How Do You Know if You’re Having a Midlife Crisis, and Other Questions

It was in the fall of 2015 that I noticed I had apparently developed a fear of standing still.

I was on a last-minute cross country flight from Boston to Los Angeles with my longtime companion, anxiety, and as the plane left the runway — an event I usually accompany with a rigorous schedule of magical-thinking safeguards against crashing — I realized that I felt something approaching relief. I was moving, very fast, and moving felt good; it felt like I’d spent weeks crunched into a space too small to comfortably hold me, and now at last I could stretch and breathe deeply.

This was odd, because I don’t generally enjoy traveling. I enjoy destinations, but the act of getting there has always been a necessary evil. I have reasons: one, I am fat for flying, which is not to say I am TOO fat for flying, because there is no such thing as too fat for flying and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably trying to sell you a diet (or a second seat). Two, I have problems with motion sickness. “Problems” is doing them a kindness. The less said about that, the better. The point is that travel itself felt good for the first time in a long time, and I wasn’t sure what to make of that.

I flew back to Boston a few days later, and then two weeks after that I flew to Fort Lauderdale, and then back to Boston. The next week I found myself driving, just driving, in the evenings, driving along the beach I live on, up the shore roads, as far as I could go while still being able to see the dark expanse of the ocean on my right, only turning around when the roads veered inland, and driving back with the same dark ocean space on my left. That space felt good, knowing space was there, an extreme openness beside me, that I wasn’t as trapped as I thought. And the driving felt good, it felt normal, it felt even and appropriate, while standing still, or even lying in bed, felt cramped and suffocating and hopeless.

One night I drove down the shore road listening to the same six songs I’ve been listening to over and over, six songs whose artists I struggle to name because so far as I knew they all lived together on a Spotify playlist and at some point in the past few years I stopped knowing about albums and only heard music in individual singles on streaming services or via social media. I drove down the shore road, and on a dimly lit and empty stretch of beach I passed a parked white limousine, its occupants spilling over the sea wall in formal dresses and rented tuxedos. It might have been a wedding party, I didn’t get that close a look, since my purpose was, after all, to keep moving.

But I suddenly started crying.

It wasn’t crying I had seen coming; it wasn’t crying where something sad had obviously happened and I’d been feeling an urge for it, or even a sense that crying was on the horizon. It was that rare sort of crying in which the crying is torn out of you, you, totally unprepared for what was on its way, and then it shakes itself through your chest convulsively, even against your will. It was attack crying.

The strangers on the sea wall had prodded a teenage memory. Of being on beaches at night with my friends. Of how extraordinarily complicated my inner life was then, mired so deep in worrying over what everyone else thought of me, and having already decided that they thought awful things, that I couldn’t see over the top of my own insecurities to the truth that my peers apparently thought I was pretty okay, or even cool. In the ten years after I graduated high school, there were five separate occasions (and I remember them all) in which I ran into old classmates I barely knew, who went on to tell me how cool I was back then, because I was a snobbish asshole who prided myself on listening to new bands first and busting up our rigid Catholic-school uniform dress code whenever I could summon the courage to do so, which wasn’t all that often, really.

I cried because of the shock of realizing that I could come so far — over 20 years later, in my case — and still get back to that trembling uncertainty about who I am and what I am doing with my life. It wasn’t a bad feeling. When I was actually a teenager, it was a bad feeling, because I really didn’t know that much about myself, or what I wanted to do, or even what I might be good at. That’s not true anymore.

I didn’t cry with sadness over being suddenly middle-aged, or close to it, and feeling like my youth had gone. I cried with a sort of gratitude. Because I think I’d honestly started to believe that I was an adult, in all the worst ways, and that I had things figured out, and that I would just sort of carry on in this fashion for the rest of my life. Feeling that way was horrible. Bleak. Like staring into my own grave. But two weeks before this I’d given notice at my job, without another job, with only a series of big ideas, and now I was riddled with panic and terror and uncertainty and a future that seemed written last fall was suddenly blank and vast and open to unknown possibilities — a future as dark and unknowable as the nighttime ocean looming outside of the passenger window of the car I was driving.

In 2011, when I was offered the editor job I left a month ago, I told my soon-to-be boss during our very first conversation that if you hire me, you will be stuck with me for the foreseeable future — I am loyal to a fault. It was true, and it’s still true. I don’t like to leave jobs. I never truly expected to leave that one. I like to nest, I like to feel safe and secure. This is what I like. But it’s not always the best thing for me.


I spent nearly five years staying in one place, and the natural outcome of that is to have trouble imagining my life without that place in it, particularly when that place is a thing I’ve sunk a lot of effort and personal investment into. Drugged by comfort, I go nowhere. At the start, I had a particular idea of what I wanted to do. And it was great for a long time, until it wasn’t. Which made me think further on the fact that whenever you look at someone you deem successful and accomplished and having all of their shit together in the most eviable way, odds are good that even the happiest person has days when they look at someone else doing something totally different and think, “Man, I wish I had my shit together like THAT guy.” Even people doing the job you think is your dream job are spending some of their time looking out the window of their corner office, wishing they were doing something else.

Dissatisfaction is part of human experience. I was chasing a state of perfect settled contentment in my work, one that doesn’t exist, because the terrible truth is that I need my life to be periodically capsized for the best growth to happen. I thought I could grab that fleeting happiness by handfuls and stuff it in jars to last me through an inevitable winter. But happiness is only any good when it’s fresh.

I wake up now with a clenched fist inside my chest. I am washed in a mixture of nausea and panic, and I have the sense of hovering over an abyss, delicately balanced on a crumbling edge. I want to do so many things. Wasn’t that the point? I am full of ideas, and I am confronting the insecurities that tell me I am not good enough to execute any of them. There’s no avoiding it now. I shout back at the doubt, I tell it to get the fuck out, but it smirks and sinks deeper into the couch. I didn’t really expect it to go. I suppose we’ll just have to learn to live together.

I find myself wondering things like “What if nobody wants to hire me for anything?” and “What if nobody ever likes me again?” and other unlikely scenarios. You’re not supposed to cop to having these feelings, that much I know; you’re not supposed to be up front about the negativity firefight you run through every day to be confident and self-assured. And people will say they’re tired of the perception of women as insecure dabblers and they need to lean in and shit, that we want to hear about women who are effortlessly confident lady bosses immune to worry and doubt and every other thing because that is comforting and aspirational and the truth that even the slayingest woman alive has days when she feels like shit about herself is almost unbearable.

(It’s not just women, to be fair; men wrestle with self-doubt sometimes too. It’s just the difference is that men don’t live in a culture where their worries about their abilities and their good-enough-ness are constantly reinforced by billion-dollar industries whose entire profit model is based on making sure at least a little bit of self-loathing is always a part of the landscape they’re traveling in.)

You can be both: you can be confident and self-assured almost to the point of arrogance and still do private battle with evil voices inside your own psyche repeating over and over that you have no right to be confident or self-assured because virtually everyone else is better at things than you are. You can be both, and have both, and acknowledge that both are real, and understand that growth is a process that never ends. I think this is a better model. These days women get endless and insultingly oversimplified advice to “Love yourself!” like that’s just a switch you suddenly realize was hidden behind a bookshelf or a curtain all along, and now you’ve flipped it to ON, and everything is great. Just do it, you know, just love yourself, what’s wrong, why aren’t you loving yourself unconditionally yet? Giving yourself permission to appreciate every unique aspect of who you are is crucial, yes, but often this advice reads less like a friendly boost and more like a command: Love yourself, because you being open about your ambivalence is bringing everybody down, and nobody likes a drag.

So I wake up with that fist in my chest and I grab hold of it and then — borrowing shamelessly from Bradbury’s landmine — I spend the rest of the day using it to punch down the anxieties and insecurities and worries that conspire to distract me from my own elemental awesomeness. I keep driving, at all hours, because standing still is my poison, right now. I am resuscitating my hustle out of a long hibernation, and practicing my cocksure-badass performance, which is both an act and also the deepest most honest truth. I am making to-do lists. I am refusing to get sucked down into my perceptions of what other people expect from me; I am resisting the urge to set clocks by which I worriedly tick down the seconds until I must have accomplished something that other people are impressed by.

I feel that need to keep moving forward, and so I keep moving forward. I don’t know where I’m going yet, but at least I’m on my way.