- Once people stop attending school and health classes, it becomes hard to learn what their bodies will do in the aging process.
- The lack of information about how bodies age leads to fear and neglect of preventive medical care.
- Suppressing the emotions that accompany aging can do physiological harm.
I was reaching for the sugar when I saw it for the first time: a scraggly, translucent object drifting through the visual pool of my right eye. These bits of flotsam had always fascinated me, fragile forms like creatures seen under a microscope. They had always swum past, never to return, but this one stayed put. My anxiety grew.
A friend who works with doctors had told me how he’d rushed to the ER when he’d developed a “floater,” which could be a sign of a detached retina. I abandoned breakfast for the Mayo Clinic website, where I read that I only had to worry about a detached retina if I saw flashes. When I stepped into my closet, the darkness flickered.
Terrified, I called my medical plan’s number and said I needed to see an ophthalmologist right now. Several hours and a fifty-dollar Lyft ride later, I found myself with a kind doctor who told me my retina was fine. I had experienced a posterior vitreous detachment, which happens to half of adults over fifty. The change to my eye had left me with a big fat floater that would never leave, but I had nothing to fear. I had turned hysterical over a normal sign of aging.
When most Americans are age ten, they go to health classes to learn about puberty, with the dangers, thrills, and humiliations it will bring. No one teaches you how to grow old. I turned sixty this month, and my body is changing as it did fifty years ago. In the past months, besides the floater in my eye, I’ve had microscopic colitis, three-day migraines, and suddenly, arthritis in my foot so fierce that every step can be an adventure in pain. I suspect my bodily woes are mild compared to those of most 60-year-olds, but I don’t know because people won’t talk about them.
As I learned in my research for Banned Emotions, many Americans are shamed into silence when describing their pain. Talking about one’s troubles—especially bodily ones—is dismissed as whining. As a result, once school is out and there are no more health classes, it becomes hard to learn what one’s body will do since no one is talking about what theirs is doing.
The lack of information about how bodies age leads to fear and something far worse: neglect of preventive medical care available to many Americans. At 59, alone in the kitchen with my floater, I found myself in the position of a scared 13-year-old who sees herself bleeding and thinks she is dying because she has never heard of menstruation. I had no idea that half of older adults live with what looks like a mosquito riding on one’s glasses—forever. If I had had a detached retina and hadn’t heard my friend’s story, I could have lost vision in my right eye.
Even with lay knowledge of shared bodily experiences, the knowledge gap is especially dire regarding women’s aging. Menopause deserves more scientific attention than it has received and ridiculing or reproaching women who try to discuss it doesn’t help. I learned I was going through menopause at 43 only because an eight-year-old friend described what she was experiencing.
I realized that my body was also turning to lava each night at 8 PM (welcome in ice-cold choir rooms), I was waking up each morning in a drenched nightgown, and I was often crying for no reason. I had thought I was drinking too much caffeine. That my periods had stopped didn’t impress me since they had been anything but periodic and sometimes failed to show for months at a time. It took a case of salmonella before doctors tested me and confirmed that I had passed through menopause. When I told my stepmother what was happening to my body, she scoffed, “Oh, I had no time for that.” As a working mother of three, she probably hadn’t, but she also wanted to end the conversation.
Whereas 13-year-olds have time to think about their bodies (I’m sure many of them would dispute this), most 60-year-olds don’t. We are working full-steam caring for older and younger people and doing other high-responsibility jobs. I have noticed recently how few novels and films have 60-year-old protagonists, who tend to be much younger or, occasionally, much older. Titanic, for instance, features the story of 20-year-old Rose told by a Rose who looks 80. 60-year-olds care for ailing parents, help children seeking or starting careers, change grandchildren’s diapers, and lead work teams and businesses. Standing deep in the pyramid of life, we live to support others. We slap down a person who dares to say that her foot hurts or that a strange, translucent alligator is swimming in the pool of her right eye.
We harm each other, both psychologically and medically, when we deny each other the chance to talk about how our bodies change with age. Deborah Tannen’s studies have revealed how men are socialized to compete for dominance in conversation by showing who has the most knowledge. In contrast, women are taught to bond by trading stories about their troubles (Tannen). When it comes to bodily changes, especially embarrassing ones, men probably experience more pressure not to speak, but even the female support system breaks down. “I just wish I had something I could ask people to pray for in church,” said a friend my age whose urethra has been acting strangely.
In Banned Emotions, I reviewed studies of emotion regulation that revealed the physiological harm that can come from suppressing emotions, not just to the person experiencing them but to others with whom s/he is engaging (Otis, 2019; Gross 2001). In behavioral experiments, psychologist James J. Gross found that female participants asked not to reveal their emotions in response to a disturbing film experienced significant increases in blood pressure, as did the female experimental partners with whom they were conversing (Gross, 2001).
Participants asked to reappraise their emotions or express them naturally did not experience this increase in blood pressure, nor did their experimental partners (Gross, 2001). Gross hypothesized that participants asked to suppress their negative emotions suppressed their positive ones, too, causing stress to their partners because these positive emotions ease conversation (Gross, 2001). To regulate emotions, Gross advocates reappraisal (open-minded reflection and reinterpretation of what one is feeling) rather than suppression, which seems bad for everyone’s health.
When it comes to the bodily changes caused by aging, the reigning emotions are likely to be fear, sadness, and anger, their ratio depending on the personality involved. I join Gross in advocating reappraisal of these emotions rather than culturally mandated suppression. There is nothing weak, narcissistic, immature, or shameful about drawing people’s attention to one’s pain or one’s alarming bodily changes. If those are one’s only topics of conversation, this talk may lead to social shunning, but both the complainant and the listener can learn from these exchanges. By suppressing talk culturally labeled “negative,” we may be blocking a stream of knowledge that could save each other’s lives.
Living in a human body grows harder after 50, and our reluctance to warn each other what to expect makes it harder still. In Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the artist Elstir tells the young protagonist: “We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world” (Proust).
Part of this journey involves learning that any aspect of bodily experience can change at any time, that suddenly, one can no longer walk as far as one wants, or that an uninvited guest may appear and float forever in the field of one’s right eye. If we don’t talk about what’s happening on our journeys, how do we learn from each other? How do we survive?
This talk about aging will involve expressing emotions whose cultural suppression may come from the fear of death. It isn’t weak or shameful to die, and it isn’t weak or shameful to age or talk about aging and dying. At 60, most people have encountered death in their journeys, realizing with a sudden shock that friends, lovers, and family members are gone forever, and we can never learn from them again.
The ophthalmologist told me that my fat floater would never leave but that in time my brain would adjust, and I might cease to notice him—somehow, I feel he is a “he.” He is growing fuzzier, and my brain may learn to unsee him, which now saddens me. I have come to regard him as part of myself, at first unwanted but then reappraised.
Gross, J. J. (2001). “Emotion Regulation in Adulthood: Timing Is Everything.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 10, no. 6, pp. 214-219.
Otis, L. (2019). Banned Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.
Proust, M. Remembrance of Things Past. Translated by C. K. Scott Montcrieff. Quoted in https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/101452-we-do-not-receive-wisdom-we-mus…. Retrieved 23. October 2021.
Tannen, D. (1990). You Just Don’t Understand. New York: Ballantine Books.