What I Learn From Marty


Waco, Texas,
March 30
I am the chief caregiver for Marty, my wife of 30+ years. In our previous lives Marty was an Educational Psychologist, I was a call center manager. Marty has had two strokes since 2005 which have caused critical physical and cognitive deficits. We are both in our mid-50's and have two adult children. I would never confuse myself with a professional writer, I do this to document our journey and as an act of self discovery. This is what I have learned over the last years, this is our life.


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DECEMBER 31, 2011 9:39AM

Being In Denial

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In April of 2005, as Marty lay in a coma in the ICU of Zale-Lipsy hospital, I sat beside her every day thinking of our past and looking forward to the day we would get out of the hospital and go home.  I kept saying to her young doctor, his job was to get us home as soon as possible.  He was honest but he humored me and never once tried to bring a tinge of reality into my denial of the long term implications of a hemorrhagic stroke.  I should have been terrified of the future; I should have run for the hills.  It was denial and ignorance that kept me sane and kept me from running away.

Marty was/is an educational psychologist.  Marty was/is a student of the mind and she never once let me get away with the standard denial bull shit so many of us practice every day in our relationships.  She prodded, she pushed, she bullied me into dealing with my psychoses and would not let me sit in the comfortable denial recliner.  These last few years, living with Marty’s illness and accompanying frailty, has taught me something else, denial can keep you sane.

If, as I stood beside Marty in that ICU, I had been forced to come to grips with reality, with what we really faced, the months and the years of illness, fear, disability, loneliness, anger, I don’t know if I could have remained standing beside Marty.  If I had been forced to look at the whole of what lay ahead of us, if I had seen the future, if ever I looked that far ahead I don’t believe I could have been able to cope.  I purely and simply would have been emotionally and cognitively overwhelmed with worry over the future and my ability to live in that future.

It was my ability to hide, my ability to not look too far ahead, my own ignorance that allowed me to take things one day at a time.  It certainly wasn’t some intangible, internal strength that drove me to “live one day at a time”, I suck at that.  It was fear of the future, it was ignorance of the seriousness of the illness, it was denial of the reality of our situation that pushed me to just handle one moment, one procedure at a time.

I’m not saying I could live and dwell in the house of denial forever; I wish.   I’m saying in the darkest of times when I was most afraid, when I knew the least, the most natural defense was to deny reality and think fanciful thoughts that everything would be just “fine”. 

Eventually, as our life together moved forward, I got stronger; I recovered from the initial shock of the tragedies of the strokes and began a process of education, understanding and self-evaluation.  It was the necessary survival progression, to move from denial to acceptance to understanding action. Denial helped me survive, helped our family survive, and consequently helped Marty survive.

Denial can be a safe haven, it can be a refuge, but it can never become a hiding place.  Denial can keep you paralyzed, it can keep you from dealing with reality, classic denial can keep you from seeing the change you need to address.  Marty would say that inappropriate denial is dangerous and you have to confront reality.  If you build your foundations in denial it can become an excuse not to move, not to take action, not to change.  Truthfully, I’ve been there.

Years ago our son, Matt, developed a staph infection in his leg.  He was hospitalized for several days while taking IV antibiotics.  When we were release we were all thrilled to go home and be past this little ordeal.  It seemed like only hours after we were released his leg started to swell again and you could see the redness and the inflammation of the infection start to spread.  Marty immediately chose action; I kept saying it would be okay, I chose denial.  I didn’t want to take this kid back to the hospital; I didn’t want to spend any more time there.  Marty was right, we needed to act quickly, I was paralyzed with, his will get better on its own, a classic denial of reality. The reality is it took surgery, another three weeks in the hospital and six weeks of IV antibiotic at home. 

Standing in the hospital ER, waiting beside Marty in the ICU, going through rehab with Marty my ability to delay seeing the long picture kept me sane, tamped down my fear.  Being home with Marty, when she is getting sick, when there are signs of illness, denial, hoping against hope, doesn’t work, action is required.  I think I now understand the difference, most of the time, even without Marty there to keep my magical thinking in check. 

I don’t think forgoing reality for a short period of time is a bad thing, I don’t think it’s a sign of weakness or inability to cope.  Denial can get us through the worst, most frightening of times, at least it did me.  It can let us continue to live our flights of fancy just long enough, until we are strong enough, until we can exist in the moment enough to deal with reality. 

Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, in the worst of times it kept me sane.

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Man, I could have written this (not half as well). I agree totally. I was ignorant of what lay ahead, I just went through the motions. For over 30 days, I was just in motion, some type of motion, but rather it was slow, or slower, I have no idea. Great Post, you nailed it, for anyone who has faced life and the possible death, of a partner.
You are right about denial being necessary for a time...Good recognition...
Oh such a brilliant post as usual. Denial is that primal response to a tragedy. Please let them live! And yet the living is so painful.....I can remember telling my partner when he was on the ventilator to come on back and I would take care of him. It didn't happen and his death was a mercy because his life was in shambles. The peace now is appreciated but I miss him so much. I can remember being caught between the two emotions and I still am. Enjoy every day with Marty because death is so darn final and so quiet.
There are many definitions of love. This is one of the finest.
Sometimes putting your head under the covers and staying put for a while, gives you the strength to go on. Great post. -R-
Our coping mechanisms are such complicated things. You're absolutely right ... as much as denial can keep us blind and our heads in the sand, it can be a temporary Godsend protecting us until we can get over the shocks of life and get on with things. All the best to you and Marty in 2012.
A very thought - provoking post, however, I draw a distinction between being in denial and living in the present. We have a family member who has had vascular dementia for about ten years, and there is no denial of the future, but we try to live in the present, much as you said, one day at a time.
Thank you. I now understand my Dad better and how he dealt with Mom's Alzheimer's. Wishing you a good 2012.
"I don't think forgoing reality for a short period of time is a bad thing..." Your summation was so low key and appropriate following the details of your struggles. I agree. Denial is a spacer- fills the unknown void for us while we assimilate our circumstances. Its not pleasant and you made that clear, but it is basic to survival and initial recovery.

I'm very moved by what you wrote and I honestly share a prayer with GodWoman that you have the year you hope for in 2012.
It works for me, too, altho I haven't been tested so severely. Best to you both.
You deftly describe such profound, life-changing feelings and experiences here. Thank you. R
I agree totally, MH. I see it as a coping mechanism that we sometimes need to have kick in to get us through whatever adversity we are facing. We just need that little time to come to grips with or get up to speed on what we're dealing with.

MH, to you and to Marty, my heartfelt thanks for lighting our paths and gracing us with your wisdom and the sharing of your love for one another. My sincere wishes for a happy, health and holy 2012.
Denial is powerful and it's our mechanism to deal with the "now" so we don't have to face the "what ifs" in life, and the full gravity of the situation right away. I lived in denial most of my life and I know where you're coming from. I do have to live life one day at a time, sometimes one hour at a time, depending on how bad the situation is. Well written and good luck on your journey.
Very thoughtful and well written post. I agree.
I liked this post a lot and I'm a huge fan of denial. I'll put difficult decisions and things I don't want to deal with off until the very last second. I've kind of governed my life this way but I DO act. Just like you. I'll take any reprieve I can get. Any unclouded moments and hang on to them as long as I can.

Your last line was hilarious. A guffawed a little. It seems you are doing a very good job with what you have to deal with.
I agree, denial is giving you time to process what you need to. I think if we could see into the future and what's mapped out for lives, we would quail. We can only face what's in front of us now. And as we look back and see what we've had to handle, it begins to come together. Wishing you and your dear wife peace and blessings for this new year.
Wonderful post. I think what you describe is partly denial and partly handling what is right in front of you, because that's what you have to deal with--and need to deal with--in the moment. I'm slow to process the emotions of major life events; I'd much rather deal with them in a practical way and shelve the emotions for a later date. It's my own form of denial, I suppose, not facing up to anger or grief in the moment. And there's something to be said for it. It's gotten me through many a crisis. When we're faced with something overwhelming, it just makes sense (to me) to take it one step at a time. What's right in front of me? What do I have to do or decide right now? Let's get through this part, and then we'll face the next part. It helps makes the overwhelming manageable.

Thanks for sharing this. Best to you and Marty.
Thank you for sharing your hard-earned wisdom. In reflecting on my own situation, my "denial" of my husband's cancer involves getting angry about the impossibility of paying all the medical bills. That's really the least of my concerns; sure, we're broke, but who cares? But I use that as an excuse to rant and rail. I guess we all have our ways of coping.
Well said! I think sometimes doctors and other medical professionals assist us in denial. My gynecologic oncologist told me chemo would be "six months out of your life, then you put it on a shelf." Not really. He was of course protecting me, omitting the regular CATscans, blood draws, exams, plus the lingering effects of chemo on the body (neuropathy and hearing loss come to mind) that have become part of my life. I say that coping mechanisms are there for a reason; we work with them when we need them--as you so aptly said, there's a time and place for it!
Wonderful post. We've been in and out of denial, most of us. The trick is figuring out when to turn it off and on. You give a good guide here. Just enough denial to survive is what's called for...
I think being in denial is a life preserver. Without it, I think some of us would truly be more lost that we already are. All we have is the past to learn from, the present to live in and tomorrow is somewhat of an unfulfilled promise in which we can only hope whatever happens the heart will remain intact. Which is yet another form of denial. Accepting that we have no control over our futures is like walking into a mist with a blindfold on.