PAINKILLER LAW: Which is Worse — Being in Trouble, or Being in Denial?

Wait! First, happy new year! I hope your holidays were great and that 2014 will be a year of happiness, health and prosperity for you and those who love. Now, let’s talk about danger.

If you were in trouble – legal trouble, criminal trouble, the wake you up at night kind of trouble, the “should I try and flee my own home if they serve a warrant?” trouble – what would you do? If you’re like many folks I’ve worked with, you’d very legitimately and genuinely go through something like the five phases of grief discussed by psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: Denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance. And, you’d call a lawyer to help you. Lord knows there are plenty of us out there.

But what if the only thing you’re in more than trouble is denial? The answer is that if you can’t get past denial, you’re making things even worse for yourself. Ponder a hypothetical situation about a fictitious doctor. She is successful, smart and experienced, but you hear reports that she is doing so many things wrong, so many things that daily expose her to all kinds of liability and punishment, you have difficulty keeping track of the risks. It’s so wild a story that if you were a TV studio executive and you heard it from writers pitching a script, you’d tell them to come back with something less over the top. (And later, you’d feel like an idiot for not greenlighting the show where “E.R. meets Breaking Bad.”)

If you’re a lawyer, or a risk manager, or a consultant, or a colleague or close friend, what do you do with a person who’s so in denial that they can’t see clear to helping themselves by letting you help them? What if you watch them engage in a sort of talk-to-themselves bargaining, wherein they are willing to make some behavior modifications in exchange for the past slate’s being wiped clean? My only shot at an answer won’t add much to the world’s wisdom: If someone is so deep in denial, so unready or unable to deal with their perilous situation, you can only lead a horse to water. As for bargaining, it would certainly be a great deal if correcting present behavior could erase the past. But it can’t, and in the eyes of law enforcement it won’t – not as long as a statute of limitations hasn’t expired.

Here’s to a year in which the people in our lives, be they friends, clients, or coworkers, don’t dig themselves into a deep hole. If they do, then let’s all hope they realize it’s better to let us help pull them out, no matter what may await, than it is to sink deeper into the ground or pretend there’s no hole at all.

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