does it matter?
In the summer of 2014, I stood on my bed and popped the screen out of the window. A few deep breaths as I braced myself to climb out and dive onto the driveway. I looked out over my neighborhood, the only place I remembered living. In a weird way, it comforted me that this was where things would end.
The thought that my brother had left the house paralyzed me. I didn’t want him to find me first. I fell back and called two of my friends.
I’m thinking of jumping.
I wake up in a cold sweat, the kind that makes you think you overslept for school or work even though it’s a Saturday. 4:37am. The audio from an alternate universe reverberates in my head, over and over. “A popular, if kind of quiet, kid. Gifted academically and athletically. Limitless potential. Never would have thought he’d be depressed.”
I wonder a lot about why I’m depressed. All the things the alternate universe’s newscaster say about me are true. On the surface, I have no reason to be depressed. Even so, the urge to fall forward into the pool in my backyard and let my breath escape tugs at my brain, but not hard enough to register as anything more than an annoying intrusive thought.
I started kindergarten early, thanks to a September birthday that guaranteed I’d either be one of the youngest in my grade or one of the oldest. I had burned through nearly the entire 58-book run of the Hardy Boys chapter book series, considering I learned to read almost two years prior. The school sent me to first grade just to read. The year after, they decided my gifted subject was actually math. The year after that, it was math and English.
By that point, the district and my parents were in some kind of agreement that I wasn’t getting enough stimulation. They let me take the gifted kid exam, the first person in the history of the district to do it before third grade. The district asked if I wanted to go from second grade straight to fifth. I said no, because I liked having friends and only being a year younger than my classmates, instead of three.
In third grade, they told me I had a 12th grade reading level after I got a perfect score on the state standardized exams. Same thing in fourth grade. I missed one question in fifth grade.
I left elementary school with a Geography Bee trophy, a California top 50 finish in Accelerated Math, and two school Accelerated Reading titles. I was deemed gifted in every subject except art and praised for my “maturity” by adults. In a loose sense of the word, I was a prodigy.
In my case, what made me prodigious was patterns. I see everything on Earth as a pattern, which translates into being able to remember everything I write down or read. My first memory of this was when I memorized the name, team, and jersey number of every player in the NFL in fourth grade. I wrote them all down in a giant list over the course of a few weeks. This was before everyone was told recycling was really important, so don’t be upset at my use of paper. Then, when I was trying to remember, one of two things happened.
Say I was trying to remember who #94 was for the Chargers in 2009. Either I’d remember where on the page I would’ve written that; 94 is pretty close to the bottom. Visualize the page, go towards the bottom, oh! It’s Jyles Tucker. Remembering things I’ve read worked this same way, too. The other, faster option would be that I’d remember the sensation of writing “94 | Chargers | Jyles Tucker”.
I also only needed to do one or the other once to remember forever.
This, as it turned out, was difficult to convey to my middle school teachers, who caught me staring straight ahead instead of taking notes. I’d learn later that gifted children tend to be more likely to have issues conveying their ideas in spoken word, because they have to get the spaghetti in their head out into a sentence other people understand. At the time, though, I shut down, in my mind a preferable outcome to continuing to try to make people understand.
The difference between prodigy and genius is that people eventually catch up to prodigies. There’s a few different reasons for this, but the most common one is that prodigies simply stop trying. What is the point in trying if you can do just as well with minimal effort? There’s no ownership of success when you’re a gifted kid. Regardless how hard you actually try, people tend to chalk up your results to natural talent, and so you learn that talent = outcome. As you get older, it’s hard to rid yourself of that mentality, especially if your talent has continued to lead to outcomes.
I treated school almost like a soul-sucking cubicle job. Clock in at 8, watch the clock all day, clock out at 2, try to get home as fast as possible to do anything stimulating. For me, that meant basketball or video games, often for as long as possible before my parents hounded me about homework I hadn’t done. I’d retreat to my room, still not do my homework, and go to bed dreading the next day.
“Outcome” in my house meant perfect. As far as my parents were concerned, 98% was a B. So, when my grades dipped into actual B range as I continued to avoid doing assignments I found numbingly boring, I might as well have failed out. My dad and I shouted for hours at one another, him concerned I was wasting my potential, me telling him I was eleven and wanted to be a normal kid for just like, three months. My mom checked my grades what seemed like every day, constantly asking if I had done this assignment or that project. I was exhausted, exasperated, bored. Burnt out.
So, I started hiding.
Sometimes, it was just in my room, where I’d barricade the door with every non-bed item of furniture I had. If I needed to get out of the house, I’d go down the street to my best friend’s place or into the nearby canyon. Most of the time, it’d be the bathroom my brother and I shared, the closest room with a lockable door.
On one of these occasions, my dad retrieved the key for said lockable door. I pushed him away to try to get the door closed again, but he came back forward with a punch that landed square to my temple. I hit the other side of my head on a towel rack, then the back of my head on the wooden floor, then the lights went out. I woke up to screaming, which I soon realized was my own as I continued to regain awareness.
I had already been losing a handle on things before this incident, but it sent me spiraling. By the time I turned 12, I had the word for it: depressed. I told my parents, who didn’t seem to change anything at the time. I grew bitter, angry, dug myself a deeper and deeper hole as I searched for anyone to tell me I was more than my talent. I put more pressure on myself to be perfect so that I’d hear compliments I hadn’t before, then broke down as the bars I set for myself proved to be impossibly high.
If talent = outcome, I had no talent for being happy.
There was one place I was usually able to block out the noise: a basketball court. When I started playing in third grade, it was the first time I was average at something. There were no expectations to be perfect, but no jeers that I wasn’t good enough. I put everything I had into it; by fifth grade, I was playing year round between rec leagues and travel ball. I got my growth spurt early, which automatically made me good, but my dad’s insistence that I play guard as the tallest player on the court made me great. He painted a half court in our cul de sac so that I’d stop begging my parents to drive me to the nearest gym 20 minutes away. He drafted an entire training regimen that was still fun: agility ladder drills, medicine ball workouts, a Steve Nash ball-handling DVD.
Because I was shooting with a medicine ball almost half the time, I could shoot a regular basketball from ridiculously far away for being 11. At an open gym, I shot 7/20 one night from half court, which was almost certainly dumb luck, but I also shot at least 30 half court shots a day because I thought it was fun. 19’6” was the three point line for every game I played, but I’d pull up from 25, 28, 30 feet just because I could. Adults complimented my shot for what it was: arc, precision, form, the products of my hundreds of hours of hard work. Other kids countered that it was my natural talent for math. You know, because I’m Asian.
For a few years on the court, nothing mattered in the best way. I had no expectations of playing beyond high school, if that. Dreams, sure, but not expectations. My parents had even fewer than I did. It became my escape, the one place there was no pressure, no anxieties. The one place that was pure, even as depression poisoned the rest of my life.
Good times never last forever.
I was in eighth grade, fresh off a summer camp MVP and a career high in points a few months earlier. Today, my shots weren’t dropping, but I was also getting mugged with no calls going my way. I had the ball poked away from me on what I thought was a foul, the anger that had been building through every part of my life bubbling to the surface.
In the moments that followed, all I remember is seeing this kid as a manifestation of every wrong I had ever suffered. Every panic attack trigger, every teasing classmate, every instance of my parents telling me I wasn’t living up to my potential. All the pressure, the anxiety, the expectations. I wanted it to end.
We crashed through the bleachers placed too close to the court, a tangled mess of too-long adolescent limbs. Somehow, my crimes hadn’t warranted an ejection, so I headed over to my bench to ask for a quick seat. The reason was simple: I couldn’t feel my left arm.
My coach asked if I had seen my arm. I realized it was the first sound anyone but me had made in the last minute or so. Hand? Intact. Wrist? Looked good.
The half of my forearm between my wrist and my elbow was the consistency of wet spaghetti, hanging from the rest of my arm as if someone had deleted the bones holding it in place. No blood, no pain. But hanging.
Your forearm has two bones, the radius and the ulna. One of them is a little bit curved, while the other one is pretty much straight. It turned out that I had broken both of them in such a way that they had swapped curvatures. The curved bone was broken in two places, such that it looked straight; the straight bone broken in one place to appear curved. Final diagnosis? Surgery to have a metal rod inserted to stabilize the arm, six months in a cast, a year before you’re cleared.
Death has never been a foreign concept to me. My parents were never the type to sugarcoat, so I always knew people died instead of just disappearing into the void or something. In kindergarten, my dad cut most of the fingers on his right hand off with a table saw. It’s still the most blood I’ve ever seen, and I thought maybe that’s what it meant to die.
In second grade, he got sick, then sicker, then sick enough that I remember not seeing him for more than a couple hours every day. I fell asleep most nights to the sound of my own tears, wondering if it’d be the last night he was alive.
As I laid on the couch with a 104.5 degree fever for the third week in a row, I thought I was going to die. After all, I’d just learned that 105 degrees is when your enzymes start to denature and your brain turns into soup.
Something had gone wrong when they took the metal out of my arm, ending my brief stint as a cyborg. Even in the months prior, something had felt wrong. A routine X-ray to make sure the bones had healed gave me a panic attack. It felt like a bad rollercoaster: too much spinning, an overwhelming urge to vomit, screaming my lungs out for what seemed like hours until the minute-long X-ray ended. What caused the reaction after my actual surgery, I don’t think I’ll ever know.
The second time I thought I was going to die was at the window. I was more ready this time, since I had made the choice to die today. I had thought about it for years, thanks to the depression and all.
Sometimes I think death is coming back for me, other times I think I’m just unlucky. There have been a few other run-ins over the years. The time I fell off the trail near the top of an 8,000 foot mountain and managed to hit a tree instead of tumbling the whole way down. The sleepless nights I’ve spent watching the sunrise on a bridge, my brain screaming for me to jump but my legs refusing to move.
Spoiler alert: the fever didn’t kill me. Neither did any of the other times, for what it’s worth. My high school waived most of my assignments and never made me do push-ups again.
what’s your legacy?
A lot of people seem to be grateful to survive near-death experiences. Not me. I was spiteful, aggressively so, probably because I was also 14. I chipped away at playing basketball again, because people said I couldn’t. I tried even less in school, because people said I’d need to try harder and because the school hadn’t done enough to enrich my environment. I ran cross country because my dad didn’t want me to, then got better because teammates said I shouldn’t have been keeping pace with them.
By track season, my dad had offered to quit smoking if I could run a 5 minute mile, the time he ran at my age. At the time, getting my dad to quit was the single most important thing to me. It was a high bar, but not impossibly so. I had run a 6:02 in sneakers with no training in middle school and kept under 6:00 pace at one of the hardest 5k courses in the country in the fall.
My dad, on the other hand, was closer than probably 97% of people on Earth to being an Olympian. He was a multi-time junior national champion in both cross country and track, had earned a scholarship to Stanford before staying home in Michigan, and would’ve run the 1980 trials if he hadn’t broken his leg. He grew up step for step with Earl Jones, the eventual bronze medalist in the 800m at those games. So, to run the time that he had run was not going to be a cakewalk.
I walked it down to the 5:10s by the last month of the season, with three chances left to crack the time. 5:08 in bad wind after a miscommunication about rotating the lead of the pack to keep everyone even. 5:02 the next week after being at 1:04 and 2:20 after one and two laps, well under pace.
Three strikes, you’re out.
5:02 again, in a last chance practice meant specifically for breaking 5.
I think about those three seconds far more than I think I should. It was at a time where I thought my dad quitting smoking would solve most, if not all, my problems at home. Three seconds away from a new era. Three seconds from proving I was good enough.
Three seconds away from being happy.
There’s a certain numbness that comes with detachment. The emotional needle doesn’t really move up and down the way it probably should. Everything, good or bad, is simply something that happens. The idea that other people exist outside of their interactions with you starts to fade, until it becomes so glaringly, intrusively obvious that you have to actively avoid acknowledging it. The interactions you do have feel robotic and repetitive, like the script a retail cashier sticks to.
Depersonalization on some level is fairly common; aspects of it are the root of the idea that life is a simulation. Persistent and repeated occurrences of depersonalization, however, are disordered. It’s more common in people with intensely traumatic experiences — war, disasters, extreme violence.
That’s not me.
My depersonalization is a coping mechanism for anxiety, beginning as an active choice. For a while, it seems freeing: if life is a simulation, or the Truman Show, or something like that, it frees you of the need to choose. You’re no longer autonomous. For someone anxious about choosing anything, it’s liberating. You can relax, stick to the script someone else put in your brain, and watch everything unfold for you.
all or nothing
There’s perfection and there’s failure. Black and white. It’s the way I was always taught things worked growing up. So when the anxiety gets bad, turn everything off. Pull away, detach, depersonalize. Move into the forest and never speak to anyone else again. When that isn’t working, build those bridges again. See every single one of your friends as fast as possible. Keep people close, reattach, re-personalize.
Since those three seconds, I’ve done this. For a while, you depersonalize. Be who other people want you to be, the person who’s always available for them. You are not the main character in this story. You’re an NPC, here to advance the narrative of the people around you. Nothing matters, if something bad happens you’ll wake up tomorrow like a host from Westworld.
For a while, you re-personalize. You’re the main character. Write seventeen articles about the NFL Draft and be on Twitter all day because that’s what you want. Tell your friends you can’t hang out because you’re busy when “being busy” consists of watching all 30 episodes of Forged in Fire on Netflix. Make other people be who you want them to be.
All or nothing.
It doesn’t work when you don’t tell people. Of course your girlfriend is going to be upset if you suddenly don’t want to see her for a few days after months of spending every second you can together. Of course your friends will think you’re mad at them if you all live in the same building but they haven’t seen you in two weeks. Of course they won’t understand why you’re so upset about something as trivial as what time we’re going to see a movie.
I’ve hurt nearly everyone I know oscillating between all or nothing. It’s devastating to realize it retrospectively, when they’ve already decided they’re gone. I want to explain to them, to help them understand, but it seems too much like begging them to stay.
People have told me I should think about going to therapy since I was 16. Without my parents’ go-ahead, I waited until college to actually consider it. At the on-campus consultation, they told me I was doing a great job self-medicating. I could sign up for a waitlist if I wanted, but it’d be a few months before there was a counselor available for regular sessions. I probably didn’t need it because I seemed to have a good handle on what I needed to do for myself to stay stable.
Don’t tell anyone they’re doing a good job self-medicating, let alone a great one. I got a job to try to stabilize, which didn’t help, because retail has that special way of killing you slowly enough that you know you’re dying. I tried sleeping more, but then I stopped going to class. I tried running again, but years of ignoring minor injuries had carved up my knees and I hated running in the rain. Drinking kind of helped until I realized I was only ever getting hammered. Food helped, so I gained 30 pounds.
I started getting migraines, in retrospect probably because I was never drinking enough water. They got worse and worse and worse, until one lasted four days, bad enough that I couldn’t get out of bed even if I wanted to. I dragged myself to the medical clinic and put on the intake form that I was depressed.
It turns out depressed and anxious people are more likely to get migraines, so they put me on antidepressants to see if that would help. Prozac, which made me feel even more detached and depersonalized. Wellbutrin, which didn’t work. Amitriptyline, which I was already taking for migraines. Propranolol for the migraines, which only made them less severe, but not less frequent. I settled for coping with background pain in my head 24/7.
I didn’t want to try therapy again after my experience on campus, but I had a professor for abnormal psychology who was also a practicing therapist. I needed to do something since the meds weren’t working and I trusted his expertise since he was currently teaching me about mental illness. I reached out to him, he said he couldn’t do it because of conflict of interest, but referred me to another person at his practice.
It’s not very common to find a therapist you’re comfortable with on the first try. Maybe this was my second try after the on campus center, but those people aren’t technically therapists. Regardless, I spent the first year or so trying to tell him the whole story, front to back. Meanwhile, I continued to be someone I’m not proud of, blinded by the need for my therapist to understand the past before we moved to the present.
It’s hard to be a perfectionist when migraines prevent you from working for 22 hours a day. In those 2 hours that you’re able to drag yourself from your tiny dorm bed to your tiny dorm desk, you have to finish every assignment for every class. Or, you have to pick and choose which ones to skip. It quickly turns into a lot of days where you’re forced to settle for good enough.
It also quickly engenders impostor syndrome. You worry if you really were a child prodigy, doomed now to be an unremarkable adult. Were you even gifted in the first place? What are you good at? What am I supposed to be doing? Who am I?
Part of me still believes I’d be good at anything if I cared enough to put the time in. I’ve been told I’m gifted in just about every subject under the sun. I was published in a data science journal at 17 and likely would’ve been published in a psychological one by 23 if I hadn’t burnt out on my undergrad research. I could’ve applied myself and gotten into grad school in clinical psychology or statistics, but instead I tapped out after undergrad to work an exceedingly regular job. I write about football sometimes, which I guess is my passion, but even my motivation for that waxes and wanes to a probably untenable degree.
The other part of me very loudly and aggressively believes that I’m an impostor. I can’t be good at data science because I couldn’t get into any of the related majors while I was in college. I can’t be good at psychology because I’d need to go back to school to be good. I can’t go back to school because my grades in undergrad weren’t good enough to get me in. I’m not a good writer because it was always my worst non-art subject in school. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.
For a long time, my way of coping with impostor syndrome was to break things down into milestones, a mentality carried over from track. I wanted to run a 5:00 mile, and I started at 5:30 at the beginning of the year. So, ideally, I want to be at 5:20 a third through the season, 5:10 a few weeks after that, and 5:00 by the end. You summit one mountain, so the goal becomes to summit a taller one, then a taller one, then a taller one, until you either fail or summit the tallest mountain there is.
But that’s what they don’t tell you. There’s always a taller mountain.
Say I had broken 5:00. Then the goal would have been 4:45. If I’d done that, maybe 4:40. On and on until you fail. There’s no time to stop and admire the view from the mountains you have summited, because they’re really just all practice runs for climbing Mt. Everest. It’s exhausting.
When you’re trapped in this kind of cycle, there’s also not a lot of time to stop and wonder why you’re climbing these mountains in the first place. Was it my idea, yours, someone else’s? Then, when you don’t reach the summit, you can reconsider. Why was I on these mountains?
More and more people far more visible and thoughtful than me have talked about struggling with mental health in recent years. DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love in the NBA, Dak Prescott and Hayden Hurst in the NFL, a smattering of celebrities in other areas. But lately, two have struck a chord with me.
The first is Bo Burnham, whose new special Inside is a masterpiece that you should watch immediately after reading this. Burnham is up front that he made the special to avoid shooting himself in the head, with his mental health on a rollercoaster throughout the entire hour and a half. He shows himself setting up every shot, going through every detail until it’s perfect. He says at one point that he doesn’t want to kill himself permanently. But if he could kill himself for like, 18 months, that’d be perfect.
The second is Naomi Osaka, who’s been in the news recently for refusing to do media obligations to protect her mental health. Part of her original statement mentions questions that “bring doubt into our minds”, which some people have used as a jumping off point to call Osaka soft. In her follow up statement after withdrawing from the French Open, she mentions social anxiety and depression caused by wanting to give the best answers possible.
I’d venture a guess that most of the people mad at Osaka for doing this are mentally healthy, or at least not anxious. Yeah, Osaka is insanely rich, successful, and talented, but that means nothing when it comes to mental health. My depression doesn’t care that I was a gifted child, in fact, my gifted nature is one of the root causes of my depression. Anxiety doesn’t care that you’re famous, in fact, I’d imagine being famous causes anxiety, considering your entire life is under a microscope.
Burnham retired from the spotlight of live comedy because of panic attacks and returned to distract himself from an even larger evil of being trapped inside with only his own thoughts. Osaka has now dropped out of an event because of anxiety over talking to the press. Kyrie Irving has taken multiple mental health days instead of playing. What more do we need in order to understand?
it doesn’t matter
For a long time, my sweeping posture was that it didn’t matter. Something was happening because something was happening, simple as that. Asking questions leads to overthinking, overthinking leads to anxiety. Better to just let it happen.
Turns out when nothing matters to you, everything grays out a bit. Dulling the lows makes you seem more resilient, sure, but adopting this posture across every phase of your life means you’re also dulling the highs. Are you really actively participating in your own life, or are you just going through the motions? You’re afraid to be at rock bottom again, but you’re also afraid to be happy.
You’re afraid to be happy.
You haven’t been in so long. You forget what it’s like. Every time you really have been, something has gone wrong. So this time, make sure it’s ironclad. Ask too many questions. Be suspicious. Secretly, you kind of hope you fuck it up. You don’t have a script for being happy, for being secure, for being your own person. You’d have to improvise. You’ve never stayed happy. How do people stay happy?
If you do fuck it up, great news! It doesn’t matter. You can still be doing just okay. After years and years of being miserable, being just okay isn’t so bad. You’d rather flatten the emotional spectrum than risk being miserable again. If it’s a 50–50 between being happy and being miserable versus a 100% chance of just being, you’re not taking that risk.
You’re afraid to be happy.
My therapist and I talk a lot about discernment tasks. Essentially, what that means is looking at a situation and asking “does this matter?”. I’m not very good at discernment tasks, which is why we talk about them so much. I’m used to all or nothing, and deciding that nothing matters is WAY easier than deciding everything matters. There’s no anxiety if nothing matters because everyone else is making decisions for you. All your expectations, goals, and validation are outsourced.
If everything matters, you’re a control freak. Every detail has to be exactly to your specifications, otherwise the rest of the day is ruined. You can hang out with your friends for exactly 2 hours and 28 minutes, but then you have to leave to go write an article that doesn’t have a deadline because that’s what you told yourself you were going to do today. If you don’t do that, then you have to do it tomorrow, and something else gets thrown off, and then the whole week is thrown off, and then you might as well just do nothing.
The truth is that it’s not all or nothing. Some things matter and some things don’t. Sometimes you can depersonalize in one area while re-personalizing in another. Sometimes that causes anxiety, agonizing over whether or not something does matter to me. I’m not used to making decisions. Even writing this right now, I’m agonizing. Do the parts I put in matter? Do the parts I left out matter? Do any of these 5,300 words matter?
I’ve been working on some version of this for seven years. Every time, I get stuck somewhere, worry I’m being too self-serving by expounding on my gifted childhood. I decide I don’t want to make it public and have people who are part of the story read it. It goes back and forth. I find comfort in having all of it written down, just so that it’s not rattling around in the forefront of my brain anymore.
I get anxious. Only a handful of people know how close I got to jumping. I worry you’ll see me differently somehow, like it’s a black mark on my permanent record. I worry you’ll see this as rationalizing pain I’ve caused, the get out of jail free card for being a dick to you. I worry it’s not relatable, not interesting, not important. I worry that this is barely coherent, more a collection of random stories than one big one. I worry that even though everything in this is true, everything in it is my life, you won’t like it. I want to change it to a story you’ll like. I want to tell you every detail front to back until I’ve completely transferred my consciousness from me to you. I want you to understand.
Does it matter?