In Defense Of Denial

  • If you're going to get a serious disease--and, unless you'd prefer to die violently and young, you're probably going to--Parkinson's is not your worst choice. It is progressive and, at the moment, incurable. But, like its victims, it tends to move slowly. It is not generally fatal--meaning that there's enough time for something else to get you first. There is also enough time for a cure to come along, which might well happen if politics don't get in the way. And Parkinson's is fashionable these days. It's a hot disease, thanks to celebrity sufferers like the Pope, Billy Graham, Janet Reno, Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox. Even, they say, Yasser Arafat.

    I might not have chosen to contract this old people's malady at age 42, although you must admit it's a pretty good joke on someone who used to like being precocious. If life is a race to the finish line, I'm years ahead now.

    There are three ways to deal with news like this: acceptance, confrontation or denial. Acceptance is an aspiration, not a strategy. Confrontation means putting the disease at the center of your life: learning as much as you can about it, vigorously exploring alternative therapies, campaigning for more research funding and so on. Denial means letting the disease affect your life as little as possible. In fact, it means pretending as best you can that you don't even have it.

    To me, confrontation and denial seem like equally valid strategies, and the choice between them is one of personal taste. Most people mix 'n' match. But there is no question as to which approach has society's approval. Our culture celebrates aggressive victimhood. The victim--victim of almost anything--who fights back is one of the master narratives of our time, in plays and movies, on TV talk shows, in books, in politics, in lawsuits. Meanwhile, few things are more socially disapproved than inauthenticity or a refusal to face reality. In choosing confrontation, you embrace the "community" of your fellow victims--another socially approved value. In choosing denial, you are guilty of "self-hatred," like a Jew or an African American putting on Wasp airs or--worse--trying to "pass" as a white Christian.

    I don't mean to ridicule these notions. Even eight years along, I can still pass as healthy most of the time, or could until this week; but there has been a slight pang of disloyalty to the cause in doing so. A woman with multiple sclerosis once said to me, unknowingly, about disease activists in general: "We all pray for someone famous to get our disease." Although I am a very minor public figure compared with the Pope--let alone Michael J. Fox!--I haven't been doing my bit.

    Nevertheless, when I got the diagnosis eight years ago, I chose denial. If ever you're entitled to be selfish, I thought (and still think), this is it. So I see a good doctor, take my pills most of the time and go about my business. I couldn't tell you some of the most basic things about Parkinson's and how it works. Modern culture may favor confrontation, but we are genetically hard-wired, or at least I am, with a remarkable capacity for denial. It helps, of course, that the symptoms have been mild. Most days for the past eight years I've hardly given a thought to Parkinson's disease.

    In the early stages, Parkinson's is mainly a matter of foreboding, which makes denial an especially effective therapy. If you fool yourself skillfully enough, you can banish thoughts of the disease but retain a liberating sense of urgency. It's like having a Get Out of Jail Free card from the prison of delayed gratification. Skip the Democratic Convention to go kayaking in Alaska? Absolutely. Do it now, in case you can't do it later. So what if you had zero desire to kayak in Alaska until faced with the prospect that someday you couldn't? You want to now. And that's good. Although I wouldn't actually recommend Parkinson's for this reason, the diagnosis is a pretty valuable warning shot from the Grim Reaper. The victims of Sept. 11 had minutes to list their regrets. I've got decades to scratch items off the list.

    So I recommend denial--and defend it as a legitimate option. To work effectively, though, denial requires secrecy, and secrecy pretty much requires deception. It's simply easier to go through the day not thinking about Parkinson's disease if the people you interact with don't know you have it. This complicates the case for denial. Deceiving yourself may offend the cultural prejudice in favor of relentless self-knowledge, but it does not offend me. What you do with yourself in the privacy of your head is nobody else's business. On the other hand, deceiving those around you is more troublesome. Especially if you're a journalist, whose whole professional value system is wrapped up in the idea of the truth: demanding it of others, telling it yourself.

    For eight years I have tried not to tell outright lies, but there have been some Clintonian evasions and prissy parsing. (Q: "You look tired. Are you O.K.?" A: "I feel fine.") And my basic intention has been to deceive. So I'm sorry about that. Some topics--Is it decaf?--require absolute honesty. With others--military secrets, noncontagious diseases--there may be legitimate exceptions.

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