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The Earnheardts | Is COVID-19 our collective midlife crisis?

I’m lucky in some ways. I’m lucky to be surrounded by family, even if it didn’t slow my descent into another midlife crisis. Yes, another. That’s the rub. This, I think, is my second midlife crisis. There’s no real APA or DSM V psychological definition of someone in a midlife crisis.
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The Earnheardts: Clockwise from top: Mary Beth, Katie, Sadie, Adam, Ozzie, and Ella.

I think I’m in the midst of a midlife crisis.

Of course, I’m not a psychiatrist, but my behavior and attitude in the last 18 months seem to match the profile of someone in a crisis.

There’s no real American Psychological Association or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders psychological definition of someone in a midlife crisis, but there is for someone in an emotional crisis. According to the APA, someone in crisis demonstrates a “clear and abrupt change in behavior.” 

Someone in emotional crisis might show a:

  • Neglect of personal hygiene;
  • Dramatic change in sleep habits (e.g., sleeping more often, not sleeping well);
  • Weight gain or loss;
  • Decline in performance at work or school;
  • Pronounced change in mood (e.g., irritability, anger, anxiety or sadness);
  • Withdrawal from routine activities and relationships.

For sure, I can click 3, maybe 4 on that list (OK, not the first one; I’m still pretty good about wearing deodorant, brushing and flossing, taking showers, etc.). But I worry about poor sleep habits, being overweight and my occasional crappy moods. 

Of course, I’m blaming this midlife crisis on the pandemic. 

If you’re like me, no matter where you are in the world, your life was upended in some form or fashion by COVID. The early days led many of us to hunker down. Fellow extroverts, longing for social fuel, lamented being cut off from supply lines found in the usual spaces like bars and churches. Those who lived by regimented schedules saw an end to normalcy, forced to recreate routines in hopes of retaining control of their calendars.

To be fair, we’re all living through the same midlife crisis. Look at the list above again. How many can you check on a daily basis? 

I’m lucky in some ways. I’m lucky to be surrounded by family, even if it didn’t slow my descent into another midlife crisis. Yes, another. That’s the rub. This, I think, is my second midlife crisis. Without knowing much about how to define a crisis, I ignorantly assumed we could only have one. 

Recently, I likened my current midlife crises to taking a test in college. Like a college exam, there can be more than one in a particular semester. They can come at any time. Some come without warning.

If you’re familiar with how college calendars work, think of your life in terms of a semester. You come to the first class on the first day, unsure about the expectations. As you move through the term, listening to lectures and reading, you learn more and more until at the end of the semester, the final class comes, possibly with an exam. Then, it’s over. 

It’s the final. It’s the culmination of the work completed in one semester. 

Did you pass the final exam? Who knows? That’s not really the point (at least not for my midlife-midterm metaphor). It has more to do with what you learned, how you grew, and how you managed the multiple (yes, multiple) midterm tests you took along the way.

My amazing wife, who readers of The Earnheardts know as Mary Beth, is also a professor at YSU. She’s taught me many things about teaching: how to create testable learning objectives, building fun course materials, and how to manage a classroom. 

She also taught me something about midterm exams that blew my mind: there can be more than one.

Never, ever did I have a professor who gave more than one midterm exam. Or so I thought. 

“Sure they did. They just didn’t call it a midterm exam,” Mary Beth explained. “But you certainly had professors who gave you more than one test in a semester, right?”

“Yes.”

“Boom. Multiple midterm exams,” she replied. “Just because it happens in the beginning of the semester, or the middle, or near the end, doesn’t matter. It’s all midterm until you’re in finals week.”

I know. Either she’s brilliant, or I’m not as smart as I think I am.

This is why I believe, regardless of age, we’re all experiencing some form of a pandemic-induced midlife crisis. If my “life in a semester” metaphor holds true, our crisis “exams” can come at any time. So to paraphrase Mary Beth, it’s all midlife until you’re in your final moments.

See, I had wrongly assumed that 1.) I’d only ever have one midlife crisis and 2.) it would actually come at midlife. According to Amy Morin, psychotherapist and editor-in-chief at Verywell Mind, midlife crises can come at any time. But people generally assume they come somewhere between their 30s and 50s.

“People who are having a midlife crisis are thought to be struggling with their own mortality and, somewhere during midlife, they ditch some of their responsibilities in favor of fun.”

My first crisis came some time in 2014. Sure, I struggled some with my own mortality, but that wasn’t really it. I just wanted to break free of my responsibilities and have more fun. “I’m 44,” I thought. “This means it’s time to have a midlife crisis. I can deal with this.” 

Plus, in a strange way, the thought of living to be 88 was comforting. 

Our collective COVID midlife crisis may have forced many of us to consider our own mortalities. But I think it really forced many of us to reconsider the importance of life in terms of fun, in terms of seizing the moment. 

“Carpe diem, boys. Seize the day.” Those lines, famously whispered by Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poets Society are words that resonate with many of us today and we look to emerge from our crises by seizing the day.

While COVID sent some of us spiraling inward, it also sent some of us out to seek out fun, to escape, to be curious about life. According to psychologists, this is also a typical reaction to a midlife crisis. 

“The emotional turmoil some people experience during midlife doesn’t always lead to major lifestyle changes that involve the desire to be young again,” Morin notes. “In fact, a midlife crisis could turn into something positive.”

See, midlife crises don’t have to be all bad. They can produce something meaningful. My first midlife crisis helped me realize the importance of my identity as a father and husband. My second midlife crisis made me reconsider the importance of exploration and experiencing new things with my family.

If there’s a third midlife crisis in my future, I’m ready for it. I’d just prefer it not be brought on by a global pandemic. 

Adam Earnheardt is professor of communication at YSU, executive director of the Youngstown Press Club, and a National Society of Newspaper Columnists ambassador. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn. 


 
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