From the beginning of 2021, I have been busy sending milestone birthday wishes to a number of friends who have turned fifty. It is not a coincidence of course that so many people in my entourage are completing their first half century of life, as my turn is coming up soon. I was one of the youngest in my school year, which gives me the opportunity to rehearse in my mind what it may feel like when my special day comes up early next year. But I guess the question is, as much as it may feel right to celebrate and mark such milestones, do we really get to feel any different when we turn a decade? With the news of the Queen’s ill health, there has been much debate on the news this week about feeling or acting young even when older in age. One of the cartoons that has resonated with me over the years was that of an old lady roller skating, struggling physically externally, but still holding on to the same feeling she had when roller skating at eighteen. Age is experienced to a large degree internally.
As much as I have personally been deeply formed, like many others I think, by the life experiences I had in late adolescence and the relationships and influences that developed back then, which means that in some ways, like the old lady in the cartoon, I am still feeling seventeen, there are certain life experiences that may shift this internal landscape and suddenly place us where we are in life, but we had not quite fully taken stock. One such experience is witnessing one’s children go through their own milestones. There are few things as profound as this concrete evidence of psychological development through time, true growth that may suddenly bring it home that we are now parents of children coming of age rather than teenagers ourselves. When a young person leaves home for the first time or when they have their first relationship, it suddenly hits home what it feels like to have completed this stage of life ourselves and that we are now at a different place, such as having to be a safe base for somebody else’s growth. Being there in order to be left.
One of the most tormenting, but common experiences I encounter in private practice is people not being able to go through life stages and getting stuck in a sense of Groundhog Day, the same problem repeating itself again and again. Another form of the same phenomenon is losing oneself in a sense of timelessness, what’s called in ordinary language, drifting. Drifting may seem more innocent or even ‘cool’, but it is actually as tormenting as painful repetition and stuckness. Imagine a boat with no engine, being carried away by the ocean currents with no direction. After a while, being on such boat becomes dreary.
One of the ground rules of analytic therapy (and most other forms of therapy in the UK as well) is the fifty minute session. This is not only a practical or realistic frame for carrying out therapy. It creates a very specific sense of time and the reality that time is always limited. I find it fascinating how different patients use this time restriction. Some, will bring up anything of crucial importance only in the last five minutes of the session, then complain that time is never enough, others will clock watch and make sure they are the first to point out that time is up, yet others will begin narrating a very interesting and essential to share story just as the clock completes fifty minutes. One way or another we are always up against time.
There are certain life stages that come with an inevitable shift of perspective through the power of new experience. Having sex for the first time, becoming a parent or grandparent, having one’s first period, falling in love are all powerful and formative life experiences. Yet, we all know that our ability to integrate and learn even from such key life events varies. Some of us will truly transform from one life stage to the next. It will be like we have moved to a new chapter or even a new book and the previous one can never be revisited. For others, like the old lady on the roller skates, no matter what the objective reality about the passage of time is, we remain internally at a certain age from which we refuse to grow. But when we are really able to connect emotionally to a certain life transition, the experience can be profound.
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