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Don't Mind the Gorilla - He Lives Here

800 pound gorillaEver been in a situation where you metaphorically straighten every magazine on the coffee table compulsively but dust around the 800-pound gorilla sitting on the table?  Avoidance! We are so good at it. Something glaringly wrong, off-kilter and we gaze right through it. “If I don’t talk to it/about it” – then the “it” will miraculously disappear. Problem is that most “its/gorillas” only grumble off as far as a dark corner and lurk out of sight – they don’t go away. Another aspect of avoidance is the old “what I don’t know can’t hurt me” routine. Bollocks!

A neighbor has just gone through the agony of seeing her 16 year-old grandson arrested on several counts of shoplifting. “We thought something was wrong” she said tearfully, “He always had more things than I knew J (his mother) gave him but …” and the rest of the conversation could have been scripted. “Not our place to say anything…”

When is it our place to say something when a problem is painfully obvious?  How long in a marriage do you watch a spouse drink one,  two then three bottles of wine a night knowing something is wrong but afraid to bring it up.  How long do you wait in a relationship fraught with long silences and stares into space before you say, “I’m aware that we’re not talking, can you tell me why?” How long do we wait in the office before voicing concerns about the employee who handles the cash and you are convinced the amount taken in does not match the amount deposited?

All of the above are very common scenarios; add the moody teenager and suspected drug use; the spouse suddenly having meetings three nights a week; the discovery that your kid has been trolling serious porno sites.  We are conditioned to be nice, to mind our own business, to avoid confrontation. We don’t like rocking the boat, upsetting the status quo. We avoid unpleasantness. We dust around the gorilla and hope he doesn’t shed!  In The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde's satirical play about romance and foibles, one sweet young thing announces "when I see a spade, I call it a spade". Oh good for her! Most of us, when we see a spade will likely call it an earth moving device. In other words we'll use whatever euphemism we can to avoid naming the gorilla. Beth is knocking back the gin, walking into furniture and slurring her words  " she's drinks a little too much" we say, averting our eyes as she re-fills her glass. Bob flies off the handle into a rage because his 7 year old spills soda, picks the kid up and shakes him - "he's under stress " we say. 15 year old Kim doesn't come out of her room for three days other than to snarl at someone- "teenagers" we say and roll our eyes.

My cousin has just done the courageous thing. She took away her father’s car keys. Her brother is furious with her. “Taking away the old guys freedom …I’ve had more fender benders than he has…” She held her ground. Sat down with her father and explained why he should give up driving and how her family would rally around to arrange transportation for him to get to his various social activities. His response: “I’m kinda glad kid, your mother’s been telling me the same thing for years.”

A close friend filed a police report on her brother. By day a productive member of the community by night addicted to cocaine and when, for the third time, he forged their mother’s signature on a check she called it what it was – stealing. It takes courage to poke that gorilla, give it a real name.

In my earlier life I spent years denying that my ex husband’s drinking was excessive. Besides, when he was “mellow” – we never used the word “drunk”- he was funny and much nicer than when sober and depressed. Things didn’t come to a head until he got arrested for DUI. I brought him home; he was angry with the police. I heard myself agreeing with him, telling him that he was capable of handling his liquor unlike the ‘ordinary’ drunks after all he was a professional etc. I stopped, appalled. I was excusing his drinking and behavior that could have killed me our children or a stranger. “You are an alcoholic,” I said. It was the end of an already beaten marriage but I’ve no doubt about why it took me so long to confront him with the truth. Quite simply I was afraid to.  I had learned to live with the situation and could control it because I knew it.

I’m no stranger to the strained silences that cloak a relationship, to the small talk that fills in those silences. Years ago I lacked the courage, maybe even the skill set needed to ruffle the waters and initiate conversation. Not so my goddaughter. Three years into marriage silences have dominated the past two months; their intimacy has dwindled to nothing; their avoidance of one another obvious. “How do I talk to him,” she asked her mother and I. “One word following another,” her mother said. Together with her we worked on a script, rehearsing her role.

“Mike, I can’t ignore any longer that something is dreadfully wrong between us and I would give anything for us to talk and try to understand what’s happening”. First try he got up and left the room. She kept after him.  By day three she had worn him down; and he let her in on fears he had about being an inadequate husband and provider; doubts he had about wanting children.  They have a lot to work through but I have hope that if they keep the conversation going they’ll make it.

I wrote in an earlier column about a friend fearful of confronting a man she was in a relationship withAnne Perry about obvious problems. Her reasoning was based on not liking what she might learn. How we hog tie ourselves with fears! There is no substitute in any relationship whether that of a colleague, spouse, parent or child, for facing that gorilla full on and not allowing it to control the room. Give it a name, call it what it is.

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