The Aging Man: Reversing The “Downhill” Slide
I remember as a kid hearing the rhyme, “First comes love, second comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage!” So it goes, they say, and for some, so it indeed goes. For some, it may actually be that simple and linear. But for many men like myself it is more like years of partying and adventuring fraught with a gamut of loves gained and loves lost, mixed with mish-mashed careers and who-cares-jobs, followed by health ups and downs (with cumulative effects felt from all those physical bangups in those earlier years), and eventually sprinkled with progressively more “settled-downness” (which isn't always by choice). By the time he’s about 40 or 50 he’s like, “Man, how did I get here?” Maybe he finds himself nowhere near where he aimed. Or maybe he hit the mark and has the spouse, the house, the kids, the decent job, and a dash of hard earned wisdom. But chances are there is a lingering addiction of some sort and a deep and nagging sense that shit just doesn’t feel quite like he thought it was supposed to by this age. He questions himself, his choices past and present, his job, his spouse, his past, his future. And looking at all that crap is enough to drive a man mad. Or to the gun. In 2019 the highest rate of suicide was among middle-aged white men. Not exactly a very privileged way to end, is it? https://afsp.org/suicide-statistics/
How lovely they made adulthood out to be when we were kids! We could do anything we set our minds to! "Sky is the limit!" All a man has to do is rise to the top! But the top of a garbage heap doesn’t say much. Ours is still a culture which prizes occupations over relations, promotions over emotions, consumption over gratitude, competition over compromise, mastery over balance, and perpetual youth over a natural progression through life stages. Meanwhile, us men, who are actually humans with human needs, believe it or not, long for healthy relationships, emotional security and expression, permission to be content, work-life balance, and deep connection to and purpose in our stage of life.
Men cope with and unconsciously perpetuate the modern paradigm in whatever ways they know how. For those of us lucky enough to brave the dangers of introspection and humility, we seek out help to sort through whatever the hell is going on. Many times we simply know we aren’t very happy and we’re sick of it and know there must be something we can do about it. We are predominantly fixers, after all. But when it comes to “fixing” oneself, it’s not quite the same as fixing a machine, system, or other problem. Many of us really just don’t know how to be “good” with ourselves, or others, for that matter. We are trained to objectify both ourselves and others to achieve some goal. Even when we reach our goals though we aren’t actually satisfied. We don’t know how to feel satisfied or, if we do, satisfied for very long. I know that disease all too well.
Men are taught to be proud, to have pride, and to be self-reliant. Thus, most men never cross the threshold of asking for help. We figure that if we can't fix it ourselves, no one can. The only solution may appear to be suicide.
In my pursuit to become a happy man successful by his own definition, I’ve found that balance is ever more difficult the more components and experiences are added to the mix- spouse, kids, pets, house, business(es), hobbies, exercise routines, friends and family, and so on. You know, the stuff that accumulates over the years. And if we don't have those things we feel like we're way behind in the game of life and feel pressured to catch up. In 24 hours, doing well in every department and fitting it all in feels (and perhaps is) impossible. It’s just a LOT OF SHIT TO DO. We’re exhausted. We’re exhausted of having to keep up. In our periods of worn out defeat it's tough to not feel jaded by the past or to reminisce about "glory days." It all adds up to a recipe for stress. High stress. We very easily check out with bad diets, binging on one thing or another, giving up on the wrong things or people, and basically taking the easy way out because dammit we’re tired!
I don’t have any answers. Usually though it seems to boil down to an issue of something we’re holding on to that we need not hold on to any longer. As for me, I’ve held on to my youth. I crave my days of free spirited travel prior to a household of dependents. In my worst of times I fantasize that my partner, child, pets, house… hell, everything, will somehow just magically disappear (I realize that sounds awful) so that I can be "free" once again from all of that responsibility. I’ve held onto food habits that I shouldn’t. I’ve held onto relationships that have long since ended. I’ve held onto jobs for too long, including dream jobs that are never going to happen. I’ve held onto ideas that I should always be healthy, always be happy, always feel rested, always feel connected. I’ve been unwilling to let go of drugs and alcohol, of non-reciprocating friendships, of negative self attitudes. This list goes on and on.
So who really is to blame? Why am I so tired, frazzled, and lost? Maybe it is because I’ve been choosing to shoulder more weight than I need to. Maybe you are, too. Maybe it’s time to stop holding on to the idea that you should be a type of man you aren’t. Maybe your emotional disconnect and unwillingness to experience vulnerability in relationship to another person are too much baggage to carry any longer. I don’t know. Maybe you are just so tired because you are holding on too much to productivity because that’s what a man is supposed to be- productive. Or maybe you have yet to truly apply yourself because you've been holding on to comfort. Now that comfort-centeredness has produced a whole world of discomfort!
I see in myself and my clients an unwillingness to let go typically because of a fear that if we let go, we’ll lose something essential to our life and happiness. For example, 6 weeks ago my first child was born, and despite the joy that she brings me, I feel resentment towards the added responsibility because I'm holding on to the dream that I can be as free and reckless as an adolescent forever. That's because my prolonged years of adolescence (which lasted in large proportions clear into my 30's) brought me many peak experiences. The fear is that I won't have those again now that I have a child. I'm holding on to something I need not, and it is weight I am working to shed.
It can take time to unravel and dismount irrational fears like these. And it can take professional help sometimes.
Reversing the “downhill” slide of aging as a man demands us to first look at ourselves and our situations in an honest fashion. We gotta be nice as we do so or else we’ll fall into paralyzing shame or pointless excuses. We have to figure out what needs to go so that we can figure out what needs to stay and what needs to come. This takes more patience than we have but not doing so only leads to more of the same, so we must continue climbing the mountain. No time to be a sissy here. The softer way will kill us.
You don’t have to stick it out alone. If you’re reading this, you’re already ahead of the curve. If you resonated with the words I wrote here, maybe you’re a man in such a position as I’ve described. Or maybe you know such a man. If you or the man you know is ready to switch the downhill slide back to an uphill climb, reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out www.wildwaysintegration.com. I encourage all men to find a counselor who matches them, whether or not I am that match.
Also check out my Men’s Goal Group: www.wildwaysintegration.com/current. It’s a powerful yet bite-sized group for men seeking connection with other men in a safe place to solve problems and move forward.