While some might debate whether the transition from young adulthood to middle-age is traumatic enough to be labeled a ‘crisis,’ there’s no doubt that for most of us, saying ‘goodbye’ to our youth is not an easy task.
I was the youngest child with three siblings, two of whom are considerably older than me. Hence, I was always and constantly referred to as ‘my younger brother.’ My parents, of course, called me ‘our youngest son.’ I must have heard the words ‘youngest’ and ‘younger’ tens of thousands of times. By and by, I began to think that being the young one was part of my identity, that I would always be younger than everyone else in the room.
Furthermore, many of my friends during my teenage and young adult years were older than me by quite a number of years. I enjoyed going to parties and events where I was the ‘kid’ in the crowd.
Physically, I had a youthful face throughout my 20s. I kept myself in good shape through running, biking, and martial arts during my 20s and 30s. When I was 35, people were guessing that I was 25. I had no problem keeping up with my 20-something friends. I began to feel that this situation could go on indefinitely. Nature, however, had other plans.
I remember clearly when ‘it’ happened. In my 37th year, my hormones began to perform their pre-programmed function, and the switch was flipped. Nature is so ruthless and dispassionate in the way it goes about changing our bodies. It doesn’t give us any warning signs, nor does it go about things gradually, step by step. NO. The changes come all at once.
I remember in my 36th year, I noticed a couple of white hairs in my beard, but I wasn’t unduly alarmed. “Oh look, a couple of white hairs, how interesting,” was my attitude. A year later, those few white hairs covered 60-70 percent of my beard. What the hell was going on? Then the thinning of my hair began and I developed the classic bald spot on the crown of my head. A kind doctor suggested to me that I should start wearing a cap during the daytime so that I wouldn’t get ‘sunburned’ on the top of my head. I wanted to smack him.
Strangely colored and unsightly moles sprouted like mushrooms on my back, arms, torso, ears, and every other spot on my body. This concerned me so much that I felt I had better visit a dermatologist. (Everything was benign.) The hairs that I was rapidly losing on the crown of my head and my hairline were mysteriously reappearing inside my ears, where I could neither see them nor trim them. I had a new request each time I visited the barbershop: “Please don’t forget the ears.”
I had always been slightly underweight, hovering around 160-170 pounds, but now suddenly belly fat accumulated around my waist. My pant-size increased noticeably. Gravity had taken hold of the skin under my chin. The white hair virus reached into my nose hairs and even my eyebrows, for chrissake.
All of these changes occurred over the period of one year. I recall waking up one morning, going to the mirror, gazing at myself, blinking, and thinking, “Who the hell is that person? That pudgy, white-haired, middle-aged man can’t be me.” The first of the five stages of death and dying had arrived- denial. ‘This can’t be happening. There’s no way. There must be some mistake. This is all happening too soon. Isn’t this supposed to happen in my 50s?’ And so on.
After a couple of months of denial, anger soon erupted, mostly at God. Who else to blame? Luckily, at the time, I had a big punching bag hanging from the tree in the backyard and I went outside nightly to pound on it with punches and kicks.
Adding to my misery during this dreadful time, I had a number of teeth problems that needed to be dealt with. In the following years, I made numerous visits to the Emergency room for a variety of freak accidents, food poisonings, eye infections, and a bout with walking pneumonia. I started to use phrases like, “My doctor.”
I became jittery and nervous every time I felt a weird sensation or feeling anywhere in my body; I was a bit neurotic. At this time, I started work on the night shift at the hospital. I read articles that showed statistics of how much more often night shift workers died of heart attacks. Two years later, my friend and colleague died of a heart attack. I knew it was time to get out of that job.
I’m 50 now, and the phrase ‘middle-aged man’ no longer bothers me. I’ve learned, finally, how to savor and appreciate this time of my life. I appreciate the perspective that the advancing years gives me and have no wish to relive those difficult years of my 20s and 30s. It’s been said that life never gets easier as you get older- your strength and ability to deal with problems just gets stronger. I think that is true.