It was 2016 when I first learn about the impending California earthquake.
I’m eating in the University of Waterloo’s Bombshelter Pub, and the light is fading outside as I read The Really Big One by Kathryn Schulz in the New Yorker. It’s an award-winning piece about the earthquakes resulting from the North American tectonic plate currently caught by the Oceanic plate (the Juan de Fuca) getting unstuck.
“FEMA predicts nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami,” writes Schulz, and the odds of “the big one” (read: only half of the plate getting unstuck) happening in the next 50 years as one in three, while the odds of “the very big one” (the entire plate getting unstuck) as one in ten.
In 2016, eating butter chicken in Waterloo, Ontario, California feels far, far away– the thought of doing a graduate degree there is still in the stage between heart-quickening fantasy and barely, loosely planned goal. As terrifying as the earthquake is, relief floods me as I realize there is no way that it could reach me in Southern Ontario.
Thus, the looming ghost of the earthquake lies dormant– until I arrive in Los Angeles for my Masters, two years later. Thoughts of the Earthquake haunt me as I ride a Bird on the Exposition Bike lanes, as I introduce myself to my new classmates in the Summer Institute that I’m attending, as we begin speculating about the future in class.
“Let’s include some memorials for those who’ve died from the Earthquake,” I tell my groupmates while we’re drafting our speculative map of the future.
“That monument’s going to smashed from the Earthquake,” I warn as we curate a list of lasting monuments on Main Street North.
An architecture student points out some structural damage in one of the UCLA buildings and I wonder out loud if it’ll survive the Earthquake.
It’s pretty stupid. I’m aware that part of my blathering is from my nerves and how I lean toward anxious, hyperbolic, obnoxious surrealism as a coping mechanism in new environments (you can blame my intense involvement with Twitter culture for that).
On the other hand, I’m familiar enough with myself to know my obsession with the Earthquake has been hiding another deep-seated, quiet anxiety: that the ground will open beneath me and I’ll be swallowed once again into another new black hole of despair, of depression, of poor mental health, one that I’ll be unable to crawl out of like I did last time.
With this last dark period, much like some earthquakes, there were early indications of something coming: emptiness, gloomy teenage solipsism, and self-destructive, clawing habits to confront emotions I couldn’t control. But even when it did come, it felt sudden. I was terribly ill-prepared. It knocked me off my feet and almost killed me. I recently found a disturbing goodbye letter that I wrote to family and friends in 2014 hiding on my Google Drive and it’s left me with no appetite for digging into this period of my life.
Instead, I’ve been thinking often of Chase Graham, the first year student from my undergraduate alma mater who died by suicide in my last semester. His presence has been there in the many moments over the past few weeks I’ve travelled to memories of my last semester, which were so full of joy, love, and ultimately celebration for surviving some of the most difficult years of our short lives. All moments he never had an opportunity to experience himself.
In the days after his death, campus felt taut and silent. Close friends organized around mental health advocacy and confronting the administration. We messaged each other late into the night. We drew close to each other. I gripped my friends’ hands a little tighter, felt that much hungrier to see their eyes and their faces, hear their voices. I took long walks and long breaths in a spring that was particularly wet and dark, and the moisture lay heavily on my skin, beaded in my hair.
I found myself on the phone with my best friend (silly when I think of how close we lived and how often I imposed myself on his apartment, his food, and his television for Rupaul’s Drag Race) in the days after. We spoke at length about the enormous pressures of moving into careers and life situations where it felt like we’d be deliberately forcing ourselves into mentally unhealthy situations as a way to achieve our goals (pushing ourselves to work long hours, to skip out on social functions, to keep moving). How much longer could we force ourselves to do this? Was this sustainable? How do we balance our health with the causes we had both committed to?
The thought lingered as I returned home after I graduated and set my sights on graduate school applications, building a relationship with my parents, my side-hustles, my full-time job. No one told me that graduating would feel like suddenly starting a stopwatch, like I was being let loose in the world to prove my worth, to prove that dumping all those resources, that time, that money into me wasn’t a waste. Many times over that year, I felt ominous tremors of something, some personal earthquake, close and looming and the weapons of the qualities I loved most about myself (the unrelenting intensity, the breakneck pace I both thrive and crumble under, the clawing sense of responsibility) turned on me, burnt me out, over and over.
But I learned. I was older, wiser, more experienced than 2014 me. I committed to longer walks and more time to myself to keep the panic down, and I slept more than five hours a night and tried to eat a balanced diet. I stayed patient with myself to stop catastrophizing in the face of failure. I tried to leave space in my life for people to enter. Much of it helped; some of it didn’t.
So it goes.
It’s September 2018 now. I’m in a place and time where the actual Earthquake looms much larger, but so too does the potential for some personal earthquake: I am far away from home, and the people I know and love. I am about to throw myself into a graduate degree filled with panic-inducing moments like hard deadlines, expectations from people much, much smarter than me, and moving into a career I’ve been working toward for the last few years of my life. There’s absolutely some science that could spit out my odds for falling prey to some new mental health crisis, like the careful odds that the scientists have calculated for the earthquake. Would it be one in three, or two in five? Eleven in one hundred?
One in one?
Alas, it’s habitual for me to anthropomorphize and project my very millennial trash human feelings onto inhuman forces of nature, which are far more complex, finicky, brutal, unpredictable. It’s wise to prepare for what may come, be they earthquakes or difficult personal periods (and especially wise for municipality and state governments, please), but to obsess over their inevitability gives them some quiet power over us, makes them unequivocally inescapable in our hearts and minds.
I spent years wanting desperately to die, but in this time and place, right here, right now, I am so, so alive. I am glad to be alive, eager to be alive, feeling so alive that my smile extends to my eyes, and alive enough to have ambitions and big sweeping visions of equity and economic development and just futures– all of which seemed impossible some years previous.
We don’t and can’t know what will happen in the future. Scientists have an approximation of when the Earthquake will hit and FEMA has been preparing. I, too, have been preparing (though the certainty of my personal earthquakes is less than): I’m remaining hyper-aware of my sleeping habits, trying to eat consistently, finding quiet spaces, pushing myself out of my comfort zone and laying the foundation for friendships and a new home in Los Angeles. Only time will tell if it’s enough but I am so hopeful that it will be.