The Sunday Edition·Personal Essay

The rude awakening: Is this what a mid-life crisis feels like?

Peggy Lee was on to something when she asked: is that all there is? She had a good answer for it too: then let's keep dancing. The wondering, the shock, the struggling — before the dancing comes — is sometimes particularly acute in what we optimistically call mid-life. Emelia Symington Fedy knows this well. Her essay is called "The Rude Awakening."
Emelia Symington Fedy is a writer, performer and the co-artistic director of The Chop Theatre. (Submitted by Emelia Symington Fedy )
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Emelia Symington Fedy, special to CBC Radio

(Submitted by Emelia Symington Fedy )

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

That's the phrase that's been running through my head these past few months, or years. I'm not sure. Sometimes it's background noise and sometimes the sentence takes me to bed.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

I assumed that as I got older life would get easier. I'd be happier. And satisfied. I'm not sure where I learned this but reality has been a rude awakening.

In my 30s, I was terrified I'd never find a partner or get to have children. I waitressed, parked cars and even taught hula hooping to pay the bills. I made my art long into the night, for free, assuming that soon my doggedness would pay off. If someone had told me, "Enjoy this time Emelia, because wait till your 40s show up, that's when things really get hard," I wouldn't have believed them. Harder than this? With no career, no love, no money. But I had hope. And I had hope because there was time left. You know, "time" to make something of myself.

Now that I'm fully in the middle ages and some fears have been laid to rest, more abstract ones have taken their place.

Is this all there is? And do other people feel this way? The twisting, longing for more.

And I'm successful. I have gotten everything I've wanted out of life. I pay the bills making theatre for a living. I have great kids and close friends and a supportive partner. I know I'm lucky. More than that, I'm privileged. I'm embarrassed to be plagued by these "it's not enough" thoughts.

Now that I'm fully in the middle ages and some fears have been laid to rest, more abstract ones have taken their place. Is this all there is?- Emelia Symington Fedy

Is this what a mid-life crisis feels like? Unfinished. Underused. Chomping at the bit to run, only to be held back by … living.

My friend asked me the other day, "Do you think you're the one holding yourself back? Like, what if you just told yourself that you deserve to feel satisfied. You deserve for life to be easy. Then maybe it will be?"

I roll my eyes. "That's like telling a kid that they can be an astronaut if they just believe they can." Belief is the spark but you need way more than that to propel yourself into space. Like math skills. And jet fuel. 

The "believe in yourself" and "anything is possible" dream that good parents tell their children is a real bummer.

Because at age 41, I'm just realizing it might not be true. 

How about saying, "Sure, believe in yourself honey. But remember: nothing is promised to you and no one 'deserves' anything except drinking water, shelter and love."

And while you're listening, little dude — even, when you dedicate your life to it, eat all your vegetables, play nice and never give up, even then — what you think you are best at and love the most might not happen for you.

Do I actually believe this? If I do it breaks my heart.

Is this what a mid-life crisis feels like? Unfinished. Underused. Chomping at the bit to run, only to be held back by … living.- Emelia Symington Fedy

It's hard when we've been told the same story our whole lives. I'm sure you've heard it before but I'll tell you again.

I was broke. I was shining shoes to pay for groceries. I was depressed, and I'd given up. Not like kind of given up. I was done. I had accepted that mediocrity was my destiny. And then … I went to one last interview. I had shoe polish on my face and only enough money for the bus fare to get home. I pushed into the room and I just gave it my all. I did my thing. And you know what? I got the job! Now, life is amazing, my marriage is back on track and we just renovated the basement. Follow your dreams. Look at me. It happened!

This story comes in many forms. It might be the miracle baby or the last attempt at dating or the dream career. When you hit your rock bottom, then it will come. Just never give up. 

We don't hear the version of the story where she had three kids, got lost in a mental illness for a few years, never used her master's degree and now her life goal is trying to focus on the basics of showering every third day. That's not motivating to hear. It's not what we were promised. But it's very real. And the fall is hard. 

Maybe we forget, in these middle years, that we are also mid-story? 

In my darkest moments I move from bed to couch, wrapped in a blanket of shame, that I haven't made good on my potential. In lighter moments, I think of my mother-in-law who is going back to school to get her doctorate at age 70. 

And I keep asking the question: Do I push and drive and dream or do I sit down and shut up? It's probably a bit of both.

We don't hear the version of the story where she had three kids, got lost in a mental illness for a few years, never used her master's degree and now her life goal is trying to focus on the basics of showering every third day. - Emelia Symington Fedy

This morning I'm practicing hip-hop moves with my six-year-old son. He wants to be a dancer when he grows up. I count to the time of the music. I yell, "Do it again. And again. And one more time." He is smiling. I feel proud. He comes in for a cuddle and I whisper, "You can do it honey."  And I mean it. Because right now, for him, everything is possible. His story hasn't unfolded yet. And of course mine is still unfolding too.

Maybe the actual work of these middle years is to keep trudging through the mystery. It's not new or exciting anymore. But I'm good at it. So I continue to work hard, as it's my nature. And I speak about my fears and worries, in the hopes of finding comrades on the journey. 

I'm raising my family doing what I love, and I'm feeding my kids on creative juices. And every month I find a new wacky way to make the rent.

Just this act of continuing on feels gigantic. What a leap of faith. And at this time, and in this world, I'll take it. I'm Emelia Symington Fedy for The Sunday Edition in Vancouver.

Emelia Symington Fedy is a writer, performer and the co-artistic director of The Chop Theatre.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.

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