I am all of us. I have been foolish. I have believed in things that weren’t true and imagined myself capable of much that I am simply not. I have made bad decisions in the midst of struggles I was too ashamed to share. And tucked terrible things deep down inside me afraid of what would happen if I labelled them with what they are. I have tried too hard to mask who I am in case all hell came tumbling down and suddenly, everything, all of it, feels untenable. Impossible. Too much and all at once too little.
“I am out with lanterns, searching for myself…”
Perhaps it is simply a very specific type of exhaustion that finally consumes us. A slow breeze that lifts the veil we have long shrouded the truth in? Middle-age and the peculiar tribulations and intolerances of a body in the midst of change. Maybe our Muse has been quietly working behind the scenes chipping away at all that we have coated our most authentic selves in and she is finally ready to declare her masterpiece on the proviso that we understand that with growth comes sacrifice?
Recently, I have come to think about menopause (and andropause) as the equivalent of adolescence: a painful era of growth we have to endure in order to become who we will be in the next era of our lives. The shedding of childhood in our teenage years and the painfully slow strip tease that is the removal of all that we have worn to protect ourselves in the years between then and now, when we no longer possess the emotional energy to be those we are not and find ourselves unwilling now to carry the burden of other peoples self-delusion either.
“A woman must wait for her ovaries to die before she can get her rightful personality back. Post-menstrual is the same as pre-menstrual; I am once again what I was before the age of twelve: a female human being who knows that a month has thirty day, not twenty-five, and who can spend every one of them free of the shackles of that defect of body and mind known as femininity.”
What happens then, when change holds a mirror to our soul? Do we carry on squinting our eyes and pretending we cannot see? Or does the day dawn when we catch sight of ourselves and have no choice but to stop and stare?
I find myself besieged by questions: are we being authentic if we are not discussing personal trauma even with those we hold nearest and dearest? Should we protect those who will throw us under a passing bus to save their own reputation? When do we stop caring what other people think and start acting for ourselves? When do we become willing to admit that we will not thrive in the next era of our lives, if we keep repeating the same pointless patterns of behaviour, always hoping for better outcomes than before? When, pray tell, do we grow up?
“Don’t live the same year seventy-five times and call it a life.”
I turned forty-nine on Sunday. It was a day filled with flowers and balloons and bunting. Piles of presents, Zoom calls and friends on the doorstep. It should have been lovely, but it came at the end of two of the worst months of my life and I couldn’t quite unwrap the trauma strangling me like a mohair scarf. So I sobbed and laughed my way through, trying not to notice the gap where a card from someone I love so much, should have been. Trying to pretend that I did not have one eye on my phone. Hoping and wishing and covering for little cruelties that deserve to be shouted from the rooftops. Knowing all the time that I was deceiving myself while Ste and Finn did everything they could to make the day as wonderful as can be.
“There must be another life, she thought, sinking back into her chair, exasperated. Not in dreams; but here and now, in this room, with living people. she felt as if she were standing on a precipice with her hair blown back; she was about to grasp something that just evaded her. There must be another life, here and now, she repeated. This is too short, too broken. We know nothing, even about ourselves.”
I turned forty-nine and though I want to look forwards, I find my head endlessly swivelling backward. Staring at all that I have tolerated and astonished at my resilience in the face of the grief and narcissism I have ignored for too long. Endlessly terrified about my tomorrows. Tired of trying to make sense of other people. Absolutely astounded by how deaf I have been to all the advice friends, relatives and complete strangers have given me over the years since Mum died. How arrogant I have been refusing to acknowledge that fierce independence isn’t necessarily strength, but all too often a response to trauma I became determined not to acknowledge for fear it would undo the belief systems and people I have long relied upon.
“Never pick a fight with a woman older than 40. They’re full of rage and sick of everyone’s shit.”
I turned forty-nine and I had not yet grown-up. Though life will indulge those of us who do not know we are vulnerable, at some point it drags us kicking and screaming to stand squarely in front of the truth. And so it is that I woke up yesterday morning and thought, no more. After sorrow comes anger. I agreed to the delivery of a letter I could never once have imagined putting my name to. I sat by myself and wrote, for my eyes only, pages and pages of words I had long buried. I stood in front of a mirror and stared at the mess I have become. I said words out loud I have never uttered. I told Ste something that I have never told anybody. And I saw the frown on his face as he quietly weighed up what needed to be done. Or not be done as I wished.
In the space of a day I grew up and stopped hiding. From myself. And from Ste. I stopped protecting those who do not deserve protecting and I stopped believing that they are better than they are. I have tolerated appalling behaviour and I cannot tolerate it anymore. So I let my reflection tell me the truth about what must now be done and I sat with Finn and showed him all I have created here at BrocanteHome and listened as he told me why it wasn’t working. Why it is exhausting for me and confusing for everybody else. And why it isn’t sustainable in the next era of my life.
I read. I devoured Why Bother from cover to cover again and then sat up in to the early hours of the morning re-reading Wintering. There were no revelations, just the company of women who were also tired. Also in the midst of the kind of growth that requires a sort of spiritual fallowing.
And then for the first time in weeks I slept. Like a dead thing.
“Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others, Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.”
This then is when the real work begins.
All that I have been avoiding for fear of over-turning a barrel full of rotten apples. It begins then with farewells and please can you help me’s? With doctors and trauma counsellors. With space to breathe and think and grow and process. To observe something that may have been true all my life and that is only now in my third act, revealing itself. It begins with understanding that sometimes our protective little bubbles have to burst before we can really begin to live and more than all of that, it begins with telling ourselves the truth about what we want and what it is we need to discard before we can change.
Shame is an all encompassing thing. It may be at the root of all things but we cannot just shake it off like a shabby coat. It has to be peeled off slowly like the most painful of plasters so we can allow healing to really begin. And we have to let ourselves scream as the glue drags at our skin and tolerate the sting of fresh air and new thinking on a wound still festering.
I am screaming now. For the first time in my life I am screaming out loud and I am so grateful to those who have rushed to wrap their arms around me.
This then is where the work begins. Out with lanterns, looking for myself.