“I went on the internet, searched ‘fear of death,’ and a name appeared.”
False Evidence Appearing Real
What happens next? What about the other characters? They were all still alive, so what happens with their life?
I’m not going to exist one day
Three weeks? It’s been about three years.
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
I became a born-again Christian in August 2001—my depression became less of an issue. The allure of god, being able to cast my troubles away, accepting there was a bigger plan being made, and the end goal of heaven warmed my heart and put a joy in my life I hadn’t known since I was six. But the more I studied religion, philosophy, and sociology, the idea of god as I knew god didn’t make sense. My doubt was at an all-time high.
We live, work, and experience all these amazing and shit moments, and then we die. And all we become is a memory in the lives of the people who knew us and are still alive. And then they eventually die, and we then cease to exist in any form.
When I approached my professor I explained my perspective; a perspective I practiced in my mind for two hours to make sure it was clear. He chuckled. “But if you’re dead, why does it matter?”
He didn’t get it. Or he did but didn’t say what I wanted to hear. I got upset.
I had already begun to seriously renounce the Christian god I had once loved dearly. Losing god meant losing the love and comfort that anchored me. During this time frame is when that initial panic attack arrived. Every night, on cue, the attacks would replay. Same routine, same thrashing, same pillow wrestling, and the same desire to release. I suppressed every single night. Always muffled cries and yells into a pillow, unable to freely express my pain.
Who would I be yelling to? Who would hear me? Who would truly say something that could comfort me?
I was alone.
The attacks began to spread out a bit. Sometimes they occurred every night for a week then disappeared for a month. The thought was still there but my body didn’t react the same. When they came back there was nothing to do but accept them. At some point it would stop like it always did. During the period when it didn’t exist, I could comfortably indulge in my depression, which felt more manageable.
“In my experience, I’ve found that grief and loss are the common denominators of most mental health issues. We, as a society, don’t know how to cope with grief and loss. We end up not dealing with these issues while creating mental health issues such as anorexia, addictions, and abuse,” notes Kriss A. Kevorkian, Ph.D., MSW, one of a few people to hold a doctorate in thanatology—the study and science of death, dying, and bereavement.
Between 2010 and 2013, liquor became a part of my daily ritual. A bottle of rum or whiskey or cognac a day, mixed in with frequent bar-hopping and a beloved flask, became my solace. I knew that staying up late would lead to panic attacks, so when I was alone I drank to numb my brain; when I was with people, I drank to keep my focus on something else. Both scenarios ensured I passed out the moment I was home.
The attacks rarely happened outside of my apartment. The feeling of solitude and darkness can’t exist in the bright lights of the New York City Transit.Butone night as I sat on the Brooklyn-bound Q train, not too drunk but not too sober, nonexistence came into my mind again.
What’s the point of doing anything? Existence is pointless. Even if you exist in some capacity after your human death, it won’t be like this. Dust to dust, yea. Everything is part of the same universe but a human is not a dog, not a tree, not a bench.
The labored breathing began and I feared releasing my usual energy on the train; so I sat there and cried as the train rode across the Manhattan Bridge.
I slowly began to develop a death wish, not out of fear but out of curiosity. I wanted to know what was next and I didn’t want to wait.It’s the greatest science experience a human can ever accomplish, was my rationale.My greatest fear became my greatest desire.I tried talking to friends and family about it but everyone offered the same standard replies:
“But whatever you create and give the world adds onto your legacy and that will live on.” (Steve Jobs is fading out of importance as Tim Cook propels Apple into the next decade.)
“If you have kids, you’ll live through them.” (No one lives through someone else. This is a scripted response that people are conditioned to believe.)
I stopped bringing it up. I was alone and disconnected from everyone. I reverted back into my panic attacks to find comfort in a familiar place where I existed and knew truth, as I saw it.
One night in 2012, I went on the internet and searched “fear of death” and a name appeared: thanatophobia. A rush of calm fell over me. It’s selfish, but it felt good to know that others were going through this same experience. For any type of mental or physical ailment, just knowing there is another person out there suffering makes you feel better. Thanatophobia is defined as an abnormal and irrational fear. Many phobias are abnormal or irrational because there is no true manifestation. But death is absolute. It happens. Always. It is a very rational fear. If you Google “thanatophobia,” you’ll find definitions and a host of discussion boards with people reaching out for comfort and support, but no true help. Still, I had a name and that was a start.
During my research the most obvious answers were presented to me. But they were ideas I never considered. The show may have triggered the fear but the idea was dormant in me since I was six years old—too early of an age to be aware of death—when I found out my biological father was murdered. Four years later, at the age of ten, my godfather was murdered. Growing up in Brooklyn, death was and still is very present (gentrification hasn’t changed that). People disappeared from the neighborhood. I grew up with my eyes glued to the television. Death gets paraded so carelessly. People die, they stop existing, and no one makes mention of them again. Most people see it for what it’s portrayed as, and they can accept that—but I saw the bigger theme.
Even looking back at my days as a Christian, what did “life” in heaven mean? If I reached that experience but the people I knew and cared about weren’t there, how could I truly be happy? The idea of heaven as we know it would require a removal of memories and emotion. We would be shells with the idea of praising god as our only means of eternal existence. That sounds wack.
I eventually began to find a bigger purpose and understanding. Through yoga, meditation, sunshine, shoreline, and health, I found a space where my panic attacks couldn’t manifest. Death didn’t matter because there was something greater out there. I found solace and came to terms with the universe being my god.
However, in mid-2015, the panic attacks returned. Although I was distraught, a year away from them and not sinking deep into a feeling of despair was a welcomed gift. My depression was still ever-present and came back into the forefront as I watched the world burn. I stayed up late at night watching the Ferguson incidents after Michael Brown was murdered, I read the news, I heard the commentary, and I watched as hatred for blacks became center stage.
I don’t belong here. I’m not wanted here on this Earth.
Depression makes you feel worthless. Blackness makes you feel undesired and unwanted in existence. I reverted back to my comfortable space.
One night I went on Facebook, hoping and looking for someone to talk to about thanatophobia. I was reaching my breaking point. I found a group. A group of people like me who feared nonexistence and the unknown. I introduced myself on the page, read a few recent posts, and felt relieved I had people to talk to.
In the group someone uploaded a PDF of Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death by Irvin D. Yalom. They said it helped them find momentary peace so I followed suit. I knew the only way I would find peace would be through finding hope in an external source. At the time I was already reading Super Brain by Rudolph E. Tanzi and Deepak Chopra and felt it would make a great companion book.
Super Brain allowed me to rethink how I view my existence, my body, how I condition my brain, and the life experience.
“When you come down with a bad cold, no matter how much you are suffering, you don’t say, ‘I am a cold.’ You say, ‘I have a cold.’ But linguistics is such that you don’t say, ‘I have depression.’ You say ‘I am depressed,’ which means you identify with that condition . . . There’s an intimate link at the level of physiology, and if you control the link, you can change anything.”
Staring at the Sun brought comfort and calm in reframing and accepting death. That comfort lasted for a few months. There is only one reality that I know.
Although mysticism has become a larger part of my reality, although I accept the universe as god, there is a deeper question that still remains; what is the purpose of this life experience? The universe can’t reward or punish us based on our decisions during this experience; the field is uneven. Therefore, life has no value. Although I accept that consciousness and brain function are separate experiences, due in part to reading Super Brain, and although I tell myself that that separation means there is more, I don’t really believe it. I can’t lie to comfort myself.Nonexistence is infinite, and life is a brief stop through infinity.
Clifford Genece works as a freelance editor focusing on health, fitness, personal development, and community. He writes on his site, Galt's Conditioning, and is working on an eBook series to promote health and personal growth. Twitter: @cliffordgenece