A midlife unravelling

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.

Midlife unravelling

Mood courtesy of Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

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.

Doh.

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?

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30 Comments

  1. rosyposySELF
    13 June, 2019 / 10:29 am

    Oh I love this!! I’ve got 5 children from 21-8. I’ve worked hard to constantly give to my children, to help them become independent and succeed, to give them opportunity to follow their interests, all single handed, whilst supporting a rather elusive husband- it’s the continued giving that suddenly we feel given out and our reserves crave the ME. Being told by a rather assertive 18 year old how I don’t listen, don’t understand, always blame others hits like s spade in the face when all I have ever done is listen, understand and shoulder blame when others behaviour has created turbulence. Breath- get out and play a team sport- I’ve just started tennis on a 6 week beginners course, it’s ace!! I’ve turned my years of baking into a little business which is helping with my esteem and confidence. Gaining self value and worth is key- we’ve given confidence, hugs and “it’ll be alright” esteem boosters for years to our children and strangely no one dies that to us! So, drop shoulders, face to the sunshine, headlamps on full beam. We are worthy of being kind to ourselves, our fantastic bodies have created life, let’s live!! Xxx

  2. Jilly Mack
    13 June, 2019 / 2:18 pm

    Crying reading this. This could have been written about me. 44, married, two kids in their teens…..exams, uni, moving out, relationships, money…..

    I’m completely lost in a funk of anxious depression. Forgetting things, exhausted all day, getting acne, feeling aimless. Bored, but can’t face doing anything. Lonely, but can’t face seeing anyone. Surviving through the day. Screaming inwardly. Hate it

    • Jayne T
      23 June, 2019 / 8:44 am

      Ah Jilly you sounds just like me….son is married , daughter has become a teenager and doesn’t really want me anymore…..hubby working all the time…..what about me….I’m a person I deserve a life too and I have decided I’m going to get it and grab it by the horns

      • 23 June, 2019 / 7:22 pm

        What will you do? I’m at a loss. I was seeing a psychologist on Friday there and I’ve been diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. I’m hoping she can help me to move forward. My husband is always more motivated and happier with his work than he his with his family life. I’m so fed up! Xx

        • Jo Middleton
          Author
          24 June, 2019 / 7:57 am

          I don’t honestly know Jilly. I’m really sorry to hear that you are struggling at the moment and I’m glad you are getting some support, because regardless of any unravelling, depression and anxiety is horrible. It’s so hard to pin down though isn’t it? Honestly, I don’t know what the answer is. My plan is to think and write more about it though, as it seems to be something that a lot of people have been able to relate to.

  3. Laura
    13 June, 2019 / 2:29 pm

    Yes yes yes – this is me too. I keep waiting to grow up and get my act together and here I am now at 46 still waiting and back at the bottom of a recurrent mental health hole.

    Just getting through one day at a time and chasing any sense of grace or joy.

    • Gillian Mackenzie
      13 June, 2019 / 9:58 pm

      Laura – I’m with you on the recurrent mental health hole. It’s just exhausting . I’m 25 weeks into a 57 week waiting list for Community Mental Health. Awful. Xx

      • Michelle
        10 July, 2019 / 7:12 pm

        There are some really good online self help bits which might help you get started while you wait. Try searching CBT techniques, getselfhelp website and Somerset Talking Therapies have some online leaflets in their website ‘library’

  4. Lesleyann
    13 June, 2019 / 3:23 pm

    I’ve felt this for years, after being mum to three kids all within 2 years of each other, and them now being older teenagers leaving school and college etc I recently commented to my friend that I felt I’d lost me, I no longer knew who I was other than Mother, Wife, cook, cleaner & taxi driver. We’re constantly limited by others demands, time and lack of a cash flow.. So much so that even when I do have time on my hands to actually be me, I find myself sat binge eating through boredom.. I find myself wondering what my husband sees when he looks at me because it’s certainly not the carefree 20 years old he married?! The only thing you can do is take each day, one at a time and try to invest in discovering who you are, what you enjoy and where you want to go in the future…

  5. 13 June, 2019 / 4:01 pm

    Omg ladies, you all resinated with me… And in August I will be 60!!! I am still waiting to grow up, get a passion ect ect. My daughter always says’make friends’, ‘go out’ but I cant be arsed tbh. I actually agreed with Villanelle (Killing Eve) ” I get what I want; I don’t want it. I do what I like; I don’t like it. ”….. Midlife? Try life haha!

  6. Jackie
    13 June, 2019 / 5:30 pm

    Me too. I sometimes wonder if I stopped talking how long it would be before anyone noticed or if I wandered off how long it would be before anyone missed me and came looking. Probably when they needed something done! I spend most days just plodding along until bedtime.

  7. Julie
    13 June, 2019 / 9:42 pm

    This has resonated with me so much and I honestly thought I was alone in feeling this way. I’m 47 and wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life, but I also feel guilty for feeling this way because I have amazing kids, a wonderful husband, a good job etc, yet I still feel unfulfilled and sad. I keep thinking that there must be more to life than this and my true calling must be just around the corner. I’ve suddenly started buying lottery tickets too, hoping for that life changing win!

    • Jo Middleton
      Author
      14 June, 2019 / 8:42 am

      OMG one of the things that triggered me writing the post was signing up for a recurring weekly lottery ticket! We are most definitely on the same page – you are not alone.

    • Jayne Timmins
      23 June, 2019 / 8:48 am

      I totally agree with what you have said as I’m putting my lottery tickets on hoping I win so I can run away lol. There is a void in my life that needs fulfilling but I don’t know what it is….maybe have fun trying to discover what it is xx

  8. Carol
    20 June, 2019 / 5:20 pm

    All of what everyone has said!!!! OMG what do I want to be when I grow up (current age 47) as I feel adrift and listless but exhausted all at the same time. Constantly thinking, should I change jobs, should I get a hobby, if so what, should I join some sort of club, golf, sailing, sewing. . . . . which one??? It’s not as if I have the time either after my 50 hour work week, but honestly I agree entirely with everything everyone has said and feel unhinged. Maybe we should start a group of revelling unravelers and go on a retreat to get ourselves motivated!

    • Jo Middleton
      Author
      21 June, 2019 / 3:43 pm

      The revelling unravellers – I love it! I’ve been half thinking it might make for an interesting book, collecting people’s thoughts and experiences into something that might make people realise they’re not alone?

      • Carol
        24 June, 2019 / 9:12 am

        YES! A book would be great, I would love to read about others experiences and their journeys too. To the ladies who are really struggling with depression it’s a long journey into depression and usually the same length of time out of it full of subtle incremental changes that will lead you not back to yourself necessarily but to a new self that is galvanised and changed and strengthened by the experience. Like how steel is made, you heat it up until it melts add a whole load of crap and then you end product is the infrastructure of incredible creations. One of the things that helped me with my post natal depression was going to 5 rhythms dancing (yes rainbow rhythms from peep show is based on it). The freedom of expression is amazing. If you have a class near you, please try to go, it’s very alternative but don’t let that stop you.

        • Jo Middleton
          Author
          25 June, 2019 / 9:07 am

          Oh my God I’d love to do rainbow rhythms! :-) You’re right though, and I think we all need to hang on to that idea of coming out stronger the other side.

  9. Valerie
    20 June, 2019 / 10:38 pm

    This is me too, though my kids are still only small…

    • Jo Middleton
      Author
      21 June, 2019 / 3:42 pm

      I think the kids thing probably has less to do with it than other things like age – the friend I talk about only has three year olds, and my youngest is 16, but we are a similar age and very much feeling the same thing.

  10. Christine Hutchins
    21 June, 2019 / 8:44 am

    Yes yes yes yes yes! I’m stepmum to adult stepsons, one of whom has been living with us for the past 3 years – he has now moved out, and been living some 200 miles away with his girlfriend for 3 weeks (although during the first week it looked like he might be coming back). For the past 8 months or so, I’ve been cooking for 10 of us, 3 times a week – me, husband, foster child, stepson and 6 grandchildren – and I’ve often been called on to babysit at very short notice. I felt like I would never get my house back to the way I wanted it, and would always be compromising on what I wanted to do. I did end up really losing it with my stepson…and after that he’s taken the move to move in with girlfriend – I should add that he is 33 years old! I’ve got several groups I’m involved in – including an amateur dramatic group (started doing it due to foster child wanting to act) – and our pantomime in January was Aladdin – I got to play Abanazar (‘Ave a banana?) – it is a great way to vent frustrations, and it is all done as an act. I thought that my feeling down and not quite right was due to stress / depression – and some days I would be fine, whereas other days I’d feel really down. Having something to look forward to and work towards has helped me to focus, and husband and I have just had our first holiday together by ourselves in almost six years – so batteries are recharged, and I’m ready to go!

    • Jo Middleton
      Author
      21 June, 2019 / 3:46 pm

      Perhaps I SHOULD have auditioned for Aladdin after all! It sounds like you’ve had a pretty intense few years – I’m so pleased for you for your holiday :-)

  11. Keri Pinch
    21 June, 2019 / 5:19 pm

    I’m only 42, but feeling a lot of these things! Have I wasted my life? , what should I be doing now?, is there something more out there? I would be really interested to read a book about other people’s experiences

  12. jane
    21 June, 2019 / 10:06 pm

    No children here but the rest resonated. Ive bn joking about my midlife crisis but you’ve clarified it beautifully. I dont feel as stupid or alone now!

  13. 24 June, 2019 / 10:36 pm

    Brene Brown – I’ve listened to her so much I even read your quotes in her accent (in my head, not out loud, I’m crap at accents.) i think I unravelled ages ago and one thing I learnt is that the louder you scream the less people listen to you (especially the family!) I had my kids young, I thought I’d be able to catch up on all those things I missed out while bringing them up…but nah, I decided to start it all over again and now most my peers have grandkids as old as my youngest! Many times I’ve thought of booking into that motel (only in my head it’s a lovely little cottage in the middle of nowhere but not too far from the sea.) I was listening to all the talks of 30 things before 30 and 40 before 40 etc while on the Retreat and I’ve started to compile my list of 10 things I really want to do before I die..giving myself plenty of time (I hope!) I’m completely unravelled here, but learning how to wind it all up again is fun, if a little tiring. :)

    • Jo Middleton
      Author
      25 June, 2019 / 9:11 am

      So many good points in here! Firstly, there is definitely something in the idea of your family not listening the louder you scream, kids especially, because there’s a sense of ‘ha! It’s just mum!’ BUT, I quite like it that way – I wouldn’t want them to have to worry about me, and I like that they can just take the piss out of me. It’s definitely grounding! Perhaps that bit isn’t always the role of your family. Also I totally feel the ‘kids younger’ thing – so much of my life has been spent with people telling me how brilliant it will be that I’m still so young when they are grown up and don’t need me any more! Only does that EVER really happen? You’re changed for good aren’t you? So if you didn’t get it in first, you can’t really ever go back to having no responsibilities. Are you coming to the November retreat? We can compare lists!

      • Carol
        25 June, 2019 / 11:52 am

        I’m new to you site and didn’t know there was an ACTUAL retreat?

        • Jo Middleton
          Author
          25 June, 2019 / 12:23 pm

          Hi Carol – it was a blogging retreat that I went on with RaisieBay, not specifically about midlife unravelling unfortunately, although maybe I should start one!

      • 25 June, 2019 / 11:58 am

        So, true, once you are Mum you are changed for ever, no going back. Even my adults still need me, although they don’t like to admit it. I can’t come in November, it’s not wheelchair friendly :(

        • Jo Middleton
          Author
          25 June, 2019 / 12:23 pm

          Oh No!! That’s annoying :-(

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