After ‘Growing Up’ You Then ‘Get Older’

My uncle died last night. He was 63, which is quite young to die in our family and he’s the first of my parents’ generation to go on either side. He battled cancer off and on for five years and after a rough couple of months and real rough last week, he’s moved on to whatever is next, if anything.

I’m not going to tell a lot of stories about him, because while cathartic, you didn’t know him and that’s what wakes are for. His death, though, is just kind of reminding me of the entire aging process, getting older, things changing and sometimes it’s only in moments like this that you find the time to reflect.

My uncle had a great beard. It was full and thick, but he kept it well trimmed unlike how a lot of men prefer the scraggly look. In the winter, I usually grow a beard, shave once because it gets too long, regrow it and lose it for good in the spring. With the latest incarnation of my beard, I’ve noticed there is gray sneaking into it.

Yes, I have friends younger than me with heads full of gray hair, but based on that spot on the top of my head and the V shape that starts to subtly form in the front, I always thought that I’d be bald and not gray. Most people with reddish hair usually don’t go gray. I’m not sure if I like gray hair better than being bald. I guess it’s just part of aging.

On February 8, I’ll turn 44. Do I think that’s old? Not really, although I certainly used to. I also used to think college students looked a lot older than they do and people who were 65 or 70 were ancient. A lot changes about your perception as you move into middle age. The idea that statistics suggest I’m now well past the halfway point in my life (76 is average as of last year for a male in the US) kind of blows my mind. I feel like I only finally pulled my stuff together in the last few years and really would like to reset things to my late 20s.

I haven’t started watching a new TV show in years. Since radio is so dull and formatted these days, I have no idea where people are getting their new music. Tik Tok and Snapchat seem pointless to me and I don’t think I’ll ever have a Twitter or Instagram.  I’ve mostly stopped using streaming services and I’m completely content to watch two hours of Everybody Loves Raymond at night and play games on my phone. I could fight to stay connected to youth culture, or even mainstream culture, but why?

I’m not going to say that older people are irrelevant, but when it comes to pop culture and entertainment trends we really are. Take for instance TV ratings. On Friday, January 24, 2020 the most watched TV shows were Hawaii 5-0, Magnum PI and Blue Bloods on CBS – and they were all repeats. Between 4.9 million and 5.3 million tuned in to watch those shows. Yet despite nearly doubling the closest competition, ABC’s family sitcoms and 20/20, the network that made the most money was Fox, showing WWE Friday Night Smackdown.

Why was the network that came in third in overall viewers the one that profited the most? Because more people in the 18-49 age group watched wrestling than watched the other shows. A 30-year-old watching wrestling is a more attractive viewer than three 60-year-olds. They historically have higher disposable income than the older viewer and are not set in their purchasing ways like people twice their age are loyal to brands.

I understand it. When I go to a place like Applebee’s or Olive Garden, I get the same thing I’ve been ordering the last 7-10 years. It’s more important to me to know I’ll like something than try something new. Clearly my personal taste with TV is the same, even if I’m still technically a target viewer for a few more years.

For the first time ever, I’ve made some phone calls involving a family member’s death, helping to coordinate things. I’ve been more involved in planning and have been let in on other’s plans, including stuff like DNR orders, wills, last wishes, etc., than ever before. In some ways it makes me feel like a grown-up, but in other ways it makes me feel a burden of responsibility that is fresh. I have no time for silly new phone apps if I have to step-up and be the mature one, or at least that’s kind of how it feels.

Over the next few days, leading up to his wake, I’ll have to practice my fake nodding and ability to hear things like, “He’s in a better place” or “He looks peaceful” without throwing up all over whatever shirt I buy at TJ Maxx for the event. A great thing of working at home is you only need a lot of pajamas, but the side effect is when you have to be in public, your wardrobe dwindles over the years.

I guess placating others in an environment that makes my skin crawl, around people who make stuff up instead of saying, “I have no idea what to say. This sucks” is all part of growing up. Maybe at nearly 44, it’s time.

Goodbye, Carla

Last night I needed to find an old photo, so I briefly reactivated my personal Facebook account to track it down. I only have about 15 people as “friends” and they are all from my rehab days. I haven’t talked to any of them in at least three years. One, a young woman who was in the eating disorder program, wrote that another (who I’ll call Carla), died late last week of a heart attack. While the odds seem to have favored someone going sooner, this is the first person I knew from rehab who has been confirmed dead.

Carla wasn’t well when I knew her. Probably around 30, she mostly kept to herself and in the morning meeting where everybody at the rehab has to say a couple of things, she never seemed comfortable. Even those who don’t like public speaking eventually got comfortable around the group of 30. She arrived sometime before I got there, was there for the entire 7 weeks I attended, and remained after I left. I have no idea how long her stay was, but based on talking to some of the other women in the eating disorder program, it sounded like Carla had among the most severe trauma and her mental health was not solid.

The place where Carla and I bonded was before breakfast. She and her only friend (who wrote the Facebook entry) were the first two up in the morning, along with me. The dining room didn’t open until 6:30, so it would usually be the three of us sitting around in a common room adjacent from around 6:15 to 6:30. The two of them would sneak out and go for a walk at 5:45 a.m. to burn calories. Apparently it was a no-no, but I didn’t subscribe to the “rat out your peers” theory until jail.

The women in the eating disorder program had to wait until 6:45 to eat breakfast, when they could be coached on what they chose to eat and then made sure to eat by a monitor. I’m not a big breakfast guy, so some days I’d remain sitting there and in those 15-30 minutes, I got to know Carla probably better than any other person, except her one other friend, and I still feel like I didn’t really know her.

She wore the same ratty, oversized sweater every day. One of the first mornings I was there when she came in from her walk, she sat down and said, “You probably wonder why I wear this every day.”

“It means something special to you, reminds you of someone, makes you feel safe, hides your body or some combination I’d guess,” I said. “Whatever makes you feel good is good with me. You don’t have to explain anything.”

I think that was the initial bonding moment. Later that morning, she told the entire group she didn’t want anyone asking her why she wore that sweater every day because if they didn’t get it, she didn’t want to explain. And then she smiled at me.

We also found that we shared a mutual disdain for the phrase, “How are you?” as a greeting. Sure, it’s just something we say, but it’s not something an unhealthy person wants to hear. We know the person asking doesn’t care and doesn’t want the truth if it’s not “good” so they can move onto the next thing.

Carla and I decided to stop saying that to each other. We thought a more appropriate greeting was, “I see you there” because that’s all “How are you?” means to most people.

I think I was the only male, and certainly the only one in the sex/porn program that she spoke to with any regularity. My guess would be that there was some kind of sexual assault in her past that made her scared of men and sex, but as she slowly heard my story she asked a few questions. Nothing too prying, but I think it was part of her trying to process her own demons.

While we both had alcoholism issues in the past, neither of us were there for that kind of treatment. We often talked about how that was a more clear-cut disease to fight. The goal is to stop drinking. With both porn/sex addiction and eating disorders, the goal is to find a healthy balance. Yes, I needed to stop looking at porn, but I also needed to develop the healthy sexuality that eluded me in life to that point. She needed to figure out how to have a healthy relationship with food.

You can’t stop having a sexual identity and you can’t stop eating if you’re going to be in recovery. These kinds of recovery are very individualized because what is one person’s demon doesn’t bother the person next to them. Healthy eating, or sexuality, can look very different to two people who have the same problem.

I never had any illusion we’d stay in touch after rehab. I talked to her friend a couple times after we were both out and she told me Carla wasn’t doing well, but I even lost track of that woman pretty quickly. It surprised me when I read her announcement of Carla’s death on Facebook, but it didn’t shock me that Carla didn’t make it to old age. It still shocks me more when an addict does. Goodbye, Carla.


Proof of a Soul and What I Think Happens After We Die

In almost every support group or group therapy I’ve been a part of on my road to recovery, there always seems to be a few people who are preoccupied with dying. Despite the fact we’re there to talk about pornography addiction, they can’t stop quoting the Bible or babbling on about the afterlife. I guess that’s good, because it encouraged me to address what I think happens when we die, and if we really have souls at all.

The day after you die, the sun is going to rise, just as it did the day before you were born. People will go to their jobs, have their lunch, watch TV and go to bed. Somewhere around 99.9999% percent of the humans on the earth had no idea you were here when you were alive. Of those who did know you, very few will be significantly impacted over a long span of time by your demise, much like very few people’s death have significantly impacted you – despite what you may want others to believe and they want you to believe about them. People’s deaths are sad for a while, but few are truly impactful.

On that happy note, I think my lack of aversion to dying is a big part of the reason I never grasped onto the religion presented by parents as a child, nor a lot of the spirituality others found in alternatives when I was a young adult. I would have like a detailed breakdown of how the Universe operates, but I wasn’t going to go to church every Sunday nor harness the power of crystals to get me there.

When I looked around at church, I just saw a lot of people who were afraid of dying. I’m guessing it’s because they worried they’d go to Hell, but something in me never was willing to believe in Hell. I don’t think I ever really believed in Heaven. I just believed in “After”.

I never believed “After” was the place where all your friends are waiting for you and every pet you ever had is there to greet you. Even from a young age, it seemed like a story designed to make people feel better about dying.

I do believe in a spirit, and probably unsurprisingly to you, I was able to come to that acceptance having it explained to me scientifically. I was told that all of the body’s cells regenerate every 7-to-10 years. This isn’t exactly accurate, but the moral of the story is that we physically change and evolve constantly. There isn’t anything about your body that is the exact same as it was 10 years ago, and again 10 years ago before that. In the case of most cells, it’s a much shorter time span.

So, if somebody who is 50 years old has every cell in their body die and replaced many times in their life, how are they still essentially the same person? You can’t tear down a house, rebuild it with new supplies and say it’s the same house. It’s because houses don’t have souls or a spirit. I think that there is something in us that can’t currently be measured by science happening much deeper than a cellular level. How else are you the same person? There’s some sort of glue, some body energy, something that binds us through our changes.

Forensic scientists can tell you that we’re clinically dead when certain organs cease to function, but that things like skin cells and blood cells can remain alive long after your heart stopped beating. Your physical body does not die all at once. I think believing your soul or spiritual body dies in an instant is probably also wrong.

I don’t think our soul goes anywhere otherworldly. I think it stays here and dissipates over time like a dimming lightbulb…and that’s OK with me.

I also think that part of your spirit while you are alive is your influence. It’s your legacy. It’s the impact you’ve made on others. If not for my parents, I wouldn’t be here. If not for being raised by those two specific people, I wouldn’t be the specific person I am today. When they die, I’m still here with all of the traits, both inherited and learned, they provided. Their influence is slightly less in my children, and will be slightly less in my grandchildren. I don’t know what influence my great-great-great grandfather has in me, because he long dead before I got here, but I’m sure there’s a little something there. His spirit…his essence…lives on that way.

And yes, eventually, like the dimming lightbulb, after more generations arrive, his spirit will probably not be a part of family members any longer…and that’s OK with me.

For people who are afraid of dying, I guess the fear is that Hell will just suck forever. For those that don’t believe in Hell, I don’t know what the problem is. Maybe it’s the fear of the process of dying, like it will hurt, or a narcissistic belief their absence on earth will be felt much harder and deeper than it actually will. The people you know, even those close to you, will be able to go on without you.

I think part of the problem is that people associate some sort of consciousness to the state of being dead when it is the exact opposite. The total lack of consciousness is too scary, so we say things like “Doesn’t he look peaceful?” or “He would have liked this” to make ourselves feel better at a wake. Saying “He looks like he’s in agony” is just as accurate as the peaceful statement, but won’t play as well to the crowd around you. They need to believe that the transition into whatever is next isn’t fraught with peril, because they still have to make the journey. The only evidence they have to draw upon is the body in front of them at a wake. Interpreting it as peaceful is more for them than the person in the pine box.

I would love to believe that there is a state of conscious bliss after we leave this world. I really would. I think, like the family gathered around the casket, it would make me appear more peaceful. But I just can’t believe that. There has never been a shred of scientific support that we “go somewhere” when we die. Until there is, I’ll assume our soul stays here…and that’s OK with me.

I have a feeling the day after you die is a lot like the day before you were born. Find peace in knowing the sun will rise, people will eat their lunch, watch TV and go to bed. Be OK with that.