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.

I’m Still Failing at Empathy

I feel like a rotten person for admitting this, but despite my best efforts there are still people who I feel incredibly awkward around: elderly people over 90, people with developmental disabilities, police officers and just about any kid except my own. There is nobody I feel more awkward around though than my mother when she’s crying.

It’s exceedingly rare that she cries. In fact, the only time I’ve ever seen it is when she’s at funerals or mourning afterward. Unfortunately, she got some horrible news about my uncle, her younger brother, yesterday about his ongoing battle with cancer.

Despite a year where it looked like immunotherapy treatment was appearing to work, in the last two months the tumor on his liver has grown rapidly. They are going to try an aggressive form of chemotherapy, but the doctor said if he doesn’t respond well, it’s going to be time to have some palliative care discussions.

Without getting into too much history, my uncle is eight years younger than my mother. Their parents weren’t the warmest or most attentive people. She missed out on a lot of typical middle and high school activities because she was required to babysit him. This created a bond that has always seemed almost more like mother and son rather than brother and sister to some of us in the family. In a lot of ways, she was his first kid and they have been immensely close ever since.

When it comes to death and funerals, my involuntary reaction is to mentally and emotionally detach. I’ve probably been to 20 wakes/funerals in my life and I recall crying at one, for one of my best friends when he was 18 and I was 21. I can almost always go look at the body and feel nothing. When people say, “He looks peaceful” or “She’s not suffering now,” I get the urge to say, “He isn’t peaceful. He isn’t anything” or “Of course she’s not suffering, but she’s also not feeling good. She isn’t feeling anything.” This is why I sit toward the back and only speak when spoken to at those things.

Detachment happens when I feel incredibly awkward and/or can sense I’m about to feel incredibly sad. Funerals and wakes are an intersection of both emotions.

Detachment turns off my empathy. It turns off all of my emotions, but the appropriate one in most situations I find myself detaching is empathy.

I perfected the art of detaching as a young kid. I think it was from when my babysitter would put me in a dark room, and I didn’t know how long I’d be there. I learned to trick my mind into seeing two hours as 15 minutes, or more accurately, suspending the typical sensation of time elapsing in my head.

It’s not all bad. I can sit at the DMV, or any waiting room, for an hour and barely notice it. Detachment is what made driving 9,000 miles this past August seem like a breeze and when I was in jail in early 2016, detachment let the days bleed into one another until I somewhat lost all sense of normal time elapsing.

The problem with detachment, and it’s a problem I’ve been trying to address throughout my recovery, is that it’s lead to a lifelong lack of empathy. When I hear or see my mother crying, it’s easier – and more natural for me – to shut down than to process it.

I think detachment and lack of empathy go hand-in-hand. I also think that I have empathy deep down, but I know that when I start to let it out, it doesn’t stop. I’m not mean to really old people or developmentally disabled people. They just make me so, so sad. I don’t like watching movies designed to make me cry either. And, in my very grueling therapy appointments that came early in recovery, I had to learn to schedule them at the end of the day because I’d be an empathetic wreck thinking about all the people I hurt. I didn’t want that to happen early in the day because then it was a lost day.

Sympathy I can do. Empathy I still have trouble with. For those who don’t know the difference, I described it this way in rehab once and the counselor said they were going to adapt it because it’s the bluntest they’d ever heard:

Sympathy = That sucks for you
Empathy = Sucks to be you

It’s a subtle difference, but with empathy, you’re putting yourself in a person’s spot and understanding how they feel. It’s relating to another’s emotions. With sympathy, it’s a sterile recognition of what the person is going through.

I’m not an idiot. I can recognize my mother is very sad by the fact she was crying on the phone and will probably be experiencing more of that in the future as this ordeal with my uncle continues. But I also either can’t, or don’t want to relate. I know that I should. I know that’s the right thing to do, but despite my recovery going smoother than most people’s, this is still a giant hurdle. I love my mother and I love my uncle. I don’t know what to say to either of them that is both genuine and won’t leave me a complete mess. In the past, my way of handling it is to just not say much of anything or pretend like it’s not happening.

I know what the comments are likely going to say on this post because I’m telling myself the same things: Suck it up, you’ve got to be there for them. Sometimes life is uncomfortable and avoiding it doesn’t help anyone. What would you want your child to do in the same situation?

I get it, I really do. And to give myself a tiny bit of credit, I’m better at this kind of stuff than I was before recovery. Several people, including my mother, have made mention I’m an overall better human, but that’s easy on most days. The dark days ahead are going to be challenging.

I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me at the beginning of recovery that the toughest part was going to be emotionally connecting and allowing myself to feel empathy for others. Now, it seems obvious it was going to be the toughest part. Hopefully I can learn to better deal with it.