So I was talking to an old friend recently about birthdays, and he was echoing a sentiment that I too had previously held about this annual anniversary, aka The Day Of Dread. That day when friends and family go out of their way to make your birthday great by (rather pointedly I feel) reminding you that the glory days of your youth are even longer past, some part of your anatomy is probably about to start failing, and senility and possibly even incontinence are just over the horizon which is oh look – that much closer! My Amateur Armchair Psychologist Antennae had sprung to full attention when this friend confessed that he had hated every birthday since somewhere around his 25th, because as an ACoN I too understand the power of birthdays over those of us who were badly damaged as children; birthdays are painful reminders that we are physically aging but yet still unable to grow up into adulthood.
When you’re born a light is switched on, a light which shines up through your life. As you get older the light still reaches you, sparkling as it comes up through your memories. And if you’re lucky as you travel forward through time, you’ll bring the whole of yourself along with you, gathering your skirts and leaving nothing behind, nothing to obscure the light. But if a Bad Thing happens part of you is seared into place, and trapped for ever at that time. The rest of you moves onward, dealing with all the todays and tomorrows, but something, some part of you, is left behind. That part blocks the light, colours the rest of your life, but worse than that – it’s alive. Trapped for ever at that moment, and alone in the dark, that part of you is still alive.”
― Michael Marshall Smith, Only Forward
One of the difficult things about talking about psychological damage is that you have to use metaphors to describe what’s happening to you, because trying to explain scientifically what is going on in your brain is not very instructive – “so my dad hit me and 12,547 ganglions in sector gamma-delta-xylon of my left frontal neocortex got corrupted and that’s why I now hit my wife“. “Ohhhhh” you reply and nod sagely, “NOW it all makes sense!” Maybe not. A more useful metaphor to describe psychological events is that of the Inner Child.
To begin with, the inner child is real. Not literally. Nor physically. But figuratively, metaphorically real. It is–like complexes in general–a psychological or phenomenological reality, and an extraordinarily powerful one at that. Indeed, most mental disorders and destructive behavior patterns are, as Freud first intimated, more or less related to this unconscious part of ourselves. We were all once children, and still have that child dwelling within us. But most adults are quite unaware of this. And this lack of conscious relatedness to our own inner child is precisely where so many behavioral, emotional and relationship difficulties stem from.
In my case, when the Bad Things happened, so much of my inner child got left behind that I remained perpetually a teenager, like Peter Pan, for all of my adult life. Well, if truth be told, I made it mentally to about the age of 25 – the same age my friend above with a psychologically abusive father also started hating birthdays. Consequently I remained as disdainful of age and old people as teenagers today are, and birthdays were a sharp reminder that I was unable to grow up and join the real world as an adult.
As mentioned in previous posts it was only last year after a couple of decades or so of introspecting and chipping away through my mental defenses with professional help that I finally found the dark place where my inner child was trapped and after a rather emotionally draining reconciliation together we walked out of 1980 and entered the world (finally!) in 2015 as a human being. So even though I escaped my parents house at age 18, it was really only last year at age 51 that I finally actually left home.
It wasn’t the end the process though. To my slight surprise I woke up the next day in bed, as myself I may finally be liberated but I am certainly not fully formed. There are parts of me still cut off waiting to be found and it is those places where I am vulnerable to counterattack. Those who know me often see me fall back to a position of fear and insecurity, but most of the time I’m advancing. The war is far from over, but as that fat guy with the cigar said in 1942 “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”.
And then the Clickbait changed everything.
I was lying in bed nursing a wee hangover this morning, because I still occasionally succumb to dysfunctional habits learnt over a lifetime of being, well… dysfunctional. Irresponsible alcohol and drug use habits for example. Until 2am. So in between cups of tea to rehydrate and codeine to numb the guilt, I was reading about the psychology of clickbait and why people will still click to read an article they know will disappoint them. I was just about to get all smug over my superior resistance to the lure of this facile marketing ploy when it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t so much my willpower but rather that the clickbait wasn’t actually aimed at me. Because I’m not their target market. Because I’m no longer relevant. Because I’m old.
And that’s when it happened. Months of small hints that I had unconsciously been ignoring finally coalesced into a startling realization – after denying it for over 30 years I finally realized that I.Am.Old. Even more surprising than that revelation was that my next thought was ‘and I’m OK with it’. Because being old means I’m actually being. Birthdays are now a reminder that I’m actually here. That I’m still here. And each passing year is a reminder that I am (finally) on my journey.
Age is not just a number. Nor is it a state of mind. Age is a gift that reminds us that we are actually living. Age gives us the ability to more easily measure and evaluate our progress through this life from one year to the next, provides reference points to the big moments along the way, and reminds us that we aren’t here forever.
Accepting ourselves unconditionally means accepting the age we are now. Embracing the age we are now. And accepting and embracing where we are now and who we are now. Accepting the consequences of the choices we made along the way and the other paths we didn’t get to walk down because we chose a different route. And accepting that we will always wish we had more time.
And I’m going to carry on accepting my age and the choices I made… riiiiiiiight after this hangover is gone.