Chris Heath (2017)

The Disease of Denial

In my youth I thought I had it all figured out. I thought that I knew what life was all about and how the world worked. I was an over achiever in school getting great grades and headed to a good college. My parents did a great job raising me and instilling in me a set of core beliefs as well as an inner strength of identity and self-esteem. In J.K. Rowling’s commencement address to Harvard her personal experience with failure stuck a chord within me as I read it initially: “by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew”. That was how I felt at almost that exact same moment in my life, and I was in denial about it at the time.

In 2009 I was twenty-nine years old, and seven years out of college. I felt like a big failure in comparison to everyone else I knew from high school and college. They were all doing well with their careers and family while I was kind of stuck in a dead-end job. That was the reality, but I was in denial and told myself that everything was fine and that I was happy.

Things seemed to begin to go off track in 2001. That year wasn’t a good year – at least not for me. The country had just come through a crazy election cycle with litigated election results, and I was about to lose my first true love. Her mother forced her to transfer so she could start on the soccer and lacrosse teams, and she was now a few hours away by car. Gore lost the election, I lost Emily. Emily’s mother didn’t care for me much either. She liked me about as much as democrats like Bush.

We tried to keep it together but the distance put such strain on the relationship that in order for me to keep it together my academics suffered. I was in denial that it was going to work out and wasn’t able to approach the realities of my situation honestly and properly. I ended up depressed and flunking my classes because I just didn’t go to class. The country ended up divided and I ended up heartbroken, single, and out of school.

So I moved back home with my parents for six months. I worked at the local technical college during the summer and fall. I decided to try and transfer to UNCW because I had friends who moved to Wilmington, so that fall I took night classes after work. I got into UNCW, made the move, and began classes in the spring of 2002. I also took summer classes that year, and had a good internship. In the fall my denial returned. UNCW didn’t transfer a lot of my gen-ed classes so I was going to be there for another three or four semesters of mostly freshman and sophomore gen-ed classes and I told myself that it wouldn’t be worth it to continue college. I told myself that I didn’t need a diploma to validate my education and that I didn’t really want to join the corporate culture where the degree was needed anyway.

I ended up getting a job that I excelled at and was happy at for over a decade, but not truly happy. I was in denial again. I’m not sure exactly when, but in my mid-twenties I had an epiphany of sorts. I came to realize how foolish I was to have thought that I had it all figured out. Nobody has it all figured out, and those that think they do are the first in line at the Don’t-Have-It-Figured-Out store. Just like with the stages of grief and twelve step programs, admitting that there is a problem is critical in order for any progress to be made.

The seeds of my epiphany probably began when Donald Rumsfeld deftly ran logical laps around the press core with his “There are known knowns” press conference answer about the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction being found in Iraq. While much political hay was made over his statement and it was the source of a lot of political commentary, to me it was interesting in the philosophical and logical sense. What he said made perfect sense to my mathematical and logical brain even though it is quite a twist of words. The “unknown unknowns” ending to his phrase is what stuck with me most and firmly planted the seed of my epiphany.

It took quite a few more years for the seed to sprout, grow and mature. I eventually began to form a thesis on life based on honesty – first with oneself – and using that to ward off denial of reality. Before I had the thesis molded into a succinct statement I tried began to use it as a rule to live by and began to spread it among my group of friends. Discussions with them about my idea often became side tracked and detoured as we traveled the tangential conversations of our personal lives as they related to this idea.

A year or two ago during a rare moment of linguistic clarity I was able to muster up a rough first draft on the text of my abstract theory: “Accept the reality of any given situation, lest you suffer the disease of denial”. The idea is that you have to be objective and honest within your own mind as well as externally in the life you lead. My friends and I began to hold each other’s feet to the fire, so to speak. We would point out to one another the times when actions speak louder than words and confront our friend(s) who we thought might be in denial. While it is kind of a tough love parental style it is also a caring, encouraging, and supportive group activity keeping us together like a tribe. They made me confront my denial about not needing a college degree. With their help I have beaten the disease of denial and began the process of making progress and moving on with my life.