I Didn’t Think I’d Make It To My 23rd Birthday
A year ago, I was so depressed that I thought I might not see my next birthday. A chronicle of getting through it.
On the night of my 22nd birthday, it occurred to me that I was probably not going to make it to my 23rd. It wasn’t so much that I was planning on killing myself, but I remember thinking that if I had the option of maybe not existing a year from now, I’d likely take it.
What’s weird is that my 22nd wasn’t even a particularly bad birthday. It was after seeing a concert in Brooklyn and going out for celebratory drinks when the thought that I might die spontaneously occurred to me. It felt like an empirical fact, the same way I think about knowing the answer to an insultingly easy pop quiz: Plants are green because of chlorophyll, male sea horses have the babies, and I have a maximum of 365 days to live.
That’s the scary part about depression. It files all of its dark, spooky bullshit right there alongside the things that make sense, so you can’t tell what parts are real and which aren’t.
Over the course of the next month I learned that it is extremely unchill to bring up vague suicidal ideation as a form of idle chat, but I felt morbidly compelled to do so anyway. I talked about physics and how it would take 4.37 seconds for an object of my mass to hit the concrete if launched from the roof of my apartment building. I talked about the velocity of crashing cars, trains, and airplanes. More than anything else, I talked about the science of science fiction: teleportation, time travel, and setting phasers to vaporize.
In my actual moments of clarity I broke down. I sobbed in the middle of campus because I felt like my eyes would burst like grapes if I didn’t. I threw notebooks across my bedroom, frustrated because I couldn’t remember what I was frustrated about. I threw away full plates of food because the idea of nourishing myself repulsed me. Without those symptoms, I don’t think I would have ever sought out the counselor who broke the news that my desire to not be around in a year counted as a suicidal thought. She told me to leave school immediately and go home. I lasted until the end of the semester.
I point-blank told my therapist that I didn’t think I was going to turn 23. Three months into moving back in with my parents, the cool logic that characterized my early ideation had given way to a complete inability to envision my life continuing past the next Tuesday, let alone my next birthday. I was applying to jobs and trying to get myself back on my feet, a phrase that I implicitly interpreted as “go back to graduate school and get your fucking masters,” but even trying to do something with my life felt immensely stupid. I was nothing. I was less than nothing. I was 22, a failure, a dropout, a basket case, and my future was a formless abyss into which I shoveled cover letters and what was left of my self-confidence.
In my life’s most bizarre example of accidental wish fulfillment, I lost control of my father’s Jeep Liberty and crashed into the guardrail of an exit ramp. Daft Punk’s “Give Life Back to Music” was playing in the CD changer. I definitely survived. The car did not.
The day after the accident, I was ticked off, bedridden, and finally in the pain I thought I deserved for being the worst possible version of myself. I should have braked sooner. I should have turned slower. I should have waited out the rain in a parking lot. Guilty thoughts can wreck a person when they’re not already convinced of their own worthlessness, so in my state I added the guilt to the chorus of voices that chanted a shitty depressive litany in my head: you are worthless, you are guilty, you are ugly, you should not be allowed to make it.
When I was unemployed I starting thinking that getting hired would make me less depressed. I promised myself that once I had a job, something to validate my existence, I would stop thinking about leaving. That is not a helpful way to go about thinking of things.
It wasn’t helpful because when I did get a job, or rather a fellowship that I hoped would pan out into a job, I got upset when it didn’t fix the “bad thoughts” problem. The only shift I noticed at first was that I knew where I was going to be next Tuesday, for a series of foreseeable Tuesdays.
I had spent six months primarily indoors and alone, so learning how to function in a bright, unpredictable office took effort that I didn’t always know how to expend. Recovery from depression is nebulous and almost always conditional, so I spent a lot of time feeling scared — scared that I’d fail, scared of most of the very impressive people I was meeting, and absolutely pants-shittingly terrified of how good it felt to finally be a part of something. My happiness, back from a long vacation, distressed me; I didn’t know if it or I had finalized our plans to stay.
Exactly 38 days before my 23rd birthday, I started working full-time. Patterns I noticed included a decreasing of the volume on that depressive chorus, which I could now ignore more often than not. My tear ducts returned to my control and my frustration gave way to a general sense of competence. I was proud of my work and my progress. I started accepting invitations for events weeks in advance, but did not make a plan for my birthday.
I turned 23. I want to be here. That is an empirical fact in my head, like how plants will grow through a maze to photosynthesize and baby sharks fight for survival in the womb. I am 365 days away from thinking that I wasn’t interested in life anymore. That’s not because I’m recovered from depression — I still have days where I feel trapped listening to the pervasive drone of negativity that’s probably never going to leave me alone. I say that I want to be here because I know I made it through a year of debilitating illness, so who’s to say I can’t make it another year? Five years. A natural lifetime.
Not everyone can do that, and I don’t blame anyone who can’t.
If you had asked me 290 days ago if I wanted to be alive I would have said no. If you had asked me 163 days ago I would have hesitated before answering. Depression is something I might always have to live with, but today I will answer that I don’t want to die from it. And that answer took 365 days.