Tuesday, January 12, 2016

On Loss & Chronic Illness - Denial

Content warning for brief references to self-harm, discussion of bereavement and psychological abuse.

I decided to provide audio for this in order to avoid the irony of post which is so long it might be inaccessible to some people who might benefit from it:

For the first two years I was sick, I wasn't in denial so much as ignorant then optimistic. My health was up and down, so I assumed that very soon, things would pick up, and up and up and up. All the strategies I was given were about resisting my illness. Do as much as you can. Keep going. Have a go, even when it hurts. Stay positive.

By the third year, it had gone on too long. The idea that I would not be going to university at the same time as my peers was unthinkable. It wasn't that my academic career had ever been central to my identity before then, but all my other identities had dropped away. My greatest passion - acting - was now impossible. My role in all friendships and within the family had greatly diminished. I couldn't sing more than a few lines. I couldn't make art. I couldn't write stories. I was struggling even to read.

All I had left – and what my parents were most worried about, the one thing, apart from my health, that others asked me about – were my studies. I didn't have anyone breathing down my neck on this, but I felt an immense pressure. If I stayed sick, I was going to let everyone down.

Here are some ridiculous things I did in that third year:
  • I went from studying a single GCSE to trying to cram two A-Levels into one year. If you're not familiar with the English and Welsh education system, that's increasing my workload by about five times, without any improvement in health.
  • I began to write the story of how I got better. In the past tense. When writing anything was a tremendous effort. Which is why I only used up the first few pages of the lovely new notebook I'd chosen to write in. Such a waste!
  • Most ridiculously, I asked my parents for a new bicycle for my eighteenth birthday. Before I was ill, I used to cycle all over the place. I'd had a few bikes before, but never a new one and I had absolutely never bought or asked for anything which I didn't then use. Thus I reasoned, my capacity to balance on a bicycle seat and peddle with my malfunctioning legs would just have to improve accordingly.
All this may sound daft, but I want you to imagine this in a bad movie. A sick girl who has significant trouble walking buys a bicycle because she's determined she'll recover to a point where she can cycle again. She begins to write the story of how it's going to happen. She takes on all the work she needs to get her into university (Cambridge said they'd consider me with just two A-Levels, given the circumstances).

She has to get better. She deserves to! She has hope in the face of dwindling odds. This girl isn't a fool – she's a hero. The final scene of the movie has her either peddling off into the sunset or with a shot of the pristine unused bicycle, propped up against her gravestone.

I didn't die, though my health got much worse and I entered a darker, uglier level of self-doubt. Maybe I was kidding myself about trying so hard, when really I wasn't? Maybe on some unconscious level I wanted to be ill? Maybe I didn't want to be ill but a part of me was making myself ill just to spite myself and cause distress to everyone around me? By this point, I was cutting myself and stockpiling meds. Soon after, I got together with my first husband, who hurt me even more.


On the 26th August this year, I will have been ill for twenty years. I'm not upset about that, but I've been thinking about it and want to write something about loss and chronic illness. I want to use the Kubler-Ross model of coming to terms with loss which, though imperfect, covers all the bases; the process of denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance.

Denial is a psychological defense against very difficult facts, but it's almost impossible to sustain on your own. Usually, when a loved one dies, it can take a few weeks at least to fully comprehend the fact - it's healthy the pain doesn't come at once. But sometimes, someone is informed of a death and simply refuses to believe it. This usually lasts moments, or minutes and occasionally a few hours. Then it shifts, because however gently they are treated, everyone around them is contradicting their belief. Abuse victims can remain in denial about the nature of their relationships for years, because there's either no opposition – other people smile and nod when they say everything is fine – or that opposition is discredited by the abuser.

Meanwhile – and this will be a recurring theme as I write about loss – with chronic illness, you can't just come to terms with these facts in one dose, even it is spread out over months. There will be other losses, relapses and complications, - even remissions that stabilise far below the point you hoped for. There may be points where you realise you have to drop some work you're doing, studies or hobbies, a point you realise you can't have the family you'd like or can't play your preferred role within your family. You'll miss events - weddings, parties, Christenings etc. - which will never happen again. You may lose friends, when your  illness gets boring. There are all kinds of ways which you won't get to be the person you wanted to be - not because you chose to be someone else, but because of illness.

Of course, everyone experiences loss, but the loss associated with illness complicates regular loss - if only I wasn't ill, things would be different, maybe this might not have happened, maybe this would be easier. I wasn't devastated by the death of my maternal grandmother last year, but the fact I was too sick to attend her funeral sent me into a couple of months of emotional disorientation.

Fortunately, you don't have to mourn for the whole thing at every set-back, but loss is dark pool which settles for a while, only to be disturbed again; sometimes a mere ripple, sometimes a splash.

After that terrible third year, I never again counted so completely on my health improving, but there would be other times I overestimated my (usually deterioating) health and stamina when I really should have known better, times when I worked on the basis that my good days would be my normal days from now on This would always coincide with desperation, self-doubt and external pressure.


As soon as I started to think about writing about chronic illness and the Kubler-Ross model, I noticed how our culture discourages people with chronic illness from getting to that final phase of acceptance. Our culture actively encourages denial (as well as anger, sadness and bargaining especially). As I say, it's almost impossible to maintain denial on your own.

I generally enjoy my life very much. I'm writing about loss, but loss is part of life and doesn't stop it being mostly great. However, sometimes I'll have this conversation when someone implores me to keep positive. Not that they think I'm not making the most of life, but because I'm not highly invested in the prospect of getting better. I'll hear that I shouldn't “give up” - I should keep hoping for a cure, pestering my doctors for tests and experimental treatments, trying alternative therapies, restrictive diets and so on. I hear this both from other sick people who have got themselves a bit stuck, and from healthy people who really have no concept of how incredibly short life is and how very much shorter life is if you have to rest more than half the day.

However, I have many advantages when I roll my eyes at this. Meeting the disability rights movement made such a difference; it made my illness personal and private, separated out the things I can attempt to address (physical access, social attitudes etc.) and released me from the sense of obligation to fit our culture's model of a deserving sick person.

Some people are much less lucky and get stuck on denial, even after years of illness. A few times, I've come across people who are convinced that they have found the answer and – understandably, altruistically – wish to share the good news with other people. In the worse case, I was put in touch with a friend of a friend, a man in this thirties whose parents were spending twelve thousand pounds a year on a single nutritional therapy regime. Twelve thousand pounds – it crossed my mind that even if this worked and I regained full health, I could probably never earn enough to pay for it. But of course, it didn't work.

He'd been on this regime for a year or so when the therapist used some kind of mystical scanner and declared that the illness had left his body. Completely cured, his body and immune system remained weak and just needed building up again (with this ongoing course of expensive therapy, funnily enough). But as our conversation progressed, I realised that he hadn't really seen much improvement at all; this weakness was basically all the symptoms he'd had before, only with a different explanation.

Someone who has never encountered this might think such a person would have to be terribly gullible, foolish and perhaps a little unhinged. He wasn't. He was a pleasant, sensible father of three who had worked as a teacher before he was ill. He just couldn't see a life where he didn't get well. Given their financial investment, his family obviously had the same imaginative block. It wasn't that he was pretending to be well - he still wasn't able to work or walk significant distances  – but having been told that he was well, he chose to believe it.

I describe this as the worst case because, well, twelve thousand pounds a year. But there have been others and it's always tragic. You generally lose touch with these people, not because of arguments (you don't argue with this) but because it becomes impossible for them. How can you face people around whom you evangelised about a cure, when two or three years later, you are still demonstrably unwell?

But of course, in terms of stories, our culture loves this stuff.  Illness is something to be fought - Beechams will help you fight a cold, David Bowie just lost his battle with cancer. This is all denial; There is no cure for the common cold - if you have anything but a mild cold, you will feel rotten and infect people around you. Whatever courageous attitude Bowie adopted towards his illness, he died because of a great collection of circumstances which amount to bad luck - had he survived, he wouldn't have fought it off, but merely been luckier.

Hope is a great thing and looking after one's health is entirely sensible. Placing faith in the impossible (or even the rather unlikely) is a waste of life.


There's one more point to be made about denial, which makes it unique among the phases of grief: other people will try to get in on the act for sinister purposes. 

Naturally, some folk do go into denial about the deteriorating health of a loved one. They desperately want there to be a simple solution, and for things to go back to normal, so they pretend that's going to happen. This can cause a lot of stress, but it's unlikely to last long. 

However, the very first thing a person does if they wish to bully, undermine or control any disabled person, but especially one who is sick with subjective unseeable symptoms, is to cast doubt on their impairment, speculate that they could try a bit harder, that their account of things is inconsistent, that maybe there's a part of them that is seeking attention. 

And these two things – someone profoundly distressed about another's state of health, and someone exploiting the opportunity to exert power over them – can be easily confused, with disastrous consequences. When friends, family, quack therapists and occasionally even medical professionals get up to that crap, a sick person can be easily dragged into that very dark and ugly place I described earlier (Is it me? Am I doing this to myself?).

Again, this cruelty is in our culture. This is what the benefits agencies do – they endlessly question perception and imply dishonesty in rock solid cases. This is what newspapers do when they complain about scroungers. People who do this to their own family and friends aren't in the least bit original, but their message must not be mistaken for love or concern. This is all about power. 

My top survival tip – not just when it comes to chronic illness, but life in general – is to trust yourself, your feelings and your experiences. This doesn't mean experiences mean what you think they mean (honestly, it was just a satellite – if you look at the sky for long enough, you'll see dozens), or that you should act on all your whims. The mind can play tricks on you, and you may have irrational thoughts, but you almost certainly do know roughly what's going on with you.

On some level, I knew I wasn't going to ride a bicycle again any time soon. But I was trying to defy my own reality. When others attempt to defy your reality on any matter - not to merely disagree with you, but suggest that what you feel is not what you feel -  you need to give them a very wide berth.