State of Mind

Planning to Bring a New Life Into the World When You Aren’t Sure You Want to Live

A plant budding in a pot
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Welcome to State of Mind, a new section from Slate and Arizona State University dedicated to exploring mental health. Follow us on Twitter.

I had never heard of a safety plan—a set of steps to follow when you’re at risk of getting lost in the urge to hurt yourself—until I needed to make one. My therapist, her face occasionally glitchy on my computer screen, asked me to brainstorm things that would help me stay alive: warning signs that I’m approaching the brink, small actions I can take to calm down, people I can call for support, and professionals who can help. I wrote it all down on a sheet torn from my notebook and put it in a drawer next to my bed.

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In the weeks that followed, I didn’t look at it again, but I thought about it a lot, when I found myself wholly uninterested in the project of living. Everything felt deeply sad, and I was struggling to see the point.

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But strangely, when I most wanted not to be here, I kept at a goal my husband and I had started almost two years prior: trying to have a baby. I’d gone to a fertility appointment just hours before making the list with my therapist. The absurdity did not escape me—that I would be trying so hard to create a new life when I was barely clinging to my own. But I knew I did not really want to die. I was simply tired of being in pain, and at the moment, that’s all it seemed life had to offer.

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My husband and I decided to try for a baby in late 2019, as we planned our wedding. We talked a lot about what it means to start a family in the face of climate change, under an aspiring authoritarian president. We wondered whether it was fair to bring a new life into a world in decline. I went off my birth control in March 2020, the week before my city went into lockdown, bringing our long-term concerns into stark reality much sooner than we’d anticipated. We tried on our own for a year, and then went to a fertility clinic in March 2021. I got pregnant in June, and we lost the baby in July. We started treatment again in September.

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The whole time, I’ve struggled to defend my efforts to get pregnant to myself, which is really just a way of asking whether there’s any value anymore in being alive. Sometimes I feel immense pressure to have a child soon, not so much in deference to my “biological clock” but because it feels like the longer it takes, the worse the world gets and the less I can justify having enough optimism to think it’s a good idea. I feel like I am trying to sneak a kid in under the wire, while I still have a bit of plausible deniability.

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But then I look at my nieces, nephews, little cousins and friends, every child I pass on the street, and I cannot say that they shouldn’t be here, that their lives don’t already have meaning, which is what it feels like I would be saying if I never tried myself. It mattered how happy my niece and I were the night I first saw her after our COVID separation, when we threw color-changing sparkles on the fire in my parents’ backyard and held our feet together next to the flames. Getting to open Christmas presents together mattered, even if it had to be in April because we’d spent December apart trying to be safe. They are here and happy, now, and that is not nothing, not even close.

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I try harder to justify it to myself. I think of the children in N.K. Jemisin’s world, living in bands of survivors on a post-apocalyptic Earth, going to school and making friends and playing outside in the stretches of peace they enjoy between calamities. I think about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Olanna, how she makes a pretty dress for her baby to wear in their refugee camp, how her neighbor throws a blanket over her when an air raid interrupts her wedding, not for safety, but so her dress isn’t ruined while she lies face down in the dirt. How our stubborn insistence on adapting, on clinging to the tiny things we find meaningful, is both beautiful optimism and fatal denialism, a uniquely and tragically human contradiction.

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I lost the plot, for a while, after I lost my first baby. I thought the grief would be linear, like climbing out of a hole: You start at the bottom, and then you slowly work your way out. Instead, I experienced it like an undulating wave hurtling into oblivion. Sometimes it got a little better, but mostly it got worse, until I ended up in a kind of nowhere, unable to connect with anyone or anything. On a Monday evening about three months after I stared at an ultrasound lacking a heartbeat—a heartbeat I’d seen and heard on the same machine a week prior—I stumbled out of my office into the Manhattan streets and had the distinct feeling that someone had turned down the world, like the part of my brain that experiences things operates on a dimmer switch and mine had been dialed way back. Everything felt gray, and flat, and quiet; I felt stuck inside a Jell-O, though that sounds more whimsical than it felt. I thought, This is what it means to be suicidal.

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I had had suicidal thoughts before. In college I had that kind of passive ideation, where you fantasize about getting hit by a car walking to class so you can have an excuse to take a break from your life. After a psychiatrist put me on Prozac, I felt good, and then too good, a kind of good that got me a diagnosis of bipolar II and landed me in the hospital because I couldn’t stop thinking about killing myself and didn’t trust that I’d be able to ignore the thoughts, terrifying and unwelcome as I found them. But I’d never felt suicidal like this: I was very sad, and it hurt, and I didn’t want to feel like that anymore, and I didn’t see a way out, other than dying.

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I never made a real plan, and I tried to remind myself of all the other times the hopelessness had passed. The benefit of having somewhat chaotic mental health, especially when you’re young, is that you are intimately familiar with how drastically your mood affects your perception, how a problem that seems insurmountable when depressed can look like barely a hiccup when you’re more at peace. And you know how impermanent these feelings are, despite how they feel anything but in the moment. “Outside of a depressive episode, I can know I wanted to kill myself, but I can’t feel it,” Arianna Rebolini wrote in an essay on suicide that felt like it saw clear through my soul. “In its grips, the opposite: Any happiness I’ve ever known was merely misapprehension.”

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So I wanted to do what I’d always done, what I needed to do to get through this: tell myself that this was just a blip, a normal down on the roller coaster of life. That if I just stick around, I will have so many good things to experience, things I don’t want to miss. But it wasn’t enough anymore, not when I could turn on the news and see headlines about the imminence of biological collapse, the dwindling years left with which to protect all of the natural systems that keep us alive, and the even more imminent failure of any kind of just political system, or at least a government that has an interest in pretending to be one. It felt like the end of Avengers: Infinity War: I could imagine a million possible futures, and in only one did anything work out, the rest filled with varying degrees of pain that are both crushingly close and too abstract to prepare for.

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And yet. And yet, amid all that, I kept going to my fertility clinic. I took my medication and I showed up for my monitoring appointments. On the morning after that gray Monday—right before I made my emergency plan—I let a doctor inject me with my husband’s genetic material at the precise moment I was ovulating, in the hopes of creating a new life, a new person who would grow up in this future I found unbearable to even contemplate. I don’t have a good answer for why. Because I want to, I suppose. Because I don’t want to let the people who have already taken so much from us take this from me too, to sacrifice one of the most human experiences a person might want on the altar of someone else’s fortune. Because I am stubborn, and hopeful, and in denial. Because not having a baby I want would be an admission that there is nothing here worth experiencing anymore, nothing that is better than the void, nothing that is beautiful or pleasant or pure.

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Even in the depths of my grief, I didn’t believe that. I always knew I wouldn’t kill myself. When I needed to, I externalized my reasons—how it would upend the lives of my husband, my family, my friends. How my cats wouldn’t understand where I went, and my parents would never forgive themselves. But the real reasons I stayed are nothing more than clichés. Because occasionally I would feel a breeze, and it would feel nice, and it would remind me of another time I felt nice. Because one morning I went for a walk to my favorite spot in the park and the huge sugar maple had turned so red it took my breath away, the air around it glowing, the scent of its dying leaves on the ground transporting me to the beloved backyard of my childhood. Because I don’t believe in much of anything, and so I believe the only point to this life is to be here to witness things, to feel them for yourself while you still can.

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In November, a few weeks after strategizing with my therapist about how to keep myself alive and out of the hospital, I found out I am pregnant. If all goes well, I’ll be a mother this summer. I can’t think much beyond that—what the baby’s first year will be like, what I hope for their future. After the past few years, nothing that far away feels even close to certain. I’m scared of what I’ll read on the news the day they are born; I’m scared they’ll resent me for making them exist, perhaps sooner than I am prepared to imagine. What used to feel like a river of flowing time now feels like a series of isolated puddles, and I am jumping from one to the next as best I can, dealing only with each one in turn. A loss of any sense of continuity, which is really a loss of any trust in the future. I don’t know which version is more true, more close to the reality. I don’t know that it matters. I suppose I will only know when I get there.

​​If you need to talk, or if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.

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