I am almost at the mid-century mark; it is a bittersweet victory, but the bitterness grounds the sweetness the way soil grounds the tree. Bitter soil, sweet tree, add some clouds and rain, then top it off with a day full of sunshine, maybe that's what my life comes to so far, something bucolic, seen from a distance, as many years have passed. Up close, it's been a different story; there have been tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes...but not for most of this decade, my now receding 40s. These have been my recovery-from-severe-mental-illness years and they have coincided with my middle age.
Most of us don't make it to 100 years old, though I think the statistics on that are changing, and I don't consider 50 "middle age". For me 50 marks the beginning of old age and, in my book, that's a good thing. I see it as a potential to have a second flowering, but it requires that I let go of the first one. For all of us, with the first flowering, we blossomed from child to adolescent to young adult. From adulthood through middle age we began the habit of looking backwards as we lived past our physical and sexual peaks. By the time we get to 50, we have to take a stand, either we fight against the changes of physical aging or we accept ourselves as we are, a person past his or her prime.
I am a person past my prime in my body, but maybe not in my spirit. I accept that with awkwardness instead of graciousness, at least for now. Maybe someday I will let go of identifying myself with my physical appearance and then I will find the graciousness I lack. That's what I'm hoping my 50s will give as a gift, the graciousness to accept myself as I am despite a youth obsessed culture. To many people signs of aging are like signs of falling from grace. Recently I was watching "Up With Chris Hayes" on MSNBC and he mentioned this actress, Ashley Judd, who wrote an op-ed piece in The Daily Beast on the media outcry over the fact that she is an almost 44 year old woman who now looks her age. They vilified her for having a "puffy" face, for no longer being a size 2-4. In my opinion she is still a nice looking woman, but she is no longer young and in her prime.
We are not super action figures and, despite those people who have aged well into their 50s, we are supposed to change, get older and die. These are the facts of life and not about personal failing. But many of us, male and female, take aging on as if we did something wrong, made too many mistakes and are somehow to blame. We fell for the myth of ageless perfection, which none of us actually had, but some of us approached superficially in our bodies. The reality is that perfection is more of a state of mind than an actual thing. We go in and out of perfection. The myth is that we can live outside of aging; the reality is we are tied to each breath we take, to each moment's time and place and to our exact ages.
We are human and as fragile as every living thing is fragile. We take risks, we grow up and maybe we grow old; if we're very fortunate we grow old in relatively good health. For some, seeing the aging process in loved ones or popular media figures is saddening, for others it is just nature coming through, and for still others, there's an appreciation for the person, a genuine fondness for the deepening of character within that individual. But there's one thing I've overlooked and that is fear -- we fear seeing people age because we know it means that someday they will die and then someday we will die. Mostly people in our culture don't have open, healthy discussions about death and so we stay in a denial about it, we say to ourselves, "someday...but not now." Staying in denial is why I think we fixate on youth and youth culture fostering the illusion that we can be invincible in the face of tough odds. But maybe, as people live longer, that will change and we'll move into a more realistic culture that is not afraid to embrace the life cycle.
Physically the life cycle is about birth to the peak of life and then into decline, and finally, into death. Mentally, emotionally and, yes, spiritually, life's transition points are more subtle and complex. I mentioned this idea of having a second flowering after middle age because I have heard stories from people who have lived into their 50s and beyond who have gone through it. Many people describe the great relief they feel as they shed the self-consciousness of their younger years. It becomes less about how you look to yourself and others and more about how fully you experience things. The irony is, the more fully you experience things, the younger you get, obviously not in your body, but in your spirit. As is the way with the flexibility of human nature, some young people think and act old and some older people think and act young.
I've been preparing to turn 50 this whole year. Years ago, when I was acutely ill, the voices told me that I would be very happy in my 50s and 60s. I was in my late 30s then and I was miserable at the thought of having to wait so long. I went head first into middle age and lost even more of my personal illusions. I was no longer young and attractive. I decided against getting romantically involved with anyone. I had to find other ways to value myself and, to a certain extent, I did. I stayed creative from before the beginning of my psychosis till now. This has given me some of my self-esteem back. This blog, through my ups and downs, and through readers, has given me a place to speak out. Here it's not about how I look, it's about what I have to say; it's about working hard to express myself clearly in writing. There's an invisible contract between writer and reader that I try to abide by: be honest, be clear, strive for personal integrity and be respectful of others. I can work with that. That's what it is to be alive and still growing even past one's prime.
A Recovery Blog
This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.