Middle age is hitting me hard

For the first time in my sunny, successful life, I feel sad about the choices I made.

Published July 11, 2005 7:08PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have a wonderful and intelligent husband, lovely children, published books and a writing career, financial stability, a job saving lives, a house, a dog, and a problem that seems to threaten all.

I recently left a demanding job to spend more time doing what I have always wanted to do and been good at: write. Since graduating college, I have written, but I've also dedicated a lot of time to "saving the world"-type jobs, since I have never been comfortable with the (admittedly judgmental) notion of spinning stories while Rome burns. Very emotional, hard work, without a defined career track or lots of money, but occasionally epiphanic and very much worth it.

But I'm hitting middle age hard. I have children (and am no longer free to pick up and move); financial obligations (so I need to make some money); a B.A. (Jesus, should I have gone to law school?); and a 20+ year marriage that I committed to out of love, without calculating how it would shape my own ambitions.

Like a good girl, I've sacrificed, adapted, put off, seized the moment and been philosophical. Until the dust cleared from leaving my job (long overdue). For the first time, I feel regret. Normally a sunny and resilient person, I am often sad. I sleep normally, eat normally, laugh and look forward to future successes. But yes, I also stare into the distance, don't feel so optimistic and feel envy that others have achieved what still eludes me.

My husband chose a very clear career track that I adapted to. He had a 15-year and, once, suicidal depression, but we are through it. He now reaps the benefits of mastery in his profession. In contrast, I hear the hard tramp of anonymity. My sobering evaluation of where I have come from and what I can reasonably expect out of the rest of my life feels to me like honesty. But my husband medicalizes it (I don't recognize how much I've achieved) and is saying, angrily, that unless I seek out the kind of psychiatric intervention he once needed, I am putting our marriage at risk. I had always worried that he, not I, would be the one to walk away from our relationship if things weren't perfect -- I am a sticker. Now, I am terrified that I am right.

Is it possible these days to be sad, not depressed? Is it defensible to have regrets, not symptoms? Can one have an honest funk, once, without jeopardizing everything? Should I buy a happy face and plaster it to my brow?


Dear Sticker,

I think absolutely it is possible to be sad and not depressed, to have regrets, not symptoms. What makes marriage interesting is that each party is on his or her own timetable. It is a temptation, once one has conquered one's own demons, to expect everyone else to follow suit. It is a vexing, incessant, overwhelming temptation to say, "Fix yourself! Like I did!"

On the other hand, it is very hard work to reach the middle of life and evaluate the choices you have made, to accept the evidence of where you are, to measure the size of your box. It takes courage to do this. It takes courage to say, I see these limits; they are not the figment of a negative-thinking mind; they are actual, measurable limits. It takes courage to feel the heavy weight of regret, to see clearly where the road forked and why you took this road and what it might have required of you to take the other, harder road -- more intelligence, more courage, more faith? -- and to see that perhaps you did not have those qualities, and to wonder: Is that because God has forsaken me? Or is that because God is leading me this way? Or is God not a part of this at all? Is this simply my nature? Am I the one who helps the others across the river and then stays behind to wait? What does that say about me? Do I lack courage? Am I only of middling talent? What have I done with my life? Do I not get a ribbon? Is there no ribbon for helping others across a river?

Can one honestly sit down and evaluate one's life in such terms and not suffer a little sadness, a little grief? Does anyone truly hold that the examined life is some kind of medical problem? If so, then psychiatric medicine and therapeutic practice have led to nothing but ignorance. If so, we are indeed in trouble. Is it not abundantly clear, though, that while medical science has made great strides in treating clinical depression, and talk therapy has helped many millions of people work out their problems and change debilitating behaviors, we still can be awed, humbled and saddened by contemplation of the incontrovertible facts of our own lives?

It might be that at the end of such a train of thought, one sees that, sure, one could have chosen to climb mountains, if that was what one wanted, but one didn't want that. One does at times tend to take present happiness for granted, until one goes out on the streets again and feels the cold rain night after night. So after this wrenching, teeth-gnashing self-critique, one may be forced, through sheer exhaustion if nothing else, to look around and be grateful -- truly grateful, not begrudgingly grateful -- for everything one has and everything that has occurred and everything, as well, that one does not have and that has not occurred.

Meanwhile, our sadness is so terribly inconvenient, isn't it? It is inconvenient to husbands, to bosses, to shareholders, to state officials, to advertisers, to salesmen who call. Salesmen have been calling lately and I have been saying, What if we took this time on the phone today to talk about the war in Iraq, how terribly sad it is? It is very inconvenient for them, this sadness of ours. Our sadness is a dead weight dragging down the revolution! Our sadness is a scab to be torn off the muscular arm of law! Our sadness is a disease to be cured with pills!

Of course there is a difference between the melancholy associated with frank contemplation and the cruel, sleepless disease of depression.

So what is really bugging your husband? Is he making a threat? Does he simply want the happy wife he is used to, and whatever you are going through be damned? Has your path, because it is slightly out of step with his own, become an inconvenience to him, a hindrance? Or is he just so proud of his own progress and finally so happy, after 15 years and the best medical minds money can buy, that he cannot see why you or anyone else would not be eager to follow in his footsteps? A little clarification would be in order, no?

Don't be too hard on him. If he went through a 15-year depression, then he has suffered enormously. If he wants you to see a psychiatrist, why not take him up on it? What could it hurt? If a psychiatrist offers pills, you can politely refuse. But what psychiatrist in his right mind would hear you out about your clear-eyed evaluation of the choices you have made and the results they have had and not see that you are indeed simply facing life on life's terms. These are the terms it presents to anyone who dares to stare at the fine print, located way at the bottom of its long, long contract.

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