Sunday, June 4, 2017

Our Thoughts About Getting Older

Being human is strange. We have our bodies and we have our minds. For most of my life, I’ve thought of them as the same thing: me. I am me and "me" includes my thoughts and my body. 

As we get older, some of us try to separate mind and body; we try to distinguish what we look like from who we think we really are. We start thinking that perhaps our thoughts make us who we are. But recently I discovered that apparently I can't separate my mind from my body. This was proven by the realization that I need reading glasses.

On the face of it, this seems fairly mundane. I’m in my 40's, so it seems reasonable that I might need glasses—many people do at this age. But I was surprised how jarring it felt to me. I don’t mind wearing the glasses, although it is annoying that I’m always leaving them in the wrong place, and it’s hard to lie on my side and read because the glasses jab my face.

What's was jarring was the realization was that my weaker vision is permanent. For about six months, I could tell that something was changing with my eyes, but I didn’t know what it was. When I'd wake up in the morning, everything was fuzzy. When I looked at my phone, I had to let a few minutes pass until I could focus on it. And, after a lifetime of above average vision, it simply didn’t occur to me that my eyes were weakening. At first I assumed I was just extra tired. Then I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me. The worrier in me takes over and thoughts of illness start to flood through my brain. 

One night as I was reading in bed, my husband jokingly looked over at me and said, “I think you need a longer arm.”

Until he said that, I didn't realize I was holding my Kindle as far away from my eyes as possible—my arm locked at the elbow sticking out perpendicularly. Because of my incredibly short arms, this is not that far away. It suddenly clicked in my mind that my blurry vision and headaches probably simply meant that I needed reading glasses.

So now I have reading glasses. Actually, I have six pairs of glasses strategically placed all over the house because otherwise I would never know where any of them are. And reading is no longer a struggle. 

But my blurry, non-glasses, vision is still confusing for me. This is because it seems so arbitrary. After the birth of my daughter, I was exhausted for many years. And so the fact that I might naturally feel less energetic now because of getting older, has never seemed strange, because I was already tired for so many years from raising a kid.

But with my vision, it seems as if nothing changed externally in my life. I could see just fine one day. And then the next day, I couldn't see clearly. I can’t actually see the deterioration of the tissue in my eyes, so it feels random. I'm definitely not used to it. In the past, not being able to make my eyes focus meant that something was wrong. I was feverish or had banged my head. It’s harder than I expected to make myself understand that blurry vision is now the new normal. 

It still surprises me when I look down at my phone or at a form and can’t make the words come into focus. I often still have that split second of panic when I wake up and the world is blurry. It’s hard to change my self-identification as someone with good vision to someone who needs glasses. It’s not a vanity thing. I don’t care how wearing the glasses makes me look. 

This reaction to the glasses is interesting because I’m not a person who broods about getting older. Birthdays don’t bother me, for example. But the glasses are an unavoidable reminder that my body is aging. And while we sort of prepare ourselves for eventually being “old,” it’s the many little physical changes, spread over decades, that separate our youthful selves from our older selves—changes such as aching fingers, age spots on my face, new food allergies, difficulty sleeping and, now, needing reading glasses.

My daughter has been studying biology and psychology, and now regularly likes to inform me that we grow and develop until around our mid-twenties. After that we start dying. Literally. Cells start dying off. When she noticed that I'd started wearing glasses, she looked pensive for a moment then shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, you are dying.” 

And while she’s (mostly) joking, it is true. Our bodies get worn and things get creaky. So adjusting to needing glasses has been an interesting reminder to simply allow myself to get older—to adjust my thoughts from, “There’s something wrong with my eyes,” to “These are my eyes now; they need glasses.” Sometimes my back needs a heating pad. There might come a day when my legs need a wheelchair. 

It’s often hard for me to see my life as a whole story. I get caught up in what’s happening now, or my mind is not in sync with my body. When I see my husband and my daughter, I think of them as a whole arc of experiences. I remember getting married and I remember celebrating our twenty-year anniversary. I remember my daughter's birth and I remember her getting a driver’s license. 

And so, I need to remember that my story has an arc too. And changes to my body and my mind are part of that arc. 

Because of her illness, my mother’s physical transition was not gradual. Always a very youthful person (people have always thought she was younger than she was), she went from being a vibrant woman to seemingly aged overnight because of the sudden limitations in her ability to do things. While my physical aging is gradual, my mom’s changes were rapid. Within a few months, she had to adjust from being an active working person to one whose physical limitations were significant. Plus, she still has to contend with the normal pesky changes that come with getting older. 

So I wondered what her thoughts are on how her illness has affected her attitude toward getting older.

Before you were sick, did the idea of getting older bother you?

It didn't really and I think that's because, as I was getting older, I was also feeling more at peace with life. When I was younger, I was always searching for some key to permanent happiness. I'm not searching for that anymore, and the reward has been that I actually am happier...I just know it's always going to come and go. I've made peace with the fact that life is a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. I don't expect to always like how things are going—personally or globally. 

Also, as I age, I'm more accepting of the way I am and the way other people are. That's made a big difference because, when I stopped trying to change myself and others, a huge burden dropped away. 

Do you think being sick has changed your feelings?

It has, but perhaps not in the way you might think. Getting older doesn't bother me. I actually feel "older but wiser" and I don't mind the "wise" part at all! What bothers me is an ongoing concern that, due to my illness, being old will turn into some kind of nightmare where I won't be able to take care of myself properly or I won't be able to take care of your dad if he needs it. He's been my caregiver for 16 years now. What if he needs a caregiver?

So, that's my main concern about aging. Of course, I don't like the aches and pains that accompany getting older. But I'm content to put up with them so long as there are things I still enjoy in life.

Do you think you notice physically aging more or less because of the limitations of your illness?

Oddly enough, outwardly, I've aged much less than my healthy friends who are around my age. I'm always shocked when I see someone I haven't seen for several years because they almost always look so old. Yet, they tell me I look just the same and, except for some loose skin on my upper arms, I do look pretty much the same as I did 16 years ago when I got sick.

When people tell me how good I look or how I don't look a day older than when they saw me last, I joke with them that I'm not aging because I'm not using my body up since I'm resting all the time. Nutty as this theory sounds, I enjoy believing it (erroneously probably), although it does concern me that I can't engage in any type of strenuous exercise, which everyone says is a key to aging well.

To answer your question, what I've noticed is that I seem to be aging less than my friends. Even so, I'd trade this phenomenon for being as healthy and fit as they are.


  1. Mara,I feel your pain!Soon I will need glasses for driving. One of the few parts of me that seemed to be unaffected by M.E. were my eyes,so it is particularly galling! I also worry how going thru the menopause will affect my M.E. symptoms. I'm a few years off it yet but I hate the phrase 'peri-menopausal'- it's like some awful countdown to doom!

    Toni,I too benefit from looking younger than my peers. I really believe that lying down in a darkened room away from ageing sunlight and not using my facial muscles so much is what staves off signs of ageing! I do worry how I will cope with old age if I still have M.E. then. I haven't been able to save into a private pension because I can't work. I don't like the thought of being poor and ill on top of old age. I try to practice a 'don't know' mind to relieve the panic and stay open to positivity. It takes work!
    Thanks to you both for sharing your experiences x

    1. Hi Liza. Toni here. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with everyone. I just wanted to tell you that I rely on "don't know" mind too. It helps me cope with worries about what might happen as I age. I'm so thankful that I learned that and could share it in my books because it's helped so many people. All my best to you. Toni