I was on the brink of joining an amateur dramatics group and auditioning for a role in the Christmas production of Aladdin when I finally concluded that I am in the midst of some kind of midlife crisis.
I’d volunteered as a Brownie leader a month or so before, which I’d let slide because I actually like making peppermint creams and hanging out with children who still find joy in life, but pantomime? No.
The trouble I’ve had is that at no specific point do I feel like I am actually IN crisis. No switches have been flipped, I’ve not lost it in Waitrose and swept a shelf of artisan artichokes onto the floor or anything, and yet… for quite a while now something has been OFF.
When I tried to explain it to a friend at the weekend it sounded kind of lame.
‘I just feel kind of BLAH,’ I said, ‘like the stuff that used to feel meaningful just doesn’t. Every day is FINE – I get on with things and I enjoy stuff on one level, but I have no idea what I want to do or where I want to go. I kind of thought by now that I would KNOW, that something would have clicked in. But what if it doesn’t? I used to feel like I had time to decide things and make stuff happen, but what if this is it? I feel like I’ve trapped myself.’
I sighed a bit.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘I just don’t know. I swing from the urge, albeit brief usually, to make a grand life plan and act upon it, to just wanting to run away in a mobile library.’
It sounded kind of whingy to be honest.
Luckily it turns out that I’m not alone in feeling like this. My friend confided that she’s felt the same for a while now, like she just wants to jack everything in and move to France and write novels and not think about anything. What I found really interesting is that although we are similar ages, we are at very different life stages with our families, and so it can’t be just about children growing up.
‘Maybe I’m having a midlife crisis,’ I said.
‘It sounds,’ she said, ‘like more of a midlife unravelling.’
She directed me towards an article written by Brené Brown, which you can read here, called The Midlife Unravelling. I read with tears in my eyes because it was like it had been written about me. The tears weren’t sadness, more tears of recognition, of relief that I wasn’t going mad or spiralling into a fit of depression.
‘If you look at each midlife “event” as a random, stand-alone struggle, you might be lured into believing you’re only up against a small constellation of “crises.” The truth is that the midlife unravelling is a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control. By low-grade, quiet, and insidious, I mean it’s enough to make you crazy, but seldom enough for people on the outside to validate the struggle or offer you help and respite. It’s the dangerous kind of suffering – the kind that allows you to pretend that everything is OK.’
Does this sound like you?? It feels like me. I’d say it’s seldom enough for ME to validate the struggle, let alone anyone on the outside. It feels like the last year or so have been a series of ‘excuses’ – ‘oh I’m just getting Belle through GCSEs, then we’ll be fine…’, ‘Once she settles into college…’, ‘I just need to get this book published…’, ‘Once the baby’s born and I’m officially a Granny…’
They’re all big events, sure, but I can’t keep looking for one thing after another to pin the blame on, while inside I keep shouting ‘Why does everyone but me seem to have a plan? What will my life be if nothing ever changes? IS THIS IT??’
The midlife unravelling, says Brown, comes essentially from years of working hard to create a version of ourselves that we think is ‘right’. We strive for the things we’re led to believe will make us happy, and find ourselves at a point where things just aren’t sustainable. We aren’t living as our true selves, we feel like life is passing us by, and we start to question who we are and what on earth we’re doing.
What comes from the internal turmoil of your midlife unravelling says Brown, is fantasy.
‘We might glance over at a cheap motel while we’re driving down the highway and think, I’ll just check in and stay there until they come looking for me. Then they’ll know I’m losing my mind. Or maybe we’re standing in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher when we suddenly find ourselves holding up a glass and wondering, “Would my family take this struggle more seriously if I just started hurling all this shit through the window?” Most of us opt out of these choices. We’d have to arrange to let the dog out and have the kids picked up before we checked into the lonely roadside motel.’
Which in itself is depressing isn’t it? The midlife unravelling – like teen angst but with too many responsibilities to do anything about it. Only it’s worse because there’s a time limit now.
‘Just in case you think you can blow off the universe the way you did when you were in your twenties and she whispered, “Pay attention,” or when you were in your early thirties and she whispered, “Slow down,” I assure you that she’s much more dogged in midlife. When I tried to ignore her, she made herself very clear: “There are consequences for squandering your gifts. There are penalties for leaving big pieces of your life unlived. You’re halfway to dead. Get a move on.”’
Halfway to dead. Get a move on.
Honestly, I could just quote the whole damn thing, because every bit of it resonated. Do go and read it if this is sounding familiar.
One of the weirdest things, and the bit that makes me feel a bit silly, is how it’s taken me by surprise. I know it might sound ridiculous, but I simply hadn’t prepared myself for any kind of midlife unravelling. I just thought as you got older you got more confident and cared less about what other people thought and generally stuff got better.
Over the years I’ve got so used to people saying things like ‘Wow! You had your kids so young! By the time you’re 40 they’ll be independent and you’ll be able to do what you want!’ that I had just come to equate 40 in my mind as the start of this amazing time in my life where I would be free of responsibilities and travelling the world in a campervan with my rich and charming husband, gazing out at sunsets, laughing about how young and carefree we were.
Turns out that’s NOT how it has been at all, so perhaps it’s no wonder that I feel a bit anticlimatic.
So what can you do about it?
According to Brown, there are several ways to tackle it.
‘I hear tell that there are actually people who pull the universe closer, embrace her wisdom, thank her for the opportunity to grow, and calmly walk into the unravelling. I try to spend limited time with these people, so I can’t tell you much about how this works.’
Probably not for me.
The other options include denial, numbing and a cage fighting resistance approach, which was the path Brown took.
‘I put up the fight of my life, but I was totally outmatched. The universe knew exactly how to use vulnerability and uncertainty to bring down this perfectionistic shame researcher: a huge, unexpected wallop of professional failure, one devastating and public humiliation after the next, a showdown with God, strained connections with my family, anxiety so severe that I started having dizzy spells, depression, fear, and the thing that pissed me off the most – grace. No matter how hard or far I fell, grace was there to pick me up, dust me off, and shove me back in for some more.
It was an ugly street fight and, even though I got my ass kicked, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. There was a significant amount of pain and loss, but something amazing happened along the way – I discovered me. The real me. The messy, imperfect, brave, scared, creative, loving, compassionate, wholehearted me.’
It doesn’t exactly sound FUN does it?
So I don’t know what the answer is. I imagine I will just try to ignore it, work dutifully through my 50 before 50 list, have a couple of inappropriate relationships and perhaps audition for Aladdin. It might make for some interesting blog posts at least.
What I am interested in, is if other people have found themselves feeling the same. Have you had a midlife unravelling? How did it manifest itself and how did you get through it?
Perhaps you’re still in it and we can unravel together?