It’s 5 am. I’m wide awake again. In the dark, I hear my wife breathing beside me, sound asleep. I close my eyes, take deep breaths, and try to empty my mind. It never works. I can’t stop the thoughts.
How did I get here? Last year, I turned forty and stopped being able to sleep through the night. I go about my days in an exhausted trance, preoccupied with the minutiae of middle adulthood. I read the news and have boring conversations in the break room. I drink coffee to stay awake and take pills to fall asleep. It’s harder to be hopeful. I feel locked in, immutable.
For years, I sustained myself with elaborate fantasies of how I’d finally be happy when I made it. I’d make an app that everyone would use. Or I’d start a business with my brother. We’re smart guys, we’ll figure it out. Those fantasies seem increasingly farfetched now. Whatever trick I was using to make myself believe them is no longer working. I’m left to confront my reality, the possibility that this is all there is.
I live in a small house with my wife and two kids in the town I grew up in. I drive a dented old car to a stable job that pays okay. My wealthy friends, doctors and lawyers, live in huge houses, take expensive vacations, and consider buying quarter million dollar sports cars. I look upon their lives with envy even though I know what kind of sacrifices they made, how dissimilar to them I am.
My mom died when she was fifty-three, and it changed me. I started to see life in an office under fluorescent lights as wasted time. I quit my consulting job, stopped traveling for work, and took a stable 9-to-5. I wanted to work just enough to live, no more. I spent my twenties falling in love and seeing the world. My thirties having children and trying to experience every step of their lives. I never regretted putting work on the back burner.
Now, in my forties, I’m beginning to question those decisions. I spend half my time worrying about the future, wondering how I’ll pay for a bigger house, college, retirement. I spend the other half regretting choices I’ve made, wishing I could go back in time and change myself into someone I’ve never been. Someone with more ambition and fewer feelings. I catch myself fantasizing about alternate lives in far too much detail.
My life is passing in front of my eyes and I don’t even see it. I realize this is no way to live and I’m trying to change it. I do yoga and meditate in the hopes that somehow I can wake up and start experiencing the present. Most of the time it seems to make no difference. But sometimes I see things so poignant time seems to stop. Gingko leaves in autumn changing from green to yellow, twirling slowly to the ground. Neon orange sunsets so vivid they don’t seem real. My seven year old’s toothless smile when her eyes meet mine. In those moments, I realize how lucky I am to be alive, experiencing the world. Everything makes sense because there are no questions. All my worries, my desires, the past, the future, drop away.
I remind myself how short life is. The years flash by ever faster as I get older. At the end, when we look back, what will we remember? For me, it’s the warmth of my mom’s voice. The smell of my wife’s hair. My kids squealing and running into my arms when I get home. I have everything I need to be happy in this world. Why is it so easy to forget?