By Chad Nance
“Do you have the time
to listen to me whine
About nothing and everything all at once
I am one of those
Neurotic to the bone
No doubt about it
Sometimes I give myself the creeps
Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me
It all keeps adding up
I think I’m cracking up
Am I just paranoid?”
– Billie Joe Armstrong
It’s the time of chimpanzees, fellow pilgrims, and this monkey is getting old. This is the time when the mileage starts to really show and every awful aspect of aging that your daddy didn’t warn you about gives you the kind of bums rush that has the vague atmosphere of malignant and long over-due vengeance.
My Pop didn’t tell me that I was going to wake up one morning and find out that my youthful super-powers, like recovering overnight from an epic amount of self abuse, were not fading away- they were simply gone. Pop never mentioned the fact that cleaning the hair out of the shower would become a chore similar to raking seaweed off the beach. This may be too much gruesome detail for the average reader, but there was a time when I could piss twenty feet off of my grandma’s back porch and shoot out the eye of a dragon fly. One morning last summer I woke up and found out that while the pipes still blast from time to time, it is much safer to use the can sitting down. This is just a small fraction of the slow and deliberate destruction of my dignity that my Father no doubt experienced, but saw fit to let me just experience for myself with no warning. Pop taught me many important and valuable lessons, but he never told me just how bone crushing hitting mid-life would be.
Haven’t even mentioned the kids yet. I remember that my Pop seemed to spend most of his life while I was a teenager absolutely pissed off at me. I don’t mean just a little miffed. My Father carried with him an aura of deep, volcanic anger and a kind of unfathomable love/hatred that is a pure as it is inevitable. He could never articulate to me what was wrong, but now I know exactly how that man felt. Have you ever met a teenager? Talked to one recently? So I don’t write anything here that will make you doubt my sanity, humanity, or love for my children let me just say; I have a hole in the wall in my bedroom that fits the exact dimensions of my skull.
The daily changes to my physical presence on this rock would make David Cronenberg puke. All of this feels fairly apocalyptic. Some mornings I can hear the dogs growling, the horses hooves, and the ghost screaming in the attic all at once. Not that I’m complaining.
“Well I ain’t feeling happy
About the state of things in my life
But I’m working to make it better
With a six of Miller High Life
Just drinking and a-driving
Making sure my dues get paid
Because alienation’s for the rich
And I’m feeling poorer every day…”
– They Might Be Giants
This morning the hoof beats began to pound the earth live never before. Somewhere into my fourth cup of coffee after getting the kids to school, I came across a BBC news headline that pulled me upright for the first time in days:
“Why is death rate rising for white, middle-aged Americans?”
This was, as we call it here around the office, an “oh shit” moment. That’s inside journalists trade speak. Ignore the profanity and keep up. The lead (more inside journalists trade speak) went a little something like this:
“While non-whites, younger people and people in other countries are seeing falling death rates, a new study shows the reverse is happening for white men and women in the US aged 45-54.”
I stopped reading right there. It is easy to hear that little voice in your head (your voice) when it says, “You quit smoking two years ago. You’re not going to go out like one of those assholes.”
That voice got choked out while I read the rest of the article. Here a just a few tasty nuggets of goodness that had me doing the white knuckle, kung-fu grip on the arms of my office chair:
- “This change reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States; no other rich country saw a similar turnaround.”
- “[Increased mortality rates] really do show a growth disparity in health that reflects a growing disparity in wealth,” Joshua Sharfstein, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University.
- “This is not an urban, African-American issue as much as it is a poor, rural, white male issue… Culture comes to play, a culture of not necessarily treating depression,” said Mr Remington.
- “Forty-five to 54 is an age range where people can struggle. They may be in mid-life, they may not have the means, or health insurance or access to primary care,” said Mr Remington.
- Mr Remington said that for much of the study’s time period, people were uninsured.
Generation X is anyone born between the years of 1961 and 1981. It was a hell of a time to be born. Many of us spent our childhoods during the 1970’s when the entire nation was mired in a post Vietnam depression, OPEC, and spiraling interest rates all followed by the royal kick in the collective stones that was Watergate. Then came the inglourious 1980’s ruled over by the slightly vacant Ronald Reagan. Like America at the time, his genial and cocky demeanor hid a dark reality of ends justifies the means ethics, and dire consequences. The 90’s… well, you know… some of us spent half of the decade trying to get off of the couch while the rest of us bounced around the table like hot pinballs stoned on the giddy rush of possibility and the promise of an endless stream of liquid cash courtesy of a tech booming economy and a balanced national budget- Then the devil showed up in 2001 asking for payment for the excesses of the Baby Boom Generation and their spawn. The pain had officially been brought.
I’m right in the middle of Gen-X so the checks I’ve personally written with my blood and flesh are just now getting cashed. The truth is that I am a Generation X cliche’. My parents are a Baby Boomer entrepreneurial success story. They grew up with red dirt on their bare feet and a real faith in the potential and promise of the American Dream. Because of their hard work and success I was able to attend college and study filmmaking, which was an extremely decadent leap up the food chain from my grandfather sharecropping in Germanton.
My parents achieved great things with great effort. That brings me to the next brutal reality today- Many of these deaths of my fellow Gen-Xers are coming from suicide or drug addiction related illnesses. There is no question in my mind this is because we are the first generation of Americans since the Great Depression who are slamming into middle age and realizing that not only are we not doing as well as our parents did, but that we probably never will. This is what it is and, make no mistake, we are as responsible as the Baby Boomers who sometimes feel like they are still fighting in the life-boats while at the same time pulling the ladders overboard. Like many Americans my age I turned the 20th Century fat, making money, and reasonably healthy. I was too wrapped up in my own miserable existence to be involved in the wider community. Figured I’d get around to it when I hit my forties. I didn’t pay enough attention. I didn’t think through the consequences of inaction… and I dropped more balls than you could ever imagine. I’m not the only one. Many of us have come short of the glory on that score. Now we suffer and apparently we are dying off.
Researchers found increased numbers of declining self-reported health and mental health. We’re dying off and self-medicating at historical rates.
“Middle-aged whites reported problems with walking a quarter of a mile, climbing 10 steps, standing or sitting for two hours, shopping and socialising – some of which are risk factors for suicide.” We’re sick, ladies and gentlemen, but most of us have no health insurance so we aren’t telling anybody. Growing up I never spent an overnight in a hospital. Since I turned 38 I’ve been admitted to an Emergency Room twice. Once I almost stroked out while covering the healthcare debate in 2009 and then again in 2013 when I developed a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop and was hitting the high score on the blood pressure gauge every time they tried me. Both times I went in through the ER. Both times there was no way on this planet that I could possibly pay the massive tab I ran up by morning. When I was checking out and getting those grim numbers i tried not to think of the money I’d squandered in the 90’s on bar tabs alone. Health issues we can’t deal with properly are piled on by a skull crushing economic downturn that thrust many of us into survival mode. Most of us aren’t recovered fully yet and may never do so.
One gnarly conclusion of this study is that suicide rates are higher in the South and even higher in the rural South. Jobs and opportunity have virtually disappeared in the countryside. Here in North Carolina, even more so than the rest of the South, we are lagging behind in the economic recovery. Our job market is anemic and undervalued. Unless you live in Raleigh or Charlotte (where most of the job development in North Carolina has gone for the last half decade) you are still feeling the pinch with the same violence that you felt during the Great Recession. In the end a guy like me has a slight advantage. Income disparity and this new propensity to die way too young in mass numbers go hand in hand. The majority of those who are dying, offing themselves, or engaging in the kind of risky behaviors that you can only get away with if you’re rich are working class, under-educated (no college), and white. The times they are a’ changing… and not for the better for many of our brothers and sisters in the country.
“Do you like American music
I like American music
don’t you like American music baby
I want you to hold me
I want your arms around me
I want you to hold me baby”
– Violent Femmes
There probably isn’t some grand cure to this whole mess. It’s going to take something smaller, more intimate, and more authentic than what has come before. We may not have the resources available to us that our parents had. We may not have the time left that our children have… but we do have one another. The good news is that Generation X and a few Millennials snapping at our heels have started to recognize that there is strength is in community and coming together to make it through. This isn’t true everywhere. I’ll admit that my hometown, Winston-Salem, is a particularly fine example of this new, more human, ethos that has started to take hold in communities all over America. Fading away is the suburban idea that we are all individuals defined by our consumption. Rising is the realization that in order to make it from day to day we’re going to have to work together, empathize with one another, and love one another like neighbors instead of eyeball one another with the learned wariness of sworn enemies. So it goes and all we can do is try.
What have I got to complain about, anyway? I have a wonderful woman, a couple of goods kids (we have seven, but what are ya gonna do?) and a job that I don’t hate. I’m broke most of the time and the walls do close in on occasion, but all and all things could be worse. Maybe in the end all we can really rely on is love. Have courage fellow pilgrims, we’ll figure this thing out before the roll is called. Meanwhile… I still need a date to the prom, Mama. Would you like to come along?
You can read the BBC News article responsible for the above HERE.
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