LIVING IN DENIAL, A LIFE OR DEATH SENTENCE? One of life’s many questions I have learned personally and as a therapist that cannot be answered as an either/or as . The easiest answer, tell the truth when it is a matter of life and death. Even then it is not easy. Moreover, truth-telling matters very little in the face of denial. Remember the myth of Cassandra, she could not lie, she could not keep quiet. She was a truth saying and no one listened to her, because the truths are unpleasant and denial comforting.
I managed a mental health crisis team in one of NYCity’s toughest neighborhood. Our job was to save lives, and every day we saw people caught in denial and endangering someone’s life. Sometimes it was a parent whose child was suicidal, sometimes it was a child who thought violence was right, or had talked about plans to kill another. Sometimes it was another mental health professional who saw a calm child in the emergency room and denied the parents and my team’s view of the child. As the director of this program, I often felt our primary job was to destroy a protective denial. Not an easy job. A lesson I learned early in my professional life.
My first job was as a trained social worker was in a hospital. I worked work with patients receiving radiation treatment hoping to cure their cancer. M y role? Offering emotional support. The radiologist told all patients openly and honestly what to expect. I was there for his conversations, so I could know what he said. For many the message was, “We have done all we can do, your cancer is still spreading, there is always hope, but you need also to prepare for the worse.”
Most denied impending death. We hear what we want to hear, what we can handle hearing, what we are ready to hear. So tell the truth, ask to be told the truth and know that your needs will either confirm something you already know or your denial will live on.
Now here’s another side of that coin. Don’t bother with the piddling truths. One thing I treasure about my husband is that he cannot tell a lie. When he says “I love you,” he means it. Too many people mouth those words or other pleasantries without meaning them. Leads to comments like “He was such a nice man, can’t believe he beat his wife to death.” or “I thought she loved me and then one day, she said she never had and she walked away.” Healthy relationships build on a foundation of honesty. This paragraph is, however, about the piddling truths. When my husband tells me as I am about to walk out the door to a social event that he doesn’t like what I have decided to wear, he has shared a piddling truth. Not helpful to our relationship.
About wikileaks? Again it is a yes and no. Corruption will not end if not exposed AND exposure of some secrets endangers world peace. So telling and hearing the truth is almost always best, but nothing is always best.