Many women wake in the middle of the road of their lives…lost, alone and afraid. Many of us lose our way of belonging. Our children nearly grown, we no longer feel needed. No longer useful. No longer seen. We are alone in a way we have never been alone before. We may not know precisely what is wrong, why we feel the way we do, but we do know that there is no going back to the old story of our lives.
What causes a woman, in these stormy years, to withdraw from outer concerns and activities, retreat from the demands of relationship, and become preoccupied with inexplicable inner stirrings? What happens in this sensitive life passage that propels us, like the Queen in our story, into the gray, dark Forest?
Sometimes there is a precipitating crisis that sends us to the woods. Sometimes there is not. A child may leave home, we may get sick, loose a job, a marriage, or everything may remain just the way it was. Not all of us suffer a loss as primary as a job or marriage. More often than not, the crisis is a silent one, hidden in the nooks and crannies of our everyday world.
A lifelong extrovert, I have always loved social interaction and events. It was only natural to throw a party on my 50th birthday. Why then was planning that party, something I had always done with ease, such an effort? I could not muster the enthusiasm I normally had for such endeavors. The gathering happened but I found little joy in the experience. The well had gone dry. I had lost my passion for activities I had always enjoyed and did not know how to revive it.
Life-as-I-knew-it had fallen flat. My family needed me to keep going; my friends expected me to show up. I could do neither. For the first time in my life I began to withdraw. A sense of despondency took over but I could not pin it on any particular thing.
No one wants to be depressed. We do everything we can to jumpstart our sense of fun and adventure. Yet, as hard as we might try, we can’t get it going. The textbook symptoms are there – tears, irritability, lethargy, etc.., Everyone, ourselves included, is sure that something is wrong.
Modern psychology and self-help books speak readily on the subject of midlife depression. We think we know what this means. Yet the kind of symptoms we experience are not pathological in the clinical sense, though they can become so if we refuse to listen to them. Perhaps what we are calling depression is the state of fear and fatigue that comes about when we resist the changes that are calling to us. The changes themselves do not foster depression – the resistance to them does.
As uncomfortable as we are, it might be that we have been diagnosing ourselves into greater confusion. Perhaps we are overlooking something vitally important. There may be wisdom in our symptoms and much to be gained by turning towards, rather than away from, the kind of depression that we experience surrounding menopause.
Yes, our hormones do go crazy at this time, but we don’t need to plea insanity in defense of our erratic behaviors. Hormonal changes underpin other changes that are important and necessary in our psychological and spiritual growth. It just might be that biology is very much in sink with the essential tasks at hand.
What if, instead of trying to fight it, of trying to return to the way we were, we could sink more deeply into our physical and emotional discomfort? What if we could work more directly with our fears, understanding them as normal and necessary in the process of growth and change? Perhaps the very symptoms that are creating such uproar are in fact valuable sources of information and guidance. Perhaps the pain itself is a call forward.
The physical, emotional and spiritual turbulence we experience at this time of life is well within the natural order of things. Rather than a clinical or medical problem, it is an existential one. We might call it a fertile depression. The symptoms are real, and difficult, as most of us know, but at the same time there is a deeper, regenerative process at work.
Marie Louise Von Franz speaks of the growth and regeneration that is possible when we are willing to let go and allow ourselves to enter into the darkness. Though a woman may be experiencing only blackness and a frightening paralysis in her conscious life, there is nonetheless a vital force activated in the dark fertile soil of the unconscious.
The Forest is the place of unconventional inner life. It is where a woman drops into her innermost nature and finds out just what that feels like. The woman has to retire into her own loneliness and must realize that, although it looks as though she had a husband and children, or a job, she is not yet really alive. For much of her life she has replaced her instincts with the rules of the collective and now must return to the natural world to retrieve them. -Von Frannz
When a woman retreats into herself, she soon drops the externally defined and controlled images of femininity so prevalent in the culture. She begins to realign with her innate wisdom – with her instinct and intuition. She slows down and becomes more conscious of the natural rhythms of her body and of its miraculous nature. Her own body becomes her teacher.
Dr. Christiane Northrup, author of the Wisdom of Menopause says that when a woman makes the transition to the second half of her life… the body’s inner wisdom gets its last, best chance of breaking through culturally erected barriers, while shining a light on aspects of a woman’s life that need work.
As difficult as it is, there is no better time to do this work. Accepting loneliness consciously, embracing introversion as a good and natural remedy, letting go of affiliations that are not the real thing, is an act of courage not culturally expected or supported in women. There is little understanding of a woman’s need to retreat at this phase of the life cycle and little or no permission for her to follow this yearning. -C.Northrup
The changes of menopause can bring us to our knees. We no longer feel seen or supported in the outer world and that world ceases to interest us in the ways it did before. It becomes harder and harder to put ourselves forward. We long to withdraw when we feel this way, to seek protection and solace by turning within.
Sometimes our withdrawal is an act of choice; sometimes it is a resignation. Regardless of what draws us inward, and as painful as our circumstances might be, we need the safe and fertile holding of the Forest to see us through this time of change. We need time alone – quiet, reflective time – for our bodies and souls to reorganize and heal.