“Are you alright, dear?” asked an elderly lady, as I stood, frozen, my hands dripping as they clutched the trolley in the vegetable aisle. “You don’t look well.”
I mumbled something, thanked her and fled, leaving the trolley – with its slick handle – abandoned. Back in my car, I trembled uncontrollably, trying to calm my shallow breathing and racing thoughts.
At 45, episodes like this were common – and had been, since my late thirties, after the birth of my third child. They weren’t always sparked by supermarkets, although these were often a trigger. Sometimes it was a social event or the school run. Sometimes it was the mere fact of waking up, the dread of having to navigate yet another day. And actually, even without these triggers, the feeling was always there – that screeching cacophony of nerves, like nails down a blackboard, constantly jangling over my brain and along my spine.
This had so long been my reality that I barely even registered it was an issue. It was simply, I reasoned, the result of having three young children, living far away from my family and managing the precariousness of a freelance career. Being a student and starting my working life in the Nineties, I’m also, I think, a product of an era in which stress was seen as a badge of honour: it was proof that I was ‘doing’, proof that I wasn’t lazy. Super-powering through the days and feeling frazzled was, surely, A Good Thing.
It seems absurd to me now that I thought this was normal – and yet, in many ways, it is. My experience is by no means the exception – on the contrary, for many women – and men – this is an all too familiar tale. Whether an ordinary soul like me or someone with success, wealth, beauty and talent, it seems that no one is immune to the insidious tentacles of midlife anxiety – as we’ve seen recently, from Andrea McLean’s candid admissions this week about how they coiled around her.
In fact, in many cases, the knowledge that you may appear, in the eyes of others, to ‘have it all,’ can actually be a barrier to admitting you’re struggling. People can be notoriously impatient – and even unkind – about ‘victims’ and ‘first world problems.’ Since when was having it all something to complain about?
Ageing is, of course, part of the issue. All of a sudden, we are gazing down the tunnel of the rest of our lives and it no longer seems endless. The sense of our own mortality may have been highlighted by the loss of peers and loved ones – and, while this is all true for both sexes, a female’s midlife hormonal changes are far more dramatic and complex than those of a male – which may explain why midlife anxiety is a phenomenon that seems to affect women more than men.
“For many men, their life is defined by their career: a linear task with little disruption, says Jessica Chivers, psychologist, author and developer of Comeback Community. “For many women, the interplay between career and children, or not having children, makes things more complex – added to which they may be caring for ageing parents. It’s the perfect storm: you reach midlife and options are closing down. You can no longer breed, your kids are growing up and will, at some point, leave, it will be difficult to change careers because at this age, who would invest in you? It’s far more than just looking in the mirror and seeing wrinkles– although that may be a part of it too – it’s a sense of overwhelm about what you must still do and what you wish could do but may never have the chance to.”
Lucia, 48, agrees that vanity is a negligible part of her midlife anxiety. “It’s not the desire to be younger or to own some expensive material possession,” she says. “It’s more like a gut feeling that often wakes me up in the night when I start to question whether I made good choices; to panic that I don’t spend enough time with my kids or my parents; that time is running out.”
For me, medication, honest talking and (don’t laugh!) listening to shamanic drumming means that, although the panic still strikes, it doesn’t immobilise me as frequently. Time is running out: that’s what time does. And yes, I am getting older. Compared to the only possible alternative, I try to remind myself that this is a blessing to be counted – and if I occasionally abandon the shopping and dial for takeout instead, well, that’s okay too.