“We’re taught to fear chaos, but it was chaos that set me free.”
Midlife sets the stage for some rough transitions. Many of us can expect to lose a parent, go through menopause, watch our career implode, or get blindsided by divorce. But what happens when it all comes at you at once?
We can be derailed in a moment by anything from a change in health to a change of heart
While none of us know what the future holds, most of us spend a lifetime acting like we do. The truth – that we can be derailed in a moment by anything from a change in health to a change of heart – is a fact almost too painful to bear. So instead, we protect ourselves from the unknown by mapping out a future, and spending our days delivering on a plan.
That’s how the first half of my life had gone for sure. I’d got the career, married the man, had the babies and bought the house. But no one gets to write such a tidy script without editing out a fair amount. And the truth was, that by the time I hit my 40s, I was so busy fulfilling promises I’d made long ago, that it never occurred to me to ask whether those things amounted to a life I actually wanted to lead. Who I was, and what was going to happen to me, was a done deal, and questioning it would have been nothing short of blasphemy.
In your middle years, life can throw some seriously big rocks at you, and mine hit me all at once.
And, if the bottom hadn’t have fallen out of my world so spectacularly, maybe I’d have been able to live like that forever. But in your middle years, life can throw some seriously big rocks at you, and mine hit me all at once.
Bereavement, loss, menopause and a big move
First up, while we were still in our 30s, my brilliant, funny, clever best friend Lisa got breast cancer and died. We were all so young, we genuinely thought she’d get better. It’s only as you get older that you start to realise how often people don’t. Then, when I was 39, I lost my mum. I was so overwhelmed by grief that I buried myself under righteous busyness, and made sure that between working, studying, parenting and socialising, there was not a single gap left for a feeling to emerge. Then at 40, with two children under two, I was sideswiped by an early menopause that took 12 months of medical appointments and a decent dose of HRT to sort out. By which point, the opportunity to buy a big house that I couldn’t afford came up, and signing up for next thing that would have me spinning so fast there was no room to fall apart seemed like an excellent plan. My husband and I moved our two little kids into a million-pound building site with no heating and a leaky roof, an hour’s commute from school and work.
It was only when my dad got diagnosed with advanced cancer that the cracks really started to show.
It was only when my dad got diagnosed with advanced cancer that the cracks really started to show. My lovely working class dad – hard as nails and all heart – went, in the space of a year, from the biggest, strongest, and most alive person I knew, to small, frightened and then gone. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to watch, and it made me feel profoundly unsafe in a way that I’m not sure will ever go away. I spent 10 months travelling back and forth to my childhood home, a 400-mile round trip to our cottage by the sea, which the landlord had already said would have to be given up as soon as my dad was gone.
Red flags were waving in my marriage
I kept up work on trains and in hospital waiting rooms, but I lost my biggest contract all the same. My husband was at home with the children, builders and shitty finances, and the red flags that had long been waiving in our marriage continued on, unresolved.
The red flags that had long been waving in our marriage continued on, unresolved.
There was no big scene that meant I could no longer continue trying to share my life with my husband, it was more like a series of events that killed off hope, one by one. And when eventually, it was all over, the back-of-the envelope calculations showed that neither he nor I could afford to go solo, but that’s what we did, all the same.
Realising that I had two kids, no parents, no husband and no idea how I was going to make the next mortgage payment was one of the most frightening stretches of my life…
Experiencing freefall…and finding it exhilarating
Realising that I had two kids, no parents, no husband and no idea how I was going to make the next mortgage payment was one of the most frightening stretches of my life… but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there was also something exhilarating about being in freefall too. Because for so long, I’d been living a life that I no longer believed in, and trying not to notice was costing me a lot.
Practically speaking, the adrenalin got me through. I went from not opening post to having eyes on everything, and I hustled for all I was worth. I got back in the black with a bit in the bank, and started to make inroads on a more stable way to live. Emotionally though, knuckling down and pushing on through is, at best, a short-term plan.
Checking into therapy…and getting to the root
I checked into therapy, initially just as another thing on to tick off the list. I would use this 50 minutes a week as the place to put my feelings so they wouldn’t leak out and mess up my kids. I’d done years of analysis in my 30s when I studied Freud, so I thought I knew what I was in for, but nothing had prepared me for Alex. Session by session, this intuitive and deeply human woman waited impatiently, tolerating accounts of “stuff I’d achieved and stuff I was about to achieve”, before quietly insisting I take a look at what the fuck had just gone down and how it was making me feel.
This instruction confused me at first. Because up until that point, having three degrees in the social sciences and shelves full of psychoanalytic textbooks had let me believe I had self-awareness down pat. But Alex was wise to that particular hiding place and made me see that there’s a huge difference between theory and practice. Because all that headwork I was doing was a ruse to cover the fact that I’d never truly engaged with the business of my heart. Thinking, it turned out, had been my defence against feeling, and it was time to stop.
Thinking, it turned out, had been my defence against feeling, and it was time to stop.
Trying yoga, exercise, cold-water swimming…
Then came months of stuck-ness. Because it turns out, learning to feel your feelings is not exactly a clear brief. I read everything on vulnerability, grief, avoidance, and on being present. I did yoga, I ran, I did this weird trauma treatment where they teach you to lie on the floor and shake. I tried (and failed) to meditate. I swam in cold water. I went to lectures on connection and creativity. I looked everywhere, at everything, trying to find the lessons I needed to learn.
I looked everywhere, at everything, trying to find the lessons I needed to learn.
I think each of those experiments edged me out of my comfort zone and towards a place where I was more awake and more alive. But it was only when I went back to writing, that the part of me that had been silenced really found voice. And slowly, piece by piece, as I explore what it means to be who and where I am, I am learning that by avoiding feeling sadness and loss, I had been avoiding feeling anything much at all. And as I find the courage to move from doing to being, and make the shift from thinking to feeling, an altogether different kind of life is emerging – one that is deeper and more whole.
As I find the courage to move from doing to being, and make the shift from thinking to feeling, an altogether different kind of life is emerging – one that is deeper and more whole.
It is only now that I see how much of my old life was not aligned with my own values and goals. By allowing myself to notice how often my breathing becomes shallow or how quickly I become tense, I start to realise how often I have put myself in situations that serve interests other than my own. As a result, I have stopped offering up whatever has been ordered by others, and I care less whether they like the result. And as I give room to being sad, or tired or simply not in the mood, I find that I no longer need to bury myself under the frenetic business that left no room to breathe.
Getting to know me, on my own terms, is now my lifetime’s work.
And in the space that has opened up, I’m surprised to discover that find that I prefer walks in the woods to meetups in bars, and that chatting with my kids feels better than staring at my phone. My creative work has become the driving force in my life, and getting to know me, on my own terms, is now my lifetime’s work.
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