By Abak Hussain
Middle age is an inevitable part of a full lifetime. How does one rise to the challenges it presents?
In the film American Beauty (1999), forty-something Lester Burnham (played by the now-cancelled Kevin Spacey) hits all the popular culture cliches regarding middle age. He buys a red convertible, he rage-quits his job, he dusts up the exercise equipment from the garage and starts bench pressing, he starts taking an all-too-creepy interest in his teenage daughter’s girlfriend from school.
This is all played to comic effect — after all, what could be funnier than a balding, pot-bellied man thinking a few bicep curls and a new car will buy his youth back for him? And yet, beneath this pop culture staple of portraying a middle-aged man as something of a joke, lies a very real transitional period, and a potential mental health crisis.
Although the physical and psychological effects of middle age are applicable to all genders and cut across cultures, here I limit my scope to the male midlife crisis, which has its own distinct kinks and quirks.
What is midlife anyway?
One would think such a basic question has a fairly easy answer. But it does not. Precise age cut-offs are hard to agree on. Is it the classic 40? Has it been pushed up, due to improvements in health and longevity, to 45 or 50? Perhaps it is earlier, say 35? It depends on who you ask, and older people, reluctant to see themselves as middle-aged or old, are likely to push the number higher and higher.
But in a general sense, there is one thing most of us can perhaps agree on — middle age, or midlife, is that grey area in life when one is neither young, nor old, but somewhere in the “middle.” As the song goes: “Old at being young, young at being old.”
The loss of youth is not something that people take easily, especially those who have had a particular image of themselves, or perhaps youthful dreams. Men at midlife may find it extremely difficult to cope with emerging health problems — an expanding waistline, reduced muscular strength, hair loss, and a slew of other health issues, from constant reflux, to poor digestion, to an enlargement of the prostate.
All of these health changes are very real, and can push a person into a deep depression. Midlife, then, is not just something to be played for laughs in the movies, the way we enjoyed laughing at Lester Burnham in American Beauty — it is a serious mental health issue which society would do well to address.
No way but down
Apart from the tangible and undeniable physical changes, there are changes that happen in the mind of a person moving into middle age.
A certain burnout often sets into the brain, while experiences lose their novelty. This is particularly true for people stuck in dead-end or uninteresting jobs. After a good couple of decades of working in a certain line, a fatigue may very well set in when the individual realizes that he is unfulfilled, and that he has failed to spend his youth pursuing what he actually wanted.
This is not the person’s fault — financial obligations or social and familial expectations can keep us locked in jobs that do not speak to our actual desires. A banker or an HR manager, for example, may have always harbored a deep desire to act in movies, or start their own business, or write a book, or hitch-hike across the world.
In one’s youth, it is easy to tell oneself:
“There will be plenty of time for all of that.” At middle age, one comes to the realization that there is, in fact, not plenty of time at hand. Half of one’s life, at this point, in all statistical probability, is over.
In one’s youth, it is easy to tell oneself: “There will be plenty of time for all of that.” At middle age, one comes to the realization that there is, in fact, not plenty of time at hand. Half of one’s life, at this point, in all statistical probability, is over.
And because of our perception of time as we age, each year feels faster than the last. All of this combined makes us feel like our time on this earth is running out at an alarming rate — making us do desperate, drastic things. Hence the quitting of that unsatisfying job, even without a safety net or back-up plan; hence the splurging on the expensive car or some other flashy object. The midlife brain says: Time is running out, so if not now, then when?
Light at the end of the tunnel
The restless, dissatisfied feeling at middle age is not something to be ashamed of, and is not something to hide. There are very real, physical, mental, social, and metaphysical reasons for this crisis, and instead of burying these feelings, we would do well to address them, and deal with them sensibly.
There is no shame, for example, in talking to a mental health professional. Some may wave these problems away, or friends may say “it’s just a midlife crisis” with a dismissive chuckle. But at the end of the day, it is important to remember that, while there are generalities in the male midlife crisis which make it possible for there to exist the pop culture cliches, everyone’s mental state is different. If you are going through a difficult period in these middle years, just remember that your feelings are valid, it is OK to feel what you feel, and it is OK to reach out for help. If you cope in a healthy manner, there is hope that you will emerge at the other side, happier, healthier, and with a more optimistic view of life.
Where and how you choose to get that help will depend on the specific nature of your crisis. For some, a supportive spouse, or coffee with a best friend, does wonders to overcome a hump. Some may need a therapist’s couch, and depending on a person’s pre-existing mental health conditions, medication may also be recommended.
It is not a one size fits all, but one truth applies to all: Seeking help should never be a matter of embarrassment or shame. Rather than recklessly acting out, splurging on unhelpful purchases that do not give lasting satisfaction, or behaving inappropriately with one’s daughter’s classmates, one should give midlife, and its ensuing crisis, the careful reflection and care that it requires. If the testimony of happy people in their golden years are to believed, this dark night will end.
Abak Hussain is a journalist and columnist based in Dhaka.