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THE UNRAVELING – a story of a Midlife Opportunity

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Today I’m going to tell you a story. The story that leads to the launch of this website, and the WHY behind it.

I hope that what you are about to read, will resonate with you in some away, especially if you are a woman standing at Midlife’s door.

This blog post was first written almost two years ago. The Next 40 was just a seed, an idea of what it could be. Over time it has evolved, changed , and I’m sure it will again. But for now, I (WE) finally feel ready to roll with it. The thought of pressing publish on this blog post feels terrifying – like inviting lots of strangers into my living room. But since you are here, sit down, grab a cuppa & make yourself cozy. It’s not a short read.

It all started with the run up to the big 4-0. I’m not going to lie, I was dreading it.

I discussed the impending birthday with some acquaintances and friends, and frankly, the post 40 life seemed like a post apocalyptic landscape. I heard some good stuff, but this was mostly outweighed by stories of depression, early menopause,  sagging *everything* and general discontent. This was feedback mostly from females. The men didn’t seem quite as bothered.

Still – it’s not like I had a choice, so I took it all in my stride and laughed off any possibility of anything dubious happening to my good self. My 40th came and went, and seemingly nothing changed on the surface.

As the months went by, I started feeling rather unsettled. It felt like something bubbling underneath, a strange feeling of feeling displaced. Suddenly NOTICING things and questioning things I never even gave thought to before.

I noticed that whatever I was doing, in my head I was elsewhere, thinking about the next thing on my list. The never ending list. I noticed that I was constantly filling every available moment with SOMETHING, and jumping from one thing to the next. Doing, doing, doing. This had always been my norm, and I never questioned it before. Life is busy, right?

But this felt different.  Something felt off. I’ve always considered myself to be totally up together, always In control. Only now I wasn’t , and I needed to know what was going on. So I googled, of course.

Google firmly told me I was having a mid life crisis.

I was not impressed. I silently told Google to F*** off, and tried to get on with my life.

But the harder you try to ignore that unsettled feeling, the more it grows. It’s like this thing called SELF AWARENESS suddenly knocks on your door, splays itself on your sofa and defiantly proclaims

”Hey I’m here – and I’m not moving”.

Up to that point, I was convinced that I was super self aware. I knew that ‘”action mode” was my default setting, and it never bothered me. Phrases like “that’s life”,”that’s just the way it is”, “that’s my personality”, “ I just get on with it” often featured. As did others like “I’m a night owl and have been all my life” (to explain away working late into the night), “I’m a perfectionist” (thinking that was good) and “I know what I’m doing” (I always thought I did). But KNOWING things is different from suddenly FEELING things.

So, what happened next? Well, I simply tried to ignore the feelings and get on with it. That didn’t work.

I had been a photographer for about 14 years at that point, and spent a lot of time working. My work life balance varied – but working until 2am wasn’t uncommon. I always made sure we had holidays, and time away. I always made time for my daughter. My husband was second in the pecking order, with my own self care in third. I won’t even mention social life – so often I said ‘no’ to things. Any spare time I had, was to be spent as quality time with the family. But we all need friendships in our life, and I definitely didn’t make enough time for mine.

I realized I spent a good amount of time in guilt mode. Thinking that I wasn’t a good enough mother, a good enough wife, sister, friend, photographer, provider. Always setting the bar super high. Never feeling like I was ahead with anything, often chasing my tail. I wasn’t walking around unhappy every minute of the day, but once you start NOTICING stuff it starts becoming a THING. I always suffered from bouts of insomnia, where I laid awake worrying about everything and nothing, writing to do lists in my head, or just trying to sleep.

And the harder you try, the less it works.

The insomnia started getting worse, which really does not help how you feel during the day. In fact, lack of sleep is a killer for me.

My endometriosis was rife that year, which meant I was in a fair bit of pain. The occasional anxiety attack that crept in, was put down to work stress, or not enough sleep.  On top of being self employed, I started learning things about online businesses towards the end of 2016, and started my first online venture. 2016 sort of passed by, but it’s the end of that year that was the real start to this story. 

Due to the endometriosis,  I was in and out of consultations and after several laparoscopies through the years,  it was decided that a hysterectomy will be the best way forward. 

We had been trying for a 2nd baby for the best part of 12 years, and it simply wasn’t happening. After the latest laparoscopy the surgeons words were “YOU’RE A MESS DOWN THERE”. Well, thanks very much. I wanted to punch him in the face for such a shitty delivery. I also wanted to cry. However, being Mrs always in control , I kept it all together and on December 15th 2016, I was wheeled in for a hysterectomy. No biggie I guess, millions of women have had them. 

They were taking it all , apart from one ovary which apparently wasn’t a mess. Thankfully, everything went well. Result.

I was told I should stay off work for 6 weeks. But because I was pretty fit and healthy, once the initial discomfort went after a couple of weeks, I was pretty much back on my feet. Looking back, mentally I didn’t even consider giving it any further thought. Secondary infertility is not really spoken about about much. I didn’t even think to give myself a little grieving time, and I should have. The truth is, I loved being a mum and I wanted more children. And just like that, that dream was gone.

So there I was at the start of 2017, 41 years old and ready for life to go on as usual. Only I wasn’t. 

I’m not quite sure when my big “F*** YOU” moment came. It was an accumulation of different things. I went to a photography convention in mid January. Shortly following that convention I had a photo shoot, after which my back totally seized up. It turned out to be a back spasm, and it took days for the pain to go. Almost 15 years of awkward shooting positions meant that the back pain was now present after almost every single photo shoot.

At that point I decided I no longer wanted to lead what you would call “a photographers life”. Which to most people would be a ridiculous thought, since I was at that stage in my career where I no longer needed to advertise, or do much, and my diary was sufficiently booked up. 

I realised that mentally I was always at work, despite my studio being a separate building. I had lived it and breathed it for long enough.  I decided it was time for a change. I needed to restructure and finding something that didn’t kill my back. I had changed directions once in the past already, when I retrained from being in the financial services industry to photography after my daughter was born. So I decided that I could do it again.

But I had no idea what I really wanted to do. I was faced with MYSELF, very suddenly, in clear technicolor.

It hit me like a brick one day. I sat with my husband and daughter on the beach one weekend. The seaside is my favorite place to be. I felt hollow, and numb. I wanted to feel JOY, but it wasn’t there…I felt like I was in this big bubble. I was looking at myself from the outside in, feeling concerned and scared at what was happening to me. I joined in with the chatter, and on the surface I carried on regardless.

In the following days, I was agitated, and very demotivated. I was struggling to get back to fitness after the operation,  and generally feeling rather blue. So…guess what I did? Yep, I Googled.  And good old Google came up with an article that whacked me so hard in the face, I thought I wouldn’t be able to breathe. The article was about HFD (high functioning depression).

When I was in my 20’s I categorised the word depression as something that weak willed people suffered from. A stereotype, I know. I’m not proud of it. This view had changed in my late 30’s. I met real people who educated me that it’s never that simple. Friends who had suffered from anxiety and depression, and they were far from “weak”. But in my head it still wasn’t something that could ever touch me, it was always something that happened to other people. But there I was reading away, and I counted that I had 7 of the 11 symptoms. Here is the list from the original article, with the authors kind permission.

Difficulty experiencing joy. With high-functioning depression, the things that used to bring you pleasure — whether this is a cherished yoga class or a monthly ritual of getting together with your girlfriends — these same things don’t bring you joy anymore. They may feel like burdens or events you want to avoid because it feels like more of an effort than a support.

Relentless criticality – of self and others. You may have a relentless and invasive internal narrative that’s critical of yourself, of others, and of the world in general. You think you’re a failure, you think your boss is an idiot, your partner’s the most irritating person to have ever lived, and life’s just one big slog. This chronically negative thought pattern may feel like something you just can’t turn off.

Constant self-doubt. You may constantly doubt whether or not you’re on the right career path, whether you’re in the right relationship, doubt what you’re doing with your life and if you can even handle being an adult. This pattern of constant self-doubt may be situational or pervasive but it’s something that feels like you just can’t get over.

Diminished energy. If it feels like getting through each day is like walking up a mountain with a backpack of rocks, if you feel like you barely have the mental, emotional, and physical energy to handle your life anymore, if your overall energy levels are greatly diminished, this could be a sign of high-functioning depression.

Irritability or excessive anger. If you find yourself blowing up over small things — your partner says something wrong, your coworker messed up a project, your kid just broke your favorite coffee mug, if you find yourself exploding in a way that feels disproportionate to the event, if irritability and excessive anger are something you’re wrestling with, this may be a sign.

Small things feel like huge things. Similarly, if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or greatly stressed by an event that happens that maybe wouldn’t have felt like such a huge deal in the past (a friend cancels weekend plans, the grocery bags break when you’re carrying them in, your darn trackpad stops working because you spilled some coffee on it) and it feels like The End Of The World instead of the annoyance that it is, if you find your stress responses disproportionate to the event itself, this may well be a sign of high-functioning depression.

Feelings of guilt and worry over the past and the future. You worry that you chose the wrong career in college, you question whether you’re in the right grad school program, you worry about paying off all those student loans, you worry that your biological clock is running out, you worry that you married the wrong partner, you worry about who’s going to care for your folks when they get older, etc., etc., etc.. We all have these worries from time to time, but if feelings of guilt and worry over your past and future feel pervasive and dominant, this may be more than “normal” worry.

Relying on your coping strategies more and more. If you find yourself needing extensive zone-out time after work and on the weekends, turning towards your coping mechanisms more often than not — such as substances or behaviors like using alcohol, weed, excessive gaming, constant Netflix, etc., — all in an effort to escape your life, this could speak to underlying depression.

Generalized sadness. If you find yourself feeling a generalized sense of sadness that you can’t seem to pinpoint the cause of, if you drop your mask and armors of smiling competency when you close your door behind you, if you feel a subtle sense of hopelessness, this could speak to high-functioning depression.

Seeking perfection. This one’s a tough one. In a way our society condones perfectionism — getting good grades, landing that amazing job, striving, striving, striving. But perfectionism has a shadow side where striving turns into unrealistic demands of yourself and psychologically beating yourself up when you fall short of the bar you set for yourself. If you find yourself doing this and it’s causing you distress, be curious about whether this a sign of high-functioning depression.

Inability to rest and slow down. If you need to clean up, tidy, and organize the house after you arrive home from an exhausting day of work before you even consider letting yourself rest, if you find yourself uncomfortable with slowness, stillness, and fallow periods of time because of the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings you come into contact with when you do actually slow down, this could be a sign of high-functioning depression.

Truth is, these things are all fairly common – maybe not all at once, but certainly at some point in our life we all experience those. A million thoughts were going through my mind at that point – so do I have this, or don’t I have this? Annie says “Where we want to be curious is if you’re feeling most of these signs, most of the time, for durations that span months if not years”. As far as was I was concerned these feelings were fairly recent.

Being a do-er, I consulted Google once more, and it spewed up a few websites of local therapists. I was lucky. The lady I called heard me out, whilst I gave her a condensed life story, my self diagnosis, and told her we must meet up ASAP so we can fix this, in case it becomes a THING

When I think about it now, this was so me. Still in control. I identified a potential problem and went straight for the solution. A rather pragmatic approach, if I say so myself. I do pride myself on being a natural problem solver. If only life was that easy…. 

I just talked, and talked and talked. It felt like I brought a massive skip full of stories, and I emptied it on her floor. I have always loved psychology, and we often discussed psychology itself. I liked going, but wasn’t sure if I was getting a huge amount out of it after a while.

My biggest discovery was that I totally lacked self compassion – for myself in the present , and for my younger self too. Never enjoying any of my successes, not even for a second. Jumping from one thing to another. Never taking the time to step back, or give myself any credit for anything.

Thinking that PERFECTIONISM is a good thing. Everything was action, action, action. Always running, but not sure where to. Staying busy was my default state.

At the same time as this was happening, I had decided that I was going to give myself 2 years to retire from photography. I felt like I suddenly needed purpose, and I had a massive need to “give something back”. I had zero idea on how any of this was going to happen. I was reading business book after book. I got totally obsessed and immersed in the online marketing world, webinars, podcasts, self help books. It was like self-destruction by self-development. I made some questionable decisions, took time off work and thought a few months would give me time to build some sort of new business. I visualized myself traveling and working from a laptop, making enough money to get us by, and living a new life of freedom.

What was really happening, is that my sabbaticals, were not quite sabbaticals. I was still working (albeit a bit less), and the time off passed by like a flash anyway. So essentially, I was juggling not only my job but ALSO trying to learn everything about everything in the online workplace, as well as starting new training courses. Slowly getting more and more overwhelmed. I had zero clarity and direction, and for the first time in my life I felt out of control.

The story so far hasn’t included my husband, who is the other half of this new project, and it’s time to bring him in.

Wayne and I got together when I was 24, and he was 36. Our story isn’t an easy one, as it includes exes, extended families, conflicts and things that are not part of our story now. It was never an easy ride. We loved each other, and we were friends but things were never plain sailing. We swapped roles many years ago, when the financial crisis hit and my husbands job was impacted pretty much overnight.

Wayne took on the role of house husband, and I of the breadwinner. It suited me in a way, as it fed my need to constantly be on the go. But resentment crept in, as I wanted the time he had with our daughter. He wanted to be the Alpha, the earner, and the person who looked after the family. He’s an old fashioned guy.  We were never unhappy, but looking back we weren’t particularly happy either. We just were. There were pockets of happiness, mainly when we managed to get away from the everyday life. Looking back we were just ‘getting on with it’ as many people do. 

The new me really wanted Wayne to join me on this route to self-development. In fact, suddenly, I wanted A LOT of things. I wanted more spontaneity. I wanted him to be less laid back, and to take more control. I wanted a relationship where we had more passion, more excitement, and our love was more  “truly, madly, deeply”. I wanted us to have a common goal. Not just plodding along. I just wanted more. He didn’t know what hit him, or what to do with it all. We needed some guidance, as the landscape was changing.

We got a point where neither of us appreciated what we had, and our communications got difficult. I felt like I wasn’t heard or seen, and had no idea what I really wanted or needed. Don’t get me wrong, on a day by day basis generally we were ok, apart from constant bickering over nothing. To the outside world, probably more than ok. 

Our biggest breakthrough came with attending marriage counseling.

Friends of ours went for a few sessions the year previous to us, and felt it was a good experience. This planted a seed in my head, and I felt it was something I wanted to do. If they had never mentioned it, I’m not sure it would have entered my head. Having a frank chat about it, de-stigmatized it – which was a great thing.

Because, lets face it, who wants to openly admit they went to marriage counseling? There is a massive amount of shame associated with the subject. It’s as if you failed at life.  But really, I wonder why?

Think about – when your body hurts, what do you do? You see a doctor. It’s not embarrassing, its just what you do. When your car needs a MOT and some repairs, you get it done. Sadly, our minds, and our hearts, are not attended to in the same way. Because anything mental health associated is quickly judged. Because we worry about what others will think. Because we think it’s mumbo – jumbo, and it won’t help.

Because we think love shouldn’t be that hard.

Because some of us are wound so tight, we are afraid of what will happen when the layers get peeled away. 

For us, because it was by far THE BEST THING we ever did for ourselves in our whole life. I approached the marriage counseling with a mixture of excitement and interest. I had a very clear idea of how this was going to go. I was also convinced that most of the work to be done was by Wayne. That he needed to keep up, or I was going to leave him behind. I had it all figured out. 

I was so wrong.

To cut a long story short, we found a wonderful lady, who basically gave us a safe space to work through our problems. She didn’t judge, she didn’t let me take her off track, or take control (which I have a habit of doing). In fact, she showed me how to relinquish control. She stood up to me in a way that was constructive without being aggressive, and showed me how some of my ways of thinking were not so much flawed, but perhaps misguided. We went deep, and I loved it.

My perfectionism, the control, it all suddenly made sense. She showed us both how to communicate better and understand each other better in moments of heightened feelings. To appreciate what is right in front of us. She showed me that I had more work to do, than I ever thought I did. In fact more than Wayne. It made me realize how all my life I had been running, and she helped me face the things I was running from. She helped us empty our secret backpacks, so our relationship was based on complete honesty, and being able to voice our deepest thoughts without fear of anger and judgement. 

I can honestly say it was the most enlightening experience. 

I think that every couple has a conversation at some point, where you yearn for your relationship to go back to the “beginning”. Those giddy times, when you are first together, and you spend the first year or two riding high on pheromones. You wonder what happened, where did those times go.

And you tell yourself, life happened. Kids, mortgage & bills to pay, careers. Relationship care, and self care often goes to the bottom of the list. And slowly you start taking each other for granted. For some, this eventually leads to divorce (between 40-50% couples now divorce), and some stay together as the thought of splitting up is just too complicated. The idea of the chaos it will cause, disturbance to the family and finances, the shame when everyone finds out, it’s all too much too bear. And then if you stay because of those fears, life turns into an existence. Personally, I didn’t want this for us, or myself.

So did we go back to the way we were at the start? Absolutely not, this wasn’t possible. When you are first together, you don’t know each other in the way you do all those years later. Whatever issues we had along the way, there were a few constants – we loved each other, and we were friends. This is what saved us, despite all the things we faced en route. 

Before this , we were together and loved each other. This process helped us be IN LOVE with each other again. We have a deeper connection with each other than I ever thought possible. We also know that perfection is a myth. And who needs perfection anyway? Each of us is an individual, and we each have our own story. That story is made up of everything , and starts when we are born. Those stories include people that loved us, people we loved, and all the chapters and seasons we went through, before we found each other. The attachments from childhood, the ways we were taught, our belief systems & our experiences.

We took the time to understand how our stories, and our pasts, affect us now. Took the time to understand why we communicate the way we do. Learned about our triggers. Aired and unpicked all resentments, grievances and insecurities that ever existed for us. It was HARD, it was painful, and sometimes we wanted to give up, because we went into judgement mode, and the judgement was “if we love each other that much, we should be able to sort it out”.  

But that’s not a fact.

If anything, if you want the kind of relationship where you are truly fulfilled, you HAVE to work on it. Sure, it doesn’t HAVE to be hard, and some people breeze through their life together with a light step. But those relationships are often an exception, rather than the rule.

Many people say that you have to fix yourself, before you start going to counseling together. Our therapist believed that we can help each other, even if some of our issues were individual. Some of the sessions were 1 to 1, but with the other person present and observing. I must admit this felt weird and a little intrusive to begin with, but it was really valuable. We learned a lot. We healed individually, and we healed together. The payoff is SO worth it. We actually miss it, now that we are done with it. We have promised ourselves to go back every couple of years as a minimum. And I would recommend it highly to an ANYONE, happy or not. If you are happy, think of it as an MOT. And if you are not, I hope that you find the strength to face your fears. Because you only get one chance at life, there is no do-over.

My greatest fear in life was always a vision of being 70 years old, waking up one morning , looking back and thinking “What the hell was that?”. And now I know this will not happen.

And I know that my Midlife wobble was the perfect storm.

The Unraveling is a process. You have to be in it, and let yourself go through it. I have accepted that being in control means giving up control, and letting go. That the greatest gift is to love yourself, so you are able to give love to others, and to allow yourself to feel loved. And to stop pushing, to be gentle with yourself.

My life looks very different now. The insomnia is pretty much gone. I wake up feeling content, and a “to do” list is not the first thing I think about. When anxiety creeps up I know what to do, and I do it. I no longer push against, or fight things. I feel peaceful, and I trust that I am exactly where I should be.

During this process I debated so many options as to where I want to go career wise. It would have been easy to stay in my profession – but my heart simply wouldn’t let me. There are just too many things out there that excite me, and the yearning to have more purpose is not one that I can ignore.

On this journey, I realized that being a photographer is a gift that I lost sight of. That in itself is a purpose – documenting people’s lives and capturing their families stories, for future generations. So for now I will continue to do some photography work for existing clients, while in transition to this new world. In my heart, creativity is something I will always need in my life. But, I will never stop being multi-passionate, it’s just how my brain works.

In the last 3 years I have trained to be a Health & Wellness coach, and I have completed training in Couples Coaching, Reiki, Rewind Therapy & Therapeutic Life coaching. I built 3 online businesses. It’s time to consolidate it all. And stop amassing certificates, as these mean nothing without action. I know this now. Learning was a process I had to go through, and it was simply based on fear. My fear of no longer being an expert with years of experience, and going from expert to novice status.

But we all have to start somewhere. Fear and perfectionism are exactly what stop us from change.

In all the learning, and being in process I learned one big lesson. EVERYTHING is about connection. If you are not connected with yourself, it’s incredibly difficult to be connected with others. And without AUTHENTIC connections, even when surrounded by other people, life can be lonely. Nurturing yourself is the key to being able to give back to others, and to the wider community. But for most this doesn’t come easily.

So, what exactly is the Next 40? It’s a project close to my heart, because it’s about embracing change and living a fuller life. And it’s something I get to do with my husband, as a team.

It’s a consolidation of everything we love. Mental and physical health, love and connection, and psychology. We are also planning to incorporate subjects like changing careers later in life, travel, and our love of food. We want to build a community of people who we can help each other through this transitional time in life. People who are not afraid of change, and want a fuller life.

MORE CONNECTED, MORE AWARE, LESS STRESSED.

We want you to know that if you are feeling stuck, or unhappy, there is always an opportunity for change. Always. You get to choose how your life plays out for you. We get that this process is not easy. There are so many issues that come up later in life. So while we want to inspire you with stories of people that made big changes later in life, we won’t shy away from discussing difficult things. Because as real people, we go through difficult things too. Everything that happens to you depends on how you react to what life has in store for you. It’s not about pretending that something isn’t happening.

When we were in a place of crisis, there was nothing online that helped – only articles about the midlife crisis. It was annoying & condescending. We want this website to become a resource, for those looking for a more positive outlook on Midlife.

We don’t profess to be anyone special. But we have learned that happiness is not something that happens when you lose weight, move house, or go on holiday. It’s already right there, in front of you. You just need to learn how to reach out and take it. We are constantly learning, and we hope that some of the things we have learned, will be useful to you.

So this is my story, and it brings me to the here and now. And in the here and now, I am excited. I’m looking forward to putting my knowledge into practice, and to eventually specialise just in couples work.

For 2020, we are planning a podcast, because we think it would be fun. We will be covering a broad range of subjects, including the uncomfortable ones. We hope you tune in, and get to know us. We will be documenting our journey from Zero to Podcast, so you can follow us on this blog for regular updates. 

We are also planning online courses that will help you manage some difficult subjects from the comfort of your own home. Next year we hope to arrange some educational retreats.

We also both want to be involved on a non-profit basis, in something that will help others. For Wayne, that’s working with men via a Men’s group. For me, it’s offering free treatment for veterans called REWIND, you can check the details out at the bottom of this page.

If you managed to get to the end of this post…well done, and thanks for lasting the distance. If you want a male perspective on what this felt like for Wayne, then hop over and read his version of events HERE.

Email us at hello@thenext40.co.uk if you have a story to tell, would like to be featured on our podcast, or you have any questions or article ideas. We would love to hear from you.

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ABOUT Maria

Maria is a Therapeutic Life Coach, Business Coach, Photographer & free spirit. Multi passionate, logical, creative, and an extrovert introvert. Fascinated by people, psychology and most at home by the sea. Foodie & dog lover.

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