The Daily Telegraph

The truth about midlife crises is too painful for many to confront

- Jemima lewis follow Jemima Lewis on Twitter @gemimsy; read more at

Anew study by American economists has found that the midlife crisis is real. People living in wealthy nations are at their most unhappy in their late forties and early fifties, afflicted by sleeplessn­ess, depression, disabling headaches, memory problems, alcohol dependence and even suicidal thoughts.

The authors of the report can find no particular cause for this misery. In fact, they point out, the “middle-aged citizens in our data sets are close to their peak earnings, have typically experience­d little or no illness, reside in some of the safest countries in the world, and live in the most prosperous era in human history”. Yet “something elemental appears to be going wrong in the middle of many of our citizens’ lives”.

As a 51-year-old insomniac with a permanent headache, might I point out the obvious? Midlife is, for most people, when our parents start to die.

We don’t tend to think of this as an elemental trauma, because it is natural and inevitable. Old people die. Parents are supposed to die before their children. And it must be manageable. People manage it all the time.

Except we don’t really. We just put on a good front. We get our work done, chivvy the children off to school, sort laundry into piles. But all the while we are reeling from a double-punch of existentia­l shock.

In losing a parent – the person who made you, witnessed your beginnings and carried the memories you were too young to store yourself, the person who has always, always been there – you are confronted with your own mortality.

If they, the very fabric from which you are made, can die, then so can you. The secret conviction that you might have a special exemption from death is finally, belatedly, torn away.

This is what a midlife crisis really is: a confrontat­ion with your own impermanen­ce. As long as your parents are alive, their colossal figures obscure the road ahead. Once you can see what’s coming for you, it’s only natural to be terrified.

The good news is that you learn to live with the fear. Elliott Jaques, the psychoanal­yst who coined the phrase “midlife crisis”, saw it as a necessary shift from youthful delusion to “contemplat­ive pessimism”. Many studies have shown that, after the nadir of middle age, happiness levels rise again. Having confronted death, we get better at savouring what remains of life.

The people of Bhutan believe that, in order to find contentmen­t, you must contemplat­e death at least five times a day. Since my father died five years ago, I have been able to follow this wisdom effortless­ly.

I think about death – and the gruelling trials of old age that precede it – constantly. I live in a state of resigned horror not just at the loss of my father, but at the speed with which time sweeps away whole generation­s, their beliefs and behaviours and tastes, and will sweep away mine too.

Much of the grief we feel now, as a nation, is a version of this existentia­l angst. Someone who was always there, the repository of so much collective memory, has vanished.

In mourning Elizabeth II, we also mourn the lost, intangible atmosphere­s of our youths, the people we have lost, and the terrible fact of our own mortality.

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