Today is your birthday. You are twenty-two years old and unsure what you want to do with your life. It is your birthday today and it is cold and rainy outside. The sky is a pale November gray and you start to think that today you are twenty-two years old and your mother will turn fifty in a month. Your father is still only forty-eight. You can forget his age for two more years, because numbers aren’t really scary until they reach fifty. But your mother will be fifty and you are twenty-two and your mother is probably more than halfway through her life and you are about a quarter through yours. You don’t know how this happened. It makes you feel anxious, but only vaguely because you won’t really let the concept of mortality into your consciousness. You just know that you are older and your mother is older and you don’t know what you are doing with your life.
You keep yourself busy all day. This keeps you from thinking about age. You look at your university’s course catalog for next semester and plan what you will take. You fill out applications for graduate schools and entry-level jobs and this makes you feel like you have direction. You go to class. Your friends throw you a party and you smile and go through the motions until you can escape. The day ends. The anxiety does not.
You are twenty-two and you spend a lot of time reading, thinking about fake people’s lives. Their lives and concerns are somehow amusing rather than terrifying. You tell yourself that the reading you are doing is preparing you for grad school. You tell yourself you are making progress. You are smarter, faster, stronger. You are scared as hell.
You try to spend more time with your friends. They are also twenty-two, or twenty-one, or twenty-three, and they are also vaguely uneasy about life. You don’t talk about your anxieties with your friends. You talk about who is sleeping with whom. You play board games all night long and rant about the president. You each cultivate tiny eccentricities, hoping these eccentricities will make your memory outlast you. She was the girl who smoked a pipe. He was the guy who wore a plaid overcoat every single day. You drink a lot together.
You are twenty-two and you are filling out applications and marking time. Filling out applications makes you feel bad about yourself now. It is something to do, but writing in your test scores forces you to realize your test scores are not that good. You are probably at the bottom of the applicant pool. You are drowning in this mass of people who are smarter and better than you. You write essays that your professors rip apart. You are reaching too far. You are going to get rejected, and even if you don’t you still don’t know what you want to do with your life. Your life is marching toward its end and you don’t know how to make it count. But you do not verbalize these feelings. You are twenty-two and your elders will tell you not to be pessimistic. You are young. Life is waiting. You should skydive, start your own business. Take up stock car racing, or ultra-marathoning, or even knitting. Your elders are absurd.
You start exercising more. You think this will perhaps take your mind off your troubles and will perhaps stop you from aging so fast. You run and you lift weights. You do the Stairmaster and consider signing up for a yoga class. You are still feeling inferior, but you are still pushing it out of your mind.
You start to stay up later and later at night. You are avoiding sleep. You stay up until two, three, four o’clock in the morning, watching old cartoons or reading chirpy, frivolous magazines. You stay up with these distractions until you can no longer physically be conscious. You pass out on the couch in front of your glowing TV screen without thoughts of your own in your head. You do this for weeks. You wake up half-dead, drink double espressos, and fill out more applications.
You are feeling your anxiety push through more and more. You consider alcohol or sleeping pills to avoid the fears that get more intense at night. You decide this is a stupid idea. You decide you will rationalize the fears away. You are twenty-two and you should be celebrating life. Looking forward to what you have. Skipping down the sidewalk while singing out loud. You rationalize before you sleep, but you start to have nightmares about monsters in your closet. You are regressing in your dreams. In the day you are still twenty-two and you are still moving forward towards some goal, however undefined. In your dreams you are seven or eight and you are being chased.
You are unable to stop the anxious thoughts before you sleep. You know the nightmares will come and you can’t stop the flood of anxieties that starts when you turn off the light. They are the wolf in your grandmother’s bed, waiting for you in your little red cape. Cartoons and magazines and TV and books aren’t distracting you from their big bright teeth. At night you lie in bed after a day of classes and applications and your breath catches in your chest. You think your heart has stopped beating and you feel the wolf’s hot, rancid breath in your face. You see the exact moment when you will die. You are trying to breathe, but you are immobilized by panicky terror. You can see yourself as a wrinkled elderly woman, papery hands tremoring and eyes widening. You are in your grandmother’s bed, waiting for your basket of goodies that will never come because you are dying. You know you are dying and you hate it. Waves of nausea and bone-chilling fear wash over you. You are terrified, you are clawing at the air, you are out of your mind. You want to hang on so badly, to scrape out just one more day! You are punching the wolf in his greedy, fury face, but that single moment is here and you have to say goodbye. You make yourself stop this vision. You tell yourself you are being stupid. You are twenty-two for the love of god. You are not going to die any time soon. Your mother is fifty. And suddenly it is her death, her awful moment of goodbye, and the wolf’s jaws are snapping shut again. Your mother, who rocked you to sleep when the Grimm’s tales were too scary, is leaving you. You tell yourself to stop this too but you can’t. You are surrounded by awful mortality that is made more awful by your atheism. There is no woodsman to save you. You cry yourself to sleep.
In the morning you feel sheepish. Death is far away and your coffee is hot and black. You tell yourself you just feel guilty that you haven’t called your mother lately. You call her and try to tell her about your fears, your nighttime moment of panic, but you can’t articulate it. You tell her about the book you are reading instead.
You are twenty-two years and three months old. You are scared as hell.