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When Life Is Unpleasantly Long

Your relationship with time is different when you spend much of your time wanting to die.

Imagine being on a carnival ride. You board eagerly, but shortly after the vehicles start moving, your stomach turns. Your vision can’t lock on to any of the people standing around the ride. The metallic screeching of the ride’s gears is impossible to ignore. You’re mad at yourself for not enjoying the ride, wondering if you can bully yourself into having a good time – and you’re screwing your eyes shut, waiting for it be over.

This is how I feel about life. It is an awful carnival ride that just won’t stop. Everyone in my life, quite rudely, is asking me to stay on the ride for, oh, another 60 years. (And by the way, I get that this is the right move. I am aware that sometimes life is beautiful and extraordinary and that bouncing on your loved ones is a lousy thing to do. I know. Let’s move on.)

I can’t contemplate that. It’s too much. I tend to feel the full weight of the future all at once – not just today’s workday, but every workday until I retire or die; not just today’s unpleasant phone call or irritating errand, but all the unpleasant phone calls and irritating errands that add up to 80-something years of life.

The net result is that mental illness makes me feel detached from time. It’s both a symptom and a sort of autoimmune response. Days blend together. I have always felt like this and I always will.

Since I was 13, I have held a deep-seated conviction that I probably will die in the next three to five months. Not exactly that I’ll actually kill myself in that time; more that I will be killed, that my muscles will give out and this boulder I’m carrying around will crush me. (This perfect essay on chronic, passive suicidal ideation accurately captures the feeling.) I seem to be borrowing the logic from most forms of physical illness. When you’re sick with most things this badly, you’d think it was building to some kind of fatal crescendo. It would make sense that pretty soon you’ll be dead.

When the slog of existence is overwhelming, one way to trick yourself into continuing onward is to promise yourself that you’re just making one last push. The idea is that after that push, you’ll manage to convince yourself to make another one.

This is where countdowns come in.

Many of the best things in life — meeting someone wonderful, discovering a new piece of art, days with perfect weather — are unexpected and can’t be counted on. But I can make a deal with myself to stay alive until the next Spider-Man movie opens, or until the next vacation, or until whatever other minuscule milestone I’ve picked out. It’s best for me to have a sequence of these plotted out, stretching into the future like waymarkers on the path to my surprising longevity. (If anyone from my workplace is reading this, know that this is why I use absolutely every second of time off allotted to me — and you should, too.)

When the time I’ve been awaiting arrives, it is, quite honestly, rarely worth the wait. The vacation is stressful or the movie is mediocre. (Except for Spider-Man movies, which never disappoint me. Never.) But that isn’t the point. It helped drag me through another few days or weeks or months. Hopefully during those days or weeks or months other good things happened. I’ve stalled a little longer. And I pick something else to count down to.

So, I use an iOS app called Countdown Widget. It has a bare-bones interface, but it puts my countdowns right in the Today View area of my iPhone. At any moment I can swipe over and watch the numbers shrink, a tangible passage of time that is for once on my side. I don’t even know if it’s the “best” countdown app out there. But, it’s a small reason I am still, improbably, alive.

Featured photo by Freddy Marschall on Unsplash.

Published inPersonal

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© Mary Gaulke 2023