The Mid-Life Depression Trigger

On the day I celebrated my forty-fifth birthday, my yearly custom typically included eagerly anticipating a sumptuous meal with my husband, opening thoughtfully presented gifts from my four lively teens, lunching out with treasured friends stretched casually over several weeks’ time, and savoring the largest section of the most decadent chocolate cake ever conceived. There were myriad activities I should have been looking forward to, but I wasn’t. In truth, the very thought of commemorating this previously ritually joyous event made me even more depressed. Depressed? Did I mention the word depressed? Couldn’t have…not me. Not the “I’m always in control of my subdued emotional persona” which I had effectively portrayed to the world for the past forty-four years of my existence. Then why? Why was it that I found facing the truth of my current predicament so very painful? Why did a simple elective shoulder surgery send me into a period of emotional despair? I wasn’t depressed before I opted to have my loose shoulder tightened. So what exactly was the trigger? Something transpired within my psyche during those subsequent post-op days that sent me spiraling into a black, obscure night of the soul. The worst aspect of this terrifying, albeit temporary experience, was that I felt powerless…utterly helpless…and entirely alone on this companionless journey.

Although I never, ever, would have anticipated reacting in such dramatic fashion to an elective surgical procedure, I have had to face up to what happened to me during those early post-surgery weeks. If I had been privy to an outsider’s unbiased observation of my inner-emotional workings, I would have clearly declared that the woman in question (me) was undoubtedly depressed. Yet I couldn’t, wouldn’t dare, name it at the time. I was too ashamed; too humiliated by this debilitating label…in fact, I was horrified that others, including intimate family and friends, would come to the same conclusion that I secretly feared. I was not in control, rather, I was so emotionally out of control that I apprehensively worried my mind was coming unhinged.

Having never experienced such drastic fluctuations in my emotional state before, I didn’t recognize the signals of depression. True enough, I wasn’t sleeping…. enduring continual shoulder pain for weeks on end will inhibit even the soundest reposer from gaining daily needed rest. I had also stopped exercising for a solid month post-surgery, something I’ve never done in my entire adult life. This too, may have contributed to how off-kilter my body felt as it responded to this drastic change in my former daily pattern. Most significantly, most terrifyingly, it was as though someone was pinning me against the wall…and no matter how mightily I struggled, I couldn’t break free. It was in this skewed frame of mind that I unwisely, almost obsessively, began contemplating life…. my faith, my marriage, my work, my future…. for hours on end. Pondering the past, present, and future through these murky, dimly lit lenses was not a good thing. I’d sit alone with a growing inner remorse while reliving past decisions and regretting poor choices. This habit alone increased my sense of despair, my lack of hope.

Thankfully, I had outside support or I may have begun believing that my wild mental digressions into the hopeless were true. Because my family and friends continued to speak positive words of truth, accurately assessing my life, indeed my very person, I was able to heed that small, still-sane, voice in me that continued to resist these negative mind-speaks. It was a battle to be sure, one that I fought hour by hour, and often I found myself placing a desperate telephone call to a trusted friend for perspective, to vent, to question, and for prayer.

Now I can see that some of the most helpful advice I received during those darkly tenuous post-op weeks, were the suggestions to care for my physical body, to treat myself with a tender care, and to allow myself generosity of forgiveness, and time…. lots of time to rest, recover, and rejuvenate. Admittedly, I felt as though I was spoiling myself adhering to such loving counsel…but after a bit; I realized my friends were right. And so wise. My body needed a quiet period to heal…it was up to me to see that I made the right choices to allow this to happen. As I met with the surgeon after my operation, difficult as it was, I explained my emotional tailspin in brief. With a prescription for a sleep aid in hand and some fresh determination, I left the office feeling a bit more ready to proactively heal in the most “stationary” sense of the word. Sleep eventually became a blessed respite and my outlook improved dramatically. Daily exercising helped me “work out” some of the doldrums as well. I ate with authority…. meaning with full intention of building nutritious food stocks into every meal. And…I continued to lean on my family and friends, for conversation, for hugs, and for simple caring. It took a full three months before I realized I was almost “me” again. Still, every once in a while, when I grew especially tired or stressed, I felt that ominous dark cloud begin to dodge my every step. So, I would retreat a bit from life’s busyness, rest some more, and relish everyday simple joys.

Who could have foreseen that during one of the most productive and most satisfying periods of mid-life that a simple elective surgery could wreck such emotional havoc? Certainly not me. Yet countless other women have experienced the same uncontrollable response to their own “mid-life triggers” into depression. Mid-life women are all too often literally sandwiched betwixt and between their partners, children, parents, friends, and colleagues’ needs and expectations thus forfeiting their own health in the process. At some point, every woman must stand apart and carefully assess her life, both internally and externally with tempered realism. Otherwise, the sudden and frequently devastating onslaught of depression may render her incapable of functioning and feeling utterly hopeless. By exploring some common triggers that mid-life women may face if they find themselves suffering for a time with mild depression, women can move through this time of emotional tension more fully armed and better prepared.

Top Triggers

*Positive Life Stress

Karen found herself gripping the doorjamb to her apartment as she tried to decide whether to go in or stay put. She realized that entering her home meant facing “The List” the daunting visual reminder of her daughter’s upcoming wedding. Of course, Karen was thrilled that her only daughter was marrying. Still, as a single mom for long years, Karen also realized how drastically her life would change once her daughter moved out and on. Uncharacteristically for her, Karen found herself hesitant, distracted, and almost panic-stricken. But since when did I begin shrink from going home? This is nonsense, Karen decided, I need some perspective and quick before this emotional detour takes charge of me altogether.

Job promotions, weddings, vacations, even the most coveted of life’s milestones can precipitate short-term depression in mid-life women. Surprisingly, many women don’t realize how much emotional toll these beneficial experiences can take on their mental and emotional psyche. As with everything in life, balance is key. Realistic planning is also highly recommended for all women, no matter what their age or station in life.

*Negative Life Stress

Jen left the funeral emotionally adrift. She puzzled over how moved other family members had been as they said their final goodbyes to this distant relative. It was unnerving how easily Jen could turn her feelings off these past months. Maybe even a little scary if she was honest. Yet after caring for this elderly gentlemen almost entirely on her own for five years, Jen didn’t have much energy for feeling anything. Just meeting the needs of her young family and this extended family member had completely exhausted her reserves; only she didn’t yet realize it.

Family emergencies, extended care-giving responsibilities, financial upsets, unresolved relational issues, childcare dilemmas, and workplace challenges…are part and parcel of the majority of women’s daily existence. Long-term perspective is a must coupled with a strong support group of fellow travelers who can come along side with empathy, care, and unconditional acceptance, more vital now than ever before. Enlisting (and lending) anticipated help before the next major landslide of distressing events is especially crucial at this period of mid-life.

*Shifts in Health

Marisa was old enough to know better. Still, she clearly set aside her better sense when it came to taking care of herself. Busy with three teens and running a part time business from home hindered Marisa from seeing to it that she made (and kept) annual check-ups. It wasn’t until she noticed how her deeply heart pounded and how easily winded she became after performing even the simplest tasks that Marisa grew apprehensive and decided her yearly physical was well overdue. Receiving the news that she had high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and a recent gain of over twenty pounds about pushed Marisa over the edge until she took stock and determined to begin treating herself with the same care she offered to her family.

Sadly, many mid-life women neglect their health in both obvious and subtle ways. They avoid regular check-ups with the family doctor, gynecologist, dentist, and ophthalmologist, not recognizing how quickly most delineations from former good health can be detected and corrected. Simply showing up can make a difference. Women especially need to be checked for ever altering hormone levels, informed on how their current meds will affect their bodies and emotions, and what signs to be on the watch for according to their particular family health history.

Health-Inducing Restoratives

*Exercise, Stretch, and Sleep

Katherine, frequently dubbed the queen of spontaneity, heeded the wake-up call delivered by way of a minor stroke at age forty-three. Somewhat overweight, thoroughly inactive, this pharmaceutical rep realized she only had one life to call her own…better to handle it with care. Once Katherine received the all-clear from her doctor, she began an exercise plan in earnest and even learned the importance of regular sleep patterns which surprisingly to her, boosted her energy levels so that she could enjoy even more spontaneous activities with greater satisfaction.

As women age, regularity in habits and scheduling becomes primary. The body will respond to even the simplest minor alterations toward good health. Discover the least resistant path to consistently exercise, eat healthily, and sleep effectively and make these habits a priority.

*Realistic Expectations

Megan truly understood her tendency to perfectionism. She saw its negative results in the despondent look her young son expressed after she’d redone his morning chore more times than she could remember. Inside, Megan hated herself for feeling so internally focused on such non-issues. So she determined to let these inconsequential blips go…and instead, she concentrated on bigger, timelier matters…like hugging her child and congratulating him on a job well done.

Striving for excellence is exemplary…expecting perfection is counter-productive. All of life is riddled with imperfection, brokenness, and frailty. It is the wise woman who does what she can to make a positive difference. Wiser still, is the same woman who understands she cannot fix every thing, person, or situation…and she makes peace with that fact.

*Healthy Relationships

When Jill discovered that her father had once again dismissed her rules on several key-parenting issues while babysitting her three sons, she was livid. It shouldn’t be so difficult; she huffed, to get one adult to respect the wishes of another. So why do I continue asking Dad to watch the boys? Hmmm. Maybe I just need to sit him down a final time lay down the law and then find a replacement sitter if it happens again. What seemed like a Godsend has turned into a weekly battle of the wills.

Prudent women recognize healthy boundaries that include immediate family and close friends. Surround yourself with people who support your efforts, stand by your decisions, and are at the ready to offer assistance when required. Have the courage to distance yourself or even end ties with individuals who diminish the woman you seek to become.

Copyright 2011 Michele Howe

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