Chapter 101 The Final Chapter
Woody Allen famously said, “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Have you ever walked into a room and have forgotten why you walked in there in the first place, only to fear—is this it? The beginning of the end of me? Now, when a member complains that I’ve forgotten something they said from a previous group meeting, I say,“You expect me to remember something that you said months ago? I can’t remember what happened five minutes ago!”
Well, not exactly, but almost.
Denial, like all the other mechanisms of defense, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It has its benefits as well as liabilities. Its benefit is that denial allows us to be blithely oblivious to the reality that someday all those we know and love will die. The liability is that denial allows us to be blithely oblivious to the reality that we’re included. People tell me all the time, “Age is just a number.” That’s true enough, but at the end of the day it’s still a finite number. Firmly rooted in denial, I am able to get up out of bed every morning, a little creakier and slower each time perhaps, and go about my life—lying to myself, thinking as long as I drink my daily dose of two shots of wheatgrass, I’ll live forever. The downside of denial has never been more apparent to me than as a group member, myself. I have been in groups where the leader’s denial of his own mortality led to chaos in his groups. One died suddenly over the summer break, only to leave his practice in ruins with group therapists and group siblings declaring themselves to be the heirs apparent to his kingdom and actually enhancing their own practices with gullible “brothers” and “sisters” who were willing to accept a diminished role as patient. Another therapist’s slow deterioration was painful to watch and, in the end, he would call me at home late at night, sadly and poignantly reminiscing about his life. I’d be willing to bet that neither of my mentors ever attended the workshop on “Creating a Professional Will,” given each year at the Annual Conferences of AGPA and EGPS. They arrogantly assumed that such workshops didn’t apply to them. Did they actually believe that the Angel of Death wouldn’t dare cross their doorstep? I, too, had put off attending such workshops until after their deaths. I decided that if there was anything that I could do to spare my groups what I went through, then so be it. In my own personal experience, I have yet to come across a leader who handled the end of his life well. Although furious with them for leaving us unprepared for their demise, I can understand the unwillingness or inability to face the inevitable and to pretend the end will never come. There hasn’t been any good template for me to follow.
Turning 70 hit me hard. I remember lying on my analyst’s couch at 50, complaining about the all-too-swift passage of time. She wisely said, “You’re not young, but you’re not old either.” That was 20 years ago! It feels like the day before yesterday. Now I’m officially old. Forget “70 is the new 50.” In 20 more years, if I live that long, I’ll be 90! How the f#@k did that happen? My mother died a horrible, drawn-out death at 90. No way, no sir, that’s not for me, and for that matter neither is retirement an option. When asked if I ever think about retiring, I laugh and half-jokingly say, “They’re going to have to carry me out of that office.” Focusing on other people’s problems keeps mine at bay, at least until I grab my hat and leave the office for the day. I know myself well enough. With too much time on my hands, I would spend my days worrying and ruminating about the unescapable reality. I’ve been a worrier all my life. The caption under my junior high school graduation photo was not too kind: “What, me worry?” That was my claim to fame even then, and looking a bit like a pre-pubescent Alfred E. Neuman didn’t help much either.
The existentialists say that one way to cope with the despair of the human condition is through sublimation. I have chosen to sublimate the angst through writing. I write like there’s no tomorrow. Now I’m on my second book, getting up at 5AM to write. I figure, why not write? I’m up anyway, after my last trip to the bathroom for the night, why not do something productive instead of staring at the ceiling, waiting for the Angel of Death to come around to my place?