Beliefnet
The Queen of My Self

As Gladys, who returned to college while in her 50s, proves, maturing age can be a time to reevaluate and change courses.

By Yolanda Reid Chassiakos, M.D.

“Fish out of water,” Gladys said with pride as she took a seat in my office. “That’s me.”

No question, this full-figured, conservatively dressed woman in her 50s with salt-and-pepper hair was far different from most of her young and trendy screenwriting program classmates. Her year had been rough: The unwelcome dissolution of her marriage of two decades and the departure of her adult children for higher education and work had fully emptied her nest. For the first time in more than 20 years, Gladys had no one to care for but herself.

And, despite appreciating that her odds of success in youth-focused Hollywood were long, Gladys decided to leave her career as a teacher and return to graduate school to get a degree in film.

Gladys’ migraines had worsened in recent weeks, and the pre-headache auras she was experiencing frightened her — some of the symptoms resembled mini-strokes. Gladys’ mother, a heavy smoker, had had a fatal heart attack in her 60s, and though Gladys had quit smoking in her 30s, she was worried she’d tread down the same cardiovascular path.

We started her visit by acknowledging the vast changes and new challenges she was facing, and the high levels of stress to be expected. We also needed to ensure that there wasn’t an organic problem that was undermining Gladys’ health.

Gladys took a daily vitamin and some over-the-counter antihistamines but was not on any prescribed medications. Her physical examination, neurologic examination, blood pressure, EKG, blood count, lipid panel and thyroid screens were normal. She had already gone through menopause and had opted to forgo hormone support during the peri- and post-menopausal transition; her gynecologic exam was also normal for her age.

She did screen positive for symptoms of depression, including decreased appetite, sleep disturbances, fatigue, feelings of sadness and guilt, increased irritability, a sense of failure, and pessimism about the future. Fortunately, unlike up to 11% of her undergraduate and graduate peers, surveyed by the National College Health Assessment in 2009, Gladys had not considered suicide.

We’ve labeled the earth-shaking shifts of middle age as a “midlife crisis.” The media have promoted stereotypes of men buying flashy sports cars complete with trophy girlfriends and of women jetting off for passionate romance on Mediterranean isles, all guided by the clichéd phrase often seen on inspirational coffee mugs and azure posters of soaring seagulls: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Having reached the midpoint of our vital journey, we often opt for reboots or course corrections so we can fully enjoy the second half.

But closer examination demonstrates that most folks are not, in fact, dealing with a “midlife” crisis but an “end of life” crisis. Just as Gladys’ young classmates often see themselves as immortal (and often take unwise risks), it’s in our 40s and 50s that many of us come to finally internalize the idea that life is finite and that death is a reality.

For some, middle age provides the stimulus to pursue unfulfilled dreams. For others, decisions made and actions taken don’t reflect “new opportunities” as much as they do desperate “last chances.”

The stresses of this phase of life can result in psychological as well as physical symptoms.

To ensure that we weren’t missing a hidden brain tumor, I asked Gladys to get an MRI. We were overjoyed when the results came back clear. I was able to prescribe an effective medication to abort a developing migraine and relieve Gladys’ aura symptoms and pain.

At the same time, I referred Gladys to our counseling center for an evaluation for depression and to learn more about options for stress reduction, such as mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy. Encouraging her to work with our registered dietitian on an age-appropriate healthy diet and exercise program, and to take advantage of our massage and acupuncture clinics, also helped reduce her symptoms and stress.

Though most of the patients I care for are of traditional college age, our university has a significant group of courageous returning students like Gladys. With counseling and support, and a more balanced lifestyle, Gladys persisted in her academic program, and, in two years, was the gratified owner of both a marketable screenplay and a master of fine arts degree.

Judith (Miss Manners) Viorst’s wise book “Necessary Losses” underscores the universal challenges we face as we are forced to accept that we are skiing faster and faster on the downhill slope of life’s mountain. Mourning for what is lost, or what cannot be regained, is a stressful process.

But recognizing that, as mature adults, we have an opportunity to authentically reevaluate our values, beliefs and choices — how do I want the story of my life to read, and what will be the last chapters in my personal journal and personal journey? — can inspire us to review and edit our life scripts to better reflect our life’s theme and purpose.

Gladys’ midlife efforts and success have inspired me to reexamine my own personal and altruistic ambitions and make plans for the future with optimism and determination. I don’t know what paths I will follow, but I hope that I too will be able to look back someday and know that I have made a positive difference in our world as a mother, wife, doctor and writer — and, equally important, that I have arrived at my own Ithaca (destination) with no regrets.

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Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to thequeenofmyself@aol.com.

 

 

 

by Karen Ethelsdattar


The first time I married
I took my husband’s name for mine
& added Mrs.
I pulled it over my ears,
a woolen cap,
even when it scratched in warm weather.
I was his falcon, hooded.
I was his pigeon, banded.
I sank into his name like a feather bed
& neglected to rise in the morning.
I crept under his wing
like a fledgling
too small to spread its own feathers.

Now I add your name to mine,
proud & frightened.
This time I keep my own,
I surrender nothing.
Still this act
reminds me of captivity–
sweet & dangerous.
Forgive me when I grow fierce
& understand
when I seek wild mountain meadows.

(Published in anthology If I Had My Life to Live Over I’d Pick More Daisies, Papier Mache Press, c1992)

 

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Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to thequeenofmyself@aol.com.

 

Lately, like many of you, I have been waging an assault on clutter. I have been digging into the recesses of my closets, drawers and shelves and tossing, recycling and reclaiming my possessions. During this frenzy I came upon some old photograph albums and took a break to sit down with them.

I sorted through pictures that I had not seen in decades and to my shock and delight, I discovered that I was quite a good looking young woman.

Who knew? Not me. I was never happy about my appearance. Never satisfied with my face and body. Would that I had that strong, supple, sexy body now.

What a waste!

This is nothing new, of course. In my experience most women don’t see and appreciate their own beauty. There is always something to complain about. To fret over. To work on.

The Dove® Soap Company has a wonderful program called Dove® Movement for Self-Esteem. Their slogan is, “Imagine a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety.”

They recently funded a study called “The Real Truth About Beauty: Revisited.” The research found that:

  • Only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful (up from 2% in 2004).
  • Only 11% of girls globally are comfortable using the word beautiful to describe themselves
  • 72% of girls feel tremendous pressure to be beautiful.
  • 70% of girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with friends and family members.
  • 57% of all girls have a mother who criticizes her own looks
  • 67% of girls ages 13 – 17 turn to their mother as a resource when feeling badly about themselves compared to 91% of girls ages 8 – 12
  • 80% of women agree that every woman has something about her that is beautiful but do not see their own beauty.
  • More than half (54%) of women globally agree that when it comes to how they look, they are their own worst beauty critic.

How sad is that? And how stupid given the overwhelming number of beautiful women and girls on every corner in every country.

I serendipitously found the following quote in the fabulous book, Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver:

“When I was in my thirties, I had these little square hips left over from being pregnant and I just hated it. I kept thinking, ‘All those years before, I had a perfect glamour-girl body, and I didn’t spend one minute appreciating it, because I thought my nose had a bump in it.’ And now that I’m old, my shoulder hurts and I don’t sleep good and my knuckles swell up, and I think, ‘All those years in my thirties and forties I had a body where everything worked perfect. And I didn’t spend one minute appreciating it because I thought I had square hips.’”

Let’s start making lists of what we love about ourselves, our appearance, our personality, our presence. Let’s make really long lists.

What do you love about you?

 

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Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to thequeenofmyself@aol.com.

 

Claire*, a 26-year-old professional in an accounting firm is an only child, the daughter of an unmarried mother. Her mother was ‘her mother’ until about 8 months (or more) ago when, out of nowhere, she turned into someone Claire couldn’t and still can’t recognise.

Claire’s mother runs three high-end dress shops. Two of the stores are located in Nairobi while the third is located at the Coast. Her life revolved around Claire and the clothing stores. Now it doesn’t. She has not been to the stores for about five months and she manages them remotely.

The last time she was at their apartment in Nairobi was three months ago. Claire runs the house. In-between, her mother makes an appearance, two days, three days or a weekend and then she is gone, to be seen again after a month.

Her wardrobe, previously that of a mature woman in her late thirties, has recently morphed into something Claire can raid, snatch a piece of clothing or two, and not feel awkward after she is dressed.

Half-the time, Claire does not know where her mother is. It is happening for the first time. The two of them lived an open life before. She admits that her mother had a boyfriend or two in the past. She knew about them.

In the last eight months however, Claire thinks her mother has had three boyfriends, and she never introduced them to her. She would talk about them on those random weekends that she’d pop up and then disappear, when she came back, she’d be talking about a different man.

“It is crazy,” she says. “I don’t not know what is happening to her mother anymore.”

What Claire’s mother is going through, according to Dr Karatu Kiemo, a sociologist at the University of Nairobi Sociologist, can be classified as mid-life crisis.

“Claire’s mother’s life has had form all along. But now, the businesses are stable and can run themselves, Claire is all grown up and has basically left the nest.

So, the question she is grappling with at the moment is what to do. This is one of the main characteristics of a mid-life crisis. When one starts feeling uneasy about his/her situation in life,” Dr Kiemo says.

He adds that once you’ve launched your children socially, once your career is stable and you are financially secure, once your marriage or relationship has reached that platonic near stale state, women tend to want to expand and improve their horizons and influence.

Strange behaviour

Naturally, they won’t do this with their regular partners. According to Dr Kiemo, mid-life crisis is about getting the best out of life before it ends or before you are unable to — permanently.

“The strange thing, is that women rarely know or understand what they are going through. Since menopause also causes behaviour change, most women assume that what they are going through, or what their friend is going through is just menopause but sometimes, it is not menopause, it is mid-life crisis,” he says.

But isn’t mid-life crisis something only men go through? Shouldn’t we be looking for the signs in our fathers and not our mothers?

“True, it is a life stage for men,” Dr Kiemo says. “mid-life crisis has not been looked at in detail as an issue affecting women. But that does not mean that it does not exist or that it does not affect women. There is a growing body of study and research on this as we speak.”

So could it be that mid-life crisis, aside from being the period when 42-year old men buy motorcycles and chase 24-year old female models, is also the period when women at 35 suddenly make drastic career changes or a married woman at 39 unexpectedly develops lesbian tendencies?

According to Dr Kiemo, mid-life crisis in women just manifests itself differently from men. The motivations for women tend to be a bit different from those of the men.

On that point, Dr Catherine Syengo Mutisya, a consultant psychiatrist agrees.

“On top of the physiological and physical changes and experiences that are brought about by the onset and continuation of menopause, women experience anxiety, depression and an acute sense of self-evaluation — thoughts of stagnation or failure,” she says.

Dr Mutisya adds that she has handled such cases on her counseling couch in the past. Coming in on their own, saying they do not understand what is going on in their lives, questioning the choices that they have made, wondering if they are really happy or are just going through the motions of life or brought in by concerned members of the family who are worried that their aunt or mother is going off the rails.

But they need not be worried. The aunt or mother is not going off the rails. She is just experiencing her case of mid-life crisis, probably combined with menopause, and characterised by severe body changes, physiological changes, hormonal changes and behavioural changes.

Lending a hand

When your mother, aunt or elder sister starts staying late nights at the office, begins traveling to lands where people speak languages she doesn’t speak or understand, starts seeking new relationships, begins withdrawing from the public or starts having endless and sometimes meaningless conflicts with the spouse, she is not going off the rails. All she needs is helpfulness and understanding and she will be fine in no time.

Dr Mutisya advises that it is proper for those concerned (and the woman in question) to keep track of the situation.

“People keep changing. It is good to track who they are. Sometimes the changes occur so fast, even the lady in question may be confused about who she is.

“Obviously, these stages are accompanied by physical and physiological changes, they need to consult doctors and counselors to get to understand each and every change that they are going through,” she says.

Modern studies on mid-life crisis have largely been building up on the findings of Erik Erikson, the 1950’s psychologist who explored the stages of human development.

The one thing that has kept changing in these studies is the place of women in the mid-life crisis conversation, the reaction and response of women to mid-life crisis and finally, how the society is responding to this new frontier in mankind’s sociological study.

By the looks of things, the society, in this case, the Kenyan society, is not responding how it should.

“People misunderstand women who are going through this stage. There are those who believe that these women are simply being naughty or that they want to take advantage of this stage to get away with age inappropriate behaviour. That is so not true,” Dr Kiemo says.

“These are not individual or conscious decisions. Mid-life comes with hormonal changes for women. There is nothing deliberate in how they act, it is the hormones that could be exciting them,” he adds.

The good thing is that this stage of anxiety and confusion does not last for long. If handled properly, the person can be back on their feet and on proper grounding in under five years

By

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Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to thequeenofmyself@aol.com.