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A Mountain Town Man Hits The Wall Of A Midlife Crisis

In Part 2 Of Timothy Tate's Series "When Peter Pan Enters Middle Age", Walt Seeks Help Behind The Blue Door

Photo courtesy Garrett Grove (garrettgrove.com)
Photo courtesy Garrett Grove (garrettgrove.com)
To read part one of Walt's journey click here.

“A sign that a person has not made the middle passage is that he or she is still caught in ego-building activities of the first adulthood. One has not yet learned that they only represent projections onto finite and fallible icons.” —Dr. James Hollis

Walt was apprehensive, I could tell. He seemed anxious.  He asked me what he should do, lay or stand? I suggested that he take a seat on the couch.

I got a good first read from the look in his eyes.  He stared downward.  He couldn’t lift his head to meet my greeting.  It is the first sign of shame.

There is a tipping point in our life cycle where our efforts to achieve conventional acceptance and approval for the person we present to the world—our identity—tips into more murky psychological territory.

This tipping point may take shape gradually across years or decades, over a series of events spawned by relationship challenges, woundings by betrayal, injury, or employment frustration. Or it might involve a sudden onset of trauma, like the unexpected loss of a loved one or a tangle with law enforcement. Such events can tip us abruptly into a state of mental confusion and cause a jarring “what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life-anyway” moment.  

Some call it an identity crisis, and in many men it arrives somewhere in middle age. 

I’ve been asked, “Why are you focused on middle aged men in this series?” 

It is true that people of all genders, race, ethnicities, and social standing have existential midlife crises.  What I’m tracking here is a category of such soul searching that involves men, particularly those in mountain towns that attract the young, physically-fit, outdoor-minded who never think or anticipate the inevitable moment when their physical faculties start to faulter.

And this is the moment when they must return to earth and deal with the consequences of what it means to be a mortal human who knows life cannot be lived by chasing thrills alone.

Rather than midlife being a period when limitations define us, I see it as a golden opportunity to discover a deeper happiness than that delivered solely through high-adrenalin.

The Jungian analyst Murray Stein noted: “Sometimes this takes the form of the famous ‘crisis,’ but often it is not something quite so dramatic. I have come to think of it instead as a potential second birth of adult identity.”
 
° ° °
 
Walt, whom I introduced in the first column, strolled through the Blue Door of my psychotherapy practice disturbed enough to seek counsel.  The fact is he didn’t really want to be there, at least the desire wasn’t something he would admit to his friends. He was there, he likely told his buddies, because a lawyer suggested help in order to avoid a harsher penalty for a DUI handed down from a judge.

The impetus, however, doesn’t matter. A man seeking counsel is carrying out a courageous act. Often it means holding up his life to a mirror and in the reflection he sees himself immersed in a much wider world than he had imagined.

The masculine in early development has an archetypal need to be “large and in charge”, and seeking help in midlife can feel like a defeat. Yet there is a legacy of warriors, heroes, and businessmen seeking advice from elders, mentors and, in recent times, therapists.

The difference here is that counseling is too often seen as a mental health issue not an opportunity for personal transformation, moving from a fixation on appearances and accomplishments to engaging a more mysterious and invisible inner world.

But here, in the disaster that is modern health care, people must contend with the bureaucratic machinations of insurance plans. Unless people are in overt crisis, therapy is still viewed in some corners of society as a liability.

Indeed, if Walt wants help covering the cost of therapy through his health insurance, I am required to assess his condition with a mental health diagnosis from the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Vol.V.  (It’s no different from a diagnosis that a family practitioner or dentist must send off to insurance providers).

However, this mental health manual, written by a select team of professional psychologists and psychiatrists, has its own shadowy past, diagnosing homosexuality as a mental disorder all the way through its third version up to 1974. It has changed its focus over the years from a proscriptive approach as to what is agreed upon as mental illness to a descriptive approach that collects data on what mental health conditions are reported.

There is a lingering stigma to counseling for this very reason, i.e. “there must be something wrong with me if I go to psychotherapy.” Does society have the same attitude toward physical exams, prescriptions for healthy eating or advisements against smoking and drinking?

I view mental health more as a question of determining what is right with us, as in “maybe all that’s wrong with me is that I don’t trust myself or others.”

° ° °

Again, “Walt” is a composite of countless men I’ve encountered in midlife. My practice is equally divided between men and women. The athletes, community leaders, academics, and accomplished businessmen that come in are smart enough to know that they’re in trouble. The moment of crossing the threshold into my office and our first handshake feels ancient to me, like two men meeting on a trail.  Guys—we’ve all been there.

Men size up one another in a primal way - sniffing out danger or greeting. My admiration for men, their vitality, vigor, steadfastness, rationality, and willfulness is counterbalanced by my concerns over their repressed emotions, lethargy, volatility, and overbearing attitudes. Many of these things were learned and passed along psychically during the formative years when dysfunction becomes imprinted based upon generations of maladjusted behavior or undiagnosed chemical imbalances in the body that flow through branches in family trees.
Two Doors—Both Blue Ones, a painting by Sue Cedarholm (www.watercolordiary.com)
Two Doors—Both Blue Ones, a painting by Sue Cedarholm (www.watercolordiary.com)
Walt is now sitting across from me maybe four feet away, no desk, or coffee table between us. My first question is: “So, what brings you into my practice?”

“Court ordered,” he responds.

Off to a fine start. I follow up with a more open-ended question. “Tell me a story about yourself.”

This is met by, “What do you mean?”

“Well, how did you get into the pickle that forced you to see me?”

“I was busted driving drunk after I failed to yield the right-of-way.”

We then follow a line of questioning that gives me a feel for whether or not counseling will be seen as a chore.

Will he say,  “I’m fine. I just made a bad decision, am willing to pay the consequences and move along”?

Or will this interlude be seen as a chance to understand what caused the misjudgment.

This difference is the bellwether of not only a man’s chance of benefitting from counsel but it also reflects what I mean by the midlife tipping point.

Should Walt go the way of enduring counseling only  to satisfy some externally-imposed motivation he may go through life like Murray Stein describes: “For these people aging is real only in a physical sense but not psychologically, and even at the physical level it can be staved off quite well given enough money…”

Does money really buy happiness? For some, possibly.  But people who have all the money in the world are not necessarily capable of being introspective.  Sometimes, the drive to make money, or excel through feats of derring-do, or drinking, taking drugs, philandering or coping with grave depths of depression are attempts to flee oneself rather than engage with who we are—or want to be.

The point that Stein makes that is critical in how one approaches one’s full life span is to conceptualize it in two parts. He says the two halves of life are achievement of conventionality followed by development of true individuality. Although this might seem like an oversimplification, what strikes me is how the enduring question of identity is the key to understanding middle age.

As spelled out in my first column, Walt identified with establishing his identity in the conventionality of a mountain culture where “big dogs”, i.e. the gods of outdoor recreation are defined by their ability to succeed at challenging “gravity sports” such as skiing, mountain biking, whitewater paddling, or the “anti-gravity” sportsmen of the alpine climbing terrain.

I offer special thanks here to Mark Twight in naming this distinction. He suggests that the challenge “to break free of an identity created by an activity” is different for these two groupings.

This is a significant distinction in that the precipitous challenges of mountaineering, reaching for the summit, and the vulnerability of such exposure might temper a man differently than the rush of gravity’s pull. Either way, a man comes to his senses and realizes that at some point in his life he must face his individuality and stop hiding behind a conventionally-determined identity.

° ° °

But there is a third possibility, albeit one of a dark, unlit cul-de- sac in the psyche marked by a Personality Disorder diagnosis. This incorrigible disturbance is well known for taking form as Narcissism in men and as Borderline Personality in women. Should Walt become lost in this unforgiving region of the mind, it is best to light a candle and say a prayer for all the good that counsel will do.

However, being a man for Walt meant proving himself against thrilling if not dangerous odds.

The landscape of our mountain culture amplifies this risk taking. There is a call to adventure that mountains stimulate. I know it. The mountains are what drew me here. I know, after spending 35 years in the mountains, that when I am in an environment where my view is blocked or my horizon line is obscured by dense deciduous trees like in the Midwest or South, I become agitated and claustrophobic.

We mountain folk need a whole lot of room to roam.  I believe the environment not only draws people of a certain psychic framework but creates a psychic framework, which validates tendencies that are healthy and others that are not.

The call of the wild, be it the form of rushing water, hidden crags, unexplored ice walls, or untracked powder is relentless. And the more gnarly the weather, terrain, or line the better. There is no question that a man’s identity is defined in part by his ability to go farther and higher, to be faster and more skilled, than the other guy.

Again, I am not suggesting there isn’t a similar or identical instinctual urge in women, but women also play other roles that men often do not—which has a moderating effect on self-impulse—and that is being the foundation of families. I am not suggesting that “a woman’s place is in the home” but that a man will never understand what it means to carry forth another human life form in one’s body and the sense of responsibility to provide grounding that comes with it over the course of life.

° ° °

The question with the Walts of the world is how to convey that the challenges of the inner world, in midlife and beyond, are as exciting and as demanding as are the mountains and rivers.

The way I navigate this task is to hear how a man describes his interests and values. Walt conveys that he likes to impress women, thrives on the stimulation of outdoor adventures, and wants to be seen as strong.

We play with the notion that how his need to impress women might, or might not, convert into how to relate to her. We revel together in the adrenaline rush of jumping off the ridge line on Slushman’s run at Bridger Bowl, and wrestle with his mania for stimulation that, at times, has led to feelings of gut-choking depression. We admire his physical strength while wondering about how the courage to handcraft a fresh inventive and imaginative life is an equally strong move.

We wonder aloud how the need to be in control of everything to manage his anxiety might be the very source of his anxiety. We have deep, intense mano a mano rhetorical exchanges building trust based on the fact we probably were drawn to this mountain town for many of the same reasons.

What it comes down to, for me as a man and a therapist, is that my inner longing for adulation and success in whatever field of endeavor I choose is a force that has two basic settings: outer and inner. The first part of my life is to prove my value and worth in our competitive world. The tipping point that comes gradually or suddenly heretofore called “mid-life crisis” is my opportunity to reinvent my perception of the masculine.

 Either I engage in this awakening of the inner life or I become increasingly desperate to cling onto an external identity which looks like a worn out shoe. And there is no pretending. Just ask my wife or daughter or son. They will tell you if you are real or not. All a man has to do is ask.

Next in Part 3:  Walt Confronts His Existential Moment Of Truth

Timothy Tate
About Timothy Tate

Community Psyche columnist Timothy J. Tate, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a practicing professional psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For decades, he had an office on Main Street behind The Blue Door. He still works with clients downtown.
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