Denial is a common defense for many types of trauma. For combat veterans, denial can be manifested as an inability to accept a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). My poem, “d.IF.ferent,” published in the Fall 2017 issue of Intima, describes a Vietnam veteran whose relationships had detrimentally changed since his return home. He was unable, however, to accept that his problems might be related to PTSD. Denial was his way of minimizing the impact of the trauma he experienced. He also felt a PTSD diagnosis would be a career-ending label. He feared being stigmatized as emotionally unstable. A strong, proud man, he did not want to be seen as weak or unable to cope. For a long time, he only acknowledged that he felt different. Denial, unfortunately, can prevent PTSD sufferers from seeking help. It can delay recovery.
Beyond combat, PTSD can develop after exposure to any terrifying or traumatic event—including natural disasters, terrorist attacks, serious accidents, and personal assaults. These victims may also use denial to minimize the trauma they experience.
In her nonfiction narrative “Soft Side of the Tiger” (Intima, Spring 2017), Cheryl Shore describes an “unconscious denial” that she experienced after a sexual assault. For her, denial was part of her “drive for survival.”
As a survival mechanism, denial helps victims to avoid the negative thoughts and feelings associated with the trauma. The hope is to avoid the mental anguish of reliving disturbing memories and to keep distressing emotions at bay. The mind, however, can betray even the most determined denial efforts. Recurring flashbacks, trigger influences, and bad dreams can haunt victims for years.
Recovery often requires confronting the trauma, acknowledging its impact, and learning new coping skills to move forward. Shore indicates in her narrative that she was told “talking was the only thing that would help,” and it does help her to delineate “the meanings and emotions associated with” her “memories.” With her Intima article, she goes a step further by writing her story down and sharing it. For many PTSD sufferers, writing about their “demons” is cathartic. It is a therapeutic release. As a veteran friend told me, “If I can get it down on paper, I can get it out of my mind.” Our verbal and written stories tie us together and promote understanding. They help us to work through traumatic experiences, to acknowledge our demons, and to heal.
Billie Holladay Skelley earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Working as a Clinical Nurse Specialist in cardiovascular and thoracic surgery, she provided postoperative care for cardiothoracic surgery patients. She also taught nursing students and worked in curriculum development. Now retired from nursing, she enjoys writing. Her work has appeared in several magazines, journals, and anthologies in print and online—including Heart & Lung: The Journal of Critical Care, American Journal of Nursing, Missouri Nurse, Today’s Caregiver Magazine, PreMedLife, Harvard Magazine, Well Versed, Almanac for Farmers & City Folk, Space Review, American Aviation Historical Society Journal, VietNow National Magazine, and Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors. An award-winning author, she also has written books for children and teens.
© 2017 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine