"Growing old is like being increasingly penalized for a crime you have not committed."
— Anthony Powell (English novelist; 1905–2000)
My friend “G.”, whom I’ve known for over 30 years, called last week to lament a 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. These 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 nowhere. 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 suppose like the aftertaste of an excrement sandwich.)
He’s begun taking medication to help him sleep and stay balanced. But the bouts always threaten at the edge, and some of the night’s residue can’t help but seep into daytime thoughts. He tells me that even his lifelong practice of meditation doesn’t protect him.
Leader of the pack
I take his complaints seriously. G. is a stoic alpha male who for most of his life has toughed it out in the woods of northern New England. Nothing 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. But G. heroically kept the family web intact until the younger ones grew up.
In his youth he had an anti-social chip on his shoulder, joined a biker gang, and had some bad turns with the law. By his mid-20s, though, he began to settle down and had started back to earn a college degree. That’s when we met.
Although young, G. already had a grizzled air about him. Crusty-skinned, stringy-haired, and denim-clad, he delighted in testing people through dead-stare intimidation or by simple gross-out, such as removing his dentures in the middle of a meal.
Of course, he loved the contact sports, which explained at least some of the missing teeth, and hunting.
Along with his benzene exterior, G possessed a cynical but precise grasp of human nature and a rough eloquence that makes me wish I had written down much of what he said.
After college, 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 a few summers later, he met and fell in love with a soft-spoken, hard-headed Irish girl from Boston, 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 over 30 years.
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, or trying to flee danger but finding themselves paralyzed. Several report screaming in their sleep and even throwing themselves out of bed.
These mortality attacks may be unavoidable to 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 evanesced.
My 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.
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 an instrument, start writing down his hunting stories, etc.
But it’s just blowing smoke. For someone like G, there’s no good face on the unraveling. He, like his best hunting dogs, found his glory in the open fields of life — fleet and bold. The tragedy 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."
And no parachutes onboard.