CW: suicide, sexual assault
We’ve imagined so many catastrophic scenes for the world’s end. Wolves wander ruined streets, scavenging garbage and irradiated corpses. Rotting undead roam the countryside, eating every living thing until they starve out. Nameless corpses float by after the skyscraper-high tsunami obliterates the city. Alien creatures hunt us near extinction, triggered by our every sound. In each scenario, at least one human survives to tell the story.
I’ve long been obsessed with apocalyptic destruction, or what I call the Apocalyptic Sublime, a term originally used to describe a school of 19th-century paintings that depict the world ending by Biblical fire and flood. A part of me fears such sublime annihilation, while another part of me desires it: pure oblivion, the eternal fusion of human and inhuman matter, which I imagine as particles merging like biological cells into a syncytium.
No more responsibility. No more pressure to live a meaningful life. No more body plagued by traumatic memory, no more brain spiraling off like an astronaut untethered from the ship, floating into the darkest space.
Earth might die by asteroid, nuclear fire, supervolcanic event. Peter Petranek speaks in his TED Talk about particle accelerator events potentially creating tiny black holes, and also a phenomenon called strangelets, which are kind of like antimatter that obliterate other matter when they touch it. But more likely, the planetary death will be slow and painful: climate catastrophe leading to eco-collapse, a mass extinction event. The oceans are already dying.
Then there’s cosmic destruction. In seven billion years, the sun will die, swallowing the earth. But very likely before this, in five billion years, Andromeda will collide with the Milky Way in a spectacular display of galactic death and regeneration. The supermassive black holes—the nuclei of each galaxy—will circle each other until they collide. The two spiral galaxies will become an elliptical one.
It sounds so beautifully terrifying. When galaxies collide, they birth new stars, which eventually become supernovas that self-destruct in unbelievably massive explosions, generating more elements life needs to survive. And through such annihilation comes the potential for regeneration, for the birth of new life, new matter, new species that herald the end of ours, and new ecosystems unimaginable to us.
For many years now I’ve also explored the apocalypse as a living metaphor for traumatic fallout, a way to understand psychoemotional devastation. The concept has become a lens through which I view a version of myself: the traumatized body, a raped and ravaged body, a landscape devastated by psychological wars and nuclear disasters, each psychogenic seizure a tiny earthquake threatening collapse. There’s no beauty in this. Most days I can’t find any beauty in me.
I’m in love with apocalyptic films of horrific beauty. The book adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation—about an extraterrestrial phenomenon proliferating off the coast of Florida—is one such film. Five researchers explore a territory designated Area X to chart the relentless encroachment of this force, which scrambles biological matter, compromising the stability of all life. They’ve named it “The Shimmer” because everything inside it warps and shines, undulates as if hallucination.
It’s considered a suicide mission. No team has ever returned. But unlike most films about the apocalypse—and suicide—there’s ambiguity as to its origin, power, and effects, which are arguably more creative than destructive. The Shimmer doesn’t kill. It doesn’t raze, poison, or raise the ravenous dead. It only mutates, endlessly transforming matter. Several species of flowers grow on the same branch, a genetic impossibility. A skull-faced bear calls out in the voice of the human it devoured.
In one scene, the research team discovers flowering trees mysteriously shaped like human bodies. The physicist Josie tells Lena, our biologist protagonist, she believes the plants have a Human Hox gene. She posits that The Shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything, not just light and radio waves, animal DNA, plant DNA—all DNA.
Soon after, Josie herself transforms into one of the flowering trees that fascinate her. Tendriled flowers first begin to bloom from her self-harm scars, then all over her skin, as she walks into the copse, leaving Lena behind.
Unlike Daphne, or Dante’s suicides, Josie chooses to become flora, surrendering to her desire to shed her human body and mind, a uniquely gorgeous suicide. Her body’s shape will remain in The Shimmer, rooted in soil, but its physiobiology—perhaps now astrobiology—will become botanical, eternally pollinating.
I have to admit that a part of me envies her.
Suicide runs in my family, like an invisible species of cancer. When I was seventeen, my father tried to kill himself, and then tried several times after that.
But suicide can be passive. During a manic episode, my father also abused morphine to the point he almost crashed his car and died. His mother smoked her way through lung cancer. His sister resisted treatment for a fatal infection, just as she resisted therapy for her traumatic childhood, just as my father still refuses to see a therapist for his own.
Besides suicide, many ways exist for a person to self-destruct, just as many ways exist for a planet to die. Like my father, you can also drink too much to dull it, overdose on opiates, smoke cigarettes despite your worsening COPD. You can starve yourself, as I did in college, or pursue unsafe, reckless sex, or cut yourself too deep, ignore the infected wound until it needs debriding.
I’ve learned ways to self-destruct quietly, imperceptibly to others. Self-destruction is inevitable when you’re deeply suffering. From the outside, to free and healthy people, self-destructive behaviors seem alien. But anyone with extensive trauma and other severe mental disorders can understand these impulses.
There’s only so much pain one can bear before one needs to express it, release it into the world, where it can dissipate like the smell of gasoline in the wind, like primordial elements dispersed through the universe.
As a psychologist, I think you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction, Dr. Ventress, the psychologist and lead researcher on the Area X expedition, tells Lena one night. They’re keeping watch while the others sleep. Almost none of us commits suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct. In some way, in some part of our lives. We drink, or we smoke, we destabilize the good job, and a happy marriage. But these aren’t decisions, they’re impulses. In fact, you’re probably better equipped to explain this than I am.
What does that mean? Lena asks.
You’re a biologist, she replies. Isn’t the self-destruction coded into us? Programmed into each cell?
These days, I see a trauma therapist three times a week and a psychiatrist once a month. I take the medications he prescribes. I keep busy with writing, errands, and friendships. I go to work, pay my bills, clean my house, take care of my animals.
But if I’m honest with myself, I know I’m still not trying hard enough. Some days I feel too fragile and volatile to do the proper work of healing. There’s too much happening in my brain. My dreams, memories, thoughts—they’re all scrambled, refracted back at me kaleidoscopically, and I can’t make sense of them.
My psychiatrist recently diagnosed me with bipolar II disorder after an extended mixed episode that nearly destroyed me. He doesn’t want me to keep using the antipsychotic—used to treat my hypomania—that I’m taking long term. It doesn’t seem to be working. Instead he wants me to try lithium, says that it might be The One.
A part of me wants to be different, a new person capable of thriving in the human world. A person who wants to live. Another part is in love with its own self-destruction. I tell him I’ll think about it.
Lithium has been used medically since the 19th century for a variety of ailments, and used to treat bipolar disorder for seventy-three years, one of its primary benefits being the reduction of suicidal ideation. It was once an ingredient in 7-Up. It’s one of the three elements that nucleosynthesized in the first few minutes of the birth of the universe, and, despite its resilience across billions of light years, it remains sparser than other elements because it’s so fragile, easily annihilated at the centers of stars.
I weigh potential side effects against the possibility of bipolar remission. Minor side effects are manageable: hand tremors, nausea. But too much lithium in the blood causes toxicity, which can lead to organ failure and death. Taking lithium requires regular blood testing to monitor its levels and protect the kidneys. You need to drink a lot of water, a challenging task for me, who drinks only coffee and diet soda.
Truthfully, I’m a little scared to take lithium, given its dangers, and its stigma. But every time I begin to fear it, I remember lithium is a pure, primordial element, the only psychiatric medication of its kind. Astrophysicists use the presence (or lack thereof) of lithium to identify cooler and hotter stars. This is called a lithium test. Higher concentrations of lithium appear in stars that orbit black holes, whose gravity pulls lithium to the surface.
Supernovas—those apocalyptic self-destructing stars—also create lithium. While the big bang created a small amount of lithium in the initial formation of the universe, the majority of lithium gets manufactured in the nuclear reactions that power the nova explosions, NASA reports on its website, suggesting that the nova explosions would then distribute that lithium throughout the galaxy, and deliver most of the lithium we use today in electronics and medicine.
I’ve always wanted to speak the language of stars.
It came here for a reason. It mutated our environment, it was destroying everything, says the hazmat-suited scientist interrogating Lena, the sole survivor of the suicide expedition, after she returns from The Shimmer at the end of her long journey. The scientists are suspicious that she made it out alive, and why she’s the only one. They’re wary of her.
It wasn’t destroying it, she explains. It was changing everything. It was making something new. Her eyes shimmer extraterrestrially, like planets through intergalactic gas. She’s fought her way back, but not as a human. As something new.
Sometimes my life—my core self—seems on the verge of a spectacular collapse, each little ecosystem caving, one-by-one, into dust. Sometimes I’m unable to escape the gravitational field of my body, which feels impossibly heavy. The world turns unreal, warped and strange, as if I move through a gas cloud at the cold edge of a universe, blown by stellar winds.
Sometimes I love that feeling. Sometimes I fear it.
Last night I took my first lithium pill. I don’t feel any different. Of course I don’t, not yet. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won’t. But how strangely exhilarating it feels to consume a primordial element in its purest form. Inside me I imagine a little supernova blooms. I imagine starlight communing under my skin, quantumly entangled particles, like Josie’s extraterrestrial flowers.
We do what we can to survive, though none of us will. The pull of the void is strong for me, like my own hand in a dark mirror, taking hold of my wrist across light years and refusing to let go.
But what if I gently took that hand, across that void? What if I held it against my chest and listened to my own two hearts, pulsing like quasars? The body in the mirror and the body outside it merging into one, like two galaxies colliding, two supermassive black holes fusing, generating a trillion new stars only I can feel.