Scotland on Sunday, October 7, 2007
My new pal Dave is sitting in his conservatory smiling at me as if he's got a surprise in store. He has, too, but it's not something nice like a party invitation or a late birthday present. Dave's a therapist and he's ready to dispense some pretty tough advice, because I've come to talk to him about my man problem. Or rather my supposed man problem, which obviously doesn't really exist. A midlife crisis? Me?
Back in January, as my 47th year loomed, I gave up a handsome salary and a steady job to work for myself. I became more health-conscious, too, and started riding a bike. I began getting back into music again and after years of semi-dedicated child-rearing, I went to a couple of gigs in dark little clubs around Edinburgh, where the audiences were primarily students and spotty adolescents.
I'd never really bothered about any of this midlife stuff until my friends began analysing my behaviour. And when all this evidence was presented on a charge sheet... well, it's easy to see how it might be misconstrued.
Curious to find out more, I checked out the very limited literature on the male midlife crisis but could only find a list of symptoms (erectile dysfunction, loss of libido, baldness) and a telephone number for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. They recommended me to Dave, who lives just outside Bonnybridge.
"The thing is, Mike, you can find all kinds of ways to postpone this stuff," says Dave - aka Professor Mearns - drawing his palms together in an attitude of prayer. "But at some point, it is probably going to hit you. You say it hasn't affected you... well, that's probably true."
In the pause that follows, it would be easy to crowbar in the words "but quite possibly not", though Dave politely forbears. "What we're talking about here is a crisis all right, an existential crisis. It often happens when things are changing sexually - testosterone dropping and so on. For some people, it's okay, no big deal. But for others, seeing themselves change physically can be very frightening."
And so we begin my therapeutic journey. Over the next couple of hours, it becomes apparent that, for Dave, life roughly equates to a long trudge over a mountainous landscape. You'll enjoy plodding along its sunny valleys - the happy childhood at the beginning of the journey or, a while later, the pleasant route that leads into a long-term relationship. But like any sensible hiker, you should be well equipped for rocky ground, because inevitably you'll hit what Dave calls "an emotional outcrop". That's the moment when life's big questions start tripping you up.
"I wouldn't call it a midlife crisis," he says. "It's an awareness of our existence which is outcropping in our lives. From the adult perspective, we often call what teenagers go through 'teenage angst'. But it's probably very similar to an existential crisis later in life. It is about the same kind of fundamental question, 'What am I about in life?', except the person in midlife asks, 'What have I been about in life?'"
Trauma can pose these questions, he says, through bereavement, illness, a lost job or just the awareness of growing older. And the symptoms? Well, I already know that a lot of smart alecks can recognise those...
Dave is something of a pioneer. In the 1970s, when counselling theories were oozing out of the US towards Britain, he was tackling some of toughest terrain in the world. That was west central Scotland, in the days when rigid Presbyterians ruled the roost and the idea of a Scottish man sharing his emotional problems with a stranger was as likely as Ian Paisley officiating at Elton John's wedding.
But Dave stuck with it. He helped establish the University of Strathclyde as one of Britain's leading centres for psychotherapy, and played his part in introducing the discipline into a once-sceptical NHS. He has written books, edits journals and, even though he retired two years ago, still gets called to conferences all over the world.
Dave's maxim - which he applies equally to me as he does to the messed-up Glasgow gangsters who have occasionally come to him for help - is as follows: "The therapist should be so alongside the client that the client is not aware of him as a separate, independent existence." In other words, he wants to get inside my head so we can march out and face my issues together.
In Dave's world, it is possible to perceive two obvious ways in which middle-aged men deal with those big existential questions like, 'What am I doing here?' and 'Is this it?' They either turn inwards or they turn outwards.
Those who look in, he says, "will probably get drunk while they're doing it" and that's no good for their mental state. Others will flip right round and do things that can often seem out of character or just plain desperate. "That's where the thing about buying the motorbike or the sports car comes in," he says. "Or becoming a workaholic. It keeps you one step ahead of depression. Some people think it's crazy. But sometimes people are just expressing other parts of themselves; stuff that was around earlier in their lives. They think, 'I used to like the bike when I was younger...'"
Some of his observations are funny. Like the notion that the middle-class, middle-aged foot soldiers of the Tartan Army are doing nothing more than fleeing their midlife crises as they yomp round Europe after the Scotland football team. "Think of all the different things you get out of it," Dave muses. "For a start, you're identifying yourself with a team - you have the whole range of emotions associated with that. There's the camaraderie, you get to go to different places and do different things and there's a proper justification. Guys don't get many opportunities to do that. In the course of it all, they are expressing all sorts of things about themselves that maybe don't get that much expression. Psychologically, it's pretty healthy."
Some of his other ideas I find harder to accept. All the men I've talked with who have been labelled 'MLC victim' by their mates feel they haven't changed that much from their younger selves. Earlier this year, the octogenarian author John Mortimer told me that, throughout his life, he felt just as he did when he was a teenage boy. Almost in the next breath, he asked: "Don't you think a woman holding a cigarette is very erotic?" Mortimer's midlife crisis is presumably due to start at 90.
It's not normal, apparently. "That kind of person is difficult for other people," says Dave. "In psychological terms, there might be a slight personality disorder. It makes it very difficult for them to step outside themselves and to see the world the way that other people see it. That kind of character is much more often a man than a woman."
But surely it's not just egocentrics who pose problems for other people, If Dave's 'existential crisis' is inevitable for all of us, there are going to be casualties. Couples will be torn apart. If I go home now and ask, "Is this it?" in a loud voice, there's a strong chance the walls of my domestic world will come tumbling down.
"It can be really threatening to the other person," agrees Dave. "If there has been a pattern to the relationship - and people who live with each other for years will develop a very sophisticated pattern - it can be very difficult.
"For much of their lives, someone has been giving vent to one part of themselves - but now they begin to hear other voices. One part maybe is saying, 'Get a good job, stay steady, be a provider' - the other voice is asking, 'Where is the fun?' Often in therapy, the person will give expression to the different voices and there is more chance of this voice coming through with 'Let's take on some challenges'.
"I'm not making people leave the relationship or go further from it. I'm giving them scope to hear themselves more fully. We could work the other way and have an approach that keeps people together - but wouldn't we be postponing a problem?"
The probability is that most couples avoid confronting the issues, he says, and some will stay in a relationship even when they find it unsatisfying, because the alternative is loneliness. But Dave (who has been married for 32 years) prefers to think of marriage as a series of contracts. "Your first contract is about being in love. It's not to have kids, it's to enjoy that time. Your second contract - which might be with the same person or not - is about settling down and having quite a long period of family life. The third phase is later - the empty nest - and that's different too. Making a contract with someone to live together in that period of life involves different things. It's a very interesting idea - couples thinking in this way and re-contracting. It can be very exciting."
After all that's gone before, it's a surprisingly positive position to take. And Dave has more good news. Alongside those inward-looking and outward-looking responses to the crisis, there seems to be a third way. "When those 'who are we?' questions hit, sometimes you can take it. People differ a lot. You can welcome this crisis and be okay about these fundamental questions."
And there's my therapist's message of hope. Baldness? Erectile dysfunction? Loss of libido? Bring 'em on. I'm off to embrace my crisis.
Pictures: Dave and me, in the conservatory of doubt; seven gentlemen from the Tartan Army stand firm against mlc.