What I now recognize as my midlife crisis began about five years ago. I was a stay at home mom, married, a practicing Catholic. I was putting the finishing touches on a book that a publisher had expressed interest in after seeing a chapter and outline. Life was good, or so it seemed.
I never sent the book to the publisher, first because I took on another project which sucked up all my free time, and later because my midlife crisis so changed me that what I had written in it was no longer what I believed.
The project, running for political office, which I wrote about it here, took me out of my comfort zone and into the public eye. In retrospect, I can see the repercussions of that choice like ripples spreading out from a stone dropped into a pond, disturbing the glassy surface and exposing the murky waters beneath.
Carl Jung was the first to write about the idea of the midlife crisis. He didn’t use that term, which wasn’t coined until the 1960s, but the idea was his. Basically, Jung said people spend the first half of their lives creating their ego, the face they want to show the world, and stuffing everything they don’t like about themselves into a sort of shadow self. We like to pretend this shadow self doesn’t exist, but it erupts at inconvenient times, causing those moments when we do something embarrassing and are left wondering, how on earth could I have done that? You (your ego) didn’t; your shadow did.
The shadow shows its dark and dangerous face occasionally throughout our lives, making us sabotage ourselves, but at midlife the eruptions become extreme: the model husband has an affair, the successful attorney abandons the law to write a novel, the televangelist gets caught with a transvestite prostitute, the social drinker becomes an alcoholic, the Episcopalian becomes a Buddhist, the atheist becomes a Catholic, the good wife wants a divorce.
The stereotype of the midlife crisis is the forty-something guy who dyes his thinning hair, buys a convertible and starts screwing his secretary. The reality of midlife crisis is more than a bad comb-over joke. Jung saw the midlife crisis as an opportunity to assimilate the shadow into the ego and live a more authentic life.
The ego I carefully nurtured during my first forty-odd years on this earth was, in retrospect, kind of insufferable. As a child, I was the good girl who did everything she was supposed to. I was sort of a party girl in high school and college, but was discrete enough never to have the reputation of one. I was a faithful wife who didn’t nag or buy too many shoes. I kept my figure, even after all those babies. I went to mass every week and confession every month. I paid my taxes and my bills on time. I said please and thank you. I was, in short, an accident waiting to happen.
The divorce undermined the foundation of my faith, and my ecclesiastical house of cards came tumbling down. I wallowed in guilt, cycling between agnosticism, hope, and dread. I’ve wrestled for years with what St. John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul. Whether I’ll emerge again into the light of faith – and how Catholic, as opposed to catholic – that faith may be, I still don’t know.
The good thing about a midlife crisis is that, if we pick up the challenge and look into our own shadow instead of stuffing it back down with anger or alcohol or a renewed burst of control-freak perfectionism, we can learn a lot about ourselves.
The picture of the midlife crisis equation is from a post at Tolerant People whose author lists 34 symptoms of midlife crisis and finds she has 24 of them. I had 20, though I haven’t shaved my head or taken up sky diving.
One thing I have done is read a lot psychology. I’ve read about Buddhism, which used to seem way too Lola Granola for me (since I knew everything and had all the answers) but which has a lot of insights that have helped me. What has really helped is reading memoirs, whether books or shorter autobiographical writing in print or blogs or other online sources. Reading other people’s stories has helped me to have more empathy for other people, for myself, and for my children.
Finally, I decided to take a sabbatical. I had been a single mother with a demanding job for long enough that it became the new normal, but it was twisting me into someone I didn’t want to be, someone about whom I was starting to get really worried. I needed to step back, figure out what comes next, whether that’s freelance writing, consulting, or just a regular “Mommy Track” job that I can leave at the office when I go home. Or maybe it will be a job like the kind I’ve had, but which will seem more manageable after some time to regroup and reconnect with my daughters.
A retired therapist friend recently recommended I read Transitions by William Bridges. Now I see why. He describes a three-step process of transition: an ending, a new beginning, but in between them what he calls the neutral zone (I had to force myself not to think of Romulans), a chaotic, formless and deeply disturbing state:
The lost, confused, don’t-know-where-I-am feeling that deepens as we become disengaged, disidentified, and disenchanted, the old sense of life as going somewhere breaks down and we feel like shipwrecked sailors on some existential atoll. In such a setting and state of mind it was meant to create, you would be, in the words of Robert Frost, lost enough to find yourself. (p. 122)
Bridges contends that we mustn’t try to back out of this uncomfortable place, or fast-forward through it, because the process of transformation is a essentially a death and rebirth process, a disintegration and reintegration that is the source of renewal. The emptiness between the stages of life provides access to an angle of vision that one can get nowhere else, he writes, and it is a succession of such views over a lifetime that produces wisdom.
Or if that sounds like too much trouble, you could just dye your hair and buy a convertible.