Many men, after spending their childhood and adolescence trying to gain weight—to get bigger and stronger—spend the rest of their lives trying to get thinner. I have lived through my own variation on this theme. I have always been told that I looked younger than I really was, which meant smaller and thinner—and less consequential. Whatever subtle aspect of appearance that made me seem so was not obvious to me when I was a kid, except that it was made worse by the fact that I was younger than my classmates. It is not obvious to me now just what makes someone look young and another old. I found being judged young annoying and at times embarrassing. When I was old enough to be in medical school, I went once to a Las Vegas casino with a young woman who was not questioned when she sought to sit down at the roulette table. She laughed at me when I had to produce proof of age. Of course, there came a time—much later—when I wanted to look younger.
I have always looked into the mirror and seen someone who was my age; but repeatedly others have taken me for someone younger, sometimes considerably younger. When I was twenty-eight, I went to a neighborhood liquor store to buy a bottle of vodka for a party, and was refused service because I could not produce my driver’s license. The legal age for purchasing alcohol at that time was eighteen! Needless to say, when I first started examining patients in medical school, I was looked at askance by the female patients, as if I were an imposter.
Sometimes a patient responded to me in ways more difficult to interpret. When I saw my first patients as a psychiatrist, I was a little concerned about seeming too young to be competent or knowledgeable. I remember my very first patient, a middle-aged man. He seemed uncomfortable throughout our first interview, and I suspected he was thinking something of that sort. Finally, I asked him, “You seem to be uncomfortable about something. What is it?”
“You look awfully young,” he said to me, confirming my suspicions.
“How old do you think I am?” I asked.
“You can’t be older than forty-five,” he said. (I was twenty-nine at the time.)
I couldn’t think of just what I could say to reassure him; and he did not return a second time.
A number of years ago, I went with my son-in law to a baseball game at Shea Stadium. When I called for a beer from the beer-guy who was walking up and down the aisles, he asked me to produce an I.D.
“Aw, come on,” I said, annoyed at having to fish through my wallet, “are you joking?” But he was not smiling. I figured finally he was simply executing a policy at the ball park that required him to ask for identification from whoever wanted a beer; but then he sold one to Warren, my son-in-law, without asking him for identification. I was left trying to make sense out of this incident. It was true, the age for buying alcohol in New York had risen to 21 years, but I was in my late fifties at the time.
Finally, of course, there came a time when I liked being taken for someone much younger. There was a patient I used to walk around with and go to places with who was phobic for walking around and going places. On two occasions we entered a restaurant, and I was asked if my mother and I would like a particular table. The woman, who was two years younger than I was, was upset; and I chuckled, which did not put her into a better mood.
Patients who found out how old I was congratulated me on looking young. I smiled and pointed out modestly that I was not bald, not gray, and not fat. And that was all it took. Also I kept the lights low in my office.
But then, as time went on, things began to change.
One time I went with my family to a carnival. There was a man in a booth who was willing to bet that he could guess anyone’s age. I took him up on the bet thinking I might make some easy money. He guessed my age exactly. I began to think everyone else was putting me on about how young I looked. When there was money on the line, I looked my age. Or maybe I was beginning to catch up with everyone else. I remembered a time when I was forty-five, and people (some people, at least) said I appeared to be around twenty-five. Now, when I was fifty-five, I looked as if I was forty-five. I had begun to age two years every year!
As I got still older, I accumulated the various problems that old people get. I developed a bad back, among other things, and was no longer able to jog. Finally, I went to a doctor to look at my back. He sent me, medical chart in hand, to see another doctor. I peeked at what he had written: “This pleasant, elderly gentleman…” That was as far as I got. Elderly. I was elderly! For that matter, I didn’t like being a pleasant gentleman either. It made me feel like a sensitive, soft-spoken character out of a Victorian novel. —That was fifteen years ago.
I used to say that one measure of being well-adjusted was being comfortable with one’s age, whatever age that happened to be. I soon realized that by that standard I was falling short. Little things began to annoy me—like when young women started to hold the door for me. When old ladies started holding the door for me, I became further unsettled and made up my mind to walk straighter.
My elderly patients began greeting me carefully. Other patients would come into my office and ask, “How are you?” The elderly patients, who were closer to death, would ask me quietly, “How are you?” and stare at me intently. One or two would ask each week if I was planning on retiring. I knew what that meant. No one who knew me imagined me ever retiring; they were asking me if I expected to die in the near future.
I thought new patients looked at me in a way they had never done before—with some hesitancy. I tried to be understanding. After all, people who are starting therapy have a right to expect that the therapist will still be around a week or two into the future. When someone, joking, I hope, asked to take my pulse, I decided to stop talking about my age altogether. I began to pride myself on not being dead.
About six months ago, I was swimming one evening in a local sports club. I am a poor swimmer. It is important to keep that in mind in considering this story. I was swimming laps. There was a man in the next lane resting against the side of the pool. When I reached his end of the pool, he smiled at me and said, “For a guy your age, that was a pretty good lap.”
I did not know him. I was sure he did not know me—but, obviously, I looked to him like an old guy swimming laps. How old, I wondered. I couldn’t come out and ask him, because that’s the kind of question that does not elicit an honest answer. All I knew was that he thought the lousy lap I had just swum was pretty good for a guy my age. Did he think I was ninety-five? A hundred?
I have recently changed my mind about accepting myself at my age. I have begun to fight. Just as I do not think reaching any particular age is a reason to retire, I do not think I have to accept gracefully the various physical impairments that trip me up (literally) from time to time. I have started to behave like other old people who feel that way. I have become a grouch. I grumble at strangers. I voice my opinion in public about how parents should get their kids to behave. I wave my cane at taxicabs that come too close to the curb. I have become a curmudgeon. If an old lady tries to hold the door for me, I shove her out of the way.
Also I swim less than I did. I have begun jogging again—with a cane, causing much hilarity in the neighborhood. But some of my neighbors applaud.
(c) Fredric Neuman 2013 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog or contact Dr. Neuman at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column