Come and sit for a few minutes, and let’s talk about unhappiness.
You’re somewhere between 35 and 50, perhaps, and probably married, but things are flagging in the bedroom. Your bitch of a boss had another moan at your today, so the job is bringing you down. Or you lost it in the Covid lockdown. And your kids are being a nightmare.
We could open some wine – if you have any left in the new prohibition – but it won’t quell the niggling feeling that there must be more to life than this. Besides, it might clash with your anti-depressants.
This was supposed to a golden era of opportunities and independence, when women were no longer shackled to domestic drudgery with a cluster of kids. So why is there so much discontent or misery?
The term ‘midlife crisis’ conjures up the image of fat, balding men dumping their wives and chasing girls in a penis-shaped sports car to prove they’re still desirable. Women aren’t associated with midlife crises because we just knuckle down and endure. Or because we never admit to being middle aged. But you’re no longer young and hungry at work, and more social-media-savvy youngsters are winning the promotions.
Retirement creeps closer, and you’re not one of the mere 6% of South Africans saving enough to retire on. Wages evaporate on school fees, your house and car, while divorce or single parenthood crushes your cash and your spirits even harder.
And the love life? Well, marriage often declines into companionship at best and acrimony at worst, and the peak divorce age is 35 - 39 for black women, and 40 - 44 for coloured and white women.
Miriam*, at 47, swung from being a highly successful manager to a jittery, self-destructive woman killing herself through bulimia. She’s spent the past 18 months in eating disorder clinics.
“I went up the corporate ladder too fast when I wasn’t ready and didn’t have any support to deal with the pressures. I had 47 people reporting to me,” she says. In her next job, a new boss continually criticised her, which shattered her perception of herself until depression and self-doubt crept in.
Things she had taken for granted, like having a partner for life and her physical safety were also swept away. “I became very anxious and had panic attacks. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t function, couldn’t make decisions about even the smallest things. Depression hit in waves.”
She tried therapy and anti-depressants, but the downward spiral worsened into bulimia. “I don’t have any confidence to go into the corporate world against people half my age. I have no family, no money and no partner. I feel bleak,” she says.
Clinical Psychologist Sibulelo Qhogwana says a midlife crisis is fuelled by a sense of not knowing where you’re going or if you’re in the right position. The first step in overcoming it is self-reflection. You have to ask if you are living according to what you want, or by what society or other people expect.
Taking care of yourself is crucial. “Look at yourself as an emotional, physical and spiritual being. How well you have looked after your own system? What happens physically affects you emotionally, so look at your diet and exercise. Taking a walk is a small way of doing something for yourself that generates a sense of achievement.”
We can generate our own sadness – or certainly compound it – by negative thoughts, and that needs reversing. Recalling good memories every day will remind you that life hasn’t always been, and won’t always be, as bleak as it currently feels.
Sibulelo recommends therapy if you feel demotivated at work, your performance declines or you lose interest in things you once enjoyed. Anti-depressants are more serious, but may be required if you are unable to sleep and lose your appetite. “Start with therapy, which can be fantastic, and they will see if you need medication.” she says.
Marital problems often arise because of what husbands, in-laws or an entire community expect of a wife, she adds. “Women are still treated as lesser humans than their husbands and there’s a huge expectation of them maintaining the home, balancing the finances and going to work. One way of coping is for women to identify who they are, what works for them and what they can realistically do. Avoid creating expectations you cannot meet.”
Briony Liber runs coaching sessions to help women reinvent themselves, launched after a midlife crisis of her own. She previously managed environmental impact reports for the mining industry, which sounds hugely important, but it grew to feel shallow. “I got to a point where I completely lost any sense of meaning. I got very negative and withdrawn, and the more miserable I got the more self-critical and critical of others I got.”
Unlike many women, Briony had a supportive husband and enough savings to quit her job and take eight months out to recuperate and reskill. She now coaches successful professional women who feel empty and yearn to take control over their lives. Some crave a career change. Others need help in making themselves more visible so they don’t get overlooked for promotion. Some have reached a senior position by being technically competent, but must now manage people or handle risky projects without any training. They feel insecure and lonely, unsure of who to confide in.
Calculating how long it will take to make a career change or any other transformation is important because it hits you financially, Briony says, and quitting without figuring out how to pay the bills just fuels the misery.
But making the change is worth it, she says. “It was the most scary and brave thing I’ve ever done, and I wouldn’t go back for a minute. I’m so delighted with life!”
Chantelle* hit a crisis at 40, unsure of where she wants to be or what she wants to do, and fearing she’ll never find love.
“I dated someone for seven years who completely eroded my self-confidence. I couldn’t see it at all – I had too much faith that he’d change and treat me better. Afterwards it took another seven years to start dating again because I didn’t think I was worthy.”
She became depressed and survived on three hours of sleep at night. When she asked for sleeping tablets, her doctor prescribed anti-depressants and suggested therapy. The therapist urged her to check into a clinic because a breakdown was imminent.
There, she finally learned to set boundaries. “Putting boundaries in place by saying no to people or to things I didn’t like has been one of the hardest lessons. Things like not working until 10pm because I need to have a life. I’d let people walk all over me.”
Therapy gave her the confidence to stand up to her aggressive boss, and gain more respect at work. It also helped to exorcise childhood issues that still haunted her and taught her to deal with conflict.
A big help was realising she’s not alone, and becoming grateful for what she has. “I don't have to sit with a cardboard sign saying ‘please give me food’. I was thinking everybody had it better than me, but everybody has struggles they don’t tell you about.”
The South African Depression & Anxiety Group (SADAG) says these methods can help with stress:
Share: Talk to someone. They can help you see your problem in a different light. If your problem is serious, see a psychologist or psychiatrist.
Physical activity: Run, walk or garden to relax when you’re nervous, angry, or upset, because your body and mind work together.
Know your limits: If a problem is beyond your control, learn to accept it until a time when you can change it.
Care for yourself: Get enough rest and eat well. If you’re tense from lack of sleep or not eating correctly, you’re less able to deal with stress. If insomnia sets in, see a doctor.
Make time for fun: Schedule time for recreation as a break from routine to relax and have fun.
Participate: Help yourself by helping others through volunteer groups. You might find new friends and new activities.
* Not their real name. First published in Destiny Magazine. Photos: Bigstock/Dreamstime/Unsplash