug misuse/dependency, which you are attempting to assess, they are covering up hidden self-defeating behaviors such as compulsive gambling, sexual addictions, eating disorders, or credit card debts—to name the usual suspects. Burdened by these unhealthy secret activities, they "steal hours" away from their public lives to act out their secret behaviors or passions—often for decades—but rarely get caught.

Based on the premise that duality is at the root of everybody’s life, Secret-Keeping shows up in one of every 15 people. To some extent, everyone hides certain secrets and battles duality. Double-mindedness can take root and compulsive patterns, at some time or to some degree, can develop. Secret Keepers are people whose secrets have power over them and cause them to become sick, to misbehave, or to violate others. Behind the masks of sincerity and friendly smiles lies a far darker side: the sordid, ugly, slippery domain of double-mindedness. At the root of double-mindedness is addiction—the constant shifting back and forth between two opposing mindsets: “normal on the outside” and “abnormal on the inside.” For many sufferers, daily life becomes a burdensome struggle of living in two worlds, ricocheting between public respectability and private temptations.

For clinicians, it is beneficial to determine the presence of secret-keeping traits in a client before significant work begins. What often presents as denial, for example, could really be the clever and consciously calculated strategy by a client to mislead or lie. Once a diagnosis is made that distinguishes between the unconscious lack of awareness of facts or consequences by one client versus the fully conscious and intentional concealment of facts or consequences by another client, progress can be made.

In this article, we will explore some of the ways clients’ secret-keeping traits manifest and some techniques therapists and counselors can use to identify this client. In a future article, we will explore some techniques behavioral health professionals can use to better manage this client and help him/her succeed in recovery.

Second Guessing First Impressions

Let's start with some early indicators you may come across. The following thumbnail list gives some hints to help sharpen your awareness when initially assessing clients.

Secret Keepers tend to:

  • ...Present well. Male or female, regardless of ethnic origin, they function well, are often productive, and maintain their jobs and careers. They attend their kids' soccer games and musical concerts, and pay taxes.
  • ...Be heavily invested in a positive image. Secret Keepers generally dress well, have good hygiene, and take active roles in their communities. Their homes or apartments look nice and they get along with neighbors.
  • ...Have much at stake (a lot to lose). Their greatest fear is being found out, having their double lives exposed. At stake are their hard-earned reputations, career potential, borrowing credentials, and overall standing in the eyes of people who matter—family, friends, coworkers.
  • ...Be the poster children for co-existing disorders. A married client and father in my men's group continued to relapse despite sincere pronouncements that he wanted to stay sober. After many weeks, he finally disclosed that he'd been hiding 200 porno videos in the ceiling tiles of his basement and was betting large sums of money on fantasy football games. His pornography and gambling habits, completely unknown to anybody, were generating inner conflict and remorse that prompted relapses.
  • ...Seldom have criminal or detox histories. To safeguard their positive images, Secret Keepers isolate on the sly. They wait to indulge until they can withdraw inconspicuously from being observed by anybody, thereby avoiding any public display or reason for arrest. Maintaining a clean record is one of their cleverest cover-ups.

Clients who fit these kinds of indicators may not, of course, be Secret Keepers at all. They may simply be upstanding citizens who've blundered and have one-time consequences that require a chemical evaluation. For the professional assessor, because assessment is an ongoing process throughout treatment and aftercare, you may have only your suspicions to go on at first. However, stay alert to these kinds of hints, and other signs we will examine, as they crop up in future treatment sessions.

Actual Secret Keeper Examples

Herman was one of my clients who sought treatment for his alcoholism but carefully avoided disclosing his use of cocaine. When I was preparing his discharge summary, I learned from his probation officer of his recent positive urinanalysis for cocaine. I called Herman into my office, told him I had no leverage to prevent his legal penalties, and raised the issue of dishonesty with him. He broke down in tears—grateful tears. Herman admitted that having kept his deceptive secret felt far worse than it now felt having it be known, and he pledged to fight his addiction to cocaine by staying abstinent. I emphasized how he'd destroyed trust and he begged for a second chance. We discussed the concept of “rigorous honesty,” as the Big Book urges, and he pledged to do so with such passion that I agreed to reinstate him. In the weeks ahead, his abstinence took hold and his nickname became known to co-members in the group as “Honest Herman.”

Another of my clients, Trevor, reluctantly sat through treatment for his abusive drinking and drugging, but nothing much happened until he came clean during a private meeting with me about the 23 credit cards he'd maxed out. Much of his drinking was meant to deaden the guilt and shame he felt. Like Herman, Trevor’s addictions were multiple, in addition to stealing from his kids' college savings funds. Until each of these was admitted to and met the bright light of day, his full healing and release from the dishonesty and deception of secret-keeping only generated negative reactions harmful to himself and loved ones. After numerous relapse-prevention sessions and weekly 12-step meetings, Trevor eventually started living in the healthy present rather than the repetitive, addictive past. Both he and Herman came to realize the benefits of disclosing vulnerable information in supportive environments and changing their behavior based on whole-minded thinking.

The following chart is a tool I've used in my own practice to help sift through the complex web of lies, deceit, cover-ups, excuses, and alibis exhibited by one in four of my clients with secret-keeping histories. As you read the chart, please keep in mind that the first two of these four categories are not clinically significant, but that the third and fourth are.

Continuum of Secrets

  1. “Simple” secrets are those that emerge from isolated, rare events, the kind of harmless mistakes or lapses in judgment that seldom require self-disclosure or therapy—often memories from childhood or adolescence. A young student peeks at her classmate’s test answers or an underage driver takes his dad’s car out for a joy ride and returns the vehicle safely. Indirectly secrets like these open the individual to dualistic thinking that can sneak in and take hold.
  2. “Sinister” secrets are those that become ingrained thoughts or attitudes which can risk one’s mental health. Three college fraternity brothers got drunk and went boating together at midnight. One fell overboard and the other two jumped in to save him. The two drowned but the first survived. He felt intense guilt and concealed any hint about their drinking at the young men’s funerals, and years later he feels exhausted, dirty inside, and burdened by having caused his pals’ deaths and deceiving their families. One act (getting drunk) led to another (falling overboard while boating) that compounded into a tragedy (two drownings) that led to a cover-up (concealing truth from the victims’ parents) that led to years of torment from silently keeping the truth secret.
  3. “Secret-Keeping” goes one step further and includes acting out, more specifically the habits or rituals which can lead to risking one’s safety, health, or sanity and that of others; the kind of harmful patterns that make us sick and that benefit from disclosure and therapy. Secrets in this category include behavior patterns and rituals that lead to stealing hours away from one’s “normal life” to feel better. These hidden acts stretch, and eventually break, ethical/moral standards and relational boundaries but do not cross the line into crime (breaking the law). The head pastor of a leading-edge evangelical metro church engaged in an ongoing extramarital affair which broke ethical, moral, and relational boundaries, but he was not hauled off in handcuffs when caught nor did he face court charges or serve time in jail.
  4. “Crime.” Secrets in this category may include a mixture of secrets from the previous categories, but acting out violates legal boundaries/standards thereby making them crimes punishable by law. Sara Jane Olson fits this description. After evading arrest for attempted murder in California as a fiery member of the rebellious Symbionese Liberation Army, she lived 24 years inconspicuously as a suburban mother and housewife in St. Paul, Minnesota until being discovered and sent to prison.

In Closing

Using this chart may help you separate "everyday" secrets (1 & 2 on Continuum) from "dysfunctional" secrets (3 & 4 on Continuum). It offers criteria to base your treatment-planning decisions on: ethical/moral/relational boundary violations, for example, that are documentable and which will support clinically valid reasons to address these issues with planned, therapeutic interventions. Your job during the course of treatment also may be easier once you have identified the destructive factors withheld by Secret Keepers, as compared to helping clients in denial who unconsciously don't/can't fathom the harmful depths of their addictions. Providing different interventions for each kind of client will benefit both them and you.

My passion as a counselor working with alcoholics/addicts has focused on assisting as many as possible to identify their full range of issues, and to helping several of them redeem their double lives. Developing effective therapies to help clients who have “stolen hours” and who still struggle with the tensions of a secret life is exciting work. I encourage you to heighten your awareness of those clients who are secretly multi-addicted, yet still function in their jobs, in their homes, and with their families—and who walk among us every day.

John Prin, BA, LADC, writes and lectures on recovery topics to a variety of audiences about healthy ways to think, behave, and live. His career as an addictions counselor began with his own recovery from chemical addictions in 1996. While working at Hazelden and out-patient treatment centers in Minnesota, he wrote and published Stolen Hours: Breaking Free From Secret Addictions, a self-help book about practical ways to identify Secret-KeepingSM and deal with unhealthy secrets. Contact John at 952-941-1870 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or, for a schedule of his continuing education workshops, call 1-800-950-5559 (D&S Associates).