Uphill Starts
Emma Oulton

Starting Over to Save Lives

“After all, tomorrow is another day.” — Scarlett O’Hara

Before I realized how deeply flawed a pseudo-romance it was, Gone With the Wind was one of my favorite movies. Even so, I never felt that I really understood Scarlett’s sentiment. Statements like, “Today is the first day of the rest of my life” left me scratching my head. I could only think, yeah, who didn’t know that? I always felt those sorts of platitudes didn’t apply to me, because nothing had ever really happened to me.

I had never been beaten down. I had never flunked out. I had never had to go back and start over. I just kept plodding along until I finally got somewhere. I had never really failed anything.

So why then did I feel like a failure almost every day of my adult life?

In one sense, I have learned that this is just what life with anxiety and depression can be like. Ordinary disappointments can be magnified until they feel like major catastrophes. Success can fill you with the terror of losing it all. And, for me, it meant that I was never able to stick to much. I have three completed degrees, and quit two before I finished. I’ve started more diet and exercise plans than I can count, and the longest I’ve ever stuck to one is thirty days.

I have only ever held one full-time job, and it is the only job where I have worked longer than a year without wanting to quit. The shortest time I ever worked a job? One day.

But I still never felt like I had ever picked up and started over. A clean slate. I thought that was only for projects — Term papers you got so deeply enmeshed in the research that your thesis failed to make sense, for example. Or major life events — becoming addicted, dropping out of high school.

This all changed the day my spouse got laid off. My first thought was for him and how upset he must feel, but right on its heels was the feeling that it would be much nicer to stop living. Suicidal ideation is something I’ve dealt with since age fifteen, and, for me, is only precipitated by moments of extreme stress or sadness (usually both). The scariest part, I think, is that it comes not out of desperation, but logic. My brain convinces me that the objectively rational choice is to cease existing.

I know I won’t do it. It’s not because of my will to live or survival instinct. I’m not even sure I have those.

Anxiety and depression have made me apathetic, empathetic, frequently lazy, and extremely practical. Suicide is messy. Suicide is painful. Suicide is unkind to your loved ones and almost never guaranteed. Not with pills or knives or guns or even trying to jump to your death. There is no guarantee and then you have to deal with the fallout of having tried at all. So I don’t. A person like me is extremely unlikely to even try to commit suicide.

But of course, it came up. My spouse and I were just sitting there on the couch with our one-year-old poodle between us, staring into space.

“What should we do?” he asked, meaning with our now-free afternoon.

“Suicide pact?” I joked. Our eyes met.

“What, like, find a good home for this guy and just…”

“Drive off a cliff,” I suggest. For a long moment we just look at each other. I know we’re both thinking it, actually considering it.

The entire time we’ve been married, things have been tough for us. A combination of bad economy, bad bosses, and, yes, bad decisions have made us feel trapped. Angry and bitter and terrified for our future. Terrified we don’t even have a future.

My spouse and I have been together almost ten years now. Like many couples, we can communicate without words. Just by looking at each other, we both know we’re not going to do it. Looking at him, in that moment, I suddenly realized how strong we’ve been, how strong we are. We’ve always loved the “partners in crime” model for marriage, but it’s then I realize, we’re not just that. We’re warriors.

It feels silly just typing it out. I was raised to minimize my problems because everyone else had it harder, had it worse. I had such a great childhood, such a great family, what problems could I possibly have? But that isn’t what it’s about, really. You can’t go through life comparing yourself to others, because it doesn’t change how you feel. Or it never did for me. The only thing I understood was when someone told me, you’re not comparing your life to others. You’re comparing your life to the life you could have had.

So what do you do, when you decide to live?

Me, I took the lessons I had been learning without even knowing it. Every time I thought I had failed myself — every night of bingeing on donuts. Forgetting to exercise. Or just not having the energy to cook or clean or look for work again. Every day I woke up and took a breath and said to myself, okay, let’s do this again. Forget that you failed yesterday and just do what you can do today.

All of those days, for years — some months every single day — I had been starting over and I didn’t even know it. I had been telling myself that the past wasn’t important, except for the lessons that I had learned. The past couldn’t be changed, and only the future mattered. In fact, most days, only one day mattered. Today.

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