Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Beneath Denial

Let’s talk about the difficulty of accepting what is, the temptation to go into denial about some aspect of ourselves or the world that we desperately want to be different. Let’s start simple.

I can’t go out in the evening.

There it is: the reality of my physical limitations at this time. A truth I have been tinkering, bargaining, and arguing with for years. I’ve been pretending that maybe if I just understood this reality better, just negotiated a better “deal,” I could change and control (just a little) that which is getting in the way of something I want.

It is of course not that I really can’t go out in the evening. I can. I do, particularly when I am feeling like my underlying health is somewhat stable. And every time- every single time- no matter how much the gathering or event inspires or relaxes, no matter how much the content or people are close to my heart and deeply valued- I end up in bed for most of the next three days or more. And let me be clear- I am not talking about staying out past ten, or imbibing any substances that might take a toll on the body. I’m talking about going to a writing group, or a friend’s art opening, or a small quiet gathering to celebrate the solstice. Really.

I’ve had ME- Myalgic Encephalomyletis (or Chronic Fatigue as it is called in those parts of the English speaking work under the influenced of American health insurance companies) for twenty-seven years. There’ve been acute periods of severe disability and much longer times of chronic illness largely managed by accepting some limits. I can’t drink alcohol. I don’t eat food with any artificial chemical content. I can’t travel extensively. (When considering a trip to Turkey a few years ago my doctor casually asked how anxious I was to see the inside of the Turkish hospital system.) I’m okay with these and many other limitations. I accept them, allow that they may change, work around them, and have come to have deep faith that none of the limitations this illness brings stop me from being and living who and what I am completely.

But. . . I just want to be able to go to a friend’s for an evening meal and still get up and function the next day! Is that too much to ask?!

Hear my frustration? Hear my unwillingness to accept what is? Hear how I create suffering for myself by going out and then railing against the consequences of my choices?

Recently, a friend told me that New York psychiatrist Mark Epstein once told him that he saw people who were in denial about something as “caught in an old sorrow.” It took my breath away. Naming others as being “in denial” about something that seems oh-so-clear to us (and aren’t we all stunningly brilliant about another’s blindness?!) has become a bit of a bad habit in many spiritual and psychotherapeutic communities. It implies a deliberate ignorance. Epstein’s phrase- “caught in an old sorrow”- says so much more, speaks to the inner struggle, and allows us to see the other/ourselves with real compassion.

So, as I lay in bed berating myself for once again going into denial about my inability to go out in the evening, I wonder: where am I caught in an old sorrow and what might that sorrow be? And I get that funny sinking feeling that comes when we know we’re onto some essential and less-than-pleasant truth about ourselves. And I remember.

I remember in my body, the feeling of being desperately lonely as a teenager. I lived in a very small, conservative town in Northern Ontario, and I was always asking questions about faith, beliefs, ethics, and social justice. I read and wrote and loved to learn. I was decidedly out of sync with the majority of my peers. I wanted to be included, connected, to belong, but I just couldn’t stop trying to start discussions about why God seemed to answer some prayers and not others, or the merits of literature and art in creating change in the world. At sixteen, I was not what many would have called a fun date or a party asset!

When I came to Toronto I was delighted to find fellow travellers, and my work in studying and teaching shamanic practises connected me to a wonderful community of delightful people with similar interests and questions. People who primarily do their socializing and sharing in the evenings because they have jobs during the daytime.

And so, I revisit the old sorrow that fosters denial about my ability to go out in the evening. Knowing this, perhaps I can tend that old sorrow and be with what is in this moment- not anticipating or trying to avoid the loneliness that sometimes comes when we cannot join with others, whatever the reason.

Where do you find yourself fighting reality? Where would those who love you say you slip into denial? Perhaps there is an old sorrow that has you caught, that clouds your vision of what is, that needs a little attention so it can let you go and you can be with what is without suffering.


  1. Oriah,
    I'm sitting at work with a lump in my throat - thank you for clarifying something that has been on my mind recently, with the holidays.

    I'm a recently diagnosed diabetic, and I'm in denial these holidays that I actually have diabetes. It's as though I want to pretend not to have it, just for the holiday season.

    Of course, this is a recipe for disaster.

    Thank you for providing a tool to look at the unpleasantness of what is underneath that denial - I'm eager to get home and journal now.

    Blessings to you, Oriah.

  2. What an incredibly thought-provoking topic. As always, your openness and honesty in relation to your own situation is refreshing and inspiring. This post will have me thinking deeply for days to come. Thank you, Oriah!

  3. I suppose for me the denial is around age: I cling to the self-image of being a wild and crazy child of the sixties, while the reality is that I'm in my sixties, and the culture isn't. And that my body is telling me all sorts of things, which I persist in ignoring. Robertson Davies says in 5th Business how as we age the cloaks we have wrapped around our essential selves wear thin, and our real essence shows through. The denial doesn't work.

  4. Oriah,

    I am so sorry to hear about your physical ailments, and the toll they bring on your mental state. Your strength is inspiring and I wish there was something I could do to help, like make you a hot cup of tea and give you a foot massage!

    Thank you for your post today, it rang true with me, especially around the holiday season. I have my own denials and I do feel caught under some old sorrows and I needed to be reminded of that.

    Seems funny to me that I need to be reminded to live in reality but its true. But I am grateful for my imagination, just not my nack of diving down the fantasy hole, the one that leads me to the sorrow. You fantasize about dining out for dinner with friends, thus leading to sorrow be/c in reality, you just can't dine out for dinner with friends. I fantasize about my ex longing for me, picking up the phone, to call to just say 'hey', thus leading to sorrow be/c in reality, he won't, and that abyss of sorrow will engulf my spirit and I won't be able to focus on the positive things I have in life staring back at me, waiting for me to truly appreciate the things I do have rather than the things I don't.

    I am saying a prayer for you right now, that you feel no pain, that you feel comfortable and fluid and free....Namaste.


    Nattie from Ptown

  5. Dear Oriah, I can relate as I have similar health circumstances (Fibromyalgia since 1986, & more). As much as I've tried (& still do)to overcome illness & residual damage of injuries, to try to be who I used to be & who others expect me to be (only to pay for several days after), over the years I've gradually been coming to grips with the truth too. It has drained me & increased pain to try to keep up with the pace of friends & family who don't seem to comprehend (because of my relatively healthy appearance) & who have judged me according to their limited perception of what goes on inside this body of mine. Relationships have fallen by the wayside, but not without my best efforts to salvage them. Heartache has been part of the program each time I lose another, but as I continue to seek healing (while moving through the grief of loss too many times to count) I find acceptance of the truth that reveals itself more & more each day. I like to believe there's a higher purpose for the slower-paced life that has summoned me & feel very grateful for the blessings I've also found along the way (your books among them :~D), that I might have missed had I been moving too I used to. Thank you for opening your heart & mind & for sharing so generously what you find.
    With love & empathy,
    a kindred spirit.

  6. how lovely to have other words to use, more hearfelt, for denial. i shall think often of "caught in an old sorrow". thinking and writing alot about loss lately - thanks for sharing your journey.

  7. Thank you, Oriah, for talking about your ME so openly. I also have ME/CFS (& Fibromyalgia) and experince similar struggles as you've written about on this blog and other forums. I find it difficult to balance holding hope of making a full recovery in the future and sitting with the reality of my limitations as they are now. Any thoughts on this would be most appreciated.
    Warm regards,

  8. Kristen, yes indeed that is the challenge. Mostly of course, we have to evaluate the present moment -and base our choices on that. As to hope- I would say it is a matter of not turning today's limitations into an identity or projecting them into the future (ie- assuming I will not be able to go out in the evening next month or next year) but holding open the possibility for positive change in the future. It's a hard one to hold. Mostly I try not to think too much about what may or may not happen with the illness in the future, but turn my attention to how I can live fully and participate in the world in ways that enliven me within my current limitations. Blessings, oriah

  9. Thank you for this, Oriah. I think what I don't carry much of around with me is faith. And I was drawn back to one of your first posts that explained to me the difference between hope, belief and faith. My opening up to the world of God continues. Many thanks for being part of it.

  10. I started the MBSR meditation in February where I "simply" (well...) sit and watch my thoughts and feelings come and go. And *every* thought and feeling is allowed, also the so-called bad ones. And during the months, I realize more and more that slowly I become able to accept the circumstances of my life. Also the so-called bad ones.
    I still want most of them to change, but I stop fighting and quarreling with fate. This saves a lot of energy that I can spend for topics more rewarding. I learn that my life is worthwhile WITH the problems, and that denial is no help at all.
    Partly, I have to deal with old and even very old remembrances - and I can allow them to be there, because the remembrance can't be worse than the event itself. And the event I survived somehow, so will I survive now the dissolution of the denial, being adult and in consciousness of my abilities and strength.
    Well, I'm not always as clear as these words suggest, but I am on my way and very grateful for that. Love to all.

  11. P.S.: "I accept [my limitations], allow that they may change, work around them, and have come to have deep faith that none of the limitations this [problem] brings stop me from being and living who and what I am completely."

    Thank you for this incredibly encouraging sentence. I hang a copy of it opposite my toilet (there is the spot where I stick the words of wisdom I want to absorb).

  12. I too have M.E and just hearing and knowing that I'm not alone brings a measure of comfort. I guess to a certain extent, I still am in denial about this illness, despite the fact that I've been unable to work for the past twenty months. I get scared when I think that at 51 years of age, this might be the best I'm going to be. I so desperately want my old self back. However, the irony is that desiring that things be different creates stress, and then of course that has a negative effect on my health. It seems the only way to live is by being present with each day as it is, and it's hard. Very very hard.

    Do we get better at this in time?

  13. Magdalene, I think acceptance does get easier if only because denial gets harder (and has more and more serious consequences.) It is always in part about letting go of what was (ie- recognizing that it is already gone) being in the moment and then looking forward with genuine curiosity to see what is next. As to "the best" you can be- that depends on your criteria. If strong health was my criteria, my "best" ended in my 20's but by other criteria (consciousness, kindness, awareness, creativity, ability to really be with another or myself etc.) that was no where near my best in this lifetime- and who knows what tomorrow may bring. It is hard- and I send prayers for ease with what is today.

  14. Thank you, Oriah. I can consciously agree with you that this illness can bring in other greater qualities that I know are of lasting value, and your words 'recognising that it is already gone' have really struck a chord with me. I think I am perhaps attempting to embrace the future with one hand back in the past holding onto the shell of what was.

    Today for the first time I allowed myself to fully feel the fear of perhaps being permanently changed, and maybe that's a positive thing? Part of coming out of denial of what is? Also knowing that you have managed this illness for so many years and through it brought forth so much that is of benefit and blessing to the world - today gives me hope that a life of service and gratitude is still possible.

    My prayers for you also.

  15. Dear Oriah,

    I am not even sure where to begin. I first heard your "Invitation" poem not that long after I had been diagnosed with a very disabling illness. Your poem spoke to me on so many levels, and I have kept it and read it countless times since then.

    Today, I stumbled upon your website only to discover that you, too, suffer from the same illness I do. I never knew.

    I have a very severe form of ME/CFS, and I think this is in large part due to the very thing you write about in this post: denial. For years, I refused to believe I was sick. I was erroneously told over and over again that it was merely about mind over matter, and I wanted so desperately to believe it. I pushed my body beyond its limits each day, trying hard to defy what I simply could not defy. The end result was a complete physical collapse. I have been bedridden and unable to speak more than a few words above a whisper now for nearly a decade.

    Even in my current state, I still am often in denial. I still have not fully learned to listen to my body's signals, because my mind wants what my body cannot always give me. Thank you for this reminder. It has given me something to reflect upon now whenever that frustration arises (and it certainly arises often). Perhaps, too, it will help me be more compassionate with myself in those moments.

    Acceptance of my reality, as difficult as it is for me, does help to bring about peace. I think the key (at least for me) is maintaining a sense of surrender to what is, while also allowing myself to hope for the future.

    Thanks for an eloquent post, and for sharing your thoughts and wisdom.

  16. Oh Laurel, I am so sorry to hear of you level of disability. How hard this must be. May you find some peace with what is. I send prayers for healing and ease. Oriah

  17. Oriah,
    Here's my thought, for what it's worth. If you want to spend an evening with friends, look at the whole package. That will involve a day preparing to go out, the evening itself, and maybe three days in bed. Plan for the bedtime as well as the evening visiting. Have special books to read, favorite teas to drink, a special bed jacket to wear - whatever sounds a bit like luxury to you. Then what may have felt like punishment before will be an anticipated part of the event, rather than just unpleasant aftereffects.

  18. Jean, I appreciate your impulse to offer a "solution" but after 27 years I have tried all the tinkering you are suggesting- and a lovely cup of tea and special bed jacket just doesn't cut it when weighed against what adds up to five days to a week of inability to do anything (including having to little energy to read or watch a DVD let alone do the work I love, writing) - and believe me, if you have a chronic illness, no amount of sugar coating can make lying in bed feel like a "luxury." (Although I understand why that would seem to be so for those who are well and busy.) Your well meant suggestions simple do not add up in the reality of those of us dealing with the realities of chronic illness. I do not see the consequences of denying the high cost of an evening out as "punishment" but believe me, in no way can they be anticipated as a pleasant part of the event.

  19. Hello again Oriah, Even though I understand that adversity serves the purpose of teaching us very valuable life lessons that help us evolve in many beautiful ways, it has become clear that the journeys we each take through our personal darkness also reveal hard truths to accept(which sometimes seems even more challenging than the original hardship). The view can change often as we visit the peaks & valleys & even the deepest caverns that are hardest to maneuver & can be most disheartening. That's when it is so comforting to hear a voice calling out from a distance that lets us know someone cares enough to help us find our way to that speck of light that grows with our hope as we come closer to the end of the tunnel. Though the journey may be far from over, what a blessing it is to feel the warmth of the light!
    Oriah, Since I discovered your blog, yours has been like a voice calling out as I (& evidently many others)follow the path underfoot. It has given a sense of support, understanding, & comfort that I greatly appreciate & pray that you feel coming back to you as well.
    I'm not sure how much is ok to share here, medically speaking, but if it must be edited out, I understand & apologize. It is with hope for collective healing that I share the following.
    I just learned something yesterday that you may already be aware of, but thought it might be helpful to someone out there. For the 1st time in all these years (nearly 3 decades) of having Fibromyalgia, a dr. finally checked my Vitamin D level, which was very low, & can cause some of the symptoms I am dealing with. Adrenal issues are a factor & may now be affecting the thyroid as well. In light of this info, I have some fresh hope that there may be some measure of relief on the horizon as these deficiencies are addressed.
    Even though hope is one of those things that can take me out of the present moment, it also seems to make this moment feel quite nice as I share it........
    From a distance ~

  20. Oh Kat- I am all for hope. Really, some days it is all that gets us out of bed :-) and I think you can have hope for change and not be in denial about what is. (In fact, any action that might help us create what we hope to create is best based on a real an accurate assessment of what is.) I am familiar with all of what your doctor has pointed you toward (I do take Vitamin D, support for my thyroid and know that the CF-ME is very linked to adrenal gland exhaustion.) I HOPE that truly one or all of these directions brings you wellness and freedom from pain. Really! :-)

  21. Dear Oriah,
    Thank you so much for your kind thoughts.
    I'm glad to know you have the medical info that evaded me for so long, but I'm sorry it is not enough to lend sufficient stamina for the "down days" that I'm familiar with too. I suppose when the moment is right the solution(s) for that will be presented to us...until then I will continue to pray that we all find whatever it is each one of us seeks to heal our bodies, minds & spirits and that we can appreciate the beauty we behold, especially in the reality which, at 1st glance, may appear to be less-than-lovely.
    From the heart, with gratitude ~

  22. Kat- just remember that the good news and bad news of CF/ME is that somethings work some of the time for some of the people- that means that something that did not work for me may very well work for you- I am hopeful! :-)

  23. Thank you for a beautiful reminder for us all. Isn't denial a primary source of human pain? Just in case, I wish to ensure you are aware of miracle mineral.,, It is the real deal and may be an extremely helpful answer.

    While all dis-ease has an underlying emotional/mental root, sometimes addressing the physical causes gives us respite to enable easier and more graceful emotional healing.

    I'd also like to encourage everyone, in the strongest possible terms, to create a daily practice of mental hygiene and defense. The collective unconscious is filled with dis-ease. The vast number of (largely subliminal) pharmaceutical ads on TV alone are enough to poison the field. Unless we fill our consciousness daily with TRUTH, we may be quite susceptible to the false suggestions floating around. Nature abhors a vacuum. If our minds are vacuous, it will be filled with somebody else's suggestions.

    If you don't have a daily defensive practice, try mirror talk. Look deeply into your eyes in a mirror, while you point at your reflection declare aloud: "You are pure, perfect, whole and free right now!" Then stab your self physically in the chest with your forefinger and declare aloud: "Yes I AM pure, perfect, whole and free right now!". Continue with affirmations of power, connectedness, love, peace, health and joy until you really FEEL IT! Repeat as often as necessary. At least daily, preferably 1st thing in the am.

    I'm seeing many people suffer from stuff that really isn't their own. It can be genetic, cultural, ancestral or simply absorbed from the field. Defense is quick, easy and effective but must be done. All esoteric, metaphysical or spiritual teachings stress the importance of daily mental defense.

    Please everyone, take control of your consciousness or somebody else will.