Group Therapy is a relationship advice column that asks readers to contribute their wisdom. Each week, we offer a problem for you to weigh in on, then publish the most lively responses, with a final word on the matter delivered by our columnist, Lynn Coady.
A reader writes: After being a workaholic for decades, my dad retired a few years early to get a head start on all the projects he had been planning. But instead of renewing his lease on life, he seems to have aged beyond his years. He has spent two years moping around the house, calling himself "obsolete" and resisting my mother's and my encouragements to join in outings or try new things. He isn't taking care of himself, he's irritable, and my sister now prefers to stay with me when she visits, which angers him. How can I help my dad get over his depression and see retirement for the opportunity it is? I fear our relationship becoming one of obligation, not love.
Use tough love
Sounds like you need to be honest with your father. Having gone through a very similar situation recently, I found that tough love and a blunt conversation were needed to snap my recently retired father out of his self-pity party. Having expectations for your father may just be the motivation he needs to get himself up and running again.
- Gary Hallman, Waterloo, Ont.
Empathize, don't criticize
Your dad obviously loved his job - or at least needed all the positive things it gave him. Things like a sense of purpose, social interaction, the energy that comes from adrenalin-fuelled challenges. And now he's stuck in the grieving process. You and your mother need to forget about imposing your own view of retirement and enter your father's world. Encourage him to reminisce about his work. Your empathy and interested questions will help him recognize what it is he's missing, and that's the first step to finding new opportunities that will give him those things again.
- Jean Murray, Ottawa
Get professional help
You've hit the nail on the head. Dad is depressed. I'm mean clinically depressed. He is a textbook case of symptoms, a classic example of people who plan financially for retirement but not psychologically. Many workaholics tie their self-worth and identity to their jobs. When the jobs no longer exist, they feel they are worthless. Get your dad to the family doctor for an antidepressant. Counselling will also help to find him that outlet that makes him feel worthwhile again. Studies show a combination of medication and counselling works best.
- Joan Slover, Waterloo, Ont.
The Final Word
Our culture has never been able to wrap its collective head around the concept of leisure time. In our prime working years (and what does it tell us that we categorize adulthood in this way?) we dole out leisure to ourselves in ready-made, vacuum-sealed packets called "weekends" and "vacations." During those designated non-work periods, we become as morons, losing all sense of how to comport ourselves. We don't know who we are outside of work, or what we're for. So we eat until we get sick, drink until we pass out, take a few cellphone photos of our drunken, bloated selves and text our friends: This is teh life!
Of course, vacations are not actually "teh life." Life is "teh life" and we only have one of them. Since work is constant, and vacations rare, we tend to assume it's the former that gives meaning to our presence on the planet. And so we journey through our days believing we have no real right to our own time, feeling guilty for every non-utilitarian stroll we take or afternoon we blow off to catch a matinee.
Then, overnight, retirement hits and everything changes. Now we're supposedly free to "live our lives" as we see fit. No wonder your father is reeling.
Short of going back in time to upend our very societal structure, institute the four-day work week and teach children from Grade 1 and on that playtime is every bit as important as sitting in desks with pencils at the ready, there's no obvious solution to your dad's dilemma. I don't agree with Jean that he should spend his golden years reminiscing about how great his job was. But I do agree he needs to discover something that engages and enriches his time just as fully, if not more. Retirement is about here and now: who you are, where your life has taken you and what you want to do next. These are the kind of existential questions the modern workday was engineered to help us avoid. Who among us is prepared to face them all at once?
But face them we must, ergo, your workaholic father is depressed. Joan's right: He's clinically depressed and it's serious. Don't take his mood personally, just get him to a therapist. As Gary recommends, be blunt. Tell him his symptoms are classic: But he's not alone, and he's by no means the first working stiff to suffer such a crisis.
Lynn Coady is the award-winning author of the novels Strange Heaven and Mean Boy, with another one currently in the oven.
Next Week's question
There is a distinct moment when a woman looks at her man and knows he no longer loves her. It happened to me recently with the man I have been with for three years. It started the day my doctor called to say I needed more tests. My guy promised to be home shortly and arrived seven hours later, then said "Oh, I guess now you want a massage, eh?" He promises to talk but then runs off to his computer. He gets angry when I say I am scared. Part of me wants to dump him, but I have no one else to take care of me if I am ill. What do I do?
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