'Black dog' of midlife crisis stalks men

May 31, 1998|By Tim Madigan | Tim Madigan,KNIGHT RIDDER TRIBUNE

First, the good news. Men in primitive times probably weren't bothered much with the midlife crisis. As recently as the American Revolution, life expectancy was 35 years, so fellows who went on to hit 40 were probably just glad to be there.

But now we live into our 80s, on average, and for men (women too, of course, but that's another story) that longevity comes at a price. Near the end of the fourth decade or so, a painful reality often takes root: We will never play in the major leagues; waistlines bulge to size 38 and bald spots blossom; we, too, will die someday; career success is not all it was cracked up to be. The first half of life has slipped away, and the second half looms as a huge, existential question mark.

Sound familiar? It does to many of us. It does to author Gail Sheehy, who for the past three years has studied the phenomenon. She terms the midlife crisis for men "a dark continent." Writer Howell Raines describes the time as a "black dog," a hungry, drooling mongrel that stalks unsuspecting males between the ages of 38 and 45.

It is a time, Raines writes in his 1993 book "Fly Fishing Through a Mid-Life Crisis," of "intensifying anxiety or depression or some satanic combination of emotional torment."

"Hear me, my brothers," Raines warns. "You know who you are. ... There lies before you a severe journey -- a soul-rending passage that will either heal you or wreck you. ... The black dog is on your trail. Get ready to meet him."

Men in turmoil

I scoffed when first reading those words a few years ago. But then I was only 38. I turned 40 in December, and when I did, at virtually the stroke of midnight, every strange ache became the imagined onset of terminal illness. I bought my first pair of reading glasses. I began to concede that the extra girth around my middle might be there to stay. A funk set in at work. Other male friends my age report similar feelings. None of us scoff at the words of Howell Raines now.

We are, in fact, the brothers of which he wrote, the same fellows Sheehy began meeting three years ago while on a lecture tour for a best-selling book on coping with middle age. The number of men in attendance surprised her. What they said surprised her more.

"I realized that they were in much more turmoil than I thought," Sheehy says now.

Their pain inspired her latest work, "Understanding Men's Passages: Discovering the New Map of Men's Lives," recently published by Random House. In the book, dozens of men share experiences of grappling with the difficult transitions in the late 30s through the 70s and beyond.

The nasty bite of the black dog is the bad news. But Sheehy and others report that there is a flip side. A midlife crisis for men, they say, is as natural as a snake shedding skin, as predictable as the appearance of molars in the mouth of a 7-year-old. And it can be a tremendously life-enhancing opportunity wearing a dark disguise.

Poet Robert Bly speaks of it in the first paragraph of "Iron John: A Book About Men," which, when published eight years ago, became a seminal work of the Men's Movement.

"By the time a man is 35, he knows the images of the right man, the tough man, the true man which he received in high school do not work in life," Bly writes. "Such a man is open to new visions of what a man is or could be."

Indeed, it is about this time that we discover that we are not John Wayne, not Bill Gates, not Juan Gonzales, not the kind of men that our mothers and fathers and our culture told us we were supposed to be. After all these years of believing this about American manhood, it is a hard notion to swallow. And if not those guys, just who am I, anyway?

Survivors of the black dog say the answer eventually comes, but not if we take up the bottle to deal with the mongrel, or work even longer hours to try to keep him at bay, or try to escape in the arms of a mistress.

Instead the answer requires a "full stop and long and often painful look inward," Sheehy writes.

It's only then, Sheehy says, that "an old shell can be sloughed off and space made for a yeasty, multidimensional 'new-self' to grow."

Growing from crisis

The fact is, with our lengthening life span, we now live more than one life, albeit in the same body. Those men who prosper most are those who successfully reinvent themselves at least once in midlife, maybe more.

If anyone ever epitomized the ideal American man, it was Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin Aldrin, the second human to walk on the moon. But the years after his moonwalk were times of wrenching emotional torment, what he called "the melancholy of all things done."

In his Boston-area practice, psychotherapist Terrence Real treats boyish millionaires who look out over the rest of their lives and wonder, "Is that all there is?"

"When you look at the rest of your life, and you're no longer going up, that's the crisis point," says Real, author of another recent best-seller, "I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression."

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