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I always had a feeling I’d die young.
I don’t know where it came from or why, but from the time I was in middle school, I had a sense: My time was coming, and I wasn’t going to have as much time as most people do.
In retrospect, I recognize that this “feeling” was actually fear -– a terrible, crippling fear of dying that was likely brought on by my father’s death.
For two years, I watched my dad suffer through lung cancer, passing away just weeks after his 45th birthday. He left behind a wife who was barely 40 and me, his only child, who had just finished fifth grade. As my mother and I stood in the receiving line at his wake, my parents’ and grandparents’ friends all said the same thing: “He was so young.”
Was 45 young? At 10, I didn’t think so. Parents are old, no matter their ages! And I’d been particularly self-conscious (in that strange way that kids are self-conscious about things that don’t matter at all) about how old my dad looked. Once, after dance class, I was unlacing my ballet slippers when a classmate shouted, “Katy, your grandpa’s here!” My grandfather lived three hours away. Why would he be in town? When I made it to the lobby to see him, though, I realized my classmate had been mistaken; it was only my father, his bald head and white mustache leading her to believe he was much older.
After his death, I fell into a deep depression that went unrecognized and thus untreated by the adults in my life (though I don’t blame my mother, who was in a similar state). As a result, I spent my preteen and teen years quietly struggling with fear, anxiety, and serious self-esteem issues. Take your average adolescent emotions, and then amplify them by… well, by a lot.
That’s when I became convinced that I was destined for an early death, like my father –- but sooner.
At first, I didn’t think about death because I wanted to die. I just felt like I was going to die. I envisioned dramatic endings, including fiery car crashes, agonizing terminal illnesses, and dramatic bank robberies gone wrong. No morbid daydream was too far-fetched. I imagined who I’d leave behind, what they’d say at my funeral, and whether I would have any lasting impact on the world. One night, mysteriously sick and bound for the ER, I was so sure I’d contracted meningitis that I left a goodbye note on my bed for mom to find when she returned home without me.
Eventually, my fear of dying morphed into a fear of living. In college, my depression lent itself to self-destructive behaviors that included drinking heavily, sleeping around, cutting, and compulsive hair-pulling, known as trichotillomania. As I alienated all my friends and became the sad weirdo who rarely left her dorm room, I began to plan the details of my own suicide, including how I would do it, who would find me, and where.
If the world wasn’t going to do me the favor of killing me off young, I’d do it myself.
When my high school boyfriend committed suicide during my junior year of college, my plans stalled. Seeing how his manner of death -– the same one I’d been planning for myself -– devastated his friends and family. I didn’t feel I could follow suit, at least not right away. Still, my depression haunted me, and I crawled deeper into my sadness.
Dave had killed himself because, he wrote, he couldn’t bear the weight of adulthood. Having just turned 20, he felt terrifying old and devastatingly uninspired, and he didn’t want to try anymore. The last line of his suicide note, directed toward his mother, read, “I’m sorry I took this golden life you gave me and turned it into coal.” I felt as though he’d read my mind. Miserably unhappy, I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do, and I felt sure I was headed for a life failure. Wouldn’t it be easier to cut myself off at the pass, to stop trying?
For Dave, 20 was the start of old age; for me, it was 30. Why 30? Society tells us your twenties are built around fun and finding yourself, of college parties and musical festivals and living out pipe dreams. But by 30, real life beckons and all the enjoyable parts of it come to a screeching halt. At 30, I thought, I’d have to be a “real” adult, with a career, a home, a spouse, and kids. If I hadn’t achieved my goals and settled down by then, I’d consider myself a failure –- and like Dave, I didn’t want to deal with that crippling disappointment.
I decided the time wasn’t right to commit suicide, but I tucked it away as an eventual option. A decade after my dad’s death, I felt the same childhood sureness that I was going to die young, and I still held out hope that the universe would kill me off early. I vowed that if I was still alive by age 30, I would finally kill myself. I didn’t think I’d live that long, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to live any longer than that.
Thirty was the magic number. Thirty was the end.
After Dave’s death, my depression worsened. I went through a significant period of time when my brain seemed to operate only in emo song lyrics, words I scribbled into pages-long journal entries. Looking back on them now, it’s clear that I was deeply mentally ill, but at the time, I thought I was just the way I was -– that my deep-seated sadness was a thread woven through the fabric of my personality, inextricable from the rest of me.
I waited for death to take me. When I drove my car down a dark highway at night, I considered swerving head-first into the large trees to my right –- but I’d vowed not to kill myself yet, so instead, I desperately hoped a drunk driver would come barreling toward me or that a wayward deer would collide with my windshield. I waited for death, but nothing happened.
As it turns out, waiting for death makes it difficult to plan for a future. Why set goals if I wasn’t going to live long enough to achieve them? Why make plans if I wasn’t going to be around to see them through? I was aimless, unsure, and not actively working toward anything except the endpoint I prayed would come.
Somewhere along the way, though, my depression and I slowly parted ways. I transferred colleges to a school closer to my hometown, where I thrived. I began to write for the campus newspaper and found like-minded friends whose quirks aligned with my own and made me feel less strange, less sad. I began taking an anti-depressant, and I spent some time in therapy. After graduation, I accepted a job in Washington, D.C., where my new co-workers quickly became my best friends. I lived alone, I traveled abroad, I started writing more, I fell in love.
In short, I built a life for myself that didn’t include the sadness I’d known for so long. Even though I still expected death, I began to feel much more comfortable with being alive.
This August, I will turn 30. And while I’m certainly not the first person to feel panicky about hitting that round number with a new digit at its helm, my reasons are a little bit different than most.
For so many people, turning 30 signifies old age, the beginning of the end. I’d be lying if I said 30 didn’t still seem old to me, too, and I’m still a little bit frightened of whatever comes next. I don’t have a career or a house or a husband or kids; by my 20-year-old self’s standards, I am a disappointment, just as I’d feared. My lingering fear of 30 exists only because this birthday forces me to confront the very serious mental illness I like to pretend I never had.
But for me, “old age” is finally a welcome concept, one that means I’d rather be alive than dead. That’s what this birthday represents.
I continue to struggle with bouts of depression and anxiety, but it’s been years since I seriously entertained the notion of suicide -– and at this point in my life, I certainly can’t imagine intentionally ending it. I have a job I like, I live in a city I love, and my life is filled with people and experiences that make every day an adventure, even during the times when I’m unhappy or afraid. I’ve come to terms with the idea of growing up, and I’ve long retracted my former belief that 30 is where the fun ends. I can scarcely believe that this was the age I’d felt so sure signified the end of a life worth living.
I’m no longer waiting to die. At almost-30, I’m finally learning how to live.