Fixating on death and the end of the universe
February 18, 2019 10:32 AM   Subscribe

I read a sci fi story recently (Aspirate) that got me a bit too close to the absurd. It's turned into fixation and rumination. I want to move on and make the most of my time on Earth because what else can I do, but that's a tall order. I guess I should put this stuff in the extended explanation if it's a bit much for people to scroll past.

I've been an agnostic since I've been a teen with a few forced attempts at Christianity (largely to try to make the universe make more sense), and have generally felt there's not much reason to believe in an afterlife. Most of the time, it's not bothered me, and I always have a lot of short term, pressing hopes and anxieties. I could lean on platitudes like "It's amazing the universe exists and I got to exist at all." But mostly, the immediate stuff was a better focus. I certainly have some right now, but compared to the end of me and everything I've known or done outside of me eventually, they feel trivial.

Last time I was in this deep an existential funk, I flunked out of college. I've been making myself take care of myself and my apartment, doing dishes, building new furniture from IKEA, exercising. I can still do it, but I feel it in the back of my head, the idea that I'll be gone and unfeeling and without my memories and faster than I can perceive anything, everything will be gone.

A bit of background: I'm a software engineer and a transgender woman, single, recently turned 30. Perhaps this is a midlife crisis, but I don't think my life really started until I turned 28. I flunked out of college the last time I felt like this, and it took me until I turned 28 to transition and finish college, but I made a girlfriend when I was about 22 or 23. We stayed together for a super long time, but then I broke up with my ex fiancee about a year and a half ago. She was the center of my world emotionally.

After I became a software engineer, I started saving up for bottom surgery, which was something I'd thought about since I was 13. Planning for it or imagining with it made me feel like I was full of warmth and hope. I started saving aggressively to pay for an out of network surgeon, went to weekly electrolysis sessions to prepare the area, and started lifting weights instead of running like I usually do in hopes it'll help me better recover. It's in two months, my life lately has been about preparing for the long medical leave and recovery. I was scared of complications and the rare, rare chance of surgery regret (since I'd lived and made love as a straight man for quite a while). I do have a bit of fear of general anesthetic, since I read once it puts the mind in a different place than sleep. But I've been high on marijuana and LSD (once), so altered states shouldn't be that scary.

I also was quite nervous about my social life and my dating life. Lately, those things seem less dysfunctional. I'm making close friends with coworkers, and going on more dates. I was just starting to wonder if dating could bring me a family rather than just people who'd sleep with me for having an unusual body and leave.

My attitude on death was glib if anything. I'd lose people, but cherish my memories of them. My own death felt like "eh, I won't be around to worry about it," and I did casually think about suicide, not in a serious ideation way, but almost in an ironic morbid engineer's sort of way? Like "What's the least unpleasant, least difficult for others' way to die?" Usually coming up with stuff that would require weeks of planning, as I considered preventing an impulsive suicide a feature. Now the existence of death is deeply upsetting. Perhaps this shows me turning a corner in mental health, to value being here so much?

I feel like I might be in crisis, but I'm not sure. I certainly don't want to harm myself, but I also am drinking more, smoking more weed, and eating more junk food. I'm out of my anti-anxiety medication and haven't had any in a week (I know, I'm stupid), and calling my psychiatrist about it, but it's a holiday. I figure I'll be able get some tomorrow. But I didn't feel like this before my meds. I think I can get myself to work and contribute tomorrow. I might text my therapist.

What scares me most is the loss of meaning, which I know in positive nihilism means "congrats, you get to find your own values and meaning in your wonderful time on Earth." But now thinking of an end makes my usual values and sources of meaning make little sense. "I don't eat red meat, because I think mammals could have consciousnesses like our own and raising them contributes to global warming" becomes "Well, all those animals are bound to un-exist, along with all the damage of the infrastructure raising, harming, and killing them." Or the fact that my unbeing bothers me more than dysphoria makes that dysphoria look silly. I do still want someone else in my life, if only because I find the image of two mortals holding each other hauntingly beautiful and comforting, but it's a long way to go from right swiping on an app to holding someone on the couch and finding meaning in love.

I understand Camus says we must imagine Sisyphus happy, but to me it feels like denial or distraction, which I get is the point of theater of the absurd. But knowing that makes it harder to move on to that headspace.

A few TLDR thoughts, as I see I've kind of rambled and dumped: I don't think my being trans is a major part of this, but it's part of who I am, and I feel alienated from my existence. I'd appreciate if cis answerers understand this doesn't mean I'm not really trans, more that I have a bigger concern on my mind. I appreciate that no matter what happens, I'll probably regret mistakes I'll make around now, so I'm trying to stick to my routines and plans. I might text my therapist, although I feel silly. I saw her yesterday, and I was feeling a few of the feelings, but I thought they'd pass. And I'll do my best to get my meds. I'm scheduled to go to the gym today, too, so I'll get there. I'll also try to cut back on the weed and booze, they're probably not helping. If I need mind numbing distraction, I'll switch to TV and video games.
posted by MuppetNavy to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You have a therapist? I don't think it would be silly to text them, this sounds like classic therapist territory.

This stuff is super hard though. I don't even think it's necessarily totally invalid to accept that hey, on some level, this is all happening on a tiny speck of mud floating in an infinity of time and space, and none of it really matters in the grand scheme of things. I think that's an important context to have, because it encourages us to be less self-centered, to see that our personal desires are not really worth that much. When we center ourselves and rail against our mortality, bad things happen. It's good to keep some perspective.

That said, we're all here, and there will be others after us, and just because our lives are not infinite doesn't mean that they aren't real. Just because a cow will die one day doesn't make its suffering today less real. Just because your life will end doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to do good things with it while you have it. Finite does not mean non-existent, or worthless. The whole universe is finite, but here we all are anyway. It is what it is, it doesn't have to make sense.

Life is absurd. Just roll with it; do the things, set some goals for yourself, don't worry that they're absurdly tiny goals in the grand scheme of things. You're a tiny person! Everyone is. You're tiny, but you're significant.

It's tough out there though, take good care of yourself.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 11:08 AM on February 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

This jumped out at me in your last paragraph. I might text my therapist, although I feel silly.
Please don't beat yourself up for having these feelings. Talk to your therapist.

but I also am drinking more, smoking more weed, and eating more junk food.

I think you may need to work on developing some tools for dealing with anxiety and healthy coping mechanisms. This is something your therapist can help you with.

Be kind to yourself.
posted by acidnova at 11:15 AM on February 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

If I am understanding correctly, you have bottom surgery scheduled in two months and have been off your anti-anxiety meds for a week? If that's so, then it makes perfect sense that you are having some existential crises! Absolutely text your therapist, then go to the pharmacy where you usually get your meds (or any pharmacy and bring your empty pill bottle or any other documentation you have of your script) and ask them for one or two days "emergency supply" of your meds. This is a totally normal thing that pharmacists are very used to.

You are OK, and this absolutely sounds like some run-of-the-mill anxiety run amok. If you think you might harm yourself, call 911 (or your local emergency number).
posted by Rock Steady at 11:30 AM on February 18, 2019 [12 favorites]

You can probably go to urgent care and get your meds re-upped for a week, if not a month. Withdrawal is not great to fuck around with, along with the absence of treatment.

You are describing a quarter-life crisis (your generation is probably going to get 100-year lifespans, you're nowhere near mid). The twenties are hard and they end real hard (even if you don't literally believe in the Saturn Return, there's some really thoughtful writing out there about this time in people's lives), you've completed your first adult decade and it's a lot, and losing sight of childhood in your rearview mirror (no matter how good or bad it was) is profound. It is a kind of death, it is an ending, I think the 30 rollover is as hard for some people as it is a relief to others, and I don't think most people cross that line without some kind of big feelings somewhere in the vicinity, probably give or take two years on each side.

Plus you have non-minor surgery in the near future, which is a stressor of a very existential type.

Philosophically, maybe you can turn your thoughts on death and the end of the universe toward endings-as-in-chapters and the metaphorical deaths of identity (child vs adult, apprentice adult vs experienced adult, the changing nature of friend/relationships into ones 30s, the changing interests and goals and desires as a person gets further away from childhood, and as the economic realities of adulthood become more harshly lit, etc etc). As hard as this time can be, it's also (maybe terrifyingly so) full of potential. You have choices! (Which are really intimidating if you aren't good at choices!) Reinvention is exhilirating and also exhausting and scary, and can absolutely trigger a depressive episode that bears careful monitoring and self-care, but it's a little end, not the big one. You have millions of miles to go yet, and I promise that's on balance a good thing even if there are bad things along the way.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:32 AM on February 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

I was terrified of general anesthesia too, until I had some surgery, and it was amazingly... Nothing. I was in one room, then I woke up in another. I could have died on the table but I didn't. And that actually made me fear death less-- I can go down that existential well too, but actually experiencing total nothingness was easy. I hope when my time comes it will be as sudden as that, but when it does, I can do it. I will have to, of course, but I feel like "been there, can do" now, which is better than terror. Also I suggest quit drinking and stick to weed; the alcohol is probably making you more depressed and its hurting your body a lot more than the weed.
posted by The otter lady at 12:47 PM on February 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

I think texting your therapist is a great idea, as is doing whatever you can to get your medications as quickly as possible. Which is not to say that what you're dealing with isn't important or can be medicated away -- you're dealing with huge meaning-of-life questions! -- just that dealing with huge meaning-of-life questions is generally destablizing and it makes sense to get yourself as stable as possible in as many other ways possible as you can.
posted by lazuli at 1:11 PM on February 18, 2019

Though I wasn't dealing with your exact same problems, I aso spent an extended period of time with feelings of metaphysical homelessness in the aftermath of a complicated breakup.

For me, the answer was time and, I don't quite know how to put it, allowing myself to float along on the tides of the feelings churned up, bobbing along gently, and trusting that finally I will hit upon the place I can drop anchor in. A sort of fatalism, if you will.

I mostly came here to recommend this book on agnosticism - not exactly your question, and I couldn't explain exactly why I recommend it, but when I was in a not dissimilar frame of mind, I found it helpful.
posted by doggod at 1:56 PM on February 18, 2019

I’d second what others said above about keeping your therapist in the loop - this isn’t silly!

In addition, I’m reminded of something someone in my grad school cohort called “post-goal-attainment depression.” Not sure if it’s a real clinical entity, but whenever I achieved some milestone in my grad program, it was easy to fall into a slump about the meaninglessness of it all for a while afterward, and those were small potatoes compared to the milestone you’re about to achieve. Sometimes huge positive life events do not have purely positive feelings attached. What will you daydream about when this 17-year-long dream becomes reality? You’ll have an answer! but it’s not a shocker if you don’t have it yet.

Just a thought, take it or leave it. Congratulations on the big change, and best of luck with recovery!
posted by eirias at 2:05 PM on February 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I think post goal attainment is part of it. Transition and white collar work felt borderline unattainable. Now they're happening, maybe not perfectly, but they're here. There's talk of promoting me from one of my superiors at work, and most other trans women say I'm really pretty, in a way that feels more sincere than comforting. I still am an entry level engineer, and I don't consider my transition finished or that getting the right junk will finish it. But there's clear paths.
posted by ikea_femme at 2:20 PM on February 18, 2019

One of the best philosophical works on the idea of finding meaning in life, even if you don’t believe in a capital-M Meaning Of Life, is Susan Wolf’s book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. I really can’t recommend it strongly enough.
posted by voltairemodern at 3:16 PM on February 18, 2019

Response by poster: It's been a rough week. I don't know if anyone is still reading. I'm still going through the motions. I've still gone to work, and went on a date. Sometimes, I'm okay for a few hours but I feel it start to creep in. I go home, play video games and just start putting random stuff on the TV. I'm scared I'm becoming a nihilist, which scares me because I saw myself as a principled person with regards to society, the environment, and so on. If none of the suffering caused around those things is ultimately permanent, how do I create meaning? I really don't like what I'm reading about positive nihilism, because it feels so strange compared to my past Christianity and naive sort of utilitarian humanism. I wonder if I could feel okay if I just could zoom into the wellbeing of the world over the next hundred years or so, but I don't know how to control that.

I can't believe that I felt normal a little over a week ago. My surgery being in two months, I'm afraid that I'll not be in the right place emotionally to care for my recovery or enjoy the results, but canceling feels anticlimactic. I really do hope maybe this is less logical angst and more pre op anxiety and settling into a new phase of life. But the idea this can catch up to me again chills me, and I can't tell if distraction or leaning into this feeling is the right move.
posted by MuppetNavy at 5:55 AM on February 22, 2019

Response by poster: Also, I am speaking to my therapist tonight, so hopefully she can help. And I'm going on vacation with some good friends this weekend. I'm making plans still, and trying to do the right things.
posted by MuppetNavy at 5:59 AM on February 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you are doing a great job, all things considered. You didn't mention in your updates, but do get back on your meds as soon as you can, if you haven't already. They can take a while to kick in, so don't expect immediate results.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:07 AM on February 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm on my meds. I'm feeling better at work. Not sure if it's routine or moving on. I anticipate being busy with friends might help. They both have their own mental health slash chronic pain issues, so they should understand if I need a break. I think a big part remains that I'm 30 and facing a big life event and mourning my great aunt to a degree.

Her death almost doesn't feel real, and she meant a lot to me. She was like a second mom and I wasn't able to come out to her or attend her funeral because there's some vindictive bigots in my family in that area I must remain closeted to.
posted by MuppetNavy at 10:49 AM on February 22, 2019

Response by poster: I talked to my therapist. They suggested it's displacement and surgery anxiety. I don't know why I'm doing this or how to move on. I'm telling myself that the surgery is major, but not an existential threat. One day at a time I guess.
posted by MuppetNavy at 7:58 PM on February 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm still living with the feeling. I talked to a Unitarian pastor facebook friend. He's suggested I consider joining some congregations in my area, and said they'd be glad to have me. I'm not sure it'll fix me, but it's probably what I need right now. I also emailed my mom after avoiding her for about a week because I feel kind of guilty that I'm feeling this but can't discuss it with her because she's a devout Presbyterian and I don't want her to know I'm not a believer. But I think I'm in the place where I can start to open up a bit more and get back to making sure my GRS goes well, which is what counts at this point.

However, working on paperwork and reservations for GRS has me feeling a bit more normal, which is a good sign. I always thought displacement sounded like quacky Fruedian theory, but maybe that is the case.
posted by MuppetNavy at 5:57 PM on February 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I was feeling really good this morning, and faxed over my GRS paperwork and so on. And then I agreed to go to an event with a company intern so she'd not be lonely or feel uncomfortable. We ended up ditching the event early, and had a nice conversation over dinner at a different venue. I'm group watching a movie with some facebook friends over one of those syncing tube sites. I should be entertained, I've had a full day and I've not been alone.

But my head is moving onto mortality again, and everything feels thin and fake except for my existential dread. I hate it... I think I'm better than I was, but I want to move on and accept that I have my whole life to come to terms with this.
posted by MuppetNavy at 7:17 PM on February 25, 2019

This is not going to last your entire life. You're under a lot of stress, you're grieving, you may be in a fog for weeks or maybe even a couple of months - realistically, recovering from anesthesia is like recovering from a concussion, so there's that - but this is not going to last forever. It's a downswing, probably not the only one you're going to have in your life, but there's no reason to assume this is permanent.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:34 PM on February 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

How are you doing now? I hope all is well now but wanted to ask.

I keep coming back to the fact that the last time you felt like this, you flunked out of college. I wonder if you're teetering on the edge of a bigger mental health breakdown and hoping you're getting the right treatment.
posted by salvia at 9:58 PM on March 17, 2019

Oops, never mind! I see you just posted an update; that must've been how I ended up on this thread.
posted by salvia at 10:21 PM on March 17, 2019

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