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A Trained Eye

Lulled Into Numbness

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By Douglas LaBier
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

As a psychotherapist and a member of the booming midlife generation, I've heard many expressions of midlife distress, but few as poignant as this: A 47-year-old married mother of three told me about a dream. She's on one of those moving sidewalks and can't get off. On either side, scenes pass by of herself living different lives, with different people. Suddenly she recognizes the Grim Reaper standing at the end of the sidewalk, arms outstretched, awaiting her.

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She wakes up, screaming.

Why the dream? And why did it provoke such distress?

The symbolism may be obvious, but I've found much of the research on midlife contradictory. A decade-long MacArthur Foundation study suggested that most people don't experience a midlife crisis, that they sail through their 40s and 50s. More recently, though, two new studies suggest that midlife is a time if not of crisis then of common and sometimes severe depression.

One study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a 20 percent rise in suicide among people ages 45 to 54 from 1999 to 2004 -- a rise that exceeded that of all other age groups.

Another reported an increase in depression during people's 40s to early 50s, after which happiness rises again. Researchers from the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College, who studied 2 million people from 80 nations, found this pattern to be consistent across sex and socioeconomic levels and among developed and developing countries.

Explanations for these data remain elusive. Some experts think the rise of midlife suicide may reflect something as specific as the decrease of hormone replacement therapy among women or as general as the stress of modern life. As for the rise in happiness after midlife depression, some speculate that people may simply have learned to set aside aspirations they know they will never realize.

I find these explanations unconvincing. What the data underscore is the need for a new understanding of the complexities of midlife, one that would enable people to deal more effectively with the positive and negative changes they encounter. Here's my understanding:

I'm an Adult. Now What?

Midlife actually kicks in around 35. Until then, most people are in an extended adolescence, still being educated or getting established in the career world. Psychologically, midlife is the portal into full adulthood. Successfully crossing that portal involves addressing the question that lies at the source of most adult emotional conflicts: "What's the purpose of my life?"

That question opens a Pandora's box of conflicting desires and fears, because you need to confront truths about the work you're engaged in, your friendships and love relationships and your other commitments. Facing the truth can be an uncomfortable process, leading some to try to quell the issues that surface, as I heard one man doing during a couples therapy session: "Maintaining a certain lifestyle and juggling all the balls of busy lives and careers -- that's just part of normal life, isn't it? Can't do anything about that," he said. "Let's just figure out how to smooth out the bumps."

Happiness dips during the 40s because dealing with the purpose-of-life question converges with a second psychological shift: The emotional defenses that people build up during childhood, adolescence and young adulthood begin to erode during midlife.

Too Late to Start Over?

Some head into a downward spiral of resignation and despair. One man who realized that he had never really liked his career and was now going through a divorce asked me tearfully, "How do you start over when you can't start over?"

Far larger numbers of people, in my experience, more or less give up trying to start over. They decide to lope along in the life they've been living and define that as happiness. It's an illusory emotion, though, because over time they tend to become numb -- and increasingly vulnerable to physical ailments, late-life depression and alcoholism or drug use.

I've worked with many such supposedly happy people: Take the woman who lived for years in a state of numb acceptance until she suddenly discovered her husband had been conducting an affair for several years. Her world fell apart.

More positively, I also see more people in my office who are prepared to grapple with their midlife challenges to create a clearer purpose for themselves. In this light, midlife can be seen as a transition zone for forging better trade-offs about your commitments (mortgages, tuitions, salaries, expenditures and so forth) and restructuring your life accordingly.

Here's how:

Deal with your problems -- today. No one enters adulthood unscathed by childhood; no one has perfect parents. If your emotional conflicts affect your relationships and behavior, find a good psychotherapist. Now. Don't be so quick to pop pills; your mood is a byproduct of how you're living your whole life.

Design your own evolution. A large-scale study of baby boomers by MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures in 2005 found that more than half now want their work to contribute to the common good. Does that resonate with you? With your partner, assess how your career (its rewards and trade-offs) relates to the rest of your life and your longer-term goals. What changes would create better alignment?

Rethink your relationship. Ready for this? If you and your partner have been together a long time, take the radical step of confronting whether you want to continue your relationship. Is this the person you want to stay with the rest of your life? Face the possibility that the relationship you entered years ago and within which you raised children worked for that earlier purpose but may no longer do so. Get the help of a good couples therapist if necessary. If you decide it's better to end your relationship, do it now, with mutual respect.

Don't be like the 85-year-old man who, when asked by his nephew (my patient, who was in a troubled marriage himself) why he was leaving his wife after 60 years of marriage, replied, "Because I've been unhappy with her for 50 years."

Most people are capable of redirecting their lives and getting off the moving sidewalk that my patient found so distressing.

Remember Yogi Berra's sage advice, "When you come to a fork in the road . . . take it!" ¿

Psychologist Douglas LaBier is director of the Center for Adult Development in Washington. And he's still dealing with his own midlife. Comments: health@washpost.com.


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