For those of us in the global north, the term “midlife crisis” no doubt conjures up the mental image of a man with noticeably thinning hair buying a red sports car. Or a slightly saggy woman who has decided that happiness in her mid-forties requires plastic surgery, a divorce, and a bedazzled “Boss Babe” wine glass. We roll our eyes at people we deem to be going through a midlife crisis. We assume (in large part because of the way midlife crises are depicted in the media) that these folks are acting out because they’re clinging to their rapidly fading youthfulness and are simply unable to deal with it.
It’s true that getting older can be brutal, especially in America. Aging in this society means you’re supposed to stop taking up space. Whatever your occupation, there’s a long line of younger, hotter, better educated and way more hip and hungry folks who have been fast-tracked on a 30-under-30 list to kick your ass out of the limelight. Deal with it. Or don’t. Society doesn’t give a shit. At midlife you’re simultaneously encouraged to pretend aging isn’t happening, while being penalized for not being able to stop it from happening.
To admit to having a midlife crisis, then, is to admit that you’ve reached a point in life when the road ahead is a gentle yet macabre downward slope ending in the dark depths of a cavernous grave. Without doing anything, your very presence in public spaces serves as a reminder of mortality to those who look upon you. To unapologetically claim arrival at midlife is nothing less than a confession that one is getting old– and in America, to get old is to become irrelevant. A few grey hairs and an extra twenty pounds, and people look right through you as if you don’t exist. (This is twice as true if you happen to be a woman.)
Having just gone through this process, I do believe there is a vastly misunderstood difference between the popular conception of a midlife crisis and the reality of having a crisis at midlife. The former denotes a crisis that is occurring because you have come to the middle of your life and can’t cope with the fact. Whereas, the latter is what happens once you can longer delude yourself that your time here is limitless, your ability to earn will increase, and your body will keep serving you in all the ways you have grown to depend. You come to the stark realization that if you want to find genuine happiness and fulfillment before you kick off, some shit has got to change. It’s not about clinging to youth, it’s about finding your true self before it’s too late.
I had a tumultuous, impoverished childhood that saw me arrive at adulthood with very little in the way of material resources or communal support. But by the time I reached my forties, I’d been working my ass off for decades to build a better life with my partner. We’d been married almost twenty years and we had two children – twins! – who were old enough by then to relieve me of much of the day-to-day chores of early motherhood. I was wearing a fine rut for myself, no longer sleeping on a shitty futon or waking up hungover every morning. Sure we had some debt and I was overworked, but everyone else around me was in the same boat. The important thing is that life wasn’t punching me in the face quite as often as it did when I was young and stupid, and that gave me a chance to do something I don’t think I’d ever done before: reflect.
I began this period of reflection at some point in my early forties. As I turned inward I saw, possibly for the first time ever, the steamer trunks of emotional baggage I’d been carrying around for my entire life. I considered that maybe the reason I was exhausted all the damn time, battling chronic pain, anxiety and depression, was because I’d been lugging all this shit around. Upon closer inspection, I actually discovered that most of that shit wasn’t even mine. I’d just carried it around for so long it had become a part of me.
Without any warning, questions I’d thought were long-settled began popping into my head at odd times:
- Who the hell am I, really?
- How much more time do I have on this mudball?
- Things seem ok, so why am I so unhappy?
- Do I even believe half the shit I’ve been telling myself (and everyone else) for most of my life?
- When my life is over, will I have left anything of value to the world?
If I’d been wise, this would have been my cue to start the process of self-Kondoing my personality, goals and dreams. Alas, I am not wise. Instead, I’ve spent a great deal of my time on this planet cultivating superhuman levels of denial. So it took me a few years just to admit to myself that everything was not ok; sitting on the floor of my heart, surrounded by the metaphorical piles of crap I was unpacking from my emotional baggage, and ruminating into a depression. When I finally began to glimpse the sheer magnitude of the work I needed to do on myself, I felt stuck, frustrated, and alone.
Most of us have been raised to meet others’ expectations first, and at no point were we given instruction on how to set our own expectations for ourselves. My identity both as an individual and as part of various collectives, has always been defined for me – regardless of my innate needs or abilities. So it should have come as no surprise that, at some point, my grown-ass self would start to chafe under this charade. This is actually a good thing!
The bad news, however, is that the process of finding myself and correcting my life’s course after decades of misguided momentum felt like shit. As I began to examine every aspect of my existence – interrogating the past, taking inventory of the present, and re-assessing my dreams for the future – the need for change became glaringly obvious. But change, despite the assurances of President Barack Obama and Taco Bell marketing, feels awful. Most of the time we humans try to avoid it whenever possible. We say we want change, but what we really want is for other people to change so that we don’t have to. In fact, even when things are at their absolute worst, most of us will do anything in our power to avoid changing.
The reason we avoid change, of course, is that it equals that bane of human striving: uncertainty. Despite the fact that uncertainty is the actual nature of life on planet earth, we humans walk around in our respective dogmatic clouds, insisting that we should not be subject to the same laws as literally everything else in existence. We pretend we are the masters of our own destiny, and that we are capable of avoiding any and all unpleasantry with just enough planning. This is a lie, albeit a comforting one. We seek equilibrium and stability at all costs, even at the cost of reality.
But through the cracks of the middle-aged psyche, emboldened by the weakness of our will to continue pretending everything is ‘working out great,’ some of those Big Questions slip through into consciousness. Our choice is to either deal with them, or to ignore them and continue to cling to our old ways while devising even more ridiculous excuses to help us feel better about who we are (or are not). The problem is that ignoring our need for change is precisely the thing that drives some of us to fall into classic “midlife crisis” mode, acting out in foolish ways, attempting to relieve ourselves by changing everything around us (while ignoring the changes that are needed within); or worse still, calcifying into bitter inflexibility as we age more rapidly than we should.
I’d convinced myself I was “doing just fine” before my crisis really got its claws into me. I tried everything in my power to avoid admitting to myself that the life I’d been living was no longer serving me. That it was, in fact, causing me harm. I likely would have continued on that way forever if I hadn’t had a legitimate crisis that almost broke me and forced me to reckon with the conflict between who I am and how I was living.
See, even if you’re hell-bent on forcing yourself to stay the same, it’s not humanly possible. Things will inevitably start to unravel, whether you like it or not. Human beings are supposed to keep growing throughout our lifetimes, changing and adapting to realities as we evolve to better understand ourselves and the world. If everything around you is constantly changing but you’re intent on staying the same, you’ll find yourself struggling to carry out even the most basic functions of adult life. Like an iPhone that misses too many iOS updates and freezes as you try to upload 800 photos of your latest girls’ trip to the Facebook app. CRASH.
So what happens when your current life just stops working for you? My life at the time my crisis hit was an over-committed mess of activities that were supposed to demonstrate that I’m a good person – volunteering, fundraising, social organizing, public speaking – on top of managing a family and a marketing career. I was a Director! I was a Supermom! I was a Nationally Recognized Activist! I was a Social Media Guru Ninja Maven Queen!
I was miserable.
Hindsight being 20/20, I should have stopped then and there and sorted myself out before I reached the point of crisis. But true to my fuck-around-and-find-out nature I waited a few years before dropping the denial and fully admitting that my life no longer suited me (if, in fact, it ever really had). When I finally got around to facing the discordant music I was forty-five, and I was done with it. All of it. Aside from my family and a few close friends, I was done with everything that had defined my life (often in very public ways) up to that point.
I was done with materialism. Done with trying so hard to be awesome and done with trying to convince other people of my awesomeness. Done with politics as a team sport. And, to be perfectly honest, done with hiding my fluorescent-colored self because it made other people – those who like their women muted and drab – uncomfortable. None of it was making me happy and once I admitted it to myself, the harder it was to continue pretending.
Then I got angry. Really angry. All the time. About everything.
Toward the end, I fell into the deepest, darkest depression of my life. The truth is, I’ve battled chronic depression since I was a teenager. By the time my crisis kicked in I’d been taking depression meds for many years. But a crisis like this isn’t something that can be solved with medication (though mercifully it did an excellent job keeping me afloat during those years while I fumbled my way through). I was going about my miserable business, ignoring all signs that perhaps a prescription refill wasn’t going to be enough to save me from my day of reckoning.
Over the four years my midlife crisis lasted (2019-2023), I withdrew from people and activities that I had engaged with for the better part of two decades. I gave up on religion (at least, the theistic ones). I let long-term relationships that no longer served me wither and die from lack of attention. I started seeing a therapist weekly, committing myself to rooting out everything that was preventing me from living a happy, fulfilled life. In some ways it was a profound relief to let go of all this shit. But since I only knew at that point what I no longer wanted to do, this left me without distraction from the extreme discomfort I was experiencing.
Fortunately, I was able to avoid being absorbed by a cult, an MLM, or a street gang. Instead, thanks to the love and support of some good people, at the peak of my crisis I allowed myself to let go of the old and exist in a liminal space of discomfort and uncertainty for a few months. For the first time in my life I took a profound leap of faith, refusing to do anything that could be deemed “productive.” I permitted myself to simply be while I treaded water in the heavy, complex thoughts and feelings that had broken through the floodgates of my heart and mind.
I was raw-dogging middle age, personal and professional failure, my children growing up and going to college, and my increasingly poor mental health. I felt like a steaming pile of garbage set on fire, especially since I was spending most of my days online watching people I know and love winning their asses off.
It was all very traumatic, desperate and sad. It was also awfully humiliating and at times (in retrospect) – quite comical. So why share this story with the world? Because I believe this is yet another aspect of American life – like motherhood, marriage and finances – that no one wants to discuss honestly, yet we still insist on judging each other ruthlessly over.
Authenticity has become a farcical notion, propped up by our curated, filtered and hash-tagged selves, and I’ve decided enough is enough. I want to talk honestly about getting older, without shame or apology. I also have a hunch that I’m not the only one. My generation (Gen X) is well into middle age and Millennials are coming up fast. We’re about to have an extremely large population of achy, grumpy, existentially freaked out people in America.
The hard truth is that middle age is one mean sonofabitch. One day you’re the coolest, smartest, sexiest thing alive and the next thing you know you know you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and for an instant, you think you just saw your mom. Oh shit, you think. I’m fucking old. When the fuck did that happen?
Speaking of the “O” word, I can’t count the times I’ve been told by well-meaning folks not to call myself old, or for that matter, even to acknowledge that I’m aging. They warn me as if these words are an evil incantation and by simply speaking them I will turn into a withered old hag. Others have cheerfully admonished me, “You’re only as old as you feel!”
Well baby, I feel old, ok? That doesn’t mean I’m ready to give up the ghost or that I’ve lost the will to live. When I’m not in a deeply depressed state I generally love my life and want to keep this thing going for as long as possible. When I bring up the fact that my life is half over and that I’m trying to figure out how to live like I’m dying before my body and mind completely betray me, they look at me in horror. But for me to be truly happy I have to come to terms with the very real changes that are happening to my body, mind, and for lack of a better word, soul.
See, I want to live like I’m dying… because it’s true! To pretend that once we reach adulthood we live at the peak of our existence until one fine day we just drop dead is a false narrative. Our capacity and vitality decline steadily after middle age, and we have to find a way to accommodate our changing needs if we are to truly live well after the age of fifty. To attribute uselessness to anyone who can’t (or won’t) compete on the same playing field as people twenty or thirty years younger is absurd. Why write off some of the best years of your life just because you can’t (or won’t) work eighty hours a week to perpetuate the myth of the superwoman?
Anyway, the point is, I’m not immortal. I’ve got (at best) 30 or so years left, and that’s not taking into consideration the possibility of a comet landing on my house. While I do take good care of myself and will do my best to extend my life and maintain a high quality of living for as long as I can, at some point my body and mind will begin to break down, steadily limiting my ability to do the things I love.
None of this is meant to be morbid or disheartening. It’s merely a rare occurrence of an American adult embracing reality out loud, refusing to pretend any longer that we are somehow immune to the same forces that shape planets and kill stars. If I’ve learned one thing through this process it’s that as uncomfortable as the truth is, it’s infinitely preferable to living a lie. I’ve spent almost fifty years avoiding reality, using all manner of things to soothe my existential angst. But reality is something I’m no longer willing to compromise.
Life is a beautiful adventure from start to finish. Ironically, it wasn’t until I embraced my mortality that I was able to come to this conclusion. Next year I’ll turn fifty, and as I begin the (hopefully) slow descent into old age, I’m doing it with eyes wide open, savoring every perfect moment.
And they are, all of them, perfect.
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