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September 11, 2017 7:09 AM   Subscribe

I'll turn 50 in about seven weeks, and I've started having hot flashes. But this isn't a question about that. Instead, my problem is that every time I have a hot flash, I'm reminded that I'm going to be dead in 25-30 years, and its starting to really make me upset.

I think the basic problem is this: I've never really had any reason to think about my age before now. I feel pretty much the same physically now as I did at 29. I don't mentally feel old, or middle aged, or whatever 50 is now. And suddenly, a few times a day, my body sends me this neon flashing sign that says YOU'RE GETTING OLD AND ARE GOING TO DIE SOON.

Not cool, body. Not cool.

Also, frankly, the idea of death - not so much of being dead, but of going through the physical process of dying - is terrifying, and always has been. Like flat out white knuckle terrifying.

I don't care about the hot flashes themselves. And I don't think these are really "intrusive thoughts". Please don't say "therapy". But - can you suggest ways that I can either redirect my thoughts to something else, or simply learn to cope with these reminders that, hey, the clock is ticking here.
posted by anastasiav to Human Relations (24 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Personally, I would say to dive right in. Ageing and death aren't mistakes or failures, and keeping death as a part of the everyday conversation helps to focus on what is important.

I'm not sure what part of the process of dying is terrifying to you, but the resources that are available now to help with comfort are much greater than they were even 20 years ago.

I would recommend Dying Well, by Ira Byock, to get a feel for the experience of death and dying, and A Year to Live by Stephen Levine to help focus you on what's important so that you don't leave important things undone or unsaid when you do die.
posted by janey47 at 7:17 AM on September 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

And I don't think these are really "intrusive thoughts"

They sound like intrusive thoughts to me. I have anxiety and a lot of times there will be one thing, whatever the thing is, which will set my mind off and then it will be like this sticky octopus in my head and the two parts to this are

- I can't stop thinking about it, and
- Thinking about it is making me upset

I do a few things (in addition to therapy and occasional meds) which help

- Meditation practice has helped me learn to "set aside" whatever the thought is (It could be mortality, the way my hair looks, some sort of future task I am dreading) and tell myself "I don't need to think about that right now" Learning to push thoughts out of my mind, not actively with force but just with kindness and understanding. It's a thing brains do, get stuck on things, it's also a thing brains can do to gently unstick. Headspace was where I learned but now I just do 10-15 minutes of music meditation every day and it's just a reminder.
- Distraction also is good, doing a thing that is complex enough that I can't just ruminate on something. This might be exercise, or listening to a podcast, or cooking a complicated meal. Because honestly, I can't do much immediately about most of the things I worry about. If I can put them off for five minutes, maybe I can put them off for five years
- Planning was also useful. I used to be a terrible hypochondriac and I had to get to a place where I decided that hey, dying isn't the worst thing that could happen to me, compared to living in fear for another 20 years. I mean, I like being alive, truly, but there are a lot of completely decent ways to die which, since it's inevitable, are good things to think about. I'd rather have an idea of what death and dying is like than just have it be like some monster in the closet. My mom died this summer, it went... well? And helped me see that there are ways to "do it right" if it's inevitable, which it is.

I am a person who generally likes to deal with problems head on. I am also sort of thinky which means I feel like I can reason my way around and out of bad ideas. But my anxious monkey mind needed something different and what I have mostly works. Sometimes unthinking something difficult requires a different more difficult type of attention than just letting your mind go nuts on it, but it's worthwhile effort. I wish you luck tangling with this.
posted by jessamyn at 7:20 AM on September 11, 2017 [26 favorites]

I don't know if this would be helpful, but I would really try to reframe "only" in your mind. If you live for another 30 years, that means you're only halfway through adulthood. There's so much left. 30 years is a really long time.
posted by mercredi at 7:31 AM on September 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

I agree with jessamyn--these sound like the kinds of intrusive thoughts I had after my pregnancy losses. I discovered hormonal fluctuations are well known for increasing anxiety, and it was more than just an emotional reaction--it was chemical, too. [Peri]menopause can trigger these reactions.

I'm not trying to dismiss what you're experiencing though! Intrusive thoughts or no, these feelings were and are very real to me. I found comfort in the articles on the Death Cafe website and though I never found a local Death Cafe, I think it would have been helpful.

Good luck. I know the kinds of thoughts you mean, and they are not fun.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:32 AM on September 11, 2017 [7 favorites]

I'm 54 and I went through a similar thing as you. During the day I tuned out my fears but at night...oh boy! I started to question big things like "Am I happy where I live?" and making changes to myself and my living circumstances. II feel like with going through menopause and then my parents dying a couple of years ago that I'm in a better place now. My hormones are not fluctuating like they used to. Have you considered seeing a gynecologist for hormone replace therapy? Also, do you exercise and get cardio? That and eating healthy and resting may help you. I wish you the best.
posted by DixieBaby at 7:54 AM on September 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm a couple of years ahead of you, and have been sticking my head into the freezer at odd hours for years now.
I don't think it's "intrusive" to have these thoughts in the sense of pathological. Yes, they do intrude because you would rather they waited patiently outside til you were 85. But if everyone treated those thoughts as symptoms of pathology, we humans would have no religion, no Epic of Gilgamesh, no Day of the Dead art, no Kusozu, no "Ode on a Grecian Urn," etc. In other words, welcome to the human condition. All I can say is it is painful to think about because it is a difficult truth. I've noticed my own thinking has shifted as in recent years I finally see my life as a finite and bounded thing. If I stay calm through a practice of staying calm, this understanding makes my relationships and my work and my need to do good a bit deeper and a bit more urgent. I think we all have to let it be there as an undercurrent. Yes, we're mortal, and it would really suck to live forever, so my thinking is to embrace the bittersweet.
posted by flourpot at 7:57 AM on September 11, 2017 [11 favorites]

I've been to a death cafe and they are pretty awesome.

My approach is to turn that energy towards making sure my life is the life I want to be living now...and has been since I lost a child, more or less. It's not easy all the time but in the end each day we have is the one we can manage Right Now.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:00 AM on September 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

My bf died of cancer two years ago. He accepted his diagnosis of terminal cancer and continued to live his life. Everyone was kind and he was full of life. He was only incapacitated for the last two months. He was at home, under hospice care, and died at home. People came to see him. They were joyful, in their interactions, and supportive.

None of us knows what the process will be like when we die. It was not easy, but it was a very vital process, very much a part of living. He was a special person, to me anyway, and not everyone will have the same experience, but he was not afraid of dying.

It may actually seem scarier now to you than it will when it happens, because you will have the strength to face it, most likely. That's what people do. We are more resilient than we know when we are called to be.

And 25 to 30 years is a very long time.
posted by Vispa Teresa at 8:06 AM on September 11, 2017 [17 favorites]

Oh, man, I know what you mean. Turning 50 hit me pretty hard. That was the point where getting old and dying started to feel a lot more real. I think you're probably right that these thoughts aren't the kind of obsessive thoughts that are usually described as "intrusive." If you had knee pain several times a day and every time it happened it reminded you that your doctor had said you might need knee surgery, that would be pretty normal and expected, right? This is the same kind of deal.

For me, the best way to deal with these thoughts is just to accept them and be interested in them. I'm experiencing something new - what it's like to be over 50 - and it's always interesting to have a new experience. Parts of it suck and there's no point trying to convince myself otherwise. I don't want to die but I'm going to and it's getting closer. Feeling nothing but serenity and acceptance about that would be kind of weird, wouldn't it? It's also interesting to observe the things that are good about this age (and there definitely are some) and the things that haven't really changed over time. I didn't use to know what it would be like to be in my 50's and now I do, and that's an interesting thing to have found out.

Talking to other people around the same age is helpful, too. It's nice to compare notes with other people who have similar feelings about what's happening to them.

Also, don't you think 25-30 years is probably an underestimate? I've always assumed I would live to be 100 (though I'm beginning to see that there could be a downside to that), so when I hit 50 I figured I was only halfway to the end. If you feel about the same physically as you did when you were 29, it sounds like you're in even better shape than I am, so you might want to revise your estimate of you long you have left.
posted by Redstart at 8:16 AM on September 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

When I start thinking about dying - like at 3 am when I can't go back to sleep - I try to think back 30 years, and remember how all the stuff I've done since then and how long ago that feels.
posted by lyssabee at 8:27 AM on September 11, 2017 [9 favorites]

I'm also turning 50 soon, more like 10 weeks.

However, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago next week, so I actually do have some experience in facing the sudden onset of thinking about mortality. Her cancer treatments appear to have worked and she appears to be cancer free, and our focus is to get on living. No more waiting for next weekend when we can do something fun this weekend. Also, no more allowing people that bring me down into my life. We may have been friends in high school, but if you are a racist Trump supporter you are out of my life. The whole live every day like it's your last thing is a cliche, but it's also kind of true. None of us know when our last day will be - could be tomorrow or could be in 40 years for me. A 26-year old cousin just died last week in a car accident, which was another reminder to not worry about the uncontrollable. I do what I can in terms of eating decently and staying in decent physical shape, in case that improves my odds a bit, but otherwise I've got concerts and baseball games to go to, beaches to visit, mountains to climb, etc.

So for me, I'm just refusing to worry. I don't see how it will help. Whatever time I have left among the living will be spent, to the greatest extent possible, with people I love doing stuff I want to do.
posted by COD at 8:39 AM on September 11, 2017 [9 favorites]

I had these thoughts way earlier in the game... when I was about 25 and going through mania... some kind of paranoia/phobia thing where I was convinced someone would come and murder me in my sleep -- so I didn't sleep for almost a week -- bipolar's a bitch, what can I say?

Anyway, the whole death thing lingered after the mania passed, and basically the way I personally got past it (I'm 51 by the way, so this was 20 some odd years ago) was to accept that yes, I will die, and so will everyone and everything around me. And yes, there's nothing I can do about it. Death is inevitable. Staying up won't change it. Worrying about it won't change it, and changing the way I live won't change it. Death comes to us all -- healthy or not. A meteor could come from the sky and strike me down as I type this and there's nothing I can do to stop it. -- pause -- Okay. Didn't happen. So until death comes, I'll just keep living my life as though I it's not going to come for me today. Because today is all I have. (I'm a live in the now type of person, maybe that's why this works for me)

It really was that simple for me.
posted by patheral at 8:45 AM on September 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

- Take the thoughts when they arrive and mentally, inwardly, seek out their physical qualities: What is the shape of this scary thought? What would it weigh? What's its color, texture, fluidity, sound, etc.? Turn the thoughts into 'physical objects' you can symbolically deal with outside of your core existential being. After you discern their attributes, put them on a mental shelf.

- Panic attacks and anxiety are side effects of the hormonal changes of menopause. One one hand, I think coming to terms with the fact that life ends--that my life will end--can drive a transformative change with your identity, future, relationship to others, to time, to meaning. On the other hand, if the thoughts are becoming too intrusive, you can simply acknowledge they have a hormonal component and seek some physiological support.

- Lastly, there's a great quote in Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner: "Worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due." When I heard that it was blessed permission to stop spending energy on a lot of stuff I have no control over.
posted by cocoagirl at 8:45 AM on September 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

I found this woman's reflection on dying really interesting and useful. The very short version: Everyone is dying; some people just think about it sooner/more, for various reasons.

One thing I keep coming back to: Someone could be diagnosed with some unfortunate, longterm condition and then get hit by a bus outside the doctor's office. So. You never know. A lot of good advice/reflections above, but, yeah, basically use that truth to your benefit.
posted by veggieboy at 9:15 AM on September 11, 2017

I've had the intrusive death thought horrors too, but mine were brought about by depression and anxiety at a very young age. I think the suggestions about hormone balancing might be the best advice. Depression is a biochemical reaction in the brain and body and getting on meds has helped a lot. Whether brought about by menopause or something else, your mood can be helped by whatever kind of medication is best for you. If the thoughts are still there, they will be easier to deal with if you're not depressed/anxious. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a good way of doing so. I was not able to use CBH until my racing mind was calm enough to focus on the techniques.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 10:37 AM on September 11, 2017

Nthing meditation. As an atheist, I find reading about ecology and how all energy and matter cycles back into future use / life is comforting.

Also, be sure to get out there and do memorable things: make good friends, travel, see interesting places, participate in meaningful events and activities. Memories of these sort of things become major milestones in your life. If you're only doing the workaday routine, your mind has no frames of reference to make the past anything more than a quick, singular blur. However, having big, important activities that block out the months and years (for me) seems to expand past and the (possible) future years.

The other thing I would recommend would be to keep a journal or diary, because that also strengthens your memory of what you've lived, which I also find makes the future possibilities more concrete and expanded in possibility as well.
posted by aught at 10:49 AM on September 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

...the idea of death - not so much of being dead, but of going through the physical process of dying - is terrifying, and always has been. Like flat out white knuckle terrifying.

Perhaps you could work on trying to persuade yourself that there's really no inbuilt reason why the physical process of dying actually merits more terror than the physical process of going to sleep, which it's obviously going to resemble pretty closely.

If it's the idea of death being an actual hard stop to all experience that you're finding troubling, you might gain some valuable perspective from contemplating the vast stretches of time during which Stuff was happening before you were even conceived.

The prospect of unbearable pain and suffering might reasonably be terrifying, but as a person with years of on-and-off depression already under my belt I'm fairly well inured to that. But even if you don't share that experience, it's quite feasible to decouple the idea of unbearable pain and suffering from the idea of dying. Most people who die do not, in fact, experience unbearable pain and suffering in the leadup to their deaths, and simply assuming that you'll be among the unlucky serves no useful purpose.

If you're worried about having to account for every fuckup you ever made in some kind of afterlife, don't be. There is no afterlife. The Internet has spoken.

When it comes right down to it, I think most people who are afraid of dying got that way by being told that such a fear was only to be expected. You're perfectly free to learn to expect differently, if you care to spend time practising doing that.
posted by flabdablet at 12:20 PM on September 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Talk to your gyn as you may be on the tips of the bell curve for hormone reaction, or, conversely, there might be something that takes the edge off, from fish oil to Rx.

Any chance you can talk to your mom or an aunt about their experience?

For being a little more zen, the podcast Death Sex and Money has a good balance with great content. Like Breath for Air is a great read.

FWIW I was out of shape at 50 and was signed up for a Tough Mudder Half as a sort of distraction. I'll let you know in several months if I recommend it. I'm trying to prime myself for restful sleep. You, though, might have a short-term goal that could be a positive re-direction?
posted by childofTethys at 1:33 PM on September 11, 2017

I don't recommend trying to think about all of the time you didn't/won't exist, myself.

There have been very few times when I've been comfortable with my inevitable non existence, and all but one were under the influence of psychedelics. YMMV, etc, but there are others who've had such experiences and apparently people who specialize in cultivating them. When the dread comes to me, I try to think back to those experiences, and sometimes it helps.

Other times I just drink until I pass out.
posted by booooooze at 3:26 PM on September 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

I never really thought about death until my partner's brother had a massive heart attack. Long story, but he actually died and was resussitated. We saw him in ICU a few hours later, all hooked up to machines. He was bemused, very calm, and told us that at a certain point, he was "somewhere else" and that he saw family that had previously died, waiting for him. He said that it was made clear that he wasn't ready to leave, and at that point, he was back in the present, with a nurse performing cpr on him.

That was the point where my own thoughts of my death became ok. There is a beyond, and I am curious and hope to be ready when it's my turn. I hope to live a long life, and as people I love have started dying, I found this experience to be very comforting.

I'm not religious, and see this as an organic progression of being. Btw, partner's brother is still with us, and frequently talks about what happened. It's good.
posted by LaBellaStella at 4:10 PM on September 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

It sounds like what I would consider an 'intrusive thought'. When I have things like that, where my brain just keeps coming back to something like my tongue poking a sore tooth over and over, I find distraction works really well. Particularly distraction that leads to some sort of positive effect. So, while diving into an addictive video game will help distract me, sometimes doing that and then taking a break to clean something or spending time figuring out where to donate some money and then doing so... those will help. Doing things that are outwardly focused helps in the long term, and anything that will make my brain busy with things that aren't the intrusive thought will help my brain get out of the repetitive rut it falls into.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:19 PM on September 11, 2017

Long story, but he actually died and was resussitated. We saw him in ICU a few hours later, all hooked up to machines. He was bemused, very calm, and told us that at a certain point, he was "somewhere else" and that he saw family that had previously died, waiting for him. He said that it was made clear that he wasn't ready to leave, and at that point, he was back in the present, with a nurse performing cpr on him.

This kind of story is really common, and strongly reinforces the point that the experience of dying shares a great deal with the experience of sleeping. The dying person will typically be unaware of the passage of time in the real world, having either no conscious experiences at all or experiences essentially indistinguishable from dreaming, like those described.

Making a practice of deliberately paying attention to the process of falling asleep can provide useful perspective here. It's a little tricky to do because it can tend to wake a person up, and the experience can be quite difficult to recall in any level of detail, but like everything else it does come easier with practice.
posted by flabdablet at 8:14 AM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Menopause is hard, I know because I've been going through it the last couple of years and I feel for you. For me it isn't entirely over yet, I still have a hot spell now and then and I'm still struggling with hormonal mood swings.
But it is not in any way about death. It's about transitioning from one state of womanhood to another and it is in many ways a good thing. I read an article ages ago where a woman described it as returning to the spiritual freedom of childhood, in a positive way. (Ages ago, so I don't remember where or who).
In my life, I've had a lot of wonderful, wise, funny, sexy, on-tables-dancing* older women among my friends and family. Maybe that is why I wasn't ever scared of this transition. Maybe one thing you could do for yourself would be to seek out some elder women, at your job, in your family, in your broader community. Old women are fun, and they have fun.
Sometimes your older friends or family will become very ill and die. That is terrible and for me, the last decade has been full of that, and of grief. But I have also learnt about death and I no longer worry about it. I worry about cleaning up my house, so my family won't need to clean up after me. But I don't ever worry about dying. I hope I will live 40 years longer, because women in my family have lived long. But if I don't, I know I have lived my life to the fullest and I have had everything anyone can wish for. I learnt that from those people I lost. They didn't regret anything about careers or status or money, they celebrated the love they had known, and grieved over the loves they had lost. And everyone has known love and lost love. These days, I am realizing how much those bygone relations have meant — to me, but also to the other part. When you are younger you may feel unseen and unloved. But I can see now how my feelings, including my insecurity and confusion was mirrored then and is remembered with affection now, just as I am affectionate and grateful about those past loves and friendships.
Today I had a long talk on the phone with a friend I have who is almost 90. We talked about our common interests and made plans for next year. Lived as though life will never end. What else should we have done? It was the best of phone calls, not least because it reminded me that this life can be lived in every moment.

*I really know several older women who have danced on tables after they were 50. But the most brillant was my gran, in 1992, where she was 72 and I was 29. We were at a country fair and things happened, which all led to her dancing on the tables and spilling a pint of beer down my neck. She lived another wonderful, glorious 20 years, and was ready to leave when she did, no regrets.
posted by mumimor at 1:04 PM on September 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

I am 60 and just turn it around. Whenever I'm reminded of my age, I always tell myself "I probably have at least 15 more good years!" (Both my parents are alive, active, and living independently at 85, so I figure I'm good until 75 at least.)
posted by raisingsand at 8:32 AM on September 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

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