Five Signs You’re Living the Tragicomedy of Middle Age

Middle age

By Angela Noel Lawson

November 28, 2018

I first noticed a few dark hairs on my face as I glanced in the rearview mirror on my way to work one sunny morning a few years ago. I’m naturally blondish so the beginnings of an adolescent boy’s mustache seemed quite out of place on my face. But then I remembered: I’m middle-aged.

All kinds of things happen to our bodies as we grow. Some of them are wonderful, like the ability to have a baby. Or for boys, the development of muscles that later enable the opening of jars with sticky lids. Others are less amazing. But I tend to be a glass-half-full kind of person. I want to see the good stuff.

Like most people, I suffer from a cognitive brain elf known as the optimism bias. Studies have shown that we humans in general are more optimistic than realistic. And that this tendency has a protective effect on us in many respects. In The Guardian, researcher Tali Sharot wrote, “… optimists live longer and are healthier…”. But she also warns that optimism is also irrational.  Being optimistic quickly becomes a problem if not tempered by a willingness to confront reality and take appropriate measures to protect oneself against disease, financial ruin, and general stupidity. But how can I protect against a weird mustache at forty? That’s the real question.

The answer is, I did what seemed natural: I ripped the darn hairs out by their roots. But, there were complications. That first time and ever since, I as often rip off a strip of skin as I do the fine dark hairs. This, it seems, is a war of attrition: me versus age. And I don’t think I’m winning.

My optimism bias, though, has me looking on the bright side almost always. Sure I knew changes would come. Hormones, the cause of teenage angst, would also be the cause of the indignities of aging. They’re essential, like taxes, but equally annoying. I should expect, for example, my metabolism to slow. “I eat half of what I used to,” my sixty-ish doctor said. But, I don’t want to believe it.

Like all of the changes I’ve observed so far, I still I prefer to believe they won’t happen to me. I can tell you, though, that some things–strange things–have already happened. No amount of denying them will make them disappear. Instead of hiding, I’m sharing to erase them in a different way. I can’t deny they’re real, but I can deny that I should feel  ashamed about them. I’d much rather laugh instead. Care to join me?

It’s Funny . . . Sort of

  • Beard Hair. Along with my soft, brown lip visitors, a few of their aggressive older-brothers claimed some face real estate. While an occasional coarse hair would crop up on my chin once a year or so throughout my twenties and thirties, these fellows seem to have closed ranks against me now. I’m plucking one of these suckers every week or so. In my youth, I liked my one little hair, almost enjoying every time I noticed him. I even gave him a name; “Chinny” I called him. But now it’s a battle. Chinny and his pals are as cute as starving crocodiles.
  • Squinting. Having enjoyed forty-plus years of perfect vision, I found it troubling when my then eight-year-old could read print the size of dandruff on a stuffed animal tag and I could not. For the first time in twenty years I went to see the eye doctor. I could not see all the letters on the eye chart. Still 20/20–for now–the optometrist warned me readers were in my near future. Of course, I feel grateful for so many years of good eyesight. But how am I supposed to battle Chinny and his friends when I can’t see them? Asking Paul, my sprightly younger husband, to spot my chin hairs for me seems like straining the vows of marriage a bit too far.
  • Aching Bones. I’m an active person. I love to do high-intensity workouts, yoga, and run. But, my bones like me less than they used to. My knees snap and crackle in the middle of a group fitness workout as we transition from burpees to crunches. Too many jump lunges and I’m wishing I’d picked up a book instead of my gym bag. And when I run now it’s not my heart and lungs stopping me from long distances, it’s my bones. I literally hear them creaking in protest like ill-fitting hinges on a screen door.
  • Dairy. While I can’t say I’m lactose-intolerant, I would say I can’t eat with the type of abandon of my younger days. Always careful to put healthy foods at the top of my list, I’ve enjoyed a great amount of freedom in what I can eat. But one day recently I had a giant latte, cheese on my tacos at lunch, and a piece of pizza for dinner. I paid for it all night long. My son had a friend over and luckily they occupied themselves while I spent the night near the bathroom. I tried to keep my moaning–which even to my ears sounded ironically like a cow’s moo–to a minimum.
  • Sweat. Weird places on my body sweat at odd times now. For example, I never noticed the back of my knees sweating before middle age. Nor did I wake up with a sweat-Rorschach test on my t-shirt before I hit forty. Now here’s where the optimism bias can bite. Sometimes night sweats can mean serious illness (or serious menopause). So I did ask my doctor about all this sweating. Turns out, in my case, all’s well–it’s just middle age.

I’m normal. Nothing to see here. I’m as healthy as any forty-something both inside and out. But sometimes I see myself in the mirror and I just don’t look like I feel. Most days I feel pretty great. Sometimes my back hurts. Sometimes I have a dairy hangover, but for the most part, I’m delighted with this body and my life. However, sagging bits of skin and strange puckers bug me. The fact that I still wear a retainer and treat acne while I ponder wrinkle cream options makes my hairy lips turn up in a rueful smile. Such is the price of living. The optimism bias helps me believe that while I might have a few things to deal with, I’m still lucky. I suppose I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Your turn: What’s the tragicomedy of your age? 

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

40 thoughts on “Five Signs You’re Living the Tragicomedy of Middle Age”

  1. Since you’re still in your forties, you’re not even halfway through yet (that’s my math anyway). When I hit fifty and realized I had lived most of my life it was sobering. Most of the things you mention I’m dealing with in some fashion or another. While I don’t need to worry about stray mustache hairs, I do have to worry about baldness (and I’ve had those black hairs growing out of the tip of my nose my entire life). Mostly, I think adaptable people just… adapt. None of this stuff particularly bothers me, I just make changes and move on. Really the *only* thing I can point to as a problem is that I’m losing my desire to exercise. But I don’t know if that’s age or mental health. Because you’re so bright and introspective, I think you’re going to have little trouble dealing with the effects of aging, at least these minor nuisances.

    1. I love your point–adaptable people just adapt. I do think pondering age is sobering. And freeing too. While these nuisance things can be as annoying as mosquitos on a fine summer day, they can’t ruin the whole season. I do love “myself” far more today than I ever did in my twenties. I suppose the trade-off is that all the things I took for granted I now can’t. It’s a very weird type of balance in the universe in that way.
      I do wonder about those little hairs at the tip of noses–what possible purpose do they serve? Perhaps like my errant chin hairs, they’re part of the cosmic absurdity of life?
      And than you for the nice compliment. I do hope my introspection will continue to serve me well. That and a sense of humor. 🙂

  2. I swear my own personal aging process is faster than most people’s. I’ve had excess chin/lip hair since my early 20s, started going grey in my mid-20s, had a bad back since my mid-20s, lost my hearing in my early-30s & wear hearing aids, has bad knees for the past 3 years, had night sweats for the past few years and definitely can’t stuff myself with food in the same I did when I was younger. Oh yeah and I’ve always been short-sighted and worn glasses since I was 8. So, yeah most of the time I feel about 80. However, the other day, my taxi driver referred to me as a “young ‘un”, so I’m hoping this means I don’t look like I’m in my 80s at least! Every cloud…

    1. That taxi driver had it right! I think sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded that our own eyes don’t always tell us the whole truth.
      I’ll be honest, knowing you have those fun excess hairs too makes me feel a little better. When I look in the mirror and see them, sometimes I feel like I might be the only one!
      Did you injure your back? Mine seemed to start hurting right around pregnancy, but I can’t point to any other cause. Now I know it’s arthritis in my vertebra…so I’m right there with you in the “feeling 80” place.
      I know we both have young kids, so it’s so odd to feel old when I feel like I was changing diapers not all that long ago!

      1. It is comforting to hear that other people suffer in the same ways that you do ha. Yes, my rather fragile back. I didn’t injure it. I just started to get sciatica in my mid-20s for no real reason, but then it got a lot better until….yes just like you- I got pregnant. It’s never been the same since. I really can’t bend over for long and had to give up running and as it transpires- I also have arthritis in my spine. Thankfully, my 8yr old does keep me n touch with my youthful side- even if I’m not physically feeling it!

        1. Our common back conditions makes me even more confident that if we ever get to meet, we’ll have so much to discuss. Though I’d much rather talk about all the books books we’ve read and parenting young children and music than back pain! (I’m glad your comment did show up here– I honestly don’t know why WordPress does this sometimes.)

          1. Ah so glad my comment finally worked. Yes we do have so much in common! It would be wonderful to one day meet. You would be most welcome to visit us in Sunny Yorkshire one day xx

  3. Alas,’tis all true. Aging is such a shock. At this point for me, gravity has become my biggest challenge. (Not that I can do anything about that!) I feel like an accordian, slowly squishing down, getting shorter and thicker. I need kitchen platform shoes to reach my higher cupboards. So far this gravity issue hasn’t reached my ankles. But the skin . . . Argh, the skin. I’m waiting for the time when it won’t matter and I’ll acknowledge that I have the right to look this way. But until then, I’m helping the economy by paying way too much for the promise in a jar. Can’t we just banish those ads that tell us how much younger we could/should look and feel?

    1. The skin is such a thing. And I totally agree with you on banishing the ads. I think someone should start advertising beauty products for twenty-something that guarantee, “look like a beautiful grandma in three easy applications–it’s all the rage in Denmark!” or something. Then if the young ones try and look more like us, THEN we’re getting somewhere!
      I thought of your ankles comment when I went to the gym today. My knee-high socks had bitten into my calves and I had to see those angry red lines in my skin for my whole workout! I was thinking about swollen ankles and how funny and how miraculous this whole dermis is. Glad I have one, but would love for it to behave!

  4. As you said, nothing to see here. But don’t forget the other half of that admonition … move along. It’s not that it gets betterme but it gets more comfortable. Seriously. So just move along now, and be happy as long as you can!

    1. That’s excellent advice. It’s hard to think that the future will not be easier in terms of these little (and big) things. But, maybe it makes the enjoyment of what I’ve still got while I’ve got it, sweeter. Like that moment when the sun is not quite setting, and everything is bathed in golden light and it feels like the day may stretch on forever. But, then the light, as light must always do, fades. There is a timelessness about late afternoon that I’ve always loved. Maybe that is still to come. I’m in the early afternoon of life, but the best may yet to come. Or something like that?

  5. And some…Those tweezers are permanently within hands reach..just that one little patch on my chin which grow like weeds …Great post,Angela…No one has mentioned warts yet…Just saying 🙂

  6. This did make me giggle, Angela. I have a lovely crop of grey hairs at my calf-lick (don’t know whether you have this expression – where my hair parts in a whirl at the front). I am strangely delighted by this. I like that I have reached maturity, and am rather proud of not getting the urge to reach for hair dye. I also have one very long hair (I don’t ever notice it until it is about two inches) on my left cheek. It is so satisfying to pull it out, and gaze upon it, and wonder at its ability to have escaped my notice for the last six months. I am now squinting at my phone trying to focus, and I find night-driving more unpleasant because of the glare – not so good or joyful. Oh, and I seem to be going deaf. I need to take phonecalls at work in a quiet room now, because I just can’t hear with background noise. If I feel a little plump around the middle, eating well for a week makes no difference whatsoever, where a few years ago I could quickly fit back neatly into my clothes. And the skin on the back of my hands is…well worn.

    I do find myself gazing upon the plump smooth skin of my daughters with absolute wonder. Of course they don’t appreciate this gift at all, having known nothing else, but I do.

    Nothing would persuade me to botox my forehead though. I find botoxed foreheads strange and rubbery, and they don’t match the rest of the face. Lived-in faces have character. And I like my elastic eyebrows.

    1. A most excellent review of aging with a sense of fondness. I share that sense of satisfactory wonder in plucking out that odd hair. (Provided I can keep the army at bay)
      For whatever reason, the expression here is “Cow’s lick” or cowlick. Same idea though. And I love that you love your new crop of hair there.
      You make an excellent point about your daughters too. We can’t fully appreciate something we have because it’s just always been there. I think there’s an insight into other privileges we enjoy there as well.
      You write so beautifully. Thank you for your words.

  7. GAH the accursed mustache! I’ve got one of those too, and it drives me nuts! I’m also one of those who wakes up with some sort of ache somewhere. “Oh that’s right, I hurt.” Be it hip, knee, or neck, there’s always somethin’ hurtin’. Boo!

    1. Absolutely, boo! I have to say, I find it comforting that others have the same battle as I. Though I hate to hear that anyone is suffering even the most minor pain, it’s very good to know we’re in this thing called “aging” together. And the BEST part is, knowing we’re all going to experience it, seeing how you and others thrive despite the petty annoyances is inspiration.

      1. Yes, we shall thrive! I’ve always thought I’d look good with crazy-long grey hair….and a pipe. I want to smoke a pipe and wear leather boots in summer. Oh, I’m brainstorming all sorts of Crazy Lady antics for the coming years! 🙂

        1. That is an awesome image! I also plan my Crazy Lady days. No pipe (though that’s an excellent touch), but I do have a big floppy hat and a comfortable smock-like dress to wear in the garden in my fantasy.

  8. Oh how I love this post – and knowing that I’m not alone. 🙂 I’ve been waxing my own upper lip for a few years now, and I just asked my husband to buy me a home electrolysis gadget to try to permanently take care of those chin hairs that keep multiplying. The struggle is real! I’m determined not to be that older woman with 2″ hairs on her chin. 🙂

    1. Those 2″ hairs would still look good on you! 🙂 I can’t help but wish it didn’t matter at all. But it does. While I don’t think beauty is everything–a neat appearance does matter. I haven’t quite squared up my belief that we should embrace our whole selves and celebrate beauty in all it’s forms, with how much I cringe at my own sagging skin and random hairs. Perhaps both can be true at the same time. Or maybe it’s simply acknowledging all the contradictions out there and how complex a topic self-acceptance and ideal beauty really is. It’s a journey, not a destination.

    1. Hi Andrea! It helps a little…it’s good to know we’re not alone! Though I agree, small comfort when I’m squinting at the mirror and hoping I get the offending hair. Silly hair.

  9. Just wait until menopause! LOL! I never got the dark hairs until this week. I found three and pulled them out. Now I’m worried I might have a “rogue” hair flying in the wind somewhere. 🙂

    1. Wow! What timing. I really can’t completely hate those funny hairs. They’re sort of the wabi sabi of my body–the intentional nod to imperfection that somehow proves the artists skill. Or something…

  10. Ha, ha enjoyed this post – I’m there!

    It’s almost as if every morning, you look in the mirror and another fine line rears it’s ugly head.

    Talking about sweating in weird places, I barely use to sweat unless of course, I was exercising or trekking and then it wasn’t a lot. In the last year, I notice that my left armpit sweats profusely – it’s bizarre! Not only that, I need to keep washing and re-applying deodorant as that armpit is smellier than my right.

    If that isn’t enough, I seem to get the worse and most painful pimples now at the base of my scalp and neck, but also throughout my scalp – this is definitely strange and a new occurrence! 🙁

    1. Oh my! Why are armpits so strange? They have the distinction of the second weirdest name for a body part (coccyx is the first in my opinion), but they’re also the source of so much goofiness, sweat and stink included. Thank you for sharing your tragicomedy! 🙂

  11. I can’t stop laughing at this post. When did you notice the first signs of impending middle age? Your post made it sound like you were forty-ish. Is that close?

    1. Yes. Exactly. I was thirty-seven when I first noticed those fine mustache hairs. Just about the time I began dating again after a divorce. Fun! I’m glad you’re laughing though! I am too, most of the time. 🙂

  12. I felt and looked more like myself to myself in my 40s and early 50s than ever before or since. I was physically better at everything than I had ever been before — I ran faster and longer and happier, then osteoarthritis hit my hips and I went from being twenty-something fifty-something to an 80 year old. Lots of things to learn in all that. We see and feel this process physically but upstairs? There is something about “ripening” intellectually and possibly spiritually. There are fruits that are ready to harvest and comprehensible — finally — to me now at 66.

    Having two titanium hips is great. I’m thankful every day to be alive now and not during my grandma’s time(s) so I can have them and I can walk, run, ski. Well I’ll run if I can remember how. That’s a strange reality of having degenerative joint disease for 10 years, you forget things. But I’ll get there.

    I also always think — and have thought — of my dad who died of MS at 45. There was a point in my 40s when I realized I was getting the life my dad never had. It was sobering and left me with a sense of responsibility to enjoy the years ahead, to get as much out of them as I could. <3

  13. I just posted today on Facebook about how I finally have to pull out reading glasses to thread the sewing machine, a sign of middle age for sure. I remember when my mom first asked me to help her thread the sewing machine when she was in her 40s and it has forever stood out to me. I can’t say I have chin hairs yet (but I will be checking carefully in the morning!) but I definitely can’t eat like I used to and things are harder to keep from sagging. It’s nice to know that I am in good company!

    1. Oh yes. That eye thing is so strange. It feels like one day, my eyes were perfect, the next I’m squinting. I too need help threading a needle–thank heavens for those little doohickey things that help with that or the small sewing jobs I do would never get done! It is funny what we remember isn’t it? I find myself looking at people twenty years older than me now and wondering what that will be like. I know time comes for us all.

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