Does the term mid-life crisis strike you as a bit of a cliché? You know the perfect excuse for men old enough to know better to shoehorn their beer guts into tight jeans and race around in flash cars. Or what about the middle-aged women who suddenly take up with the neighbour’s son? We’ve all heard the stories and, up until fairly recently, I might have been inclined to scoff along with you.
But that was before I was blindsided by my own existential angst. These days all those middle-aged twits don’t seem quite so funny. If someone had told me before I turned 50 that I would spend the subsequent three years feeling like an alien had taken up residence in my body, I would have laughed in their face. Nowadays I don’t have the energy as I’m too busy being battered by menopausal hormones and held to ransom by the tag team of insomnia and anxiety.
Believe me, I have plenty of time to dwell on this issue and let me tell you the mid-life crisis is alive and well. If it hasn’t seized hold of you yet then batten down the hatches and hope like hell that this particular hurricane passes you by. So what is it that actually triggers this abomination? Well, in my completely non-expert opinion, it’s a combination of a few things.
For women, the most obvious catalyst is the monster that is the menopause. Before I was a woman of a ‘certain age’, I envisaged the worst that could happen was a few hot flushes and how bad could that be, right? What a poor naive fool I was! Nobody told me that these hot flushes make you feel like you’re going to spontaneously combust and leave you feeling nauseas and dizzy whilst the night time sweats keep you awake night after night. Come to think of it they never mentioned the more or less permanent headaches either. Now before I’m accused of being a scaremonger, it is alleged that 80% of women slide through the menopause with nary a ladylike glow but for a significant number of us the menopause is hell.
I don’t think this is the full story however or where would that leave men in this not so pretty picture? After all mid-life crises like to distribute the madness equally amongst the sexes. My own preoccupation has become health and I find the more I talk about it the more prevalent this – okay let’s just call it what it is - hypochondria is. Friends who, as far as I know, never gave a second thought to their health are suddenly paranoid wrecks. Where once these people might have been knocking back G&Ts and dancing the night away, they are now googling symptoms both real and imagined and coming up with more lethal diseases than you could ever imagine were out there. Just this week for instance, I’ve self diagnosed a brain tumour, skin cancer, lupus and thrombosis.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this army of middle-aged neurotics were never away from the doctors and poster people for healthy living. Sadly that’s not how it works. Despite seeing my doctor two weeks ago I never mentioned any of my ailments – primarily because I didn’t want to look like a nutcase which I suppose suggests on a rational level I know that I’m being ridiculous. Likewise, I have friends who have self diagnosed heart problems, lung cancer, kidney failure, diabetes – you name it and it seems my friends have got it. However, not one of them has consulted a doctor, choosing instead to employ the ruse of eating and drinking to excess whilst behaving like geriatric teenagers in the hope of finding some respite from the fears circling their middle-aged brains like vultures.
The crux of the situation is that there comes a point in everyone’s life when the realisation hits that you’ve got less years in front of you than you’ve already had. The harsh truth is I can remember the 80s like they were yesterday and the intervening years seem to have passed in the blink of an eye and yet fast forward the same 30+ years and I’ll probably be dead. It’s not exactly a settling thought is it?
I’m sure there are some of you out there shaking your head Dali Lama style ready to meet your maker whenever she or he sees fit. I wish I had your courage, I really do. But instead I find myself taking some consolation in the fact that almost everyone I know of that ‘certain age’ is clinging onto life with a desperation that’s unseemly.
Although I wasn’t around during my mother’s midlife, I do remember laughing heartily at my grandma’s favourite past time of reading aloud from the obituaries. My sister and I would mimic her scanning the list of names, none of whom she knew, pausing only to offer a fitting, “74, that’s no age.” They all seemed ancient to us. In fact, I clearly remember aged 18 regarding the fuss surrounding John Lennon’s demise with wonder – 40 seemed like a ripe old age to me. What I don’t remember, however, is any generation before my own being so self-indulgently obsessed with ageing and mortality. It seems to me, my grandmother and mother’s generations just got on with it. So what’s changed?
I suppose some would say that we are the generation who, on the one hand never had it so good but have also been forced to cope with pressures unknown by our predecessors the so called baby boomers. We’re the first generation not born in the shadow of the war. One of the reasons my grandma probably didn’t have time for a mid-life crisis was the fact that in 1944 aged 45 she gave birth to her fourth child. This was during the war when as part of the war effort she drove a crane. Add to that the fact that she was widowed aged 50 and left to support four children single-handedly. My mother (the fourth child born in 1944) has no recollection of the war but her entire childhood was defined by it. There was post-war destruction and poverty, not to mention the gaping hole left by the loss of loved ones. In comparison, fretting about whether becoming an organic vegan will extend your life or if that mole really does look bigger seems ugly and superficial.
This life of Riley me and my 50-something friends have enjoyed has been offset by stressors not faced by our parents and grandparents. We have seen our lives transformed by technology and the workplaces we entered are unrecognisable now. We are ruled by data and targets unheard of in bygone days. We’re all accountable to the nth degree, competing with youngsters who seemingly came out of the womb IT savvy. There are no jobs for life anymore and the idea of the workplace as a community is likely to elicit derisive laughter from all those 30-somethings who wield the whip.
Add to this the reality that we are going to have to work longer and longer and the stress is likely to tip anyone over the edge. We all went into our working lives with the idea that we could retire, like our parents and grandparents before us, at sixty. As it stands now I will be working until I’m 68 but as we all know the goalposts are constantly changing. I pity the ones born after me who will no doubt be working until they drop – that is if they can secure a job in the first place.
The world then has become a much more confusing place than it was for previous generations and confusion breeds fear. As we struggle to make sense of the world around us maybe we cling more desperately to the familiar. And what’s more familiar than ourselves? Except, as we face the natural physical changes that come with middle age, even that familiarity is stripped away. Or maybe I’m over analysing this and we are all a bunch of self obsessed, whiney hypochondriacs. Go on, you decide.