Someone as young as you

When I was fourteen years old and first decided to become a social worker in order to help families like mine, I had no idea it would take me another eight years to begin. And even then it was only a beginning.

I held my first ever job as a social worker in Prince Henry’s Hospital on St Kilda Road near the Commonwealth army barracks and the Arts Centre. The hospital was about six floors in height but they put the social work department downstairs in the basement alongside the emergency department, which you entered from a side street.

I imagined they put us in the basement as a measure of our perceived value in those days.

I had not wanted to work in a hospital but I had earlier given up a Commonwealth scholarship to go to university for a cadetship with the Health Department. This meant I needed to pay off some of my debt to the government by working in a medical establishment of sorts, though less than a year down the track I realised no one was keeping tabs on me and I could go and work wherever I pleased.

I disliked working in a hospital as a social worker as my role was somehow determined by the medicos who thought of us as folks who could iron out difficulties at home while they attended to a person’s sick or damaged body.

I hated having to front up at someone’s bed and introduce myself as Elisabeth S from the social work department.

‘Your doctors think it would be helpful for you to see someone,’ I’d say and lean over them with kind eyes.

Some people were okay and even pleased at the idea of being able to have a chat with an interested person, but others could not see the point. I could offer to help them fill out forms – boring – or help them think about how they’d manage once they arrived back home, but this was not the work I wanted to do in my life.

And so through a long series of events and under the weight of a vast back-story, I left my job at the hospital for a counselling job in the suburbs.

So many years ago.

It comes back to me now when I think about a conference I went to last weekend in which among the many highlights there was a panel on ageing.

My mother who in the days of my first forays into work was herself only beginning to age told me one day,

‘I wouldn’t want to work with someone as young as you. You lack experience. How could I have any confidence in your ability to help?’

Her words rankled. For one thing they seemed to leave me in a childlike state and it crossed my mind then I’d never be able to catch up with my mother age-wise. She would always be thirty-three years ahead of me.

At the conference, Joyce Slochower, a New York analyst, talked about the pain of finding herself invisible, in that no longer attractive and alive-to-the-possibility-of-arousing-sexual-desire-in-another type of way that women over the age of fifty find.

She told the story of how one day she was talking with a friend in her bedroom when the friend noticed the photo of a young woman on the dresser.

‘Was that you?’ Her friend asked incredulous. ‘Was that really you?’

And Slochower felt a frisson of annoyance.

What did her friend mean by ‘was’?

‘Yes. That’s me when I was younger,’ she said and then later wondered about this idea of how we view our old selves from the vantage point of years, as if we’re talking about someone else.

Our old self is no longer us.

It’s something most of us beyond the age of forty will recognise. The way we looked in our teens and twenties as against the way we look now.

‘Our old selves’, the ones with whom we need to keep a nodding acquaintance. Remember how we once were but not become too distressed by the difference.

At this conference, I came across a colleague I had not seen for a decade. We had both changed and yet we recognised each other instantly. We could not have changed so much that our faces did not carry the traces of who we once were, recognisable even after death.

Though that was not the case with my mother once the embalmers got to her.

I suspect my mother would have wanted to be laid out and made to look beautiful. It was one of her claims to fame, her beauty, but I could not even bring myself to take a photo of her while she lay embalmed in that casket on the night of her vigil because they had puffed out her face and stoked up her eyebrows such that she looked nothing like the mother I knew.

Before they touched her face, my mother looked familiar, even in death. Afterwards she was a stranger.

Her still body reminded me of a time when my mother was in her late sixties and had a new set of dentures fitted. She looked so different, I could not stop looking at her, as if she had become someone else.

Age creeps up on us and if we continue to see one another daily we scarcely notice but for those who slip out of view for several years and then return back into our lives years later, the comparison on both sides can be startling.

Even as we might still feel like eighteen years old inside, we have entered the position of the no longer young.

My mother cannot question my experience now. Not from her grave.

Now I can at last catch up with her.

A Grim thought.

8 thoughts on “Someone as young as you”

  1. I’ve never had any dealings with social workers. I imagine that’s a good thing. I’ve always been a bit… contemptuous if I’m being honest of people who needed to have other people come round and tell them how they should or should not be living their lives. Carers are a different thing. People get frail and don’t always have relatives to look after them but I never really got how people so lost control of their lives that they needed a stranger to come round to tell them not to drink, take drugs and do remember to feed the kids. I was very naïve. I acted the cynic but the truth of the matter is I’ve always been more innocent than I’d like people to think I am.

    The media hasn’t helped. Social workers were always portrayed as well-meaning interferers but basically powerless. We’ve just finished watching the second season of Jo Brand’s ‘Damned’ set in the office of the Children’s Services department of the Social Services of fictional Elm Heath Council. It’s generally described as “bittersweet” and somehow manages to be over the top and realistic at the same time. It paints a depressing picture frankly. A job like that would kill me. I’ve always liked to think of myself as empathetic but the older I get the more I’m willing to admit I’m not and probably never have been. I blame the poet within me. He was the one who detached himself in moments of crisis and took notes. The thing is he’s a big part of me and although what was left of me said and did the right things I don’t think he had much energy left to devote to caring.

    My wife turned seventy yesterday. I have a seventy-year-old wife. I’m married to an old woman, old in body at least. I’m fifty-eight now but it’s been a long time since I felt fifty-eight. They say old age is a state of mind—well, someone said sometime—and it’s true. I don’t know how far you’re through ‘The More Things Change’ but there’s a bit towards the end where Jim says, “I was forty … although I looked fifty and felt sixty,” and I’ve felt like that for a long time. No one’s ever guessed my age right. One of these days I’ll turn eighty or ninety and look and feel eighty or ninety—is there much of a difference between being eighty or ninety?—but somehow I doubt it. My wife fully expects to outlive me but then longevity runs in her family but not mine.

    If you were to ask me what my two greatest fears about growing old were the first would be dementia obviously enough (I can’t imagine anything worse) and the second would be loss of independence. The longer I can keep health and social workers from the door the better.

    1. It’s a good idea to keep the social workers from the door, Jim, but good, too, that despite your cynicism you can see there’re helpful to some people. My husband when he met me described social workers as ‘mawkish dabblers in the dirty washing of others’. I’ve probably told you this already. The expression stays with me. I’m sure there is the odd mawkish dabbler out there but there are many many more dedicated, hard working and well boundaried folk who work in social work who do great work. As for ageing, we’re fortunate with each extra year we live to be alive, assuming our lives are not totally unbearable. So let’s hope you and I and Carrie as well have many many more to come. Thanks, Jim.

  2. When I started doing yoga at 29, desperate to deal with my RSI (repetitive stress injury contracted from my data entry job), I was also hopeful the yoga would help with my migraines and curved spine. The yoga helped with the RSI immediately, so much so that I started setting goals to achieve fun stuff like doing a hand stand and a cartwheel. When I achieved a backbend (I know it in yoga as the wheel), I was amazed. It wasn’t easy; it had taken years to get there, but it proved I could really change my body.

    Surely I will be able to do a handstand away from the wall by the time I’m 40! I said to myself. … by the time I’m 50! I revised it when I had to. … by the time I’m 60? That gives me pause. I’m setting physical improvement goals for my 50s? … for my 60s?

    I wish I had started yoga in my teens. There weren’t yoga studios on every corner in them days. I still experience all the problems I had when I started — migraines, occasional tiredness so deep I feel I’m falling. But everything is better, the bad stuff rarer and more easily treated. I complain sometimes, it’s true. I wish I could work out every day, not because I love working out, but because I want to choose not to work out due to laziness or boredom, not because my body is so tired I hurt. I’ve never heard of anyone else having to restrict themselves to small amounts of exercise, but such is my life. I remind myself it was always thus. Nothing new about it by now! Remember back a few sentences ago when you said everything is better? Yes, I remember. By the time I’m 60 I’ll be cured.

    1. There are people at the gym I go to who would have to be in their eighties, Glenn, and I can see they go. Not because they are exceptionally fit and want to stay that way but because they want to keep on moving. I’ve never tried yoga but I understand it’s extremely helpful. For me the best I can do is tackle a few weights twice a week and for the rest, I age. Thanks, Glenn.

  3. It is indeed a grim thought that we might catch up to our elderly relatives!
    Becoming invisible upsets me, too. I hate that in my youth, my opinion was discounted because it was immature. For many of my adult years, my opinion was also worthless. At work, it was because I was low on the hierarchy. At my kids’ schools, it was because the school and teachers knew better. Finally, at the age of fifty, I’ve found the courage to step out of hiding and give my opinion as an intelligent woman (which I believe I am), just as my age will turn me invisible.
    Now I’m worried I’ll be treated patronisingly because I’m older and it will drive me nuts—and then they’ll medicate me!
    Thanks for this thought-provoking post. x

    1. I’m determined to keep on offering my opinion – in appropriate situations – even as I age, Louise. I refuse to be intimidated, but it’s not easy. The pressure to shrink is enormous and more so for women. So we just have to try even harder. Thanks, Louise.

  4. Thank you Elisabeth for your thoughtful and insightful writing.
    Aging is an ongoing process and so much harder for women. Being invisible to ones sexuality and desirability is a constant reminder of the aging process. Most of the time I try and live, love and be in touch with my relationships and my work. At the same time I get drawn in to confront the changes. Staying physically fit and mentally alert are very important to me, for myself in my place in the world.

    1. I agree with you, Shoshanna, on the importance of staying fit and alert as we age. It’s one thing we can do something about. The rest of it the fact of our ageing and the general public reception to it is something we need to find ways around. To that end I enjoy Penny Joseph’s wonderful poem: ‘When I grow old I shall wear purple, With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me. And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter. And make up for the sobriety of my youth…’ In other words, I won’t be rendered invisible. I’ll stand out in my apparent eccentricity and be free of the strictures that bound me when I was young. Thanks, Shoshanna. It’s lovely to see and hear from you here.

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