A hand fan sits at the side table by my office chair.
I have become a lady with a hand fan.
And when a client tells me something that makes me laugh, or makes me anxious, or activates my over-protective anger on their behalf, or touches on some topic that leads toward a shame of my own – or sometimes for absolutely no reason at all – I feel a sudden flush, like a little lightening strike – that sends tentacles up and down my arms and up to my throat, past my ears up to my scalp and think:
Uh oh. Here it comes:
And then a sweat starts to break out on the back of my neck, and under my chin, and at my hairline, and across my nose and down my arms and its getting hotter and hotter and I know that is no where near peaking and passing yet. The client (it doesn’t matter man, woman or queer, young or old, four hundredth session or an initial consultation) is still talking and I try not to interrupt but all this heat is rising with an adrenal surge – if I don’t do something I’m going to have to run from the room and tear off all my clothes and plunge my head into a basin of ice water – so I go ahead and reach for the hand fan. “Keep talking” I say, “I’m listening” and I am, “Don’t mind me” as I start fanning myself frantically as the damp just begins to cause my glasses to slide down my nose. My hair frizzes. I push my glasses up and they slide back down. I flap flap flap flap and fan and fan myself until it passes, and the tingle has subsided, and the cool comes back in a relieving wave like when you open the door of a too hot sauna after the doorknob spun uselessly in your hand a second or two and you weren’t at all sure you’d be able to get out.
They look at me confused, or annoyed by this new and intrusive behavior: “Hot flash” I say. “Just a fact of life. I’m listening. Go on.”
A reminder to the client, and myself, that everything changes.
My gray hair is no longer premature. My glasses, even in their pleasing frames, are progressive lenses. Without technological advances they would have been trifocals. My paternal grandmother’s genetics announce themselves with the arrival of glaucoma and high ocular pressure that is nowadays easily managed with daily eye drops. I now suddenly have bad feet – neuromas, plantar plate and facia injuries. Mostly just genetic signs of age. Like my maternal grandmother I now wear orthopedic shoes. Thankfully I have cuter options to choose from than the heavy black lace ups she had to wear. I don’t get to run outside anymore. Too hard on the infrastructure. I’ve shifted to an elliptical in my suburban basement.
Wrinkles I don’t care much about even if I don’t love the little sag I see coming in under my chin, and I work hard to be kind toward my changing body shape. My weight has stayed consistent – not skinny, not fat – always hovering around plump – but I notice age is redistributing things. Belly, bottom expanding – the parts of myself I was most ashamed of in youth and battled to suck in and minimize – now assert themselves and demand acceptance. I try to embrace the challenge – and the metaphor – and integrate the suppressed parts of myself with compassion, and reach for new forms of healthy pride. I shop at stores that accommodate the tastes, desires and bodies of women of my age. And I am free at last from the curse of fashion magazine covers that compelled me to compare myself with those impossible airbrushed images, always falling short of my unconscious, internalized wish to identify with them. Now it is simply all too absurd and therefore nullifies their spells
I am not old, but I am older. And my “young” clients – who I met in their teens or early twenties when I was in my mid-thirties – who I watched grow up, are no longer young. In their late thirties and forties, I helped initiate them into adulthood and I will eventually initiate them into later middle age.
So I’d better pay attention because I don’t recall anyone initiating me. Or maybe in the arrogance of youth, I rejected the models of older women around me. Even though I admired their wisdom, I was afraid of their aging bodies: their sensible shoes, their cute little attempts at working out, and their colorful dresses with “flattering” waistlines. Their little nothing-to-worry about skin cancer surgeries. Their forgetfulness and their brain-farts searching for common words. Their white roots showing in between colorings. Their chin hairs. Their chunky jewelry. Maybe I did dismiss those women’s bodies and their relationship to them, and the ways they had to learn to re-adorn themselves – by thinking of them as “old women” and their rituals as nothing for me to have to worry about for a long time.
And laughably they were likely all my age or younger than I am now
But I will have to initiate my tribe of clients into this space. So I have to listen to my body, and not battle with it, and do this with dignity and humor and face reality and find meaning and pleasure in it.
And celebrate the things that I have escaped from: street harassment, heels, henna and sunburned tummies. And revel in the things I have earned: long contemplative walks. The freedom that comes with being too exhausted to engage in any bullshit at all.
And take heed when I am with older and elderly clients, and clients entering therapy at this age, my age, who I see more of than ever before. Which makes sense: Why would you choose a therapist who hasn’t even begun their descent? Who hasn’t reached what we optimistically call midlife or who can have only abstract empathy as you are facing the decline? So I listen to them closely. I watch them reach for unfinished business, and allow themselves to engage in wishes long forestalled. I watch them morn the foreclosure of lives they hoped to live but will clearly not now or ever come to pass. I listen to them contend with the loss of the generation in front of them and the arrogance of the generation behind them. I hear their anxiety about their financial futures, their fear of becoming obsolete in the work place, the challenge of retrenchment, of down sizing, of moving into smaller spaces, one level, without too many stairs. I hear them battle with an unending string of doctors appointments – too many specialists and a list of medications that keeps growing.
I hear of retirements and second chances at passions set aside. Of demeaning part time jobs. Of motorcycles impulsively purchased. Of unexpected divorces and break ups in long long term relationships. Of “practical” careers abandoned. Of gardening. And what its like to find themselves to be the old guy or old lady at the gym, or studying French, or learning to paint, or preparing to climb a mountain because they have always wanted to. Of libidos lost, and prostate problems and erectile dysfunction and painful intercourse. And wild, unexpected affairs with partners twenty years younger. And loneliness. And anger that the light is too brief and our time too short and how quickly it all flies by, in the blink of an eye. Of aches and pains and joint replacements. Of stroke and heart attack and cancer and dementia.
Of the audacity and the tender support and impatience of adult children. The excruciating pain of encountering one’s own failed parenting. The surrendering of freedoms, and privacy and driver’s licenses. Of grief – first of lost mentors, parents and elders, and then large die-offs of peers: a small wave gone in the mid-50’s, another cluster disappears in their 70’s. Of phones filled with phone numbers of the dead. Of the deliciousness of grandchildren. Of the anxieties that come with fixed, dwindling, or disappearing incomes. Of fear of mortality. And worse, the fear of infirmity coupled with lack of compassionate care.
Of the wacky, cackling joy of being an old coot who is less afraid then they have ever been because there is little to lose and everything to gain. Of knowing how to grieve and having all hubris modulated by the inherent vulnerability of staying alive for sixty, or seventy or eighty years. Of the relief, the deep deep relief of not having to psychologically strive any longer to be things that you are not, or never really chose to begin with.
And of the memoirs they will write.
Their stories initiate me. I watch them lose their way and find their stride and settle back into power spots which sustain them for awhile until everything shifts again.
I store the stories of my elders in my life and my practice as guideposts – to learn from their mistakes, to orient myself, and to offer as a template to those behind me who will be joining the circle of elders eventually.
If they are lucky.
It all changes and keeps changing. Our work in psychotherapy changes dramatically as we age. It is no longer about constructing an identity, staking a claim, separating from family of origin, or the lure of great accomplishments.
The problem of the adult is very different. He has put this part of the road behind him, with or without difficulty. He has cut loose from his parents, long since dead perhaps… has possibly come to realize that what originally meant advancement and satisfaction has become a boring mistake, part of the illusion of youth… Here there are no fathers and mothers; all the illusions he projected onto the world and upon things gradually come home to him, jaded and way-worn. The energy streaming back from these manifold relationships falls into the unconscious and activates all the things he had neglected to develop.
~ C. G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, paragraph 90
The energy comes streaming back. All that was set aside asserts itself. It surges up from underneath the ego structures that we spent the first half of our adulthood constructing. It breaks out like a sweat, like a flash. We can thrash and panic or we can, flap flap flap, grab hold of our hand fans and cool the hell down – allowing it to move through, knowing that this is the task at hand.
There are great losses ahead as well as great opportunities to reclaim aspects of our identities long forsaken. Trials and treasures. Blossoms and sunsets.
Me change! Me alter!
Then I will , when on the Everlasting Hill
A Smaller Purple grows –
At sunset, or a lesser glow
Flickers upon Cordillera –
At Day’s superior close.
~ Emily Dickenson