The Deceitfulness of Denial

At some point, the last good thing in your life will happen to you.

And you won’t know it.

That’s what I nearly posted on Twitter this morning, but I thought it was too grim. For me, Twitter is a place for writing and politics and retweeting things I enjoy or think are important. It’s not for personal angst.

Welcome to my blog!

When I was younger, I started hearing about the so-called “sandwich generation”: those adults who were primary caretakers for both children and aging parents. It all seemed abstract. At the time I had no children, nor any on the horizon. My parents were healthy, and seemed to be planning well. As their own parents grew older and died, they had conversations with us about what they’d want and what we should do.

Here’s some advice for you: if your still-healthy parents ever do this with you, get it in writing.

Aging never goes as planned. Some things go better. Some things go worse. Most things go in ways you never would have anticipated.

For instance, I started running a few years ago. Carefully. (I’d been walking 15-30 miles/week for years. so I wasn’t starting from zero.) Started slow. Worked my way up. Was doing almost three miles, and I got hit with a stress fracture of the hip. Healed for three months, and started running again. Got hit with a stress fracture of the other hip. That one has never healed, and sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain for no other reason than I was lying in the wrong position for too long.

(Yes, I’ve seen an orthopedist. I got a cheerful “Well, sometimes it happens to women your age.”  I’d just turned 50.)

We expect it all to be gradual, some kind of predictable glide path. And even with the horrors of cognitive shifts…we expect to know it’s coming, to know where it’s going. We expect, somehow, that as horrific as it can sometimes be, everyone’s going to understand that help is necessary.

That’s not always how it goes.

Denial has always been a massive power in my life, but I wouldn’t have called it that until recently. I’d have called it “optimism” or “a positive attitude” or some pseudo-empowering bullshit that really means I’ve been incredibly bloody lucky. One of the things I take from my whole publishing experience is that disasters can happen no matter how much you prepare. Optimism won’t help. A positive attitude doesn’t rescue you once you’ve gone over that cliff. At some point, you’re dropping, and it’s just a matter of what you hit when you get to the bottom.

This lesson is far more disconcerting when you’re watching someone else fall.

I’m not quite at that stage yet. I’m still hoping my arms are long enough, that I’ll be able to get to that cliff and catch them and pull them up and keep them safe, and convince them to stay the hell away from the edge.

And it’s my greatest fear that this hope is actually denial.

There was something of a tradition of cheerful bullying in my family of origin: it should be thus, so we’ll all smile until it is thus. I learned that looking happy, making others believe I was having a good time, was the single most important thing about any group activity. To do otherwise would be horribly rude.

What this does, of course, is paper over disaster–including disasters that are entirely self-inflicted. If I saw something coming? Don’t say a word. Smile. Be cheerful. Be a trooper. It’ll be fine.

Most of the time, it was fine, at least in the nobody-ended-up-in-the-hospital way. But psychically…I learned to retreat from my own reactions, to not share discontentment, to wish my way through bad times. I learned that bad meant bleeding, and anything else didn’t really count.

The value of denial, and what makes it seductive, is its illusion of control. This can be a lifesaver when you’re in a truly awful situation: it can give you something to hang on to when you desperately need a reason not to let yourself fall. But when you hang on to it after you’ve gone over the edge, you may miss the hand that reaches out for you. You may miss your last chance to be saved.

All this sounds terribly dramatic. It feels terribly dramatic, although I expect it doesn’t look nearly as awful from the outside. What lies at the bottom of the cliff isn’t sharp and spiky, just really uncomfortable (and utterly preventable, which is part of what is making me angry). There’s been a lot of luck involved here, and I’m glad of that, despite the fact that it’s fed the power of denial.

But there are days…there are days I feel like this is all of it. This is the future, full stop. Watching someone accelerate toward the edge, hoping against hope I can make it to them in time, knowing that even if I do there’s a good chance they’ll keep that pedal to the metal. And once they go over…nothing to look forward to but my own turn, my own physical and cognitive foibles, my own clinging to denial and driving the people I love to despair.

I’m not that little girl who smiled, and yet I am. I am learning to look past denial, and I’m not. We’re each permitted so much change in life, and no more. Or maybe we can become whatever we want, but we have to be able to see it. Right now, I don’t see anything but the cliff.

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