Karen Holmes

Losing Control: Memoirs of Middle Age

I am running away, driving as fast as I can up a motorway on a wet summer morning.

I’ve run away many times before. I’ve taken flight from Singapore when I was sure that my heart was shattered. I’ve fled from Brunei in fear for my life. I’ve run from Hong Kong with regret and New York with relief. More mundanely, I have caught early morning trains out of Hull and Hitchin, driven like the devil to get away from Devon and bussed it out of Bradford on a cold winter’s night. Location has never been a bar to making a swift exit. There was always some sort of transport to get me out of a fix. Failing that, I walked.

This escape is a lot more mundane. There are no aeroplanes, fast cars or long train journeys, just the drone of a heavyweight diesel engine in a battered old van. That seems fitting, though. It’s appropriate for my age and my situation because this time I’m running away from the knowledge that I’m old and creaking and ready for the scrapheap.

I’m running away from a future in which the best that I can hope for is contentment.

Contentment. The very sound of the word makes me shrivel. It brings to mind elderly couples sitting in silence in tea rooms. Women with deep lines of discontent etched between their eyes telling whoever will listen that, all in all, life has been good to them. It makes me think of neutral colours and innocuous conversation and a gradual slow strangling of the soul.

Contentment. Be content with your lot. Be satisfied. Accept the hand that has been dealt to you with grace. Grow old gently. Don’t question why you’ve ended up as you are. Be grateful that you’re still here and learn to live at peace with yourself.

Well hear this. Contentment is just another word for defeat. It’s a sign that you’ve relinquished the fight, retreated to your corner, pulled off the gloves because you’re too scared to throw—or take—another punch.

Contentment is for cissies, for lukewarm, boiled water, soft food individuals who can no longer gorge wholeheartedly on life. It’s for the old and the weary and the toothless.

God, grant me one wish that I keep my teeth until I die. Failing that, give me close-fitting dentures and a tube of firm adhesive, that I might continue to take chunks out of the apple and rip apart the bones and devour every experience that I can.

As if to punish me for my war cry, I feel a wave of heat start to move up from my chest to my hair roots. My hands are slick with sweat on the steering wheel, I can’t see because my eyes are on fire. The motorway blurs and I thank this God that I keep talking to, even though I don’t believe he exists, that I started my escape at four o’clock on a Sunday morning. There are no vehicles in sight, not a lorry, a car, a police van, to witness the way in which I cross the white lines as I lose control for a few seconds. My vision clears but my face still burns.

Hot flushes. We women of mature years are advised to think of them as power surges. Where, I’d like to know, is the power in losing control of your car because your hormone levels are all over the place? Where is the power in losing control of your body because you no longer produce oestrogen and the doctor has taken you off the HRT? Where is the power in feeling sick and vulnerable whenever you are not asleep?

Menopause is a truly vile process. You get all the chaos of adolescence with nothing to look forward to. Aching joints. Painful muscles. Insomnia. Deathly fatigue. Acne. Flaking skin. Nausea. Palpitations. Thrush. Cystitis. They were no fun at seventeen and are even less so now.

Some women maintain that they sail through the process, that it’s a natural stage of development that should be embraced as a new freedom. They are either very lucky or lying. For me it is disintegration, a slow tumble through the seven circles of hell.

All of which I could cope with if the physical sensations were not accompanied by the knowledge that I’m probably going crazy.

None of the books I’ve read or the websites I’ve visited can tell me what to do about the voices in my head that haunt me on the bad days. The twittering and tweeting and background noise, like a dawn chorus but much less sweet. Nobody can tell me how to turn the volume down or, better still, turn it off.

Neither do they address the sudden bursts of rage that segue seamlessly into weeping. The inability to deal with anything or anyone with equanimity. I’ve sobbed hysterically down the phone to the VAT man and the girl from the electricity company. I’ve stood in front of a cashier in Tesco with tears coursing down my face because I suddenly caught sight of the puppy on the wrapper of a twelve-pack of Andrex. I have gulped and blubbed and snotted for no reason at all in front of most of my relatives and all of my few remaining friends. I am an emotional and physical wreck because I am growing old.

As the hot flush slowly subsides, I suddenly feel remarkably calm. Until the next time.

There is chaos inside what remains of my brain. I am swept along continuously by what appears to be an unruly wave of scattered emotions, fragments, chatter. I have lost control and, for someone who has spent their life trying to keep a tight rein on the world, there can be nothing worse.

When I was a child, I had nine dolls and a panda. At night, I would line them up next to me, five on each side, and lay rigidly in the tiny space that was left. Then I would say my prayers. Please God, don’t let me have nightmares. Please God, don’t let any spiders come into the room. Please God, don’t let me be sick. These were three things that scared me most: the night dreams of burning ships, flayed bodies, death by drowning (I had a particularly gruesome book of elaborately illustrated fairy stories that I read every night before going to sleep); spiders which moved so quickly on their skinny little legs, appearing and disappearing, refusing to be caught; vomiting, that uncontrollable urge to expel my body’s contents that was all the more painful as I sought to suppress it and keep my stomach’s contents in their right place.

Three of my greatest fears, all about loss of control. Loss of personal control. I’ve never been interested in wider issues. If the ground rocked beneath my feet and I disappeared into an earthquake-induced canyon, so be it. If the world ends tomorrow because of divine intervention, fine. That’s nothing to do with me. What I’m concerned about are the things that I should be able to control. Maintaining dignity at all times, never falling apart in public, not wetting my knickers because I laugh too much.

Controlling the world in which I live has been my mainstay. I’ve expended every ounce of energy I possess on managing my affairs—and those of anyone close to me—for as long as I remember. The world hurts if you don’t control it. It is just too painful. It lacerates you, cuts you over and over again, until you no longer have a skin to protect yourself. It enervates you, wears you out, takes away your will.

The irony is that the battle to maintain that control is even more exhausting.

My battle for control has been predicated by the need to prevent loss. To stop people leaving me, to be the one who decides when the partings take place. That way I never have to face that limbo of being left behind.

And therein lies a tale but I’m not ready to go there yet.

Now everything—career, finances, domestic life, health—is suddenly out of control. I’m trying desperately keep this runaway train that was once my mind and body on track and failing.

Ageing gracefully isn’t about keeping the wrinkles at bay and the limbs mobile. It’s not about choosing the right colours to wear and learning to smile serenely. It’s about accepting the inevitable loss of control that you’ve had all your life. It’s about letting go, standing still instead of running. It’s about facing up to the inexorable truth that however hard you try, you’re going to get old, fall apart and die, and there’s sod all you can do about it. However well you’ve controlled your life to date is irrelevant. Your time is almost up and you can’t do anything about it.

Strangely, I am finding all of this very hard to accept. I have a theory that I can grow old and die and still maintain control. Since I reached middle age—and theoretically still have another thirty years to go—I have been putting my affairs in order. I spend hours mulling over my will, considering how I can dispose of my assets so that everyone is happy and thinks well of me after I’ve gone. I am planning my funeral so that nobody else has the inconvenience of trying to choose appropriate hymns. I have started clearing out cupboards and thinking about burning my notebooks, diaries and papers so that they won’t lurk on when I’m not around to censor them.

All of which would be fine if I were 85 and about to peg it from old age, or if the doctors had just diagnosed terminal cancer. But I am 56 and healthy. Nevertheless, I ruthlessly prune and sort and order my goods and chattels because even after I’m gone I want control over what remains of me.

Given a choice, I would select a date for my demise and a time so that everything could be neatly arranged beforehand.

All of this is balanced against the knowledge that I have no control, that I should just let the world get on with it, that I should stop trying to predict and order, let the spiders run all over me if they so choose, laugh at the nightmares and get pissed enough that I don’t feel a thing as I hang over the side of the lavatory throwing up.

Oddly, one of my few memories of being completely momentarily happy is of a time when I was in the most danger. I was on a bus to Chiang Mae Song. There were chickens in the aisle and after we’d been travelling for about half an hour, I suddenly realised that the holes in the window next to me were made by bullets. We were travelling up a mountain into bandit country, through dense jungle. When we reached the top we came down the other side. Fast. The driver started to laugh manically and to swing the driving wheel frantically from side to side.

There was a student in the seat in front of me who spoke a little English and who had introduced himself as we set off in the early dawn. He turned to me now. ‘The bus is broken,’ he said, and smiled.

Ah. From the way that our speed increased, I took that to mean that we had no brakes.

I sat back in my uncomfortable seat, turned up the volume on my Walkman, looked out at the blurred scenery as we careered down, down, down. And for that short time until we arrived at the bus station, I was totally, magically happy.

Karen Holmes

Karen Holmes lives in the north of England and works in publishing. A very long time ago she wrote a novel that topped the best-seller lists across Asia for three months. She never wrote another.