• Steph VanderMeulen

Midlife What Now?

Before my second year of university, I was an outgoing person with plenty of friends and my finger in a lot of pies. (Literally, sometimes. I do like pie.)

I was always an emotional, sensitive kid growing up but confident in the things I liked to do, such as sing, act, and write stories. I did these things until that second year of university, when, seemingly suddenly, I started freaking out regularly in classes and running out to the bathroom to stare myself back to sanity in the mirror.

I didn't know then, in 1995-'96, that I was having panic attacks. I quit singing, acting, and being involved in everything. I couldn't go to communal meals that the university had on Wednesdays, or really any public events. Anyplace there were lots of people, I would be fine and then I wouldn't. I'd get claustrophobic and feel like I was going to yak, and that started the freakouts. Pretty soon I was having panic attacks just thinking about possible panic attacks.

I finally lost all of my baby weight over the next couple of years, when I was about 23, going from 150 lbs to 107 (significantly less pie and lots of stress will do it!). I lost a lot of other stuff too: confidence, resilience, interests, the ability to function normally, really. Plus, I lost my parents, who moved across the world, from our hometown in Ontario to Europe, and my three younger sisters, who scattered.

One day, one of my profs worriedly but kindly pulled me aside to ask how I was. If it weren't for him helping me get help, I wouldn't have known that I wasn't actually becoming psychotic.

Even though I got a diagnosis back then (the usual suspects: anxiety, depression, OCPD, plus emetophobia), it wasn't until about 15 years later, when the panic attacks were happening daily, even while just walking the dog, and got so bad they would literally paralyze me, that I agreed to take an antidepressant: I was petrified that it would make me sick or not myself. But along with therapy, it's changed my life immeasurably. It's not perfect, of course, but I can handle things better. I can drive!

All that's the story I've been telling for a longass time. Ugh. We all have baggage. Too many of us know what it's like to experience mental illness on top of all the crappy beliefs we accumulated while we were growing up. It's a lot.

Now I'm 46. Of course, I still have issues to work through, which I've started journaling about. It's been over 20 years since I graduated from university. My doctor has mentioned perimenopause and a friend answered "midlife crisis!" when I asked her what the hell was happening to me these days.

Since COVID-19 has quieted the world down in many respects, I've had some time to process all of this.

First: I'm how old? Peri-WHAT? MIDLIFE CRISIS? Wtaf.

But it does all seem true. There are symptoms! From sagging skin and night sweats to Googling hot actors like a teenager and obsessing about TV shows and feeling like I need to have bangs. From weight gain and mood swings and breakouts to planning out moving from our small town in Ontario to, say, Montana, and having a dude ranch and animal sanctuary, and opening a brewpub because my husband is a master homebrewer. Drastic change is where it's at.

For years, I've felt in a rut so deep I legit thought this was going to be it forever. Freelance copy editing and hardly leaving the house, unmotivated and often inert, self-destructing, telling myself and others I'm an introvert and hate people, that I love being alone. I've been escaping in books and TV and living in a world that works only in my head. I've been detached, and I have not felt like myself.

Now and then, of course, I do have periods of happiness. I have a lot to be thankful for, and I truly am. I notice the details. I appreciate and reciprocate the love I receive. I see the beauty. But dissatisfaction is also prevalent, and I want change.

Whether it really is a midlife crisis I'm having or it's a new moon or there's some sort of planetary interference; whether it's Pinterest or Instagram where I see people living their lives, I'm feeling a shift.

This social distancing we're doing, a song called "Crowded Table" by The Highwomen, and a sort of lonely restlessness has made me realize that I'm not who it serves me to think I am, the story I've been telling myself and others since the late nineties.

I don't want to sit on the couch cozy under blankets and drinking hot beverages for the rest of my life. I don't want to stay in this house. I don't want to be dissatisfied. I don't want to try to convince myself that I hate being around people. I know that's just my fear talking.

I don't want this small life anymore. I don't want to hide because it's easier. I don't want panic and depression, all my emotions and baggage, to dictate how I live. I don't want to be selfish. I don't want to think I'm such a kind person just because I leave caring comments and hearts on Instagram or donate money.

The real me—the one who cries and whose heart races when other people sing their hearts out like she used to, the one who gets jealous reading other people's stories, the one worrying so much all the time about how people are doing, especially now at home, the parents with kids, the lonely people, the people who are used to having purpose and a job—the real me genuinely cares about people. The real me wants to give people things that make them happy, the way I used to, with singing and acting and writing stories. The real me wants to be as active as I used to be, to learn how to play the guitar, to drink beer and laugh with friends.

When quarantine hit, I was initially thrilled (Welcome to my world, bitches! Woohoo! The streets are finally empty! It's the introvert's time to shine!). I told myself this was what I loved.

But after some pretty vulnerable-feeling self-reflection, I see that this crap I've been telling myself and others is actually just that. It's crap. It feels gross. I have too big a heart to be such a small person. I have too much to share and too much potential to waste. I have too much I want to experience. Why can't I dream big and make the good things be goals that come true?

I love making people laugh. I love seeing them enjoy themselves. I love giving. I love meaningfully connecting.

I want a house with a crowded table. And if it's a damn midlife crisis that's at least going to open me up and work toward filling our house one day—hell, why not: our ranch/sanctuary in Montana, or our brewpub—I say bring it, zits and all.

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© 2020 by Steph VanderMeulen. Created with wix.com