I flipped through the email on my BlackBerry and saw my starting salary would be just over $32,000 per year.
That’s not a whole lot in the Midwestern city I’m from, let alone in a place 30 minutes north of San Francisco, where the rent is literally twice as high. To boot, it was less than half what my younger brother was earning from his job in Silicon Valley and he hadn’t gone to school for eight years or spent $200,000 getting his education.
I headed to my laptop to inform the apartment complex near my future employer that my income would not initially meet the standards they had for occupants and, as I wasn’t sure when my bonuses would kick in, I didn’t want to continue to hold an apartment.
I had to surrender a $300 deposit–money I couldn’t afford to waste–made when I interviewed, confident the promise of “grossing $10,000 per month” (a miscommunication on the owner’s part, to say the least) would be more than adequate.
The familiar jingle of an incoming call interrupted me.
My mother asked if I could come change her flat tire. Quite frankly, I needed a few minutes to cool down, but I told her I’d leave as soon as I finished the email I was typing.
I climbed into my Saturn Ion and got moving towards downtown, then began to feel something familiar. Once before in my life–shortly after leaving my bankruptcy attorney’s office three months before–I noticed a peculiar tingling in my cheeks. I can only describe it as seeming like oxygen wasn’t making it to the muscles any longer. My face tightened up and I couldn’t open my mouth very wide as the ache became more pronounced.
I breathed deeply as I drove, trying to brush aside the fear and convince myself I could handle this setback. I mentally stacked all the success literature I’d ever read into a tall, thick levy strong enough to contain the emotional flood. I let out a primal scream at the top of my lungs and pounded the steering wheel, thinking it would help.
For a few moments, it did.
Speeding along at 60 miles per hour, the tingle began to spread. I started feeling it in my legs, my arms, my abdomen and the rest of my face. I screamed again, hoping to release the built-up steam from my internal tea kettle.
I got worse.
Millions of tiny snakes slithered beneath the skin of my torso. My calves cramped up with a similar sensation, as did my forearms and hands. Despite attempting to with all my might, I couldn’t extend my fingers. My hands were curling in towards my body. I cranked the air conditioner up and took deeper breaths.
I had to get off the highway. I’d become a danger to other motorists. I took the next exit and pulled into the first parking lot I could find and my education began running through my head.
The phrase “a feeling of impending doom” from a lecture on heart attacks sprung to mind. Coupled with the severe numbness and tingling on the verge of engulfing me from head to toe, the diagnosis might have been made. I was 28, though, and in pretty good physical condition. The chances were very slim.
Then I asked myself a stunning question:
“Am I going to die right here?”
In attempting to process the torrent of terrifying thoughts running through my mind (“How am I going to do this? I can’t live on so little here, how can I do it there? How did it come to this? Will I ever achieve my dreams? Was I foolish to believe I could?”), my brain couldn’t keep up. It grabbed any and all oxygen it could in order to survive the overload of emotional information, forsaking non-essential parts.
The problem was, I couldn’t get it to stop.
The calming thoughts I tried to shoehorn into my consciousness could not slow the raging river and I struggled to breathe in any sort of controlled manner. Everything was spinning and there was no end in sight.
My vision clouded as I convulsed against the spasm of my horror.
I made a snap decision to change my breathing, switching from in-the-nose-and-out-the-mouth to the simplest of breathing meditations. I used all I had to set aside everything going on and focus on the air passing back and forth through my nostrils. For several moments, I fought with myself until my mind finally cleared with a few simple words: “You must be committed.”
Somehow, that thought—from a video I’d watched the night before—managed to shout loudest at the perfect time.
Finally, I was calm.
The storm clouds cleared over the next couple of minutes. I sat still a little while longer to settle down further before completing the drive to my mother’s office. I changed her tire with a few residual symptoms, wobbling a few times as I stood, yet remarkably normal. I drove away bewildered by how eerily easygoing I felt after believing I might die a short fifteen minutes before.
Staring at death, I had managed to choose life.
This is the first of a two-part series concluded in Looking at Life from the Threshold of Death.