How to face up to amid life cri­sis

Aware­ness of their own mor­tal­ity is just one of the things that hits Gen­er­a­tion X-ers in their mid-40s. There’s also envy, au­thor Mi­randa Sawyer tells Vicky Al­lan – and an em­bar­rass­ing pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the size of other peo­ple’s houses

Sunday Herald Life - - CONTENTS -

MI­RANDA Sawyer first re­alised she might be go­ing through a midlife cri­sis at the age of 44. She was work­ing on her lap­top in the kitchen, mar­vel­ling at her baby daugh­ter, when it oc­curred to her: “By the time you’re 18, I will be 60.” A whole cas­cade of thoughts fol­lowed, in­clud­ing the no­tion that she was now, sta­tis­ti­cally speak­ing, over half­way through her life. “I looked at F [her daugh­ter] and sud­denly I knew,” she writes in Out Of Time, her ex­plo­ration of the midlife cri­sis, “that I had less time to go than I had al­ready lived.”

Sawyer, now 50, is four years older than me. Un­til I read her book, I hadn’t re­alised that I might be at that cri­sis too; might even have been there for a while. The im­pact takes me en­tirely by sur­prise while read­ing its fi­nal chap­ters, since I’ve been tootling along quite nicely for the first half, laugh­ing at the au­thor’s smart jokes, oc­ca­sion­ally nod­ding at an “aha” mo­ment. But, so af­fected am I that I have to put down the book and gather my­self be­cause it’s only just half an hour un­til I have to for­mu­late com­plete sen­tences and speak to Sawyer. Ac­tu­ally, I’m trem­bling.

When I get her on the phone, I gar­ble out some in­co­her­ent non­sense about how her book has thrown me.

Sawyer lis­tens pa­tiently. “Was it the death maths?” she says, with a kind of half-chuckle that speaks vol­umes about her per­spec­tive on the hu­man con­di­tion. “The time you have left?” she asks. She’s talk­ing about that par­tic­u­lar set of cal­cu­la­tions she be­lieves a great many peo­ple do about their life­span when they are some­where in their 40s. Back in 2011, she wrote an ar­ti­cle about the panic that had started to grip her in that kitchen mo­ment. “Is this it?” ran the cov­er­line on the Ob­server mag­a­zine.

“Yes,” I re­ply, re­al­is­ing that ac­tu­ally that was what I meant to say. I too have done the death maths. I too must be in the mid­dle of a midlife cri­sis. I thought what I was feel­ing was purely grief over the death, a few years ago, of my younger brother, but now I see it’s some­thing else as well. I even re­mem­ber the cal­cu­la­tions, done as I was pre­par­ing to make the speech at my brother’s fu­neral and pon­der­ing the fact that at 42 I had thought he was just half­way through his life. I had been ex­pect­ing we might have an­other 42 years to­gether. The idea then brought me up short. Even by law of av­er­ages, we would have been lucky to have that long.

“It’s a mas­sively freaky thing,” says Sawyer. “When I was pan­ick­ing, it was all to do with that. Ob­vi­ously you know ev­ery­one has these dif­fer­ent trig­gers. I think that’s why some­times peo­ple don’t be­lieve in midlife cri­sis be­cause they think it’s just be­cause your par­ents are ill, or you’ve lost your job, or your kids are grow­ing up – those kind of things that hit you in mid­dle age. But ac­tu­ally I think the fun­da­men­tal thing is that some­thing will hap­pen and it just makes you stop for a bit and re­assess your life.”

“Es­sen­tially,” she says, “there are two strong feel­ings and one is: ‘Is this it?’ The other one is: ‘I’ve done it all wrong’.”

For Sawyer this cri­sis was “hor­ri­ble”. She adds: “I don’t think I was de­pressed. I just felt very stuck. I was very down. But there’s an el­e­ment of mid­dle age that’s quite use­ful be­cause you have to get up and get on with your life. You’ve got other peo­ple re­ly­ing on you.”

Although Sawyer’s book is enor­mously funny, it takes the reader to some dif­fi­cult places. Few writ­ers could prob­a­bly do quite the jour­ney she does, leap­ing from the ba­nal­ity of beauty treat­ments and house envy through to exquisitely mov­ing de­scrip­tions of her par­ents and chil­dren. This is a book that charts the usual symp­toms of the midlife cri­sis, the mar­i­tal break-ups, cos­metic surgery, ex­er­cise ad­dic­tions and dare­devil acts, but also con­tains a chap­ter on the de­sire to es­cape time. There’s a quick dip into whether quan­tum me­chan­ics might pre­dict some ver­sion of life af­ter death, and even a full-throt­tle chap­ter on death anx­i­ety and ex­is­ten­tial psy­chother­apy.

But Sawyer’s own midlife cri­sis isn’t just any midlife cri­sis, it’s a cri­sis for Gen­er­a­tion X – the de­mo­graphic that fol­lowed the Baby Boomers, born from around the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. Sawyer, af­ter all, was one of the voices of her gen­er­a­tion, who, writ­ing in Smash Hits, Se­lect, The Face, and other pub­li­ca­tions, en­cap­su­lated and de­fined the mu­sic and pop cul­ture of that time. That’s not to say that ev­ery­one in Gen­er­a­tion X must feel like she does, but rather that she did a lot of the things that a pro­por­tion of peo­ple her age did. She drank, smoked, raved and got wasted. “I went out a lot and I took drugs and I fell over and I loved mu­sic – all those things that were part of that time,” she says. “I be­lieved in my gen­er­a­tion, its col­lec­tive power, and I did a lot of things that one did.”

The book there­fore is packed with tales of wild nights with mu­si­cians, in­ter­views in which she got plas­tered, lists of drugs. Partly it is about what hap­pens to some­one who does all that when they hit mid­dle age. One of the big­gest changes for Sawyer, she writes, is that she now doesn’t get wasted any more.

“Was it the same for my gen­er­a­tion as any other?” she pon­ders. “I think it wasn’t be­cause a lot of what we were in­ter­ested in came through to the main­stream and al­tered stuff. We thought: ‘We’ve won, we’ll be fine now.’ And now look at us.”

Of course, to most peo­ple, Sawyer’s life looks pretty good, and she ad­mits it is. She lives in a Lon­don flat with two chil­dren and her ac­tor hus­band Michael Smi­ley. Among the prob­lems she has fret­ted over is the fact that she owns a flat, not a house, and doesn’t have a gar­den or those doors that open out from a kitchen into an out­door space. She knows this isn’t go­ing to get her a lot of sym­pa­thy – but there’s a re­fresh­ing hon­esty to her putting it out there. “Poor me, huh?” she writes, af­ter de­tail­ing the rou­tine of her life with two young chil­dren. “Play the tini­est vi­o­lin.”

One of the prob­lems, for her, is the im­mea­sur­able way work has changed since she started out in the 1990s. “Since the 1990s,” she says, “there have been things that have hap­pened to do with hous­ing and money and where we work, and to do with cap­i­tal­ism, that have re­stricted peo­ple’s mid­dle-aged op­tions.” Sawyer is free­lance. She has no pen­sion. The rise of the in­ter­net has trig­gered a cri­sis in the me­dia in which she works. She couldn’t stop work­ing even if she wanted to, she says, be­cause she has to pay the mort­gage and has kids.

Mean­while, the is­sue of sta­tus anx­i­ety weaves its way through her book. She be­lieves that “a lot of what we talk about, if it’s not pol­i­tics, is fu­elled by envy – how to get a bet­ter body, a bet­ter hol­i­day, a nicer house.

“Be­cause I live in Lon­don and prop­erty is a high-sta­tus el­e­ment, I be­came ob­sessed by the fact we live in a flat … I would look around at peo­ple and think, hang on a minute, you started the same as me. You own some vast man­sion in Is­ling­ton and you ap­pear to be on a six-fig­ure salary. How did that hap­pen? What was I do­ing when you did that? That’s quite a weird feel­ing. It’s em­bar­rass­ing isn’t it? It’s em­bar­rass­ing to say I’m re­ally jeal­ous of ev­ery­one who’s got a big glass box on the back of their house.”

All this would seem self-in­dul­gent

I don’t think I was de­pressed. I just felt very stuck. I was very down. But there’s an el­e­ment of mid­dle age that’s quite use­ful, be­cause you have to get up and get on with your life

if it wasn’t done with Sawyer’s wit and aware­ness. “Of course, it’s first-world prob­lems,” she says, “I wouldn’t be feel­ing like this if I was liv­ing in a refugee camp. But this is my life and it’s quite sim­i­lar to a lot of peo­ple’s lives. You’re aware that you should be im­mensely grate­ful, but it’s quite hard. And that sense of a di­min­ish­ing re­source, which is your life, is re­ally strong.”

Tra­di­tion­ally, notes Sawyer, the midlife cri­sis was con­strued as pre­dom­i­nantly the ter­ri­tory of high-achiev­ing men. But the ver­sion she presents ex­hibits in both gen­ders. Across the world, in most so­ci­eties, Sawyer ob­serves, peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence a big dip in hap­pi­ness in mid­dle age. One star­tling piece of re­search she in­cludes in her book is that even chimps ex­pe­ri­ence this fall. Mean­while, more and more women, she notes, are go­ing through a cri­sis of the sort that those com­pet­i­tive men did, as they com­pete more in the work­place.

But it’s when Sawyer taps into more uni­ver­sal feel­ings that she is at her best: when she writes about be­ing in the mid­dle of life, look­ing up at her par­ents, now weaker, los­ing rel­e­vance, but also down at her chil­dren, grow­ing in in­de­pen­dence. Her mother, “the may­pole we once danced around”, is now an older woman, no longer so needed, who phones up and leaves long an­swer­phone mes­sages “telling me that noth­ing much has been hap­pen­ing re­ally”.

Sawyer’s chil­dren are still young, six and 11. She is due, af­ter we speak, to pick up her daugh­ter from foot­ball. “All I do is take chil­dren to foot­ball matches. Ev­ery week­end. Foot­ball is re­lent­less.” She cap­tures the rapid ac­cel­er­a­tion of time that oc­curs once you have chil­dren. “Time grabs you by the shoul­ders and marches you for­wards. Life flows be­hind you, a plane-trail in the clouds, blos­som on the breeze. Your chil­dren will leave you soon, as they must, as they should.”

In spite of all this, though, Sawyer is hap­pier than she was in her 20s – though she misses “the ex­cit­ing mad­ness” and en­ergy. “That’s why I go run­ning. To try to get some of that back.”

Sawyer isn’t alone in turn­ing to ex­er­cise as a way of tack­ling her cri­sis – she quotes re­search show­ing that ex­er­cise de­pen­dence is most fre­quent in men in their 40s and 50s.

Mean­while, she does her best to re­sist “mag­i­cal think­ing” – the thoughts that tell you that you might still own a man­sion or play for Manch­ester United. “We’re taught to dream big, that you can achieve your dreams. But ac­tu­ally dreams are hard to achieve. Cap­i­tal­ist dreams are re­ally dif­fi­cult to achieve be­cause cap­i­tal­ism is geared towards peo­ple who al­ready have money and ad­van­tage.

“The prob­lem is that those dreams that seem at­tain­able, are not at­tain­able, and it’s not your fault. Ac­tu­ally you’re all right. You’re not that bad.”

Six years on from the day she did the “death maths”, with a book be­hind her, Sawyer says she feels a lot bet­ter. When she cel­e­brated her 50th birth­day last month, she felt fine about the mile­stone. “At 44, I was re­ally flail­ing. I now feel quite good. Peo­ple are like, ‘Ooh, 50.’ I’m like, ‘It’s fine. Hon­estly. I’ve ex­am­ined this from top to bot­tom. I am all right’.”

Mi­randa Sawyer will be talk­ing about Out Of Time (pub­lished by Fourth Es­tate) at Glas­gow book fes­ti­val Aye Write! on March 12. The Her­ald and Sun­day Her­ald are the event’s me­dia part­ners

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