Aging & Suicide :: the Dark Side of After-40
New York City therapist Bob Bergeron seemed to have everything to live for: a thriving private practice counseling gay men; famously good looks; his own apartment in the high-priced Chelsea neighborhood; and regular trips to Europe.
According to friends, acquaintances and clients, he was always very upbeat. At 49, he may not have been the head-turner he was in his 20s, but he was still undeniably handsome. His daily visits to the gym were proof that he had been able to maintain a toned physique.
To his friends, family, colleagues and his publisher, he appeared excited about the forthcoming publication of his first book, a self-help guide on a subject he knew well. The title, "The Right Side of 40: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond" describes the fruits of several years of Bergeron’s own practice -- not to mention his own real-life experience.
Invisible after 40?
The book was apparently meant as a counter to all the negative feedback gay men get that they don’t age gracefully, that they become invisible once they lose their looks and youth, that they’ll grow lonely in old age, and that the best years of their lives are behind them.
So an April 1 cover story in the New York Times’ Style section caused a huge amount of comment and consternation, not only there but throughout the United States. Bergeron, the article noted, had committed suicide around New Year’s Eve. He was found days later in his condo with his head in a plastic bag.
The suicide note he left was written on the proposed cover of the book and included the line "It’s a lie based on bad information" with an arrow pointing to the title. Its publisher has since cancelled the book’s publication.
Actually, Jacob Bernstein, the Times reporter who wrote the story, wasn’t the first to report the therapist’s death. Local gay newspaper Gay City News did a shorter piece in mid-January authored by an acquaintance.
Roots of suicide
The Times story, however, went into possible root causes for the shocking suicide in some depth. Not surprisingly, the gay blogosphere quickly picked up the Times story, not only because the Times still to some extent defines the news cycle, but also because it focused new attention on what is perceived as the great fear among gay men. Jacqueline Suzanne, who, as author of the novel "Valley of the Dolls," probably put it best, if most brutally when quipped about women (and by extension gay men), "40 is our Hiroshima."
Despite the bromide about 60 being the new 40, gay men are said to worry that as they grow older and lose their looks, they will wind up alone and invisible. (In a corollary, those who never had the looks may not share the concern.)
Many gay men on several blog sites commented that they do, indeed, have few friends, seldom go out of the house except to work, are lonely and afraid, and occasionally contemplate thoughts of suicide. They site the vehement age segregation on most profiles on Internet hook-up sites, and the lack of other older men in bars as evidence that it is difficult, if not impossible, to find romance late in life.
Others, however, insisted suicide for someone with as much going on as Bergeron was the easy way out, and that it implied a mania over good looks. Still others pointed to the sexual nature of much of gay life. Author Ethan Mordden may have put it best in one of his novels when he quipped that charm and wit won’t carry you far when you’re wearing a Speedo.
In a case of either "kill the messenger" or personal discomfort, some comments on the major social network sites turned it back on the Times writer. They accused him of homophobia because of the emphasis in the article on looks and age.
Hid dark side
As is the case for all suicides, whatever personal demons drove Bergeron to such a desperate act will never be completely known. Was he really so depressed that his youthful exceptional beauty was mellowing into middle age? The Times noted that he had friends, but not that many in New York, where he lived. He had had at least one seriously boyfriend, but none at the time of his death.
Some of Bergeron’s clients said the therapist effectively hid his dark side from everyone. One e-mail shared with EDGE theorized that his "vain side" and his ambivalence at representing the positive content of his book did him in.
Is vanity -- the positive way we wish others to see us -- really so much more endemic among gay men? Mark, a 53-year-old blogger, would agree: "I think gay men and straight women are preoccupied with their looks. I’m certainly not an exception to that rule, but lately I’ve been making a concerted effort to take more pride in my work and value my friendships.
"If Bergeron, who had so much going for him, really took his life because he couldn’t deal with what he saw in the mirror, then he was, sadly, more shallow than those he thought were judging him."
The Internet is full of claims from various hate groups and "reparative therapists" that older gay men or those worried about growing old commit suicide more often than straight men. But finding hard data to back up such assertions is hard to find.
A decade-old survey done at the University of California at San Francisco showed that 12 percent of urban gay and bisexual men have attempted suicide, a rate three times higher than the overall rate for American males. But it did not include age breakdowns, which could be significant, since gay teens face greater stress dealing with their sexuality.
The Trevor Project, which works to prevent suicide among gay youth, reports that gay men are six times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual men, that suicide rates overall increase with age and are highest among age 65 and older. Men (not broken out for sexuality) account for 81 percent of suicides in that age group and suicide rates are highest for divorced or widowed straights.
As for the apparently widespread belief that some gay men can’t face the loss of their fantastic bone structure, pioneering New York gay psychoanalyst Jack Drescher says he’s "never really seen a case of that in my own experience." Drescher has a large practice and is well known in the field as an expert on the subject of gay men.
"I think it depends," Drescher said when asked whether his clients worry about growing old. "People who are older and single may be worried that they are less likely to meet someone and that is true," he said, but hastened to add, "But that is not a problem of just being gay. It’s harder for older people to meet people, whether you are straight or gay."
A lot of the time, the aging man has unrealistic expectations or sees going after someone his own age as a comedown from his past conquests. "There are some people who no matter how old they get are still interested in the kind of man they were when they were younger," he pointed out. If you’re only interested in twentysomethings when you are fortysomething, it could be a problem," he said and there are straight guys who are like that, too." (Did someone page "Hugh Hefner"?)
Bob Kertzner practices in New York and San Francisco. He is also an associate clinical professor at U.C. San Francisco and a research scientist at Columbia University, where he specializes in gay men’s midlife transitions. So he has had plenty of field and lab research into the thorny subject of the potential minefields when you’re "gay and gray."
Kertzner points out that the rate of depression appears to be elevated in gay men, but it could be from a variety of causes, such as discrimination and being stigmatized for being different.
"The fear of growing old is present in many gay men’s minds," he acknowledged. "It varies on how worrisome it is. For some, it’s not a very pressing thought. For others it is a source of worry, particularly for people who are single or who are HIV-positive and worry about finding a partner."
He cautions that there’s a difference between suicidal thoughts and actual efforts to commit suicide: "In terms of completed suicides in gay men who are closer to 40, it’s not as common as it is during young adulthood."
Kertzner said growing old "has a different meaning for gay men. It can be likened to fears about losing a sense of membership in your community, feeling marginalized by younger gay men, worries about being less visible, less valued. You can understand that from this point of view."
Both psychiatrists said recent changes in gay culture, such as the ability to marry and raise children, are helping alleviate concerns about growing old. "There are now so many more opportunities for how gay men can live their lives," said Kertzner.
"It’s changed the story line for people’s lives" Drescher observed. "You’re starting to see two kinds of gay communities: one for those who want to slow down and those who don’t want to."
While many gay men who choose to marry and raise children move out of the urban gayborhoods, single gays remain so they can experience the nightlife and other amenities, he explained.
The single most important thing anyone can do as they age, however, is to develop a solid network of friends and prevent isolation. Both psychiatrists agreed that lack of a social network and living alone without human interaction is a recipe for possible suicide.
More than just sex
Jack Schlegl is a retired ad copywriter in New York. He’s 76, but his extensive network of friends and acquaintances runs the gamut of age groups. Schlegl maintains an extremely active social life and is active in several causes. Every summer, he continues to do what he and so many other gay men in their 20s and 30s do: He rents and shares a house in Fire Island Pines.
Starting in the 1970s, he organized house parties for the then-new organization Lambda Legal. He is well known as a tireless worker for Dancers Fight AIDS. He has long been one of main driving forces behind Out Professionals, New York’s largest LGBT professional networking group. And he is a founding trustee of a highly successful theater company.
If Schlegl offers any clues to aging, it’s that there’s plenty to do aside from sex! It’s easy to become active in charities, Schlegl said: "People are always looking for people who produce and who do more than talk and can get a job done."
For Schlegl’s party, he doesn’t see himself slowing down any time soon. "The richer your life is, the more stimulation you get, the more innovative your thinking is," he maintained.
Another "young at heart" is Matt, a New York executive about to turn 60. He remains fit, still hooks up for sex and goes out dancing. Widowed by AIDS, "In my middle age I found myself once again in the meat market and you’re put at the bottom of the shelf," he reported. "In our generation, it’s especially hard because the talent pool is so much shallower because so many of our contemporaries died from AIDS."
He readily acknowledges that "looks are important. I always get mad when I hear people say we live in shallowness. It’s no more true of us than the Greeks or Romans, or Renaissance Italians."
The way not to let aging upset you, he said, is a positive attitude. That will have the added benefit of not making you feel old when you’re around younger people.
"I personally like to think and have been told that I have a rich inner life," he said. "I’m an avid reader, play an instrument and play bridge, and I like to think it’s part of a full life. Part of that life when I was younger was getting attention, going to Fire Island and getting laid. As you grow older, you realize you are not one of the hottest chippies in the room. It’s also true, however, that we are all born into this world with our little egos intact and we always want affirmation," at any age.
Matt told an anecdote he had once heard about a man in Dallas depressed because he was about to turn 40. "As he walked into a gay bar, a twink walking out turns to a friend and says, ’I didn’t realize it was old age night.’ Then he was really depressed. The correct riposte, of course, is, ’I can’t do anything about getting older, but you can do something about being an asshole.’"
The picture for gay seniors, Matt said, is getting brighter. "We are at the beginning of developing resources for older people," he observed. "I suspect that when men who are 20 now when they are 60 there will be services for them like there are for straight counterparts."
Perhaps we should all keep in mind that the adage "It gets better" can hold true at any age.