Without going into any gruesome personal details, I've been in therapy for two-and-a-half years in order to deal with on-and-off bouts of depression. My therapist, a 60-something Ithaca MSW whose office stands next to her home, was recommended to me by a friend with the words, "She's the real deal."
About a month ago, there was an odd change in her manner. Rather than opening her office door to let me in, she called through the closed door, "Gordon? You can come in now." Getting up from my seat in her waiting room, I went into her office to find her seated, legs crossed at the ankle, in her customary armchair, looking rather embarrassed.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm having trouble walking."
I said, "I'm sorry to hear that." Upon inquiring further, I found that the trouble wasn't confined to her legs; she had weakness all down her right side, including her right arm.
I knew her to be a heavy smoker, with a persistent hacking cough she always attributed to "allergies." When she described her symptoms, alarm bells went off in my head. I said, "Have you seen a doctor about this?"
Her response was immediate, and unequivocal: "I don't believe in doctors."
Over the next few weeks, I asked each time how she was doing, and each time she said, "I'm slowly getting better." But her reluctance to walk, even to stand, continued, and the two other times I brought up going to the doctor, I was cut off sharply.
I found out on New Year's Eve that she died two days after Christmas of a massive stroke.
The Latin word lacuna means "gap," and in English usually refers to a missing section of a manuscript, or a concept for which no word exists in a given language. I'm going to use it differently here; as a blind spot, a missing piece of self-awareness. In particular; how could a trained therapist, who daily counseled people about how to deal with their problems in an honest way, have such a mental lacuna regarding her own health?
She was up front, and defiant, about being a smoker; she related to me once being confronted by a patient, who didn't like the faint cigarette smell that hung about the office, despite the fact that she always smoked in another room. That the patient could object to this was, my therapist said, out of line. "It's none of her business what I do," she said, which is true, of course; but her rough voice and persistent, grating cough were always blamed on "pollen allergy," a statement that left me thinking, "C'mon. You and I both know a smoker's cough when we hear it."
The lacuna extended, apparently, to a distrust in doctors -- odd for a person whose obituary called her a "mental health professional" to refuse to consult a different kind of health professional. Even with symptoms that virtually everyone would consider a red flag of the most serious kind, she refused to admit the facts, refused to seek help. And ultimately, that refusal killed her.
While this is an extreme example, with a tragic outcome, the whole thing leaves me wondering what sorts of unacknowledged lacuna I have -- and what ones we all have. What things are there about ourselves that are so troubling that we cannot even get within arm's reach before our denial mechanism kicks in? What things will we not entertain, because to do so opens up such an emotional can of worms that we can't face it?
Most of us like to think that we're honest with ourselves, about ourselves, for the most part. But if a trained counselor can have one realm in which she was this much in denial, what unguessed, uncharted territories exist within all of us?