A leap of faith
I recall vividly a Sunday afternoon spent in typical Round Table fashion – the men standing around the braai, drinks in hand, and the women clustered together. As a teenager I was on the periphery of the women’s consciousness and I overheard them talking about Jenny, who had gone off “to find herself” – again! This throwaway comment was accompanied by raucous laughter. The incident struck me deeply, filling me with a sense of dread and with déja vu quite inappropriate to my age at the time, which must have been around fourteen or so.
On some deep, unconscious level I must have known that one day I, too, would have to try and “find myself”. What I could not have known at that age, was that this would constitute a mid-life crisis. The crisis was precipitated by the death of a dear friend who died of cancer just before her 42nd birthday. Her death brought me up short, confronting me with the question: “Is this how you want to spend the rest of your life?”
The answer was a resounding ‘no’, and central to the issue was finding myself, finding out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Uppermost in my mind throughout this process was the idea of a ‘mid-life crisis’.
I thought often about the concept of a mid-life crisis and did some reading, finding absolute recognition in a small book called The Middle Passage; From Misery to Meaning in Midlife by James Hollis (Inner City Books, 1993). Ironically, this book was recommended to me by a therapist many years prior to this turnaround stage in my life. I had bought it, but never read it, and it came to hand at this point in a way which cannot be regarded as coincidental.
Although most of us are familiar with the term ‘mid-life crisis’, there apparently are questions concerning its existence. Advocates of the stage theory, like Levinson and Gould (in Human Development, 1999) believe that the individual moves through different stages of development throughout life. Gould believes that the middle years are characterised by an increasing discovery of the self and an awareness of the passage of time. This happens primarily during the forties when adults’ perception of life changes and they feel that, at this point, they should be doing what they want to do with their lives. Levinson refers to the mid-life transition years and states that the individual evaluates his successes or failures up until that point; these evaluations of self could lead to satisfaction or dissatisfaction, with feelings of dissatisfaction leading to a mid-life crisis.
However, proponents of the personality trait approach, for example Costa & McCrae (in Human Development, 1999) who follow the approach that the human personality remains consistent over time, could not find any indication of a mid-life crisis during empirical research which they conducted. They find the term crisis too restrictive and are of the opinion that change in mid-life does not necessarily constitute a crisis.
My own experience at this stage of my life cannot be termed anything other than a crisis, however. Hollis’ book has made me realize that it is a very real experience. In fact, throughout the book I was astounded by the chilling accuracy with which he described the very same processes which I had been working through during the past two or three years. More specifically, I have come to realize that there is ‘something’ which Hollis refers to as a Middle Passage, a time when a person initiates his or her own process of transformation.
I have an overwhelming need to tell my story, the story of how I gave up everything around which I had structured my persona, in an effort to infuse meaning into my life. Hollis refers to the disparity between the inner sense of self and the acquired personality that becomes so great that the suffering can no longer be suppressed or compensated. He says that the transit of the Middle Passage occurs in the fearsome clash between the acquired personality and the demands of the Self.
As must have been the case with the Jenny of my childhood, a person going through such an experience will often panic and say, “I don’t know who I am anymore”.
This was exactly the point at which I found myself a year or so before my fortieth birthday. At that stage I had a public relations consultancy in Bloemfontein. It was a business which I had built up over a period of ten years after resigning my position as a lecturer at the Department of Communication at the University of the Orange Free State. When I started off, I was the only public relations consultant in Bloemfontein, and the only one in the Free State and Northern Cape area. In short, I had a monopoly and in the process I developed a reputation as an entrepreneur (albeit a label with which I did not feel entirely comfortable). During the ten years, I became known as a ‘difficult’, yet extremely professional person. I received awards, one in the business world and a few others which recognised my efforts in my profession. Mid-way through this period I was elected as the president of the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa (Prisa), the first woman to hold this position since the Institute’s inception in 1957 and the Institute’s youngest president to date. I had always featured in the local media, but from this point on I received a considerable amount of publicity. There were radio interviews and articles in Rooi Rose and in Cosmopolitan’s Hot Careers. An article in Financial Mail referred to me as “PR’s bluestocking” and an article in Advantage was headed “Babe with balls”. I featured on the cover of the Southern African PR Journal and Prisa’s newsletter Communika reported extensively on my initiatives during the eighteen-month term as president. I put in long hours and worked extremely hard, travelling often and developing my skills and experience. I was listed in Femina’s Women’s Directory (1995 – 1996) and Brewer’s Who’s who in South African Marketing, Advertising and Communication (1997). I was nominated for the annual Bloemfonteiner of the Year award. In 1996 I branched out into the advertising world and started a local advertising company with a Cape Town partner. I continued to lecture and eventually conceptualised and was commissioned to write a course on public relations consulting, offering this course as the Certificate in Public Relations Consulting under the auspices of Prisa. I made numerous efforts to continue rejuvenating my business interests, entering into an agreement with a black partner and later into a commercial equity partnership. I was granted Fellowship of Prisa, one of 12 practitioners in the country recognised for long and distinguished service to the Institute and the profession. I was often invited to speak and to present papers. I made money. I love cars and at the turning point was driving a snazzy red Peugeot Cabriolet. People knew of me and I was respected in my profession. I had acquired a reputation as a successful professional and businesswoman. In short, I was a big fish in the small pond of Bloemfontein.
As Hollis says, in describing a career path similar to mine: “All of this activity could be rationalized for it was outwardly productive and embodied the typical career ladder onto which we are prone to project our identity.”
And gradually, with my 40th birthday drawing closer, the realisation dawned upon me that all of this was meaningless. I felt empty and initially believed that this was another bout of the recurring depression that I had experienced over the years. My heart was no longer in my work and I hated the idea of getting up in the morning and spending another empty day at the office. Hollis refers to “the vacuum” and “the loss of meaning”; other terms used to describe this crisis are “boredom”, “depression”, “loss of energy”. These described my feelings so accurately that I could have coined the terms. Hollis points out that such symptoms announce the need for substantive change in a person’s life.
But I was stuck. (It was only later that I learnt that the term ‘stuckness’ is commonly used to describe the position people find themselves in, realizing that they had to make a change and not knowing what form or direction it should take.)
And then Anna-Mari died and my feelings of discomfort increased in the face of my own mortality. And yet I went round in circles for another year. I knew I had to DO something, had to change – but what? What would I do? How would I earn money? As my dear friend Karen wrote to me at that point: “Why do you have to earn money? Your security will never be what you have and earn – it can only be in God, and you!” But still I went round and round until I thought I was going mad.
In July last year my husband went overseas for a few weeks and my son spent the holidays with his godmother. And I spent the time in front of a Bloemfontein winter fire, with a book and a bottle of wine at hand – thinking, thinking, thinking. And then: an A-HA experience. I realized what I was doing wrong. Control freak that I am, I had been blinkered by the idea that I had to plan my future, had to organise my options and map out a new life before giving up the old one. I recognized that I had to give up everything before any meaningful change would occur. I had to open up myself to new possibilities and I could only bring this about by divorcing myself from my stifling circumstances.
From that point on things happened very fast. I sent my car to Johannesburg to be sold (today I cringe at the idea of those personalised number plates). A friend of long standing and a successful businesswoman in own right with whom I had discussed my desire to ‘get out’, mentioned an interest in my public relations business. We had a few discussions and set the process of selling the business in motion. I set up meetings with retainer clients to tell them about the change and started drafting a letter which I would send out to clients and colleagues, explaining what I was doing and why. In short, I set in motion the process of loosening myself from everything I had built up around me. By the time my husband returned from overseas, the process was well and truly underway. I still did not know what I was going to do, only knowing that I wanted to start studying psychology which had always interested me, and that I wanted to work with children. In my letter I expressed two thoughts uppermost in my mind at the time: that I hoped to find tranquillity and to create a more meaningful life.
I was amazed by the ease and degree of synchronicity which characterised the three months before everything was tied up. During this time I often felt excited at the idea of leaving behind the professional life which had become such a burden to me. And, indeed, the day I attended my last client function and got into my packed (and borrowed) car to drive to the Eastern Cape for a week’s holiday with my son I was euphoric. Yes, I knew that there would be hard times ahead. I sensed that one could not walk away from a professional life and everything that accompanied it without some regrets. But I could not know what form these regrets would take.
I soon learnt that you become isolated and, at times, even lonely. Isolated because many of your friends are professionals like you were, and their lives continue along the same track. Isolated because many of the people with whom you have built relationships over the past two decades no longer form part of your life – the clients, the media representatives, the suppliers, the former students, the employees, the general contacts. Isolated, too, because you have become a ‘nothing’. You are no longer defined in terms of what you do. The disappearance of your label of “successful businesswoman” means, too, that people disappear from your life – you are no longer a useful contact in the public relations industry and in the business community.
I also learnt how warped my values had become. What great store I had set on my ability to earn money and – yes – how deeply this had become ingrained into my self-concept. I was shocked by the extent to which I was confronted by my insecurities at this time, not having realized how my good professional reputation and economic freedom had come to define me. I went through a horrific period where I had to fight my old nemesis, that insidious little voice that had whispered ‘you are not good enough’ and that had made me perform all my life. A period where I experienced jealousy, not of individuals, but of the material things that they acquired and what these stood for – those marks of success, of esteem. Jealousy of those things that signify ‘being important’ in our lives: the flying here and there, the meetings, the big-name clients, the presentations. I never want these things back, but their loss threatened me nonetheless. Nothing could be truer than Hollis saying that relinquishing the security one has struggled to obtain may be frightening. “When we recognize and withdraw the projections that money and power represent, then we are obliged to ask: “What am I called to do?”
Since having realized that, for me, public relations is a job and not a vocation, I am still struggling with the issue of what to do with , what Hollis calls, “our life’s energy”. I only know that the first step in that direction is studying psychology – and in this I have had to overcome another personal hurdle. I have been a mediocre student all my life. Although I did quite well at school and at varsity, I have never acquired the knack of studying. People laughed out loud when I mentioned this fear because I had a master’s degree in Communication which I had passed cum laude. Eventually I stopped explaining that writing a thesis was something which came easily to my analytical mind, but that I had never ‘learnt to learn’. And yes, true to form, time caught up with me and I almost opted out of writing the Psychology 1 examination in May/June this year. But I literally forced myself and for the first time in my life I sat down behind my books for an extended period of time. For three and a half weeks I did nothing else. Ridiculous as it might sound, at almost 42 years of age, I have had to master a skill which most of us acquire in primary school.
I found it incredibly difficult to adjust to my eight-year old son’s needs and to his routine. Dear as he is to me, I have never been the kind of mom who sits flat on her bum and plays, who kicks a ball or who reads to him for hours on end. And having committed myself to spending the afternoons with him, the reality of filling the time in a way that would be meaningful to both of us was more daunting than any project I had ever managed. Many was the afternoon that he told me to take him back to his grandmother because he preferred spending the after-school hours with her. I had to grit my teeth and acknowledge that this was a classic situation: Mom suddenly decides to spend more time with junior and expects him to be happy about the reversal of the status quo. Fortunately, we have always had an excellent relationship and he has an uncanny ability to communicate his feelings, which means that we are gradually working our way towards a mutually satisfactory arrangement. Since May this year he has been showing signs of progress in overcoming his learning disability and his problems of concentration and I would like to believe that having me at home has something to do with this.
And yet, throughout this difficult period of adjustment, exhilaration bubbled into my consciousness at times. Exhilaration because I had managed to strip myself of many things. Of the recognition. Of the car. Of the professional wardrobe. Of the rushing. I came to realize that, as Hollis says, my own psyche has organised this crisis, produced this suffering, because of the appointment we have with ourselves during the Middle Passage: to change in order to reclaim those parts of ourselves left behind.
And it’s getting better: a strengthened bond with my husband, a lessening of my obsessing over time, the opportunity to walk in the mornings and to indulge my love of decorating with flowers; respectable marks and an enjoyment of my study material; discovering new, “non-professional” friends who are not in the fast lane.
And now it is a year since my decision to begin what I think of as ‘my new life’. I sit writing in a wintry sun in the beautiful gardens of Oliewenhuis. Two little girls come wandering over and peek over my shoulder to look at my Notebook computer. Soon we are friends and the one is delighted to discover that I am a former ‘teacher’ of her mother. And then she wants to know whether I am still a teacher. When I answer “no”, she follows with “then what are you?”
Had she been older, I could have explained that I don’t have a ‘label’ any more. And I would most certainly have told her that I am a very fortunate person: I have been granted the gift of rediscovering myself and been given a chance to redefine my life. And that I am deeply and unutterably grateful.
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