It’s a sunny Autumn day and my 7 year old daughter and I are having a picnic at the West Lynn Garden and Butterfly House when my daughter asks me; “so why doesn’t the caterpillar just stay a caterpillar or be born a butterfly in the first place?” I had to admit that I didn’t know the answer and I suggested we Google it when we got home – or “Gurgle it”, as she calls it.
According to Gurgle it seems that however metamorphosis evolved, the enormous numbers of metamorphosing insects on the planet speaks for its success. The primary advantage being: eliminating the competition for space or resources between the young and the mature, meaning more of each can coexist in close proximity. Oh, and it turns out that a Monarch actually goes through 12 life stages on its journey to becoming a butterfly. Amazing!
Even more amazing is the fact that during the chrysalis stage, the body of the caterpillar gets almost completely dissolved into a kind of soup inside it except for things called ‘Imaginal Discs’, which have been inside the caterpillar since birth. Like magical Lego, these discs provide the building blocks from which the butterfly is created. My mind was blooown!
But the blowing up of my mind didn’t stop there… Gurgle also informed me that like butterflies, we humans also go through a 12-stage life cycle.
Before now, all I knew about the human life cycle was what I was taught at school: we all had to go through a horrible sounding thing called “puberty” before we can have children. I recall my biology teacher comparing our puberty to the caterpillar’s chrysalis stage, which sounded a lot like he was calling us all grubs who never stopped eating (probably a pretty accurate description.)
The only other significant life stage I had heard talked about when I was a kid, besides menopause, was something called a “mid-life crisis” but I didn’t really understand what that was. All I knew was that when a man went through a mid-life crisis it meant he suddenly started going to the gym, dying his grey hair black, wearing a leather jacket, driving around town in a red sports car with the top down, chasing women half his age and generally “making a fool of himself.” I also knew that when a woman went through a mid-life crisis it meant she cried a lot. To my childhood self, a mid-life crisis sounded awful and was something to be avoided at all cost, so I vowed to myself that it would NEVER happen to me.
But now, as I read more in depth about the 12 stages of the human life cycle, I came across many related articles, which talked about how common it was to experience a midlife crisis between the ages of 35 – 50 (my age bracket) and that they can last from 3-10 years for a man and 2-5 years for a woman. For my own amusement I read a checklist of symptoms provided on one of them and to my surprise I could tick almost 100% of the symptoms.
I have listed the common signs of a midlife crisis here:
Having experienced a loss or trauma
Depression, anxiety and irritability
Acting out of character
Being extra sensitive to criticism
Feeling like a failure
Boredom, restlessness and dissatisfaction with everything
Need for adventure/change
Desiring to quit your job
Wanting to run away from everything
Re-asking “where am I going with my life?”
Questioning your past choices (eg. choice of spouse)
Desire for a passionate and intimate relationship
Changing hair and clothing styles
Looking into the mirror and no longer recognizing yourself
It was at that moment that I had an epiphany.
I suddenly realized that what I had been going through for the past 6 years was a midlife crisis, but instead of being horrified, like I thought I would be, I was actually relieved that I wasn’t going batty.
Hearts Blessings, the writer of thestagesandlessonsofmidlife.org, says that there are 6 stages of a midlife crisis: Denial, Anger, Replay, Depression, Withdrawal and Acceptance, and judging by her detailed descriptions of each stage, I figured that I had successfully navigated the first 5 stages of crisis without too many scars and that I was in the final process of Acceptance. That meant the worst of it was over before I knew it had begun.
But wait a minute…how had I come so far along my midlife crisis journey without registering the first 5 stages? I read on.
According to a study done by The Australian Longitudinal Study of Woman’s Health, many middle-aged women were too busy taking care of other people to care about their own needs and desires. “They are frankly too busy” says Meredith Taverner, a researcher from the University of Newcastle’s Research Centre for Gender, Health and Ageing, who worked on the study. “They don’t afford themselves the luxury of a mid-life crisis. They’ve got too much responsibility.”
Meredith’s words rung true, I was one of those women. So consumed was I by trying to be a good mother, supportive partner, business owner and bread-winner, that I had missed my own mid-life crisis and there I was, standing in its wake, left wondering what the heck had hit me. It’s no wonder that I had a heart attack in 2013, it was my body’s way of telling me to slow down and take notice of it’s needs. This was a revelation and a life lesson in itself, but there were more to come.
But what had triggered my midlife crisis and why do millions of other women and men suddenly have a crisis at this age? It would be comforting to know that it at least had some sort of evolutionary purpose, like a second chrysalis stage that helps us in some way, other wise what is the point?
Gurgle couldn’t offer me any specifics as to what causes a midlife crisis, other than it being “a natural part of the ageing process” and that experiencing some kind of trauma can be a catalyst and make it more severe. I thought back to when I think my crisis started and could see that my then partner’s mental breakdown in 2010 was probably the catalyst for mine, because that was when things started going very pear-shaped indeed.
Like Archimedes, I meditate on life in my bathtub and although I did not have a dramatic “Eureka!” moment which prompted me to run naked through the streets shouting, I did have a quiet revelation about the other possible causes and purpose of a midlife crisis.
The reason why I think crises commonly occur in midlife, is because growing up, our well-meaning parents, teachers, pastors, guidance counselors, are constantly telling us; “anything is possible if you just believe in yourself”, “reach for the sky” and “work hard enough and you can achieve anything”, etc - messages reinforced by celebrities, advertising and social media.
Armed with their reassurances, we as adolescents feel hopeful, confident and even invincible as we step out into the world. But after a couple of decades on the hamster wheel, working hard and reaching for the sky, our arms and legs start to get tired and we notice it takes more effort to spin the wheel than it did in our twenties.
The first time we notice wrinkles and grey hair is shocking. Because our spirits and minds are still young, becoming suddenly and acutely aware of our mortality can cause a ripple affect and we start to reflect on what we have done, or haven’t done with our lives and begin to question our choices.
For some men and women who have perhaps postponed children for the sake of a relationship, or their career, or they were waiting for the right person to come along, a ‘baby panic’ can set in, causing them to make rash decisions.
For others, the measure of their success directly correlates to how much they earn or how many followers they have on Twitter and they fall into the trap of comparing our lives to those around them and are disappointed when their lives fall short of those who they aspire to be like. We may start to blame ourselves, or others for our perceived failure to achieve what we set out to do when we left home.
The mistakes we have made along the way and the traps we have fallen into humble us by highlighting our limitations and crushing the delusions of grandeur we may have had. The choices we have made make us realize our restricted possibilities and at this midway point, we may start to feel trapped in a life that does not feel like our own.
All of these emotions can make a person feel disoriented, alienated and believe that their best years are over, which can trigger an identity crisis and the blues. Trauma intensifies these feelings and even if life was awesome before a disaster strikes, it doesn’t change that fact that we are not as resilient now as we were twenty years ago and sudden adversity could be the trigger, which leads to major depression.
As to what, if any, evolutionary purpose a midlife crisis has, I found a very helpful article by Casey Kochmer at at personaltao.com, in which he offers an insightful interpretation based on his many years as a midlife counsellor. In his article, Casey suggests that a midlife crisis is not a crisis at all, but a transformational stage which offers us the opportunity to achieve a whole new level of personal growth and mind, body, soul and spiritual balance. He describes the journey as being a complex back and forth process rather than a simple linear one that goes from start to finish. According to Casey this explains why sometimes, after thinking you have past a certain stage in your transformation, you may feel like you are back at the beginning again. This is just you working through another aspect of yourself, which is playing catch up to the others.
I certainly noticed this pattern on my journey and to find my balance again I had to regularly interrupt my life and put in a lot of meditation, prayer, soul-searching and self-nurturing, while I figured stuff out. It was inconvenient and time consuming and I felt impatient with myself for not getting a faster result, guilt for being ‘selfish’ with my down time and ashamed for not being stronger. But in my heart of hearts I knew it was all necessary and well overdue. Because I made room in my life for attending to my own needs and did things purely for the sake of joy and not profit, I certainly feel happier, more in balance and more at peace with my life now than I have over the last five years.
For me, the hardest part of my midlife transformation was overcoming the blues, which seemed to strike whenever I let myself dwell on the past. That was until I visited the butterfly house and made the connection between butterfly metamorphosis and a human midlife transformation. This comparison opened my eyes and gave me new hope for my future - instead of mourning the death of my old self; I shifted my focus to my re-birth. (By the way, I would just like to state for the record that I think that biology teachers may have gotten it wrong - the complete breakdown of one’s own identity and previous way of life during a mid-life crisis much more closely resembles the ‘Lego soup’ going on inside the chrysalis than puberty does.) I could see a parallel between the caterpillar’s Imaginal Discs and our Inner Desires, which we have always had in us, but which only mature at midlife and are ready to be revealed when all else has been dissolved away by the process of living.
In this way my own inner desires were revealed to me and I knew without a doubt that I wanted to help people through my photography. ‘Transformation Therapy,’ which is makeover photography that goes beyond the superficial, is what I came up with. Just like a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly, there is a deep magic that goes on during a human’s dramatic transformation, so I place just as much as importance on the transformation as I do on the resulting images. That way my clients can receive the maximum benefits from their photo shoot and it becomes a life changing experience.
As a kid I used to spend hours dressing up and role-playing and ever since then I have always been a believer in the power of transformation. But now I see that EVERY transformation, even a seemingly DESTRUCTIVE midlife crisis, can have a CONSTRUCTIVE purpose:
To help us shed an old life that no longer fits
To help us move forward and evolve
To help us regain balance of our four aspects
To help us understand what our gifts are
To reignite our passion and imaginations
To help us to better understand the purpose of our lives
To help us reach our full potential
My midlife transformation tips:
Acknowledge the situation. The longer you stay in denial, the more drawn out the process will be.
Be grateful. Remember you are alive and be grateful you made it this far – others didn’t.
Forgive yourself and practice self-compassion. You can’t properly nurture yourself if you are self-loathing. Beating yourself up over mistakes is not doing you any favours. Like a parent to a child learning a new skill, be kind to yourself and give yourself encouragement and praise instead of ridicule and blame.
Ask for help. Don’t try to tough it out on your own. You will exhaust yourself trying to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and make things worse for yourself in the long run. (I am speaking from experience here.) Seek therapy if you think you need it, because talking about it helps. I recommend a good place to start seeking help is: www.depression.org.nz. Their phone number is: 0800 111 757
There is no magic pill. If you are looking for a quick fix for your unhappiness in pill form, you will be disappointed. Although there are medications out there designed to temporarily help you cope with few bumps, they will not fix all your problems and are not a long-term solution. If you do choose to medicate, educate yourself about the side effects FIRST. Be aware that some of these mood-smoothing medications can cause more problems than they solve.
No pain no gain. The other temptation is to numb the pain with something else: food, drugs, gaming, TV, sex, etc. These are all just different types of emotional Band-Aids, which have to come off at some stage. For any wound to heal, it needs to be exposed to air and sunlight, which means at some point you have to peal that Band-Aid off. Numbing only prolongs the inevitable.
Focus on health. At middle age we aren’t as physically resilient as our younger selves and therefore we can’t eat and drink the same junk we did back then and regular exercise becomes even more important to maintain a good quality of life.
Stop comparing yourself to others. Part of the beauty of ageing is being freer to concentrate on fun and experiences instead of being hung up on appearances.
Stop trying to be perfect. Learn to embrace the mess and chaos that is living and focus on being authentic rather than perfect.
Volunteer more. There is always someone out there with bigger problems than yours and nothing puts things into perspective like helping those in need. Volunteering will make you will feel a whole lot better about yourself for doing a good deed and help your find gratitude for the things you have.
Give the arts a go. It is calming and uplifting. By redirecting your mind toward learning a new skill for the sake of enjoyment instead of financial gain, you will find more joy in learning it and by stepping away from your problems for a while, you more likely to gain some insight.
Commune with nature. Satisfy your desire to run away from everything by taking a hiatus from social media and going for a camping trip. If you are limited for time, go for a long walk on the beach, or in the forest or up a hill. Give yourself a breather from the hustle and bustle and meditate on the wonders of the world you are part of.
Think before making radical changes like ending a marriage, quitting your job or buying a sports car and consider how your actions will affect others. Before committing, talk to someone you can trust to be discrete and who is objective and really listen to their advice. Meditate on it then sleep on it.
De-clutter. Clutter makes it hard to organise your thoughts because it creates too much distraction, so get rid of anything un-useful in your life or repurpose it for something else. Decluttering also makes you cherish the things that have more meaning to you. (This goes for people as well as things.)
Transform your style. Changing your hair or style of clothing, or both can satisfy your desire for a change without dire consequences. It signals to the world that a new and more interesting you is emerging and even if your changes are not to everyone’s taste, people will applaud your bravery. Treating yourself to a pampering and makeover is not vain and selfish, on the contrary, it is a nurturing, calming and uplifting therapy and a disease-prevention remedy.
Thank you for reading. I hope my words are helpful in some way.