The Comfort of Denial

There's nothing more real than the Grand Canyon!

“There is no safety in trying to prevent loss.” – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Did you hear the story about the newlyweds who went to the Grand Canyon for their honeymoon only to have it ruined when the husband, walking backward, fell over the edge of the South Rim to his death? His young bride was trying to take a picture of him, and she kept saying, “Just a little further, honey. I want to get that pretty rock in the background.” He obliged her by dropping out of the viewfinder altogether. They must have both thought that they weren’t dealing with a real geologic formation, but a painted canvas backdrop; that the distance to the bottom wasn’t really almost a mile down. That death couldn’t possibly interrupt their plans, their shiny, newly married futures. At least the guy died smiling for the camera.

Getting a diagnosis of major depression is akin to stepping off a mile-high precipice and being asked to safely find your way to the bottom without a parachute. One minute, you’re looking around at the scenery of your life, enjoying the view. The next, you’re simultaneously wondering why your life is flashing before your eyes and trying to remember if you unplugged the iron this morning. (There might have been a few months or years in between those two minutes.)

“This can’t be happening,” you think. “Depression is something that happens to other people! It’s not even in my family history. Isn’t it genetic? And don’t you have to be a real morose, Eeyore-type of person to have depression? I’m not like that. I’ve always been an optimist! I love bright colors! And I eat my vegetables! Oh, wait, yeah, there was Great-Aunt Gertrude who, some of the aunts and uncles said, was a bit, you know, moody, but she committed suicide, so that took her out of the picture. So, really, there’s nobody in the family. Looking back, my life has been great. Simply great. There’s no reason for this to be happening to me. Besides, I don’t have time for this!”

Similar rebuttals ricocheted through my mind in the months following my diagnosis. It wasn’t that I didn’t know I had depression; I was under a doctor’s care and was taking medication. But I still couldn’t come to terms with the idea that I actually had a mental illness—or, to use the term that is gaining popularity now, and which is less disempowering, a brain disorder. That wasn’t who I was! I was an intelligent, educated, creative woman who had big dreams for my life. I couldn’t possibly be sidelined by debilitating “down” moods, brain fog, lethargy, and crippling self-doubt. I had too much to do, to achieve, to experience. At some level, I thought that if I simply waited it out, the depression would go away without my having to do much of anything about it, other than take medication. As if!

Denial is seductive. It whispers to us that there is nothing we need to do differently, that we’ll be able to continue in our same jobs or line of work, stay in the same relationships, eat the same foods, think the same thoughts, and follow the same routine. It asserts that if we just do what the doctor tells us and take the meds for which she writes scrips, then everything will be all right. This is kind of like wearing four-inch stiletto heels and pretending that they’re not going to ruin your feet, if you’re a woman; or eating hamburgers every day and pretending you’re not headed straight for a heart attack, if you’re a man.

Unlike the denial of the existence of dangerous geological formations, the denial of an illness as serious as major depression is a natural, logical response to a game-changing play. As humans, we’re pretty attached to the status quo, whether it’s a life we love or one we wish were different but are pretty comfortable with (better the devil you know…). It’s as though the coach pulled the star quarterback from the homecoming game and put the school’s chess champion in his place. We know we can’t win the game we’re accustomed to playing while struggling with depression, so we pretend nothing has changed. Denial is a protective mechanism; it allows us to get our bearings while we recalibrate ourselves and how we are now to be in the world.

Denying depression has many faces. It may look like refusing to talk about your diagnosis with anyone, even your spouse or significant other. It may mean putting on a “happy face” in front of your children, rather than giving them a tempered but realistic view of what’s going on. It may result in refusing to learn anything about the illness and the many non-medical ways you can help yourself by making healthy lifestyle choices. You may insist you’re not nearly as sick as your doctor has stated you are. It can look like changing the channel when a commercial or other mention of depression comes on TV, or even getting up and leaving the room. It can result in futile attempts to work harder, do better, be more. Or it can look like withdrawing from everything. It might trigger addictive acting-out behaviors. It can even mean refusing to get therapy, which, as many studies have shown, speeds recovery from depressive episodes and staves off future ones.

While denial may be protective initially—and certainly comfortable, the way snuggling under the cushy comforter on your bed is comfortable—it exacts a long-term cost by immobilizing us and thus preventing us from doing the work to get better, a lassitude that is exacerbated by the depression itself. The fact is, there is no easy cure for depression, no “silver bullet” or “magic pill.” While antidepressants do help some people, by no means do they help everyone for whom they’re prescribed. In some cases, they actually have an adverse effect. (I’ll go into the statistics and fallout of our antidepressant culture in another posting.) For us to live as free from depressive symptoms as possible, we must make changes, sometimes deep-seated ones.

The good news is that denial is a temporary phase. How long it lasts varies for those who experience it; not everyone does. (Experiencing every phase of the grief process is not inevitable, nor is it necessary to experience them in order, or only once.) You may not be aware that you are in denial; that’s the nature of the beast. You may think that it does not apply to you, but if you received your diagnosis from your doctor and nodded calmly as though you’d just opened an expected invitation to a tea party, and are continuing through the days and weeks in that vein, then you might want to rethink your position. Working with a good therapist, even if just for a few sessions if that’s all your insurance pays for, will help move you out of denial and into a more proactive stance.

This proactive stance is often fueled by anger. In the next article in this series, we’ll be looking at the fire anger generates when we begin to come face-to-face with the losses that depression engenders.

(c) 2010 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.

Note: This is Part 2 of a six-part series on depression and the stages of grief. Part 1, “Depression and Loss,” introduces the series.

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