Monday, February 24, 2014

Life Stages

At different times of your life, you may feel stress as you go through life stages.

Living here on retirement island is a real eye-opener.   Most of our friends are older than us - in their 60's, 70's, 80's, and of course, dead.  Unwinding your life is a difficult process, and there are a number of stages in the process, none of which are easy.

Of course, your entire life is made up of a series of stages.   Once you are old enough to be cognizant, you are shuttled off to school, and with any luck, you'll be there for about two decades.  But even this stage in your life has stages.

I remember that the first years of school were pretty keen.  Show up for class, pay attention, and remember to bring your milk money.   That was about it.

But by the teenage years, a new set of rules was thrust upon us, without warning.   Suddenly, wearing the right clothes, being "popular" and following the latest trends, was so, so important to us - or at least "they" told us it was.   And then college rolled around, and a new-found freedom gave us the chance to really point out how unprepared we were for "real life."

And not surprisingly, these teenage years and early 20's are when schizophrenia and other mental illnesses start to manifest themselves.  Some folks just can't handle the big life change from straight-A sixth grade student, to successful employee in the marketplace.   It is a big step.

But if you make it that far, then you are set for a decade - maybe two.  You are in a comfortable and static position.  All you have to do is show up for work on time, and you get a nice apartment, maybe a new car, and a girlfriend to have sex with, on occasion.   Of course, that girlfriend may have other ideas - and marriage may take you to that "next stage" in life, along with its subsequent stage, raising children.  Some men resist this stage.

Each one of these stages is fraught with stress and uncertainty.   You are thrust into a new environment, with new expectations and behaviors, and you feel, deep down, that maybe you aren't ready for this.

But the kids grow up and go off to college (yet another stage), leaving you at home with this stranger you've been married to for 30 years, that you finally get to meet.  And that's stressful as well.

And maybe, you start to think, talking to your financial planner (if you are lucky enough to have one, as well as finances) that your life is more than halfway over, if the actuarial tables are to be believed.  You are 45 years old, and maybe you've got another 10-20 years of active life left.   Now what?

And thus, the so-called midlife crises sets in - another stage.   Hopefully your marriage survives, and the Corvette dealer is denied yet another sale.

But it ain't over yet, by a long shot.  And each stage gets progressively worse - and scarier.   Because now you are looking at your own mortality, every day when you get up and look in the mirror.   You start to see your faculties diminish.  You wonder why people are in such a hurry all the time.   And these younger guys at work - they all seem out for your job.

You are facing a retirement - a big stage.   The 30-40 years of work are ending, and now what?    Where will you go?  What will you do?   Where will you live?   Your kids don't need you anymore, and they come to visit less and less.   You start to think about what the meaning of your life is, and realize there really isn't one.  That's OK.

But you achieve another level of stasis - at least for a while.   You settle into a retirement community and throw yourself into hobbies and clubs, with maybe a little volunteer work thrown in.   Maybe you get a part-time job to fill in the hours.   The grandchildren come to visit.   This seems like a pretty pleasant deal.

And then the first health crises occurs.   It scares you, but not as much as your spouse.   If you die, what the heck is she going to do?   But thanks to Medicare, they patch you right up again, and you can delude yourself that it is back to "life as normal".

But your faculties continue to diminish.  Despite your cataract operation, you find it uncomfortable to drive at night.  In fact, driving seems to be a chore, as do so many other things.  Your wife spends more and more time at church and Bible Study, "studying for that final exam" as you kid her.  And you realize you are on the cusp of another major life change.

Yea, that last 10 years or so - maybe less.   How will that play out?  In an assisted living center?  Some sort of retirement home?  In a nursing home?  Keeling over dead on the lawn?  The options scare the crap out of you.  And you realize now why your Dad said, "Son, let me give you one piece of advice - never get old!"   But the alternatives options are not pretty.

Figuring out that last messy part is the hardest - and most depressing.  It makes all those other life changes seem pretty simple by comparison.  Hell, picking which college to go to, that was fun, right?  And getting married?  The happiest day of your life, or so they tell you.  You look back and think, that shit was pretty simple, compared to this!

Now, I know what you are going to say.  "Gee, Bob, this is pretty depressing!"  But it isn't.  It is reality, and reality is value-neutral.  How you interpret reality is up to you.  You can view it as depressing or scary, or just realize its all a game.  A ride, if you will.  A giant roller coaster, where all you can do is hold your arms up in the air and go "Wheeeee!" all the way down.  Because you really have no other choice.

And one way to make these life changes easier to deal with, is to deal with them, head-on.  Rather than living in denial, or vacillating between one choice or another, figure out what is happening and take action in your life - control, to the extent God grants you, what you can.

I mentioned before how Mark's Grandmother, at age 68, as a widower, bought an apartment as Shell Point in Ft. Meyers, Florida.   She had a nice apartment there, and with a lifetime care contract, as she got older and hit those last "stages" they took care of her.   Some of her relatives thought she was crazy not to "stay in the house" until she was decrepit, and then be hauled off to some "home" not of her choosing.   But she was smart to confront the reality of the last years of her life, and make the best of what ultimately is, a dead-end situation.

Not deciding and not taking action results in depression - learned helplessness.   And that, again, is what depression is - your brain screaming at you to "do something!" when you refuse to do so.

If you feel you are on the cusp of one of these life changes, don't sweat it.  Yea, they are scary and all, but Billions of people have beaten down a path ahead of you.  Its been done before, and you're going to be all right - provided you take action and make choices, while you can.

I have two more of these life changes ahead of me (God or Darwin willing).   First, I have to transition from working (as little as I do) into full-blown retirement.   And that is a hard decision for many to make.  When do you retire?  No one wants to "give up" and no one wants to walk away from a career that is paying pretty well.   You might need that money later on, right?

And some, not wanting to confront this transition, keep working as a way of denying what is coming down the road.   Maybe that works for some, maybe not for others.  Frank Lloyd Wright worked until he was 90.  I'm not Frank Lloyd Wright.  Myself, after careful consideration, I realize that I need to retire as soon as it is practical.   I am not sure I will live to 100, and already my faculties are starting to slip.  Hell, today I fell off a bicycle.   That's how bad it is getting.

So, retirement.  Great.  Maybe a decade of seeing the world, or at least parts of it.  But the messy end part, that has to be contemplated, too.  And not too far down the road, I need to think about retirement village, and some sort of place that is 55-and-over (next year) where assisted living is an option.

This is not a sad thing.  Just reality.  And if you confront reality head-on, it is pretty value-neutral, if in fact, friendly.

So, don't sweat these life changes.  They are going to happen, whether you want them to or not.   Avoiding them is not going to solve anything - just make you depressed and unhappy.