Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees
Time can break your heart, have you begging please, begging please
….Eric Clapton from “Tears in Heaven”
Karen could feel her knees bending under the weight of the dilemmas of middle age. Some came from expected sources like her ex-husband, oldest daughter and employer. But others were a complete surprise like her ex-mother-in-law, best friend and poor health. Together, they flooded her life with complexity and uncertainty that undermined her confidence, drained her energy and made a good night’s sleep impossible.
And despite her best efforts, things were falling apart at an alarming rate. Her normal approach of simply working longer harder to keep everything together didn’t help. In fact, trying to muscle through or out smart dilemmas only seem to make them worse.
Topping her dilemmas list was her ex-husband Don, a proficient and vindictive troublemaker who never forgave Karen for their divorce. His most recent attempt to create conflict between Karen and her children involved their oldest daughter Amy, who announced over Christmas break that she was taking a “time off” from college to rethink her life. And on cue, Don jumped in with both feet and offered his immediate and full support for her stepping away from a exceptional scholarship program with only three quarters left until Amy would graduate debt free.
Of course, Don hadn’t bothered to consult with Karen before voicing his support even though she was footing the bill for everything else that the scholarship didn’t cover. Don always said he wanted to help with Amy’s college, but his long standing depression proved incompatible with steady employment. But being broke didn’t preclude him from impulsively inserting himself in the lives of Karen and their children with no thought or accountability for the consequences that followed.
If it was just her, Karen would have completely cut Don out of her life once their divorce was finalized. But with the girls, that was never going to happen. They loved their impulsive, quirky, never fully employed father and any attempt to put him in a bad light would only push them closer to him. So, Karen was stuck with either accepting Amy’s “time out” from college or aggressively challenging her poorly timed decision of this divisive dilemma. But not all dilemmas drove people apart. Some actually brought people together, like the unexpected situation with Don’s mother.
A widow and in her early eighties who lived alone, Ellen was fiercely independent, well educated and fond of Karen. An ugly divorce from Don ten years ago did nothing to diminished their close relationship, but about a year ago something changed. Ellen’s legendary confidence and self-reliance begin to diminish as her short term memory and cognition sputtered. What seemed to Karen as clear signs of dementia were quickly dismissed by Don a normal aging. “Don’t read too much into them,” Don cautioned Karen, but she wasn’t buying it. Neither was Ellen and for good reason.
Ellen had seen first hand the same signs in friends and other family members who were eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Her memory and cognition issues were not normal aging. Sadly, it was the start of “the long fade” as Ellen and her peers called it, the most dreaded outcome any of them could imagine. And with this unwelcome yet undeniable arrival of dementia, Ellen turned to Karen for advice and much needed motional support.
And true to her character, Karen was there for her and as she was for others with the same messy modus operandi. And while Ellen’s situation proved to be a dilemma that would bring them closer together, her best friend Kathleen second marriage had the opposite effect.
Her new husband Steve was threatened by the friendship between Karen and Kathleen and seem determined to disrupt it as much as possible. And to Karen’s dismay, Kathleen appeared to be doing nothing to stop him.
How was that possible? Kathleen and Karen’s had been best friends for literally decades. The narrative of their friendship included starting careers, marriage, kids, divorce and death of family members and friends and the sustained upheaval of being middle age. They were each other’s rock in the world’s unsteady stream of false promises over blown expectations and selfish behavior. But now, this safe harbor was threatened after Steve came along and swept Kathleen off her feet and proceeded to absconded into another universe that didn’t allow immigration of best friends. Really?
Karen complained bitterly to Kathleen about Steve’s behavior. Wrong move and it backfired. Kathleen told Karen she was blowing things out of proportion and that Steve was a “good guy” She also reminded Karen that this second marriage had created big changes for everyone and she needed to give it time to sort itself out.
Realizing that pressing the issue would only alienate Kathleen, Karen backed off. Unfortunately, Steve didn’t and his intentions to sequester Kathleen in his private universe seemed more obvious than ever. But seeing the obvious in others did not translate into the same level of insight Karen had about her declining health. When she finally realized what was happening, the die had been already cast.
Karen was not surprised at being exhausted amid the unending turbulence of middle age. Uncertainty and complexity lurked at every turn and the burden they brought with them weighed heavy on her physical and mental health. But what really surprised her was how sick she had actually become by not paying attention to her own situation while running herself ragged with the unending needs of others. How did things get so far out of control? Short answer: by stealthy, insidious, denial-laced degrees.
Karen saw her doctor to try and get some answers and underwent a round of testing to rule out a variety of possible causes. “Probably stress,” he doctor told her. Let’s see what the tests show. When she returned to find out the test results, her doctor uttered a medical cliche that physicians are prone to use when bad news is in the air. “I don’t like this,” she said not so much to Karen as to herself as she scanned the blood studies. “Not one bit,” as if the first warning shot across the bow was not enough to send terror into Karen’s bones. And that actually turned out to be where the trouble resided, in Karen’s bone marrow. Her blood studies indicated that the blood cell factory in her bone marrow was out of whack to such a degree that it raised a viable concern about a malignancy.
Cancer was never mentioned in the diagnostic work-up conversations. Possible malignancy was the preferred descriptor when the medial jury was still out for deliberations. But that didn’t last long. A bone marrow study put possible malignancy to rest for good. The new word was cancer.
Specifically, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This was not the false alarm or a close call that Karen had hoped for. It was the real, lethal deal. “Am I going to die?” Karen asked her doctor as she struggled to process the news. “There is a good probability we can hold it at bay,” her doctor replied with cautionary note in her voice, but “you’re going to need to take some time off from everything to fight this.” Everything?
How do I take time off from a life that is one long buffet of unsolvable situations while I undergo treatment cancer Karen wondered. The silence that followed in her brain was not the answer she was hoping for, but it was the answer her dilemmas gave her.
Too much? Too far fetched? Maybe not as much as you think. Just move a few of Karen’s dilemma dots around and see if you recognize your own dilemma dot map in middle age. Add in items from your list that might include a sick sibling, death of a parent, adult children who move back home and never leave, career setbacks, financial losses, blended families, diabetes, heart disease, caring for an aging parent and your own memory issues. Interesting how when you add in your own dilemma dots, it’s no longer a stretch. And the you realize that it’s this synergistic pursuit of dilemmas tracking you down and then taking you down that makes them so frightfully toxic in middle age.
Spoiler alert: Karens survives her cancer but in the process does some transformative soul searching about her life, which leads her to undertake a critical course correction to save it.
In the next installment of Stuck in the Middle, we are going to see how this course correction changes Karen’s engagement with the uncertainty and complexity of her dilemmas. What new strategies and skills does she nee to adopt to be successful? How does the course correction change her relationships both with others as well as herself? Does this course correction reduce reduce her suffering and preserve her quality of life? If so, how? And lastly, how viable are these changes for the rest of us? Let’s find out…