Crisis? What (midlife) crisis?

 “We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.” Carl Jung

Sometimes it takes a momentous event to shake us from our habitual life. All that we believe we are may be unchallenged as we trundle along what seems to be our intended path. Then, from left field, an unexpected crisis shakes our world.

The ways of being which sustained us in our earlier years (our morning) no longer support us. The crisis, often in mid life, forces change and presents a stark choice. Struggle on our current path, where we are comfortable but diminishing, or forge a new path.

Back in 2005 my career aspirations were firmly set on more responsibility and climbing the greasy pole. Outside of work I had a gorgeous wife, Beci, and two great kids in primary school. I had a lively social life that revolved around friends and alcohol and, what I considered at the time, a healthy obsession with long distance running. I was 44 years old and running on empty.

There were warnings. They were ignored. A long distance runner trains to press on regardless of the discomfort, impervious to doubt. My unadmitted mantra was that success (whatever that was) would be achieved by relentless commitment.

The health crisis when it manifested left me with a swollen trachea and vocal chords, and struggling for every breath. My immune system collapsed, leaving me sensitive to the world and my digestive processes unreliable. I was forced to stop. I took a voluntary redundancy package from work and life became a huge challenge.

Who am I?

We believe that all that we are is contained in sentences that begin, I am. I am a loving husband, a great Dad, a committed runner. I am a successful senior manager. I am a this, a that. When a major crisis is born all of them are thrown in the air. How they land is both the challenge and the opportunity.

Initially I was in denial. I believed that with a little rest my health would re-balance. I was blind to the bigger picture and ignorant of the imbalance I had brought upon myself. I could not see that the rest of my life would be different from all that had gone before. I could not see how my health was shaking Beci’s world. I could not clearly see how I was.

For the first two years every breath remained an immense effort. This dominated my being and left little room for being a husband, father or friend. All of those roles were compromised. The pressure that this put on Beci was immense. There were still moments of connection and love, but they were swamped by the daily grind of breathing and living.

Looking for answers

I wanted answers. Reading was one of life’s pursuits I could still pursue. I moved from just reading novels to also devouring spiritual texts. I started with The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and went through a great many Buddhist texts before dabbling with contemplative Christian literature.

I was scrabbling about, looking for my ground, looking for a reason for the health crisis and a way forward. When everything needs to be rebuilt, strong foundations are required. My early life building blocks of intellect and logic were diminished by an inability to think clearly – I believed that reduced oxygen through my narrowed airway was the cause – I needed something else.

Two years into the crisis I had a major incident. Whilst on a family holiday in Mexico, my breathing became so limited that I was hospitalised. The intravenous drugs, prescribed to relieve the insurmountable effort required to breath, re-opened my airway and shocked my body back into a less weakened condition. I was fragile and my breathing was still constricted, but there was hope.

Over the next 18 months I stabilised and my body re-balanced. I began a slow process of rebuilding. My new foundations were yoga, meditation and photography. Beci was and is a yoga teacher. Where once I had attended for the physical benefits to counterbalance my running excesses; now I was attending to support my body and mind’s recovery.

Yoga and meditation work slowly. Regular practice supplies physical, physiological, mental and spiritual support. It accrues like sediment in a river. Over the course of time deposits are made and almost without noticing the river changes direction.

Simultaneously my photography became an important creative outlet. Always an enthusiast for the visual and a creative at heart, I now decided to learn the technical and compositional infrastructure. I developed a website and a part time business.

However, as my health stabilised I took on more commitments. I had a full time (low stress) job, but I developed additional projects that increased my potential stressors. My old habits of tenacious commitment and wanting to do the very best possible job sometimes put a pressure upon my body that it could not resist.

My health is delicate. Emotional and physical stresses are triggers for increased inflammation. My breathing is my weak point and will be compromised, often to a point that requires immediate medical intervention: medication and sometimes hospitalisation. These acute situations create challenges and fear for me and for everyone who cares for me. This then places further stress on the relationships with those who I love.

New ground

I am awaiting an operation that will improve my breathing. It feels like I am reaching the end of more than a chapter; more like the second book in a trilogy. After the operation the next book will begin.

I recognise that I am still in a process of change. This insight is itself an essential understanding of my new ground. Meditation, mindfulness and photography have become the tools I use to connect to and work with my emotional experience. Creativity, overlooked for much of my career driven life, has become a fundamental process to investigate my new ground. Exploring how we can live a more mindful life through photography has become a supportive practice. Creating photos and writing honestly and authentically about how it is to be a middle aged man living through an health crisis are essential, cathartic parts of my path forwards.

I often wonder, without the health crisis would I have changed my habits? Would I have considered how I was living? Would I have developed this spirit of self enquiry that is now a core part of my life?

The wisdom of Carl Jung’s reflection upon life, at the top of this article, has been revealed to me through life’s events. The ‘truths and ideals’ of my morning have been shown to be unsuitable to support the afternoon of my life. Hopefully, my mid life crisis has initiated a developing wisdom that will sustain me through this period and prepare me for the evening of my life.

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