When I tell people he’s sick, I have the same feeling I had about telling people my mom was dying. Part of me knew my mom was what other people called terminal. But the voice of my conscience, my inner admiral, that part felt like I was being overly dramatic.
That’s a sort of creepy aspect of denial, I guess. Denial almost always speaks with the voice of reason and sensibility. It’s a ventriloquist, or an internal parlor trick. For a long time I imagined that denial sounded kind of sneaky or scared. But it doesn’t. If it did, it wouldn’t work. I felt in my case, like I was maybe stretching the truth, or not telling all of it. And I wasn’t. I couldn’t.
I read a book about brain injuries and it appears that the left half of your brain takes information from the right, and doles it out, spins it, (or completely denies it) in a way that makes sense in the story of your life. The right half struggles to get new information through to your consciousness. The admiral half can’t be bothered every time the little pfc. comes in and says, “The enemy is amassing just over that hill and they’re wa-ayyy bigger than we thought.”
The admiral needs to look at the big picture before he reports back to the troops. If the information will be too disturbing to the troops, there is some grappling over it. Maybe the troops are told, maybe not. Most likely the information will be spun in a way that doesn’t cause a total system collapse.
This is why many stroke victims deny they’ve had any sort of brain injury. It’s just way too disturbing, and if the injury was on the right side (the pfc. side), there’s no obnoxious little guy making a scene about the evidence (like the left hand not working). But there’s good evidence that their unconscious mind is aware of the situation, just withholding it from conscious awareness.
So when I see evidence that says my kid is seriously depressed, there’s a bit of a struggle for whether or not that gets through to my inner story-line, my troops. Instead, I think maybe he’s wayward, lazy, spoiled, immature. I suppose he can be all those things and still be depressed.
That’s the brain theory. But there’s also this inter-human side. The feeling I get when I try to explain the situation is the same disingenuous feeling a person gets when they try to explain any complex, upsetting, horrible (maybe wonderful) thing to people who care enough to ask, but don’t know the details.
When someone says my son has a mental illness, my daughter cuts herself, my father is an alcoholic, my parents are getting a divorce, I lost my job, I have cancer, my husband had an affair, my wife walked out on me, my brother died, I was abused… The people who hear it have a sort of archetypal, soap opera idea of what those stories must be like. As we speak it, we know our version of the dying mother or lost job isn’t quite what they will have in mind.
Our version is both more and less terrible than they are picturing. It’s also familiar in some universal, archetypically human way. And on another level it’s particularly, oddly and strangely our own. It’s a hard world to navigate.