“She’s in denial,” my friend said, referring to another woman we were both worried about as she navigated a difficult personal situation. “She’s buried her head in the sand.”
Certainly, indulging in too much denial can be harmful. But denial also has an upside for those of us with late effects or other chronic illnesses. It offers us a break, a time out, a temporary escape from painful realities. Denial enables us to rest and regroup before facing challenges.
I have had 17 surgeries—first to treat the cancer and then to cope with a cascading series of late effects—and it wasn’t until the eighth surgery that I began to have difficulty really deluding myself.
Oh, I’d tell myself. It won’t be that bad. The surgery isn’t fun, of course, but all would be well almost immediately afterward. No worries, as my Aussie friend would say.
This has never been the case for me. Most of the time, after surgery I felt like I had been run over by a truck. The pain, constipation, nausea, limited mobility, and depressive effects of painkillers left me in rough shape for weeks or months.
Even a minor surgery, like having the central line port removed from my chest, left me with such sore pectoral muscles that I could barely dress myself for days. And the surgeon who did the fairly simple, outpatient procedure didn’t bother to read my chart, or at least not carefully. Before I could stop him, he quickly used acetate wipes (to which I have the same allergic reaction as to alcohol) instead of betadine to sterilized my skin, leaving me with a severe, itchy rash blanketing not only the incision, but also my breasts and most of chest for several days.
Despite several terrible experiences, I remained stubbornly optimistic that each time I had surgery I would recover quickly and smoothly, and that the degree of discomfort, pain, and embarrassment would be relatively minor.
I have clear memories of when this changed. It was surgery number eight when my ability to muster pre-surgical denial faded. I wanted badly to have the functional leg that my surgeon promised would be mine after a second bone graft. But the tight ball of dread in my stomach and the tension in my shoulders reflected my body’s keen awareness that before I received any increase in function, I was going to suffer. A lot.
And I did. Since then, I have struggled to pretend that my next surgical experience or other unpleasant medical procedures would be fine.
Over the years, I’ve had a number of mothers tell me that after their babies were born, they forgot about the pain of labor, that somehow the magic of one’s own infant removed memories of pain from their brains and made them unafraid to go through it all again. This sounds like a functional form of denial to me, in the same way that my stubborn optimism let me assume the best prior to my first several surgeries.
If you have to go through something painful, what purpose does fully appreciating how awful it will likely be serve? How does that visceral awareness improve you outcomes? I don’t think it does.
Consider the ostrich. It’s a myth that ostriches stick their heads in the sand when threatened, despite the common expression. Instead, when ostriches sense danger, they lower their heads close to the ground, making themselves less vulnerable and less visible. They don’t stop paying attention to the world; they just assume a more defensible position from which to scan the surrounding terrain.
And that’s how I think we should understand it when those of us with serious illnesses or conditions deny some of the harshness of our medical realities for a little while.
Of course it is not okay to become so delusional that you can’t manage your health and your life. But tucking our heads protectively for a while when we cope with painful health challenges seems to me like a fine thing to do.