Tuesday, March 27, 2007

An Alternative to Denial

Katharine Moser is a woman who refuses to engage in denial:

The test, the counselor said, had come back positive. Katharine Moser inhaled sharply. She thought she was as ready as anyone could be to face her genetic destiny. She had attended a genetic counseling session and visited a psychiatrist, as required by the clinic. She had undergone the recommended neurological exam. And yet, she realized in that moment, she had never expected to hear those words. “What do I do now?” Ms. Moser asked. “What do you want to do?” the counselor replied. “Cry,” she said quietly.

Her best friend, Colleen Elio, seated next to her, had already begun.

Ms. Moser was 23. It had taken her months to convince the clinic at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan that she wanted, at such a young age, to find out whether she carried the gene for Huntington’s disease. Huntington’s, the incurable brain disorder that possessed her grandfather’s body and ravaged his mind for three decades, typically strikes in middle age. But most young adults who know the disease runs in their family have avoided the DNA test that can tell whether they will get it, preferring the torture — and hope — of not knowing.

I was quite taken by Katharine’s choice. Most of us prefer the gentle comfort of denial to the harsh reality of life. Denial helps us get through the day. Just listen to how people speak at Shivas.

My job takes me to a lot of Shivas. (A Shiva is a Jewish tradition, in which the family of the deceased observe a week of mourning after the funeral, and friends come in to visit and comfort the mourners.) Sometimes, a visitor will begin interrogating the mourners: Was she (the deceased) sick? For how long? Did he have a chronic condition? Was she a smoker? Was he overweight?

I used to wonder why people who were coming to comfort a mourner would pursue this extremely uncomfortable line of questioning. Finally, I realized something about these impolite visitors: they were asking these questions to comfort themselves!. These visitors were unnerved by the fact that death was close by, and had taken away a relative or a good friend. These questions are their hamhanded attempt at recovering a sense of security. They are hoping to discover something about the deceased; perhaps he was a smoker, or came from a family with a history of cancer. Perhaps he didn’t eat well, or was under a lot of stress. They imagine that if they find these pieces of information, they can leave the Shiva secure in the belief that it won’t happen to them, because they don’t smoke/don’t drink/eat healthy/take yoga.

But there are no guarantees in life. J.I. Rodale, the founder of the health magazine Prevention, was interviewed on the Dick Cavett Show on June 8, 1971. Rodale, a health fanatic, had bragged a day earlier that he would "live to 100 unless I'm run down by some sugar-crazed taxi driver." Rodale, 73, said in the interview that he was "so healthy that I expect to live on and on." A few moments later, while still on the show, he died of a heart attack. Even health fanatics are subject to reality; yoga and yogurt can’t change the inherent fragility of life.

Denial is a wonderful warm blanket, making you feel secure even when you really aren’t.

Unfortunately, denial is a lie. Like most lies, it falls apart, and eventually, reality bites. How do you cope then?

Somehow, the courageous Ms. Moser has found an alternative to denial, and is fighting her way to happiness. The article explains:

More than anything now, Ms. Moser said, she is filled with a sense of urgency. “I have a lot to do,” she said. “And I don’t have a lot of time.” Over the next months, Ms. Moser took tennis lessons every Sunday morning and went to church in the evening. When a planned vacation with the Elio family fell through at the last minute, she went anyway, packing Disney World, Universal Studios, Wet ’n Wild and Sea World into 36 hours with a high school friend who lives in Orlando. She was honored at a dinner by the New York chapter of the Huntington’s society for her outreach efforts and managed a brief thank-you speech despite her discomfort with public speaking. Having made a New Year’s resolution to learn to ride a unicycle, she bought a used one. “My legs are tired, my arms are tired, and I definitely need protection,” she reported to Ms. Elio. On Super Bowl Sunday, she waded into the freezing Atlantic Ocean for a Polar Bear swim to raise money for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Ms. Elio complained that she hardly got to see her friend. But one recent weekend, they packed up the Elio children and drove to the house the Elios were renovating in eastern Pennsylvania. The kitchen floor needed grouting, and, rejecting the home improvement gospel that calls for a special tool designed for the purpose, Ms. Moser and Ms. Elio had decided to use pastry bags. As they turned into the driveway, Ms. Moser studied the semi-attached house next door. Maybe she would move in one day, as the Elios had proposed. Then, when she could no longer care for herself, they could put in a door. First, though, she wanted to travel. She had heard of a job that would place her in different occupational therapy positions across the country every few months and was planning to apply. “I’m thinking Hawaii first,” she said. Then they donned gloves, mixed grout in a large bucket of water and began the job.

Katharine has refused the false comfort of denial, and is battling for meaning and happiness in her life. She is an inspiration to anyone who has an uncertain future (i.e., to everyone).

God bless her.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this inspirational story about an incredible young woman. We all need to be reminded of the importance of finding meaning in our lives. All too often, we put things off for a later date whether it be goals we wish to achieve, experiences we wish to have, or simply thoughts we wish to express. Well, there is no time like right now. Thank you for the reminder!