I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want my life to look like in the next 20 or 30 years. Many of my dearest friends are at least 15 years older than I am, and these women in their mid-70’s are busy, engaged, active, and interesting. They’ve honed their lives down to the most important elements, knowing what it is that they excel at, how they want to spend their time, but also knowing their limits. One of them travels extensively, one still works as the music director of her busy church and finds time to swim and do yoga, another of them founded a community theater group several years after she retired from full time teaching. My mother has a dear friend who has been struggling with depression, a struggle that has manifested itself in a lack of interest in living, an inability to do any of the things she once loved to do. A devout and committed Catholic, she has stopped attending church, stopped all her volunteer activities, and even stopped singing in the choir which she once told me was her “saving grace."
My mother is concerned about her friend, as well she should be. I only half jokingly remarked that if I were ever to stop reading, writing, and playing music, then my family would know I was near death. But it’s true - when people suddenly give up the things they are passionate about, the very things that have always given them the most pleasure and been the most life-inspiring, then something is very wrong.
I’ve had some experience with depression, which occurred during a time in my life when I was overwhelmed with painful and stressful situations. Because I am the kind of person I am, I denied my feelings and continued to push through my busy days, never acknowledged the hurt until my body forced me to seek help. With the help of a good therapist and the love and support of my family, I finally put all my energy into getting better.
But given different life circumstances, I could so easily have been someone like my mother’s friend, who has faced periodic depression her entire adult life. As a child, I was highly sensitive, overprotected, shy, nervous, timid. I worried about everything. I had nervous tics, like tying my hair in knots and even pulling it out.
Going to school saved me. I had wonderful school experiences, and am so grateful to my elementary school teachers who encouraged me and helped me feel almost normal. I remember them still, 50 years later - Miss Kamm, Miss Strale, Mrs. Heitzner - these women showed me how to use my brain and cultivate my talents. By the time I reached middle school I had more confidence, was proud and sure of my abilities in writing in music, and enjoyed friendships and social activities like any “normal" teenager.
And I have been blessed with so much love - from my parents, my grandparents, aunts and uncles. My husband, who has loved and supported everything I’ve ever wanted to do since I was 17 years old. This kind of unconditional love is such good medicine, even during the darkest days. Not everyone gets that for even a while, certainly not for their whole life.
When I was in therapy some years ago, my therapist suggested I act as if I were happy. While that may seem like a simplistic exercise, it helped me. I made the effort to smile more often. I forced myself to talk to people, to write, to take daily walks. After pretending for a while, the pretense started to feel natural. My emotions started following my behavior. The exercise also forced me to think about what happiness really meant for me, something I had never consciously done before.
One of the things I most appreciate about mid-life is the ability to look both backwards and forwards with the wisdom of experience and self-knowledge. I've learned what makes me happy and I’m (finally!) learning how to balance my needs with the needs of everyone else out there. (Hint: It involves using a tiny two-letter word that heretofore has been absent from my vocabulary.) I’m becoming cognizant of my limits, physical and mental, and I try and listen to my body. I know I need regular meals and six hours of sleep. I need coffee in the morning, a walk outside every day, and dogs at my feet. I like to sleep in my own bed with a pile of good books on the night table beside me.
I know my surest path to depression is letting the needs of the outside world overwhelm me and rob me of my daily routines and time at home with the people I love.
I realize now that I don’t have to apologize for needing these things. My life doesn’t have to look like my friend’s life, or my mother’s life, or my favorite celebrities life.
It only has to look like MINE.
And right now the picture is as nearly perfect as it’s been in a long time. It’s the picture I want to paint and put on a vision board as my goal for the next 20 or 30 years (well, maybe minus wintry weather we’ve had for the past four months.) I want to carry this vision forward into the next part of my life. I want to be the kind of “old lady” who is eager, interested (and interesting!) and engaged in the world around her, who knows what she wants from her one life and is willing to work to have it.
Because then I won’t be OLD at all.
I’ll just be the best, happiest version of me.