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I think I may be in denial, although I’m not exactly sure of what. This could mean that I’m really not in denial, or it could mean that my denial is so deep I can’t even figure out what I’m denying. I’m pretty sure my psychotherapist could give me insight about this, although I’m not certain I see one. Or maybe I have a therapist, but I’m in such denial about the traumatic memories he’s helped me uncover that I forget to go each week. Or maybe my therapist is in denial about the fact that I never show up and he conducts our sessions without me, so I’m resolving problems I never even knew I had. I lean toward this last theory for three reasons, although I can’t remember the first two. Or there could be only one reason, but three sounded better, so maybe I’m lying. I’m not really sure, although if I am in therapy, this tendency to exaggerate could be something I’m working on.
Either way, there’s no disputing the fact that denial is great; some would even say good. It’s the ultimate lifeboat for escaping onrushing neural tidal waves. It’s the means by which murderers and sociopaths and repeatedly jilted misfits can put feet to floor each morning. Denial is the psychological equivalent of debt, which when recast as leverage can turn oceans of red ink into skyscrapers, corporations, acquisitional triumph. After all, while others suffer the indignities and incapacitating battles associated with panic attacks, hypochondriasis, and male erectile disorder, those in denial simply go forward with their lives, functioningeven thrivingas disaster makes ugly faces at them in the rear-view mirror. If we’re not all in denial, then we should be. That way we can cope. We can get unstuck. We can focus on what might be, rather than what was or is.
But denial is tricky business. Getting there can require adroit mental chicanery, and assessing whether you’ve made it or not isn’t always easy. For example, my constant worry about possibly being in denial could actually mean that I have some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder: After all, I wash my hands a lot, which is apparently one of the telltale signs of OCD. But I also urinate a lot, and I think it’s OK to wash your hands afterwards without it being a manifestation of something psychological. Of course, urinating all the time could also indicate an obsessive-compulsive disorder. In my case, though, I only urinate so much because I drink a lot of water. On the other hand, drinking water all the time could also signify some psychological abnormality, particularly if I’m not that thirsty. And if I am constantly thirsty, that’s probably symptomatic of something so awful that my therapist won’t even discuss it with himself.
It’s also possible that my denial symptoms are actually attributable to age-related memory loss, or even something more ominous like attention deficit disorder, or ADD. This seems feasible, because I once had a physician who secretly treated me for ADD, apparently attaching some importance to my tendency to worry needlessly, my sense of impending doom, my mood swings, depression, restlessness, and perhaps the fact that a decade earlier his daughter had given me a pretty expensive bar mitzvah gift and her thank-you note still hadn’t arrived. Anyway, he listened to my generalized tales of fatigue and dispensed with vitamin B shots in favor of Ritalin, which at the time warranted a barely discernible pushpin on the pharmaceutical map. ADD was likewise unheard of, possibly because the medical profession had not yet thought to reduce afflictions to catchy abbreviations as a means of popularizing them and cashing in. So the stodgy “hyperactive” was still the operative term.
I’m not sure I would have concurred with the diagnosis, particularly since this guy was not exactly Marcus Welby. In fact, my cousin was once rushed to his office after just about slicing off her finger with a bread knife, and the blood made this master of the healing arts so queasy that he refused her treatment and instead offered directions to the emergency room. But when the doctor who performed the hernia exams for my junior-high football team hands a vial of pills across the desk, I figure I at least owe him the courtesy of swallowing a few days’ worth. Besides, he had always been generous with some pretty noteworthy samples. So if he had a pharmacological strategy to combat my malaise, I wasn’t about to refuse his offer.
What a mistake. Ritalin may be the magic potion for all of America’s unattentive children, but the stuff made me so nuts that my car just about went airborne. It felt as if someone had distilled an urnful of espresso and served it up to me in suppository form. My eyes became pinwheels. I twitched. I fidgeted. My skin felt as if it had shrunk two sizes in the wash.
I immediately cut the dosage to nothing. I also decided to take my maladies elsewhere, although I always wondered if the medication had been inappropriate but the diagnosis perhaps on target. A decade later, however, this same physician was charged with drugging his female patients and, while they lay naked on the examination table, masturbating behind a screen. That would appear to have been grounds for action, possibly even loss of license, but he decided to take a year’s sabbatical in Switzerland and, in return, his would-be disciplinarians agreed to pretend that secretly shooting women full of tranquilizers and then hiding nearby with his trousers around his ankles was inadvertent. His behaviornot to mention that of the state’s medical boardindicated some pretty serious problems, although traipsing around the Alps for a year as penitence seemed to me a classic case of denial. That convinced me I was smart to quit the Ritalin and discount everything he’d said, although since then I’ve often thought that if anyone could have spotted the symptoms of a psychological disorder, he was undoubtedly the man.
Ultimately, however, I invariably discount his diagnosis. After all, I usually feel so psychologically on top of my game that my problems only seem traceable to something physical. This, I guess, would tend to render my denial worries a sheep in wool clothing.
And the evidence appears to support this line of thinking, even if it’s not always immediately obvious. For example, I was once so concerned about my memory loss that I took a home-study course based on mnemonics, and for my graduation exercise I used the technique to try to remember that I had parked my car near the corner of 6th Street and Avenue B, in downtown Manhattan. Employing the methods I’d learned from the books and tapes, I transformed the closest intersection into half an egg carton with each of the cardboard depressions containing a giant killer bee.
The word-association trick seemed clear enough, and after returning from corned beef on the Lower East Side, I headed straight for the designated spot. But although the image I’d concocted seemed an unmistakable mental landmark, my car was nowhere to be found. I walked halfway down the street, then up the other side. I expanded my dragnet to include the territory between A and B, then B and C. Then I widened the search, walking 5th to 6th, 6th to 7th. I wandered almost to the river, then doubled back and headed west.
As my search proved futile and my frustration mounted, I began transforming the meaning of my memory aide into increasingly inaccurate coordinates: The bees begot insects, which in turn were associated with plants and fields, and before long the idea that my car was on Spring Street or Orchard Street, and if the bees weren’t in the orchard than they were probably on the fruit, and I should therefore look on Pitt Street.
In desperation, I finally hailed a cab and had the guy drive me along a grid until my money was gone. Even after devoting weeks to this memory-improvement technique, it seemed that I was worse off than I’d been before I started, that all my worries about being afflicted with some premature dementia were being realized, that what I interpreted as denial-induced memory lapse was in fact some sort of horrendous pathological affliction that would soon make it possible for me to remember why pants were invented.
But it turned out that my car had been towed for being in some illegal alternate-side zone, so come to think of it, maybe the problem isn’t pathological after all. In fact, maybe it’s not psychological, either. Maybe I’m just an idiot who doesn’t pay attention to street signs or anything else. I’m not saying it’s true, although neither am I denying the possibility. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Robert Meganck.