I don’t feel well. I’m in a lot of pain.
Yes, present tense. No matter when you read this, whether it’s next week or next month, I will surely be in pain, because that’s how it’s been for the past 20 months.
Right now, it’s a headache, a patch of sore skin on my left arm that feels like bad sunburn (it really isn’t) and tingly throbbing on my upper back. But tomorrow, sharp discomfort may be radiating from my right leg down to my ankle. Alternately, it could all be in my neck, or only in my rusty-feeling, swollen hands.
Or I could be pain-free, but desperately sleepy. Or merely sore but suffering from insomnia. Who knows?
The nonfiction writer Ada Calhoun thinks she has an idea about why so many of us are suffering these days. Actually, she’s written a whole book about it called, “Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis.”
The “why” seemed obvious to me.
Immigrants, their children and anyone else who lived through and escaped generational poverty—or, really, anyone trying to maneuver through a different socioeconomic status than their parents—know why sleep doesn’t come: Life is hard, full of difficult work. You worry about “making it” and cross your fingers that your kids will be OK. Then you die.
After reading Calhoun’s book, however, I see I’ve simply been cursed to have been born female and destined to reach my mid-40s in the time of the self-care movement.
The “unique circumstances” that have brought Generation X women to sleeplessness include: high expectations borne from having more choices for careers, families and lifestyles than any other generation in history; the stifling nature of family responsibility—whether you have a spouse and children or merely creaky old parents; unfair workplace policies that favor single people, or those with families and full-time homemaker spouses; ageism from pesky millennials who assume people in their 40s can’t use computers very well; the pressure to perform a perfect life on social media; menopause.
If it seemed a little tiresome to run through such a long, uninterrupted list, understand that it’s a defining characteristic of Calhoun’s writing style.
I like my 1980s/’90s pop culture references as much as the next person (I also can remember the sound of a dial-up modem!), but some sections of Calhoun’s book read like lists jotted on a notepad, inspiring the thought: “OK, OK, I get it, let’s get on with it!”
That said, I don’t regret devouring this book from cover to cover. Every Gen X person—male or female—needs to hear that others’ lives are insipid and full of hurts, disappointments and regrets along with joys, just like any other human who lives to middle age.
And every woman should know that the whole process leading up to menopause basically starts long before you think it possibly could, lasts way longer than you ever bargained for (perimenopause could last “anywhere from a few months to 10 to 13 years”) and is—surprise, surprise!—not considered important enough to be the subject of in-depth medical research.
Plus, guess what? All the smiling, gorgeous, rich-and-happy seeming female peers who stare back at us from social-media photos of them and the people who adore them (usually on beaches or at fabulous dinners/Broadway shows/rock concerts, etc.) are probably just as saggy, bored, tired-but-unable-to sleep and in pain as me.
I seriously wondered if my diagnosed depression, anxiety and fibromyalgia (the conclusion some doctors come to when they can’t figure out what in the world is wrong with the women who come in miserable and looking for any kind of relief) is just a weirdo case of perimenopause-menopause.
Not that it matters—there’s not much the doctors can do for that, either, and no one’s exactly killing themselves looking for cures or good symptom-management treatment regimens.
Though at times Calhoun’s book reads like a litany of the complaints of middle- to upper-class women who, from afar, seem like they “have it all,” the tome had a soothing effect.
By assuring us overachieving Gen X women that we’re all very far from having reached the full potential we were endowed with at birth, Calhoun doesn’t take the pain of standard midlife misery away. But she does take a little of the sting out of it.