Jennifer O’Connell: Am I having a midlife crisis?
Having navigated imposter syndrome of our 20s, and the pureed carrot and Calpol era of our 30s, we’ve arrived at a new, more terrifying phase
Sometimes, I feel like the last remaining adult whose night-time routine involves nodding off holding a glass of wine in front of episode eight of a Netflix series I can’t remember anything about.
I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about how much sleep everyone is getting. So far, so 2006-2013 – the years best known as the economic crash, and remembered among my peer group as Peak Babymaking Era. This time round, though, the conversation is about how much sleep everyone is getting. Not how little.
Someone will say they got nine and a half hours last night after yoga. Or they’ll say they never use their phone after 9pm. Or they’ll reveal they’ve started going to bed at the same time as their children.
Sometimes, I feel like the last remaining adult whose night-time routine involves nodding off holding a glass of wine in front of episode eight of a Netflix series I can’t remember anything about. Wait a minute, I’ll say to the husband. Is she not his sister? Who’s yer wan with the fringe, and what is she doing wandering around those ruins in the dark after a body has just been found?
He’s no help, because he’s asleep too, having got up at 5.30am to run 30km. He decided the other day to do the Dublin Marathon on a whim. When I do something on a whim, it usually involves another unnecessary Zara coat. The survival of our relationship is an ongoing miracle.
I haven’t had a religious awakening or suggested joining a swingers club or booked myself in for fillers
I’ve noticed an undercurrent of anxiety running through the sleep optimisation and personal trainers and yoga sessions and flexitarianism and life-enriching podcasts everyone suddenly seems to be signing up to. I’m not waking up at dawn to read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, or take a 30-60 second pure cold shower, but I feel it too: a low-grade rumbling of existential anxiety.
I suspect it’s a life stage thing. Having more or less navigated the prolonged imposter syndrome phase of our 20s, and the pureed carrot and Calpol era of our 30s – when half our disposable income went on sugar-free infant analgesics and every conversation eventually worked its way round to the words “negative equity” – we’ve arrived at a new, more terrifying phase.
The children are bigger now, and less needy in the visible ways. The equity situation is under control. The career is too. If we’re lucky, there are no major health crises to be navigated yet.
We’re in the Is This Actually It? phase. I asked the husband if he felt it too, and he was baffled. No, he said, horrified. Absolutely not. I don’t feel like that at all. Then he got up and went for a run. But I feel it.
It has dawned on me that, if I’m lucky, I’m at the halfway mark. I might do a bit better – it has happened – but in all likelihood, I’m cresting the wave. Thanks to my wine and six hours’ sleep routine, I may have already crested it.
'Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?' Mary Oliver asks. I think I need a little darkness to get me going
I sometimes have an image of climbing up and up and up, with endless skies in every direction, and then suddenly finding myself at the top, looking down, with the end in sight. I recently read an article in the Atlantic by Pamela Druckerman about how the midlife crisis was only invented in the last 50 years, coined by a 40-year-old Canadian named Elliott Jaques.
He gave a paper at a conference in London in 1957, in which he described a depressed 36-year-old patient who told his therapist, “Up till now, life has seemed an endless upward slope, with nothing but the distant horizon in view. Now suddenly I seem to have reached the crest of the hill, and there stretching ahead is the downward slope with the end of the road in sight … there is death observably present at the end.”
There it is: the upward slope, the distant horizon, the crest of the hill, the sense of achievement overtaken by low-level panic. The midlife crisis, I fear, is very much a real thing. Jacques went on to describe the symptoms: religious awakenings, promiscuity, a sudden inability to enjoy life, hypochondria and “compulsive attempts” to remain young. (He later revealed that the troubled 36 year old was himself.) Women weren’t thought to have the time to suffer from midlife crises; initially, it was very much the preserve of men.
I haven’t had a religious awakening or suggested joining a swingers club or booked myself in for fillers. I’m not suffering from depression, hypochondria or at all unhappy with my life. But I may be having a low-grade, disappointingly respectable, and embarrassingly basic midlife crisis.
I am the woman on the crest of the hill, with the downward slope stretching out in front of me. So far, the symptoms are manageable. I’ve taken up sailing. I’ve started running again. It’s mostly happening in my head – the consciousness of time running out.
I read a chunk of the Mary Oliver poem, The 4th Sign of the Zodiac, over and over. “Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” she asks. I think I need a little darkness to get me going.
I make lists of all the things I still have left to do. Then I pour another glass of wine and fall asleep in front of Netflix.