December 9, 2019

The Reverse Bucket List

This post contains references to self harm.

I remember the exact moment, in the summer of 2013, that something in my brain snapped. In an instant I became someone who struggled with mental health. I remember the feeling of falling out of reality and into a deep pit of sadness. It felt cold and lonely. I spent the rest of the summer cycling between euphoric highs and deep depressive lows before stabilizing into a fairly calm, depressed state which would last the next 7 years.

During that summer my mood was chaotic. When I was on a high, I was really up there. The world felt warm and loving. I felt excited and energetic. Sometimes the feeling lasted an afternoon, sometimes it lasted seconds. But inevitably I'd end up back in a low, quickly and dramatically the joy would be sucked out of life. I'd be back falling into that pit.

Luckily, I noticed this trend of mood-swings pretty quickly and I was open to any ideas which I felt would help calm the storms of my days. This is when the idea of a bucket list came up. I tried to make a list of things I wanted to do with my life, but there was nothing to write down. All I could think about was counting down the days until I eventually had the guts to take my own life.

When I was on a high I felt like I didn't need a reason to live. It felt obvious that life was worth living, so even in those moments I couldn't put together any semblance of a dream or goal. So I came up with a different plan. Instead of writing down what I wanted to happen, I wrote down what had happened. I began making a list of little moments and experiences which were the "obvious" things which made life worth living.

I made three rules for my list.

  1. Any event can go on the list - Good or bad, if it's part of the human journey then it's fair game.
  2. Anything put on the list stays forever - It's about how you felt in the moment not how you feel now.
  3. Everything needs an exact date - I can choose to add something weeks after it happens, but if I don't remember the date it's not allowed.

With these simple rules, I added the first line.

  1. Spend a day on a boat with friends for no reason other than friendship (August 3rd, 2013)

My memory, in general, isn't great. If I remember things it's because I actively put effort into remembering them. I can't tell you what I did for most of my birthdays, but I remember this one vividly. I remember what I was wearing. I remember the drunk golfers by the lake. I remember that Caitlin brought Oreo balls. I remember that I didn't mention to anyone it was my birthday.

I'm not sure if I'd remember so much about this day if it wasn't on the list. Just like almost every entry since, I can easily recall the situation around the event and I instantly feel like I'm back in that moment. Some memories get hazy, after all, it's been more than five years since many of them. That's kinda the point though. I'm excited to be 75 years old, reading this list of memories I've long since forgotten and being back to these moments.

Over the last six years, I've added 67 things to the list. This doesn't sound like many moments that make life worth living and that's because it's not. There are entire years without entries. This list has always been a way to fight my mental health issues and that battle is reflected in the gaps. Just as I can go back and think about the memories on the list, I can also go back and remember the times where I was numb for months on end and had nothing to write.

Even if the list hasn't helped me to avoid situations which leave the list itself with fewer edits than I'd like, it's still brought a lot of value to my life. The list is a tool for reflecting and reminding myself that my day-to-day goals are often out of alignment with the moments which really define the joy in my life. It's also a tool for remembering who I was and what was important to me at different points in my life.

Over the years I've changed a lot, so things I put on the list years ago probably wouldn't be something I'd be proud of today. I don't remember exactly when I realized that I'm not totally proud of the list, but at some point I added another rule.

4. No one sees the list

I've shared glimpses with people close to me. I've cherry-picked the fun stories and told them at parties or tweeted out a few silly ones on Twitter, but the vast majority remain sealed. No friend, no significant other, no one has seen the whole list. I think one day I'd like to share it with someone, but we'll see.

I encourage you to make your own list, you might learn things about yourself as I have.