Psychologists and Psychiatrists and New Age Dr. Phil in-your-facers have a lot to say about denial. I don’t think they quite go deep enough, or maybe they just haven’t really had to. For myself, it is a constant struggle to understand what I’m doing and why and when denial is existing as more than just a river in Egypt.
In times of crisis my mind and body disconnect from each other. Or maybe just mind and lower functions like instinct or basic urges. My reasoning retreats almost entirely while my body steps forward under the direction of some animal intelligence no doubt attributed to ancient learned behavior. It is limited though – the body acts but it does not comprehend, does not connect information, or make choices or do anything other than sense danger and try to keep the danger at bay. Meanwhile, my mind continues as almost entirely blind to the crisis or emergency, throwing up a wall – not of cynicism or incredulity – but of such a fierce denial of anything that could be happening that cannot be explained or handled. It is as though a crisis were merely an obstacle that needs to be gotten past or avoided or circumvented. This sounds boring and obvious, but it’s a problem for me. At times it has been a life-threatening one.
Years ago when I was about 21, I worked the graveyard shift at SA. On this particular day my Mom wakes me up in the early afternoon (yes, I was back at the parents for about a year) to tell me to keep an eye on my Dad because he isn’t looking very well. My Dad at this point has had two heart-attacks and she gets worried about him off and on. Heart Disease and Stroke are two very strong rivers that run through both sides of my family, so her concerns are extremely just and I know this. I tell her I will and immediately fall back to sleep. About fifteen or twenty minutes later she comes down to my alcove and starts shaking my cot again telling me to get up and get him out of the rain because she has to go somewhere and doesn’t want to leave him like that.
-What? Get him out of the rain?-
-Yes,- she says, -He’s mowing the lawn.-
Mowing the lawn in the rain. I guess that’s not too abnormal depending on the rain. I throw a t-shirt on and follow my Mom upstairs and out back. There’s my Dad. He’s standing in the middle of the backyard with the weed-whacker in his hand kind of dragging on the ground. The steady drizzle has done its work and he’s soaked in his t-shirt, jeans, and boots. He is also an unhealthy shade of gray. Alright. He needs to get inside before he gets sick. I should interject that at this time my Dad’s only in his late 40s and to my mind at the time is perfectly capable of making intelligent decisions. However, his 21-year-old son still has problems in this area (and still has problems in this area) and has shifted gears down deep into Denial-land along with his Mother (who probably bequeathed this malignant inheritance on him). And so it begins.
-Dad, you gotta come in now. It’s raining.-
-Yes. Come on now.-
-I’m tired. I have to finish this today- He’s made his way over to us by now and sits at the picnic table.
Mom interjects, -Well come in and lay down. Don’t sit out here in the rain. You’re all wet!-
-Yeah…- he replies.
Something sparks briefly in me, but I tamp it back to a manageable flame. –Come on Dad, let’s get you in.- I help my Dad to his feet and lead/support/carry him to his bed. My Mom’s in the room as well and advises that I should help him get out of his wet things so he can lay down more comfortably. I pull off his boots and socks and begin to help him out of his shirt when my younger brother walks into the room, (back from wherever he was), takes One Look at my Dad and calls 911. He’s talking on the phone while I find myself somehow drifting out the front door of the house. What am I doing out here? Oh yeah. Watching for the ambulance.
My Dad died Twice that night. He went through the largest heart attack he has ever had to this date. When he was getting his wet boots removed, his chest was trying to tear itself into three pieces. If Jerry would have walked into that room ten minutes later – five minutes later – my Dad would have died. I see this all very clearly now – my weird sluggishness in accepting the facts that came so quickly to Jer. Why? I knew the score. So did my Mom. What the fuck is our problem?
Years later on a very hot evening, I’m at work in the Toro punch press department and I hear somebody yelling. I trot over to the next aisle and see something weird going on. I have no idea what is happening because my brain just shut down, but I start running. My Dad’s stuck in a stand-up forklift that keeps ramming him backward tight into the die-rack with all of its fun and sharp metal protrusions. Somehow my brother has gotten himself tangled into this fiasco behind my Dad and kind of down around his legs. (No, this isn’t a strange dream. My Dad, my brother and I all have worked at Toro and on the same shift for a number of years in the past.) Easy fix. I reach up and grab my Dad under the armpits and drag him up and out of the forklift, and then lay him down on the ground. Jerry’s swearing, so I go back to the fork and see his hand stuck between the back-end of the lift and the die-rack. Another easy fix – I just pull his hand out.
Now apparently my Dad was picking up a load with the fork, and started passing out from heat exhaustion (which he is especially susceptible to, given his heart problems). He fell backward but was still holding the controls, making the fork jerk back into the rack. Jerry ran up and was trying to either reach the key and turn off the power, or move Dad’s foot off the pedal; but after I lift my father out of there, Jer’s left hanging with his hand stuck and the other unable to reach the controls to simply roll the fork forward and free himself (relatively) painlessly. I didn’t really see any of these finer points that could have resulted in a lot less pain (my Dad’s armpit/chest area and my brother’s hand were pretty bruised up from my ham-fisted rescue). In my defense, I arrived somewhat late on the scene, as it were, and there was at least seven other guys there before me who were just standing there scratching their heads. The point is, the whole Denial circuit shorted out my brain again. It wouldn’t let me see a lot of what I needed to see in order to make a quick and rational decision.
We are animals at the core – we cannot change our spots or stripes, and if there is one thing that has been scored deeply into the make-up of the human animal it is the reflex to adapt. That’s how we survived the ice ages and droughts. That’s how we survived for millennia alongside huge carnivorous birds and mammals, evolving to a point where we could hunt them to extinction – to where we have become the measure.
The human animal reacts and adapts to stimulus – it strives to survive. Perhaps that same reacting and adapting is responsible for the emotional wall I throw up between myself and the world around me – stowing my thoughts and/or denying the reality that the animal mind sees as dangerous. A: Something tries to hurt me, so B: a part of me retreats significantly, allowing my base functions or lower mind handle the rest of the situation. Because I know. I know what a frail heart I have in truth. How affected I am by sights or tales of inhumanity. Or by my own personal familial relationships. Did I just describe emotional cowardice?
Back on July 2nd of 2008 I was just returning from a jaunt at the park with my then 1-year-old napping daughter when my wife Elizabeth met me in the garage and told me we needed to talk about our son, who was then 15. I put the baby to bed and went back out into the garage with my wife. The Boy was behaving strangely. We have to be on the look-out for this, as he had just been in the hospital a couple months earlier for a suicide attempt and he was taking a number of medications. Elizabeth told me that he had recently came to her and asked if he could go to a friend’s house, to which she replied in the negative, as he had a mountain of summer-school homework. (We had just let him spend the night at the same friend’s house under the condition that he gets his homework done.) He mopes off and then returns less than five minutes later asking if he can play a game on my computer. He receives the same answer from a now mildly-exasperated Elizabeth, and so mopes off again under orders to get this homework started. She walked past his room about ten or fifteen minutes later and viewed him laying in bed drifting off.
-Asa, what are you doing?-
-Sleeping. – His groggy response.
-I told you to get started on that homework.-
He does not reply, or if he did I don’t remember it as it is at this point that I recall, and tell Elizabeth, that he had asked if he could accompany the baby and I to the park earlier and I had told him the same thing about his homework. (I have to make clear here that he had a Ton of homework to do so that he could remain in the grade he was supposed to be in. This was important to me/us back then at that time.) In any case, Elizabeth would appreciate it if I would go downstairs and talk to him. I do so. I go downstairs.
His room is dark and he’s snoring lightly. His eyes are slitted and showing slivers of white. I shake him.
Nothing at all.
-Asa. – Louder. I shake him again, grabbing his shoulder.
His breathing fluctuates minutely but he’s out. After trying one more time with similar results, I figure it’s probably those newer meds he’s still getting used to. I’ll have to talk to him when he wakes up, and maybe talk to his doctor about drowsiness during the day. I trot back upstairs.
-He’s sleeping away. The meds prob’ly have him wiped out.-
Elizabeth looks into me. –Where are his meds?-
-Hidden* in our room, aren’t they?-
* Cleverly. Under our bed. He’ll NEVER find it there , right? Right?? Yeah right.
I head to our bedroom as she calls after me, -Hurry!-
Upon entering our room I drop to my knees and look under her side of the bed for the bowl of medication bottles finding nothing. I look on top of her nightstand and the unorganized mess of our dresser-top with the same result. –I’m not finding ‘em.-
-Go down and look for them in his room- She’s not frantic, just serious business-like and I hop to it.
In his room he’s snoring strangely. An odd blowing mixed in with it. I look under his bed and on his dresser to no avail. I check his computer desk and the piles of teenage detritus on top of it and then move to some of his loose clothing lying about – I’m still not finding anything and am beginning to wonder if they’re down here. I can hear my wife walking to and from our room and the bathroom upstairs through the floor and I yell, -I don’t see anything. – Asa sputters and mumbles something. He’s making fists. Elizabeth yells from upstairs –Keep looking!- I sigh and just them my eyes settle on his backpack. I kneel down and unzip it. A blanket, a childhood home-made pillowcase and wads of stuffing from it along with the bowl of now empty medication bottles are nestled carefully within.
-I found them!-
-Oh my God! – She yells and then I almost immediately hear her on the phone talking to a 911 dispatcher. She’s now extremely frantic, but unquestionably still in control.
I move to Asa and shake him hard. My mind is opening and emptying – I can feel it. Like the feeling you get when you haven’t eaten for days. I need to give him water I think. His lips are so dry and there’s white foam and a pasty substance in there.
I shake him harder, -Asa! Wake up!-
-Tom! Bring the bottles upstairs!-
I lay my son back down (I had levered him to a sitting position without realizing it) and run upstairs with the bottles. A cop has already arrived and my wife and he are conversing rapid-fire between them. How long was I down there? I hand the cop the bottles. –What are these? – He looks flustered between me unloading the four or five empty bottles on him and Elizabeth’s insistence of speedy and efficient action.
I’m not much help. –I don’t know, read ‘em.- His radio is loud and squawky in our house where our baby is trying to take a nap. I think of something and run back downstairs. Somebody might be trying to talk to me, but I need to get Asa. I wrap one of his stiff arms around my neck as best I can and hoist him up like I would carry my 1-year-old. Except he ain’t no 1-year-old, he’s a nearly six foot 15-year-old and his legs aren’t easy to get around the corners of the stairway. He’s shaking hard and his whole body’s stiff like that game you play at a sleep-over. There’s white foamy, pasty crap bubbling out of his mouth. I run through the living-room and out the door with him.
-Hey! What’re you doing? – The cop’s yelling at me. What does it look like I’m doing? I’m bringing my son to the hospital. I hear the siren then, getting closer, and my poor wife – shaking hands clutched to her face as she shrieks in the worst terror I’ve ever heard from anybody, ever. The cop isn’t in much better shape. –Put him down! What are you doing?-
I lay Asa down on our front lawn by the large rock. He’s cold and sweating and shaking. His fists are clenched hard and pulling inward toward himself and there’s a dark stain spreading quickly across his pants and midsection. –Oh shit. Asa wake up! – I know his body is trying to shut down.
There are paramedics around me pulling me away and Asa is stretchered and stored away in the back of the ambulance faster than I can keep track of. My wife hops into the back with no shoes on and only wearing some old sweatpants. The cop is talking to me. –What?-
-Are you going with?-
-I can’t. The baby’s taking a nap and the girls are out on a walk still.-
He looks at me strangely. –I have to follow that wagon.-
I watch the ambulance tear around the corner blaring noise. There are people in the street watching. I turn and go inside.
After ten minutes of me watching Abi sleep the phone rings. My wife tells me a helicopter’s coming and that they can’t pump my son’s stomach for this shit because it dissolves into his system and immediately targets the brain. Especially the seroquel tablets. Of which there were a shitload. The girls get home while I’m on the phone. They want to know what’s going on. Elizabeth is telling me that he needs to stabilize before they can move him, but that they don’t think he will. She’s mad at the doctors about something she hasn’t told me yet. –What’s going on Dad? – My oldest daughter Siobhan starts talking over my wife on the phone and I hold my hand out at her. My wife is yelling at somebody in the hospital –Take him anyway! Take him now! You fucking take him now god-damn it!- She returns to me still intense. –I have to go. I’ll call you back. The girls should be back soon.- They are back. She’d already hung-up.
Both Siobhan and Amelia are on me, talking at once.
-Asa took all of his medication. And I think all of the other pills in the house.-
They’re stunned. And I was going to leave him there. Incredulity and fear fight for dominance on Siobhan’s face while Millie is a blank. I was going to let him sleep it off. A steady thumping is filling the neighborhood, quickly evolving into a roar. Like an assault. I thought he was having a natural reaction to his meds. The girls are looking up and out as a helicopter flies low and fast overhead, pounding and pounding down on me. I didn’t read any of the warning signs or even really accept that he was seriously depressed in a way that I wouldn’t be able to immediately understand. My eyes start weeping heavily when Siobhan looks a question at me, to which I answer: -That’s it. That’s the helicopter. For Asa.-
And my head starts falling apart.