The Bridge of Retirement

The Bridge of Retirement     Wild, happy and free! Retirement. Time to finally pursue my dreams! I couldn't wait to get out. I never thought I would be one of those people who sat at their desk calculating their retirement date, marking off the days off the calendar. But, my foot was definitely inching out the door during the final year. A year ago at age 55 I retired from 33 years in public education. Little did I know my foot was stepping out on a banana peel. There's work to be done if you are going to make a big change in your life. The work can be messy and uncomfortable and nobody wants to hear about that. I know I didn't. In the final year before I retired I worked with a business coach, travelled across country a couple of times for life-changing retreats, read countless books on change and secured a new position as a non-profit director upon retirement. Done. I was ready when the time came. Or so I thought. By the time I met with the human resources person to sign the final papers I didn't have any reservations. Why then did I break down in tears in front of her? Because this was scary and sad. I was leaving a little bit of my soul with an institution and people that in the end I felt had let me down. Why weren't they hanging onto my leg saying - "Don't go"? Hadn't I grown my division, forged new partnerships, hired amazing people, changed the lives of countless students with opportunities for a new life? Yep. I did that. But somewhere along the way I started to let go. The itch to try something new had been there for a long time. Still, I hung on even though I was miserable for a long time and played the blame game against the administration, fellow employees and basked in my self-righteousness. Looking back, I was like a teenager needing to create discord with her parents to make it easier to let go for adulthood. My breakdown in the human resources office surprised and embarrassed me. The person assisting me said she had seen it more than once. Well, I wasn't one of those other people! I had prepared. I was going on to bigger and better things and people who cared about me and were glad to have me. Also, I was younger than those "other retiring people".  I had read and wrote and worked with a coach - mentally preparing for the big day. At 55 there was a whole new life ahead of me and it was going to be bigger and better than the one I had before. So there! Yet, I was crying. Sure I had shed plenty of tears in the final year. In some of my coaching sessions, I was crying so hard the coach prompted me to get counseling since "maybe she wasn't the right person". In a way I did seek counsel, I spoke with my friends and trusted teachers. I wrote furiously in my journal about my fear of no one wanting me. At one time I desperately considered being a Walmart greeter. But, by the time I reached retirement I felt I had done all the work necessary for a smooth transition. But the transition was still happening after I ended my career and I was blindsided by my confusion. The problem is that I had mistaken transition with change. Change is situational, transition is psychological. Bridges says "without transition change is just a rearrangement of the furniture". There are plenty of books about change and I know why. In our culture of fast and now, that's what people seek. We want to lose weight with no effort and stop life-long habits in 21 days. Who wants to buy a book that says change is going to blindside you and cause you to doubt your sanity? And, that even though you've made the decision you may spend days and months in a fog, doubt yourself, and experience the soul shaking fear of the unknown? In William Bridges' book on transition, he speaks about a three-stage process to successful retirement.


Transition, ... is a three-phase psychological reorientation process that people go through when they are coming to terms with change. ~William Bridges


Ending requires letting go. Recently I heard a crass quote that is apt for this phase: "you have to be willing to stop bull sh*tting yourself that things are the same". You have to let go of your old reality and identity. For a baby boomer like me, the ending phase also involved coming to terms with the realization that life's path is growing shorter, which imposes an ominous nature on an ending. "Who am I now?" is not a question I thought I'd be asking at this age.

Neutral Zone

The Neutral Zone at the middle of transition is the strangest part. It's the never land place between the old and the new. Many people feel pulled to go back and work part time in the same type of situation or find themselves maintaining the same limitations they had in the old reality. Recently I heard a woman's post-retirement transition story. Out of the window of her car in Rochester, NY where she lived, she saw a ferry going to Canada. She said to her husband; "I wish I could take that". She thought later "I could take it and no one would really care if I did". She said it took her five years to realize the new freedom she had. This second stage reminds me of Cheryl Strayed's vexing and healing journey that began at The Bridge of the Gods in her book Wild.  James Altucher describes her as his "go-to" author and you'll know why from this inspiring podcast.  It's not uncommon to experience depression and anxiety in the neutral zone of retirement. It has certainly been true for me. At times I've considered more uses for a bridge other than a way to cross! Keeping a daily schedule of writing, reflection, meditation, maintaining a spiritual practice and connecting with others have been powerful practices to help me through this disturbing time.


Once you have successfully made it through the first two phases, the third phase called, Beginning, starts. Through your search you will begin to find a sense of purpose and fulfillment in your activities. Ikigai is described in the Blue Zones study. It is a primary key to a long and healthy life. This "reason for being" makes all of the difficult work of the neutral zone worth it. I'd like to end this by telling you I have found my ikigai, but I can't. What I can say is that through my practices I have become comfortable with my search. The pull to give hope to people who are struggling a transition of retirement is definitely coming to the top. I have made countless discoveries and found peace through writing. Writing has been without question the most powerful tool for me. I encourage you to try it. Get some paper and a pen, put it by your bed and get up and write everyday for ten minutes. There's no need to spell correctly or use pretty words. Write whatever comes to your mind. If you'd like to start a blog, there's a fantastic and easy (really) guide for starting a blog here. Whatever your situation, may you find peace in all of your life transitions.