I never thought much about getting older or minded aging until I turned forty this past December, and then I suddenly felt very old and very worn down. This was and is mostly due to everything that has happened in the past few years, and I am only now beginning to feel better and realize that there is still so much life ahead of me, and that forty is not the end of things but the beginning of the next half of my life. And that that life could be amazing and fulfilling and even more rewarding than the life I used to know. I’m not at complete peace with it yet, but I am getting there, slowly and steadily.
As a young kid time seemed to move slowly, and becoming a teenager felt like a goal that would take forever to achieve. Then while in my teens I longed for adulthood so that I could feel less awkward and gangly. I wore that awkwardness like a heavy cloak through my teens, and I never truly felt comfortable or relaxed aside from isolated moments. There is a tension and acute discomfort visible in pictures of me taken at the time. (Let me amend that: There is a tension and acute discomfort visible in pictures of me taken at any time.) I was sure that once I left that torpid decade I would finally feel better and come into my own. Maybe even relax and start being myself.
Alas, it was not meant to be, and my twenties proved to be less awkward but still tense and fraught with insecurities and doubts. I could not wait to enter my thirties, as I saw that decade as a happier and more fruitful one. Surely by then I would have things figured out. I definitely did come into my own in my early thirties. I had a covetable job, drive and passion, and the opportunity to travel and grown and advance in my career. Despite making some choices I regretted and some I still wish I could do differently, it seemed as if that golden age and that growing and sure success would last forever.
It did not.
What happened instead was real life, with ups and downs, triumphs and failures, and while uncomfortable at times, I generally accepted it and my age, and the decade seemed as if it could last longer if I just willed it so. But when things began to get dark and the losses added up, I found turning forty to be traumatic. Suddenly age was quantifiable, and the number forty seemed possessed of great baggage and freight, none of it good. It was a large, lumbering specter that pressed down on me and served as a reminder that I was getting older and there was nothing I could do about it. Forty suddenly meant that the first half - and seemingly best part - of my life was over, and I had squandered it. It was all downhill from forty, and the signs were everywhere. I was examining my life and taking stock, and I worried that I would never be successful or happy again.
Despite scoffing at the concept and thinking it never could apply to me, I realized with cold dread that I was in the throes of a genuine midlife crisis. Not me, I thought. This was not what was going to happen to someone like me. I was too self-aware for a midlife crisis, surely.
But it happened.
Losing my job and surviving for the past few years on freelance work has led to a more precarious existence, and financial woes have led me to live with my mother in suburban North Carolina until things improve. Add to this the deaths of immediate family members and a lack of security and roots and suddenly who I was and where I was at forty did not match what and where I thought I would be and wanted to be at forty. This was not good news, and turning forty went from milestone to the final nail in the coffin of my old life.
Suddenly mirrors told truths that once before remained unspoken or unseen in happier times. The bathroom scale became a source of shame and injury whereas once it simply told me how much I weighed. After many rough life events, my hair turned grey quicker than it ever had. While I always had some grey, even in high school (thanks to premature graying on both sides of the family), suddenly those streaks and small patches became great swathes. Worse, my hair started thinning and becoming finer in places. The more of my scalp I could see as I readied myself in the morning, the more anxious I became. What was once a thick, unruly mop of hair was changing, and nothing was more traumatizing to me for a very specific reason. My hair had (and has) always been the one thing that I wasn’t insecure about, and here it was now betraying me and losing its youthful volume and color. While beneath the panic there is thankfulness that I am not balding or losing it altogether, it is cold comfort to a shocked system.
My waistline has also expanded, the reckless and indulgent eating habits of my youth no longer applicable or tolerable once I turned thirty, let alone forty. But now it is even harder to lose the weight, to stay in something resembling a youthful shape. The comfort eating I had done in the past few years has taken its toll, and these fifteen excess pounds are my fleshy albatross until one day I am free of them. Once taut, youthful flesh has now started to expand, and like most men, it gathers around my middle and my upper chest. My face is fuller, and when I laugh or tilt my head a certain way, my chin suddenly doubles. Whereas once I was emaciated and begged to eat more by doctors and concerned parents, I am now overweight for my height and frame, and I beg myself not to eat more. Dieting has become a full-time position, and I am worried about my job qualifications (so to speak). Exercising is now something I do and must do if I want to lose the weight and get my body in better shape. If I have to age, I should at least do it as gracefully and healthily as I can.
But turning forty also meant I had and have to look at things differently. I had to turn crisis into opportunity. The game has changed. My own personal criteria has changed. Where once I relied on work or achievements or friends for identity and meaning, I must now find these within myself. Where once I equated success with a full-time office job and recognition from many, I now equate it with ingenuity of self and tapping into my talents and abilities in ways that I have not had to or dared to before now. Sometimes I equate with just making it through the day in a good mood. Where once money was spent haphazardly and on the acquisition of insubstantial things, I have learned a level of responsibility and to appreciate what I do have and not look for happiness in things that are material and fleeting at best.
I must work at the things I can control and learn to surrender to the things I cannot. My situation is temporary, even if on dark days I feel like it is the farthest thing from, and eventually I will move forward and there will be many more triumphs in my future (as well as tragedies). I will continue to age, but I will also hopefully fully realize that forty is still young and just a number. That it is not a death knell but a new phase that holds much promise. I get flashes of this, of hope and optimism, from time to time, and lately they have come at a faster rate. When I look in the mirror now I see things that are fixable and things that are not, but I certainly do not see the end of a life. I can lose weight and get into shape. I can color my hair if I am really bothered by all the grey.
What I have written about is nothing new or revelatory or particularly novel; countless people have gone before me and have had the same realizations, or something close to it. It’s simply my turn to face forty and turn it to something positive rather than something negative. Maybe the challenge of turning forty is to do just that, and having faced it head on and seeing it for what it is allows you to then accept it and transmute it into an ally rather than an adversary.
It will be interesting to see where the next few months and years take me, when things improve and I move out of my mother’s house in North Carolina. When I am back on my feet financially, emotionally, physically, and mentally. When I am surrounded by friends and loved ones and even (hopefully) a partner. I have a hunch I will no longer feel old and worn down. I hope I feel full of optimism and know there is so much of life left. I am starting to remember I am still young, and I think soon I will even feel it and believe it. That will be a happy day.
In the meantime, forty still has lessons left to teach me, and I must learn and embrace them. Each time I do so it gets a little bit easier. I am my own worst enemy in that regard, and it is time to change that. I owe it to myself first and foremost. I am starting to see how much of life there is yet to be lived, and my fears and doubts are slowly changing to hope and excitement. Even as I write this I feel as if I am exorcising age and pain and weight from the recent past. Surely that counts for something? If this is forty, let me make it the catalyst for change and moving on. Let me make it the birth of the next phase of my life instead of the death of my old one.
Because when you look at it like that, suddenly you feel young.