I never paid much attention to, or put much stock in my age — until I became the oldest person in the room.
My supervisor at work recently told me, on two separate occasions, “We’re assigning you this client because we think they need an older counselor.” And last week, when I mentioned taking off for my milestone birthday, a 20-something coworker goes: “Wow, you look great for 45!”
Each time, I kind of stopped in my tracks, thinking, “Huh. So that’s how these folks see me.”
By the way, what do people think 45 is supposed to look like? 🤔
Has this happened to you? No, I don’t mean the crevices forming in your face or the growing heft in your hips (still actually waiting for all my “womanly curves” to develop…any day now!🤞🏻😉) or the unexplained inflammation, escalating “plumbing problems,” and sudden talent for pulling muscles while sitting down. I could commiserate about the blessed curse of aging all day long! But what I’m talking about here is the thing where you’re rolling along and feeling relatively secure in your identity — dare I say, “normal”? — until you enter a segment of society that subscribes to different norms.
You see yourself as just another human in the race, until you see your differences reflected, or bluntly pointed out, by your fellow humans.
We’ve all been fish out of water at times, haven’t we? The universe hands us a point — or two— of reckoning in the course of our lives, and if you’ve been around since the 70s (😳), you’ve most likely experienced your share of watershed moments. Heaven knows I’ve had some doozies (see: moving away from Chicagoland in April 2000, moving again in September 2002, changing careers in September 2018, getting sober in July 2019, going back to school in August 2021, and changing careers AGAIN this past winter.)
What else can you do when the path you’re on gets blocked, detoured, or runs off a cliff? Whether it’s your talents being devalued in the marketplace, or your drinking habits driving you to the brink of destruction, you’ve got to move in a different direction if you want to keep going.
Offices are one of the obligatory stops on most every road, and in them, amid the cubicles, dress codes and time clocks, non-conformity is unapologetically amplified.
I remember being told back in 2018, when I left journalism for marketing at 40, that my smarmy department head “didn’t usually hire older people because they were harder to control.” Later, when I’d paid enough dues to GTFO of there, I was told that scrubbing the graduation year from my resume would improve my job prospects. You’d think writing ability and years alive would have nothing to do with one another, and that a decades-long history of working with words on tight deadlines would be a plus, and yet, seeking employment with my primary skill set over the past five years has been an ageist shitshow.
Funny that now, in career transition #2, my age seems to be viewed as an asset or selling point due to the experience and authority it apparently projects, when in reality, I have only been a professional therapist for a little over two months. I won’t have a master’s degree until next May or earn a license until a few thousand hours after that.
It feels kind of “othering,” to be called out as old when you’re just trying to blend, but I probably should be used to this by now.
For the past 45 months, I’ve been the only addict in a family where, according to legend, no one ever had any addiction or mental health problems. I’ve been the only addict in a grad school cohort where classmates flippantly throw beer pics in the group text or raise their hand in addictions class and say they’ve never been addicted to anything because they have self-control. 😐 I’ve been a recovering alcoholic in a world swimming with booze, where it seems you can’t watch any TV shows or movies or have any kind of social conversation (outside of a 12-step meeting) where getting drunk or high doesn’t come up or isn’t depicted as the accepted/celebrated way of having fun and/or coping with life.
Does that sound bitter and resentful? Well, maybe. It’s reality. Dealing with that “otherness” feeling is something — one of the many things — I have had to reckon/grapple with as part of my recovery. I suspect most addicts understand exactly what I mean.
Discovering who you really are underneath all the desperate defense mechanisms you’ve been using to protect yourself from pain, and then finding your place in this oft-f*cked-up (but also awe-inspiringly beautiful) world, and doing it at the same time your hair is thinning/graying and your metabolism is dragging, is a rickety, bumpy emotional roller coaster — to put it mildly.
I might be middle-aged, but I spent half my life self-medicating depression, anxiety and high sensitivity with substances and processes. So while physical “maturity” might just happen to us automatically, without any effort, de-arresting your mental and emotional development takes a lot of work, and it can’t be rushed.
Just as the body “matures” (read: breaks), the mind evolves and the psyche heals, but it takes time. And therapy, and education, and compassion, and gratitude, and usefulness to others. It takes faith — which is always the hardest one for me — and patience — wait; no, actually, that’s even harder! 🤦🏼♀️
AA meetings are the antidote to “otherness,” and an opportunity for service, so I make myself go, listen, share, and sometimes even chair. The more I remember not to forget where I was, reflect on how far I’ve come, and connect to something bigger than me, the more I continue to grow. And the more I grow, the better I can manage my emotions — and brush off all those annoying little daily “triggers” that can turn me back into a petulant child faster than you can say “pachyderm.”
“Happiness is growing up.”
That was a snippet of the Daily Reflection a few weeks ago at a meeting, and it really stuck with me. For those of us who didn’t follow a “normal” trajectory into adulthood, getting sidetracked, delayed, and/or nearly obliterated by our addiction, I think life’s milestones might feel a little more significant. If you spent years circling the drain, hopelessly doggy-paddling to nowhere, and then found the strength to climb out of the toilet before the swirling water flushed you away — which is very much how escaping addiction feels to me — it’s not a stretch to say that every day brings cause for celebration.
This is why I still keep track of my time and treat every passing month as a special occasion. That might make actual birthdays kind of anticlimactic, but it also helps to break up the “regularness of life,” in the immortal words of Christopher Moltisanti.
There’s no question that my sober “age” has become much more significant to me than my biological one, and I’ve viewed the end of my relationship with alcohol as the true beginning of my life. Looking at it that way, can’t nobody call me an “old-timer”!
I’m not sure I would call 45 months sober “a fun age,” given the immense personal/professional challenges I’m facing as a rookie drug and alcohol counselor. But recovery has taught me to focus on each day as it comes — a common saying in my home group is, “I’ve never been sober today before” — and on this day, I don’t have to go to the office, and I don’t have any plans on my calendar. And while a “mature” adult marking such a big birthday might get dressed up for a nice dinner on the town, I’ll be ordering Door Dash and crawling in bed by 6PM.
On the one hand, I guess I am a boring old lady, but at the same time, I feel like I’m still becoming myself, and the best is yet to come. On the calendar that really counts, I’m not even four years old!
2 thoughts on “Maturity”
Happy Birthday, young lady – – I can say that since the dreaded 60 hits me in October, although I don’t feel almost 60 or like you been told ” oh you don’t look that old”- – I have a feeling I won’t enjoy joining the 60 club. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Enjoy your day !!
Happy Birthdays, Jen! Remarkable! SO much to celebrate! I appreciate these thoughts on aging, too.
The most startling contrast in aging for me now, is the difference in my chronological age (69) vs. my spiritual age. One look in the mirror and it’s obvious that I’m biologically aging. My hair, my skin, my muscle tone, etc. But it seems that spiritually, I haven’t grown older at all. I’ve changed, I’ve grown, I’ve developed, I’ve progressed, I’ve advanced, and yet it doesn’t seem to have involved any “aging” of my “true” self, or my “inner” self or my soul, if you will. In fact, it seems that the “inner” me is the one observing the physical changes attributable to “aging” of the outer me, without experiencing any “aging” of its own! That “inner” self still retains the intense curiosity of my youth, and the childlike sense of awe and wonder that I remember from as far back as I CAN remember! It’s all very beautiful, actually. It’s as though my body is subject to the natural laws but my “true” self seems to be exempt.
Needless to say, these insights wouldn’t be available to me if my obsession were still in play. Obsession never left room for anything beyond shallow self-appraisal.
You never fail to stimulate interesting reflections for me, Jen. I really enjoy your writings. Thank you.
Happy Birthdays and many, many happy returns of the day for you!