The climb

CW: suicidal thoughts, mental illness, death of a loved one, this fucking pandemic, loss

It is July 9.

I am 36 years old today.

And I am still alive.


The first boxes I fully unpacked were in our kitchen.

I am late to cooking; for most of my twenties, I lived in New York City in shoebox apartments where I was considered lucky to have a cooking space larger than a phone booth.1 Not that kitchen size (or lack thereof) has stopped many of my other friends from enjoying the culinary arts—including many of my roommates at the time—but I never understood the appeal of spending so much time in a stifling room only to devour the fruits of my labor in mere minutes.

But I’ve moved enough times to know by now that the kitchen is the heart of the house.

It’s the middle of June and I had been moving back and forth from Pittsburgh to North Carolina since the middle of May, ever since Bear and I closed on our house, but in every way except the physical, we had been moving—and moving on—since March. The end of his pediatric fellowship and our lease fast was fast approaching, and we needed to find a place to live in time for Bear to start his new job.

We found one.

Buying a house during a pandemic was a trip—it was, as people say, a “seller’s market” due to the wealthy (ourselves included) fleeing urban centers in droves. In 2020, after months spent cooped up in our places of living, the privileged suddenly realized that playing pretend at being broke was far less romantic than the reality of it. Those who could afford to buy a house were suddenly in a race to find one, even in the relatively small-to-midsized western North Carolina cities to which we were relocating. Every place Bear and I “looked” at on Zillow was either gone within the hour, had multiple offers, or was seriously overpriced simply because the demand could bear it. Eventually he and I adopted the strategy of “offer first, sort everything out later.”

Which was how we ended up on a three-way call with our real estate agent from three different parts of the United States: me in California, Bear in Pittsburgh, and our agent in North Carolina. The house we would eventually buy had only just come on the market twenty minutes previous, and I was at home with my family in Los Angeles, preparing to bury the woman who had raised me, while Bear was still at work at a children’s hospital as the pandemic raged on all around him. As this was before vaccinations were widely available, our real estate agent double-masked as he entered the empty home to show us—via his Samsung Galaxy S9 camera—just what we were offering on.

We bought it two hours later.

And saw it for the first time two months later.

In person, our new house was both bigger and smaller than it appeared on Zillow and through our agent’s phone. Wide-angle lenses skew everything, of course, but I was mostly thrown off by the sense of scale. What little furniture we had seemed too big yet too small in these new rooms, and we seemed to have both too much and not enough stuff. Too many knickknacks, not enough places to put them. Too many rooms, not enough furniture to fill them. But I’m used to that. I’ve moved a lot in my life. As of this writing, I have moved house 26 times (that I can remember). I have lived in four states and three countries and several large cities and small towns in between.

I know how to expand and contract myself to fit into any space. I know what to shed and what to keep. I’ve had so, so much practice. With every move I erase any sense of connection and history and draw them all over again somewhere new. I am a palimpsest of all the places and people I have been, a constant undoing and remaking of the self.

I’ve spent most of this past year undoing, and very little of it remaking.

I am so tired to putting myself back together again.


If 2020 was The Year That Wasn’t, then 2021 has thus far been The Year of Bitch, You Thought.

I had such plans. I was finally on medication for my bipolar disorder that seemed to be working for me, COVID-19 vaccines were becoming widely available, and I had finally, finally, finally finished a draft of the first Guardians of Dawn book that I wasn’t ashamed of. If 2020 was the abyss, I thought, then surely 2021 would be the light at the end of the tunnel.

My 할머니 passed away on February 18, 2021.

My other grandmother passed away on March 20, 2021.

In my last newsletter, I said that I just keep moving, keep running, because when the grief finally catches up, I think I will die.

What I didn’t know then was that grief had already caught me.

And now I want to die.


Let me qualify that.

While I have not actively tried to kill myself since I was a teenager, I will admit to passively wondering what would happen if I just…didn’t wake up the next morning. A lot. Like…a lot a lot. A lot.

You probably wouldn’t know if you saw me. You probably didn’t know even if you knew me. On the surface things seem good; I’m healthy, I’m happy (yes, happy!), I’m stable, I’m safe. I have a good life. I enjoy things—taekwondo, reading, crafting, puppies, BTS, music, philosophy, etc. I have a lot of things “to live for” (a phrase I absolutely loathe) and I do want to live for them.

But I also want to die.

Perhaps it’s not that I want to die, exactly, so much as I just want to…cease to exist. I want the least amount of effort required when expiring because the effort it takes to simply be is hard enough. I don’t want to be me a lot of the time. Being me is horrendous, even if it’s also fantastic. But death is like a supernova inside me, slowly collapsing into a massive black hole, a force not even light can escape. I’m caught in its gravitational pull, in orbit around that ideation, circling and circling and circling, wondering when the slightest wobble will finally tip me in.


I’ve had so many wobbles in my life.

Most of them are slight, so slight as to be practically unnoticeable. It’s like earthquakes to an Angelene born and raised; anything less than 4.0 on the Richter scale barely merits a mention. But like with earthquakes, I am always waiting for The Big One, the one that will rip apart my foundations and tear me away from the rest of the tectonic plate, and with every rumble, every seismic ripple, I am listening, listening, waiting.

The thing about earthquakes—for those who’ve never grown up around them—is that they make a sound. Common wisdom growing up in Los Angeles was that dogs and cats and other animals will go nuts before an earthquake because they can hear the seismic wave before it strikes, but the truth is, humans can too. It’s just that most of the time that sound is drowned out by other elements of human existence—television, traffic, machinery, and more. If we were to take time, to step back, to let the hum of everyday life fade away, we too, could hear the Big One approaching.

The first time I had ever heard an earthquake was probably some time in the mid to late 90s, some years after the Northridge quake. It was mid-afternoon in Eagle Rock, after school but before the evening jam, and the noise of the 210 freeway was distant and muted, white noise against the usual sounds of canyon and arroyo life. The street on which we lived was relatively quiet, free of the rumble of tractor trailers and public buses that shook the concrete whenever they drove by.

It was the 4 o’clock hour, meaning I was home alone watching the first block of programming on Cartoon Network’s Toonami (Sailor Moon and ReBoot, for all my fellow olds out there) when I heard the strangest noise in the distance.

At first I wrote it off as a truck or some other large vehicle accidentally getting lost in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains just up the street, but instead of fading away, the sound grew louder as though it was drawing close. Or rather, the sound intensified because the “closer” it got, the more I seemed to feel it in my bones rather than hear it with my ears.

How do I describe a sonic moan?

Grinding, groaning, moaning, if I had perfect pitch I could tell you just what notes an earthquake sings as it slides up and down the scale at once. There are harmonics at play, for the noise was both painfully shrill and unbearably low at the same time. The world around me had gone silent, the mid-tones dropping out. Pressure popped in the ears and the arroyo sounds disappeared—no chirps, no rustles, no sandy scuffling as critters skittered beneath the dirt.

And then it hit.

As far as earthquakes go, it was barely a sneeze, scarcely something to talk about on the local news. But I will never forget the realization that hit me the split second before the earthquake did—that the ground screams and tells you what’s coming, only if you think to listen for it.

I wasn’t listening.

I didn’t hear that seismic moan, so I wasn’t ready when the ground rolled and pitched and danced beneath my feet.


I try not to think too much about the collective trauma that is this pandemic. It’s easier to think of grief as being personal, as being suffered individually and alone. I had suffered two tremendous losses in my family, but in truth, COVID-19 fucked me up long before my grandmothers’ deaths did.

And I feel silly for saying it. After all, privilege has inoculated me from the virus’s worst effects, yet I find myself unable to live as I had before the lockdowns. Life doesn’t go back to normal after trauma like this. All your responses get rewritten, the chemical pathways of the brain redirected.

When I was 19 years old, I fell 1000ft off a cliff during a skiing accident. And while I’ve made a (nearly complete) physical recovery since, mentally and emotionally, I am not the same person I was before and after I obliterated my leg.

I am not the same person I was before this pandemic.

But I keep pretending that I am.

Writing has been, for the first time in my life, a goddamned chore. Writing has been many things before—difficult, hard, terrifying, exhilarating, rewarding, annoying—but never before has it been…worthless.

Which is an incredibly anxious-making thing to admit as a writer.

The rational, therapy-attending part of my brain understands that this is because the vast majority of my emotional resources, the ones I would use on creativity, are constantly being drained. Death, loss, grief, ADHD, bipolar disorder, moving, all of these things would be hard enough on their own, but the pandemic adds a Fuck You filter on top of all that. We’re playing on Nightmare Difficulty now.2

Doesn’t make me feel any better though.

Once when I was nine years old, my school took an overnight trip to Truckee, a small town in the Sierra Nevadas during early March, when the snows were still thick on the ground. Snow-shoeing was one of the activities on the docket, but at nine, my feet were too small to fit in a standard one-size-fits-all shoe. I was given the option to sit out, to find some other activity to do, but I didn’t want to be left behind. It’s fine, I said. I can keep up.

I couldn’t, of course. On the parts of the trail where the snow was packed, I could walk on top, but the deeper into the woods we went, the deeper I sank. The thing about hiking in fresh-fallen snow without snow-shoes is that at some point is feels more like swimming than hiking. I knew this even then; I’d been skiing since I was three years old. But sheer stubbornness and the desire to be part of the the group got me out on the trail with the rest of my classmates, working several times harder than I needed to.

At one point in the trail, I fell in a dell. I sank up to my chin in new-fallen snow and no amount of kicking and flailing could get me back up to solid ground. The hole seemed depthless, and for a moment, I thought was in very real danger of drowning. In snow.

One of my classmates grabbed my arm, then someone else grabbed his, and before long, we were a chain of elementary school kids fishing one hapless child out of a snow-covered dell.

I suppose there’s a lesson in all this. That mental illness is hiking through the deep woods without snow-shoes, that I need to give myself grace, that I need to be yada, yada, yada.

But I don’t want to think of the lesson.

Because all I can focus on right now is putting one foot in front of the other, wary of the pitfalls, struggling and wading through hip-deep snow until I reach the summit.

If I even reach the summit.

If we ever reach the summit.


I am a terrible rock climber.

Bear really likes climbing and it is one of the few activities we do together. Previously, this activity used to be skydiving, but time and also age-induced cowardice put a stop to that. He and I like to do things that require some modicum of adrenaline—activities that in kids’ books might fall under the heading of adventure. Camping, whitewater rafting, hiking, generally being physical and being outdoors is our jam.

I don’t love rock climbing. I’m not good at the sport, but it’s not because I physically can’t; it’s because I mentally can’t. I don’t like heights.3 I have to constantly psych myself into moving because the instant I think about how high up I am on a course, I am have to stop.

Living is like that sometimes.

Once Bear and I spent a day at a ropes course. I tend to see these sorts of activities as a useful kind of exposure therapy—if I can complete the course 6 inches off the ground, I can complete it 6ft off the ground. The physics is the same. And it helps build my confidence along with all the small, stabilizing muscles in my core and legs. Most of the day was fine; once you accept the inevitability of falling, things get far less frightening. The last activity of the day was a small zipline fall off an auto-belay system, which required you to climb a pole to a platform about 30ft off the ground.

The climb was easy. The holds were spaced so a child could find one, almost like climbing a ladder, so it wasn’t as though I physically couldn’t do it.

I almost quit three times on the way up.

Each time, I powered through my fear by telling myself it was stupid to stop now. It wasn’t dangerous. I was more than halfway—more than two-thirds—of the way there.

Living is like that sometimes.

Once I reached the platform, the instruction was to simply step off the edge and into the unknown. I walk into the air unthinking.

It’s then I realize that my fear of heights is not a fear of dying. I have no problem with the fall.

I have a problem with resisting its call. L’appel du vide, as the French would say.

I’m not afraid of the fall.

I’m afraid of the climb.


I am afraid of the climb.

I am always afraid of the climb.

Sometimes it’s easier not to try, to lay down, to give up, to simply cease existing and vanish back into the ether from whence I came. But it’s the decision that always stops me. You see, dying is easier than living, just as falling is easier than climbing, but it’s the moment I decide to hold on or let go that’s the hardest.

In many ways, I am more afraid of that decision than anything else. In that moment, I am Schrödinger’s cat, both alive and dead at once, and that liminal state is more terrifying than both oblivion and torment combined. Yet I cannot deny its seductive allure either, the way I can’t stop thinking about black holes and event horizons—the point beyond which events can no longer affect the observer. The way I used to tongue a loose tooth as a child. The decision to hold on or let go is a cavity, a black hole, and the only way forward is through.

So for now, I keep climbing.

And I keep living.

사랑해,
JJ

1

Do people born after 1990 even know what phone booths are?

2

Incidentally, something I don’t do even while replaying video games I could beat in my sleep, like Dragon Age: Inquisition. Casual mode for LIFE.

3

Yes, I know this seems weird for someone who used to jump out of perfectly good airplanes on the regular, but the difference between 15ft and 15,000ft is I know exactly how far from the ground 15ft is. I’ve climbed every inch of those 15ft. I spend most of the climb up to 15,000ft behind closed doors.