advice

Ask Polly: Is Life All Downhill From Here?

Photo: © Steen Drozd Lund/UIG via Getty Images

Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

Dear Polly,

I’m 47 — prime age for a midlife crisis — so maybe it’s predictable that my life feels like it’s falling apart. To an outside observer, I likely appear very fortunate: I have a loving, wonderful husband who has been by my side for 15 years; a comfortable home in a nice, upmarket neighborhood; a job that is relatively cushy (i.e., it doesn’t require me to put my life at risk, perform manual labor, or stand on my feet all day). I am also lucky enough to have gotten this far into adulthood without suffering any serious tragedies; most of my loved ones are still alive, in decent health, and with roofs over their heads.

But here’s the thing: I feel increasingly plagued by the certainty that everything — every aspect of my life that really matters — is all a big downhill slide from here. My job is one that’s been slowly but surely chipped away at by the advent of the digital world, and I’ve been hanging on by my fingernails for a while now; dozens of people I know in the industry have been laid off in recent years, and I know that it’s only a matter of time before it’s my turn — and my age will make it near impossible to compete against younger job candidates. My parents are in their 80s and, though still living independently, are only one heart attack or bad fall away from needing a lot more of my care and time (I’ve watched friends squire their own parents through disease and dementia, and the prospect fills me with terror). My two brothers are older than me, but have both battled with substance abuse, bankruptcy, and homelessness; they lean financially on our parents, and I worry that I will eventually be expected to take over in looking after them. My husband works in a high-earning field but has had to take repeated pay cuts, so we need to sell our home (which I love) and move somewhere cheaper. To top it off, I entered menopause this past year, and immediately went gray and put on 15 pounds.

My question for you is simple (but, of course, not really): How do I hold myself together when I feel like there is literally nothing in my future to look forward to? I’m sure that if my husband and I had had children (we chose not to), this might not be the case: We’d be caught up, like most of our friends, in the day-to-day challenges and plans of helping our kids thrive and launch themselves into adulthood. But as it is, all I see when I look ahead is failure, heartbreak, obligation, and dread. I am making myself miserable, and I worry that I’m doing the same to my beloved husband. Please help me figure out how to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Too Young to Give Up Hope

Dear TYTGUH,

You’re anxious and unhappy right now. That’s the first thing that needs to be acknowledged. Anxious animals often have detailed explanations of why they’re anxious — The sky is about to fall! That hungry-looking thing with the sharp teeth is going to eat me! The UPS man is going to break in and kill my family and eat all of my Snausages! The feelings of jittery dread that pervade their present are projected onto the future, shaped into a horror story that makes the present even more excruciating.

Your stress and dread and storytelling about the future are a much bigger problem right now than the actual future is. And the idea that you’re fortunate and “should be happier” only adds to your miserable state. Sure, plenty of people who don’t have a nice house and an amazing husband — or people who’ve been through a bunch of really sad and tragic losses — might say “Be more grateful for what you have!” or “I don’t have close to what you have but you don’t hear me whining about it!” But that doesn’t change a thing about how it feels to be where you are. You can be rich and famous and that still doesn’t mean that you’re watching the silly foibles of mortal slobs from “a fucking throne in space” (as Chrissy Teigen memorably tweeted when faced with a fan who accused her of being out of touch with the real world).

Reckoning with middle age is not a small thing for anyone. The popular view that midlife crises are experienced mostly by cheesy old guys driving red Corvettes or sad Real Housewives types “chasing their lost looks” couldn’t be more off-target. It’s much heavier and less easily explained than that. At some point past the age of 40, you start to face not only your own death and the death of everyone you know, but also the death of possibility. The future doesn’t feel wide open anymore. You can’t be anything and go anywhere — at least that’s how it feels. It feels like everything will contract and get darker from this point forward. We ALL go through that. And of course we tend to assume that our current state of sleeplessness and dread will only get worse until the sky falls and everything goes black.

The truth is, though, you don’t know how it feels when the sky hits you in the face and sharp teeth sink into your neck and you watch the UPS man eat all of your Snausages. In your current anxious state, I’ll bet even walking down the street to buy a loaf of bread sounds pretty terrible. But this reckoning you’re going through will change you. And by the time you really do face all of the terrible things you’re imagining, you might not feel like the same person who is sitting here today

The thing that people who’ve never been through anything devastating don’t know is that, often, life simply goes on. You have moments of numbness and robotic disbelief, you have moments of sobbing in bed, you have moments of dealing with something unthinkable while thinking “I can’t be doing this, this is too unbearable,” and you have moments of feeling grateful, when you think, “I can’t believe I’m still alive.” You’ll probably have to see your parents fall apart, and then you’ll have to deal with their funerals. It sounds like you have to sell your house and move to a smaller place, a process that goes against our cherished assumptions about life as a constant process of expanding and conquering and becoming bigger and more successful by the second.

I want you to slow down and really sink your sharp teeth into those assumptions now. I want you to question the high-capitalist values that are plaguing you at this moment, a moment that feels like such a personal failure. Because the stories we’re told about life’s victorious trajectory are dead wrong, and even career success and an amazing house and a million-and-one high-maintenance children don’t protect us from the fact that sometimes we feel anxious and guilty and certain that everything gets worse from here.

We feel these things and we also believe that we’re to blame for feeling them — that’s an important piece of this. You are going to be laid off. That will mean you failed. You’ll help your brothers, but you’ll resent them, and that resentment makes you a bad person. You will be sad at your parents’ decline, because you’re a naïve ingrate. (They’re in their 80s! You’re so lucky!) Everything bad you feel is your fault. You practically invited the UPS man into the house and showed him where you kept the Snausages.

Our culture encourages us to translate every disappointment into a very personal moral failure. So I want you to deconstruct your guiding assumptions about what you “should” be. I want you to question how much having kids would be saving you from this feeling right now. I know it’s beyond hard to give up your house, but I want you to imagine savoring living in a smaller space. I want you to imagine your surprise over how emancipated you feel, walking out of your office holding a box of your things. I want you to picture a 15-pounds-overweight, gray-haired woman who is happy with her life. Is she wearing muumuus and big beads? Is she lifting weights and wearing pleather pants simply because both of these things are unseemly, and unseemly seems magnificent, suddenly? Is she hosting afternoon teas on Sunday with a “Let’s celebrate our midlife decline” theme? I want you to imagine her painting her tiny office (okay, it’s really a walk-in closet) in her smaller house bright yellow and writing weird poetry on the walls in turquoise paint. I want you to imagine her dying her hair a silvery-blue shade on a whim, because she’s unemployed, so fuck it. Imagine her waking at dawn to scribble notes in a journal with the words “failure, heartbreak, obligation, and dread” on the cover. Imagine her calling both of her brothers and warning them that they need to make some plans to become self-sufficient or sober or both because she loves them but she’s broke and unemployed now and she needs firmer boundaries. She’s doing what she needs to do to feel good, to stay alive. This is what she needs. Sorry. But it is.

Don’t assume that the future is even worse that the present. Maybe having a dead-end job feels more torturous than starting over somewhere else. Maybe living in a big house you can’t afford is more unnerving than living within your means. A few years ago, I wasn’t writing enough and we were overleveraged enough that I would wake up in the middle of the night and start adding and subtracting numbers. I believed that our lives were in decline. I believed the cramp in my side was cancer. I know where you are right now, and it’s a terrible place that’s much worse than feeling sad about something that is actually happening in the present. You’re in a specific kind of hell that makes it really hard to breathe.

Sometimes a great husband doesn’t help much. You collapse into him, but then you don’t reckon with what you need on your own. Or maybe you don’t lean on him at all, afraid that your misery is contagious, but you carry the weight of this crisis around all by yourself. You need to be vulnerable and admit to him (and to yourself) that you’re overwhelmed. You also need to seek out friends who will listen and tell you about their own fears and dread. Everyone has it, at our age. Having a nice cocktail and chatting about dread is one of my favorite things. I’m not kidding. Don’t stay isolated. Reach out, and reach in. Stay connected.

But more than anything else, adjust your elaborate story about what the future holds. Your story is unoriginal and a little clichéd, frankly. You need more vibrant characters. You need more flawed but oddly charming settings. Yes, there is a lot of darkness and heartbreak. You can’t lose that stuff; every story requires it. But you need more unexpected twists and unforeseen moments of joy.

What if the notes you’ll be scribbling in your “failure, heartbreak, obligation, and dread” notebook are actually happy notes? What if one year from now, you’re standing in your tiny walk-in closet office one morning, peering through a tiny window at the sunrise (you have to stand up to see it!), and even in that tiny little room that smells like mold (maybe it’s even black mold, maybe it’s killing you slowly!), you cry tears of gratitude and joy for what your life has become? What if you bury one parent and fight with one brother and lose your job and cut off all your hair and make a new friend and try to find another job and start baking bread and every time you open that journal that says “failure, heartbreak, obligation, and dread” on the cover, you feel really good inside, like even as the sky is falling, there is something—not hope, exactly. Because who even knows what comes next? But something like hope.

My mother lost her boyfriend and her dog several years ago. She had just retired and she was traumatized and miserable and worried about facing a sad succession of days that led inexorably to her death. But then she started walking with some neighbors every morning. They are irritating sometimes. They can be moody and vainglorious and impractical. One of them might die soon. And yet all of this is fine, much more fine than she ever would’ve anticipated before. She also started to look into our family’s genealogy, a process that seems to include sitting in front of ancient microfiche machines that stink and make your brains hurt, and then recounting to your daughter details and discoveries so mind-bendingly tedious that they can lull a person into a stupefied state, over the phone, in under a minute. Sometimes her daughter thinks that what her mother really loves is hard work and drudgery. She thinks her mother is a working breed of dog, one who loves repetition. But her mother knows what she needs. She has figured it out, even in the face of loss and impending death, and it makes her feel good. She is planning a trip to Stockholm in August. She will collect more details and stay in a very strange little hotel in a strange little town and she will sometimes eat bad food and she will sometimes feel grumpy and she will also feel exhilarated and delighted and grateful to be alive.

Stop cringing — at your future, at your failure, at yourself in the mirror — and stand up and look directly at who you are. Not who you should’ve been, but who you are now. Let that person in. Let her be as mediocre and wrong and shameful and sad and miserable and brilliant and hilarious as she wants to be, because she knows exactly what you need to feel good. She has plans for you. She wants to show you what comes next. She wants to take you into the future you’re dreading and say, “See? You never would’ve imagined this.”

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

All letters to askpolly@nymag.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

Ask Polly: Is Life All Downhill From Here?