I have witnessed death in many ways. There was the death of the life I thought I would live, my mother’s literal death, and the death of the control I thought I had over this existence.
Prevailing western views had shaped much of my early feelings on death and the way I felt I was supposed to walk the earth, until an unexpected insight freed me from these misconceptions. The idea that dying is something to be put off until the bitter end, or that there is some “right” way to go about living, now just seems… neurotic.
At the age of 15, I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder — that quirky neuroticism that appears quite amusing from the outside as sufferers hesitate at doorknobs, flip switches three times, and exhibit an easily provoked nervousness that often invites more trouble than it prevents. It was surely affecting me long before the diagnosis, but it took time for it to manifest so obviously that my parents became concerned. It was the beginning of a struggle that would continually shape-shift over the course of my life.
In my early years I did all that I could to get away, avoid, numb, or otherwise distract myself from the incessantly intrusive thoughts. I first set about seeking the approval of everyone around me, constantly requiring reassurance that the thoughts I was having did not indeed spell doom for myself or others. When I felt I had exhausted the patience of my peers, and the prescription medications had proved themselves to be more trouble than they were worth, I discovered addiction. It began with cigarettes and alcohol soon followed. A long road lay ahead, of habitual substance abuse and careless actions, that were attempts to focus or distract my thoughts.
For a while I thought I’d won, beating the disorder into submission through the incessant use of chemical warfare and thrill-seeking. I’d managed college, a wonderful partner, and a career. I was living “the life” and I was convinced that I could keep it up….‘till the neurosis eventually overthrew my ability to drowned it out and I collapsed. When the dust settled, I set about trying to rebuild my old life, determined once again to defeat my nemesis. I had a new career, another wonderful partner, and new city in my sights. Four years later, my neurosis again dissolved my coping strategies and I was exiled once more to the sanctuary of my parents’ basement. I needed to try something new. I was going to face it sober.
Then came Crohn’s disease. I remember sitting in the doctor’s office as he rattled off the news about the disorder that had recently put me in the hospital. This was something I was never going to get better from, there is no cure, and the drugs I’d have to take would strip my immune system. I recall being told that I would have to take care to wash my hands often — in light of my history of OCD this was hilarious. In the months and operations that followed I became quite dependent on the oxycontin I was prescribed for the pain. Conveniently, as with my previous intoxicating compulsions, it allowed me to suppress the symptoms of my neurological disorder. However, my obsessions eventually became fixed on the use of the drug itself, forcing me to abandon it, although this was not to be my last run-in with opiates.
No longer assuaged by chemicals, I understood just how unwell I could, and did, feel: my stomach ached after meals, after using the toilet and especially when I was trying to sleep. I was in a near constant state of nausea and my bowels moved violently three to four times daily. Medicinal cannabis was offered as a solution and, for a time, it seemed to work, though it too became the victim of my mental distortions — the persistent, consuming thoughts outweighing any benefit I was getting from the otherwise soothing herb. I felt hopeless and broken, unable to climb back to where I had been.
The life I had was gone. But I was still grasping, desperately hoping that it would survive, convinced that I could not continue living should it not return. In a way this was true — the person I had been before was dead, and my futile attempts to hang on to that person — and his life — had only exacerbated my distress and filled me with anger over the loss. We cannot stay who we are indefinitely, and such change can be a violent and abrupt shift in our reality.
I had twice seen the death of the life I had planned for myself, but I was not yet ready to concede. About two months after I had said goodbye to cannabis, I became wracked with grief and guilt over my mother’s death. I had attempted suicide just days before she was suddenly admitted to the hospital in critical condition.
She and my father had gone to see my grandmother for the Easter weekend, and I felt it was the perfect time to execute my plan of killing myself. Though I had had some initial success in soberly subsisting with my symptoms, the pain was still unrelenting and my thoughts dwelled on the dysfunctional train-wreck I felt my life had become. I desperately needed to feel better. Self- destruction seemed the only option left.
Stepping into the noose I had fashioned to the rafters of the utility room, I had but to tip the ladder over and let myself slip away. But as I stood there, teetering on the edge of the step, the rope beginning to tighten, I envisioned my mother walking into the room to find me there, hanging. The anguish I imagined her suffering made it impossible to go through with it. Little did I know she would never be coming home again.
I got the call two days later. It was my father, explaining that mom was not feeling well and they were on the way to the hospital. Mother had not had an easy life. A cancer survivor who endured Graves disease, the replacement of two knees and a plethora of surgeries to combat her body’s ongoing inflammation, she lived a life of constant hardship. I needed get there, to see her, to convince myself I was not an ungrateful son.
When I arrived at the hospital an hour later, she was already admitted and visibly unwell. The bag of urine collecting on the side of the bed was brown — for reasons at the time undetermined, her kidneys were shutting down. She had talked of being ready to die when the time came and I had felt supportive of this in the past. However, I had just torn up the letter she’d left me for Easter, and deleted every text she’d ever sent me, in the hopes that removing these inhibitory reminders of compassion would permit me to end it all. Now, having decided to live, I wondered if they might very well have been the last physical vestiges she would bestow upon me — of that love I had tried to forget. In that moment, all I wanted was to know that she would be okay, that she would walk out of there, that I would have a second chance to appreciate her.
I left the hospital with the vague hope that she would rest and all would be well in the morning. It was 1am by the time I got home, and there would be no sleep. I fished the torn up letter out of the trash and taped it back together, as if to make a reconciliatory gesture to the universe that would see her well again. I was manic with guilt. About eight o’clock the next morning, I got a call from my father’s cell. It was the doctor, advising me that I was to call my siblings and inform them that our mother was about to die. It was all wrong. I was supposed to be dead, not her. Not like this.
I made the calls, and my brother from out of town was on speaker with me as I made my way to the hospital once again. He wanted to at least be able to say goodbye to mom if he could not be there in person. While I drove he became the unwitting audience to my furious declaration of shame over my flirtation with fatality. I needed it out, I needed all of it out before I got there. I entered the room, my brother still in hand, attempting some sort of composure. My father and I locked eyes, and I’ll never forget the sounds he made. Dad was a fixer, solving almost every problem himself, and he was very good at it. When my mother’s health caused issues for her he was always there to assist and look after whatever needed doing. Often he improvised solutions to her body’s changing needs, crafting custom furnishings and gadgets in his workshop that allowed her a bit of comfort or some semblance of normal. Now his lifelong partner of 42 years was lying there, dying. When I entered that room, it was as if his very soul poured out in anguish. I just stood there, holding the voice of my brother, and my weeping father.
Death, it seemed, had a way of disrupting emotions and time. The hours ticked by in a dualistic sense of both slow-motion and fast-forward. Her eyes no longer opened and every breath seemed like it was going to be her last. After a while, my siblings and their families had arrived, including even my faraway brother. Gathered in the tiny room, all were trying to assure mother of their presence, then she uttered her final words: “a sea of comfort.” It would be another seven days before she died. In that time we laughed, cried, told stories together and — although she could say nothing — we talked with mom. I’m glad we did. Soon, she was gone.
My first-hand experience of death was over and eventually, when the shame of my ill-timed attempt to leave this world slipped from my core, I found peace in myself with her departure, and joy in my memory of her as a guide to patience, empathy and contentment. But that time was not yet.
I was still trying to control my obsessive thoughts and actions. I was almost always depressed and even on good days I was washing my hands raw knowing full well that the things I feared were not actually there … It seemed ridiculous that I was not able to rationalize my way out of it to come up with a solution that would free me from the absurd rituals and dysthymia. I had made it through alcoholism, a diagnosis of Crohn’s, two failed treatments, two surgeries, a constantly repeating cycle of addiction to opiates, my mother’s death, a failed suicide attempt; and yet, the damned neurosis continued to devastate me. It was my worst enemy, and yet would turn out to be the source of my inspiration.
I painstakingly stripped down my disturbed consciousness to its essence, to being a biochemical alarm system that was malfunctioning. I could understand it no further, yet I still could not see any way to overcome it. All my attempts to run from it or drug it out had failed, and my endeavors to comprehend and subvert it were all in vain. In a state of absolute helplessness I found the answer — do nothing. Stop trying.
I had suddenly realized — it was not about commanding authority over it, I couldn’t. The faulty belief — that I could do something to control it — is what had me always searching for the cause, the cure, never able to just accept what was. I had hated myself for what I perceived as my pathetic attempt at living, for the failure I felt I was. I hated the damned menace of a disorder that had been with me from the start, and my inability to defeat it. Then, abruptly, I let go.
My need to control, to force my life to its correct path — physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially — it completely stopped making sense. What was this “right” path I was supposed to be on? What use was punishing myself for not doing the impossible? What purpose was hating the present in the hopes that the future might one day be different? It all fell away and I was at last able to accept myself for who and where I was.
This does not mean that I no longer struggle with anxiety, fear or pain. What it does mean is that I am able to cope with these ailments differently. I can let go of the life I thought I was supposed to be living. I can see death, rather than some ultimate penalty being paid for “bad” behavior or choices, as a happening — just like all other happenings of life. And relinquish the control I only ever thought had. The “right” way to live became the illusion it always had been.
We can learn to live alongside pain, forget our trepidation about death, and surrender our craving for control; we can simply allow ourselves to be where and who we are. And that is what I will do.
‘Till I embrace death one final time.