The vision I had for myself as a 38-year-old is a far cry from reality, but instead of a midlife crisis I'm undergoing a powerful transformation.
I just received an invitation to attend my 20th high school class reunion. Are these people crazy? (Am I?) How did two decades pass so quickly, landing me at almost midlife, without proper savings or a retirement plan?
The vision I had for myself as a 38-year-old is a far cry from reality; I don’t have a glamorous job at a high end magazine, for example, and I’m still not thin. My husband and I live a modest life in our hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, just a few miles from both sets of our parents. Our children, ages 4, 6, and 9, are enrolled in public school—not private, like the school I attended as a child—and I am a freelance writer. As an aside, “freelance writer” is code for “I work in the same space that my kids use for their homework, I am almost never presentably dressed, and my keyboard is littered with Goldfish crumbs.”
A little over a year ago, I entered recovery for alcohol and pill addiction. I spent the better part of 2017 in a fog, struggling to adjust to my newfound clarity. After spending many years as a high-functioning, closeted drinker, grappling poorly with the challenges of motherhood, it’s startling to be sober. In a lot of ways, sobriety opened my eyes to the actual state of things. Before, when I was drinking, I pushed most of my feelings to the back of my mind where they stayed, damp and undisturbed. When I felt fat or unattractive, a few glasses of wine would erase those concerns. If I was angry, or anxious, or overwhelmed, I had a cure. It was located in the nearest liquor store.
Sobriety allowed all of my water logged baggage to come tumbling out of hiding. One day, I woke up and started noticing the details of my surroundings. It wasn’t a sudden awakening. I wasn’t startled from sleep by the sound of an alarm clock; it was a slow, gradual process of moving from darkness to light. One day, I looked in the mirror and realized that I am closer to 40 than ever. It’s well past time I figured out exactly who and what I am, aim to be it, and stop apologizing. Also, when did I get age spots on my hands?
I have been given the gift of getting to know myself again. I started wearing bright fingernail polish. My hands are clubby—I take after my dad—and I’ve never wanted to draw attention to them, but once I was awake, I felt compelled to. I mean, why not? I painted my daughter’s fingernails the color of ripe cantaloupe, and then she watched me paint my own the same color. We fanned our hands in the air, admiring them before plastering on a thick top layer of glitter.
“I do what I want,” I announced, to no one in particular, because that’s what I’m like now that I’m 20 years past high school and stone cold sober. I do things like dip into the Juniors section at the mall. Nothing fits, of course—that’s what having three children does to a person—but wading through a jungle of youthful clothing allows me to pretend I still belong there. The woman behind the makeup counter calls out, “Excuse me, would you like to try a sample of our new night serum for fine lines and wrinkles?” I keep walking, because I can only handle so much of the aging process at once. Right now, I’m focusing on learning how to be. I’ll deal with the state of my skin later.
I carry Skittles in my bag as a safeguard for cravings; the last time my husband and I went out, he almost handed me his beer before remembering that his wife is an alcoholic and should not be responsible for holding his drink. My hands were full of Skittles, anyway, and I was glad to be the only adult in the room scarfing down rainbow-colored candy.
“I see you brought Skittles to the show,” said the comedian from the platform. “That’s kind of weird.”
I wonder how old I look to no-name comedians who are still telling jokes for free. He is 20, which means I was graduating from high school the year of his birth. This realization gripped me and squeezed, hard.
“Do I look old?” I asked my husband. Sometimes, when I look at him, he does. My décolletage is beginning to look slightly creped, like tiny roads are mapping themselves across my collarbones, but I’m not sure if he’s noticed. He laughed and rolled his eyes, and I made an unspoken pact with myself to get bangs. I can’t afford Botox injections for my forehead, but I can certainly afford to get bangs.
Over coffee, I confessed to my girlfriends that I think I’m going through a midlife crisis. They understand. One of us just had basal cell skin cancer removed; another just turned 40. And there is me, with the loud nail polish and a band t-shirt, confused about who and what I am.
Audrey said, authoritatively, from under a giant hat shielding her face from the sun, “It’s not a midlife crisis. It’s a transformation.” I like the sound of that—fancy and self-assured. Also, she’s right, I do feel like I’m transforming. I’m not the person I was, and I’m not used to the person that I am right now. I can’t tell if I’m becoming myself, or if I’m trying to become someone else.
When I think of midlife, certain things immediately come to mind: sensible shoes. Boring taste in music and literature. Bifocals. Poor night vision. I’m not grabbed by any of the reading material at the checkout stand because it all seems to be written for 25-year-olds or grandmothers, and I am neither of those. I don’t want to have wild sex all night long, but I also don’t want to make jams and jellies. I don’t have time for either of those activities—my children are still small and my hormones are jacked up. What I want most in this world is a massage and a nap, in that order.
One day, I quietly took note of the way my body creaks. My hips hurt if I lie in bed for too long, and something—or is it everything?—is different. It’s impossible to know if it is my body, or my spirit, or maybe it’s just that I actually started noticing my body and spirit.
The modern midlife crisis is sneaky like that.