This is a Patreon reward post, and the first draft of this post was available to patrons last week. At the $10 support level, I’ll write a self-care post on the topic of your choice during your birthday month. And at any level of support, you’ll get access to these (and other) posts early.
This post is for Shannon, who is one of the strongest and most courageous people I know. She deals with chronic anxiety and other health issues, and yet is always doing as much as she can with the tools and resources she has available. She is an inspiration to me. Her requested topic was sensory overwhelm – what it is and how to handle it.
I decided to take this prompt in a different direction than my usual, and drew a comic for her rather than writing a post. There’s a longer post on the Patreon in the first draft, so if you want my long and slightly incoherent ramblings about what sensory overwhelm feels like for me, you can check that out as a patron.
After thinking about it, though, I think the comic is better without the explanations. I realized that one of the ways I try to process and mitigate sensory overwhelm is by over-thinking it, analyzing it into the ground, intellectualizing it, because being present with it is just so effing uncomfortable. But that over-analyzing, over-thinking, over-intellectualizing gets in the way of getting through the experience.
When I lose myself in sensory overwhelm, it’s often in those moments of trying to think myself out of my body. Sometimes it works better to just try to stay grounded while the overwhelm overwhelms, to let it happen and trust that there’s another side to come out on, to breathe even when the sound of the breathe is too much, to push my shoulders down from my ears even when the movement is too much, to close my eyes and know that I am alive, I am okay, I will be okay, even when everything is coming at me amplified and awful.
So, here’s my comic. This is how I experience sensory overwhelm.
Panel One: A disjointed stick figure, with none of the limbs connected. “I feel disconnected and out of sync.”
Panel Two: A stick figure stands and covers their ears. Yellow and red lines and wiggles surround their head. “Sound are overwhelming.”
Panel Three: A stick figure stands. The sun is in the top left corner of the panel. Red and yellow starbursts cover the stick figure’s head. “Light hurts my eyes.”
Panel Four: A stick figure stands. Green wiggly lines surround them. “Smells are so strong and bad.”
Panel Five: A stick figure stands, surrounded by a spiky red field. “I feel like one giant exposed nerve.”
Panel Six: No image. “Sometimes I lose myself for a while.”
Panel Seven: A stick figure sits cross-legged. Blue and green concentric circles radiate out from their torso. “Eventually I can breathe and centre.”
Panel Eight: A stick figure stands. “And then I am back in sync.”
Jen Donovan lives in Eugene, Oregon, and is a mental health therapist. She posts frequently about her experience with chronic illness (mast cell activation syndrome), and her journey towards wellness. She blogs at Skunk Speaks.
She generously shared her experience and insight as part of the July theme week on the Sostar Self Care Facebook page – System Failure: Self-Care for Sick Days (and weeks, and months).
Tiffany – Can you share (as much as feels comfortable) about your experience with becoming ill and coming to terms with what was happening?
Jen – This was really hard for me because the disease I have is pretty rare and the symptoms are often fairly vague and hard to make sense of. So, for the first six months or so of having acute symptoms, I really thought that I was “going crazy.” Additionally, a symptom of the disease is panic attacks, which further confounded what was physiologically happening to me. I was lucky that I had a doctor at the time who happened to be familiar with the disease and was able to diagnose me. Just having the validation, that I was not just having somatic delusions, was a really important initial step in coming to terms with what was happening.
After that, though, came the second part of “coming to terms” – actually accepting that I have a rare, incurable disease. Again, I was lucky that I had exposure to alternative and holistic healers in my community who helped me realize that although the disease cannot be “cured,” it can be “healed” through major lifestyle and diet changes, among other things. The distinction between “healing” and “curing” has become an important one for me in my process of acceptance.
I acutely remember one day in early February, looking over the four pages of things that an herbalist recommended I start doing to treat my illness, including an extremely stringent diet and major lifestyle changes, and I was just crying and crying and crying. Even being very disciplined with these changes, it can take years to see a significant effect. I had a horrifying moment of realizing my life would never be the same. I felt like I couldn’t do it – it was too much – I would just be sick forever and eventually die. And at that moment of total terror, I had this incredible experience of complete surrender. I felt my “ego” just fade away and I just totally submitted to a journey towards wellness, no matter what it entailed. That was a really important moment in my acceptance.
Tiffany – I wanted to ask a bit more about the idea of surrender – you talk about that as being such an important process, but our culture is so resistant to the idea of surrender. Sickness/illness is something we are supposed to “fight” but in your words, it’s not about fighting illness so much as surrendering to a journey. Can you add to that? It’s just such a narrative shift that I wanted to expand on it.
Jen – Yeah, the idea of surrender has been big for me. I think one idea that has become a major core belief for me is that, generally speaking, the body is infinitely wise. If it’s doing something harmful to itself, it’s because something in the environment is not working for it. It’s not being given the space it needs to take care of itself. Symptoms are messages – our body telling us ‘hey this isn’t working!’ So to “fight” against illness is to disrespect the messages our body is giving us about how to heal. Again, this way of thinking about it isn’t going to work for every person in every situation. But for me what has worked is to accept that the healing is in the wound. That’s a phrase I read from my horoscope by Chani Nicholas at the beginning of the year and I cannot get it out of my head. So instead of rejecting my symptoms I’ve been trying to turn towards them, and accept that my body is doing something important, something meaningful. If I can surrender to the body, work with my symptoms as a partner to investigate why it is struggling and suffering, I’ve made so much more progress than when I was stuffing myself with medications to try to stop the symptoms. This is what surrender has been like for me.
Tiffany – How do you handle the social aspects of chronic illness? Especially the impact of illness on relationships.
Jen – This one is weird and I’m still struggling with it. The first major one was re-navigating my relationship with my primary partner. I realized early on that many of the things we would do together as a couple to bond were no longer accessible for me. I can’t eat at restaurants, I can’t drink alcohol, I can’t do recreational drugs, I can’t go backpacking or even camping for more than a night really, I can’t do super heavy impact play or other s/m activities. I had a couple of weeks where I worried that our relationship would collapse because all these things we had structured our relationship and intimacy around weren’t options anymore. It was scary for awhile. But I eventually recognized that if he decided to leave me because I couldn’t do these activities anymore, then he wasn’t actually dating me for “me,” but for the things I did. And that ended up not being the case. We have had to have a lot of intentional conversations about it, but we have been able to restructure our relationship around activities we can still do. And in some ways our relationship has grown deeper and more intimate because we’ve been forced to do this, and get to know each other in new ways. We have done a lot more things like more spiritual bdsm, tantra exercises, walks and gentle hikes, and we still go out dancing sometimes – I’m just sober now – and we have a great time.
I have found that this illness has given me a strange opportunity to really learn who my true friends are. It was surprising to see who stopped talking to me, or inviting me to events, once I became sick. I think some of it has to do with similar to the above, not being able to do the same things I used to. I also think some people are just really uncomfortable around someone who is chronically struggling. The reality is that even on good days I’m not really “good” – my body is extremely sick! And there are days when I feel very sad and discouraged. I try not to be excessively negative – but I’m also not going to pretend that everything is fine. And I’m learning who can handle that and who can’t, and having to adjust my social connections accordingly. Part of me feels bitter or rejected at times, but part of me sees this as an opportunity to focus my energy on people who can be there for me in a deeper way.
Tiffany – What has been the most helpful strategy you’ve found for keeping yourself moving forward? And, how do you handle those times when you can’t? (I’m asking this one because you always convey so much honest exhaustion and discouragement but you rarely come across as hopeless or despondent – it’s really encouraging and inspiring, and I’m wondering what keeps you tethered to resilience.)
Jen – Honestly, I don’t feel like I have any other option. I think this goes back to that “surrender” moment I had back in February. To give up is to just accept illness, accept death. I have to be real with myself that I will be dealing with this disease for the rest of my life, but that’s where the difference between “healing” and “curing” comes in. I’m not trying to cure myself. I’m just trying to heal. I’m trying to give my body space to take care of itself. And I deeply, deeply believe that bodies know how to take care of themselves if they are given the proper space and environment to do so. So to give up, to not continue to move forward would be to reject this deeply held belief I have and I have just seen too much powerful evidence in the world to do that.
Another thing is that I’ve managed to find some spiritual purpose to the experience, which I think has been essential to me. Here I am, 27, struggling with a rare disease and terribly ill. And yet – I’m sober, I have more fulfilling relationships now than I ever had, I’m eating and taking care of my body better than I ever have before, I’m better at setting boundaries around my health and self-care than I ever have before – my entire life is now centered around wellness and healing. I’ve made these changes because I’ve felt like I’ve had to – and yet… if I hadn’t gotten sick the reality is I probably never would have made these changes. I’ve had visions during meditations recently where it was explained to me that this illness had to happen in order for me to progress in this way in my life journey. I don’t think everyone needs to or can find greater purpose in their illnesses. But it has been a very profound realization for me – that somehow in sickness I have found wellness.
And lastly, there are days when I don’t feel resilient, I don’t feel like I’m moving forward, and that sense of despair and terror sets in. I cry and I wail and I feel like I’m dying and nothing can help me. But that’s part of the process too, in a way. Those fears and feelings are real and to suppress them would be toxic. So, when they come, I really feel them. Just really wallow in them. And usually if I let myself really sob and wallow for awhile, the wave naturally passes and my thoughts naturally start turning to more optimistic thoughts. So I guess that’s a part of what helps me keep moving forward too.
Tiffany – I also wanted to ask more about spirituality, if you want to talk about that. That’s such a difficult and fraught topic for so many people – I know that a lot of folks in my community have come out of harmful fundamentalism, or have rejected religion for one reason or another, but I also know that there are a lot of folks (sometimes the same ones! sometimes others) who are searching for some kind of spiritual connection or process. What has that journey been like for you?
Jen – Well, I’ve come from the opposite situation, lol – my dad is a fundamentalist atheist so it’s been a journey for me to find spirituality rather than get away from it!
(If you appreciate and want to support this work, consider visiting my Patreon page.)
Registration has been extended to July 16! There are still five spots available as of July 9.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
– Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
What does it mean to have a body, and to accept the body that you have?
To “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”?
What does it mean to be present in the physical world, as a physical being?
To see that “the sun and the clear pebbles of rain are moving across the landscapes”?
This course, Moving Towards Wholeness: physical self-care and body narratives, is an invitation to ask, and begin to answer, those questions.
Moving Towards Wholeness is a six-week online course designed to encourage gentle, playful exploration and acceptance of ourselves as physical beings in a physical world. We will work on sensory awareness, and even incorporate some elements of sensory integration for emotional regulation.
This course is explicitly welcoming for fat, disabled, trans, racialized, and traumatized bodies and selves. Self-love is not required. Awareness, intention, compassion, and presence will all be cultivated in the course, but the elusive ideal of self-love (so often inaccessible to those of us with histories of trauma or marginalization) will be left on the table for you to pick up or not.
The course will focus on encouraging mindfulness and presence, and physical acts of self-care such as staying hydrated, stretching, moving in accessible ways, mindful breathing, focusing on our senses, and engaging playfully and creatively with our bodies, our senses, and the physical world around us. We will work on recognizing and being present with the physical body, and on recognizing and reframing internalized narratives about what it means to have a body and to be “healthy” or “unhealthy,” gently challenging our internalized ableism, and bringing an intentional awareness to how we move through this world.
Where Writing Towards Wholeness, our spring online course, focused on mental self-care and the act of writing, this summer course will be much more embodied, and we will climb down from our thinking/overthinking cerebral selves and into our seeing/hearing/tasting/smelling/touching physical selves.
Because this course is running over the summer (July 10 – August 20), and the summer is often full of weekend getaways and vacations and schedule disruptions, the course content will be delivered in the form of a PDF package at the beginning of the course, which will include writing by me (Tiffany Sostar), as well as content by special contributor Emily Goss, the author of Go Wild! and blogger at groweatgift.
The package will include a daily physical self-care checklist (modified from the request made by the participants in the spring course!), as well as a sensory scavenger hunt, with an optional photo scavenger hunt.
In addition to the PDF package, there will be regular emails and an optional weekly Google Hangout chat, as well as an opt-in private Facebook group for course participants.
July 17 – August 27 / $125*
*$60 for Patreon supporters or returning participants, free for coaching clients, sliding scale available
Space is limited
Email me to register!
(Image is from gratisography.)
This is (sort of) a Patreon reward post. At $5 support per month, you, too, can have a personalized post on the topic of your choice during your birthday month! Because this topic ended up generating so much meaningful discussion about ageing, rather than trying to cram everything into a single post I have expanded it into a three-part series. All substantial blog posts are released to Patreon patrons one week early.
This is Part Two of the three part series. In Part One, we talked about the fear of ageing, and how to care for ourselves through those fears. Part Two is about the joys of ageing. Part Three, on the topic of fear of death and end-of-life preparation, will be next.
I struggled with writing this second post in the series. So often, an acknowledgement that joy is possible becomes weaponized – rather than gesturing towards a possibility, joy becomes an obligation.
Because so much of our culture, particularly in the self-help and self-care communities, focuses so hard on “manifesting” positive outcomes through positive attitudes, with the corollary victim-blaming coming along for the ride, I find myself hesitating even to talk about joy for fear of how it will be interpreted and how it could be turned as a weapon against the vulnerable, the hurting, the fearful among us.
The vulnerable, the hurting, the fearful – these are my people. Although I am a playful, sparkly, joyful person, I identify strongly with the parts of me that are almost always fearful, almost always hurting. My joy is a sparkle in the dark, rather than the other way around.
And so, part of my resistance to this second post was also my own cognitive distortions – my tendency towards all-or-nothing thinking (if joy is possible, then joy is always right and fear is always wrong!); my internalized victim-blaming (if I could just be happy, then I would be happy!); my fear of joy. Brené Brown writes, “I think the most terrifying human experience is joy. It’s as if we believe that by truly feeling happiness, we’re setting ourselves up for a sucker punch. The problem is, worrying about things that haven’t happened doesn’t protect us from pain.”
Although Brené Brown’s description of fearful joy is not universal, it certainly does ring true for me, and is part of why I often hesitate to embrace joy in my own life. Letting go of the fear feels as if it will open me up to tragedy. If I am constantly afraid, maybe I won’t end up hurt?
But is it not possible to fully engage with the range of responses I got from people without engaging with the joy that some of them expressed. The anticipation. The freedom that they saw in ageing, and the carefree delight of it. An honest engagement with my research means pushing through my anxiety and digging into this rich and uncomfortable soil – the terrifying possibility that joy is lurking.
What I learned from the generous responses of the people I spoke with is that ageing isn’t all bad, and our relationship with ageing doesn’t have to be one of fear and dread. This is true despite the fact that many fears that people expressed are completely valid and grounded in the reality of ageism (and the many other intersections of marginalization that exacerbate the impact of ageism), as well as real economic and social threats. Some people are able to see the positive sides of ageing, regardless of the scary things.
This joyfulness is not solely the realm of the privileged. There are people facing sexism, racism, cissexism, binarism, ableism, sizeism, and many other marginalizations who still find joy in the idea of ageing, and there are many people with various privileges who view ageing with significant fear. It’s important to acknowledge that each person responds to situations in their own individual ways, informed by their culture and family of origin, their available resources (including social, emotional, mental, and material resources), and with their own unique outlook. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to approach ageing – the fear is valid, and so is the joy.
And, importantly, the fear and joy often coexist.
Emily, who also talked about fearing increased pain and loss of mobility, says, “I call grey hairs wisdom strips and love getting older and feeling more content to be myself. The growing invisibility works well with my personality too.”
Although Tammy expressed anxiety about losing physical and mental abilities and being on the receiving end of our culture’s abysmal elder care (such a common, and reasonable, fear), she also said, “On the positive side, I menopaused at 47 and am quite happy with it. I also love being able to do whatever I want as my kid is now an adult, I have no partner, and I don’t give a flying f*** what anyone thinks.”
Similarly, Nicole talked about fearing loss of mobility, but started by saying, “I quite enjoy getting older now, as I feel like I’m at the stage where I’m becoming the person I want to be, someone I (mostly) like.”
That sense of confidence and self-assurance was a theme in a lot of the joyful responses, and it makes sense. One of the benefits of ageing can be a more solid sense of self, and less concern with what other people think about you.
Nadine’s comment exemplifies this. She says, “I enjoy getting older a lot. Possibly because I don’t associate my childhood and teen years with the kind of vitality most people ascribe to “youth”. I wasn’t a particularly strong, healthy, nimble or attractive to my peers as a child or during my teens. I didn’t have much control over my circumstances. I had strong instincts but lacked the maturity, intellectual skills and verbal ability to articulate or even fully understand what those feelings were about.
The more time passes, the more I understand my mind and my body. I know a lot more about how to take care of myself and my health. I’ve accepted what I look like. I can express my inner thoughts and emotions. I have some agency in my life. I don’t love how crunchy my knees are, but apart from that, getting older is my jam!” (Nadine is a fantastic sex educator, and specializes in supporting sex positive families – coaching parents and providing resources for kids.)
Margaret also expressed joy at feeling more confident. She says, “I’m turning 44 this year. Not afraid of aging. Kind of enjoying being treated less like a sexual object and more like a social subject. Increasingly feeling competent and confident. Slightly afraid symptoms associated with aging (physical problems, etc.). A little vain about how I look as I age, but finding a style that works for me.” (Margaret is an academic activist, and when I was but a wee little researcher and had recently come out, finding her Introduction to Bisexual Theory syllabus online changed the trajectory of my academic career, and started the journey that led to my community activism.)
Andrea says, “I know I’m still quite young, but aging is something that I’ve really enjoyed. Physically and mentally, I’ve never felt a desire to go back and even tho the future is daunting sometimes it’s something I constantly crave. Physically (this is what I hear emphasized a lot from people in my life) I’m not in a hurry for things like grey hair and wrinkles but my impression of them is that when they do come I will have earned them. I think they’re cute and, like, stretch marks or scars, they’re a sign that your body has existed in time and space, and has been literally shaped by experiences.”
I really love the idea that the inevitable signs of ageing can be “sign[s] that your body has existed in time and space, and has been literally shaped by experiences” fits to beautifully with my own narrative approach to self-understanding. Grey hair (which I’ve had since my teens) and wrinkles don’t bother me, but other changes in my body, particularly related to the fibromyalgia, have really bothered me. I sat with the idea of these changes being signs of my body being marked by my time here, and although I’m still pondering it, I do think there’s something valuable in the idea.
I’m conscious of the impact of trauma on the body, and how adverse childhood experiences and histories of abuse can impact our bodies. It’s one of the things I work on in my writing workshops and coaching sessions, and it’s something I’m very interested in in my own life. Although I’m not sure where this little thread of thought will end up, I wonder if there some valuable restorying that can happen if we take our bodies’ responses to trauma and see them as signs of existence and experience.
Another factor in finding joyfulness in ageing has to do with our exposure to old people and to the process of ageing. Being around old people is one way to reduce our fears of ageing, and to recognize that life does continue past the wrinkles and walkers. (Again, this is not always true. A traumatic experience with witnessing ageing might have the opposite effect.)
Another Margaret says, “Growing up I was very close to my grandfather who is vibrant and alert and still working up until very sudden death the age of 86. My grandmother died she was 92. Ageing never seemed scary to me as they set an example of independence, connections with family friends and community, constant learning and enjoyment of life.”
A 2013 study into the perceptions of successful ageing among immigrant women from Black Africa in Montreal found that the old women identified four elements that they considered essential for successful ageing. These were social engagement, intergenerational relationships, financial autonomy, and faith.
Social engagement, intergenerational relationships, and financial autonomy are all linked to both the fears identified in Part One, and the joys identified here.
The 2014 paper, “Strategies for Successful Aging: A Research Update,” found that physical activity, cognitive stimulation, diet/nutrition, complementary and alternative medicine, social engagement, and ‘positive psychological traits’ were all correlated with a higher likelihood of ‘successful ageing’ (though this term itself is contested and complicated).
These ‘positive psychological traits’ include a wide range of qualities such as resilience, adaptability, and optimism, and the reason the range is so wide is because they are most often self-identified among people who consider themselves to be ‘successfully ageing.’
(Again, that flutter of anxiety that identifying these potential helpful traits will be turned into obligations and used to blame people for their own struggles. I think this fear is a side effect of doing so much reading in the self-help section as research for my work as a coach, and being bombarded so often with weaponized positivity!)
But rather than taking a prescriptive view of these helpful traits, I think that we can take a narrative approach and part of our self-care around ageing can include looking for the stories in our own histories that demonstrate resilience, adaptability, and optimism – the times when we bounced back, when we adapted to a new situation, when we kept our heads up despite the weight of discouragement and the times when we didn’t but we also didn’t stay down.
This feels important, because it gives the stories we tell about ourselves and about our psychological traits power and meaning, and we can change the stories that we tell even when we can’t change the situations around us. This does not mean that we can remove ourselves from the toxic soup of racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, cissexism, etc. with the power of our minds. But it may mean that we can mitigate some of the damage, and give the systems that want to destroy us a gleeful middle finger. (While also recognizing that financial security as a determinant of successful ageing is one of the cruelest things imaginable in our current context of late capitalism.)
So, what does that mean for our self-care practices?
I think that these stories of joy and anticipation can be an invitation to look for opportunities to view ageing differently. Our self-care can include intentionally looking for ways to engage with joyful approaches to ageing.
We can also start to examine our views of ageing, and look for the stories that we’ve internalized about the ageing process and about what it means to be older. Our fears are valid, but there is also joy possible.
We can try to incorporate more intentional social engagement, particularly across generational gaps, into our lives.
We can keep our brains active by allowing ourselves to be curious and enthusiastic about our interests.
And, I think, we can work at accepting our ageing bodies – seeing the beauty in these signs that our bodies have existed in time and space, and been shaped by our experiences.
Alyson Cole’s article, “All of Us Are Vulnerable, But Some Are More Vulnerable than Others: The Political Ambiguity of Vulnerability Studies, an Ambivalent Critique.” This paper is behind a (significant) paywall. If you have access to it through a library, it’s a worthwhile critique of vulnerability studies, and since I cite Brown in this post, it’s important to acknowledge and examine the ways in which her framework fails to do justice to complex issues.
On a similar theme, Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s essay, “Shame and Disconnection: The Missing Voices of Oppression in Brene Brown’s ‘The Power of Vulnerability’,” which is available freely on The Body is Not An Apology.
Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson’s article, “Walk A Mile in Digital Shoes: The Impact of Embodied Perspective Taking on the Reduction of Negative Stereotyping in Immersive Virtual Environments.” This is such an interesting study, with very cool implications for challenging our own negative stereotypes about a range of people, including elderly people. I would highly recommend reading this one.
Jeanne Holmes’ 2006 dissertation, “Successful Ageing: A Critical Analysis.” I haven’t read this whole dissertation, but I found parts of it very helpful in understanding the differences between how we conceive of successful ageing and how older people themselves experience it.
(Picture of Jonathan and Tiffany on Jon’s birthday.)
This is a Patreon reward post. At $5 support per month, you, too, can have a personalized post on the topic of your choice during your birthday month! Patreon posts are available to patrons one week early. (This post is late, because there were a few emergencies and illnesses in my life, and I appreciate Jon’s patience with me!)
Jonathan Griffith is one of my best friends, and has been one of my romantic partners for the last eight and a half years. Over the course of our relationship we have come out and explored bisexuality together, learned how to do polyamory together (cut our teeth on each other, and have the scars to prove it). Jon was also there when I came out as genderqueer, and together we navigated that tricky terrain of shifting identities. We also lived together for a few years, managed the phenomenal feat of transitioning out of living together while remaining partners, and I am confident that we will be in each other’s lives as loving partners for as long as we’re both kicking around in these corporeal forms. Which, I hope, will be quite a while longer.
And that brings me to Jon’s requested topic: self-care, narrative, and fear of ageing.
Similar to the emotional reaction I had to Red’s post request about self-care and navigating post-secondary and professional environments while struggling with chronic illness and mental health issues, Jon’s request touched on some of my own exposed nerves.
I consider myself fairly at peace with ageing – I am almost entirely grey at 35, and am okay with that. I like my wrinkles. My teen years were a bit of a trainwreck and I didn’t even have an orgasm until after my divorce. I often consider my life to have (re)started at 27. So, when I first approached this topic, I anticipated it being an easy write. Find some good posts to link, write about how to self-care ourselves through our fear, pat self on back, done.
But ageing is more than just grey hair and wrinkles and birthdays. The fears around ageing are more than simply superficial. Scratch at the surface of these fears, and some of the ugly aspects of our cultural fixations on youth-and-beauty, work, and individualism come quickly to the surface. Economic and social anxieties bubble within these fears, and as a result many people have a complex and fraught relationship with ageing (or with the changes ageing might bring). There are material fears – loss of mobility, beauty, the ability to work or move or think; there are social fears – loss of social standing, loss of community; there are existential fears – death. There are also joys associated with ageing. It’s complex.
I asked about people’s feelings about ageing on my facebook, and the responses flooded in. There were so many, and they touched on so many critical issues and divergent experiences, that I’ve decided to turn this post into a three-part series.
The first part of this series is directly related to Jon’s original request – the material and social fears of ageing. We’ll look at what people are afraid of, and introduce some self-care tips for navigating those fears.
The second part of the series will address the joys of ageing.
And the final part of the series will address fear of death, and end-of-life preparation.
So, let’s dive into this complex topic!
We’ll start with one of the most commonly discussed fears of ageing – fearing the loss of attractiveness and desirability. This fear seems to disproportionately impact folks who are not allowed to look old or to lose their conventionally attractive physical features – where straight men may be given more leeway to age visibly, queer men and women, as well as non-binary individuals, are given much less flexibility to age in public. (This is not to imply that straight men don’t face unrealistic body expectations, only that there are cultural templates available for men to age visibly, that do not exist with the same frequency and diversity for queer men or people of other genders. Race and class also impact the willingness of society to grant a person the right to age visibly.)
Speaking specifically about this fear, Collin said, “I find as a queer cis-man that, although I try to resist it, so much of my value comes from being seen as attractive and so many of the messages within cis-male queer circles focus on older men being less attractive and therefore worth less so despite all my efforts to reject those notions, I still encounter the constant micro aggressions aimed at men of my age and older and I find myself succumbing to those feelings of questioning my worth as I age.”
Lyn echoed Collin’s fears: “I never used to be afraid of aging.. Now I’m very afraid. I’m approaching 40 and it makes me sick to my stomach. I find I’m stuck in the bullshit narrative that women have an expiry date. I’m no longer young and pretty. I’m not fit or slender… I have grey hair and I’m starting to see wrinkles and my skin is losing elasticity and a hundred million other details I can see every day in the mirror. I feel more and more obsolete.”
These fears may seem superficial, but there are real concerns underlying them.
Both Lyn and Collin’s concerns about desirability are echoed in Saryn’s fear. She said, “I’m afraid of losing respect and opportunities.” And it is all too true that women often do lose respect and opportunities as they’re seen to age. The expectation of youth and beauty extends beyond romantic relationships and is present in every aspect of our lives, with respect being doled out differentially along lines of race, class, ability, and body type, among others. These fears intersect with anxieties about being the “right” kind of fat person, the “right” kind of minority, the “right” kind of disabled person. And the “right” kind of person in any of these marginalized groups is always young and physically attractive, or has aged enough to be a cute old person.
There are times when we are allowed to have aged, but the act of aging itself, of being in transition between the states of “cute and young” and “cute and old,” is something to hide. And there is no guarantee that you will end up at “cute and old.” You are just as likely to end up not cute, facing the kind of pervasive ageism that leaves so many seniors socially isolated and struggling with intense loneliness and lack of intimacy.
Jonathan touches on this issue of hiding the ageing process when he says, “I think my fear is related to the way we treat our elders in our culture. Older folks aren’t valued. At best, we try to keep them out of sight until they die. At worst, we actively treat them poorly. Youth is idolized while age is seen as a liability. There are very few positive representations of age in our media. If there are famous old people, they became famous while they were young (and “beautiful”). Given how little we value our elders and given how much we prioritize youth over age, it’s REALLY hard to shake the internalized ageism that builds up. It’s a fear of becoming undesirable, of becoming forgotten, irrelevant.”
So, while many of these fears are related to appearances, they’re tied to fear of losing access to social supports and resources. Fears regarding the superficial physical changes that accompany aging are so deeply ingrained in our culture, and we grow up surrounded by a toxic fog of anti-ageing sentiment. This is exemplified in Rhonda’s statement that, “I hate that I’m looking like I’m aging … [I] shouldn’t feel that way ‘cause it was imposed upon me. But, still… I’m very afraid of it, and I hate it. Makes me sad. Not that aging was imposed upon me, but the belief that aging is bad and the feelings that go along with that.”
Michelle echoed Rhonda’s frustration with fearing ageing even though she recognizes that the fear doesn’t line up with how she wants to see herself. ““I like to think I don’t have a fear of aging, but.. I turned 40 and was shocked/hurt that my optometrist would even suggest after my eye exam that I needed bifocals. I literally needed a few weeks to digest that. I talked to an older friend that clearly had them, told me that sooner or later I will be tired of taking off and on my reading glasses. I had another friend get “progressives” and she told me that she seen a reduction in headaches.
I have accepted that I should get them, the blue filter, etc but after seeing the price, I had to start all over again with the “as if I need these” conversation I have been having with myself.” (Michelle is an amazing Indigenous woman running for Ward 10 in Calgary, Alberta. She’s worth supporting!)
Even when we recognize that the fear is imposed on us, and that the physical changes are inevitable, it’s difficult to move past them. Especially because while some of the changes related to ageing are aesthetic, many of them aren’t. Many people talked about their fears around losing physical ability.
Lyn said, “My body hurts, and creaks.. I’m sore every day. I’m trying to get fit, but it seems like an impossible goal due to all the things wrong with me, and the loss of youthful resiliency on top of it.”
Lost resiliency was also a concern for Rebecca, who said, “I am not afraid of this stage of aging (I’m 50). Nor am I afraid of dying (would prefer not to for at least 30 years or so). But I am afraid of how my body will break down, things I will lose of myself, in about 30 years. I realize today how much care I have to take of my body, how fragile it really is, and how if I don’t build resilience today, I’ll pay with pain tomorrow. And I’m afraid that the things I need to do to heal my body today, I just plain suck at doing. That dynamic of feeling not in control of my body because of the laziness of my mind is a hard one to navigate.”
And the idea that we can build resiliency and have it keep us safe from pain and degeneration isn’t always the case. Although there are things we can do at any age to help reduce pain and increase mobility, strength, and resilience, none of these protect us from illnesses.
Reina says, ”I didn’t used to be afraid of ageing before becoming chronically ill. Even though I don’t plan on having children, I figured I’d be able to do all of the things you’re supposed to do to provide for yourself in retirement and beyond. After becoming ill 5 years ago, I’m much more afraid of ageing. I’m unable to work due to ME/CFS. So financially getting older is scary, but also my health is poor now and I’m only 31. I worry that by the time I get much older my health will be horrid, I’ll be at much higher risk of bone density issues etc. I try my best to accept it and hope for the best, but it’s very scary sometimes.”
Emily also has a chronic (and degenerative) condition, and it impacts how she views ageing. “I call grey hairs wisdom strips and love getting older and feeling more content to be myself. The growing invisibility works well with my personality too. Could do without the degenerative disorder and I do fear increased pain/loss of mobility as it’s escalated a lot over last decade: definitely more scared of pain than death. If I could have the ageing without the pain, that would be ideal (ironically, EDS is joked about as having the face of a youngster and body of an OAP. Sometimes it would be handy to be aging more visibly as people often equate appearance of youth with health. ‘You don’t look sick.’) Fear of future instability can lead to anxiety in the present (I think finance feeds into this lots too – & fear of losing independence.) I try to channel it into doing physio to help delay progression/trying to do as much as I can when I can while I still have the option (with pacing – though getting that right can be a challenge with ever-changing condition).”
I, also, have a chronic pain condition that changed my perspective on ageing. Knowing that my body is already experiencing reduced mobility and flexibility does influence how much anxiety I feel about ageing.
Lost mobility is crushing, whether through chronic pain, illness, or ageing.
Nicole says, “I quite enjoy getting older now, as I feel like I’m at the stage where I’m becoming the person I want to be, someone I (mostly) like. But hell yes I fear becoming aged. I cringe at the thought that I, who lives so much for the outdoors and exploration, could be reduced to [a shuffling] level of mobility. I count the years off in my head, wondering if I’ll make it to 60 before I start to feel it? 70? My back already aches pretty much all the time. And most of all, I fear the dementia I’ve seen my grandma experience—not knowing anyone anymore, living by a routine that if just slightly altered, produces massive confusion and agitation. When the fear gets particularly bad I pump myself up by thinking about all the advances in technology we’re making, and try to pretend that somehow I’ll be able to afford it.”
Nicole expressed anxiety about the internalized ageism in her views, but like Rhonda and Michelle, and Jon and Collin, these fears become so deeply ingrained.
But Gina, who works in elder care, said that most of the people she works with are at peace with their reduced mobility, especially when they are able to access social supports. I can attest to the fact that, although I absolutely do still resent the aching pain when I forget my limits and am too active for too long, for the most part, I have adapted. My walks are slower and shorter, but they’re no less calming or enjoyable.
Erin touches on another common fear, the fear of missing out. She says, “I don’t love aging. As time passes, I feel like before I know it, all of it will be over. I want to savour the moments, but then feel sad that they’re gone. There’s so much I want to do and see before I’m done, and the older I get, the farther it all feels.”
There are a lot of things to fear. And a lot of us quietly holding that fear inside.
So, how do we self-care ourselves through these fears?
Fixating on the fear is not helpful, but neither is denying that it’s real and present. It can help to discuss our fears, in safe spaces and with people who won’t judge or dismiss us. Giving a name to your feelings can make it easier to understand them and reframe them.
Visualizing a variety of potential futures can also help. Confirmation bias is a real thing, and being open to possibilities other than the one you’re certain will happen can help you see the other possible outcomes (and the steps that might get you there) the you otherwise could miss. (This story about a 63 year old “accidental fashion icon” is one delightful exception to the trend. The fact that she’s white, thin, able-bodied, still quite conventionally attractive, and cisgender are all relevant intersections.)
Along the same track, it can be helpful to identify your fears, and then identify specific alternatives. For example – “I am afraid I will be old and alone” could be countered with “I can cultivate intentional community at any age.”
Another tool is to trace the roots of your fears. Are there specific messages – either from the wider culture, or from people in your life – that are informing your fear? Are they reasonable or realistic? What underlies the fears?
Consider getting to know some old people. Seek out and spend time with the elders in your community – especially if you share a marginalization. Community care is self-care, and spending time with elders can help shift your perspective on ageing from a mysterious and terrifying process that happens behind closed doors, to one that is part of our human experience.
As with anything to do with self-care, bring awareness, compassion, and intention to your practice and you’ll find the way through.
In our next post in this series, I’ll be writing about the positive sides of ageing, and the experiences and perspectives of people who are enjoying and looking forward to the process.
Sally Knocker’s 2012 report: Perspectives on Ageing: Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals.
Jess Dugan’s phenomenal project: To Survive on This Shore, interviews and portraits of transgender elders.
A PBS article about this study into the effects of racism on ageing, and how facing discrimination can cause people of colour to age more quickly: Racism may accelerate aging.
Fat Heffalump’s introduction post to her Plus 40 Fabulous contributions, about the intersection of fat acceptance and ageing.
Ashton Applewhite’s This Chair Rocks anti-ageism project includes a book, blog, and a “yo, is this ageist?” feature.
Lisa Wade’s short article (with a link to the original Sontag essay): Beauty and the Double Standard of Aging. (Note on both this article and the linked essay: cisnormative af.)
Debora Spar’s essay on feminism and beauty standards (also cisnormative, casually classist – as I searched for these “further reading” resources I found myself so deeply frustrated that the intersections of class, race, ability, orientation… even in writing that is meant to challenge and liberate, only the most privilege voices among a marginalized group are heard): Aging and My Beauty Dilemma
Possibilities Calgary is relaunching! Over the next couple weeks, you’ll see the About pages updating on the Facebook, the MeetUp, and Twitter. The posting for the first event will be going up tomorrow, and the event itself will happen in April. The first blog post will be up the first week of April. (You’ll even see a dedicated page on tiffanysostar.com, but not quite yet.)
First, some history. Then, some FAQs (the questions I asked myself most frequently when planning the relaunch).
Possibilities Calgary was founded in 2010 as the term-project in a Feminist Praxis course. I was in my second year of University, had recently come out as bisexual, and was searching for community. Searching… and searching… and searching…
At the time, there was no cohesive community in Calgary for bisexuals.
This is not unusual, since the bisexual community is chronically under-supported. The lack of support leads to, among other things, increased risk of intimate partner violence, under- and unemployment, significant rates of poverty, and poor mental health outcomes. (For a comprehensive look at the issues, read the 2011 Bisexual Invisibility Report, or, even better, read Shiri Eisner’s fantastic Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution.)
I wanted community, and I couldn’t find it, so I built it. I had support from my Women’s Studies professor, Fiona Nelson. I met with community leaders to learn how to organize queer and feminist community in safe and effective ways. I had an amazing group of people to help me, and the Possibilities board was such a phenomenal support.
Possibilities ran for 5 years.
In that time, we expanded to include the asexual community (zero is not one, and so our ace friends fit under the non-monosexual umbrella comfortably!), and to include the transgender community (particularly the non-binary and transfeminine communities). There are trans members of every orientation – gender identity and sexual or romantic orientation are not the same things – but we found that those folks at the intersection of trans and non-monosexual identities were particularly and uniquely marginalized, and that Possibilities could help. For the last year of Possibilities, we had an offshoot community in Translations, which focused on transfeminine experiences.
We hosted three BiBQs during Calgary’s Pride week, and two Probabilities: Queer and Feminist Gaming Conventions. We also partnered with Calgary Outlink to host a monthly Community Café, which was a gender- and orientation-inclusive space. And, one of my personal highlights, we ran the UnConference series, bringing in speakers for multi-day events (including the hugely successful co-hosting of Courtney Trouble with the University of Calgary’s Institute for Gender Research).
Brittany says, “The BiBq was a super chill thing that I miss!” and Jocelyn confirms, “Get togethers involving food and convo” were a favourite feature.
Sid, a former board member says, “I got the opportunity not just to have my own need for support and community met but that I was also in an environment that gently encouraged me to explore how I related to other axes of oppression. Also, I always appreciated the constant supply of tea.”
Our intersectionality developed and grew over time, and although it was always imperfect, it was sincere. Rachel says, “I felt incredibly safe there.”
Michael, another former board member, says, “I really appreciated the sense of belonging to a community, and the ability to learn and grow from a group of amazing people with diverse life experiences.”
Scott, also a board member and facilitator, says, “I am not a word smith. I don’t have words beyond it was community for me. It felt inclusive and supportive.”
Jonathan, who helped me with the founding of the group, says, “Possibilities helped me learn more about how my newly discovered queer identity fit within a community. It enriched what would otherwise have been a much lonelier journey.”
It was good. It was so good. And it was needed.
But in 2015, a significant percentage of the board had moved on to new cities or new projects, and I burned out hard. Physically, emotionally, financially – I was tapped. The board members who remained continued to work hard, and new volunteers stepped up, but the organization was struggling. We couldn’t keep going. After major soul searching, we admitted the truth. Possibilities was on hiatus.
In 2016, I looked at restarting Possibilities, but realized that I didn’t have the resources to make it sustainable for myself. It hurt, but we stayed on hiatus.
But yesterday was the first day of Spring, 2017, and it was time for this seed to grow again. And so…
Why am I relaunching Possibilities now?
Because it’s time. Because not having access to community causes harm, and because I have always believed that if you can do something good, then maybe you should do something good. (That maybe is super important – only you know what you can and can’t, or want to, do.) Because I miss this community. Because I miss being a community organizer. Because it’s time.
How am I going to avoid burning out again?
Friendship and magic? No, but seriously, I am hoping that two years of learning better self-care skills will help. I am also going to make it easier for people to support the work, and am tying it directly to my self-care and narrative work, which leads us to…
What will the relaunch involve?
I am making two commitments in this relaunch effort – one blog post or article per month, and one in-person “self-care for the b+ community” meeting. I don’t know if the BiBQ, or the gaming events, or the UnConference series, or any of the other major projects we were involved with will come back online, but I’m also not going to worry about that yet. By tying the work explicitly and intentionally to my self-care resource creation, this iteration of Possibilities fits beautifully into the work I’m doing for (and with) my Patreon. Which leads to the final question –
How can community members get involved?
If Possibilities is important to you, and you value having this community back up and running, please consider becoming a patron. That is the best way you can support this work, though I know not everyone is able. Possibilities discussion events, and the blog posts and articles, will be free for anyone, and the Patreon is what makes that possible. (Blog posts will also be available a week early for patrons, so, there’s that!) It makes me so happy to have come full circle, to have spiralled around to a new way to approach an old passion, and you can help ensure that the community stays active and vibrant going forward.