The Midlife Unravelling

There is no coincidence that so many people reach a point of acceptance about many aspects of their life when they hit ‘middle aged’. I just paused to Google what constitutes ‘middle aged’ as I do still struggle a little to use that term for myself. Oxford English Dictionary describes it as being between 45 and 65 – “The period between early adulthood and old age.” So yeah, I’m officially middle-aged.

Despite society teaching us to dread this period as the midlife crisis looms, I’m learning that it has the potential to be the best season of your life. Sure I’ve had some hormonal struggles that may have prematurely aged my husband. But he’s a few years younger anyway, so I’m just levelling the playing field. Yes, my body no longer recovers from exercise or binge drinking like it used to. So I drink less and exercise more gently. I take a little longer to get out of bed and move properly, but I enjoy the excuse for a lie in anyway. Afternoon naps have become de rigueur rather than a rarity. I seem to tell my kids to turn the music down frequently, but that’s only because the music these days is so damn dreadful. And don’t get me started on how inappropriate music clips are – hardcore porn anyone? I don’t understand the point of Snapchat, and Tinder sounds just plain dangerous. Okay, so there really is no doubt I have hit middle age.

All the things that used to be a punchline about my parents, I now embrace quite readily. Sure, I’d love to have the energy I had twenty years ago, but there is no way in hell I’d give up the wisdom I’ve gained. Those new found insights have brought discernment and calm to my life, in ways I couldn’t have fathomed years ago. I’ve grown simultaneously more and less tolerant of things. I tend to suffer fools less, yet I bite my tongue more now. I’ve learnt to pick my battles. I’ll feel the familiar spark of contradiction flare up in me and dissipate just as quickly. I no longer feel the need to ‘educate’ everyone. I genuinely appreciate the diversity of differing opinions. If someone’s beliefs are so diametrically opposed to mine that I can’t relax around them, I’m happy to just walk away or cut them from my life. In younger years I would have put up with them to be polite, or gotten into endless moralistic disputes. I still love a good debate, but only with people willing to argue their points calmly, rationally and with the intention to seek common ground.

I appreciate Brene Brown’s description of the Midlife Crisis. She redefines it as an unravelling – a time when you feel a desperate pull to live the life you want to live. A time to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are. I love this re-framing of it. 

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Midlife unravelling

Not long after turning forty, I had a period of panic. I felt my mortality with a heavy thud. The prospect that I probably had the same amount of time left as the number of years I’d already lived, gave me pause. It forced me to reevaluate how I’d live so far, and whether I wanted to continue in the same way. I had my first real panic attack. I recall sitting on my bed, hyperventilating, trying to explain to my husband why I was crying uncontrollably. There were no words. I was just afraid. Everything I tried to say sounded trivial, insignificant. I was throwing out rapid-fire concerns and Mick was batting them away as inconsequential nothings. And they were. But the more he dismissed them the greater my fear grew until I was convinced he simply couldn’t understand me and our marriage was doomed. By this stage I was curled up on my knees, rocking back and forth making very little sense. I kept protesting ‘It has to change, I can’t keep doing this’. Mick was asking what needed to change and I would reply ‘Everything’.

Eventually, the intensity subsided. Mick was soothing me like a child, rubbing my back and making ‘shush’ sounds. As the panic melted away, I felt acutely ashamed. I knew my husband needed an explanation for what was extremely out of character behaviour, but I couldn’t make sense of it myself. The next day I booked in for counselling. Mick and I had been seeing a marriage counsellor for a while, to help with some miscommunication issues we’d been struggling with. I decided to see her separately on my own.

The first day Rachel, the counsellor, asked what I was there for and I told her I just felt lost, unsure of who I was and what I wanted. Then an endless stream of fears poured out of me. I verbalised things I had never said in forty plus years of life. Deep personal worries, shame, anxieties, doubts and insecurities. Over the next few months, Rachel helped me remove the filters I’d been looking at situations through. As I shone a light on the ugliest parts I felt inside me, Rachel helped me to see each one more honestly and find ways to even be grateful for them. It was my unravelling. And when I was done, there was no chance of putting me back together the same way. Thankfully.

A couple of years on from that experience and I feel like an almost new person. I’ve expressed that to several friends and family and had them say they don’t see a dramatic change in me. They thought I’d always been self-assured and brave. It’s the filters we view each other through. I was the Queen of fake it till you make it so nobody could see the desperation inside me. I hid my self-loathing by presenting an overly confident persona. Now that I am genuinely self-assured, I don’t present too differently to those who’ve been with me through this transformation. Yet I feel the change. I’m calmer, softer, quieter. My head no longer buzzes with a hundred voices judging each sentence I speak. Maybe that’s because I take time to think more before voicing opinions, maybe it’s because I care less about being judged by others for them.

The greatest joy I’ve found in this midlife unravelling has been writing. I spent so many years proclaiming I wanted to be a writer, only to hide it away fearing rejection. That fear still exists. I’m not trying to live fearlessly though. Now I accept the fear, examine what it says about my self-esteem, and push on regardless. Another quote from Brene Brown keeps me focused –

“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.”  Brene Brown

It’s blunt, but so am I. I like it.


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