In Bridges this week we talked about the issue of denial. Whether it’s denial of your mental illness, or denial about trauma in your past, many of us struggle with this issue. Denial can be quite crippling to your ability to function in life. Pretending you don’t have things to deal with or needs and limits that must be worked around can be like setting yourself up to fall, over and over again. If you never accept your situation, you never plan for it, never see the next crash coming, and only snatch a bit of life between episodes of crisis. Ignoring a trauma history can leave you vulnerable to having it scream for attention through psychosomatic illnesses, emotional exhaustion, mental illness, and relationship stress. Suppressing strong emotions is exhausting, and denying the impact of trauma can leave you cut off from part of yourself. Denial can be incredibly costly to our ability to function. We walk about in an illusionary world in our mind, and crash over cliffs we can’t see.
However, denial is also useful in helping us cope. It’s one way of putting some distance between ourselves and something that makes us really uncomfortable. On one level, denial can be a form of containment. First respondents are taught to contain their distress in order to be effective at their jobs. Firefighters, police officers, ER nurses all face situations that are deeply stressful and emotional. All of them unplug from their normal human feelings of fear, shock, horror, and sadness in order to focus, work efficiently, and protect people. It’s as if they contain all those reactions in a box, and put it to one side to do what must be done.
Over time, most people find that containment is breached at times. There are limits to how much we can buffer ourselves, and all of us who experience these kinds of trauma, whether in our personal or professional lives, find that some situations resonate so strongly with us they refuse to be contained. A soldier returns from war with an image of a dead child burned so strongly into his mind he will dream of it for the rest of his life. An abuse victim is able to put aside memories until someone touches their throat the way the abuser did. A nurse excels at maintaining a professional demeanour, but the dying patient who looks so like her mother reduces her to tears. We carry memories and ghosts, and part of recovering from trauma is learning how to live with them, and how to manage when our ability to contain is exceeded.
Denial plays a role in giving us distance, which allows us to focus on the present moment. This is often very valuable in that we can work on building our life without being overwhelmed by the very things we’re trying to escape. When we’ve used denial to help in this way, it can be really hard to let go of. It feels like a comforting friend where facing the reality of our situation feels harsh and frightening. Reality however, has a way of intruding.
We need to work on denial at times when it is not protecting us, but actually leaving us unable to adapt and accept the situation we are in. There’s many ways you can work on your own denial if it’s a problem for you. One of them is spending time with people who are dealing with the same issues. Accepting you have a mental illness is a lot easier when the three new friends you met in group are awesome people with mental illnesses. You can start to see that it might not be the end of the world. Facing traumatic memories is less terrifying when you understand how many other people are dealing with the same issues, so you’re not alone. Sometimes there are concrete things you can do to remind yourself that you are willing to confront and accept these things. Some people write memories in their journal, some blue tack a message to themselves on their bedroom wall, some wear a bracelet with an inscription. Some keep the hospital tag from their last stay, or a page of the notes they wrote in their last episode. Multiples struggling to accept it may keep different handwriting, a collection of photos of different alters, or a recording of different members of their system. My journals serve as a way to keep me connected to the reality of my journey when I start to distort or whitewash parts of it.
Sometimes denial can feel huge and immovable, like you’re trying to push over a mountain. Be kind to yourself. We hang on to things that have worked for us, and are really reluctant to give them up, even if they’re now causing us problems. This is just about conditioning, there’s nothing wrong with you! For some of us, it’s not just us who have issues with denial, it’s our whole family, social circle, culture. Sometimes our denial feels like a mountain because there’s a lot of people contributing to it! It is very hard to come to face something that no one else wants to accept either. It can feel like the end of the world to give up our illusions.
Stripping away denial entirely can also be a problem! We need a bit of buffering from reality at times. It’s okay to pace yourself, dealing with these issues is a process. It takes time, and sometimes little steps is exactly the way to do it. Everyone is different, whatever works for you is right. Sometimes moving too quickly can be really destabilizing, like riding a bike for the first time with no training wheels. It takes us time to adjust to these things. It’s not all that helpful to trade total denial for total absorption with the issue. Neither leave you much room to have a life. And the name of the game here is having a life – not being a good patient and ticking some box that says ‘I’ve faced all my issues’! I don’t spend every minute of my day thinking of myself as a person with a mental illness, or remembering traumatic events in my life. I try to find a balance between facing and dealing with what I need to, and living in the here and now, enjoying myself wherever possible. It’s a tricky line to walk and it doesn’t always work, that’s the nature of the process. Just as there’s no right way to do this, there’s no neat way, and some spills, tears, frustration and mistakes are all part of the deal.