Why Delayed Gratification Scares the Sh*t Out Of Me
Whenever my brain is buzzing with cool content ideas, I feel a heightened sense of vulnerability. There’s a grim reaper besides my pile of unfinished manuscripts, sneering:
What a promising future you have here. It would be a shame if I took it all away, wouldn’t it?
There’s a lot of things, writing-wise, that I’d like to accomplish in my lifetime. I definitely want to be featured in major media outlets, and I’d love to write a memoir someday. A blue checkmark would also be nice! Regardless of where I end up, I want to write about things that are important to me. Right now, I can think of a couple of things I want to write about. They’ve been weighing heavily on my mind, and I badly need an outlet. I hope that the next time I come back here, I can tell you more.
Would I be able to achieve any of this? If you’d asked me this three years ago, I would’ve said yes, why the hell wouldn’t I be able to? Even though I could barely get out of bed in the morning, writing was the one thing that made me feel invincible. Now, I’m not sure anymore.
There’s so much to do, and so little time… And I feel like time is running out real fast.
It’s a common thought exercise: if today was your last day on this planet, what would you do?
For me, this isn’t some wild hypothetical that I can shake off. Sudden death is something that my mind registers as a plausible possibility. It’s something that I’ve thought about so many times that it no longer freaks me out— it just makes me feel numb. Of course I don’t want to die, I want to live, but I learned to muffle the scream of protest in my head, so that it doesn’t reverberate throughout my body and tip me over the edge.
The older I get, the more fragile I feel. Piece by piece, I’m building a fullfilling life for myself, and I’m proud of how far I’ve come, but I know that it could all be obliterated in a split second. When something good is coming my way, I hold my breath emotionally, like I’m watching a close-call scene in an action movie. When I tell you guys to “stay tuned” because I’m “working on cool stuff”, I’m clutching on for dear life.
Maybe I feel this way, because I’m just not used to having this much freedom. Before I moved into my dorm and got medicated for ADHD, I was miserable, even though I would’ve never used that word, because I thought that everyone lived like that. Over the past year and a half, I’ve made incredible progress, and my dreams are turning into reality. I thought that the “pinch me” feeling would dissipate, but instead, it festered into morose suspicion.
Every morning, I wake up and wonder if the universe is playing a sick joke on me. After all, they always say: it seems too good to be true, it probably is. There’s got to be a catch. Glancing through the countless possibilities, my eyes linger on the worst case scenario: death — early death.
I try to refute my pessimistic thinking, reminding myself that feelings are just feelings, and that they don’t indicate reality. After all, the brain can send a bunch of false alarms, and I’d get nothing done if I listen to every one of them. At the same time, I don’t think I can completely disarm my cynicism.
As much as I think I deserve credit for my successes, I can’t help but feel like I’ve cheated fate. I’ve always managed to dodge whatever bullets my privileged, upper-middle class upbringing doesn’t shelter me from. I have a life-threatening connective tissue disorder, and I haven’t fallen ill yet. I didn’t even get COVID, like most of my friends did. I also have a cognitive disability that prevents me from living a “normal” life, but I have access to resources, including career opportunities, that many don’t have.
Meanwhile, horrible things are happening to people who did nothing to deserve it. Just watch the news; there’s hell on Earth. I’m just not that great of a person and I’ve never had a particularly strong emotional reaction to current events, but I do experience something of a survivor’s guilt. Why me? Scratch that, why am I me? I can’t answer the question (trust me, I tried when I was 15, which gave me panic attacks so bad that I had to be hospitalized) so I leave room for uncertainty, where dissonance clamors.
Somehow, I feel like I’m not supposed to be here. Like I’m overstaying my welcome on this planet, I’m having way too much fun, and I’m about to get busted any second…
I know that this isn’t my intuition talking, it’s literally a symptom of anxiety and trauma by some definition, but God it feels so prophetic.
I told my former therapist, Judy, that one of the first thing that came to mind when I thought about traveling was the possibility of dying in a plane crash.
“The better my life gets, the more I worry about stuff like this. God I’m such a masochist. I always have a way of denying myself happiness.”
“That sounds like magical thinking to me. You know, plane crashes are very rare. Whatever that’s going on in your life…” Judy raised her pitch, and paused briefly. “…doesn’t change the statistical likelihood of dying in a plane crash. There’s no correlation between the two.”
“Well yeah. But it’s more than just that,” I quickly replied.
“Now that things are looking up for me, the thought of my life being cut short feels more upsetting. Not that it never bothered me before, but it bothers me more… Regardless of how likely it would be.”
“So you feel like you have more to lose,” she said.
That was it: more to look forward to, more to lose.
The better my life gets, the more ferociously protective I become of it, and guarded isn’t too far from protective. I wish I could just be grateful and leave it at that, but I can’t. I keep looking around for threats.
Of course, most of these threats have been blown out of proportion by my anxious brain. The odds of being in a plane crash, for example, is very low.
But lest we forget, I have a life-threatening connective tissue disorder. The facts and figures surrounding Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (vEDS, in short) are terrifying: 25% likelihood of significant complications by age 20. Aneurysms. Collapsed lungs. Heart attacks. A MEDIAN LIFE SPAN OF 48 YEARS.
When all is said and done, the odds are not in my favor.
Since I know that I can’t control any of these external forces, I prepare. I try to reap life’s riches like a frenzied shopper on Black Friday. I don’t think it’s greed that draws me to a life of excess — it’s fear. I’m afraid that if I don’t have something right this second, then I’ll never have it. A while ago, I realized that this fear was the culprit behind many of my bad habits, from my extravagant shopping sprees and my tendency to rush through boring tasks. In a blog post I wrote about my vEDS diagnosis, I described my thought process:
I told myself I was going to do what motivational posters, song lyrics, and Instagram quotes told me to do: “live today like it’s your last day.” Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed for any of us, and my odds are worse. There’s only so much we can do to curb our fates. And so if I was going to die young, I was sure as hell going to live fast: work hard, play hard, and go all the fucking way out, you know?
But my obsession with efficacy only made me frantic and impatient, terrified to delay gratification because I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around. I was a mess. Every setback felt like a catastrophe because I wasn’t sure if I’d live to see the day I get a second chance. When I felt dissatisfied I turned to material things. I developed a shopping addiction. I was a bit like a kid throwing a tantrum: if I wanted something, I had to have it NOW.
I’m trying to live in the moment and this is what happened, I remember telling my therapist at the time. “But that’s not living in the moment. You’re still hung up on what might happen in the future,” she said.
Judy reminded me that none of us can predict the future. I was so caught up in asking myself: what if something awful happens to me? But what if good things continued to happen to me? Why worry about something that hasn’t happened yet?
It’s good to take advantage of what life has to offer, regardless. But I was going about it all wrong.
I was driven by a sense of scarcity. I constantly told myself: I have to do everything right now, right this moment, just in case today was my last day. Days, weeks, and months passed, and the cycle continued. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was going to die sooner than later, so I promised myself to live more spontaneously. I thought that if I could have everything my way and didn’t have to wait, I’d spend less time dissociating, stepping out of my body and pretending my life hasn’t begun yet, like I’m a Disney princess waiting for a prince to get her out of her dreary village.
But my pursuit of instant gratification could only go so far. In some ways, I felt worse. I was victim of the infamous if only mindset. If only I had this one thing, I’d be content. I handed over my power to Things, leaving a big void in my soul. And nothing ever felt good enough. It never is, is it? I always wanted one more thing. And another. And another. As long as I tied my happiness to specific things, I wasn’t free from the noose of strained hope.
Now I’m trying to be more mindful of my expectations and how they could help or hurt me. I’ve found that it's easier to hold off on material possessions, like that bombastic jacket that I don’t have closet space for, or that perfume at Sephora that I definitely don’t have the $$$ for. But it’s much harder to hold off on things that matter, like completing a writing project dear to my heart. It’s so hard to stay grounded when I’m playing catch-up with an ever-growing queue of content ideas. I’m still afraid that if I don’t glue myself to my desk 24/7, I may never get around to that article/essay/blog post that I really, really want to write.
“Writer” isn’t just my soon-to-be job title (if everything goes as expected) — it’s who I am. My word processor is an extension of my brain that lets me edit my internal narrative that, if left alone, would most certainly stray into a dark place. Writing leads me to a path of solidarity and belonging. About a year ago, I wrote:
With language as a common denominator, I can put my story in conversation with other people’s stories.
Turning pain into prose makes it more bearable. You know, it’s the same thing with poetry, art, music, you name it… You find beauty in darkness. It’s a uniquely human thing to do.
When I think about writing, I think of closure. I think of the demons I want to exorcise, and the scores I’d like to settle with my critics. I think of the footprints I want to leave behind.
That’s why I feel like I’ve ascended, every time I finish writing an article/essay/blog post. I’m so invested in my creative life that that I have a hard time compartmentalizing or moving on from difficult experiences, unless I hit publish and make it Official. And if you think that my use of the word ascending makes me sound like a try-hard gamer… I know, and I kind of am. When I’m actively creating, my race against the clock is more comparable to playing an intense computer game, than my previous analogy of watching an action film. Leaning over from the edge of your seat, you fix your eyes on the screen, and smash your keys with such fury that the suspenseful background music feel dull in comparison. You’re just trying to conquer as many levels as possible, before the dreaded Game Over. I feel this way quite often, except for I'm on Google Docs, not Pacman.
Still, I realize that it’s not realistic for me to churn out content after content. Right now, I’m a full-time student. I have shit to do! As I write, I’m wrapping up a 3-week, 1 unit intensive course, where I have at least 3 hours worth of work every day. And I’ll always be disabled. I’ll need more time to do stuff, whether that’s writing itself or some other task. I may still have these neurological episodes that will force me to do nothing but rest for a week.
Needless to say, patience is key. But how do I slow down, when every day feels like a race against the clock?
I’d like to get to a place where I’m writing about something because I feel like doing it, and not because I may never get to it if I didn’t work on it now. In other words, I want my motives to be growth-based, rather than fear-based (Anna Akana has a good video on this).
Obviously, the easiest way to minimize fear is to not even consider the possibility that I could be dead tomorrow. My doctors have told me that I’m in excellent health (save for my lack of physical activity, which I’m currently working to change), and my parents are optimistic about my prognosis. I’m trying to see if I can relax a little, too.
I reckon it’s normal to be a little bit wary, especially when you live with a serious medical condition. I still hate being told, “You have your whole life ahead of you” or “This too shall pass.” Confronting my mortality has taught me to stop waiting around and take charge of my own life — even if that means that I have to acknowledge painful emotions instead of avoiding or dismissing them.
Even so, live life like today’s your last day and live your life to the fullest are not interchangeable. I want to keep the focus on my inherent capacity to feel pleasure and love others, rather than the prospect of death looming over me. Isn’t that the whole point of having a bucket list? To enjoy ourselves?
Maybe everything will be fine, maybe it won’t, but I just want to be happy, goddamnit. It’s time for me to, in the words of my old therapist, focus on what is, not what ifs. I’m giving myself the permission to breathe — no strings attached.