If several of years ago you’d asked me to define a midlife crisis I’d have answered:
1.) It’s something that happens in your forties.
2.) It happens to guys who have lacked proper introspection.
3.) It manifests in men through the purchase of hair plugs and expensive sports cars.
Being a man of 50, with deep thoughts, a blessed life, and great hair, I assumed with complete confidence that I was inoculated against such cliched experiences.
“If” I had experienced anything close to a midlife crisis it was behind me. An event that lasted a day or maybe a week, and that passed with mear cold-like symptoms. Barely noticeable and indeed not the flu-like version lessor men experience.
My purchase of a Mercedes instead of a Corvette served as a testament to my ability to make “wise” choices where the common man suffers ridiculous flights of fantasy when faced with such simple “life changes.”
Then I turned fifty.
Then I lost my executive job of eighteen years.
Then I opened my own business.
And then . . . I hit the wall.
The Man Who Represents Himself Has an Idiot for a Client
To overcome my “slump,” (that’s what I called it), I used all my knowledge of psychology, all my powers of introspection, and the sheer force of my unrelenting determination . . .
To pound my head against that wall day after day.
The wall did not relent.
I remained dedicated to the idea that this slump’s genesis was external.
Who wouldn’t be a little miffed over a job loss? Who wouldn’t feel stressed over starting a new venture? Who wouldn’t be exhausted at the thought of starting over? Who wouldn’t be pissed off because “this wasn’t the damn plan at fifty!?”
In the back of mind, there was a voice whispering a word I didn’t want to hear. A word I refused to entertain.
A word men aren’t allowed to admit publicly, A word worse than “midlife crisis”—depression.
The funny thing—I had actually written a short story just before the job loss called “The Saddest of Things.”
In the story, I vividly described the wet, grey cloud of depression that invades the female protagonist’s life. In detail, I knew what it looked and felt like. A descriptive ability I should have recognized as far too real to be the result of clinical knowledge or creative genius.
The Power of Positive Thinking
Days became months, and the months stretched out over a year.
If every day had been grey, I might have accepted this period for what it was. But somedays were indeed bright and sunny. Some moments the laughter felt real.
I’m a positive person. I believe that when there’s a problem, the solution lies in a lot of research. Read, learn, apply, read more, learn more, apply better.
I hit the gym hard.
I focused on proper nutrition and supplements.
I decided low magnesium was the cause of my fatigue and mood.
I consumed articles and non-fiction books on habits, happiness, finding fulfillment.
I cut back on the late nights, finally embracing the joys of being a morning person who ate a healthy breakfast.
Finally, I abandoned the stresses of running my own business and returned to an executive corporate role. Everyone knows that money cures all and buys happiness.
Nope. Still felt “blah.”
I wanted to do everything . . . And nothing.
In my journal, I gave myself little pep talks. I wrote, “what the hell is the matter with you? Suck it up and get shit done.”
On that point, I failed in the rule of “be a good parent to yourself.”
I reached a place where I was finally ready to admit it to myself. I was depressed, even if I didn’t know why.
I made a list of things to be grateful for because “they” say that helps.
The list was long, and there was little on or off it to imply I should be anything less than grateful and happy.
Except I wasn’t happy and I didn’t feel very grateful.
Common Colds and Heart Attacks
Being depressed is a hard thing for a guy to admit. It’s tough on our socialized egos because it sounds weak. Also, it requires a qualifier, as in “I’m not Robin Williams depressed. Not Kate Spade depressed.” That’s major and unfortunate stuff.
But the qualifiers feel ever more whiney.
That’s how guys are. If we’re not falling over from a heart attack, carrying a severed limb to the emergency room, or ready to get treatment for suicidal thoughts, we keep our mouths shut. I mean unless it’s a common cold and then we are actually dying and more than willing to talk about it.
Still, it seemed important to say it out loud. To admit to at least one person that I was struggling beneath a gray cloud.
But I didn’t want to have that conversation with my wife.
I knew she’d freak out. I’d say “depressed,” and she’d be off to hide the guns and rope. She’d insist I talk to a psychologist. She’d ask me every day, “how are you feeling?” I, like most men, would feel the need to “fix it.” Not for me but for her. And I knew that at that moment I could not.
Hey! Who asked you anyway?
So one day, I was talking to my second wife—you know her well—and I decided to try it out. With SK if I got a weird look, I could always laugh it off, make it a joke, and move on.
I slowly wound up to the admission. Talking about being unfulfilled, wanting more from life, needing to do something different but not knowing what that might be. And then I went for the big reveal and said,
“I guess I’m just . . .”
“Having a midlife crisis,” she finished.
“A what?” I asked with disbelief.
“A midlife crisis. You know, that point in life where you’re not sure what the rest of your life should look like.”
“Well, no,” I argued. I felt my defenses go up. “I’m 52. I’m a little old for a midlife crisis. It’s just depression.”
A Problem With Math
I laughed at myself. I laughed at the idea that suffering depression was more acceptable to me than the possibility of a midlife crisis—which, by definition, is at least one part depression.
It was, of course, a math problem.
Assuming I won’t live past say eighty-five, “mid-life” would be forty-two and a half.
For all my smarts, it never occurred to me that the term and the condition aren’t exact dates of “contraction.” One can have a mid-life crisis anywhere within the period of mid-life. So rather than dividing life by halves, divide adulthood (18 to 85) into thirds and that middle one—between adulthood and death—is the sweet spot.
I’ll save you the work. It comes out to 42 to 62 year of age. Guess what’s right in the middle?
And that fixed everything . . . Right? No.
Is it me or does just going to the doctor make you feel better? Probably just me, but it’s true. I can be dying from a sinus infection, but the moment I get my hands on the antibiotic script, I start to feel better. It is knowing that I’m on the road to recovery. It’s confirmation of your problem. It’s the ultimate placebo effect.
Suddenly having a name for what I was experiencing. Even a name I didn’t much like, did make me feel a bit better. But this wasn’t anything that would be cured with ten days of antibiotics. You can’t cure it with hair replacement, a new corvette, or a twenty-five-year-old girlfriend. (A shame on that last one)
I’m not looking to recapture my youth. I had more than enough youth, and I like being older and wiser. I don’t have any regrets because I truly believe the saying, “it’s never too late to be what you always dreamed you could be.”
The only problem with that quote—the riddle it cannot answer is: what if I have all the confidence to believe that it’s never too late but none of the certainty to know what the “be” might be?
To Be and What to Be
My boy Will Shakespeare was only half right. To be or not to be isn’t really the question. To Be and What to Be is something I’d image more of us struggle with these days.
The “be” isn’t a job, a role, or a relationship. It’s not a title or a descriptive term like author, father, poet, podcaster, spouse or even Vice President of Such and Such. The “be” is something else, it’s something more, and it can be something frustratingly elusive.
Is this all there is?
That’s the question. That’s the catalyst of a midlife crisis.
That moment when you recognize it might, in fact, be too late to “be” certain things, you had a dream of being.
It’s a moment of reckoning when you have to accept that you no longer have all the time in the world and that there are some dreams, the practical ones, and the fantastical ones, that just won’t come true.
To that last, it is not sadness or regret in putting those things away. It’s just an acceptance that those aren’t things you’ll put your energy into. It’s not giving up, it’s prioritizing your goals.
How I spent my Summer Vacation
I wrote this article last fall. If you read my post on potential, then you already know that I spent this summer still pondering my potential and my future. Also not a sad thing. People are so resistant to introspection (well, unless they mask self-centeredness as introspection).
It’s hard to say if the midlife crisis has ended. If such is defined as a feeling of hopelessness, then the crisis has passed. Because once again, I have gathered the mists of hope around me. I again see wonderful possibilities.
My list of the wonderful things I’m working on is perhaps a bit great in length and large in ambition, but I’m happy to be working on them instead of just thinking about them.
Surprisingly, when you cross off all those old dreams, an entirely new bunch turn up. So, I’ll offer you a bit of my unqualified and unsolicited advice should you, at any age, find yourself in a similar position.
It’s fine to look back and to look forward. But don’t look back too long and don’t look forward too far.
The answers, I believe, are not in things that once were, nor in things not yet come. The answers are in how you choose to spend today.
Today is, after all, the outcome of all the past days and the predictor of all the future ones.