Last Chance Saloon: Addictions, Anger, Depression, Alternatives
A sense of urgency and desperation seizes many men in their fifties: a feeling that time’s running out, that their drive and reserves are depleted, a fear that old age is just around the next corner. For many men, these feelings shift by the late fifties, with a new sense of spaciousness and possibilities arising. However: by fifty, many men are deeply stuck in addiction or avoidance habits, and the fifties or early sixties are the last chance saloon: if you can’t dig yourself out of these habits at this stage, you’re probably stuck for the rest of your life. This chapter can help you explore your negative patterns and ways to shift them.
The focus of Chapter 5 is on physical health, whereas this Chapter looks at emotional and psychological issues. There are so many of these that I can only touch on a few. We all have short periods of feeling upset or downcast. The point of this Chapter is to help you recognise longer term problems which are damaging your happiness, and can also affect your physical health. Maybe you have a condition which is already longstanding, or a recent issue which could stay with you for years if you don’t tackle it. In particular, this Chapter takes a detailed look at how you can face up to and move through addictions, anxiety and avoidance, habitual anger, and depression. It then takes a look at alternative medicines and therapies, which could be helpful for these situations and many others, and gives you guidelines on how to explore this area.
Nick is a man in his early fifties, who I knew vaguely through a singing group. He was never friendly with anyone, and I noticed his clothes were getting grubby, and his face was getting red and blotchy. One evening we got talking, and I was telling him about my work on this book. He looked uncomfortable, and then grunted “Well, maybe you could help me. I’ve had problems with depression for a long time, but it’s got much worse lately. I had a part-time job which was a kind of lifeline, but they shut the place down with all the sodded spending cuts.” He paused, and I felt him struggling with a terrible sense of shame. “Yeah, I’ve started drinking a lot. On my own, I never did that before. And I’m hooked on computer games. Can’t help it. My girlfriend put up with it all for a while, but dropped me last year. It’s just bloody painful…”
Maybe you know men like this, maybe you are one. They’re hard to reach, because they’re solitary, and too ashamed to admit to their problems. My advice is, don’t try to fix them, don’t rush into solving their problem. Talking about your own problems will help them to trust you. Doing something social together that won’t be demanding, like going for a walk or out to a concert, can help their morale. Hope that they will open up to you about the problems, but even then, don’t offer your solutions, try to help them find their own.
There are many possible shipwrecks in the maturing years: big events that force change upon you. Or you may have a sense of slowly sinking: for example, gradual decline in your health, your marriage, your circle of friends and so on. Big emotional issues can hit you now, even if your earlier years have been fairly cheerful. Many men keep so busy in their thirties and forties that they stave off problems that need facing. Beyond 50, you’ll fare better if you choose to deal with them. There’s no need to feel alone, embarrassed, or overwhelmed: these are commonplace issues, and they can be solved.
I believe the basic crisis of life beyond 50 is a spiritual one: the need for meaning and purpose as death comes over the horizon. And the issues explored in this Chapter could all be seen as symptoms of this underlying need. So you may want to read this Chapter together with the following one, which is about Dreams, Dawns, Dying and Inspiration.
Are you feeling doubtful about reading this chapter, unsure that it has any relevance for you? This may be a sign that you need it more than most. One feature of addictions and avoidance is that people deny they have them, or deny they’re a difficulty. Admitting the problem, finding the willingness to change, is a crucial first step. One way to assess this is by checking the facts: for example, how much alcohol are you consuming, and what’s the norm? There are good self-assessment tools for most of the issues in this Chapter, listed in Resources.
Negative habits are there for a reason: usually so you can avoid some unbearable pain within you. The process of exploring and clearing these deep-set patterns is a tough one, like the Hero’s Journey described in Chapter 2. It needs courage and persistence from you, and good support from others. One place to start this process is by gently exploring what are the payoffs to you from the habit. And can you guess at the pain underneath which you are trying to avoid? Often this will be experiences in childhood, and negative self-beliefs which you can’t bear to live with. Your behaviour has been trying to protect you by shielding you from this pain, but you need to decide that it’s better to face the pain than continue a habit which is damaging you and people around you.
Six steps to making a difference
Whatever the issues you are trying to resolve, these six broad steps should help you:
- Get some facts: Take an honest look at how much of the time you feel happy or not, and what the problems actually are. Keep a diary, maybe for a month, with as much factual detail as possible: for example, about addictive behaviour, or how often you have felt depressed, anxious, lonely, and for how long each time? Keep a log of physical symptoms, like sleeplessness, indigestion, overeating, which may result from emotional issues.
- Initial research: Use web searches, online self-tests, forums, phone help lines, and relevant books to help you to define and diagnose your problem, to explore ways to tackle it, and people, organisations and other resources which could help you. Appreciate yourself for taking some action.
- Shortlist and investigate: Make a shortlist of three specific initiatives you could take to clear your problem. For example, these could include: doing a self-help programme, having counselling sessions, trying one of the complementary approaches described later, or asking your GP to refer you for some treatment. Having made your shortlist, investigate each option carefully.
- Seek personal support: Talk to a few close friends and family members, share your diary and your diagnosis with them, ask them if they think you’re being accurate, or if there’s anything they’d amend. Be careful to choose people who take a positive view, avoid ones who will rubbish your capacity to change. Drinking partners and disappointed ex-girlfriends are not a good idea!
- Commit and stay with it: Choose your preferred option from the shortlist, commit to it, and stay with it through the programme. Discuss your intended programme with one or two close contacts before you commit, and also ask for their support during the programme. If you really believe none of the three options on your shortlist would suit you, do the process again. If the second go-round produces nothing you are willing to try, admit that there is strong resistance and avoidance on your part, and seek some professional help.
- Review: When you make your commitment, set yourself goals for the changes you want, and the time you want to achieve them by. Review your progress regularly: this is best done with a friend or professional, and also review at the end of your programme.