I confess that for the past few years I’ve fallen into the abyss of vanity and self-doubt the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since the days I believed in the transformative power of blue eye shadow.
Now, as then, I’ve taken to scrutinizing my face in the magnifying mirror. Back then, I worried over every blackhead and incipient pimple; now, I can’t see my wrinkles and age spots without magnification, but the sense of hopelessness is the same: I’d never achieve the airbrushed ideal of beauty as advertised — or even the relative beauty of my past youth. The discomforts of adolescence flooded back. I’d just forgotten.
Whether I forgot due to the memory loss that accompanies aging or because to recall the exquisite confusion of puberty is too painful is up for debate. But watching my confidence fade along with my hair color is reminiscent of the insecurity and vanity that crested with the surging hormones and bulging body parts of adolescence. And I do remember — with more clarity than I care for — that coping with sexual arousal and groping with inexperience wasn’t always fun.
All this reminds me that I’ve experienced this shape shifting before. Only it’s different this time. Yes, I’m sprouting hair in new places (mostly chin whiskers) and I’m developing new bulges (mostly where I once had a waist), but I also have the benefit of experience. Middle age is adolescence for grown-ups, and this time around, adolescence can be fun. It’s all a matter of attitude.
As long as I’m comparing myself to either my younger self or to the “younger is better” belief of popular culture, I’m going to suffer self-loathing. So I’m no longer going to try. Instead of comparing myself to some youthful standard, I’m going to acknowledge that yes, we do age, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.
I’m going to embrace my gray hair as a mark of achievement. I accept that, even as I lose height, my feet are nevertheless more distant from my hands, so I now have to sit down to pull on my socks. I can adapt. Rather than lament what I’ve lost, I’ll celebrate how I’ve changed, including the changing nature of sexual intimacy, where urgency has diminished — and thoroughness has taken its place.
Of course, it helps that I have a longtime partner and all those unknown variables of adolescence have been settled by now. I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and now I am. Dating and mating are behind me, which is a huge relief and frees up a lot of emotional energy for other things, like learning how to be kind and generous, qualities I didn’t value quite so much when I was a teen.
But the biggest difference between now and then is that I’m not so bewildered. I can meet the challenges of change with reflection rather than reaction. I even know better than to mistake the wisdom that comes with experience for control. I’m not in control of much. I don’t control my spouse, our children, or the vagaries of fate. But I am in control of my life, and there are some things I can do to make this middle passage great, like accept it.
My mom prepared me for puberty with a combination of information and fear, making it clear that it was up to me to remain virginal until marriage or suffer the consequences of pregnancy and shame. But when it came to aging, my mother had nothing to say. She found growing older even more shameful than sex.
Not me. I see middle age as a chance for self-discovery and growth. I’ve developed a new appreciation for flexibility in both body and mind, so I’ve taken up yoga.
I have a better sense of what it is I like, and I don’t care if it’s not what’s popular. While most of my cohort drinks red wine for their health, I prefer scotch.
I am more mindful of my health, and I take better care of myself. But what that entails has changed, and I now visit the orthopedist more frequently than the gynecologist. I also floss. And I think about death.
Such is maturity.
When I endured my first adolescence, I was immortal. This time around, I know better — which is all the more reason to embrace middle age.
This piece originally appeared in The Rutland Herald on February 27, 2015.
Deborah Lee Luskin is an author, blogger and pen-for-hire.