This Is What A Midlife Crisis Looks Like
Emotions can dismantle a facade in seconds. I know this because it happened to me. It’s been happening more over the last year. I’ve been struck as I sit in my truck watching the children play outside of my son and daughter’s school. Emotional nausea that grips and squeezes until the eyes well up. The past crawling up and knocking at the door.
“When we don’t attend to emotions they metasticize and they grow.” — Susan David
The origin of this wellspring is simply known to me as the depths. The recesses. The annexed spaces within where I’ve shuttled loss, banished embarrassment, and de-platformed public selves. The place where everything must decompose. These places where the marrow sleeps and whispers echo like screams in the night. This is where the decomposition happens.
It happens late at night sitting alone, my eyes agape at the television screen. It happens in the shower. The tragedy and comedy of a nude, pasty man whimpering for no apparent reason. I’m not there yet. But, I could be.
As livings things decompose, gas is released, bloat ensues. Until burst. That’s the emotion I’m talking about here. The rising up of a half-life’s unkempt emotional gut. The degradation of defenses until it burrows out of the esophagus in a guttural moan.
crisis: an emotionally significant event or radical change of status in a person’s life
It doesn’t happen all at once. Time-lapse photography of a rotting roadside animal illustrates the phases of decomposition. I think of a Nine Inch Nails video. There is a moment of peak surface tension. The gases pressing through sinew against the epidermis with such force the skin relents and alas, escape. Oxygen. Atmosphere. Sky. Sun.
This is the hero’s journey. Death. Rebirth.
It’s also the dramatization of my life at critical mass.
crisis: an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending
I am forty-two years old. I am experiencing what I believe to be a crisis. Of identity. Of purpose. Of character. Of heart. Of life. I’m not suffering per se, but, I’m experiencing a maelstrom of conflicting emotions, thoughts, and responses throughout the course of each day. I believe on the other side of this storm will be light. No matter how dim, it will be enough to forge ahead.
I’d never considered myself a candidate for a crisis. I’m not scrolling motorcycle ads. I haven’t created an avatar for dating sites. However, I find myself narrating this period of time in a voice reminiscent of Lester Burnham. Without the outside manifestations and desires. We all narrate the drama as it’s unfolding.
It started the day of lockdown. My recognition of its presence. It lingered long before, a sylph slinking in my shadows, noting this and that. When I look back, I had been decomposing for some time. The self-induced bloat. Food. Beer. Books. Anything to keep the monster busy.
My business shuttered. I was ushered home for the initial lockdown. A two week sabbatical. I maintained a semblance of a routine. I slept in the first day or two. Until I couldn’t sleep. Until I didn’t know what was next. Or what was. I was committed to navigating the world and holding onto this thing I’d emptied myself into, day in and out for just over three years. The hooks of it were entrenched much deeper.
This business had become my beacon of hope. I had created an identity that wasn’t me. If I could make this business work, then the career I had chosen out of necessity almost seventeen years ago would be validated. I didn’t know me yet. But, the me I was presenting to the world was on the ropes. This is how the crisis begins. The collapse of ego. The dissolution of the self. And nothing to be done about it.
Mid-life lesson #1: Do not associate or integrate your identity with a job, business, or professional endeavor. This holds true for science, the arts, and business.
Days blurred into weeks into months into a year. The business never reopened. A pivot was in order. I had been reflecting on my life up to this point and didn’t view any portion of it as a success. This slowly eroded my self-worth. I began to erode my self-worth. I was in emotional catabolism. I was devouring what was left of me as I didn’t see any remaining value.
I’d suffered other setbacks in my career. I’d questioned my reasons for sticking with something or pursuing another. And yet, for the majority of the first half of my life, I believed there was a purpose. There was a method to my madness even if it wasn’t completely clear to me.
Until it wasn’t. Until I wasn’t. Clear. Of anything of any discernible value. Some may recognize this as depression. I think depression is a precursor and/or co-morbidity of the mid-life crisis. But, the crisis is as much about the future as it is about the past.
I could hear the desperation as I spoke to a financial advisor about my future plans. I had applied for over thirty jobs over the last six to twelve months with nothing to show for it. However much this had to do with the economy, the pandemic, or my ability to craft a resume, I interpreted it as a value judgment on myself.
Mid-life lesson #2: More than likely, you have more to be thankful for, you’re just too selfish to see it. But, the crisis is real. And important.
I’m married to an incredible woman. I have two beautiful children. We have a home. We have food to eat. Our life is good. Great. This is the Catch-22 of a mid-life crisis. It truly is a crisis of self not situation. It’s gasping for oxygen when all one needs to do is open their mouth and uncover their nose.
However, I’m still talking about what this crisis looks like. Feels like. From the inside. It’s panic in the grocery store when I think I’m overspending even though there’s nothing to worry about. It’s panic every time I send a resume. It’s sadness at times when my dad talks about things that sound incredibly familiar, foreshadowing even. I should be so lucky to turn out like him. I’m lucky he’s still here to be listened to.
The crisis is existential. Time does not stop. Our lives are measured by standards we create. And those standards are typically constructed based on external markers that mean fuck-all.
A mid-life crisis is being in the locker room when you’re down at the half. But, the coach isn’t yelling. You’re just sitting there wondering if you can come back from the deficit. The first half went well. Mistakes were made but, you’re not out of it. You have to take some more shots.
You have to play to win the game. And winning is amorphous. But, you can’t play not to lose. The crisis is one of character. Of conscience. Of leveling with your efforts. It’s not about the accolades, it’s about questioning the totality of effort.
Or it has been for me. And this is what it looks like. I have looked in the mirror. I have talked to myself. I’ve said things to me I wouldn’t say to anyone else, and for the record, no one has ever said to me.
A crisis is a check engine light. Most likely, it’s a fuse. It’s a reckoning. We don’t treat anyone as badly as we treat ourselves. The crisis tells me this.
Life is imperfect.
Life is short.
Life is not easy.
But, it’s better to be a failure than a never tried. The crisis tells me this.
Write a book.
Ask the girl.
Or the boy.
Build a house.
Tear one down.
Take the leap.
If you’re at the edge, you’re just taking up space.
This life doesn’t care if you don’t care. Because time is the hare, and we are the tortoise.
The crisis tells me this.
I’m still “in-crisis” but I’m not scared. I’ve made it this far. That’s something most people don’t do. You stop. You turn around. And you look at how far the journey has taken you. Far. This far. That far. Fucking far. So, if you came, I came, this far, then I know how far I can go.
This is life. This is the journey.
It’s not about podiums, applause, or validation. It’s about love. The love of the game. The love of life. The love of struggle and strife. Not hustle. Just life.
If you look around, there’s applause. There’s validation. Your relationships will be the only thing you reflect on when you die. Not jobs. Posts. Parties. Or other first-world shit. Just people. Just love.
The crisis is a crisis of molting. It’s shedding what you’ve been programmed to believe for the first half of your life. And living the second half like you’re on borrowed time. Because we are. You are. I am. This time that we’re living is a miracle. Every second is another miracle.
The crisis tells me this.
I weep because I’m scared to live the life I want to live. Not because I’ve lived a life out of order. But because of order. We devolve into crisis not because we’ve failed, but because we haven’t allowed ourselves to succeed. It has nothing to do with positive thinking or hustle or anything else. It’s about putting one foot in front of the other every day for the rest of your life until your heart stops or there’s nothing left.
The crisis tells me this.
This is why I cry when I’m alone. I’m not sad. I’m excited. Because I’m molting. And I’m readying myself for the sprint to the finish line.
I should’ve seen this coming. The crisis had me perusing the self-help stacks. I was listening to podcasts, taking notes, trying to increase my education, or improve myself. The constant comparison to the success of others, their lives, their paths, kept pushing me further from my path.
A mid-life crisis is trapped spectation. You’re watching. You’re watching yourself walk away from the spotlight while others sidle up and tap the mic. You have to unplug it. You have to limit the inputs.
Mid-life lesson #3: Limiting the inputs of others; books, podcasts, advice, etc. is essential if you’re ever going to be able to hear your own voice.
The crisis for me, was in the voice of Lester Burnham. The voice was not my own. The voice came through as the voice of the author I was reading, the podcast I was listening to, the show I was watching, or the person I was sharing a beer with.
The moment I turned off the voices from the outside world was I able to hear myself.
“I am enough.”
“I have a beautiful life.”
“Stay the course.”
The course is the crisis. I’m uncertain if I know when it will end. Will the rain magically stop? Or will my feet fight free from the muck and walk again? Or will I look back at how far I’ve come and see the crisis fading behind me over the horizon?
I don’t know.
I’m not afraid because I’m looking to the moments to come. I’m battle-tested. I have the tools I need to finish the journey. I have the endurance. The strength. I’ve been through storms. Like this one. And I’ll see the next one coming.
That’s the thing about this crisis. It’s not the last. But, it doesn’t have to feel this way again.