If the Truth will Kill You, Why Can’t Lies Make You Healthy?

How nice to have the luxury of writing in public.  Most days I don’t think of this as a freedom, but I just finished watching Sybil and it has me thinking of the taboos that exist around certain topics, the things we don’t discuss.  As much as I think my life is an open book, I still observe some of the taboos, or at least restrict the audience for some words.  When people are being humorous, they say “Someone would have to die before I could write about my life.”  Are we putting too much weight on the power of our words?  What would happen if we brought out the truth, the whole truth as we know it, in every story?   


There’s a funny tradition in my family, funny-odd, not humorous.  The eldest generation, usually my mother, always decided when someone was fit to hear bad news.  The first time I was aware of this was when a relative died.  I was a young teen.  My mother made the decision that my furthest sister, geographically, shouldn’t hear the news at that time.  That sister had married someone from far away after college and moved to his home.  Mama thought she shouldn’t hear the news when she was at such a distance and couldn’t run home to the funeral or be with the family for comfort.  My sister didn’t learn of the death until her next visit home, a few years later.


My mother’s judgment was not always sound in these matters.  She felt that I could always bear bad news.  After all, I was a doctor.  My best friend was diagnosed with a brain tumor two years before my lupus diagnosis.  She had the most complex parts of her treatment on the west coast, going from Philadelphia to San Francisco.  I accompanied her on one of her trips to San Francisco.  She had radioactive implants placed in the tumor bed in her brain at UCSF Hospital, and had to remain a few days before they were removed and she could be discharged.  I stayed in a hotel and visited daily.  It was the most emotional time in our relationship.  She was more fragile and labile than I had ever seen her, and many tears were shed between us.  It was the first time we talked about her dying.  Embarking on the trip home, I received a phone call in the San Francisco airport.  It was my mother, telling me that one of my nieces had just died in a horrible accident. 


My husband had selected a lovely sea-blue colour and had the house painted while I was gone.  I remember feeling the incongruency between my own sadness over my friend and my niece, and the cheerful paint.  I was crazy inside those days, or maybe just crazed.  Too much grief. 


The whole time my friend was sick and conscious, we pretended that our illnesses were equivalent.  We were best friends commiserating over having long-term illnesses that had changed our lives.  We were trying to be good mothers to our daughters, only three months apart in age, each other’s longest friends to this day.  Our focus was on the things we shared, like the frequent doctor visits and the side effects of the evil prednisone we both took.  Not until the San Francisco trip did we acknowledge that her illness was so much worse, that she was likely to die soon and I was not.  Even after that trip we kept up our cheerful charade until she had deteriorated to the point that she required care in a nursing facility.  On my last visit, her daughter crawled up in her hospital bed and lay by her mom, talking to the paralyzed woman, my dearest friend, who could hardly acknowledge her. 


Many times I’ve been encouraged to fudge the truth or withhold it altogether, because “it would kill him/her”.  Sometimes it was in my family, where some believed that a difficult revelation would cause a stroke or heart attack in an elderly or ill person.  Sometimes it was in my practice, with a loved one believing the real prognosis shouldn’t be shared with the patient.  Deep in my gut, I’ve always felt that only lies can kill us, never truth.  I’ve tried to not mislead or give half-truths or hollow platitudes, but to be the truth-teller, sometimes telling the truth in secret. 


I’ve seen people confusing personal judgment with truth.  The truth as I see it is different from the factual truth sometimes, and I think the factual truth is what we are obliged to share.  I prefer to keep the “as I see it” in the category of beliefs, not truth.  It can be hard to know the difference.  Just because something feels true doesn’t make it so.  I find that I am often an intellectual snob.  I expect people to understand that facts are real, that data should be collected to prove them, and that anecdote can’t be the basis for recommendations to the masses.  This, of course, is only partly true.  The older I’ve become, the more I know that my childhood desire to know “just the facts” will never be realized.  The facts expand, change, mutate to become something else as data collection grows, as understanding of the subject grows, as our instruments for study become better.  They are only facts for the moment, so I have shifted my goal towards being able to change my knowledge and opinions accordingly. 


I am led to consider how this love for facts and truth has left me handicapped when it comes to feelings.  Over many years, I have struggled to be able to hear my feelings, to sit still and call them forth and then rely on them.  I had such disdain for instinctual behaviour in my youth; it has been a struggle to open myself to acknowledgement and validation and acceptance of that emotional side.  I know there is a strong and still-living root for this in my childhood, with my exposure to raw, sometimes violent emotion and irrational behaviour.  My aversion to that happened young without my even realizing it.   


There isn’t an end to this topic of truth-telling.  I have reached a thousand words and I could write 10 thousand more.  But not tonight.




One Response

  1. Oh, how I enjoyed reading this post. There was much head nodding and wry smiling going on. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

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