Thoughts About Aging, Mental Illness, and Fatigue

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CN: suicide, death, eating disorder

I am ageist. It’s a weird thing to admit, partially because many people don’t think that age discrimination is a big deal and partially because it sucks to realize how deeply you’ve internalized certain prejudices. But I’m terrified of aging, and that colors the way I view older people. I already feel as if I’ve aged past my prime and it’s all downhill from here.

The reasons are pretty fucking obvious when I think about it for more than 20 seconds, and I don’t think that my reasons are unique, so I want to talk some about of the ways that ageism intersects with disability and mental illness, and the very real reasons that people who are already unhealthy might have negative feelings about age. Join me for this delightfully depressing post.

Time for some weird honesty: I did not expect to live to my current age. I’m 28, which is hardly ancient, but starting when I was about 17 my depression and eating disorder meant that I assumed I’d eventually succumb either to starvation or suicide and be gone by the age of 25. I didn’t make plans for the future because I could barely think past the exact moment I was in. To be honest, taking an expansive view of life and self often leads to depression and suicidality for me. It’s easiest for my mental health if I don’t let my perspective grow past approximately one year.

Now time for some angsty honesty: our society is not set up to support thoughtful aging. Before the age of 25 we have tons of milestones, and most people’s paths are reasonably set. You go to school, you’re supposed to graduate, you either get a job or go to college, you try to save money, you “find your career” etc. You try to find a partner, buy a house, get married, have kids. Even if those aren’t the things you want to do, there’s a suggestion of what you could be doing.

But post college and after that first job or two? There’s almost no guidance. I’ve recently been trying to find guided exercises that I can use to figure out the next steps in my career (as someone who loves their current job but wants to continue to grow) and literally, the only job planning worksheets out there are for people about to graduate.

We don’t have many set paths after you graduate. The rest of your life is this big open uncertainty with few milestones. What the hell am I supposed to do with that? Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t fall back on the “default” plan for the rest of my life because there isn’t one.

So if I’m real and I’m honest, I don’t like being reminded of age. I assume that other people who are older than I am don’t enjoy their lives because I can’t imagine what my life will look like or how it could be better than what I have now. I recognize that this is internalized ageism. I recognize that it comes out of fear. The problem is that my fear of aging is not irrational. In fact it’s super reasonable.

I am not a healthy person. I have nearly constant fatigue, headaches, and aches. However I still rely on my body in a major way to help keep my emotions regulated: without some serious movement and sensory input, I get a bit manic. I’m deeply concerned that as I age, my body will no longer be able to do the things I need to do in order to stay emotionally healthy. When I think about growing past the age of 30, 40, 50, I think about all of the ways that my body will continue to fail. I know that my fatigue will increase. I know that my abilities will decrease. My fear of that is rational.

On top of that, I’m a planner. I have a deep need for control. Our bodies change in uncontrollable ways as we age. Our place in society changes in uncontrollable ways. There are no rituals, no ways to break up the years and turn them into bite-sized, understandable chunks. I can imagine that there are ways to age that don’t suck, but in America today? Aging sucks.

I don’t have a solution here. I don’t have a way to recognize that if I could freeze my body where it currently is damn would I and that has nothing to do with vanity or loving youth it has everything to do with not wanting to become more disabled in a world that sucks for disabled people. I don’t have a way to hold on to that and also advocate for respectful, supported aging. Complaining about getting older is both normal and also seen as shallow. I want more out of the conversation: I want recognition of the ways that our bodies decay and the weird things that start happening and not just complaints, but what we can do to make it better. I want recognition of the intersection of aging and disability.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts About Aging, Mental Illness, and Fatigue

  1. I’m about to turn 60. Sometimes, I remember what my Grandma told me when she was 91. “Do you remember what you felt like inside when you were 18? That’s how I feel.” For me, it’s more like 12 or 10. Decades of healthy eating, exercise that works for me (currently yoga and walking, previously ballet, swimming, weights ) leave me feeling better physically than ever ( it’s a joy not to menstruate anymore). I’ve started taking CBD oil which helps my autistic brain so much and also helps the joints. My 50s were rough with all the internal changes in hormones and biorhythms and external changes in how others perceive me. But it’s been getting better and better the last few years. If we’re not devastated by climate catastrophe, the 60s promise to be awesome. Aging brings so many gifts and what some might call losses simply feel like changes to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Speaking as a 30 y/o cis currently able-bodied but mentally ill (PTSD/anxiety/depression) woman, I found being in my mid/late 20s was far worse than now.

    The thing that helped most was making friends with people 10, 20, 30 years older than me. Some have kids, some don’t, both not through lack of trying but also deliberate choice. Some have chronic mental illnesses and others have physical disabilities or chronic illnesses. The variety of what they do with their lives both inside and outside of work is impressive and helped me see I didn’t need to be limited to just one thing for the rest of my life.

    The biggest secret of adulthood is that no-one has it all worked out! Even those where you look back and it looks like they had a plan were usually making it up on the fly and making the best of what was in front of them. Career changes mid life are common. Family and caring responsibilities come and go, and health can change significantly and unexpectedly, even for those who were previously healthy.

    What I also found useful was thinking/journaling about what I wanted in the abstract. 2-3 years ago I wanted a secure income and a career path with good opportunities for promotion. I wanted a secure/permanent living situation – having moved house 15 times in the last 12 years, I am thoroughly sick of moving house. I wanted to learn to spin wool by hand – mission accomplished. Knowing that enabled me to aim towards what I wanted over time, even if I wasn’t consciously working on it.

    Something else that helped was looking at life coaching materials, and career values questionnaires. There may be a specific organisation or industry body for your sector of work that has online materials more tailored to what you do.

    All that said, I get why you’re afraid of aging given your health issues. It is scary to realise you can’t plan or control for everything and to think that it could get a whole lot worse. Most people just don’t think about it, I think, unless they’re forced to by their own or close family/friends circumstances’. It’s just not nice to think about :-/

    Liked by 2 people

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