Gail Sheehy: A Midlife Woman’s Turnaround

Middle-aged American women have the lowest well-being of any age group, according to a three-year study by Gallup-Healthways. Here’s an inspiring exception

My friend Anne is 58 years old and a poster woman for high well-being in middle age. She starts her day with meditation and a mean spinning class. She is addicted to veggies and vitamins and doesn’t smoke or drink. She is thin, solvent, and has a gaggle of good girlfriends and a live-out boyfriend.

Do you hate her already?

Anne is the polar opposite of the profile of today’s middle-aged woman. Middle-aged American women now have the lowest well-being of any age group, according to a three-year study by Gallup-Healthways. The majority are under high stress, trying to take care of everyone else: monitoring teenage children, caregiving for aging parents; working at a jobs they need to keep, and struggling with menopause. Given our obstinate recession, these women don’t find time to exercise or eat healthy. An increasing number are smoking, becoming obese, and developing chronic health problems at an earlier age than ever. Forty to 70% lapse into depression.

“If these lifestyles and the decline in well-being continue for women, we will see the first generation of women to begin losing the longevity dividend — five to seven years — they’ve traditionally enjoyed over men,” says Joseph Coughlin, director of the Age Lab at MIT.

So, how did Anne achieve an enviable state of high well-being by her late 50s? With courage and humility and the acceptance of help. It’s the story of a lifesaving midlife passage from which we can all learn.

Seven years ago, at 51, Anne was suicidal. Living in a remote corner of Massachusetts, she was locked in a chaotic co-dependent relationship with her husband. She had given up her job to help him write a book. Blocked, his for of self-medication was alcohol and speed. His behavior careered between depression and raging mania. Her teenage children refused to come home from school.

“I didn’t know who I was anymore,” Anne says. “How did I end up with this life? I felt very old. I was getting sick. I sensed that if I continued in that life, I would get cancer.”

A glass of wine at 8 pm was her way to turn off the terrified chatter in her head. Surprise, surprise! The bottle always seemed to be empty before ten. Her morning routine was coffee and a cigarette. Anne’s only discipline  was running: five miles a day. She was skin and bone. “But it kept me sane.”

She tried giving up the wine. As the haze of creeping alcoholism lifted, she knew, subconsciously, that if she wanted to stick to sobriety, she would have to make a complete shift in her life.

“We have to get away,” she whispered to her 13-year-old daughter one morning.

The child exclaimed, “Yes!” and scrambled to pack her own bag. Anne left with no car, no job, no income, and $40,000 in debt. She moved in with her mother in a small beach town. It gave her a role – caregiver — and expense-free accommodations.

Over the next few years, she found a work as a human resources coordinator at a company that went national, paid off her credit card debt, and concentrated on repairing the damage to her kids. Those external changes were supported by a gradual physical, emotional and spiritual rebirth.

“That small beach community saved my life,” she says now. A prime candidate for osteoporosis, she began taking bio-identical hormones, which also lifted her mood and memory. The friends she found in AA helped her to try gentler ways to dissolve the stress. “I learned to meditate on the rock of fear in the pit of my stomach; I literally breathe it away.” She came to believe in a universal God energy that will guide her, if she allows it. “Once I began to open up to the possibility of change,” she says, “it became an adventure.”

Not all was smooth, of course. Dementia turned her mother combative and difficult to live with. Anne reached out to repair relations with her sisters and brother and the three tag-teamed harmoniously as caregivers. “Now I have all these new connections, and it’s given me new life,” Anne tells me.

She turned 58 last week. Her now-21-year-old daughter is working and happy to live with Mom, who takes her to spinning class at 7 in the morning. After class, Anne goes for coffee with the women friends who helped to rescue her. “That fifteen minutes is the best anti-stress medicine,” she says. It sets her up for the day.

“I feel much younger than I did seven years ago,” Anne continues. “I’m now 10 pounds heavier and much healthier.” She laughs, a big buoyant laugh. As long as I can borrow my daughter’s clothing, I’m okay.”

Journalist and lecturer Gail Sheehy is the author of 16 books about adult life stages, including Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence.

17 comments so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    To me, the key to a better life is caring friends that you can talk out your joys and your pains with.  But it goes two ways.  You are there to listen to others, very often finding from their conversations and tales of woe that you are truly blessed.  Sometimes we must have to hear that a few times to count our own blessings.  But the worst thing we can do is not have anyone to call, see, talk our cares out with.  The are small pebbles the beginning, but they mount and pretty soon we are lugging around stones – which are woes untold.  Once we get them off our backs, the relief is wonderful.  As for AA, for me – the outsider – it seems to be a private fraternity that meets early every morning.  There is genuine caring going on.  If you miss a day, obviously others call you up letting you know you are missed.  It seems to be people helping people – and what could be better.

    To be able to say that you have friends who are there for you is the gold in your hands.  It has proven to be the best medicine — and the caring often becomes love of another human being – and without love we are not whole.

  2. avatar phyllis Doyle Pepe says:

    ““If these lifestyles and the decline in well-being continue for women, we will see the first generation of women to begin losing the longevity dividend — five to seven years — they’ve traditionally enjoyed over men,” says Joseph Coughlin, director of the Age Lab at MIT.”
    Again, as in almost all of these kinds of dour statistics, it ain’t the women with money that are suffering the kinds of life style described above. The inequality in this country is indeed going to divide not only women of slender means, but everyone of slender means. The armed services reports that 75% of young men who want to join the military are not eligible because of drugs, poor health, and lack of education which means a lost generation of men who will flounder and probably cause unrest.

    Gail asks us, after describing her friend’s life style, “Do you hate her already?” Is that how we feel when we read or know someone like this? And if so, why? I would think one would, if one is so inclined to envy, try to emulate , rather than “hate.” But perhaps I’m being too picky here––yet, words matter.

  3. avatar D C says:

    Do you hate her already. 

    Changes the whole tone of your piece.  And not in that good way, either. 

    • avatar Joan Larsen says:

      I tend to not stop and analyze such a sentence.  Gail is a smart woman . . . and has been around enough to this age group that a question like that was thought to be provocative.
       I hope anyhow. Do I envy such a woman?  Are you kidding???  Why would I??  She is living the most self-centered life, a life that is only interested in the “me” factor — and then bragging about how righteous she is.  Does anyone think that she has it all?  A shallow, self-centered life with bubbles that will burst – as bubbles do — leaving her with ZERO and a propensity to EAT her heart out.  We already know that happens.  Perhaps a case of Kleenex should be held in abeyance for her.

      For those of us who have been through that stage of life and who have found it marvelous beyond reason, just who was that?  We were 50 year old women but I wasn’t counting, were you?  I was living that wonderful life — making that life happen with every avenue I confidently moved forward on.  And — if god forbid — it didn’t work (as things are not perfect) — I moved around or took another course without thinking.  I wasn’t knitting or
      or going to exercise class.  I was running around enough with the life I chose — I was already “on my feet”.  When you are being fulfilled, you are not cramming food down your throat.  You are only going around once and we know it by that time.  Time to use your brain.  Nothing works all the time, but every step forward gives you more confidence.  And every person you meet IF you get out of your house is a possible friend, mentor, or gives the name of someone you can go to next for help. 

      As I think of this, the “do you hate her already?” – I think we are put off, saddened even, by the use of the word “hate”.  Hate is non-productuve and also implies that the person writing it may “hate” also — sometime or other.  Envy is another word that does us no
       good.  Far more helpful to others is to share knowledge the author has gained as she has interviewed the world in going down her own road.  One inspiration may get those of us in bad circumstances to have some new ideas and motivation to move forward.  But moving forward is NOT to be self-centered as this example was.   

  4. avatar French Heart says:

    I don’t use the word ‘hate’ and certainly not envy etc. Nor do I find this piece to set the bar for heroines very high. Though I am very happy for the woman that she is in a better place.

    I just wrote a blog post today on my site on a true heroine and inspiration. The #1 most wanted French resistance fighter with a $5M franc bounty on her head–and one of the most decorated women of WWII by FOUR nations. From a poor family with a father that abandoned them, not especially well educated, she became an overseas correspondent for the Chicago Trib, interviewed Hitler, married a wealthy French industrialist, and when France fell outshot, outwitted, outdrank, and wowed all the men. Even dispatched a Nazi with her bare hands. That’s heroic.

    • avatar Lila says:

      French Heart, thanks for this. What a woman. What a PERSON. And I love the picture of her in her grand old age, even more steely than in her uniform. What a great story!

  5. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Suzanne . . . your true story of Charlotte Gray on your own blog today was so amazing, so moving — the story of a woman with her own agenda, brave beyond what we think of as bravery (and rare with women), held me spellbound.  I sent it to many women, ordered the book, and will look forward to the movie.  I would love to have known this woman . . . at least met her.  We probably will not see her like again.  You captured her and her story so well, making her come alive. 

    To all those who love to read, be inspired, be moved, find extraodinary photography,  find music occasionally to bring her stories to new heights, there is no one on the web who does this as well as French Heart.  She makes my day, each and every day.  I have seldom had a chance to praise Suzanne to the heights.  Today and this opportunity pleases me so much.

    • avatar French Heart says:

      Very kind of you Joan, thank you. Nancy Wake certainly has that St. Joan of Arc. Love the look on her 80++ face. Authenticity & pride in a life well lived is so captivating & beautiful. Cheers for your Tues, off to the beach & then back to work! Thanks again.

  6. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    I couldn’t dislike or hate anyone who found a path to health and happiness. I admire people who can reinvent themselves after putting up with adversity. This woman forged her own path from the ashes of a marriage clearly not working showing her children that strength comes from change even when it starts with nothing but debt. Stepping into a new life as a caregiver had to be a baptism of fire for a place to stay. It took determination and will power to overcome her debt and rebuilding a healthy family life with her children. She’s earned everything that she has.

  7. avatar ThomasMorgan says:

    I see Anne’s story as one of survival. Self respect–seeing your own inherent value and purpose in living, is different from selfishness. I wish her the best.

  8. avatar Miss Lee says:

    The objection I have to this article is that it sets up another, largely impossible to achieve, superwoman myth.  I am 56, single w/girl friends and a demanding job.  I have time to exercise both in the morning (yoga) and evening (pilates alternating with Zumba).  I eat a restricted diet because I am now a bit more than half way to a 70 lb weight loss.  I have health issues that dictate both the health loss and the mix of exercise that I do.  Most of the women that I know do not have either the time to exercise or the freedom to eat the diet that I do because they have other people to feed who don’t believe that salad is an acceptable supper.  Back in my 40′s, became very obvious to me that many women of my generation would die fairly young – of exhaustion trying to “have it all”.  That myth was the you could have a perfect marriage, perfect children and a fullfilling career. Trying to achieve that impossible goal was simply wearing  the women I knew down to a state of emotional and physical exhausion.  My mother says that my generation was really sold a bill of goods and she was right.  Now articles like this one are selling a new bill of goods that is out of reach of most women who are trying to keep a roof over their heads and get a bit of uneasy sleep at night.  Why don’t we instead just try supporting women for doing their best in impossible circumstances rather than saying once again, you are falling short.

    • avatar Miss Lee says:

      weight loss that is, not health loss

    • avatar Chris Glass` says:

      Miss Lee – I don’t think that the article on Anne really portrayed her as a superwomen, more as a person that did what she had to do to avoid total destruction. Living in a remote area with a non-functioning spouse and children who didn’t want to be in that hotbed of turmoil could have driven her to suicide. Instead she moved in with her mother as a caregiver and did what was necessary to salvage her life and children. As a caregiver there is often no hotter little corner of hell than someone criticizing your every move when they can’t or won’t help themselves.

      I am sure that this woman ever wondered if she would ever find “normal” in her life again as she worked to pay off her debt and finish raising her children. The myth of a perfect marriage for most men and women is just that – a myth. Life happens with unexpected consequences. We end up being caregivers for parents, spouses or raising the children of family members not capable of doing so. We may face major illnesses or unemployment but we cope because we have to. One day we realize that we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as things improve.

      I don’t think women are sold a bill of goods so much as some buy into the myth that once married they think that will live happily ever after with a perfect job and ideal family life. Reality sets in when we discover our jobs partners or circumstances don’t match the hopes or dreams idealized before we had life experience. Ultimately we are the creators of our own circumstances by what we choose. Some people will take lemons and make lemonade others will just sour on life completely.

      • avatar Miss Lee says:

        My comment was not inspired by the story.  It is quite a tale of survival. Rather I was responding to the quick summary and the don’t you hate her comment.  Since I have been losing weight, women ask me how I am doing it.  When I tell them my exercise schedule and diet, they always say oh I should to that but I really can’t because…..  They are all valid reasons, not excuses.  Most women have many time constraints, money constraints and too many bells to answer to as it is.  I always reply that they are making good choices for their life and they don’t have to do anything more.  They are just perfect as they are.  In response to my support, they sigh and still say well I SHOULD.  Women don’t need another role model to “hate”.  They need support & recognition for all they do. 

      • avatar ThomasMorgan says:

        Well put.

      • avatar ThomasMorgan says:

        Ooops, well put: Chris Glass. My experience in life confirms your comments.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Miss Lee, you are so right about all the time constraints, bells to answer and other burdens that women shoulder, like it or not – and you are also right that our generation has been sold a bill of goods about “having it all.” You have touched on two themes that I see again and again:

      1) There are only 24 hours in a day and you are only one person. I think that women should be allowed to do ANYTHING in this day and age. This is not the same as doing EVERYTHING. Having choices is great, but we need to make those choices, not try to do it all.

      2) Related to that – even though women are more empowered than ever, they also are just as burdened as ever. Maybe even more so, since now we are not socially required to have a partner around to help raise our kids or bring in income (there are 3.5 times more single-mother households than single-father ones). Sure, there are some great husbands and partners out there, but even for married parents, childcare and housework still falls disproportionately on women. And partly because of the interference of these additional burdens, women still do not have salary equity in the workplace.