Every Life on This Page All at Once

Author’s Note: This essay mentions suicide/self-harm

Today I decided not to take the toll roads, which is a significant choice for central Florida considering all automotive convenience requires a pocket full of change here. Leaving the crowded, hot, sensory nightmare of my amusement park job, I had no timely obligations after 3:30, so I spent the extra 20 minutes meandering along back roads of semi-built “luxury” apartment complexes.

Under the careful watch of three psychiatric medications, I sailed through the day with just a few little pockets of anxiety. Twenty minutes into a relaxing, almost sleepy drive, I was comforted by the image of getting hit by another car. Maybe I would be okay, maybe I wouldn’t, maybe it would be a fender-bender. That happened once: I fell asleep at the wheel, not due to negligence, but on the backs of doctors who’ve been too slow to diagnose me with a sleep disorder. I was okay, and I’m still okay, but I might not have been. In the next minute, I could hear the sound of an ambulance while watching my car-dedicated mascara roll around the passenger seat. Maybe I can pull myself out, perhaps I can’t.

I float above my body to see all perspectives. My life doesn’t flash before my eyes, but all the lives I could’ve had from the second I chose not to take the tolls. In many cases, I’m not even in Florida. There are many scenarios in which I didn’t even make it past 24 years old. Suspended in thought between life, lives, and death, I’m soothed to a lull. Floating in the outer space of my mind, eyes glossed over, I’m told this is what dissociation feels like. As therapists-in-training, we’re taught this sort of response is triggered by something outside of our emotional window of tolerance. This isn’t that. It’s a call from me everywhere on every timeline, needing my attention/

The free-range cows chewed grass on the open stretch near the sprawling apartments. I was living in the fleeting dust of a choice. I’m alive in this choice. The choice to take the backroads that is. I could also be alive in the choice to take the tolls. I’d probably be a more awake version of myself with 10 minutes of my life back. With those 10 minutes, I probably would’ve finally made my bed or finished the dishes. There’s a higher chance I would still be scrolling on social media, gazing in judgment and envy at all the lives I never chose to live. It’s not the family pregnancy announcement, the white wedding, or the corporate job promotion enticing me to dig deeper into my own well of regrets. Well, actually, I’m walking down the aisle in a puffy white dress, marrying a man I met in medical school. That was the expectation. That was the cleanest option. There I was in the boomerangs of the social void, smearing cake in the face of a familiar stranger. I think I was happy. I was floating. In the fog of suspension, I see diminished friendships, casual ghosting, not-so-casual ghosting, and best-friend-turned-enemy-in-disguise. All life branches hinge on a choice, as made evident by the depths of the internet. My more ghostly self reminds me that in each moment, we are all offered a combination of luck, timing, and initiative.

There was that time I got into a car accident on toll roads because the driver and I both fell asleep. I woke up to a horrid ringing, the smell of smoke, and the screams of my friend. It had appeared our engine was in our windshield, and yet, I seemed okay. I somehow managed to open the totaled car door. My feet were soaked in melted snow, and my toes were freezing. We were in the middle of Indiana, so we only got the volunteer EMTs from down the road who took us in for several hours until our parents could get us. They made us dinner, and we promised we’d come back through their station with Yuengling since, at the time, it was only sold in Ohio and not Indiana. I never did that, but maybe if I had, I would’ve fallen in love with a firefighter. I hooked up with a firefighter once.

There’s this one guy I keep tabs on. I check on him to soothe the festering wound of regret, making a home within my body. A sort of healing balm, I choose to watch his Instagram story. Turns out he’s in my city at a conference I was supposed to be attending where “supposed,” hinges on the expectations of others and a made-up version of myself where I’m a college counselor. When we were 17, we were supposed to be soulmates. We had a fantastical summer love affair, and my parents told me if I married him, I would have a life where he could buy me luxury brands every day.

They were probably right. He attended two Ivy League schools, owns his own company, and now takes regular international vacations. The moment he kissed me on a picnic blanket under the stars in rural Ohio just before leaving for college, I chose not to lie to myself and, in doing so, lied to him. The moment we kissed on that picnic blanket, I felt nothing; I also felt a wave of something much bigger than expensive handbag choices.

I made a choice against my fate. I said I wasn’t into it. I rolled over to pack up and go home.

I very well could’ve lived a fancy life somewhere in California, not worried about the car payments I never seem to have enough money for each month. I’d be in a wealthy, white neighborhood with guy friends who can’t precisely describe what they do for a living. He’d insist on having a maid who also happens to look like me. I’d be straight, but I’d probably still be able to eavesdrop on conversations at the nail salon. At this point, I was already proficient in Chinese, a skill I actually came close to mastering by 18 in my current life. It was the closest language to my people I could learn this side of the West. Our actual language is considered dead, and I always found that choice in wording particularly enticing.

But right now, he’s off somewhere watching a DM ping his phone, notifying him this girl from high school wants to know what he’s doing at a college counseling conference in central Florida.

Somewhere in England in 2019, I’m living with the girlfriend I chose to marry for a green card. It’s probably a cottage on the edge of the city. We are probably still stricken with undiagnosed mental disorders, pulling at each other’s last lifelines. She’s a scientist and only somewhat content with her life. I’m probably desperate to induce my chosen family, still struggling to function five years later. There’s a chance I could be a teacher for a posh private school, but I’m most likely barely surviving off babysitting gigs. There is no way I exist gleefully in that life. And yet, there’s a scientifically calculated chance I’m thriving as a wife to a British scientist. Then again, the chances are slim.

The chances will always be slim. I just moved from the chair in my bedroom to the chair in my living room. I could’ve decided to stay, go to bed, or quit writing altogether. No matter my decision — from what to eat for breakfast to where to relocate my life — I somehow alter the universe in small and significant ways. I often think about choices within a binary: You choose something, and the other options abruptly die away, irrelevant to the rest of our lives. What if I told you they are alive, tucked deep within a quantum parallel universe?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is founded on the science of “what ifs.” Many therapy interventions use this pattern of behavior to lure clients out of depressive thinking, subverting it back to clients as an acceptable reality. A mental stretch of the imagination, the therapist asks a miracle question: “If you woke up tomorrow and all your problems were solved with a magic wand, what would your life look like?” Most people function from the inverse of this question, constantly fearing their realities or how a particular situation might fail them. Your therapist might say something like, “but what if you do?,” because the chances of that happening are just as likely.

I live my life both entertained by and in debt to the alternate realities coexisting next to me. Somewhere on a timeline I can’t quite comprehend, I’m still living a life where I’m maybe taking a walk outside or taking a nap. Or, I’m unhappy in my non-profit job back in Los Angeles, hardly staying alive and balancing five jobs and full-time school. Or, maybe I’m happily doing all of that and writing about it here in this assemblage of a personal essay.

I dance with all the selves who died with unmet expectations, grieving the people I’ve never been but exist all at once in my universe and the universes of people who preferred I choose differently. I carry timelines of legacy in my mind. I am always not something I could’ve been to my family. I’m always not. I’m burdened by unlived lives, hovering within my dreams, just behind my pupils. I’ve weaponized myself with all the doctoral degrees, sharp tools, expensive cars, street skills, and ballet kicks, all fighting to integrate themselves. They want to be noticed. They want to be heard. Their lack of co-existence is a constant pit of grieving. I cannot fight bullets with googly eyes. Not yet.

Many religious practices maintain that once your soul leaves your physical body via death, you get born into another life based on karma. Each life develops further in hopes of reaching the ultimate mature state. The human state is believed to exist in the middle of this hierarchy. On a day when my antidepressants are working hard, I understand my placement as a gift given by my Burmese ancestors. I’ve lived a life where I’ve seen other realities but have been blessed with this one. On days when the meds aren’t hitting as hard, I’m destined for a fate complete with rewards and consequences based on the “right” course of action.

I am a descendant of my people’s right and wrong actions. I’ve lived happily married to my wife somewhere we can whale-watch, wondering what the multiverse has in store for me in a life where I live closer to family. In my current life, I’m happily in central Florida dating my own Waymond Wang, wondering what the multiverse has in store for me living as a bike dyke in the Southwest. I’m wondering how kindness can kill off the mourning souls of all the mes everywhere, all at once.

The beauty and curse of an anti-binaural way of life is that we choose decisions based on many truths and many shifting realities. I can’t know what is happening in a current parallel universe at this exact moment, just like I can’t know what my life would be like if I were still dating the girl I was last March. There will always be sides of lives already lived or sides of lives not yet lived, but somehow I will always be me. Somehow, I always carry a core of myself through every choice. I’m bisexual, mixed, and gender expansive. I constantly live in a multiverse. I cannot strangle my brain for universal answers when I embody a multiverse of identities.

Seeing life in such a rigid timeline is erasing the realities of all choices, all identities, all the truths we cannot see and cannot know for ourselves. I can only take guesses at my alternative life, the one where I don’t speak to my family or the one where I’m making them proud. If I can see myself through the eyes of what could’ve been, maybe I can also see the desperate validation from the moving timelines around me. Perhaps what I’ve been searching for isn’t validation from every fractal of my multiverse but validation from those who only see one streamlined universe; you don’t see the people I’ve been or have been expected to be. Chance has masked itself as a blessing and a curse behind choice, a phenomenon fueled by the wisdom and mistakes of those within me. My multiversal beings reach for validation, but maybe your singular view of my multiverse doesn’t need to be validated at all. By typing out every life in these pages all at once, I’m confronted with the many evolving identities within me. Even in this timeline, I continue to perpetually exist.

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Em Win

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Em now lives in Los Angeles where she does many odd jobs in addition to writing. When she's not sending 7-minute voice messages to friends and family, she enjoys swimming, yoga, candle-making, tarot, drag, and talking about the Enneagram.

Em has written 70 articles for us.

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