Denial is a wonderful thing. It enables us to continue seeking short term pleasures which we know will damage our health or otherwise interfere with our enjoyment of life. Because, you know, we won’t ever get cancer or have a stroke. We know smoking has been proven to cause a multitude of serious health problems, but they won’t happen to us. I suppose the truth is we just don’t think about it, even though intellectually, we are aware of the unpleasant possibilities.
If we have lived, we have come across people who buried their heads so deep in denial even in the face of BIG flashing, painful red flags.
My friend James comes to mind who was in his forties and healthy as a horse. He was a heavy smoker, and a workaholic who often put in 90 or more hours a week at the office managing a hugely stressful business.
He developed an enormous tumor in his chest that wrapped around his heart sack. He endured several serious surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy. James was exceptionally handsome and vain. He lost all his hair, and became so weak that he couldn’t work out to maintain his athletic physique.
It was a year of hell, but James survived cancer. He felt he had been given a second chance at life and vowed to change his ways by spending more time with his family and less at work. He quit smoking, and was determined to manage his stress in healthy ways.
We all believed James was a changed man for having had a brush with death. He made sure he was home at night, and as much on the weekends as he could. He got his looks back as he gained weight and his hair grew in.
This new lease on life was gradually chipped away as denial crept its way back into his life. He started smoking. Just a little, at first, but we all know how that addiction story goes.
Before we knew it, James was working insane hours and carrying so much stress that he sometimes considered suicide as the only answer to his business worries. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know he was gambling with his very life as he had plenty of friends and family trying to warn him.
Tragically, all of it caught up to James in a big way within three years of his recovery. The cancer came back. This time in his pancreas, then his liver. He lasted two miserable months, and passed away at 55 leaving his wife and grown son.
Although our health is often simply the result of genetics or the fickle finger of fate, in James’ case it seemed that he could have had a chance to save himself had he paid more attention to what he was doing. The truth is, we will never know.
I lost another friend (ex boyfriend, in fact) at age 55 to liver failure caused by a decades long addiction to alcohol. Denial is a well known hallmark of addiction. This friend tried to get sober for a short time, but addiction got its way in the end. It was almost as if he fully recognized he was going to die young because he always said he didn’t want to get old and feared outliving his money. So, in this case I’m not sure it was denial that killed him. I’m pretty sure he didn’t expect to go downhill as quickly as he did.
He often pooh poohed AA meeting members for saying that sobriety was a matter of life and death. He thought they were being overly dramatic. You never think it will happen to you.
My friend Bruce is on the brink of foreclosure on his home in large part due to the fact that he avoided looking at the seriousness of his financial difficulties for far too long. Years ago, his wife became ill and it seemed that her parents had asked him to spare no expense for her care with the assurance they would take care of him upon their death. He never thought it would happen to him. He was left with staggering debts, and no way to pay them. Apparently, he didn’t acknowledge the seriousness of his finances until it was way too late for him to work his way out of the mess.
My cousin Andrea was morbidly obese for most of her life. She was a full time worrier. She had asthma. She had a heart condition. She took care of everyone else first. She was a poor sleeper. She was extremely sedentary. She was often stressed over finances.
After moving to North Carolina in order to be able to afford a home, Andrea delayed going for a mammogram for three years because of insufficient insurance coverage and a shortage of funds.
When she finally went, a small lump was discovered in her breast. I remember refusing to believe her when she called to tell me she had a suspicious lump. There was no family history of breast cancer, and she was in her early fifties.
Because of her poor general health, Andrea was not a candidate for a mastectomy so she was treated with a lumpectomy then started chemotherapy.
The first treatments were very poorly tolerated. Andrea was a registered nurse so she knew the medical implications of regularly administering strong poison to her body.
I think she did 2 or 3 treatments before deciding she couldn’t do it. She knew she had to do something. A friend recommended a holistic clinic in Florida, but Andrea was hesitant to leave her family for an extended stay and didn’t have the money for the expensive clinic.
She tried to follow a holistic regime on her own at home, with her husband preparing healthy, healing foods. She planned to meditate to manage her stress. She had all of the best intentions to live a healthy lifestyle to keep the cancer at bay. When these efforts became too challenging, she fell into denial and basically did nothing except hope for the best.
I was aware that she was ignoring her health, and worried about the worst case scenario. We were in frequent contact because she was like a sister to me.
Within three years, Andrea developed crippling abdominal pain. It was an extremely large tumor that was interfering with her digestive processes. We don’t know how long she stayed in denial about the pain before she went for an evaluation. She thought she was simply more constipated than usual.The tumor (s) were inoperable.
Once again, Andrea suffered through a few rounds of chemotherapy before deciding that she did not want to pursue that course of treatment. She decided the treatment would diminish her quality of life too much. When she consulted with different doctors in her home state of New Jersey, the only option they gave her was chemotherapy. It was clear by then that she had no chance at recovery. She decided to go home and be put on hospice care.
My dear cousin was put to bed in a hospital bed in a spare bedroom at home. Nurses kept her comfortable with medication for pain and fluid drainage as necessary. Her spirits were surprisingly good. I believe that part of the reason Andrea was in such denial about her health for so many years was because she didn’t particularly want to be here. She was unhappy in so many ways, as well as physically limited. She certainly didn’t have that “will to live” or the fighting spirit we often see in people who are dealt life threatening illnesses.
I suppose the one positive aspect of her situation was that if she had to die, everyone knew it was coming and was able to spend quality time with her in her room. It was clear there was no time for nonsense. She spent the last two months of her life visiting with her husband, mother, daughters, friends, cousins, and anyone who ever felt a strong connection. I believe she felt she had her affairs in order when she finally passed, two months after returning home at the age of 56.
Andrea’s passing was a soul crushing loss for her family. Her mother was 89 years old and had lost a baby already when she was only two years old. Her husband died suddenly when he was only 50. Another victim of his own denial. He was a heavy smoker, and died in his sleep from a heart attack.
I could write many chapters about people I’ve known who let denial get away from them. In my own case, denial worked wonders for me after the left side of my body was paralyzed from a stroke when I was six months pregnant. I had already had a baby 2 years before so I knew how physically demanding that job was.
I was 6 months pregnant, completely paralyzed on half my body, had no use of my left arm, and couldn’t walk, but for 53 days I laid in a hospital bed and never once gave any thought to how I was going to take care of the baby that was sure to arrive much less deal with the toddler I already had. My mind did a miraculous job of shielding me from facing the near impossible reality that lay ahead. This is exactly what denial as a defense mechanism is made for. If I had thought about the reality I was facing, I likely would have lost my mind or became hopelessly depressed.
My own health crisis was not the result of my neglecting warning signs. It was due to a congenital defect whereby blood vessels in my brain formed incorrectly before I was born. The malformation could have ruptured at any time in my life, or not.
So much of what happens to us in life is simply a crap shoot, with some of us having better luck than others. Denial has its place in protecting us from facing things in the moment that we aren’t necessarily equipped to deal with at that time. Unfortunately, we don’t aways know what is safe to ignore. You never think it will happen to you.
One last thing…
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