Retirement: Cant wait for the easy life?
One mans account of how its not so simple
By Leonard Quart
I never had trouble sleeping when I was younger. I went to bed late, woke up early, and usually slept soundly through the night. But my sleep, like my aging 64-year-old body, has rarely been untroubled over the past decade.
The most dramatic sleep disruption occurred a number of years ago. I had decided to retire. It was not a snap decision, and I thought I was feeling relatively calm about the future.
What soon followed, however, were days when I kept obsessing about death seeing it lurking everywhere and nights that turned into many months of insomnia.
Those months were agonizing ones. The insomnia coupled with a full-fledged depression made me feel like a character in an Antonioni film (LAventurra, Red Desert) where the everyday world turned into a gray, viscous fog that I couldnt quite penetrate.
It was not the kind of depression that prevented me from teaching and writing. I didnt withdraw from people or the world into some private reverie. Nor did I spend a great deal of my time hidden away at home watching television.
I went to work, but felt removed from meetings centered on hirings, budgets, curriculum, and the colleges future. Yet I had been feeling disillusioned with my job for some time. Id been feeling as though I was going through the motions losing my life-long desire to fire up and move students intellectually beyond conventional pieties and superficial analyses.
Still, on my annual trip to London that year, I discovered that walks across a tour boat-filled, gray/blue Thames, and a lush green hill overflowing with iridescent kites in Hampstead Heath that usually exhilarated me, gave me no pleasure. I felt dead inside, a mere shadow of myself.
And during those nights when I struggled to get to sleep, I nervously paced the floor, drank herbal tea, listened to mind-numbing radio talk shows, and supinely watched execrable old movies and ads for a golden oldies doo-wop collection. I became exceedingly sleep-conscious constantly watching myself as I laid my head on the pillow always trying to conjure up erotic images that would ease my way into sleep.
A couple of times I was so distraught that I left my apartment at 3 a.m. and dropped in at a 24-hour Greek diner around the corner. There, alongside other aging insomniacs, cops and subway workers on the night shift, disheveled alcoholics, and a motley group of high-on-pot young people, talking loudly and incoherently after returning from nocturnal clubbing, I could sit and have a black coffee and experience a bit of serenity. I felt better because there were other people who were also awake and achingly alert in the middle of the night.
I am relieved to report that death anxiety no longer plagues me, and that with the aid of the occasional sleeping pill, those agitated nights of insomnia are gone. I cant pinpoint the moment that the depression and insomnia ended. It seemed to vanish as abruptly as it came on. What probably happened, was that I adjusted to my imminent retirement, and realized that there was much I wanted to accomplish in the remaining years.
Now retired I continue to give talks and lectures about a variety of subjects the teacher in me still needs an audience. Next week I am giving a personal talk on my retirement some of its content mirroring this essay. Its an odd sensation charting in public ones private feelings. But there is much about job burnout and seeking a new life in ones sixties that I think will resonate with my audience. And, in the process, I will achieve a sense of release, and, perhaps, even elation.