My fourteenth year was the worst. At the time, I lived in a small town in the smallest state. An everybody-knows-and-exploits-each-other’s-business kind of place. I remember being not much older than 10 and blurting out to a friend’s mom, “Didn’t your husband cheat on you?” I might carry the shame of that for the rest of my life.
But there was a fun side to living where everyone knows your name, because everyone knew my dad. We would go to rent a movie, in the teal Porsche he took out of the garage four times a year, and someone would know him! We would pick up bagels on a Saturday morning, and someone would know him! Most likely, they also knew he had a drinking problem. Maybe that’s why we didn’t talk about things in my family. Chaos loomed. Secrets were threats, even within our insular confines.
By the time I was 14, in 2004, I was always on AIM. We had just moved across town, and it was the first time I got to pick my bedroom paint: magenta. Finally, I had complete access to the family Dell. I’d rush home from school to craft a moody away message, maybe with Fall Out Boy lyrics. On December 3rd, my status changed again: “my dad died.” Away messages and Xanga entries were the only mediums Teenage Me had to express herself. When I called a friend to ask her to please come to the funeral, she stammered, “Were you even that close?” Being myself was so much safer online.
Around this time, my thoughts were becoming too heavy just for me. My mother, resilient as ever, was the great equalizer of loss in our family. This one-size-fits-all solution to grief hurt and confused me. While others seemed to pick themselves up and put themselves back together again, I was falling into a deeper and angrier hole. I was a dark cloud expanding and filling up our little house.
Only recently did I realize that the blog PostSecret was born the same exact year my dad died. It was precisely what I needed: something to hold onto. Inspired by his volunteer work with a suicide prevention hotline, PostSecret founder Frank Warren wanted to create a safe space for sharing secrets. “Thinking I was creating it for others,” he has said, “maybe I needed it the most, myself.”
Over the past 17 years, more than a million anonymous people across the globe have indulged this universal urge to confess. It’s so simple: Write a secret on a postcard. Mail it to the PostSecret address, where it’s scanned and posted online for all to see. You can scroll endlessly through PostSecret.com, witnessing the whole spectrum of human emotion, from mundane to transcendent to shameful. It could be anything. A bare-bones “I’m lonely” (I think that was mine) — or the juiciest confession.
Maybe the power of PostSecret is its simplicity. All you need is a forever stamp and an index card. Therapy has moved mountains in the landscape of my life, but it can be daunting to get that kind of help, with or without health insurance. PostSecret is not a substitute for treatment, but it is an outlet for processing grief and pain. In its depths I found catharsis, and even a road to self-acceptance.
Is Anybody Out There
On the day my dad was gone, a lever jerked inside me. Everything ground to a halt. I didn’t know to dream for a future with him, and then it was gone. I was failing out of school and feeling friendless. Everything was fragile and wrong.
It helped to have Martha, my warm and patient therapist. Her office was filled with toys and books, and I had her to myself. I also had JoAnn, my after-school art teacher. These were my hangouts, but they were work. It was so much easier to eat Cheetos and surf the web. On PostSecret, I could be an observer. I didn’t have to discuss my thoughts and feelings, because I could witness others examining their thoughts and feelings.
My voyeurism gifted me two things. First, perspective: These people have REAL problems. Second, connectedness: PostSecret made me feel less alone. Despair can be incredibly unifying. There are so many of us with dark corners and alleys inside our minds. It’s about finding each other, and being able to share in our human nature. It’s a practice in vulnerability.
A Light In The Dark
It took me decades to realize the psychological and emotional benefits of art-making. Through my own creation, I can feel relief and reach out to others who long for understanding. I took everything I loved so much about PostSecret and applied it to my own art. In 2017, I went from illustrating donuts with legs (for good money, btw) to finally getting real about my struggle with mental illness. The following year, I went on to sell a book about just that: Feel It Out: The Guide to Getting in Touch with Your Goals, Your Relationships, and Yourself. Looking back, I wish I dedicated it to all those brave enough to spill their secrets.
In the spirit of PostSecret, other online groups have emerged for gathering around feelings. During a global pandemic, and amid so much social division, we need these digital spaces more than ever. No matter your identity, and whether you leverage these resources for yourself or to be a better ally, here are some groups advocating for inclusion and care:
- The Trevor Project, focusing on LGBTQ youth, recently partnered with Instagram to create a mental health-friendly guide to using social media
- The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention continues to enlist the help of artists of all disciplines to promote honest exchange with the hashtag #realconvo
- Seize The Awkward is on a mission to highlight signs that a friend might need help or a listening ear
- The Loveland Foundation provides BIPOC women with free resources for healing and processing
- Let’s Talk About Mental Health provides an anonymous space to submit stories about dealing with feelings
This is only skimming the surface.
When I found PostSecret, it was like seeing — and feeling — in color for the first time. At a young age, this forum empowered me to feel beyond my comfort zone. Strangers and their stories assured me that I would be okay. Now a new generation of moody teens scrolls online, eating Cheetos, seeking relief. Find what you need, I tell them, then give it back.