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The story of Greg


Greg, a fifty-year-old man, told me that I came highly recommended from his client. He said he was a life-long learner who was looking forward to improving himself and to achieving his potential, and was optimistic that I could help him with that.

The source of his referral was a business client of mine (a CEO named Mary) who genuinely liked Greg and had let me know that she was worried about his mind due to drastic changes in his ability to perform his job. She had contracted Greg because of his reputation as a highly successful former CFO and CEO with experience in serving in an advisory capacity to new businesses and businesses in transition with new CEOs. He had a reputation as a big-picture strategist. Mary had told me that Greg was increasingly dropping balls on follow-up, missing promised deliverables, and even getting sloppy with his diligence around who received important and sensitive electronic communications. She told me that when she pointed out his changed behavior and asked about these aspects of his performance, he would always apologize with great sincerity and a sense of contrition, yet his performance continued to worsen and became increasingly problematic. She was aware of some challenges he was facing at home and contacted me because she suspected these were the source of his problems at work.

In our very first discussion I asked Greg about how he was doing at work. His response began with “I’d like to tell you about my wife, Patty.” So, he did. From the beginning.

“Patricia” grew up in a working-class American family as an only child. She adored her father and liked her mother “well enough.” Her father taught high school math. As a little girl she enjoyed music and dancing. In junior high, she joined the school band and changed from a beginning dance studio to one that was more acclaimed and was known for winning high-end dance competitions. Patricia, who now went by “Patty,” always had a great affection for her father and viewed her mother as a good housewife and mother. Her father was handy around the house, always loving to his “pretty Patty,” and made time for her no matter what he was doing. Her mother always seemed busy doing housework and the like, and once in a while played the organ in the living room, even though Patty had long ago stopped sitting next to her as her audience of one.

As Patty grew up her affection for her father became stronger, and she grew more distant from her mother, though she remained obedient and polite between her outbursts of petulance, which became more frequent. She became a star dance competitor for her studio and a first chair flautist in the band. She was known as the prettiest girl in school and was very popular. She loved the attention and became increasingly more attentive to her looks and how she presented herself in public.

Her sophomore year, she began dating one of the most popular boys in her school, who excelled in both sports and academics. Greg was handsome, incredibly optimistic about almost everything, always in a good mood, and adored Patty. Patty and Greg were inseparable. Greg was always at Patty’s house for dinner and to do homework. Their many school activities - his sports and her music and dancing - provided ample opportunity for her parents to take posed photos of them together. Patty’s mom kept the photos organized in photo albums which became coffee table books in their living room. When company came by, Patty’s father would be quick to show off the latest photos to guests and proudly regale them with stories of the latest of his daughter’s achievements.

Greg was always the independent one of the two. He seemed to have no fear. He was good at almost everything he tried. Everyone seemed to like him, though he didn’t spend much time creating close personal friendships as he was happy spending all his spare time with Patty.

They went to college together and were known as the “perfect high school sweethearts.” They often talked about marriage and baby names and planned their future together.

Patty graduated with a teaching degree in music, and Greg earned a bachelor’s degree in business. As planned, they married and focused on creating a family. Greg quickly became quite successful in business and Patty enjoyed teaching, but knew she was only biding her time until she got pregnant and could start raising a family.

The first child was a boy they named Geoff. Geoff was followed two years later by a baby sister, Jennifer, who became known as Jenny.

Patty focused all her waking hours on Geoff and Jenny throughout grade school and junior high school. Geoff was a very popular boy who excelled in sports and did well in school. While Greg and Patty doted on both of their children, it was clear to all that Geoff was “Greg’s boy” and Jenny was “Patty’s little girl.” Jenny was enrolled in dance school and Geoff loved playing sports.

The family was described as “perfect” by all who knew them. The children were very well behaved and always impeccably dressed. Both excelled in everything they did, though Geoff was more interested in sports than anything, and Jenny identified with everything dance related. In the meantime, Greg had become a successful entrepreneur. He had built and grown two businesses and sold them both for large sums. He was proud to have taken himself from a working-class kid to a “self-made man” at such a young age. Though he no longer needed to work to earn money, he decided to keep working by accepting requests to advise other companies. He found a great deal of enjoyment in sharing his advice with others based on his own successful business experience. He was always quick to mention to his clients that while building his businesses, he had hardly missed any of his son’s games or his daughter’s dance recitals. (Greg mentioned this fact to me many times during our conversations, always in the context of how his coworkers admired and commented on it.)

In Geoff’s junior year in high school he began struggling with his grades. His demeanor seemed to sour and he spent a lot of time by himself. Greg tried everything to find out what was troubling his son, but to no avail. Finally, during one of their regular father-son talks, Geoff admitted that he didn’t feel that he was as smart as everyone else in his class. He also said that he was starting not to like sports anymore because all the other guys seemed much more naturally talented. Greg did everything he could to encourage and help his son become his “old self’ again, but things just got worse. Soon, Geoff lost all interest in sports and was barely getting passing grades.

Greg, who boasts about his ability to “compartmentalize things,” had recently began consulting with a new CEO named Mary. By both of their accounts he was a great addition to her leadership team, always giving good advice and taking on tough assignments. His demeanor at work was cheery to the point of optimistic, and his ability to sort out problems and offer good solutions was uncanny.

At home, in the meantime, Greg continually tried applying his proven skills to help his son and his family, who seemed all more distant for some reason. Greg saw himself as a highly disciplined person with proven approaches and daily schedules for most everything in his life, from working out to spending time with the family. He strictly adhered to a healthy diet, was diligent about tracking his money, and kept the family on time with their commitments to church and so on. His optimism for how things would turn out remained undiminished, to his mind.

As time went on, his work began to suffer. He was starting to be known by other members of the leadership team as one who doesn’t follow through on assignments or pay attention to details. During this time Greg noticed that Patty was withdrawing sexually and had become much less responsive to interaction with him. Besides their children, she seemed to only care about two things: working out and buying expensive clothes, shoes, and jewelry beyond their budget. Greg talked to her often about how her spending was exceeding their monthly income from investments, but to no avail. As Patty seemed to behave more and more in a manner that made no sense to Greg - especially her anger - he kept up with his daily regimen and generally felt pretty good about his “knowing” that things would turn around for them and all would be back to normal soon. But instead, things got worse. Patty didn’t want to take any more trips with him and barely went out unless it was for Jenny’s dance performances or to work out.

One day, Greg came home from work and Patty told him that Geoff had a doctor’s appointment and that Greg needed to take him. Greg, as he usually did, agreed to do so. He asked which doctor and why, but his questions went unanswered. On the day of the appointment, he and Geoff got into Greg’s truck and headed to the doctor. Upon parking the car, Greg asked Geoff one more time what the appointment was about. His son looked down and said, “I don’t want to be a guy anymore. I’m not as smart as the other guys and I’m not as good in sports as them. I can’t compete the way you want me to. I don’t think I’m naturally cut out for this. I want to be a girl. Mom knows. This doctor will help me with beginning the process.”

Greg was stunned. He asked how long Geoff had been thinking about this. Geoff said “A long time.”

After a lengthy pause, Greg realized they may be late for the appointment. Still stunned, he told his son he would always be there for him no matter what, and Greg asked if he could go into the appointment with Geoff. Geoff shrugged an OK.

When Greg got home, he talked to Patty about Geoff. She got angry and began screaming at him in a way that he described as almost noncoherent. Later, as he conveyed this story to me, he said the only thing he could remember was that she said something about everything being his fault. He also told me that she had developed a habit of going to bed without saying good night even when he tried talking to her.

As time went on, Greg’s wife became even more removed and seemingly depressed. When she did talk to Greg - which became increasingly rare - she was angry. Greg noticed that his daughter remained mostly friendly to him, but she too seemed to be more self-focused and less family oriented. Individually, both parents continued to do the best they could for their kids, but everything seemed much more perfunctory to Greg, with no sense of love or celebration. He doubled down on being more positive and reflected on how he could return the family to what it once was. He found a psychiatrist through a referral and got Patty and Geoff to agree that they would all see the man.

Two months later, Geoff decided not to see the psychiatrist any longer, and Greg stopped going as well. Patty continued seeing him and increased the frequency of her appointments. A year went by with Patty becoming more angry and distant toward Greg. Geoff began his hormone treatments. All the while, Greg did the best he could to cope, “compartmentalize,” and live as “normally as possible” while hoping for everyone else to get back to normal.

At work, Mary told him quite emphatically that they needed him to be better focused as he was functioning at about half of his prior capacity compared to when they hired him. As always, he was surprised and repentant. What he didn’t know was that, this time, she was telling him as part of his exit process. He was being fired.

Greg noticed that Patty seemed to be going out more but never told him where she went. She locked him out of her social media and contacts. She became increasingly more private. He suspected an affair, but she denied it and so he disregarded the idea. He started receiving time-stamped photos of his wife’s car parked in the psychiatrist’s driveway. The sender turned out to be the psychiatrist’s ex-wife. It became clear that Patty was having an affair with the psychiatrist Greg himself had introduced her to. He confronted Patty, but she insisted the ex-wife was insanely jealous and just out to hurt her ex any way she could. Greg asked more questions, she but continued to deny any affair. Then she started screaming at him. He was adamant about his memory of her exact words: “You’re a failure in disguise as some big success. You’ve ruined the only son we have. You’re not the man of this family. You’re not even a man.”

Greg realized that despite his optimism and dedication to getting what he wanted, he would never have his “normal” and “exceptional” family again. His perfect world was as shattered as his image of himself.

Greg dutifully kept his appointments with me, though he told me he wasn’t sure why. Conversation was almost nonexistent. When he did speak, forced words seemed to suffice in lieu of complete sentences. After a few months, Greg was finally able to converse a bit. He mentioned that he didn’t think it was possible to stay married but he couldn’t stand the guilt if Patty killed herself. (She apparently had threatened this many times.) He said he also couldn’t stand the thought of his kids coming from a broken family. The next time we spoke, I asked him if he’d had any more thoughts about what we had discussed during our previous talk, and he said he had no idea.

He then told me stories about his grandfather and what a great man he was in the war and in postwar America. Greg told me that he remembered crying when his grandfather was dying. When I asked if he cried at the funeral, he said he didn’t remember. When I asked if he cried at his own father’s funeral, he said no.

I remember during our very first phone conversation, Greg told me that he had only experienced fear three times in his life. The first was when he and his family were nearly hit head-on by a truck. Another time was when he was fired from a job early in his career (the firing, he told me, eventually made him decide to work for himself).

“What was the third time?” I asked.

Greg paused, then stuttered: “It- it’s right now. Talking to you.”

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