Dear Prudence: I was a chronic liar.

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 11 2011 7:05 AM

Fibber McGee Comes Clean

Prudie advises an elderly man consumed with shame over his chronic lies.

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Dear Prudence,
I am a 69-year-old man who is accomplished and financially comfortable. I have been honest to a fault my whole life. That is, until about two years ago. I began telling stories about myself and my exploits that were outright lies. They are the kind of lies that people won't discover until I am dead. I don't know why I did it, but I have stopped, and when any of these subjects come up, I just leave the room. After I'm dead and gone, it won't matter to me if people find out, but it matters to me right now. These lies are the last thing I think of when I go to bed at night and the first thing I think of when I awaken in the morning. I don't want those who are still alive after I'm gone to be hurt and feel they didn't really know me at all. What should I do?

—Tormented

Dear Tormented,
If you reread your letter, I think you'll find the key to what might have prompted this sudden, uncharacteristic plunge into the fantastical. I'll give you some hints: "dead," "dead and gone," "after I'm gone." You're 69 years old, so looming over the horizon is the feeling that all of your exploits have been lived, all your accomplishments completed. When you're approaching 70, you wonder if what remains is a few years or a decade or two. Then there is the ever-growing fear that what's ahead will be mostly diminishment. Given all that, you might have found yourself trying on the adventures you wish you'd had and know you never will. Since you are cognizant of what you did, ashamed of it, and able to stop, be relieved. It doesn't sound as if you have neurological troubles, just existential ones. But it's terrible for your mental health to be consumed with anxiety, particularly over something so trivial. I doubt people you told these tales to think as much about the story of your life as you do. That doesn't mean you shouldn't set the record straight for your peace of mind. It sounds as if a small group heard about the times you climbed Kilimanjaro with Ernest Hemingway or received the Congressional Medal of Honor. So next time you're with some of them, preferably at the end of a convivial evening, say you have a confession to make. Explain that after a lifetime of honesty, a while ago you found yourself telling a bunch of cock and bull stories that make you feel really silly now. Keep it light and have a sense of humor about it. Know that you will be conveying to your dearest ones, particularly those much younger, an important lesson in owning up.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence: Math Teacher Full of Tangents

Dear Prudie,
My fiftysomething parents have recently started the process to adopt a special-needs child. I was contacted by a social worker assigned to their case a few days ago. He asked very basic questions and relayed to me that most people in my family, including my siblings, had recommended that my parents be allowed to adopt. My mother verbally and physically abused her own children for years. She is bipolar but is functional and has worked steadily for the same company. My father earns a good living but never did much to protect us from my mother's incessant abuse. My mom was never much of a nurturer and everything from dinner to college tuition was my own responsibility growing up. We are on personable terms now, but not close. Should I ruin what ties I have left to my family by being completely honest with the social worker? I heard back that the social worker shared some of my responses with my mother, so I worry he will inform her of anything else I say about my concerns.

—Perplexed

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Dear Perplexed,
First, contact the organization that employs the social worker and ask to speak to a supervisor. Explain that you are concerned about the investigation being conducted on your parents since the social worker informed you about what other family members said and then informed your parents about your remarks. Make clear that you have some pertinent things to say about this possible adoption, but you cannot do so unless you know your confidentiality will be protected. There is a desperate need for people to take in children with disabilities who are in the foster care system. Perhaps your parents will bring a maturity and patience to this task that they did not bring to raising you. It's also possible that they will find themselves overwhelmed. Having a child with special needs is extremely demanding. Your parents might find their maturity is trumped by their exhaustion. In addition, your parents could be adopting a child who might need care for the rest of his or her life. What happens when they become too old or infirm to provide this? All this needs to be discussed with a competent social worker before approval is given. Any investigation should also reveal that your mother was abusive and has a mental illness, and that both of your parents were neglectful. I'm struck that your siblings think the adoption is hunky-dory. Maybe they disagree with your characterization of your childhoods. If so, fine, but your experience must be part of the record. Your parents are people of means and have a desire to do good. There are many ways they could contribute to the lives of the neediest children. But if they become parents to one, they may only add to the toll of misery.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I love to sun myself at the pool in my apartment complex. Unfortunately, it has no lifeguard on duty, and this summer sunning has been extra stressful. Two weeks ago a small child who couldn't have been more than 7 years old had a near-drowning experience at the pool. The mother wasn't paying attention, and when she eventually noticed she ended up going in the pool in her clothes to rescue the child. A week later I witnessed a different mother leave her child, under the age of 7, swimming in the pool alone while she took her toddler to the restroom. She was gone for about 10 minutes. Nothing happened, but I was nervous the entire time. I am a certified lifeguard, so I know how quickly a child can get into trouble in a pool. Is it ever appropriate to approach a child's guardian about safety at the pool? I know it's not a good idea to tell parents how to raise their children, but this could truly be a matter of life or death.

—Stressed-Out Sunbather

Dear Stressed,
You're right that people don't welcome advice from strangers on how to raise their children, but there's an exemption for being a busybody if a parent's behavior means there might not be a child to raise. Children in pools require absolute vigilance. You are right that it takes only moments for a happy, splashing child to … I don't even want to think about it. There must be a notice at your complex absolving the owners from responsibility for what goes on at the pool, but something more needs to be done. You should go to the management company and report what you've seen and suggest every tenant get something in writing about the need to strictly supervise children in the water. Also suggest new signs be installed poolside. If you still see egregious parental behavior, feel free to speak up. Introduce yourself as a lifeguard and explain that no child should be left unwatched because you know how quickly things can turn tragic.

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