So What’s My Problem with Death, Really?

This is the last post in these series that involves actual people dying. At least for a good long while, I hope.

If you’ve been here before, you might know about Mates, Apacka and Berry. They were my friends, and they are all dead. They’ve gone way before the fickle beast of life expectancy statistics would suggest. It was cancer for the two guys and a mountaineering accident for the girl.

The fact that you’re here might also mean that you’re familiar with the history of my madness. If that’s not the case, let me summarise. In the end of 2016, interesting (though by no means pleasant) things started to happen to me. Only much later I realised those things had been bouts of major depression and generalised anxiety.

My personal manifestations of these many-faced monsters often wore a shroud of obsession with death and dying. I was absolutely sure I would kick the bucket soon, and it took me good long while to admit what that thing that bothered me really was. Which was good, because I could start untangling the knots of my sore mind to find the obscure reasons of my madness.

I hoped that knowing what had led to the disease in the first place would have helped me to figure out how to heal myself. And I still believe that’s very true. The only problem is that it’s not as simple as it sounds. It’s kind of hard to dissect my sick mind and cut out the rotten pieces when the only tool I have is, well, the very same sick mind.

Anyway, I tried. One of the first hypotheses that occurred to me as not entirely implausible was this. What if the premature deaths of my friends affected me in a much more profound way than I had originally thought? The guys died of cancer, and cancer was the cause of my imagined departure from this world for nearly six torturous months. The girl fell to her death in a tragic mishap, and there was a time when I couldn’t stop thinking about dying in accidents myself. Surely those things had something in common?

I thought about that some more, looking at the case of Mates first. His recurring and eventually terminal cancer undeniably played a big role in shaping my research career since the very early stage. For over a decade, I’ve wanted to develop AI tools that could somehow help people to find better cancer therapies.

Such an influence is no small thing, but could that have anything to do with my depression? Perhaps. Only after years of naive enthusiasm and half-ass attempts to do my bit in curing cancer, I properly realised how freakin’ hard that problem was. Still, the rational appreciation of the grand goal I foolishly set for myself in an attempt to give meaning to the death of my friend hasn’t yet killed my naive believe that some solutions are possible. I only became less ambitious and much more focused in what I intend to achieve.

So far so good. That gradual modest realisation has definitely increased my general mental comfort levels. I’m even tempted to say that it strangely correlates with my increasing ability to escape the hardest grip of the depression. But would that justify a claim that death of my friend is one of the reasons why I became sick? I don’t think so. The more likely culprit is not entirely unrelated to this particular impact death has had on me, but it’s not that straightforward either, as I will elaborate later in these series.

As for my obsession with accidents, Apacka’s tragic fall most likely did contribute to my wildly exaggerated expectations of dying in relation to my pastime activities. But could that single sad episode really unhinge my mind so bad? I doubt that. It would be way too simple. I mean, all those real deaths must have had some influence on the unsavoury brew that has been simmering in my subconscious long before the madness whipped me in the face for the first time. But I’m convinced now that it’s not the only cause, and definitely not the most important one.

How can I be so sure about that? That’s not that complicated. I’ve been kind of obsessed about death most of my life without any serious consequences (until relatively recently, that is). The first time I remember thinking real hard about what death was and what did it mean to me was when I learned about my paternal granddad. He died of stroke shortly after I’d been born. I must have been about three years old when I finally figured that out, and it was a major discovery and an intriguing puzzle at the same time. People not just are. They are not, then they are, and then they are not again. How extraordinarily curious!

The initial fascination didn’t last too long (I suppose no one really does much sustained eschatological philosophy at such a young age). But it did come back ever so often (especially when someone around died). And then the teen angst years came in full force.

The first poem I wrote was a long stumbling rant of free verses slick with godly semen that spilled over a dark and dying world. When I was particularly bored during my high school classes, I used to hone an “artistic” suicide method in a series of poorly written short stories. In the most developed version, the somber act of taking one’s own life evolved into a flashy performance where the hero would set themselves on fire and jump off a cliff into a beautiful Norwegian river, thus recruiting all four elements in the process. Oh, and all that was supposed to happen at the peak of an acid high, as a nod to Aldous Huxley. Sometimes I was half-jokingly telling my friends that I’d commit that spectacular suicide when there would be nothing left to be done in my life. Very stupid, I know, but it’s as much part of myself as other things I’m slightly prouder of, so there is no reason to get overly fussy about that memory.

Quite recently, another thing resurfaced that nicely documents the long history of my deep yet playful and pretty much harmless obsession with death. During a major tidying up of our house, I found a journal we kept with two of my friends on our first trip to the then-so-mythical city of Amsterdam. While reading it, I got thoroughly amused and more than a little amazed by a lengthy contemplation I apparently wrote when my friends passed out one night. I, on the other hand, must have found my present state of mind too interesting to simply go to sleep. Instead I set to sketch out a “scientific grounding” for all those ridiculous afterlife ideas ever invented by people. In the scribble I scrawled into a school exercise notebook under a flickering cabin light of our ancient and rather smoky car, I proposed a theory of a dramatic slow-down of the subjective time combined with a monstrous bout of imagination at the moment of death. The physiological basis for such unusual things happening in our brains was supposed to be a sort of terminal fireworks of the dying neurons that would propel everyone towards their own imagined versions of eternity (funnily enough, these ravings of the teenage and not completely sober me may not be as far fetched as one would think after all).

See? Without me paying much attention to it, death has been one of my favourite subjects to ponder pretty much as far back as I remember. Some people are apparently more prone to this than others, and it was quite a relief to admit that to myself as a simple fact that shouldn’t bother me much.

Then again, what if death had somehow been gnawing at my mind from the depths of subconscious for over three decades with no symptoms whatsoever until it all suddenly cracked? There is a beautifully named terror management theory that could explain it. It suggests all human action is implicitly driven by an irreconcilable conflict between our self-preservation instinct and the realisation of our inevitable death. According to that assumption, we’re hopelessly pathetic beings, half-crazy from the constant primal fear of something we can’t possibly avoid.

That looked promising for about a week. The more I read though, the more reservations about that theory I had (the chief one being the fact that it all sounded too good and universal to be true). And even if that morbid school of psychology could explain some patterns of human behaviour (which I would never completely deny), it didn’t help me much when trying to understand the core of my madness. So I gave up on that clue, too.

What is the conclusion, then? Death is not my problem. Hopeful as it seemed at first, I had to discard that assumption eventually. Still, I learned a lot of other useful things while coming to that, which I partly documented in the last three posts in these series.

So what did I do next? The only thing I could, of course. I looked elsewhere for anything that might help me to start living again instead of perpetually dying in my head. But that’s already for the next post on my crooked path towards eventual recovery (if there ever can be such a thing).

The feature image is a low-resolution reproduction of the Pensando en la Muerte painting by Frida Kahlo. For the original source of the reproduction and details on its sharing conditions, see here.

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