Partly because the restaurant scene has disappeared and partly because I need something different in my writing life, this week inaugurates a column about becoming an old gay man. It will alternate or sometimes hybridize with my usual food column. I know the last thing you want to read about is the travails of creepers with severe abdominal distension who endlessly shuffle from the gym sauna to their locker. But I have news for you. We all have an inner old gay man who is emerging with each breath we take, no matter how we carve and reshape ourselves. When he steps fully forward, invisibility—or denial—too often descend and life seriously changes.
I need to confess upfront: Any friend can tell you I am more neurotic about age than anyone they know. I’ve always regarded each birthday as a commemoration of unaccomplishment, going back to childhood when I always hid under my birthday cakes. So, this is also about working out my own anxieties. Still, as embarrassing as mine are, I know you have some I don’t!
If you’re as old as me, you are likely experiencing some intense anxiety right now. We’re in the middle of a pandemic in which people over 60, especially men, are most likely to die. For me and many other gay men, the anxiety is significantly compounded by memories of the first 15 years of the AIDS pandemic. The coronavirus is different, of course, but there are distinct parallels and associations that remind us that we never exorcise the fear and sorrow of that time.
AIDS was not simply an untreatable disease; it was a holocaust perpetuated by a society and government that literally made jokes about our dying. Politicians advocated “quarantining” us in concentration camps. We were still largely pathologized by the law, religion, and psychiatry, thus enabling indifference to our suffering until Reagan’s fellow movie star, Rock Hudson, showed up emaciated on camera and died soon after. You decide if Donald Trump’s slow, petulant responses to COVID-19 resemble Reagan’s.
Once again, we listen to the ticking timebomb. I cough. I wait to see if I’ll continue coughing. Maybe I should check my temperature. Back then, a bad cold might be pneumocystis and a livid bruise could be Kaposi’s sarcoma. Eventually we learned we can be completely asymptomatic and transmit HIV, just as we can now with the coronavirus. I could go on and on. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which these anxieties resemble, makes you obsessive.
Psychology offers no miracle fixes. The threat of the present is a reality and the terror and sorrow of the past it reanimates never stops haunting us. Most old AIDS survivors don’t want to talk about their experiences. I’ve tried time and again to discuss those years with clients, in workshops, over dinner. Someone, usually me, starts to get tearful. Another might get angry and the subject is quickly changed. The coronavirus has us in great fear now. Many of us are still without families and many close friends have died of “old age” already. Awfully, you can’t head to the Colonnade with friends to remind yourself there is still love in the world.
I do have simple suggestions that may help you if you don’t expect too much. Most important, call friends regularly. I was chatting online with my friend Brad last week and he suddenly said, “You need to call me.” He was so right. I didn’t even recognize my own anxiety. It all came pouring out in 90 minutes and I’m so grateful.
Another thing that helps me enormously is taking a walk in nature. I live across from Grant Park, so it’s convenient. I’m even doing it with clients. I’m into ecopsychology and with age I’ve learned that identity really is not confined to the brain or body. The world is compelling and reaches out to us. Nature provides context. The Greeks and many indigenous religions understood that love and the soul don’t dwell so much in us as we dwell in them. I know it sounds woo-woo, but try it. Take a walk with or without friends and hug a fuckin’ tree. Read “The Spell of the Sensuous” by my professor, David Abram.
In the meantime, here’s a tip about shopping: Most grocery stores have set aside early morning hours for people over 60 (65 at Publix) only. I’ve done it and liked it. Here’s a list: Publix: 7–8am. Tues. and Wed.; Kroger: 7–8am. Mon.–Thurs.; Whole Foods: 7–8am. daily; Sprouts: none, but the stores are often deserted at 7am.; Costco: 8–9am. Tues. and Thurs.; Sam’s: none; Walmart: just don’t. Honestly, I suggest you call, because I’ve seen these hours change all over. I’ve shopped during these special times and liked it.