Episode 31 - PostSecret
Secrets are one of the heaviest burdens we will ever carry. And while their release can feel euphoric, it’s hard not to worry about the fallout from sharing what’s inside. Along our mental health journeys, secrets often play a sinister role in keeping us locked into shame. That’s why today’s storyteller, Frank Warren, launched the global sensation PostSecret.
PostSecret offers an anonymous and artful platform to share the deepest hidden knowledge we all keep inside. It’s popularity is unrivaled and exists as the internet’s most visited advertisement-free blog. We can’t wait to share this conversation with you! Who knows? Maybe it will inspire you to share something you’ve been holding inside for far too long.
Ellie Pike: You know that bottled-up feeling when you have a secret inside but you're unable to share it? Perhaps it's a happy one, like good news that isn't public yet, and you feel butterflies in your stomach every time you think about it. Or perhaps it's a secret you're ashamed of carrying, causing you to feel heavy and poisonous. Whatever the type, there's nothing like the feeling of finally letting it out.
Frank Warren: You keep a secret inside, it feels like a wall that separates us from others, but if we can find the courage, the vulnerability to share our secrets, those walls become bridges.
Ellie: Frank Warren is a collector of secrets, and he collects them for reasons that are far deeper than plain curiosity. He posts people's confessions to his blog, postsecret.com, [00:01:00] a project that seeks to bring us closer together by sharing what keeps us furthest apart. His work has been an enduring success.
What began as one of the internet age's original viral sensations still remains the world's most visited advertisement-free blog. When I found out we had the chance to do a quick interview with Frank, I knew that I wanted to make it extra special. I made a call and asked another secret sharer that I know, Anna Zaleski, to lead [00:01:30] the interview.
Anna is a member of the Recovery Ambassador Council, a select group of brave people who publicly share their stories of recovery in order to spread hope to those who struggle in similar circumstances. I know that her life experience would make talking with Frank even more personal. I'll let Anna take it from here. You're listening to Mental Note podcast. I'm Ellie Pike.
Anna Zaleski: My name's Anna, and I am on the Recovery Ambassador Council for Eating Recovery Center. I'm here with Frank Warren.
Frank: Anna, it's great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Anna: Nice to meet you. Part of my role on the Recovery Ambassador Council for ERC is that I get to share my story of recovery from an eating disorder and from an anxiety disorder. I love doing this because when I was sick with an eating disorder, I felt like I [00:02:30] didn't really have a lot of people to look to who were actually doing well in recovery. I felt like I constantly saw people who were relapsing or having to go back to treatment. I definitely had my fair share of relapses and going back to treatment, but it was also really important for me to let others know that recovery is real and that you can move on from that.
I always remember the saying, "You're as sick as your secrets," and that's what one of my therapists told me. I think that that's [00:03:00] where you come in because I feel like you have been able to create this platform where it just creates such a sense of community for people, either to share their own secrets or also, just read others' secrets or thoughts or some of just the most intimate aspects of their life, then feel like they're not alone. Feel like, "I'm not the only person in this world who feels this way." The [00:03:30] first thing I think I want to ask you is, what sparked this idea for PostSecret? Tell me a little bit about yourself. Why did you decide to do this?
Frank: First, Anna, it's great to hear your story. Thank you for having me on the show and sharing this exploration of secrets. You're in my world. I'm involved with secrets 24/7. I started PostSecret about 17 years ago in Washington DC. I printed up 3,000 self-addressed postcards, they were blank on one side, [00:04:00] and on the other side, I had some simple instructions inviting people to write down a secret they'd never told anyone else before, mail it to me anonymously and decorate the card.
I received over a million of these postcards, these confessions, a celebration of our secrets, the happy, the romantic, the funny, the painful, the confusing, [00:04:30] the ones filled with kindness and the ones that have to do with mental wellness. It's great to be a part of this conversation, and for me, maybe the fascination came because secretly, I was keeping secrets from myself.
Anna: I just think that it's so wonderful that you had this idea, were you expecting the response that you got? Did you ever imagine that you would get over a million postcards back? [laughs]
Frank: I've always known in my own life that I've had this little fascinating inner life and [00:05:00] secret inside jokes and thoughts. I just imagined if other people had that kind of interior life too, if I could create this place where they could really feel trusting and comfortable enough to share their true inner thoughts, it'd be fascinating for me, but I had no idea it would resonate so much with people around the world. There have been three best selling PostSecret books, the website has had over 800 million hits, and the project just keeps continuing to spread [00:05:30] in different languages and different continents. It's been a pretty amazing journey full of surprises.
Anna: I actually have a couple of friends, so when I found out that you were coming to this conference and you're going to be doing the keynote, I reached out to one of my close friends because growing up, I always remember that she just waited for the post secrets to be posted every single week. She [00:06:00] would just nerd out over them and get so excited. I asked her, I said, "Harper, what did PostSecret mean to you? What was impactful about it?"
She also has a story of mental health recovery, and she just said, "For me, it was just a safe space," where, in high school, high school can be a scary place. It can be a world where you feel like you are the only person going through this. She just found so much solitude in PostSecret and being [00:06:30] able to connect, but also, in a way where she, at the time, didn't feel like she had the ability to talk to anybody, but it just provided her with this sense of connection with other people.
Frank: I hear that from others too, the idea that it's not just about the person finding a sense of catharsis by releasing their secret to a stranger, but also, when people come to the website or page through the books, they see secrets that at first, it [00:07:00] might seem voyeuristic or funny or fascinating, but eventually, you come across a postcard from a stranger who is articulating a secret in your life better than you could do it yourself.
When you have that experience, you realize that no one is alone with their secret.
All of us have secrets, and sometimes by letting them go, it allows that sense of stigma and shame, that you mentioned earlier, to be lifted. In a real community, holistic [00:07:30] way, I think there's a way we can rely upon each other and build community, build intimacy by sharing our secrets.
Anna: Yes, I agree. I was watching your TED Talk in preparation for the event, and actually, I personally found so much connection. You were talking about somebody sent in a secret, and it revolved around the fact that a loved one, I can't remember if it was a grandmother or something, had left a [00:08:00] voicemail singing Happy Birthday. I actually have a voicemail on my phone and it's of my grandpa singing me Happy Birthday from three years ago.
My grandpa passed away about almost two years ago now, and I have to say, every once in a while, I still listen to the voicemail because it's just so treasured to me. It was really comforting to hear that, oh, my goodness, someone else has this experience too and just to hear how special it was for that individual. [00:08:30] It just made me feel so much connection around that.
Frank: I think in our lives, we develop this illusion that we're alone in so many ways and we're cut off, but if we do find the courage to share our stories, by being vulnerable, it allows us to invite other people to feel comfortable opening up with us, and it allows us to deepen those channels of intimacy and build relationships in ways that are healing in terms of a relationship, but also, in terms of mental wellness. [00:09:00]
Anna: Yes. I think what also is so powerful about being able to share a secret or share part of our story is that we also have the ability to choose who the audience is for that. I talk to a lot of people in early recovery, talking about wanting to start doing advocacy or sharing their story and saying, "How did you know what to share or what you wanted to?" I just always believe in the aspect that it's my story and I have the power to choose [00:09:30] who gets to hear it.
That doesn't mean that I have to go shout from the mountaintops every little dirty detail and secret of my life, but sometimes, being a little bit vulnerable and taking the risks to share those secrets with people who we feel safe sharing them with can just have such an impact.
Frank: Every day we make a decision about what to conceal and what to reveal, and with whom to trust our deepest selves with. I think people earn that trust [00:10:00] over time, by letting us know that they value our feelings, our thoughts. They're not going to ridicule us, they're going to be there for the long-term. I think that's one of the reasons I get so many secrets, is because PostSecret is a safe, non-judgmental, anonymous place where people can tell their story. I'm like that stranger you meet on the train, who you know you're not going to see ever again, who's not going to judge you a week, a month, a year and that's not going affect your relationship. At the same time, it lets you take ownership [00:10:30] of your truth and let it go. With all of our secrets, the first person we have to come out to about them is ourselves.
Anna: What made you passionate about this? What made you passionate about mental health or sharing secrets? Do you have your own personal story? What sparked the passion behind this project?
Frank: Great question. Before PostSecret, [00:11:00] I was a volunteer on a suicide prevention hotline, basically, listening to people's secrets at 1:00 AM and 2:00 AM. I've struggled with insomnia and mental health issues myself. I've had to ask for help.
As soon as I recognized that PostSecret was getting a lot of attention, I reached out to the causes I believed in, the hotline I had volunteered for. We raised money for them. PostSecret volunteers have created the most complete and comprehensive database of suicide [00:11:30] prevention hotlines and text lines in the world through wiki.
In fact, over the course of the PostSecret lifetime, we've raised over a million dollars for suicide prevention. I think that suicide is one of America's secrets. It's a secret we keep from ourselves. By not talking about it, that just makes it worse.
Frank: What PostSecret tries to do is illuminate those things that hide in the dark [00:12:00] and allow us to have conversations about the things that are a little bit uncomfortable, but definitely more healthy to talk about than to ignore, and share a message, especially with young people, that it's okay not to be okay, that depression and anxiety and loneliness are liars. They will tell you, there's no hope, there's no help, but there is.
The messages I'm trying to share that emerge through our secrets are very hopeful and liberating, and for me, inspiring. [00:12:30] I would emphasize [chuckles] the story you just shared, and your secrets that you've been brave enough to share. I hope you feel a sense of self-healing every time you let them go, because I know the people who are hearing them are really moved by them. Not just to maybe change their life, but find the confidence to share their story and help others, and help others, and those rings just keep moving out.
Anna: I think that's one of my favorite things about the work that I do, is just having to have those individual conversations with people or I take over Instagram sometimes for Eating Recovery Center. I think people post on Instagram and share things that they might not necessarily be willing to [00:13:30] say out loud in the real world, or you can message through Instagram.
I have individuals reach out to me all the time who have just said, "Thank you for sharing your story, I connect so much with that." Those are just the moments where I realize that sometimes taking a little bit of a risk and being vulnerable can just help more people than I ever imagined.
Ellie: Do you have a secret that's never seen the light of day? Now is the best time to let it out. If you want to submit anonymously to PostSecret, simply go to Frank's website, postsecret.com, where you'll find his address and lots of fellow secret sharers. Or maybe you'd like to find another way to share? Get creative, because you never know what might happen when you finally let go of that burden.
Frank: I got this email once from a woman who wrote and she said, "Frank, I was going to mail my secrets to you [00:14:30] on postcards, but I changed my mind. I decided instead, I was going to give those postcards to my best friend. I woke up early in the morning, and I left them on his pillow, and then I went off to work." Then she said, "An hour ago, my boyfriend came to my work and asked me to marry him and I said, "Yes." The power of secrets.
Ellie: Thanks for listening to Mental Note podcast. Our show is brought to you by Eating Recovery Center and [00:15:00] Insight Behavioral Health Centers. You can reach a trained therapist to see if treatment is right for you, by calling 877-411-9578. Learn more about the people we interview at mentalnotepodcast.com. We'd also love it if you left us a review on iTunes. It helps others find our podcast.
Discover more about Frank at postsecret.com. The project has also published several books and is on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. [00:15:30] Mental Note is produced and hosted by me, Ellie Pike, and directed and edited by Sam Pike. Till next time.
[00:16:12] [END OF AUDIO]