A recent study found that there has been an alarming spike in suicides among midlife women. I am neither scientist nor statistician, but I am a midlife woman. Some have called mid-life “Prime Time.” but few midlife women in my circles are crowing that they’re living their best life now.
Most of my friends tell me they’ve experienced periods of moderate-to-severe clinical depression. A good percentage of these women are committed Christians. Though the Church is called to be a community that honors life transformation and fosters spiritual growth, many at midlife report that what they’re experiencing emotionally and spiritually isolates them from congregational life – and that their churches are not equipped to respond to their needs.
Case in point: Cathy was once the vivacious soccer mom who coordinated snacks and rides for her kids’ teams. She led the Thursday evening women’s Bible study at her nondenominational congregation for many years. She sold real estate in her middle-class suburb. She was old enough to remember the ad jingle that went “I can bring home the bacon / fry it up in a pan / and never, never, never let you forget you’re a man,” because she lived it. Doing it all was having it all for women of her generation.
Now 56, it’s been years since Cathy has fried up any bacon. Her cholesterol levels were off the charts at her last doctor’s visit, and there was no one left at home to eat the bacon, anyway. Her kids are long gone from the nest she worked so hard to create. Her only remaining parent has late-stage Alzheimer’s. The real-estate crash effectively ended her career. She sees her grandmother’s body staring back at her when she looks in the mirror. She stopped leading the Bible study at church when her marriage was unraveling 10 years ago, though she’s continued to attend Sunday services. A few weeks ago, a well-meaning greeter stuck a brightly-colored “Welcome, Visitor!” flier in her hand as she entered the sanctuary.
When I asked what that communicated to her, Cathy said, “I have been battling the sense that I am invisible in so many areas of my life. The one place I should be visible is to my own church family. And the thing is, I can’t even get offended about it. I just don’t care anymore.”
Because many of our churches are focused on family-based programming, the unspoken message to those who don’t fit the target demographic is that they don’t matter the same way that younger people do. Pollster George Barna reports that baby boomers are leaving the church in surprising numbers.
When her marriage ended, Cathy sought mental health counseling for symptoms of clinical depression, and her doctor prescribed a low dose of an antidepressant. Though the treatment has been successful, she can’t shake the sense of emotional and spiritual flatness she feels. Though she has some of it up to the side effects of her medication, the two of us have also been considering whether it might be acedia, or spiritual apathy, most recently described in Kathleen Norris’s 2008 memoir, Acedia and Me (Read Christianity Today magazine’s review here).
I believe that such standard dictionary definitions of acedia as ‘apathy’, ‘boredom’ or ‘torpor’ do not begin to cover it, and while we may find it convenient to regard it as a more primitive word for what we now term depression, the truth is more complex … Acedia, it seems, is not only the demon that lobs an assault at midday but also the bad thought that afflicts us in the middle of life, when it seems impossible to care about so many things that used to matter … The pose of indifference is far more appealing.
For some of us the steady passage of time becomes unbearably cruel, an endless round of pain that wears us down. My husband was convinced that most suicides come out of sheer exhaustion.
The church has been empowered to bring God’s comfort to those who are suffering and to call those who are ensnared by temptation toward freedom. Norris notes that “while depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication, acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer.”
Hugging the margins in many church communities, you’ll probably find a handful of middle-aged women who are battling depression, acedia, or both. Most churches can’t and shouldn’t provide mental health treatment, but they can provide referrals, prayer support, and a safe, shame-free environment to those who are suffering from depression. They can cultivate wise mentors and mature spiritual directors who can help others face down their possible “noonday demons” after mental-health issues have been addressed. This is Pastoral Care 101 for congregants who are willing to make themselves visible.
But what of the invisible Cathys? Learning to see those who are invisible is a spiritual act. How many church leaders are committed to ongoing education of their congregations about the changes and challenges members experience during each life stage and transition? I believe this is an essential and often-neglected component of spiritual formation. Understanding who we are in Christ is linked to life stage in some deeply profound ways. Learning about life stages in a church context must come through a variety of channels: sermons, classrooms, small groups, retreats, and multi-generational relationships. Without this understanding, how will we ever live into the “one anothering” to which every person in a church community is called?
As we do, perhaps we’ll discover that midlife is prime time after all.
This post first appeared on Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog.