In April of 2005, as Marty lay in a coma in the ICU of Zale-Lipsy hospital, I sat beside her every day thinking of our past and looking forward to the day we would get out of the hospital and go home. I kept saying to her young doctor, his job was to get us home as soon as possible. He was honest but he humored me and never once tried to bring a tinge of reality into my denial of the long term implications of a hemorrhagic stroke. I should have been terrified of the future; I should have run for the hills. It was denial and ignorance that kept me sane and kept me from running away.
Marty was/is an educational psychologist. Marty was/is a student of the mind and she never once let me get away with the standard denial bull shit so many of us practice every day in our relationships. She prodded, she pushed, she bullied me into dealing with my psychoses and would not let me sit in the comfortable denial recliner. These last few years, living with Marty’s illness and accompanying frailty, has taught me something else, denial can keep you sane.
If, as I stood beside Marty in that ICU, I had been forced to come to grips with reality, with what we really faced, the months and the years of illness, fear, disability, loneliness, anger, I don’t know if I could have remained standing beside Marty. If I had been forced to look at the whole of what lay ahead of us, if I had seen the future, if ever I looked that far ahead I don’t believe I could have been able to cope. I purely and simply would have been emotionally and cognitively overwhelmed with worry over the future and my ability to live in that future.
It was my ability to hide, my ability to not look too far ahead, my own ignorance that allowed me to take things one day at a time. It certainly wasn’t some intangible, internal strength that drove me to “live one day at a time”, I suck at that. It was fear of the future, it was ignorance of the seriousness of the illness, it was denial of the reality of our situation that pushed me to just handle one moment, one procedure at a time.
I’m not saying I could live and dwell in the house of denial forever; I wish. I’m saying in the darkest of times when I was most afraid, when I knew the least, the most natural defense was to deny reality and think fanciful thoughts that everything would be just “fine”.
Eventually, as our life together moved forward, I got stronger; I recovered from the initial shock of the tragedies of the strokes and began a process of education, understanding and self-evaluation. It was the necessary survival progression, to move from denial to acceptance to understanding action. Denial helped me survive, helped our family survive, and consequently helped Marty survive.
Denial can be a safe haven, it can be a refuge, but it can never become a hiding place. Denial can keep you paralyzed, it can keep you from dealing with reality, classic denial can keep you from seeing the change you need to address. Marty would say that inappropriate denial is dangerous and you have to confront reality. If you build your foundations in denial it can become an excuse not to move, not to take action, not to change. Truthfully, I’ve been there.
Years ago our son, Matt, developed a staph infection in his leg. He was hospitalized for several days while taking IV antibiotics. When we were release we were all thrilled to go home and be past this little ordeal. It seemed like only hours after we were released his leg started to swell again and you could see the redness and the inflammation of the infection start to spread. Marty immediately chose action; I kept saying it would be okay, I chose denial. I didn’t want to take this kid back to the hospital; I didn’t want to spend any more time there. Marty was right, we needed to act quickly, I was paralyzed with, his will get better on its own, a classic denial of reality. The reality is it took surgery, another three weeks in the hospital and six weeks of IV antibiotic at home.
Standing in the hospital ER, waiting beside Marty in the ICU, going through rehab with Marty my ability to delay seeing the long picture kept me sane, tamped down my fear. Being home with Marty, when she is getting sick, when there are signs of illness, denial, hoping against hope, doesn’t work, action is required. I think I now understand the difference, most of the time, even without Marty there to keep my magical thinking in check.
I don’t think forgoing reality for a short period of time is a bad thing, I don’t think it’s a sign of weakness or inability to cope. Denial can get us through the worst, most frightening of times, at least it did me. It can let us continue to live our flights of fancy just long enough, until we are strong enough, until we can exist in the moment enough to deal with reality.
Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, in the worst of times it kept me sane.