I only feel alive when I'm in danger

I don't feel like killing myself, but I don't really care if I die, either. I just like the risk.

By Cary Tennis
Published March 11, 2008 11:15AM (EDT)

Program note: Canadian readers, hear Cary Tennis interviewed live on the CBC Radio One program "Q," on Tuesday, March 11 at 2 p.m. most locations in Canada.

Dear Cary,

A few weeks ago, I went into the desert alone for about a week and drove myself to exhaustion each day, hiking, climbing, whatever else. It was mentally fulfilling, and I didn't even consider the risk until a couple people expressed surprise upon my return that I'd do such a thing.

The trip, while interesting, wasn't nearly as dangerous as I was hoping for, so now I'm planning a trip into much more unpredictable territory, with hazardous mountains where the routes are more demanding and the consequences for failure significantly higher. This I haven't talked about with anyone.

I'm also buying a motorcycle and I'm wearing the bare minimum helmet permitted by the DOT.

I don't have many friends to speak of, and in that small number none of the relationships are close by any means. I am single and haven't gotten beyond a third date in well over a year. I get on well enough with my parents but I don't want that to be the sole relationship in my life, and typically, I'd say that my daily solitude is greater than what I experienced in the depths of the desert I went to.

It's not accurate to say that I want to die; I think if I wanted that I'd just throw myself off of a building. Those aren't thoughts going through my head by any means. It's just that I don't particularly care if I continue to live. I rent as oppose to own, I have no savings, I'm in debt (student loan and credit card), and while I have a good job that I love and good career, for all intents and purposes, I have no future.

So I compensate. I discovered that the thrill of doing something dangerous and not getting killed is, well ... stimulating, exciting, cool. I haven't found anyone who's liked me well enough to spend significant time with me, so rather than have a normal relationship in my life to provide that spark, I find it in other ways. It's not easy. Risky activities that demand skill, focus, concentration and the ability to make quick decisions make me feel alive, but I also find that I've become addicted to them. When in the midst, I'm fine. When away, I'm distraught.

Something about all of this is a little disconcerting. Being totally indifferent to whether or not I live to see another day is probably weird, and I'm not seeing it as such. I just shrug my shoulders and keep on going. I don't really know what I'm looking for, maybe just something beyond a quip about how my mom and dad really like me and that should be enough.

Is Risk-Taking Suicidal?

Dear Risk-Taker,

My take on it is that, since you don't care that much anyway, you might as well take reasonable precautions. Otherwise, you may find yourself falling through the air to your death thinking, You know, I really would like another cappuccino. But I'll probably never get one now.

So how about this: As a thought experiment, just imagine yourself slipping off a cliff and falling through the air, or sliding on your motorcycle into the path of an oncoming truck. What unfinished project or un-begun thing might occur to you -- other than a second cappuccino? What is there that you would regret not getting to, if you were to suddenly fall to your death? Let these things come into your mind and let them form the basis for some reasonable risk-management.

Not that you care that much.

You don't have to capital-C Care. You just have to make a reasonable wager.

I'm big on taking precautions even if, personally, I don't care that much. And yes, my amateur opinion is that risk-taking can be suicidal. You don't sound seriously suicidal or depressed. But you do sound like you are courting major injury or death, and, if I may say so, your prose has a sort of listless quality, as if you are not depressed exactly but a little numb, as if a submerged but growing depression is not yet felt as agonizing despair, but as just a patina of careless anomie.

That makes it all the more tragic when you become road ketchup.

So, having performed that thought experiment, take it one step further; make it real by taking yourself up on one of those fleeting falling-to-your-death type thoughts -- even if one of those thoughts is that you'd really like to do some more high-risk behavior. To ensure that you can do some more high-risk behavior, you mitigate the risks themselves. Preserve the thrills, mitigate the risks. Like by wearing a real helmet.

You know, I just have to tell you this. A friend of mine has lately been getting into other people's faces on the street. He knows it's not smart. Other people have guns and knives. He knows this. But he's sort of had it lately. So he's getting into people's faces. And he's asking himself not only, Why am I doing this? but, How can I moderate my behavior so I don't commit suicide by tweaker?

Self-absorbed twit that I am, as my friend is talking my mind wanders. I have a cappuccino problem. That is, I have a problem ordering a cappuccino without getting angry. I refuse to say "Tall" when I mean "Small." I refuse to say "Grande" in any case. Why should I have to say "Grande"? I refuse.

I should not have to say "Grande."

But I am mildly concerned. One of these days, a barista is going to draw on me: "Say, 'grande,' motherfucker. Say 'Grande.'"

I think I would refuse. I think it might escalate.

I might say, "Sorry, I just don't speak Fritalian."

I am afraid I might be committing suicide by barista.

But back to you.

Here are some other ideas: What about boxing? Have you tried that?

Boxing cannot be done alone. There will always be someone there hitting you. Perhaps you do not want someone hitting you. Nevertheless, should you lose consciousness and crumple to the mat, medical attention will be nearby.

Perhaps also you like the silence of climbing. If you really like the silence, how about finding a taciturn partner? Such a partner, while being of few words, might at least pinpoint your location if you find yourself dangling hundreds of feet above the earth and suddenly thinking how lovely it is to have a beating heart.

To get to the bottom line: I stay away from diagnosing people, as I'm not trained to do that and I don't, by temperament, really like the idea of diagnosing people. But we live in a marvelous world where professional help is available at the drop of a hat. You're a well-employed person, and I would urge you to go talk this over with a professional, just as part of your risk-management portfolio. Because mild depression and a sense of anomie can come and go, but death, paralysis and dismemberment are permanent.

I will even make a deal with you: If you do that, I will try to say "tall" even if I mean "small."

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