From Anxiety to Affirmation in Retirement

Five months before I retired after teaching for 27 years at an urban community college, I began a journal to help me with my fears. My book, Poised for Retirement: Moving from Anxiety to Zen, is about my retirement and also includes interviews and expert wisdom. Most people do financial planning, but emotional planning, including articulating and acknowledging pre-retirement anxieties, is just as crucial.

At just shy of 62, I worried: Would I have enough money? How would it feel to lose my professional community? Would I be lonely? What about giving up my work identity? And how do I say goodbye to people I’ve chatted with every day for nearly three decades? My inner voices plagued me with their fearful, garbled sounds. My husband, six years my senior, had retired two years before. He had Social Security and Medicare but no pension, so I was trying to hang in there as long as I could.

In truth, I was exhausted. A chronically aching neck from grading and a fierce desire to write led me to retire earlier than was fiscally prudent. Some decisions were tough. I had to kick my younger daughter off my health insurance even though she was younger than 26. (The health insurance she had through her job wasn’t nearly as good as my plan.) Keeping her on would have just been too expensive as a retiree. I dreamt I was walking through knee-deep mud, trying to get to a Kaiser facility to help her.

I also didn’t want to be one of the “SAD NEWS TO REPORT” emails that entered my in-box almost every week.  Who wants to get sick or die before you get a chance at a new life? “My cells speak to me every day,” I wrote. “‘Your walls are crumbling. You need to slow down.’” Those I interviewed talked about hitting a wall. My husband checked off days on the calendar like an unhappy kid at summer camp. “I was driving to a paycheck,” one friend said. All the joy had gone out of her job. I didn’t want to feel old and discarded. In one of my dreams, “ghosts with long white hair and protruding teeth went up and down aimlessly in huge elevators, beckoning to me with their skinny, knobby fingers.”

Psychiatrist Ravi Chandra talks about the powerful need for human connection. I knew I would miss the daily chats with my students and colleagues. The void can seem scary without your work connections, even if you’re relieved to leave a difficult boss, a taxing job or have to retire because of a disability.

A hypnotist told me to simply breathe in to the count of four and out to the count of eight every time I get up or move to a new room. This helped. I also learned to do three-minute meditations, imagining my new life. Dr. Jacquie Plumez talks about the need to make a plan before you retire. Since my plan was to write, during the months before retirement, I found a writing community with shared workspace. Some people I interviewed went back to their jobs, one or two days a week. Others set up volunteer activities, like Steve, a Viet Nam veteran and retired CEO, who began doing errands for veterans and helping them with their paperwork. My husband began teaching history classes to seniors, using his passion for current events. Almost everyone I spoke with took a time-out for a little while, a needed break or vacation.

I wanted to continue to teach and to write. Decades earlier, I taught poetry classes in nursing homes; I also worked with disabled seniors helping them get their stories on paper. Now I teach memoir classes, doing what I love to inspire others and help them get their often difficult stories on paper.

It wasn’t always easy dealing with the feelings that emerged before and after retirement. But articulating the fears and finding ways to move through them helped me enormously. I’m hopeful that my book, Poised for Retirement: Moving from Anxiety to Zen, will help readers express and move through their fears – and into a meaningful retirement.