Symbols of mortality: The scrunchie on my nightstand, the leftover orzo in the fridge, the trash can I emptied before leaving town. If this is the last time I leave for the grocery store — if it’s the last time I set out for a weekend alone in the desert — will anyone wonder whether that was my favorite scrunchie? Will they know I’d never tried that particular orzo recipe before? Will they be grateful I took care of the trash for them?
Also, who will take care of my cats? Should I leave the veterinarian’s contact information on a sticky note on my desk?
The last year or so has been peppered with versions of the above, each of which have surprised me. What am I so worried about? What have I got to lose? Responding to these increasingly ubiquitous questions by digging further has yielded me a bittersweet answer: I have a lot to lose. I enjoy living now, in a way I didn’t before.
Before. Before was when I thought about death the way only a passively suicidal person can, which is to say fondly. It goes without saying that mental illness played a factor, but so did living in a world that threatened (and continues to threaten) to crumble every day. I spent a significant portion of my admittedly young life feeling like I was one depressive episode, life struggle, or negative news event away from choosing my own end, convinced I wasn’t capable of handling any more than I already was.
Now I am both proud and embarrassed to say that I like living. It feels a bit like the episode of Spongebob in which Squidward tries a krabby patty and can’t admit to those around him that he actually likes the taste. After spending so much time struggling and making emotional hardship my personal mental brand, it’s amazing and awkward to admit that I’ve changed face. I haven’t even discussed my 180 with the people in my life, afraid they’ll pull a Spongebob on me. I worry they will when they read this. You like living, don’t you Adrianna?
But enjoying life and living comes with strings attached: namely, a newfound fear of dying. When I disliked living and found myself in (what I thought to be) a potentially life-threatening scenario, I thought only of sending my partner my bank details so he could have my money when I was gone. Now I imagine I’d see a cliche montage play in liminal space: impromptu dinners with friends, trips with family, my partner and cats chasing each other around the house. What if I die before I can publish a book? What if this is the last time I hug my mom? What if my loved ones don’t know how much they mean to me?
It isn’t just that I enjoy living now that’s strange and terrifying. It’s that by living a life I actually want to continue, I’m relinquishing control. I was once certain that when I died, it’d be under circumstances I chose. Today I know it’s more likely that I’ll go another way: accident, disease, old age. For so long, death was a fire extinguisher encased in glass: break in case of dire circumstances. (Never mind that each time dire circumstances came, I extinguished them with my own breath.) Now it’s the fire itself.
Having been in therapy most of my adult life, I’ve often heard that people with depression are afraid to step out of our emotional comfort zones. We’re not actually comfortable, of course, but our melancholy, hopelessness, and anger are things we’re used to — we’re safe there. Leaving that zone means accepting a whole new level of vulnerability in which things can fall apart at any moment. We have something to lose.
I understand how that feels now. I get what it’s like to almost miss the feeling of not caring what happens next, not fearing that your drive to the bookstore or your partner’s commute or your sister’s midnight PCH cruise is a giant death trap threatening to end everything you’ve come to enjoy. I smile easily now, and I can make plans for a future that I’m excited to see, but both of those luxuries are tinted slightly by the worry that they might be cut off abruptly, tragically, in a way I can’t undo.
Instead of waiting idly for my own demise, I now wrestle with myself as I learn to relinquish control gracefully. I resist the urge to send my parents my front door code in case I die in a plane crash. I don’t tell my partner half-jokingly that we should fly separately à la president and vice president, just in case something happens to us and the cats are left alone. I allow myself to book that writing class next year, not now, because there’s plenty of time.
As I wrote this essay from a remote Airbnb in California’s high desert, a coyote padded past my patio. I resisted the urge to ask Google if coyotes generally go after people.