The 4-Year-Old in the Driver's Seat
We midlifers are not exempt from America's mental health crisis
Little did I know that two people were living in my head this whole time.
Sorry, maybe I should back it up a bit. I realize this first sentence might give you the impression that I’m juggling split personalities or teetering on the ledge of schizophrenia, which is not the case (until my therapist tells me differently).
The two Dans living in my head are the same in almost all respects. We love breakfast burritos, sushi, MF DOOM, 80s action films, and beach trips. We’ve both been through the same experiences, have read the same books, and have seen the same movies. We’re both caught in the same predicament: trying to get from point A to point B in this wild game of midlife.
The differences only arise when it comes to how we choose to react to all of the random things life throws our way. The dominant Dan, that is, the one that’s usually in the driver’s seat, has a tough time making adjustments. He’s not very adaptable and has a sharp tendency to complain, panic, avoid, or even flat-out ignore unanticipated challenges that rear their head in daily living. He’s been called a coward. He was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder years ago. But when life is going smoothly, on autopilot, he can give the impression of a relaxed and even laid-back kind of character. This calm can go on for months, years, even.
As long as life sticks to the script.
But as soon as fate throws him a curveball and the unknown creeps into the picture, he goes to pieces. He gets trapped in spiraling cyclones of thought of what has happened or what might happen. Once this fear grabs hold, it completely takes over, torturing him and making him feel helpless. He’s been known to become mentally paralyzed by panic attacks and bouts of depression. He can’t focus. He’s not present. He thinks way too much. The cyclones engulf his mind, his life. He can’t act. He can’t move forward. He can’t function.
He reacts with terror.
Until a few weeks ago, this was the only Dan I knew. It was me. I was an anxious person. This was the identity that I had self-applied after years of experiencing these doom-spiral patterns of thought.
When a long period of calm finally gave way to another spike of anxiety last month, I decided to seek help. I couldn’t stomach another vicious spin cycle in the anxiety washing machine. I needed a new perspective.
I needed therapy.
My first session was more of a release than anything else. When you’re living with a chronic anxiety disorder, you feel terribly alone with your thoughts. You’re hanging on to all of these lines of toxic speculation all by yourself, with no one to relate to, and my prevailing instinct was to dump it all out and unload all of this mental baggage for a professional to pick apart and assess. Honestly, half of the benefits I reap from therapy come from just getting all of this stuff out in the open.
But after dominating the allotted hour, spewing all of my mental vomit out into the open, my therapist sat back and gave me a simple but potent perspective on my tortured years of anxious thought.
She described my anxiety-ridden self as my “4-year-old in the driver’s seat.” She explained that I’ve been allowing these chaotic thought patterns to dominate my thinking for nearly my entire life, putting myself at the mercy of what amounts to me handing the keys of my “vehicle” over to a moody, edgy, and irrational small child.
This sounded very familiar, and I thought it was a pretty apt description of how my mind has been operating for my entire adult life.
But there was another self up there, she continued. There was a rational, more assertive, and mature me that had been locked up and hidden away for decades. This was the caretaker, the parent of that wild, temperamental child that had taken up the helm of my consciousness and had no idea what it was doing.
If I wanted peace and tranquility, it was up to me to dust the cobwebs off of “parent” me and take control of the situation. That poor child has been living frightened, full of fear with too many responsibilities and no one to take care of him, and it was my job to call my mature and rational self into action, reassuring that child that everything was going to be ok, that a grown-up is in control now and will be taking care of everything.
There was no need to worry any longer.
And that’s what I’m working on now, calming the 4-year-old inside of me every time I catch him beginning to spiral with thought in any direction. Earnestly convincing him that the boogieman is a lie, a figment of his imagination that can’t exist in the rational world.
It will take time. I’m not going to pretend that it’s going to be easy. Undoing decades of habitual thinking is never something that’s going to happen overnight.
But just knowing that a greater power in myself has been awakened and put in control goes a long way in beginning to rectify the damage that has been done.
There is a mental health crisis affecting America (and possibly globally as well). I’m not in a position to pinpoint where it came from or what brought it about, although I have some ideas. But that’s beside the point. What I want to hone in on, this being a newsletter about midlife, is that this is not a phenomenon affecting only younger generations. Those of us in our 40s, 50s, and beyond are not exempt. If you’ve been struggling with anxiety, fear, depression, or lack of meaning in your life, the help is out there.
I’m an avid believer that great things can come out of even the most dire of situations, and the wonderful thing about this mental health crisis is that decades of stigma and taboo regarding mental health are being washed away as we realize that these are real problems that everyone faces, and has always faced.
More people are getting the help they need than ever before, which gives me hope that all of us have a brighter and more beautiful life within arms reach, and it’s accessible right now. You may just need a guiding hand to help you reveal it for yourself.
Are you fighting your own mental health issues in middle age? Has therapy helped you navigate through some of life’s challenges? Sound off in the comments! Since MidThoughts is still in its infancy, your feedback is vital in growing this community and delivering compelling content that resonates with you.
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That’s all for now. Be sure to join me back here in a couple of weeks for another issue of MidThoughts.