The recent New York Times article about the life and death of psychotherapist Bob Bergeron understandably struck many people as tragic.
While any suicide is shocking, Bergeron's was particularly unsettling given the topic of his soon-to-be published book, "The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond." Ironically, this popular therapist at the peak of his career, known for his thriving practice among the gay community, took his life seemingly unable to heed his own advice.
Without any obvious antecedent to his suicide -- no known history of depression, trauma, loss or drug abuse -- speculation as to what happened to Bergeron abounds: What was really going on underneath this outwardly upbeat and successful man? Why now, just when he seemed to have figured this aging thing out? And, to those of us in his profession, the news provoked other difficult issues: How did his suicide impact his patients? Will they ever trust another therapist to help them deal with this complicated loss -- or the losses they face as they too hit midlife?
In the end, in spite of the topic he wrote and lectured about -- aging gracefully --- was he another one of those people hitting 50, who, while proclaiming the glories of reinvention at midlife, truly felt an underlying dread of what comes next? Was he, as Susan Jacoby warned in "Never Say Die," lulled by the current myths about midlife metamorphosis, only to be disillusioned by the realities he faced? One clue that he was could be found in his suicide note, where he wrote that his own book was just "a lie based on bad information."
I found the story about Bergeron's suicide particularly disturbing, having just written a piece about the optimistic changes I noticed among our aging population. I described the cultural shift that was taking hold among people reaching their 50s, 60s and beyond -- a transition from hiding birthdays to celebrating them. I predicted a decreasing interest in the 'anti-aging' movement, and an increasing one toward acceptance of aging. I gave examples of the preference for 'real' over 'youthenized' role models -- e.g. Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres and George Clooney -- among the growing number taking center stage in the media. I wrote how these changes on and off screen were beginning to ease anxieties among aging Boomers, and more importantly, those who would follow.
Sadly, it appears the shift may have come a little too late for Bob Bergeron. From what we have learned, he was, at least in part, a victim of the dread of aging in a culture that values youth and beauty. His fixation on physical vitality -- and the potential loss of it -- clearly played a role in his emotional turmoil. Bergeron was quite open with his friends and patients about his struggle to move into a phase of life where his looks would -- and could -- not be a primary value. On his website, he wrote:
By my thirties, with close to a decade of experience as an openly gay man, I now had more confidence and comfort in navigating my gay world. Then I turned forty, and with getting older all the rules changed again. By cruel irony, I now again began feeling less secure around men -- younger gay men and even many gay men my age or older.
No matter how hard Bergeron worked to have a strong and fit body, or how focused he was to keep it that way, he -- like all of us -- faced the inevitable changes that come with age. One of his friends told The New York Times that Bergeron had said, "I peaked when I was 30 or 35. I was super-successful, everyone looked at me, and I felt extremely cool in my sexuality." A colleague told the Times that the book Bergeron wrote discussed challenges that he had experienced, including "...what to do when you're not attractive or you no longer have the appeal you once had." (The book's publication has been canceled.)
Did those challenges push Bergeron over the edge? Were his issues similar to those facing others who struggle as they head toward 50 -- remember Demi Moore's recent breakdown? And Heather Locklear's? We can only hope that the cultural shifts I wrote about are not too late for others who are trying to come to terms with aging in our youth-obsessed culture.
I recently wrote a post highlighting the difficulties that getting older brings to those whose identities are closely tied to their physical appearance -- actors, celebs, athletes and others -- who have more to lose as their looks change. As a former professional ballerina and fashion model, I understand this issue. But the struggle over an aging appearance is no longer only a women's issue in today's culture, and I wonder if it is more acute for gay men.
Suicide is a tragic act that is alarming and unsettling in many ways. Perhaps the loss of Bergeron is an opportunity to use one gay man's anguish as a warning to us all. Putting too much focus on our appearance and on youth -- whether we are straight or gay -- is a recipe for unhappiness. While we are finding better ways to deal with our aging process -- by neither holding on nor letting it all go -- we need to keep that movement growing.
As Bergeron noted in the last post on his website, "I've got a concise picture of what being over forty is about and it's a great perspective filled with happiness, feeling sexy ... and taking good care of ourselves. This picture will get you results that flourish long-term." Sadly, Bergeron couldn't find his way to that vision, but hopefully more of us will in time.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. For more information, visit www.VivianDiller.com and continue the conversation on Twitter at DrVDiller.