Earlier this year, I convinced myself I was dying.
“I keep getting headaches,” I told my friend. “Why do I keep getting headaches? There has to be something wrong!”
She made me list off my symptoms and assured me that I probably didn’t have a brain tumor. Still, I went to several doctors who gave me medication and told me that once I finished all their other suggestions, they’d check and make sure I didn’t actually have late-stage cancer — my words, not theirs. One doctor I visited, who only kept paper documents and didn’t even check my height or weight, simply told me, “Just go home and come back in a couple of weeks if it’s still a problem.”
“A couple of weeks!” I lamented to my friend. “I’ll probably be dead by then!”
She seemed a lot less convinced than me. “I’m not sure I’d go that far. Have you gotten enough sleep?”
Of course I hadn’t gotten enough sleep — I stayed awake all night because of the headaches. “Plus my memory has been terrible lately,” I told her. “I keep mixing up my words. And my eye! It hurts too. And now that I mention it, I don’t think I had this mole on my arm last month.”
I’ve come to terms with the fact that I might be obsessed with dying. Not that I want to die, but that I prepare for it at every turn. I think about how depressing it would be for my parents and friends if something were to happen. I’ve rehearsed what my last words would be if I had the chance to choose them (something inspiring and a touch melodramatic so no one would forget them). I would want my body donated for science, but I still want a dope tombstone engraved with a funny quote. I want someone to walk by it 50 years later, want them to pause and think, “Wow, if only she were still alive, she’d be the coolest chick in the nursery home. But she’s not. She’s dead.”
I haven’t always been so focused on the macabre. Just a few years ago I thought myself invincible. I liked to get drunk and tempt fate. I’d climb up tall metal cranes in the rain and hitchhike with strangers and walk alone in dark alleyways. (“Have you tried walking through them during the daylight instead?” one friend asked me once, shaking his head at my stupidity.) When people asked me if traveling ever made me anxious, especially in this day and age, I’d shake my head. Something could happen anywhere, anyway. Why should I be scared?
Before I obsessed over my own death, I guess I obsessed over others’. I thought a lot about what would happen if I lost a loved one. I imagined the funerals of nearly every person I met. For some reason, I’d always get to speak at the visitation and deliver a touching tribute that would have the room dabbing their handkerchiefs to their eyes while tears flooded my own. In these morbid fantasies, I was always laser-focused on the devastation, the empty space that would begin as just a pinprick in my heart and then eat me whole.
The only people in my life who have actually died are my grandparents, some kids from school, my friends’ family members. It used to make me feel lucky, but now it feels like a ticking time bomb, fate just waiting for the worst possible moment to rob me of the things I love most. “You feel so secure in your life, don’t you?” it’d say mockingly as it pulled the rug out from under me.
Maybe I’ll go first, I think, and I can’t decide if that’s a relief or absolutely terrifying.
I can sort of pinpoint when these obsessive thoughts began. When my friend and I backpacked through Europe last summer, our trip took a dark turn in Prague. We spent our days in cemeteries, visiting Holocaust monuments, learning about some of the most violent times in history. On our last day, we chose between going to a World War II concentration camp or a church made entirely of human bones. And even though we’d stepped away from our personal problems when we left home, they seemed to follow us via Facebook, text, the news that flashed across foreign screens. “NAZIS IN AMERICA,” one headline read the day after we decided on the concentration camp. By the end of the week, I’d read three think pieces about how World War III was inevitable.
The journey home made me so tired I slept for three days. Three months later I started getting headaches that wouldn’t go away, and I’d think back to that trip and wonder if it was the last I’d ever go on. It made my memories seem brighter, prettier, despite all things horrific that had surrounded us.
“I think you’re being dramatic,” my father said when I told him that I could no longer think straight due to the pain. So I went to my friend, a fellow hypochondriac, for affirmation that my time on this Earth was fleeting. Even she couldn’t offer what I was looking for.
“Maybe it’s just anxiety,” she said. “Sometimes if it gets too bad, you can start having physical responses.”
But I’d had anxiety my entire life and had never once had to spend a whole evening lying in bed just to make the aching stop. When she noticed I seemed skeptical, she added, “Or maybe you’re just so convinced something’s wrong that you’re starting to feel the symptoms.”
I’ve heard of things like that before. Like phantom pregnancies, when a woman is so sure she’s going to have a baby that the morning sickness hits and her body starts swelling, despite no fetus inside. It’s amazing what can happen if the mind is convinced of something.
So I decided to stop going to the doctors. I thought that if I could convince myself to stop thinking about dying, maybe I wouldn’t feel like I was. But how do you stop being anxious about something when you can feel it as clear as day, hacking away at your insides? How do you rid yourself of thoughts that have preoccupied your mind for months?
I talked to my friend who’d studied neuroscience and told her I was probably just being crazy. “You know.” I made a circular gesture with my index finger around my ear as if to say, I’m a total head case, man. “An anxiety thing.”
“Hm,” she said thoughtfully. “And what do you think might be making you anxious?”
Dying, of course. It always came back to the dying thing.
“Okay, but anything else?” she asked.
It’s funny, because I’d never really thought about it. Before, when my other friend had mentioned it might be anxiety-based, I always imagined it was my own fear of mortality, an existential crisis that was veering me toward the edge. But maybe it was more than that. Maybe it was bigger than me.
It was as if she’d cracked a dam inside me and everything came spilling out. I told her about my fear of the future, about how sometimes I couldn’t stop thinking about what was going on in the world, how everything seemed to be spinning out of control. I told her about how sometimes I read the news and immediately burst into tears. How there were children being killed in Syria and children being separated from their families at the border and children who were being shot in their own schools, black children in their own front yards. And that was just the children! How can life be so unjustly cruel to some and let the rest go scot-free? In a world that had been set on fire, how was it possible that I wasn’t burning, too?
I still think about that conversation a lot. I also think about how my father asked me once, “What’s wrong with your generation? Back in my day, mental illness wasn’t the same as it is today.” He couldn’t fully grasp how the world had changed. The first time he ever had in-home access to Internet, I was already born. He was introduced to this new technology as my peers were growing up with it, his learning curve our native language. My generation is more plugged in than ever, and though there are benefits, there’s an unavoidable downfall: we are cursed with knowledge and a painful awareness of the world.
You get on Twitter and read something from an actual Neo-Nazi. You check your local news site and talking heads deliberate the possible overturning of Roe vs. Wade. Notifications pop up on your phone informing you of a new shooting every week. Facebook is all political opinions from family members who have decided they are experts. We go to yoga, we go to therapy, we stress-tweet, we stress-eat, we live out our fantasies in video games and movies and books, we drink and smoke and experiment with substances our parents always warned us about. We pretend we don’t notice the impending doom, but it’s always lingering at our peripherals, just a few swipes away on our phones.
“What can you do to change that?” my friend had asked me on the night I’d opened up to her. My heart was jumping in my chest, tired and worn, but for the first time in a long time, I felt like I could breathe.
The thing is, I don’t have an answer. Maybe I never will. But now that I realize the source of my anxiety, I’ve learned to take the world in doses instead of diving in headfirst and drowning in the headlines. I try to unplug on weekends. I don’t go on social media so much anymore. Instead of swiping through my phone at night, I spend the few hours before bed reading a book. Sometimes I just close my eyes and breathe.
Not much may have changed, but hey, there is a bright side: the headaches have gone away. It took a week for them to finally subside, but I haven’t had them since. The world may still be burning, but I don’t think I’m dying anymore.