Friday, November 15, 2013
The Gift of Denial
I am in awe of corporeal intelligence. I'm talking about the wisdom of the body that is not in any way related to consciousness or thinking. Swelling that takes place after an injury, for instance, is the body's way of stabilizing the injury. Swelling is the body's way of creating a splint. An adema caused by inflammation - not injury - or a condition that is out of control or ongoing (chronic) has to be addressed, but injury related swelling is normal and even helpful. When the body's response is alarming, we always want to stop the symptoms, but unless it gets too extreme, the body is quite good at self care. If only we would listen.
Shock is one of the ways the body grapples. I'm not talking here about the kind of shock that takes place after a grave injury. That is shock in its most extreme form, when the person turns blue and is utterly unresponsive. In that case, they must lie down, be covered with a space blanket. Call 911 right away in that situation.
Even at its most extreme, shock serves as a psychological cushion. It is a protective state, part of the survival instinct.
People suffer from mild states of shock on a regular basis. Right after a bad breakup, or just after being fired, though we might appear to be fine, we aren't all there. It's hard to connect with any kind of emotion in those moments. We are in shock.
The grief often arrives a day or two later. I remember the phone call when my sister died. She was very ill; we knew her death was imminent, but the news still put me into a state of shock. It was early morning when I received the news. I decided I would go to work anyway, and set out on my morning commute. Halfway there, I realized the fullness of it - my sister had died. I turned around and walked home.
Mild states of shock also accompany good news. Imagine the look on the face of the person who has just won the lottery, for instance. I could go on, but I'm sure you get the picture. Shock is one of the ways we shield ourselves from the full impact of certain events. It is the way our intelligent bodies give us time to process a big piece of news. In healthy people, the shock gradually dissipates, allowing the person to integrate whatever it was that happened.
Denial is a form of chronic shock. It, too, is protective. Those who are in denial are often judged. I think of the mother who can't believe her daughter has an eating disorder even though it's clear as a bell to everyone else, the person who refuses to believe his lover has been seeing other people, the office worker who doesn't see how a co-worker is undermining him or her, the addict who believes he or she can stop any time they want to. It's not uncommon for other people, outside of these situations, to be incredulous. How could she not know? Well - she's in shock. That's why she doesn't see it.
Often, receiving a scary diagnosis creates a state of shock in the person receiving the news. Much of what people think of as a patient's fighting spirit could also be seen as a state of denial. It depends on the diagnosis, of course, and the personality of the person receiving the news.
I'm not one of those who thinks that breaking someone else's denial is always a great idea. I'm repelled by the practice of intervention, for instance, in which people gang up on the person in denial to bully them until they see the truth. If these people were capable of handling whatever it is they're denying, they surely would become conscious of it on their own, yes? I say yes. They're doing the best they can.
Life is tumultuous. You never know what's going to happen next. None of us are super heroes who can take it all in stride right from the get go. We are tender, highly emotional beings. Things get to us. This is part of what makes us so adorable, at least I think so.
Here's a link to a Mayo Clinic article about denial.
Should you receive shocking news or a bad diagnosis, give yourself time, please, before making decisions about what to do next. Treat yourself with kindness and gentleness, at least for a day or two, OK? Give yourself time to take it in. While in a mild state of shock, it's hard to make good decisions.
Actually, will you please always treat yourself with kindness and gentleness? Please? Thank you.