I grew up near Vandenberg Air Force Base, and in fifth grade, I got to go on the coolest field trip there. We got to see massive satellite dishes, bigger than any building in our small town. A real Air Force guy (as I called him–I have no idea who he was or what rank he held) took us around and explained how their rocket launches worked, and we got to have lunch at a park overlooking the launch site. I won a model rocket by answering the most questions right, and when my mom came to pick me up that day, I was bursting with pride, shoving my rocket in her face.
My little brother crawled in the car behind me. “She doesn’t know,” he said simply.
As we drove out of the parking lot, my brothers staring blankly out of their respective windows, I stared in open-mouth shock at my mother in the driver’s seat ahead of me as she broke the news that my Grandpa had died earlier that day. My brothers had heard earlier as they were at school and my Dad came by to tell them.
I wanted to feel sad, but I didn’t. I went to baseball practice after school, glove dangling off my left hand, and just stood staring off into the distance, waiting for the flood of tears that should be coming. When are they coming? Didn’t I love my Grandpa?
Oh my God, am I horrible because I’m not sad about this?
I didn’t cry at the funeral. I didn’t cry a couple of weeks later when my beloved kitten was hit by a car.
My parents told me much later that they were worried about me. They thought I might be suppressing my feelings on purpose, and maybe I was.
They were sure shocked when, months later, I accidentally stepped on my favorite pink cup, my diminutive weight enough to decimate the fragile plastic. Though my parents told me they would buy me a new one, I cried for days. Literally, days. All the tragedy that had hit 10 year old me in the last 3 months caught up with me in the realization that I’d never get to drink my Gatorade out of that plastic pink cup anymore.
Denial is a weird thing. Sometimes, we opt to stay in denial to save ourselves from the pain that comes with the rest of the cycle of grief. We lie to ourselves and cling to the idea that we’re fine. It even works for a while.
But that lie, and it definitely is a lie, eventually catches up to us. Something will happen, and all the willpower that had been holding reality at bay just crumples around us, leaving us with a backlog of unavoidable emotion to sift through.
One of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met is a recovering heroin addict. He called me today, and, as I like to do, I bounced my ideas off of him. Winona, as he asked me to call him for anonymity’s sake, is brilliant, and taking his suggestions has only improved my life.
I’m going to paraphrase what Winona said. His ideas come so fast he can’t get one out before the next one starts, so his ideas often come in fragments and shards. His insights about denial, for instance, mixed jarringly in with his awe of the laws of physics and the mysteries that time and space hold within them. I’ll use the first person and try to capture Winona’s voice while also trying to keep it on topic and as profanity-free as possible.
“It’s crazy, you know, because I knew I was a drug addict the first time I did drugs. I remember that, the first time. I knew right away.
But I didn’t really know. There was this break between my logical brain and my emotions, like my deep, psychological self. I knew I was addicted, so I wasn’t in denial, but there was always that thought in the back of my mind that I could stop being addicted any time I want. That it wasn’t really a problem. But it was. It was a huge problem. So I was in denial even though I wasn’t. Does that make sense?
It’s like my grandma, who chainsmoked her whole life, and who had emphysema and had to wear an oxygen mask all the time, and who still chainsmoked with it on. I thought she was going to blow herself up with that. But she always said she liked smoking and that she could quit if she wanted to. No way she could. She was near death, and still holding on to that denial because quitting would be damn near impossible.
But heroin and other drugs, they’re different from smoking because you get high. You don’t think the same way. At first it’s just while you’re high, but then it’s all the time. You do things that your old self would never do because all that matters is getting high again. Everything is ok, and nothing seems like the wrong thing to do because your brain starts only rewarding you for getting high. You wake up one day and realize you feel good about yourself for, like, ripping off your mom because it means you got to get high again.
That’s the worst thing, really. One of the main reasons it’s hard getting sober. Your brain starts to change back, and you realize all the crap you did. You want to stay addicted so you don’t have to deal with this enormous guilt. You hurt everybody you love. You did it a lot. Getting sober means you can’t stay in denial about that stuff. You have to break through so many levels of denial to get sober. That’s hard, man. I still feel guilty all the time. ”
Denial. That stupid psychological adaptation that helps us get away from dangerous situations before we feel the crushing pain of loss or guilt. That demon who forces you further down your road to hell because redemption hurts.