Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 11, 2008
I don’t know if this is just typical midlife stuff, or if I’m in serious psychological trouble.
I am a suburban husband in my 40s with two wonderful kids, a good marriage, a secure job and financial situation, no medical problems, no substance problems, or anything like that. I work in a technical field, but harbor pretensions of being a creative person. My emotional state has always been somewhat up and down, but in the past six months or so, it has moved more decisively into the negative territory than it has since high school, if ever. I’m always tense, and frequently feel hunted, like I’m barely holding on by my fingernails, just holding my life together. I feel as though it’s all I can do to keep my head above water.
Sometimes I am almost overwhelmed with panic, and at other times I get these flashes of depression, and I wonder how I’m going to make it through the workday. I feel as though it’s all I can do to stay on top of the details of my life, yet all I am actually called upon to do is drag my sorry ass to work, drag it home again and do the dishes sometimes. In the past I have had artistic endeavors, and one in particular that I consider my true passion and have devoted a lot of work to, work I am proud of. I feel I have betrayed that passion by not having any energy for it these days. I feel that my life is entirely defensive — there is no grip-it-and-rip-it attitude left. Things that used to make me feel more alive now just seem like hassles and pressure trips (like travel). Diversions that I once considered transporting or transforming are now almost irritating distractions. I have tried meditation, and have a sense that I should do it more often, but, you know, I don’t. Oh, and my libido has pretty much disappeared.
Is this just a run-of-the-mill midlife crisis? Looking back at what I’ve written, it actually seems a little more messed up than that, like textbook depression. There is no rational reason for the feelings of dread I feel most of the time. Should I just smack myself and stop whining like a little girl? How can I introduce some perspective into my life in a way that my gut and heart will understand? I strongly resist the idea of pharmaceutical help, which I’m sure a professional would steer me toward. Then again, maybe I’m like the adulterer who tells his mistress and himself that he’s miserable with his marriage but never seems to get around to divorcing his wife — actually much happier with the current situation than he lets himself believe. (What do you want? Look around and ask yourself: What have you got?) I’m quite functional and am good company: Most people who know me would be very surprised to know I wrote this.
What’s your take?
Out of Gas
Dear Out of Gas,
Well, I really appreciate your writing to me, first of all. And, sort of in line with what I have written above, I’m trying to stay away from the position of, like, knowing it all and being clever, which is the death of a real advice column, and instead just relate to people from the heart. So I can say that I’ve felt how you feel, and I’ve come close to clinical depression myself, and also steered clear of antidepressants. I did consult a psychologist and found out some pretty surprising things, things I hadn’t noticed or thought about. And I was able to make some adjustments and I’m better off for it. I don’t have those periods of blinding despair and depression that I had started to have. And I’m, uh, nicer to myself now. So I got out of my 40s without ending up in the nuthouse. Hurray for me, I’m an American male success story.
I don’t know why this seems to happen in the 40s, except that by the time you’re 40 if you’ve actually been working you’ve been doing meaningless bullshit for so long that it really starts to get you down. I’m not saying your work is totally meaningless but, come on, there’s something else you’d rather be doing. I mean, you can do your technical work for a while, and make a good salary, and put plenty away as investments, you can sacrifice for your kids’ future and put your own needs aside, you’re strong, you’re a man, you can handle it. But after 20 years of that it’s not surprising that you’re starting to fray. You’re not getting enough sleep, you’re having to do what other people tell you to do at work, you’re behaving yourself, you’re doing what you’re supposed to do so people don’t say you’re a creep or so your wife isn’t embarrassed by you. And that’s fine for a while, but Jesus, if you think of how you were at age 18, and what you liked to do, what gave you pleasure, what your ideals were, and you think what your life would be like if you had followed those ideals, and then you think if there is anything in your life today that meets those ideals … no wonder men in their 40s crack up. You’re not alone.
Speaking of being nice to yourself … man, you sound like you put yourself down a lot. You might think it’s just regular humility, not making too much of yourself, or being realistic. But behind it, you’d be surprised, there could be these assumptions you don’t even know you have, like, oddly enough, that you really do deserve to be slapped like a little girl. That you’re not good enough. That you’re a fraud. I mean, look at how you talk about yourself. You say you “harbor pretensions” of being a creative person. What kind of talk is that? Would you talk about somebody else that way? Creativity belongs to all people, regardless of class, race, economic level, gender, whatever. It’s not some special prerogative of the rich and the gifted, or the politically popular. What is with all this judgment, like you can’t write or paint or do music unless you are a professional at it? How did we get to this point as a culture?
What about having a little humility and saying, You know what, I feel better when I paint duck decoys, so I’m painting duck decoys. And fuck you, get out of my garage. And don’t call them figurines. They’re duck decoys.
OK, so that does not sound so brilliant. But that’s what I’m saying, that some of this stuff is not about being brilliant. It’s about being real. It’s about being truthful. It’s about being able to live with yourself.
So in a nutshell, here is my three-part program for you. First, do get yourself checked out as to the whole clinical-depression angle. Get your blood done and all that. If they say yeah, you’re a case, you can decide for yourself whether to take meds or not. But see what the clinicians say. If you don’t want to take any drugs, don’t take them. Just tell them you’re not taking any drugs. Just say you want to get checked out.
Second, start a program of taking care of yourself, meeting your own needs. Start tomorrow: Eat a good breakfast. Relax before you drive to work. Relax after you drive to work. At work, have a good lunch — I mean a healthy, well-prepared lunch. Take a full hour or whatever. Leave work early and go to the gym. Have a good two-hour workout, a sauna, a good shower. Or, if you don’t belong to a gym, do some running in the woods, or whatever you do for exercise. Then go home and have a good meal and hang out with the family. Get to bed early. Get lots of sleep. Don’t yell at anybody. Take it slow.
Try it again the next day, same thing. Get lots of sleep, eat well, plenty of exercise, take it slow. Goof off a little. Exercise. Enjoy the air. Take a look at your calendar. Schedule a vacation with the wife. Book a place with a hot tub and a slow pace.
And the third thing, which you can do on your own and also in conjunction with a therapist if you decide to go that route, is just recognize that there are tangible forces in the world working against you, and that you need to be conscious of how you are reacting to these forces. People say, “Don’t blame others for your problems,” and all that. Well, fine. But don’t introject either, OK? Don’t blame yourself. We’re living in pretty scary times. Don’t pretend that it doesn’t affect you. It’s healthy to have an adversarial view of those portions of the world that are against you. Life is a fight.
And if you don’t like your life, say so. If you don’t like going to work every day at the same time and driving the same route, and coming home to the same suburb, say so. It may help you start making some long-term plans for change. It’s not against the law to have complaints about the way our society is organized. You put monkeys in the suburbs, they’d go nuts; they’d tear the houses down and start living outside in the park. We’re all cooped up in these little houses and it’s spooky. OK, so I am an unreconstructed hippie and devotee of Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri. Our suburban living may work fine for some, but it would drive me nuts.
We ought to protest in the streets simply because there is not enough joy in our lives! Why don’t we do that? Wasn’t it wonderful when we were 16 and we’d go demonstrate in the streets not even knowing what exactly was wrong or how to fix it, just saying we’re here, we’re fucked-up 16-year-olds and we’re not going to take it anymore! We don’t have to have all the answers. There’s a lot in this world not to like. I mean, where do you want to begin? And let’s not get started on all the killing, the explosions, the destruction that’s going on. I’m just saying, how can we not be affected by that?
So, to sum up: First, get yourself checked out by an expert to see where you are on the official spectrum of depressive episodes. Second, take concrete steps to eat better, get more rest and get more exercise. And third, get mad! Recognize that there really are many external forces working against you, and it’s not surprising or shameful to be affected by all this, the way the world is, the way you have to live your life. It’s good to be affected by it. It shows you’re human. It shows you’re awake. It shows you’re alive.