The ultimate dissociative experience.

Death is an uncomfortable subject for most of us, but at some point, we are all going to have to come to terms with it. Here’s a post I wrote a while back describing what that process is like for me.

Lucky Otters Haven

thanatophobia2

Death isn’t something I like to think about, much less write about.  In fact, it’s my biggest fear (outside of the death of one of my children).  Oh, I know all the pat arguments and rationalizations that it’s not so bad–death is a part of life, death is nothing to be afraid of, if you’re a good Christian you will go to Heaven and there will be no fear, nothing at all will happen so there will be no fear, even the idea that death is beautiful.

I woke this morning, as I often do, thinking about how much I fear my own death.  I think this is a little obsessive-compulsiveness on my part, and probably something I should talk about more in therapy.   The mental health field has a name for the irrational or excessive fear of death: thanatophobia.    So far I’ve only talked to God…

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The ultimate dissociative experience.

thanatophobia2

Death isn’t something I like to think about, much less write about.  In fact, it’s my biggest fear (outside of the death of one of my children).  Oh, I know all the pat arguments and rationalizations that it’s not so bad–death is a part of life, death is nothing to be afraid of, if you’re a good Christian you will go to Heaven and there will be no fear, nothing at all will happen so there will be no fear, even the idea that death is beautiful.

I woke this morning, as I often do, thinking about how much I fear my own death.  I think this is a little obsessive-compulsiveness on my part, and probably something I should talk about more in therapy.   The mental health field has a name for the irrational or excessive fear of death: thanatophobia.    So far I’ve only talked to God about my phobia but I feel like He isn’t listening.     People in my age group (50’s) say they’re beginning to come to terms with the prospect of death, but so far, for me, that hasn’t happened.  I get more scared every year.

Maybe death terrifies me because it entails complete ego loss–it’s the ultimate dissociative experience, and as someone who has had massive panic attacks usually instigated by dissociative experiences (feeling out my body, feeling like things are dreamlike or unreal, etc.) it would be natural for me to be afraid of what it might feel like.   It’s like someone who had a bad drug trip and is mentally unstable to begin with being slipped some acid when they’re unaware of it–and never being able to return to reality.

I don’t like to write about death, because even thinking about it too long makes me extremely anxious.  But I need to write about it, and need to talk about it with others, and maybe find comfort in the fact that others have the same sense of trepidation and worry.  Maybe I’m not alone in my fear of death and dying.   So I’m going to plow on. Writing about it surely can’t hurt.

thanatophobia

I’ve been told by many Christians that, if I am strong in my faith, that there is nothing to fear, because I can be sure of my place in Heaven after I die.   But this makes things even worse for me, because I do have doubts in my faith and I am not at certain I am going to Heaven, or even that there is a Heaven.   No matter how much I pray for perfect faith, I can’t seem to make my mind rid itself of its many doubts.   There are just some things about Christianity I can’t make myself believe or at least not question.  Again, maybe it’s my obsessive-compulsiveness.   As someone who is afraid to trust anyone and is hypervigilant, it’s even hard for me to completely trust God and not worry about what will happen to me after I die. I look at others–even narc abuse survivors who should be as hypervigilant as I am–who seem to have attained perfect faith and I marvel at this. How do they do it?

Although it’s hard for me to believe that if I question Christianity or what the Bible says, that God will send me to burn in Hell for eternity even if I’m otherwise a good person (that seems like a terribly cruel, narcissistic God to me), how do I know for sure God isn’t like that?  Maybe God is really that cruel and narcissistic, but in that case, why would I want to even spend eternity in Heaven, trapped there with sanctimonious, self righteous, insufferable believers? (I’m not saying all believers are like that, but I’ve met more than a few who are).  In that case, maybe Heaven would be more like Hell.     But Hell…well, I definitely don’t want to go there.

But Christianity is only one way to look at the issue of death.  Let’s face it.   No matter how sure you are in your faith, whatever it is, none of us really knows what’s going to happen after we die.   What if the New Agers are right and what happens is you look back and see yourself lying on the hospital bed, pavement, or whatever, see your own broken, bleeding, or used-up body there, and then watch as they pull the sheet over your head?  What if you are swooshed at light-speed down a long tunnel toward “the light” and meet angels and see otherworldly landscapes and other inexplicable things?   Or what if you float around the earth as a disembodied spirit, revisiting your friends and relatives you left behind?   People who have reported NDE’s (near death experiences) have said that at some point they become aware they have died (that’s usually when they “come back”) and most say it’s very disorienting and even scary at first, because their bodies just aren’t there.   All of these things, no matter how pleasant others have said they are, strike terror in me, because they sound like dissociative experiences that you can never escape from.   I’ve struggled with episodes of dissociation my entire life, but no matter how terrifying they became, I always knew I’d “return” and the experience would probably only last a few minutes.   Does something happen after you die where you’re no longer afraid of such things, or do you just learn to deal with it?

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Maybe this is true, but I wish I could believe it.

What if the atheists and existentialists are right and nothing happens after you die?  What if you simply cease to exist?   While I find that prospect extremely depressing,  it actually causes me the least anxiety.   Eternal sleep and unconsciousness doesn’t seem so bad to me.  If you’re aware of nothing, well, there’s nothing to be afraid of or get depressed about, is there?  But I still don’t like the idea that this life is ultimately meaningless.   What is all the struggle for then?

Reincarnation doesn’t seem so bad, and actually does make some logical sense to my scientifically-leaning brain, but it flies in the face of being a Christian.   I don’t know of any Christians who acknowledge that reincarnation is a possibility after death.  But why couldn’t it be? As a Catholic, we believe in the concept of purgatory, a place of purification (not punishment) after death.  But no one can explain what purgatory might be like.  Maybe living additional lives is what purgatory actually means?   Again…we just don’t know.

'It's not that I'm afraid of dying, Doctor... It's just that I don't want to be there when it happens!'

‘It’s not that I’m afraid of dying, Doctor… It’s just that I don’t want to be there when it happens!’

Maybe we just go back to wherever we were before we were born, and have amnesia for this life. Or maybe it’s like eternal dreaming (that doesn’t sound too bad). Again, we don’t know.

Besides the inevitable experience of death, which seems bad enough, I’m terrified by the prospect of dying.   I’m in my 50’s, and figure I might (realistically) have about another two or three decades of life left.   To someone my age, that doesn’t seem so long.  Twenty years ago was 1996; thirty years ago was 1986.   That means that in that same amount of time, going forward, I will probably be leaving my body permanently, but before that, I may well suffer either unbelievable pain or a few moments of sheer terror.   Few people just die peacefully in their sleep or just suddenly keel over while out on the golf course (that’s the way a 90 year old great uncle of mine died).   Most suffer first, either for months (as in a long illness) or a few seconds (as in an accident).   I’m terrified of both.  I know there’s no way to get out of this life alive, so the inevitable is going to happen, and there’s not a whole lot of time left before it does. Even worse, each year time seems to hurtle forward twice as fast as the year before. What seemed like “a long time ago” to me twenty years ago now seems like the blink of an eye.

As someone who tends to overthink everything,  I probably think about death and dying way too much.  I know I should just stop and enjoy life while I still have it.   But the more I try not to think about it, the more I seem to.   It’s like that game where you try not to think about an elephant.  I pray about this all the time but it hasn’t helped very much.    I just keep feeling guilty because  no matter how hard I try, I can’t embrace my Christianity with perfect faith.   I have no guarantee I’m going to Heaven.   I keep questioning everything and then I worry about going to hell.  Or being eternally dissociated, which to me would be hell.  Or just worrying about the intolerable suffering that will precede my exit from this planet.    Maybe I need to talk to my therapist about this because it seems like it could be a form of undiagnosed OCD.

Further Reading:
My Fear of Death

Fear of death.

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Fear of death, called Thanatophobia, is a common fear, especially in younger people, who under normal circumstances have their entire lives ahead of them and don’t have to worry about the inevitable event happening any time soon.

Of course, the grim reaper can claim anyone at any time. There are no guarantees in life, and even if you’re a gleaming example of perfect health in your prime and never take dumb risks, a concrete block could crash down on your head while leaving your house tomorrow morning. But the likelihood of sudden (or even protracted) death when you’re young is small, so the young can afford to fear death, as long as their fear isn’t so overpowering it makes it impossible for them to enjoy their time being alive.

It’s been said that the older we get, the less we fear death. In the very old (and those who have been suffering with chronic illness for a long time, including terminally ill children), death is even welcomed and looked forward to. That’s understandable, especially if you believe, as most people do, that the afterlife will be better than this world. Unless you fear going to Hell, you probably shouldn’t be afraid of passing on to the “other side,” whatever it may be. Even if the atheists are right and there’s nothing at all after this life, well, what’s so terrible about that? It’s like an eternal sleep and you won’t be aware of anything so not being able to wake up won’t bother you.

fear_of_death

I think people fear death for three reasons:

1. Fear of the unknown.
Humans have an instinctive fear of the unknown, and no matter how much faith you have that you are going to heaven when you die, the bottom line is, no one really knows what happens. And that’s scary. I think that on a deep level, even the most religious people with the strongest faith still struggle with the knowledge that one day–a day that could be tomorrow or in 50 years–they will pass into something that’s a complete unknown.

Not only that, dying is an act that is always experienced alone. No matter how supportive a family or friends you have, no matter how many people surround you with their love as you prepare to die, no matter how much comfort is given by loved ones to the dying person, they are not going to be joining you on that journey. Other than God and the angels (if you are a believer), you are going to be taking that journey into the unknown all by yourself. Even if you die with others, such as in an accident, your journey to the other side is yours alone. Their journeys may be very different from yours.

2. Fear of the process of dying.
I think for many, it’s not so much death they fear, but the way they are going to die. Are they going to get cancer, be hit by a truck, be murdered by a burglar on meth, or suffer a sudden massive heart attack? There really is no pleasant way to die. It’s almost always either quick and terrifying; or long and incredibly painful. If you spend too much time thinking about the fact that one of these two things is going to happen to you before you die and it is not going to be pleasant, you can drive yourself crazy. That’s why it’s much better to focus on living a good, fulfilling life and not think too much about the way you might be leaving earth someday.

Some people think that by choosing the method in which they die, they have some control over the dying process and thereby make it less scary. That’s why right-to-die organizations and assisted suicide exists. If you have terminal cancer and know your death is going to be protracted and painful, why not just take some pills or hang yourself instead? Sure, it won’t be pleasant, but at least it might be quick. While this reasoning is understandable, many religions object to this because suicide, even suicide when you are going to die anyway, is considered a grave sin and God will make you accountable after death. But other people don’t believe this and think that God, if he exists, wouldn’t want them to suffer needlessly. Again, there’s really no sure way to know. I doubt I’d ever do it though, since I’m one of those who thinks God would make me accountable.

3. Fear of Hell.
Most Christians (and people who follow other Abrahamic religions like traditional Judaism and Islam) believe in some form of Hell and that some of us are going there after we die. Some Christians believe that all you need to do is accept Jesus as your personal savior and you are automatically saved and admitted to heaven. Others believe works on earth as well as grace are important. A few liberal Protestant denominations believe Hell is a state of mind (a separation from God) rather than an actual place, or they don’t believe in it at all. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists believe if we are not pleasing to God, we will simply be annihilated after we die (much more palatable, imo, than the concept of eternal torment). I’ve always had problems with the concept of Hell and simply find the idea that God will be sending good Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, Unitarians, and liberal Christians (the kind who don’t believe in Hell) to be tortured for all eternity extremely disagreeable. Not everyone, especially skeptical types like me who tend to need concrete evidence before they believe anything, is able to blindly embrace the idea of a savior or the words of the Bible (which can and have been interpreted in different ways) and even if they are willing to believe, some simply can’t. Should they be consigned to eternal torment for not being able to believe something because they think about everything too much?

Let me stop here before this turns into a religious post. That’s not my intent. My point here is that many people are afraid of going to Hell, even those who don’t really believe in in it. But there’s really no way to know if there is one, is there? There’s really no way to know what will happen after we die, or if anything will happen at all.

fear_death
How I wish I could have this attitude!

As I stated earlier, as people age, they tend to come to terms with the inevitability of death, even the inevitability of the process of dying, as they become aware they have many more years behind them than they have in front of them.

But what happens if, like me, you’re in your fifties and are still afraid of death? I’m well aware I probably have, at best, another 30 or so years left to live. Forty or fifty more years is highly unlikely though possible. Twenty years isn’t a lot, but for someone my age, that’s far more likely than living another forty or fifty years.

When I think about how short a time 20 or 30 years really is, it fills me with terror. I know I think about death way too much and should be focusing more on living a fulfilling life. It’s a waste of life to dwell on the unpleasant fact that one day I will die and may suffer a horrible, painful death too. How does one come to terms with the fact they are going to die and it isn’t even that long a time away? How does one get to the point of actually looking forward to death? I know some Christians reading this are going to be thinking, “well, if you were really saved [I consider myself to be], you would have no doubt you are going to heaven.” But no matter how much I pray about it, I still have doubts. I don’t think that’s likely to change either, because I’m the type of person who questions everything. Even my faith. The bottom line is, I simply don’t know what’s going to happen when I die, or when it’s going to happen, except that it’s going to happen. As the saying goes, none of us get out of here alive.