Coach’s Challenge for 5/11/09

Good day team,

A few months ago, my husband and I went back to Portland, Maine, to visit my aging father, who had just moved into an assisted living center. I mentioned that I might write about some of my experiences during that trip, and now I can share what was probably the most significant observation I made, about denial. It is the subject of this week’s challenge, one that everyone can relate to.

After starting out in a privileged family, receiving a top-notch education, succeeding at some challenging executive jobs, surviving multiple marriages and raising four daughters, suffering from mental illness and diabetes, playing boogie woogie and Chopin on the piano, and finding true joy in baseball, a good scotch, a well-played 18 holes of golf, and the voice of Lena Horne, my father had become a person whose life had narrowed to the corner of a room in an assisted living center. When I saw him sitting there, in a high-backed chair, watching one of his favorite old movies, I wondered how such a situation befalls human beings. After such a full life, how does the final act end up like this?

My father, the great story-teller. The guy who could always entertain my friends by recounting historical events with incredible accuracy (right down to how many times a cannon had been fired) or recite one of hundreds of off-color limericks he had committed to memory, which left us laughing so hard we cried. He could tell an Irish tale with the perfect accent, or send chills up our spines spinning scary stories on dark stormy nights. Now he can barely speak more than a few words and has a hard time remembering what he ate for breakfast. Could this, God forbid, happen to me?

I had a hard time accepting his condition. Surely, he would just be in the center for a few weeks, I kept telling myself, and then things would go back to normal. He would move back to the home where he and my stepmother—a truly remarkable woman who has loved my father for the past 12 years with total unconditional love and support—would return to the nice routine they’d developed in the company of their loyal dog, Lewis, and tentative cat, Clark.

But after a few days, I began to accept that my father was never going to leave that place. The best that could happen would be for him to leave the medical portion of the facility and move into a small apartment on the assisted living side of the building. We were all hoping for this possibility, and my stepmother did an admiral job lobbying for it every chance she had.

While I fought my denial about what was happening to my father, I noticed that the one person who seemed to be the most accepting of his condition was my father himself. By being so willing to go with the flow, my father was helping all of us come to terms with his situation. When a weekend nurse came to see to his medications and, not knowing his case, asked him, “When do you go home, dear?” my father replied, “I’m never going to leave this place.” The finality of his statement made my stomach turn.

Herein lies the theme of this week’s challenge: denial. We all know the experience: It’s what happens when we cannot face what is right in front of us. It’s the cloak we put over our heads when something is too difficult to face, the lie we tell when something is too painful to admit, and the overall attitude we have when we choose not to acknowledge the “elephant in the room.” It happens in our core relationships and within our extended families; we see it play out on a global scale with our politicians; and we experience it almost every day at work. Denial is so prevalent in our lives that it’s become remarkable when someone instead just accepts what is.

Next time you’re sitting in a meeting at work where everyone avoids the biggest issue, yet you can see it in their eyes—you know they know that you know that they know, but no one is talking about the truth—or you watch a parent or grandparent struggle with aging issues and you yourself refuse to accept their new circumstances, try mustering the courage to face the reality of the situation.

Take a lesson from my Dad. When you hear yourself telling stories of denial, just stop mid-sentence and decide not to continue. Ask yourself what you’re pretending not to know. See if you can live with the thing you are avoiding. Try telling yourself the truth and just accept the facts.

Remarkably, I’ve found that when I’m able to face something, it’s often not nearly as scary as I thought it would be. There’s something in the process of denial that makes the monsters we’re avoiding seem twice as big and much more ferocious than they actually are. When we finally confront them, they’re really not so scary after all. In fact, there’s often a silver lining. In my father’s case, one bright spot is that my Dad and stepmother now go on dates each Saturday afternoon for lunch and a movie. It’s something they both look forward to, and it makes Saturdays a special day.

I’m still learning from my father. He’s teaching me something about the futility of denial and the beauty of acceptance. I hope by sharing this challenge with you, you learn something too.

Have a good week!

Kathleen

Kathleen Doyle-White
Pathfinders Coaching
(503) 296-9249

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