In Denial No Longer: Midlife Crisis for Sale

Can a mid-life crisis be sold?

Yes!

During mid-April, I sold an awesome, way-cool sports car I owned for 15 years. I won’t disclose the make or model, due to shame.

However, I bet what you are imagining right this second is EXACTLY IT.

Yes!

I enjoyed the car immensely for the first five years I owned it. I bought it used in 2004. The car was a limited, Millennium Edition manufactured in 2000.

For brief moments while driving it, I experienced the life of James Bond, Jason Bourne, Steve McQueen, Sam Spade, and all the other “Steves*” modeling masculine behavior for late-stage, middle-aged guys like me.

Side point:

You never see those Steves involved in steady romantic relationships. It ruins the primary theme if the genre because male perfection cannot include intimacy.

Why?

Because intimacy is always:

MESSY.

Meanwhile, for those first years, I’d drive into the valet stands of hotels and restaurants feeling like I was, finally, 6’4″ tall, well-cut, aerobically fit, sporting a genius IQ and a body free of surgical scars or illnesses.

Those images, of course, resided entirely in the realm of the imaginary, as Jacques Lacan would say. The imaginary, one of Lacan’s registers, consists of dreams and fantasies.

(The other registers consist of the symbolic, meaning every thing that can be symbolized in language or signs, and the real which, like the idea of death, can neither be imagined or symbolized).

But, fuck Lacan, I thought to myself.

It worked.

Around year five, I needed to bolster the barrier between the symbolic and the imaginary. In other words, I began utilizing denial vigorously.

Why?

I needed it to bolster the cool image I imagined the car leant me. In truth, I wasn’t really enjoying the it like I did initially. I only drove it during the week. No significant parts failed, but some of the minor ones did, leading me to frequently visit the mechanic in South Pasadena. I remember feeling annoyed at the expense, and even at the time wasted dropping the car off and picking it up.

But denial works wonders. I’d have these brief breakdowns and mechanic consultations. The, I’d transfer them to some distant region of my mind.

Then, I’d resume focusing on the unique paint color, the slick aerodynamic shape, and the rapid acceleration. I ran it up to 110 mph a few times during this mid-way period, unconsciously buttressing the denial by displaying the car’s prowess.

Denial can be delicious.

It’s the most commonly utilized defense mechanism, and it works like magic. Denial allowed me to ignore how the meaning of the car had begun to fade.

For the last five years, the denial began fracturing. The vehicle still looked beautiful, but its innards were deteriorating. Rebuilding the front end cost me $5000. Other systems failed, culminating in a complete engine rebuild towards the end of 2018.

That cost more than I had spent on entire cars earlier in my life.

Like the type of car itself, I won’t disclose the amount I spent on rebuilding the engine.

Even thinking of typing out the numbers elicits anxiety, dread, and shame. Actually, I’m demonstrating a kind of denial right this second. By not wanting to see the number in print again, because the receipt from the mechanic was enough, I am practicing denial.

For any of you interested in psychoanalytic ideas, here’s a tiny correction:

What just occurred is more accurately known as disavowal.

Denial is, technically, unconscious. You can’t tell you’re doing it. Disavowal is when you know damn well you’re doing something foolish but choose to compartmentalize it.

Denial: The guy who drinks a full bottle of vodka every night and claims he’s not an alcoholic.

Disavowal: The same guy knows he’s killing himself; he just doesn’t want to deal with the problem.

During the first few months of 2019, my denial transitioned from disavowal into frank, painful confrontation with reality.

I asked myself,

Why was I driving this sensitive, expensive machine ten miles to and from work?

I have no idea; I walk wherever I need to go during my work days and rarely use the car during the day. 

Why was I fearful every single time I started the car, wondering if a red light, warning indicator, buzzer, or smoke trailing behind the car could occur any second?

Because any of those signs might have resulted in time wasted taking it to the from the mechanic, not to mention the unknown but likely great expense of the repair. 

Bottom line:

Denial gone, disavowal dissolved, and reality faced:

I decided to sell it.

A guy in Florida bought it—sight unseen. When the truck showed up a few days later and winched the car onto the rack, I felt despair. A wave of loss, nostalgia, and regret passed through me.

However, it lasted only a few minutes and has not recurred, confirming the vehicle had lost its meaning to me, and didn’t even inform (or expand) my identity any longer.

A Fiat dealership delivered a tiny, all-electric 500e to my home around an hour later. Its range of 88 miles serves me well, given my short daily commute and the rarity of my traveling long distances.

Lessons learned?

  1. Materialist objects may boost features of identity, but never in a lasting way.
  2. The Self is a delusion, just like the Buddhists say. You need to have one. However, it’s basically a construct of noun-like lies you tell yourself, or you pick up from the culture, to allow you to cope with the ever-evasive, unfolding nature of our existence.
  3. I may well never, ever go into a gas station again, and pump that horrible, polluting, cancer-causing liquid hydrocarbon into my car. Liberation!
  4. Denial is ubiquitous, and we use disavowal just about as often. I should have woken up to having grown past my mid-life crisis sports car a half decade ago.

All this leaves me with some questions for you to ponder:

  1. How are you artificially using material goods to bolster, or even create, your identity?
  2. What elements of your life are you denying?
  3. And how are you using disavowal to avoid, preventing yourself from having a more integrated identity?

*If you haven’t seen it, make sure to rent the movie, The Tao of Steve. It’s a hilarious comedy poking fun at traditional masculinity and its impact on romantic relationships.

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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP

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