Are You Ready?: The Gay Man's Guide to Thriving at Midlife

Are You Ready?: The Gay Man's Guide to Thriving at Midlife

by Rik Isensee


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“Readers of this book should be ready to experience an engaging intimate conversation about how to live with wisdom and passion while embarked on the uncertain journey of midlife. Gay men of all ages will be enriched by Isensee’s timely and eloquent synthesis of his clinical work and the firsthand accounts of ten remarkably articulate men. If you are curious about life after coming out, Are You Ready? is a landmark that will serve as a reference point in your own travels. It just may redirect your life.” —Robert M. Kertzner, M.D., Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Columbia University

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504023696
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 09/27/2016
Pages: 212
Sales rank: 703,368
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Rik Isensee, LCSW, ran a support group for seven years for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. He has written three self-help books for gay men: Love Between Men , Reclaiming Your Life , and Are You Ready? He is also the author of The God Squad , a satire of the ex-gay movement. He practices psychotherapy in San Francisco:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1 (Excerpt)
By the time we've reached midlife, we have a greater perspective on our lives. The usual ups and downs of daily existence tend not to rattle us as much, simply because we've been through much of this before. Overall, there's a greater sense of equanimity.

We can see the vast changes that have taken place for gay people over the past 30 years, and that perspective enables us to appreciate our own contributions to this ongoing social revolution. Although we have a personal stake in this history, by midlife we usually have had enough experience to understand that gay liberation doesn't happen all at once -- both personal and social progress in overcoming homophobia is incremental.

Kevin (Kevin is 41 and Irish-American. He loves music and cooking. He's a long-term survivor of HIV and has a partner of many years. They don't live together, and he prefers it that way): "I've developed over the years the ability to see the big picture -- things and people in their context. I have a greater appreciation for history and my minute place in it. I can take the bad with the good in stride. I have more understanding and humility at this age than I did when I was younger. Experience and reflection have led me to a point where I just think about things more complexly."

Brian (Brian is 50, from an Anglo-Scottish background. He just fathered a child. He has worked for the Peace Corps, as an alternative school teacher, and as a psychotherapist): "Midlife gives us the best perspective we're ever going to get on life. It's the time of life when we know a lot, we've gained some power in the world, and we can see life from horizon to horizon. We can see and hold and appreciate our whole life in a way that we can't do at the beginning or at the end. And we still have physical energy and the strength and health to enjoy it. Midlife is a very busy time, because I've accumulated all these friends and interests and desires. I still have energy, but there's a gradual realization that there's not enough time left to do everything I want."

Randy (Randy is 50 and African-American. He worked for 17 years for a large corporation and recently took a severance package to explore, travel, and figure out what he'd like to do when he gets back): "At midlife I feel that I make more informed choices about what kinds of jobs and relationships I want to be in. I feel more mature; I have a track record; I know what kind of person I am -- what I'm good at and what I'm not, with fewer illusions than when I was younger. I'm much clearer about what I value. I'm also aware of limits -- you can't have it all, so choose what you can have and go for it."

By the time we reach midlife, earlier anxieties begin to fade. We have managed to survive a lot of disappointments as well as reap the benefits of decades of work and training. Even if we're still struggling with relationship issues, we've usually come out to friends and family, and experienced both disappointment and success. We generally feel much more accepting of our sexual orientation and our identity as gay men.

Steve (Steve is 44 and Asian-American. He works as a medical researcher): "I have the satisfaction of achievement, what I've already accomplished. I have less anxiety and fewer inhibitions. I never thought when I was young that I could speak in public without being completely anxious, but now I do that all the time. As I feel more comfortable with myself, I'm collaborating more with others. I'm also enjoying life -- I don't have to always be productive. I don't feel the need to change as much or to push myself. I spend more on leisure time. I don't have to please everyone, because I don't care as much what other people think."

Kevin: "I'm actually happier than I've ever been. I feel secure in my work, so my midlife is relatively worry-free. I like and trust myself. I feel much less vulnerable and anxious than I did when I was younger. By now I feel reasonably confident that I can do life. I've had enough difficult and anguishing experiences and survived them, so I don't feel as afraid of the world. I trust my feelings and perceptions, and I'm comfortable expressing them."

Tony (Tony is 43 and Sicilian-American. He had a lover of 14 years who died of AIDS four years ago. At 41 he went back to school to become a physician's assistant. He coparents his nine-year-old son with a lesbian couple): "I have more of a sense of my own self-worth now than I used to. Through therapy and support groups, I've learned how to be honest with myself and accept myself. I'm better able to acknowledge my strong points, and I have a greater sense of fulfillment. This has grown by setting goals and achieving them, and by developing skills I didn't have as a younger person. Also, by having long-term nurturing relationships with my lover, my family, and my friends, I know others can love me over a long period of time, and this allows me to be less hard on myself."

Hal (Hal is 37, from a German and Irish background. He has worked as a chef and a carpenter, and he now runs a personal growth seminar): "I feel more comfortable with who I am. There's a definite change in my level of confidence. My perspective is broader, and I have a greater acceptance of different kinds of people. I've been through enough process and change that I've learned that I just have to kick back and let it go."

As younger men, we feel the sky's the limit. Early success can lead to the belief that anything is possible. Of course, the flip side of being the greatest is being nothing at all! In the face of major disappointments, younger men are often more vulnerable to self-deprecation, instead of simply becoming more realistic.

At midlife we have more experience with success and disappointment. Reality teaches us that our initial inspiration has to be followed up with hard work if we are to get anywhere. By midlife we've usually seen some results, even though they are often more modest than what we had initially imagined. If we can recognize and appreciate what we actually have accomplished (rather than comparing our achievements with grandiose fantasies), we'll be less susceptible to tempestuous swings in self-judgment. Overall, we generally have more emotional resilience in the face of setbacks and disappointments. < p> Kevin: "My life has basically been on more of an even keel than ever before. My self-esteem fluctuated so painfully until 35. Now I feel like I'm off the roller coaster. I also recognize that trauma could overwhelm me, but on a daily basis, my mood is much more even. I don't miss the ups and downs."

Antoine: "I don't dream as much about what I can do, or what's going to happen, or something being a success -- like writing this screenplay; I just work on it, and that's it. I don't think, Oh, it's going to be wonderful, or so-and-so is going to star in it. I just want it to be a tight, well-written mystery, with legitimate suspects and no holes in the story. As long as it's something I can be proud of, that's fine. If it doesn't go anywhere, at least I know it was a tight script."

Brian: "My goals are more modest; I'm more satisfied with an ordinary life. In junior high I wanted to be president. I went to Yale Law School the year behind Bill Clinton. In my 30s, from time to time I regretted my decision to drop out of law school and join the Peace Corps. This usually happened when I was feeling vulnerable and unsure of myself. But I haven't felt that way in years, and I think that's a reflection of being more satisfied with my actual choices."

Hal: "I don't get too grandiose anyway, but putting myself down has decreased. Success or failure doesn't mean anything about me; it's just part of the process. But I still have a difficult time with finances. If I don't have enough money, I get down on myself."

Steve: "Work feels less vulnerable because I've already achieved something, so I don't feel so discouraged when I make a mistake or encounter a disappointment. However, I still feel pretty vulnerable to rejection in relationships.

"I no longer assume that I'll be great. I made a few bricks we can use in building this wall, or cobblestones for the road. I can still entertain the fantasies, but now I see them as a pleasant daydream, instead of getting caught up in them. At midlife the infinite, numinous things become more concrete -- like a gas cloud that becomes a planet. In youth I wanted to be a star. By midlife I'm satisfied being a planet -- or maybe just an asteroid."

c1998 by Alyson Publications Inc. Protected by all applicable laws. May not be reproduced in any manner without the express written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents


1: Thriving at Midlife,
2: Ready or Not!,
3: Into the Dark Wood,
4: Behind the Mask,
5: Physical and Sexual Changes,
6: Sex and the Single Gay Guy,
7: Impact of Midlife on Gay Relationships,
8: Loss and Mortality,
9: Meaningful Work,
10: Gay Men as Shaman/Tricksters,


As generations of openly gay men reach our 40s and 50s, many of us find ourselves at sea. We are no longer young, but not yet old, and it takes a while to discover who we are during this new phase of life. For men who have already been out for half their lives, it can feel odd and disorienting to be questioning their identity again. Yet it's understandable that we'd feel some trepidation, since we don't have many positive models for what it means to be gay and proud at midlife.

As a consequence, gay men may approach midlife with a sense of foreboding -- a combination of embarrassment, guilt, and even shame, often reinforced by our own peers. Bombarded with images idealizing youth from both gay and mainstream media, it's easy at midlife to internalize a sense of personal failure -- being over the hill, a has-been. Time to put away those disco pumps and plop on the couch, eat chocolates, and watch reruns of "I Love Lucy."

Yet at 40 and beyond, many men arrive at a new sense of self-confidence. Gay men who have made it through this identitycrisis are not as vulnerable to self-judgment or the opinions of younger men. We have wisdom from decades of experience to offer the rest of the gay community -- and not just as a wise old auntie. We also have plenty to offer another man as a partner -- whether just for the night or for the rest of our lives.

Gay men often experience their early years as outsiders. This tendency is also reflected in changes at midlife: We finally arrive at our own sense of self, no longer conforming to social expectations, but with a keen perspective on the surrounding culture. Just as coming out required us to get in touch with our true nature, midlife is another major juncture in the development of our identity as gay men. It's a time when many of us reflect seriously on our lives, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Where am I going? What are my true interests? And what do I want to do with the rest of my life?

This project was stimulated by seeing a number of gay clients in my psychotherapy practice whose midlife struggles resonated with my own. I thought, Here are all these guys dealing with very similar issues, but in total isolation. Because of denial about midlife in the gay community, many men don't realize we have a lot of reactions in common. After years of being out and about as openly gay men, they often assume they're the only ones experiencing self-doubt and uncertainty about this phase of life.

As a psychotherapist I often recommend support groups for people going through significant changes -- so I decided to take my own advice and started a group for myself. Out of that experience, some colleagues and I planned a series of workshops for gay men at midlife. This combination of dealing with my own changes and listening to others inspired me to write this book.

In the course of this project, I conducted in-depth interviews with ten gay men, who shared their stories and insights about this transition (see the appendix for a brief description of each participant). Throughout the book, these men describe how they have reevaluated earlier goals and decisions in the light of a deeply felt longing for intimacy, meaningful work, and a sense of fulfillment. Although this group is not a random sample, its members span a range of ages and occupations; ethnic and racial groups; HIV status; and philosophical or spiritual beliefs. Some are in relationships, some are single, and some have had lovers die in recent years. Mostly urban dwellers now, they come from many parts of the country. All of these men have thought a great deal about these issues in their own right, so in addition to sharing personal experiences, they offer observations about midlife challenges confronting their friends and lovers as well.

There is much research still to be done about how gay men are affected by this phase of life. This book is not intended as a definitive study, but as a description of a few men's experience in the context of some larger themes that I've culled from the literature and seen in my practice. Its purpose is to help gay men counter oppressive stereotypes about growing older, affirm a positive midlife identity, and grapple more successfully with these changes.

As you will see, the men I interviewed offer some lively and differing points of view about this transition. They don't always agree with each other (or with me!), and many of their midlife dilemmas remain unresolved. There are no easy answers to the quest for meaning at this time of life. But their experiences cover a range of possibilities with warmth, wisdom, and humor.

My hope is that these observations will serve as a stimulus for reflecting on your own experience of midlife and will help you get in touch with themes that seem relevant to your journey. By working through the challenges we face at this juncture, we can recapture what was vital in our youthful ideals, tap into a rich storehouse of wisdom, and reenvision our future.

c1998 by Alyson Publications Inc. Protected by all applicable laws. May not be reproduced in any manner without the express written permission of the publisher.

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