First of all, never forget: anyone can have a mid-life crisis. Obviously, it helps if you're naturally prone to crises — if you had your first in your early teens, for example, and you've had at least half a dozen since then, chances are you'll have another in your 40s or 50s. There's also every possibility it'll be your scariest and most debilitating yet.
Even if you've never really struggled with despair, however; even if your life has been one long conga line of love, fulfilment and the blessings of an upbeat disposition, you may still not be immune. Indeed, that very lack of struggle that has thus far defined you and kept you out of reach of the twin tyrannies of doubt and dismay could actually be the trigger that sends you into a terrifying spiral of depression and self-loathing.
Are You a Likely Candidate?
There are some who claim that the mid-life crisis is actually a fabrication, invented by self-help shysters to felch cash from desperate wrinklies. It isn't. It's a genuine crisis that occurs at a certain point in life and everyone is at risk. Some, however, are more susceptible than others. If, for example, you can tick four of the following boxes, you're definitely in the high risk category…
1. You are old. This is actually a must. Any crisis that occurs before the age of, say, 39, is not a mid-life crisis at all. Of course it can still be extremely debilitating — it may even be terminal, but if it is, it was not a mid-life crisis that saw you off. It was just a run of the mill, common or garden crisis. If you want to experience the uniquely morbid panic of a mid-life crisis, you have to earn it, and that means staying alive longer.
2. You are poor. If you're still struggling to make a living in middle age, feelings of worthlessness will never be too far away. Even in your brighter moments, when you adore your life and the relative freedom you've managed to preserve at the heart of it, you will remain forever on the very meniscus of mental collapse.
3. You are alone. There is arguably nothing better for feelings of abject failure than spending more time than you would like to by yourself. Of course, being alone in and of itself is no bad thing. On the contrary, being content with your own company is a great gift. Furthermore, as well as being perfectly natural, occasional bouts of loneliness can actually be a force for good in life, serving to remind you of the crucial importance of human contact. However, in conjunction with other salient factors, extended bouts of crippling solitude can also become the straw that breaks the camel's resolve and sends it weeping to the internet, searching for pentobarbital.
4. You are ashamed. Deep-rooted shame, embarrassment and general self-loathing are integral to any existential crisis and if you can establish these as daily habits from an early age, this will increase your chances of breakdown dramatically as you drift into your autumn years.
5. You live in troubling times. People say that our species has always hung by a thread, which may be true, but that thread has never before been so perilously bare. The environmental threats alone in 2018 are enough for any sensible person to feel certain that the future of the human race — at least in any recognisable form — is extremely unlikely. Maybe we have another century. Believing this with all of your heart will certainly make you more crisis-ready.
Of course, these are not dealbreakers. Don't assume that if you're well off and in a relationship, you will remain crisis-free. Rather, remember: substantial wealth does not equal mental health; committing to another person can in time come to feel like a negation of the self; and if you also happen to have kids, forget about it: in the right frame of mind, in the right moment, nothing can make you feel so desolate as having to devote your entire existence to some ungrateful little idiots who literally have no idea what kind of sacrifices you've made for them. Oh, and committed relationships end every day. So there are no guarantees. You still need to prepare yourself for the worst.
Breakdowns come and breakdowns go…
Like any other crisis, a mid-life crisis is an existential crisis. Where a mid-life crisis differs from all the other crises, however, is that it's the first one where fear of death is suddenly a much more realistic factor.
No longer a fact of life you accept in a mostly theoretical sense, like ley lines, death is now a concrete fact of daily life that you feel seeping through your bones every morning as you lie in your bed, sleep still clinging to your skin like a bruise.
You are dying.
And you will feel it to some extent every day for however long you've got left.
Another factor that makes mid-life crises kinda special is that they come at a time in your life when — most likely — you thought you were above that kind of thing.
If you've been doing it right, you will know by the time you reach your forties that compassion is the only truly acceptable response to all of the challenges of existence, and for some time now you will have been trying your hardest to put love at the centre of your life.
Laudable though this is, it will not protect you from crisis. On the contrary, as with the conga line mentioned above, this could be the very thing that pushes you screaming silently into its arms…
"But I understand life!" you will shriek into the bathroom mirror at four in the morning. "I know myself! I have spent years looking into my soul and now I finally understand how and why I became the unique and inimitable fuck-up I am. What's more, I accept myself, and I accept others. I empathise with my fellow human beings and I have forged of my very being a conduit not of anger and bitterness as once before, but of compassion and positivity. Sometimes I even see that my efforts make a difference. Yet still — still! — I am plagued by feelings of utter utter futility. And what's that I feel flexing in my fingers and warping the dampened dishcloth of my face? Anger? Bitterness? Self-loathing? Aaaarrrrrghh! Jesus fucking Christ, I'll be 50 in four months! What the fuck have I done with my life? What the fuck is the point?"
It can be tough.
It can be really brutally tough.
And once the crisis is upon you, you will be poised at every moment to dissolve into mental collapse. It will take very little to set you off.
To give one (more) painful example from my own life, I was at a house party just last week with lots of young people. I was sitting amongst them and talking and laughing and having fun. I was on fairly good form and feeling delightfully convivial. Then one of the young people mentioned that I was nearly 50, as she knew this to be the case and (for some reason) felt the need to gently mock me for my relative proximity to death. This was fine. (It wasn't really fine — it hurts every time but one attempts to develop a thick skin, which is ironic in a sense because as one ages, one's natural supplies of collagen and elastin diminish and one's skin becomes thinner and thinner and thinner.) But yes, I think I'd have been able to ride the initialnt out were it not for the instinctive reaction of another young person to my right who, on hearing the news of my advancing years, let out an involuntary noise that can only be described as disgust.
The first person — the one who'd introduced the subject of my age — suggested I should be pleased that the reaction was one of shock, as it implied that I don't look as old as I am.
"But," I explained, "it wasn't like, 'Ooh, you look much younger than you are'. It was more like...."
She interrupted: "Like 'What the fuck am I doing even talking to you?'"
"Exactly," I said, amidst laughter and no attempt by anyone to disabuse me of this notion.
I don't know how this exchange comes across to you, reading about it now, but in my weakened state, it had a huge impact on me. I couldn't stop thinking about it for the next couple of days. My brain — old and addled and on crisis red alert — took this person's reaction (which I fully accept I might have at least partially misinterpreted) and ran with it.
For days, my brain despised me.
For days, my brain told me, over and over again: "You are worthless. You are excrement. Everybody knows it. You are an embarrassing sack of laughable, loathsome human waste. You are nothing and you don't belong. Anywhere. Why are you even here?"
And of course I know, and knew at the time, that these thoughts are not what my brain should be doing. I know they are at best unproductive, at worst totally destructive. I also know that even if it was true that this woman was genuinely disgusted by the fact that I've been alive for more than twice as long as she has, then that's very much her problem.
But still, my brain persisted.
I am not my best self in crisis mode.
No one is.
So what are you going to do about it?
OK. Survival. That's what we're here for. Because life is good, right? I mean, even when it's really fucking abysmal, life is almost always totally worth living.
So how do we survive when our saggy brains start rummaging around for alternatives?
Well, the good news is, you already know, and you already know because it's all screamingly obvious. Unless of course you're an idiot. In which case, strap yourself in: your mind (such as it is) is about to be blown.
What follows is a list of activities you should attempt to perform regularly in order to stay in the very best of mental health, or to bounce back as quickly as possible when your brain loses its way.
How to Survive a Mid-Life Crisis
Do these things and I guarantee everything will be fine. Obviously I'm joking. There are no guarantees. There is just common sense and desperate, undying hope...
1. SHIFT YOUR ARSE.
If you don't do regular physical exercise, you will put on weight, you will feel increasingly dreadful and your health will deteriorate far more quickly than it otherwise would. Maybe you could get away with doing nothing in your youth — fast metabolism, skinny genes — but once you're into your 40s, the rules change and your body literally declares war on you. So get moving. Find stuff you like doing and do it as regularly as you can. If the stuff you like doing involves other people, all the better, but try not to rely on other people, and definitely don't use their absence as an excuse to do nothing.
(Remember: even if you run six miles every day and spend every spare minute dancercising, there are no guarantees. There is, however, much less chance you'll slip into a depression and throw yourself off of a high ledge.)
2. WORK YOUR BRAIN.
Although not literally a muscle, your brain responds to stimulus just like one. If it isn't being worked hard, and regularly, it will seize up like an old bike in a damp shed. So work it.
Learn new skills — something you've always wanted to do. Learn a musical instrument or a new language. If you're not sure what you want to learn, try a few things out. There are classes and courses available for everything these days, online and inlife. There are no excuses. Stop watching TV. Turn off Facebook. Think yourself well. If you've forgotten what it feels like to be surprised by your own brain, then for god's sake, push yourself. And get on with it. Quick! You're dying! And learning is living. It's the antidote to death.
3. LOSE YOURSELF.
Cultivate spiritual, or if that word repulses you, metaphysical habits in your life. Meditate. If you don't know how to meditate, just spend time alone in silence concentrating on your breath. He-ey, you're meditating! There are an infinite number of practices, rituals and ceremonies you can get involved with, by yourself or with others. Do some research and find something that resonates with you.
Regular spiritual practice of some kind will bring you a keener understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. It will also enable you to make your peace with death. Which you'd better get on with, because look! Here it comes!
Also, if there are creative activities in which you are able to immerse yourself to the point where you lose all track of time and all trace of ego, pursue them.
4. ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE.
If you thought the first three were easier said than done, this one is nigh on impossible, especially if you've already had forty or fifty years of doing exactly the opposite. But it's an essential skill to master if you're going to take control of your moods for however long you've got left.
Yes, there are some really unpleasant things about ageing. Aside from the obvious physical dilapidation — the thinning skin, the shrinking gums, the disappearing hair, the dying drives, the downfall of the senses, the weird fucking pains and the spontaneous bed-shitting — there's also the mental decline. You're just not as sharp as you used to be. You don't compute as well or recall as much. Plus you can't go on a three-day drug-binge without suffering terribly as a consequence.
However, there are also some genuinely positive aspects to ageing, and it is upon these that you must focus. For example, wisdom.
I mean, unless you're a genuine, irredeemable dolt, your understanding of the world at 50, for example, must surely have increased immeasurably since you were, say, 20. The wisdom that three decades of experience imbues in you — with all those relationships, all those challenges and all those endless fucking mistakes — cannot be underestimated. Even if it's all that you have, it's still is a huge accomplishment. (Unless of course — and I fear this bears repeating — unless you really are an irredeemable middle-aged moron, full of self-regard and hatred of anything that challenges you. I'm not saying there's no hope for you, but maybe you haven't wised up quite as much as you should have. Yet. There's plenty time, however. It's never too late to wise up.)
So what else, apart from not dying and not necessarily being a moron, is positive about being middle-aged?
I knew I'd dry up at some stage.
This is actually quite difficult to put into words when you're not feeling it, and I have to admit that I'm not. I'm not feeling it at all. The fact is, I'm not even supposed to be writing this. I had decided that the first guide was going to be How to Say Goodbye. I'd written it a while ago and had been tweaking it on and off for a few weeks and I was ready. Then before I knew it, I'd taken something else to heart and found myself sitting with my head in my hands next to a small lake or big-assed pond in Eendracht thinking, shit. Thinking, What the fuck is wrong with me?
Which led to me spending most of the past few days writing this, for myself I guess. And it's been good for me to take a little of my own advice and immerse myself in some external activity.
Has it been good?
Yes. It's been great.
So, the positives.
* You know and understand more. (But you still have a lot to learn.)
* You fear less. (Except for when you're in the grip of a crisis.)
* You do fewer stupid things. (But you still make mistakes all the time.)
* You realise how precious and fleeting your life is, and your resolve to make the most of it is greater than ever before. (Hopefully.)
I think I've made these positives sound like slim pickings, and for that I'm sorry. They're not. When I remember the kind of state I frequently got myself into twenty years ago, I realise in fact, these pickings are fat.
[By the way, I was totally joking about the bed-shitting. As of January 2018, I have never ever shit the bed, and it doesn't get more positive than that. Chalk it up.]
5. BE GRATEFUL.
Aaaaaah, gratitude. Even if it's just being thankful for the whole host of things from which you don't as yet suffer, the benefits of regularly practising gratitude have been proven beyond any doubt in a wide range of scientific studies. But science aside, it's kind of obvious that the more time you spend focusing on aspects of your life and the world around you that bring pleasure and satisfaction, then the more likely you are to experience pleasure and satisfaction.
If you'd like to read more about this, I suggest you read the following pages, in which psychologist Sonja Lyubormirksi lists eight ways in which expressing gratitude brings happiness. Click for big.
I have a gratitude journal that I haven't written in since August 2016. No wonder I'm miserable. Quick! Be grateful!
I'm grateful for…
* spicy hummus
* the instinctive urge to write that has dominated my life and defined my personality
* family and friends
* finding a city I love
* not dying
* never having shit the bed (yet)
You know what? I'm feeling better already.
6. STOP BEING SO GODDAMN SELFISH.
There is a cliché that suggests one way to get over a mid-life crisis is by doing something outrageously extravagant, as a way of recapturing the spontaneity and superficiality of youth. For example, you might buy an expensive sports car, have an affair with someone thirty years your junior, go backpacking in the Himalayas or have Miley Cyrus tattooed on your back.
Before you attempt something of this nature, however, know this: it will not work, and you are an idiot for even considering it.
I don't mean to be mean, but come on. Of course it won't work. There's nothing wrong with short-term gratification, but as a method for curing the misery of decay (or any other kind of misery), it is a hollow and futile distraction.
Rather than short-term gratification, concentrate more on long-term meaningfulness. Think a little more about other human beings, and do a little more to help them. If you don't already know that selfless behaviour is the root of all genuine human happiness, then you should leave a comment thanking me for enlightening you. Because it is.
* Be kinder to people with whom you have no readily identifiable connection.
* Do nice things expecting nothing in return and tell nobody about it.
* Give money to beggars and street performers whenever you can. (Occasionally give more than you should — annoy yourself with your generosity. Fuck it. It's only money.)
* Do some volunteering. Spare some of your valuable time — time is much more difficult to part with than money. Go on. Show yourself you mean it.
Remember: it's not just for them. It's for you, because they are you and you are them. Yeah?
And you deserve it.
7. ACCEPT YOURSELF.
Ridiculous I know. How can the instruction to "accept yourself" possibly help when it comes to actually accepting yourself? It's worse than being told to "calm down". Especially if you've already spent three to five decades defiantly rejecting yourself.
But there it is. That's what I'm asking you to do. And myself. That's what I'm asking of myself.
It's got to be done.
But what does it even mean?
Well, I'm glad you asked.
Accepting yourself, I guess, means…
* …knowing your worth, knowing what you're good at, but also being aware of all the areas you come up short, and — massively important — not despising yourself for it. (By the way, accepting your shortcomings does not mean giving up on self-improvement. For me it means self-awareness, minus self-loathing. Wow. Imagine that. Now work towards it.)
* …controlling addictions. If you drink or do drugs regularly, you should really try to stop. (Fucking hell, I really don’t want to hear this.) Tough. It's true. Daily intoxication of any kind is a form of escapism; and escapism is the opposite of acceptance. Sort it out. Time is against you.
* …being nice to yourself, forgiving yourself, taking good self-care. I can't remember where I originally heard it, but this thing I'm about to paraphrase stuck in my head: "You should always grant yourself, in your internal dialogue, the same level of respect and courtesy you would grant others. If you do something wrong, for example, you should react to yourself the same as you would to other people." I heard that many years ago and I try hard to put it into practice, but in crisis mode it goes completely out of the window. I would never never speak to anyone in real life the way I speak to myself. And that's something I really need to work on.
* …being open about any difficulties you might be having. Don't be ashamed of the struggle, especially if it's beginning to overwhelm you. Don't hate yourself for feeing lonely and afraid. Own it. Stand up and declare it loud and proud: "I feel totally fucking useless and often wish I was dead. You know? What the fuck? Help me out here." And if the world refuses to help you out, well then fuck 'em. Then it's up to you. (I don't believe no one will step up with a shoulder to cry on though. There's always someone. You can even write to me if you're desperate. Go on, do it. We can cry on each other's shoulders.) Either way, being open and honest about your pain is a positive and empowering thing, and a very good place to start.
I find that writing stuff down helps. But talking is probably something I need to work on too.
8. TAKE RISKS.
Complacency is a curse. Comfort zones are pre-death coffins. Do stuff that scares you. It's a cliché, yes, but so is your face. Just do it.
Don't ever lose your sense of humour.
Easier said than done if you're genuinely depressed I know. And therefore pretty useless as far as workable advice goes.
Look at this guy though!
Personally, I've always relied on humour to get me through the darkest of times and when I get to the point where I can no longer laugh, that's when I know I need help.
10. SEEK HELP INLIFE.
I realise that for some of you, especially those of you who are genuinely in trouble and have just wandered here on the back of a Google search, none of the above might be enough to penetrate the armour of your pain.
If that is the case, please don't be afraid to seek professional help. In my experience with professional helpers, some of them will be wrong for you and that which you perceive as their arrogance or their idiocy will just about put you off the whole goddamn thing, but if you're persistent and if you're lucky, you may find someone who can do you an awful lot of good.
OK, One More Thing…
Ultimately, like any crisis at any age in any circumstances, a mid-life crisis has as much power as you allow it to have. On the one hand, you can let it fill your pockets with stones and destroy you. On the other, you can use it to learn and grow and springboard into any number of rich and fulfilling new experiences. If you do everything you can to move through it with optimism and equanimity, you'll be much better placed to respond to its challenges positively, and commit to discovering fresh meaning with alacrity and aplomb.
You should also take solace from the fact that the Chinese word for crisis is a combination of the words danger and opportunity. Cling to this nugget of truth like a starving rat clinging to a rusk as it could be the key to the change in thinking you need to affect to get through this. Also: if you ever find out that this oft-repeated fact is actually untrue, ignore it. Never let the truth get in the way of a good aphorism.
Every crisis is an opportunity, no matter what the Chinese say.
That's it. We're done. Sorry if I went on a bit. If you have read to the end, I am truly grateful. As I mentioned, this guide was written primarily for myself, and also, it's very much a work in progress. I don't know if it's helped me yet. Probably though. Just getting stuff off your chest is good, right? So they say. If it manages to help anyone else, in any way, then I will be happy. Because words, pretty much, is all I got.
If there's anything I've missed, or if you have anything you'd like to add, please let me know in the comments.