“Growing old is like being increasingly penalized for a crime you have not committed.” – Anthony Powell (English novelist; 1905–2000)
My old friend “G.” telephoned last week to talk about a recent crisis that’s been dogging him, something he calls “the Dreads.”
The Dreads, he tells me, are nighttime anxiety attacks that started almost on cue when he turned 60, which also coincided with the death of his favorite hunting dog, a Springer Spaniel named “Junior.” G. describes the attacks as waking at night with a dead feeling while thoughts spin out of control and time rushes into a void. Along with this, every present trouble and past mistake rush in to prey upon the spirit. He sums it up as “everything turns brown.”
(I get it—like the aftertaste of a large excrement sandwich.)
Although medication is helping him sleep and stay balanced, the bouts always threaten at the edge, and some of the night residue can’t help but seep into his daytime thoughts. He tells me that even his lifelong practice of meditation doesn’t protect him.
I take his complaints seriously. G. is a stoic alpha male who for most of his life has been toughing it out in the woods of northern New England. Nothing ever came easy for him.
When G. was 15 his mother died of cancer, and a month later his father followed, dead of a broken heart, leaving him and four younger siblings, two brothers and two sisters, orphaned. For the next year or so, G. took over as parent and head of household, feeding, dressing, and caring for the younger ones—until the social service bureaucracy caught up with the small family and reshuffled the youngest ones into foster homes. G. heroically kept up contacts between all the siblings.
In his youth he had an anti-social chip on his shoulder, joined a biker gang, and had some bad turns with the law. But in his mid-20s, he began to settle down and even started working towards a college degree.
He was still young but already grizzled when I met him later. G. loved the contact sports, hunting, and testing people through quiet intimidation. I guess I passed because we became friends for the next 35 years. He possessed a cynical but precise grasp of human conduct and a rough eloquence that makes me wish I had written down much of what he said.
After finishing his degree, G. headed to the north country, where he bought land, cleared trees, and built a bare-bones cabin that lacked running water and electricity. He would have been content there forever.
But several summers later, he met and fell in love with a vacationing soft-spoken, hard-headed, Boston Irish girl, who required hot baths and indoor lights. G. cleared more trees and built a small house with all the modern conveniences. That won her heart, and they’ve been married now for almost 30 years.
… and losing control
I’ve met other men leaving or about to leave middle age who recount their own versions of the Dreads. The year 60 seems to set off the alarms. Many report midnight awakenings to panic and distress. Thoughts of death and dying are never far.
Others detail frequent nightmares about trying to fight off human or animal predators with limbs that won’t respond. Or trying to flee but finding themselves locked in place. Several report screaming in their sleep and even throwing themselves out of bed.
As I ripen with age, I wonder if these mortality attacks are an unavoidable step in the aging process. Already, I have dreams that start as bright episodes from younger days of vitality and action until, suddenly, the visions are interrupted by the blunt grief of realizing those years have long disappeared.
My supremely non-professional theory is that this phenomenon—of which I can only speak of for men—stems from the body preparing itself or already starting to shut down after a lifetime of building and renewal. Cells continue to deplete, but regeneration now becomes a struggle for simple maintenance.
The psyche then, with its subtle link to the corporeal, recognizes that the final roll call has begun and adapts its messaging from the growth cycle to the end game.
Usually, during the daytime, we can block the impulses with routines, rituals, activities, and distractions. In sleep, however, we’re helpless. And the Dreads know it. We can only watch numbly as the candles burn down.
As I said… pure non-professional concocting.
I told G. it would pass. I exhorted him with advice about keeping focused, staying interested, and cultivating new excitements. I recommended he discover the Internet, learn to play a musical instrument, start writing down his hunting stories, etc.
But I know it’s just blowing smoke. For someone like G, there’s no good face on the unraveling. He, like his best hunting dogs, finds his glory in the fresh, open fields of life—fleet and bold. The pity of it all comes when the hunter will not rouse himself to the hunt’s call.
Final thoughts on the manly Dreads come from a woman, Golda Meir:
“Old age is like a plane flying through a storm. Once you are aboard there is nothing you can do about it.”
Yeah, but… can’t we get a parachute?