Does Pain Make Life More Meaningful? How I Navigated The Shit Show That Was 2021

I have been sitting on this post for several weeks. Partly because I am struggling to write anything cohesive at the moment, and partly because I can’t make this a “things I was grateful for in 2021” post with which to wrap up the past year.

Not even the most optimistic blogger could reframe 2021 as a great year. Months of lockdown, fears about catching COVID, distance from family and friends, and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness have ensured that the past twelve months were a shit show for many of us.

Girl leaning against tree looking empowered, resilient

The Australian government did a reasonable job of tackling the pandemic, but who knows what the real, longterm cost will be to our mental health and the economy. And it is terrifying to think about how many other important policies have been sidetracked to save us from this virus, not to mention their lacklustre approach to climate change, their ongoing lack of commitment to women’s issues, and the arrogance of our PM on the international stage.

But this isn’t a political blog and several personal challenges last year, that started with a serious health-scare in February, have been followed by a problematic transition into semi-retirement.

Did I really feel optimistic in January?

But we were in a different situation back then. Our family had just survived a lockdown Christmas and re-entered the world with the excitement of William Shatner on his descent back to earth, optimistic and eager to move onto the next phase of our lives.

So blinded was I by the excitement of what semi-retirement would bring me, I forgot that the finger of fate is always on the button and that it would take more than a fancy-pants new computer to fulfil my grandiose intentions of becoming the next Sally Rooney. Hence, when the emotional ramifications of the pandemic dried up my creative juices like a harsh summer in the Northern Territory and I couldn’t string even a few words together or achieve anything other than watching back-to-back episodes of New Amsterdam, the year started to unravel.

I wondered whether my lack of motivation was caused by menopause or if some greater force was at work

Was I suffering from a case of minor PTSD related to COVID, or had I simply underestimated the disparity between the expectations of retirement and the reality? Whatever the reason for my lethargy, my focus went out the window and I spent most of the year wandering aimlessly around the apartment.

The difficulties that some people experience during the infamous transition into retirement are well-documented, but in my defence, what the brochures fail to mention is that you don’t suddenly land in some nirvana after your last day at work. You still have to balance the books, care for those in need, and worry about the unknowns, currently under the permanent shadow of a pesky virus that appears to morph into something even scarier each time it mutates.

Then there’s the overthinking that accompanies your approaching mortality. I mean…don’t get me wrong, I am inordinately grateful to be still be here with a wealth of choices, but what has materialised so far will require some adaptation. For example: Having waited my whole adult life to implement a proper fitness routine, my body has conveniently decided to degenerate with the speed of light since I acquired my new gym membership.

And I’ve lost count of the number of conditions ending in itis I’ve suffered from this year, none of which I’d heard of before

But my biggest bete noire has been my preponderance to overthink. “Existential crisis” doesn’t cover the number of Camus moments I’ve experienced in my quest to work out exactly what my purpose is now. I have days when I feel guilty about not being productive enough and days when I feel guilty about taking on too much and not making the most of this wonderful privilege of free time. The only thing I have recognised is the underlying pressure to reinvent myself and redefine my purpose.

I would struggle to answer the question of what I do right now

Like most retirees, when people ask what I do, I bore the pants off them with how busy I am. And I am busy: I write a lot – although, very little worth publishing; I read and file a lot of research; I try to stay fit within the allowances of my degenerating body, and I attempt to live vicariously through the lives of my children – albeit, they don’t seem as keen on that idea.

But what am I actually achieving? And do I need to achieve anything?

My single accomplishment from this year’s shit show has been my clearer understanding that LIFE IS HARD for everyone, an acknowledgement that has carried me through many difficult moments and highlighted the importance of resilience to me again.

Fundamentally, I have always believed that resilience is the key to happiness but in the past I struggled with the in-egalitarianism of that idea, i.e., why some people (seemingly) sail through life whilst others struggle through no fault of their own.

I never quite understood the “pain makes you stronger” theory because I allowed the traumas of my childhood to define me. Unlike some people, I struggled to harness my pain and transform it into a strength. Instead, I chose to wallow in it, allowing it to weaken and control me.

I chose to be a victim

Unfortunately, victimhood has served as the perfect excuse for my inadequacies, my fragility, my tendency towards mild depression and my struggles with work and parenting. It makes sense that if your emotional battery has never been fully charged, you go flat much more quickly when faced with challenging life situations like parenting, relationship disharmony and rejection, which must increase your predisposition to mood disorders. And as I discovered recently, difficult transitions like middle age – when there is more time to overthink the meaning of life – can also be a trigger.

The struggles of people who have suffered trauma are valid – as proven by research into the longterm effects on their potential and mental health – but I’ve come to understand that being a victim is neither a healthy option nor a solution to my low moods.

So how do you stop the pain?

For years, I masked my low-grade depression with self-medication. I still do, to a degree. I had to, because despite my awareness that no one leads a charmed life, my anxiety-induced perfectionism and hypersensitivity ensured that the knocks hit me harder.

But this year, I had the time for an epiphany. Tired of wondering why the fuck I couldn’t enjoy what (by most standards) is a pretty good life, I spent the year experimenting with different strategies and medications – HRT in combo with my anti-depressants – in an attempt to change my outlook. I took the opportunity provided by COVID’s restrictions to rest, exercise harder and create boundaries in relationships that were becoming toxic. In brief, I sought a way to approach the rest of my life in a way that suits my brain.

I chose to live by two maxims:

1) “Life is shit and then you die”. Because when you expect the worst, (which you do when you suffer from anxiety), things can only get better;

2) And “Tomorrow is another day”. Because time does indeed move relentlessly forward and dwelling for too long on the unfairness and the absurdities of life is clearly a waste.

Now, I realise that to the optimist that those maxims sound ridiculously defeatist, but they work for me.

Which brings me back to the question of whether pain makes life more meaningful?

Maybe. I haven’t experienced life from the other side, so I suppose I will never know what might have been. What I will say categorically is that my pain has shaped me in many ways for the better despite my moans about the negative impact of my trauma. I believe the knocks have shaped me into a kinder, more compassionate person – if not a happier, stronger one.

The writer, Paul Bloom, an advocate of this theory, agrees. He says:

“Some degree of misery and suffering is essential to a rich and meaningful life.”

And I think he has a point. Maybe we do have to experience pain to understand our purpose here. The gift of semi-retirement has given me the time to look at my life more closely, to separate its different elements and compartmentalise. All those cliched strategies for people with depression – walking in nature, fortifying relationships with family and friends, standing up for my rights, and being more self-compassionate – have helped me develop more resilience and autonomy.

Anxious people like me place an inordinate amount of pressure on themselves to lead perfect lives and then, when they don’t succeed, they see themselves as failures. But as Mofiyinfoluwa Okupe’s points out in her article on Medium, though many of us may have come through the past twelve months without any outstanding achievements, we must remember that some of us have “fought different, less glamorous battles…clawed through {our} own darkness and now {we’re} standing in the light.”

Every year brings a mix of highs and lows, and good stuff did happen to me this year: I caught a potentially life-threatening Melanoma in time, I watched my children continue to grow with pride, I discovered what I can only describe as the spirituality of swimming in cold water, and I fell more deeply in love with my husband. I have also been fortunate to live in a democracy that provides a wonderful healthcare system and (for the most part) promotes values I agree with.

And so, I will leave you with one final, simple quote which I hope inspires you as much as it did me, or at the very least helps you reframe your pain if it is holding you back.

“Sometimes when you’re in a dark place, you think you’ve been buried, but you’ve actually been planted.” Gratitude Addict

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash.

Middle-Aged Women: We Need To Put Ourselves First Now

Have you felt really exhausted lately?

I know that excessive tiredness comes with the territory of menopause and living through a pandemic, but what I’m feeling at the moment is more like a heavy weight pushing down on me, squeezing every drop of energy from my body.

And I know exactly what it is – it’s frustration. The frustration of not being able to do everything I want to do in the free time at my disposal. You see, in the hours outside of the (vaguely) routine areas of my life I feel like I’m on a treadmill – running, without actually getting anywhere

I’m running, without actually getting anywhere

Coronavirus shone a brighter light on this problem, which if I’m honest has been niggling under the surface for years. It triggered a renewed urgency within me to get on with the stuff that brings me joy (in the words of Marie Kondo), which for me involves doing more, cramming as much new learning into whatever time I’ve got left.

I respect other women my age who choose to sit back and relax for this last chapter of their lives, but new learning empowers me, which has a positive knock-on effect on both my mental health and my relationships.

I’m simply not ready to slip quietly into the middle-aged woman box

When I moaned about my frustration with friends of mine, they suggested it might be linked to the pressure many of us feel about the need to achieve – that social media has intensified – to justify our right to equality in some way. But I don’t think it’s that. I’m old and ugly enough not to feel the pressure to have to impress anyone else and I’m also in the fortunate position where I don’t need to keep on “achieving” for financial reasons.

So what’s really stopping me from getting out there and kicking ass? Am I just a serial whinger or is it truly harder for women our age to kick our goals?

Where do I start?

1. My Body. Whilst I’VE accepted (sort of) that I look older (funny, that!), that’s not always the case when it comes to my work colleagues. And if the ageism that denies some middle-aged women their invitation to get jiggy at work social events isn’t bad enough, there’s the fact that some of us are treated like idiots. I’m certain that your average twenty-something isn’t actually aware of the memory lapses caused by menopause, and yet they can’t help talking to us like we’re two-year olds, or making assumptions about what we can and cannot do (particularly when it comes to technology). Snubs like these are hurtful and do nothing to alleviate our problems with concentration.

2. Mood Swings. Anti-depressants for anxiety (which help combat hot flushes), and an endometrial ablation for very heavy periods convinced me that I’d sail through menopause. So I wasn’t fully prepared for some of the other symptoms – in particular the mood swings, anger, and paranoia. Any idea how hard it is to get the creative juices flowing when you can’t stop obsessing about why your husband still can’t clean a bench top properly?

Men have no idea how exhausting it is to have to pretend you’re human when you feel like an axe-murderer on the inside

3. Lack of confidence. I know there’s no one else to blame but myself if I don’t achieve what I want, but I do believe that society and the way it views women of a certain age should share some of the responsibility. So often, the “What if I fly?” excitement in my head about a new project turns into a “What’s the point?” negativity when I’m confronted by discrimination. Added to which, some days, putting my goals first seems bloody impossible with the responsibilities of a day job, my home life and the emotional labour that goes with it. It feels like Imposter Syndrome to think that little me can do anything amazing.

4. Gratitude – I can’t ignore the voice in my head that says I should be grateful for what I’ve got. I’ve read a lot and listened to a ton of podcasts on the subject of privilege and I know I should feel more grateful than I do. I’m white, I’ve had a good education, and I’m relatively financially secure. But I still want more. Whilst I am incredibly grateful for what I’ve been given, I can’t be that sincere happy-clappy kind of grateful that some expect of people in my position. I still have dreams. And because being grateful is evidently not enough to make my happy, I’m starting to question if I’m just an inherently angry, selfish person.

5. That lack of me-time I keep mentioning, whichis (I admit it) turning me into that middle-aged stereotype I hate so much – the crabby Olive Kitteridge version. Lack of time to do what I WANT makes me resent people who make unnecessary demands of my time or who take advantage of that small part of my nature that can be generous. I begrudge the expectation that I should be responsible for all of the emotional labour in the family. This constant push and pull I experience about WHAT I SHOULD BE versus WHAT I WANT TO BE is exhausting and I’m tired of saying “yes” to everything and then hating myself and others for putting me in that position.

So, there it is…

If you’ve ever wondered why our age-group is portrayed as cantankerous old bitches, you might want to look beneath the surface. Frustration at feeling like we’re up against the clock all of the time is one cause of our sensitivity. The fear of not having enough time to complete everything we want to achieve is another.

Of course, I hope I’ll be remembered as “a good, caring person”, but is it so wrong to want more? Is it wrong to want something for me? To be ambitious? It”s not like my goals are unrealistic in any way – they are very highly achievable given the opportunity to prioritise them rather than have to fit them around everything else in my life.

When the virus first struck I put aside MY goals because I was worried about its impact on my mental health and the knock-on effect that might have on my ability to do my job, care for my family etc. I made a conscious decision not to take anything new on that might prove challenging… apart from crocheting – who was I kidding? – and removed myself from anything with the potential to trigger stress. In other words, I put everyone else first again and sacrificed my right to happiness. Being busy doing stuff I enjoy energises me; being busy making everyone else’s life easier doesn’t.

But perhaps my biggest problem is self-perception

Which brings me back, again, to that hurtful stereotype of the middle-aged woman, which contributes to the way we are discriminated by a society that, frankly, doesn’t needs any help in that department.

Middle-aged celebrities like Cindy Crawford who have “aged well” (Yuck!) may think that they are empowering women our age by looking fantastic and fit – but are they really? To me, it’s a bit like how porn educates young boys about sex, isn’t it? The women who inspire me are the ones who are authentic – middle-aged women such as Frances McDormand and Helen Mirren, who haven’t traded their looks for success. I have no problem with women who use their looks for their careers, but I do have a problem with women promoting the beauty of middle-age with surgical and financial help.

Brene Brown knows from personal experience how impossible it is to attain success and experience true happiness when we feel vulnerable. She believes that the people who are successful have to be totally confident in who they are, what they’re doing, and what they want. These people remove toxic people from their lives and they say no.

The truth is that successful people have to be a little bit selfish

And by “success”, I mean personal success, and achieving personal goals. And that’s, sadly, the realization I’ve come to as well. I’ve resolved to be more selfish from now on and place boundaries around my time.

But first of all, I need to manage my time better, which means going back to the drawing board and making a list of all the things I can’t give up (my day job and my family responsibilities), and the personal goals I want to add (new learning, publishing my manuscript, launching my writing business properly, exercise, travel and good food). And finally, I’ll decide what to cut from my life – because those things no longer bring me pleasure (Thanks again! Marie Kondo), because they aren’t value for money, or simply because they are a symptom of my weakness for taking on everyone else’s problems as well as dealing with my own.

I know it may sound crazy to do a complete re-evaluation of your life in your fifties, but how lucky are those of us who still have choices that are denied to so many?

Anyone else feel selfish about putting themselves first at this stage of their lives?

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