On Writing About Your Family Experience, and Secrets

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I recently wrote a personal essay about my family’s experience with mental health. It focused on a sibling’s schizophrenia and how the diagnosis has affected our family. As you can imagine writing a piece like this was an emotional one. At times the writing process was painful yet cathartic. At other times it was creative and therefore gave me life. Since it was published, I’ve received interesting hot takes that have made me wonder whether or not one should engage in such personal detail when writing publicly about family. 

A culture of secrets.

One of the themes in my essay was about wishing that secrets weren’t a cultural proclivity. Stepping outside that culture, even in a small way (like in an essay), can make folks uncomfortable. Does that mean that we should stay in secrecy? When my work was published, I decided I would no longer remain within the boundary of the secrecy culture. Yet, I understand that most people stay in secrecy because keeping quiet about the most challenging things we live with is more manageable than sitting in the hurt realities of the truth. 

“Some of the phrases common in our house were, tú no digas nada, calladita, ellos no necesitan saber, con la boca cerrada. Keeping secrets from extended family members, teachers, friends, and our church community was confusing — but necessary.” From my piece, Los Curiosos, published by palabra. by NAHJ.

The reasons families keep secrets are endless. For my family, they were essential growing up in an immigrant community. The problem comes when we become adults and never start being open and honest about what ails us. Should I have told my family’s story? Absolutely. I had discussed it with them before I submitted it after all. The interesting comments I’ve received have come from strangers. It makes me wonder what our triggers say about our secrets. What do our secrets say about our society? How deep do family secrets run? Finally, do your family secrets haunt you, and how would you feel if you said them out loud?

For my family and me, the experience of sharing our story has been healing in the ways you might expect, like ripping a band aid off and discovering that the wound is still bleeding. 

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Olga Rosales Salinas is Managing Editor for San Francisco Bay Area Moms. As a freelance writer and journalist, her articles have been published nationally by Palabra, National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Her debut collection of poetry and prose, La Llorona, was published by Birch Bench Press in August of 2021. Her monthly column "Thriving While Anxious" is featured @ Jumble & Flow. In 2019 her philanthropy and activism began with a non-profit benefiting first-generation and immigrant students, The Rosales Sisters' Scholarship. She has had spotlights in the following podcasts and radio stations; Los Sotelos Podcast, The Hive Poetry Collective @ksqd.org, Walk the Talk Podcast, "Making a Difference with Sheetal Ohri" on Bolly 92.3 FM, and Roll Over Easy @BFFdotFM Radio.

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