Adjusting to Early Retirement Presents Its Own Challenges

It seemed as though every Monday morning in my 20-year career as a lawyer I sat at a desk and dreamed of just not being there anymore. “If only I could retire,” I sighed. Then with a felicitous combination of savings, luck and daring, I did it at age 46 on Jan. 1, 2000. A new millennium wouldn’t see me in the same slavish rut.

I’d been a disciplined saver and consistent investor in a stock market that seemed only to go up. Twenty years of saving and investing paid off, and I felt secure enough to live comfortably on my investments. Three years later, thanks to the immutable law of what goes up must come down, the stock market has cut my savings neatly in half, and what began as a daring leap has at times seemed a nightmarish freefall.

But for me, the nightmare has less to do with financial insecurity than the unforeseen losses suffered in adjusting to my new life. When you’re chained to your desk, with its constant demands, boundaries and constraints, wishing for the liberation of retirement, you can’t know the terror of freedom and the longing for the obligations and rules that tell you at every turn what you must do next. I learned what mothers of young children know well: It’s more relaxing and less taxing to go to the office every day than to stay at home. But as a retiree, you have the weight of responsibility for every hour of your day.

But you don’t want to hear that. You want to hear how wonderful it would be to retire at 46.

The joys of early retirement, of course, can’t be denied. No more high-heels was my first unexpected joy. The idea that a person’s feet don’t have to ache for 10 hours a day was a revelation. I can’t even look at a pair of high-heels anymore. Most of my day now I wear no shoes at all, nor belts or pantyhose. On the rare occasion when I struggle into pantyhose, I’m reminded of the extra 10 pounds that come with retirement, despite daily visits to the gym. But mostly I’m reminded that once I took this wriggling into pantyhose for granted as part of life’s daily routine.

In addition, I cleaned out my closets and little by little let go of the silk suits and blouses that had been my professional uniform. That was difficult because always in the back of your mind some part of you whispers, “Maybe I’ll go back.” It’s almost a longing. With no uniform, I have to think every morning about what to wear. It’s my first challenge of the day. Fortunately, I have the time to meet these new challenges.

I have lots of time to do the things that I never had time for before. I have no excuse not to clean or cook or floss — all those things that before, I told myself, used up too much of my valuable time — the things that a busy life could excuse. Three years later, I haven’t learned to cook and still avoid cleaning like the plague. But my dental hygienist is thrilled that I’ve taken up flossing.

Aside from the small changes in daily routine, I decided early on that I had to have a plan for my leisure time. I always wanted to spend more time traveling, so I did. I went to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, France, Italy, Costa Rica, Vermont, Santa Fe, Utah, Vermont again, and Ireland. Although they were all lovely places, after two years, I was tired of traveling, so I stopped. There’s just so much you can do of the thing you always thought you wanted to do.

What surprised me after a year was the strong desire to do things that I’d never done before. It was the desire to live the unlived life, to do the things that I’d never had time or opportunity to do. Having led a very sedentary and cerebral life, my first instinct was to work my body and give my mind a rest. I had a strange desire to walk across the entire U.S., maybe around the world. I started out by training for a half-marathon. Then that was enough of that. I thought I’d spend more time in the great outdoors and lose my fluorescent complexion, so I took a wilderness-training course. I tried cross-country skiing. I took a biking trip.

Although I was enjoying my new pursuits, I wasn’t prepared for the loss of other things. First, there’s the loss of identity. For those who identify themselves by what they do (and we know who you are), the simplest social interactions are difficult. You have to introduce yourself, and you don’t really know how to say who you are. Try introducing yourself to someone without reference to what you do for a living. It isn’t easy. At first you talk about yourself in the past tense, in hushed tones, as though you’d recently passed away. “I was a lawyer.” “I used to do mergers-and-acquisitions work.” After a while, I dragged myself into the present: “I’m a retired lawyer.” Now I say, “I’m a recovering lawyer,” as though there were a 12-step program for what I’m going through.

And with that loss of identity comes a loss of ego. Retired people feel unimportant. Their fax machines don’t spew a continuous lava flow of crises. Their e-mail doesn’t wave frantically for attention like breathless middle-aged women at a Rolling Stones concert. (Shouldn’t those guys retire?) You feel uncomfortable around people who, while talking to you, keep their eyes on their Palm Pilots, dial their cellphones and grip pagers vibrating with urgent messages. You’ve become someone else’s multi-task. It wasn’t so bad when they were your multi-tasks as well, but now that you don’t “multi” anything anymore, except your vitamins, it just isn’t the same. You don’t feel as important as you once did.

At first I tried to cling to that sense of importance by running my life at a frenetic pace as though I still were an executive. I forced myself to get up at 6 a.m. every day. I wrote a novel. I wrote a business plan. I enrolled in graduate school to study ancient Greek. I wrote a short story. I wrote another business plan. I dropped out of graduate school. Then I wrote a book of poetry.

I thought I had to have a plan to do something productive. After all, no one believes that you’ll do nothing; everyone assumes that this period is more of a sabbatical than a retirement. You feel pressure internally and from others to accomplish something with your good fortune. You feel a huge obligation to be happy living the dream of so many.

You have to do something to justify your existence, to be useful. You have to be able to answer that eternal question: “What do you do all day?” How do you answer truthfully? The phone never rings. And when it does, it isn’t important. In some ways, things don’t change. How do you admit to napping at 4 o’clock in the afternoon? I did that at work, too.

What I really do all day is learn things about myself that 20 years of education couldn’t teach. Although I had jobs for more than 30 years, it wasn’t until I retired that the hard work began. At first, like the on-the-go executive I’d been, I tried to make things happen. But slowly I came to sit a little more still, watch things happen in their own way and not struggle with them. Not struggling has been the hardest struggle of all.

When you’re still behind that desk, you can’t know what you’ll do with your retirement. If you think you’ll golf or travel, maybe you will, but you don’t really know until you’ve lived in this other world for a while. It gives you perspective. And it takes patience.

By Margaret Mary King

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