dying: unlocking the ultimate mystery

image via gratisography

Do you ever think about dying? I mean, really dying; the act of dying.

Do you wonder what it’s like? I used to, but I don’t anymore. I do not wonder what dying will be like because I am convinced I know what it feels like. I’ve done it several times. Not voluntarily, mind you.

I’m going to tell you what it’s like to die.

She said, “I know what it’s like to be dead”

A few years ago, I began to have what could be best described as “spells.” These spells happened to me three different times over the course of about eight months. What was happening during these death-simulating spells was unclear at the time, but my doctors later came to the conclusion that I was suffering from a sudden loss of blood pressure.

Obviously, I did not die. You can take what I am telling you now with as large of a grain of salt as you wish. But I’m convinced this is what it’s like to go right up to the edge. Why I went there and why I stayed on this side of the line are mysteries. Just like life, in other words.

Drama queen?

You might think I’m just being dramatic. That’s fair. However, that’s not really my style. In fact, when this topic came up again recently, the reactions from my nearest and dearest ranged from “I didn’t know,” “You never told me that” and “Oh yeah, I remember you saying something about that years ago.” Even though I did report my medical situation to those that needed to know at the time. So I enter a plea as an undercommunicator.

My spells were brought on by stress I was putting my body under during weight-lifting exercises. Before you accuse me of trying to appear macho, perish the thought. My workouts were quite modest and were not really anything out of the ordinary for me. I was engaging in a familiar, repetitive workout routine that I had kept up with for years. I was not hurking around extra heavy weights, trying to push my limits. At my age, I’m not looking to get a tryout with the Green Bay Packers. That ship has sailed. My workouts — which I loathe (they are weight-lifting, for cryin’ out loud) — are aimed at toning and staving off decline, not bulking up.

Modest, regimented and routine. Except for on three occasions when I nearly killed myself doing what I always did. Here’s how it would go: After a set on a machine, I got up and soon began to feel out of control. My energy and ability to command my limbs seemed foreign. The room narrowed in focus. I sweated profusely and suddenly, as if about to vomit. No cleansing breath could help. I could suck in all the gulps of air I could muster to no avail. I was on an unwanted ride to an unknown destination. All control was gone.

I know what it is to be sad

You have probably experienced a bout of dizziness on occasion after getting up too quickly. I have done that too; more times than I can count. This is nothing like that. The feeling that comes on during my “spells” has an entirely different flavor, and comes on more slowly. It’s frustrating to feel it coming on — so slowly — and be powerless to do anything about it. More than frustration, it’s unpleasant. And very frightening.

Dying is a place we’re all headed for. I’ve gotten right to the door. Of course, there are a million ways to die. One could die suddenly without warning (I presume) by taking a bullet to the head or by a sudden fall … or any other traumatic instances. For most of us, the act of dying, I believe, will consist of the dance I’ve done now, several times over.

Unfortunately for me, these three episodes I described are not the only instances. I realize, upon reflection, that the first time I experienced this phenomenon happened when I was chasing a friend up a miserable hill on mountain bikes. After a while, I pulled over to rest and suddenly felt very ill and weak. I didn’t know what was going on. We assumed I had “bonked,” in mountain biker parlance. That’s what happens to an athlete who gives out every ounce of their energy and then has no more to give. My issue, looking back, was a little more medical in nature.

In each of these four instances, my body basically quit from the inside out. I dropped into a state of which I had no intention of going — my brain screamed inside in all manner of resistance — but I could ultimately do nothing but go along for the ride. Each time, the ride took me right to the brink of losing complete consciousness.

And she’s making me feel like I’ve never been born

For reasons not fully understood, my blood pressure stabilized after a time, and I was able to bounce back, tentatively, from each spell and resume activity. The comebacks were like the episode in reverse, and very slow in coming. My conscious self screamed inside to try to re-energize faster, but again, I was a passenger on a ride — no control.

I did not see a blinding white light nor get greeted by St. Peter, loved ones, the devil or anyone. I didn’t get that far. Apparently, I was just practicing.

Since my practice sessions of four-plus years ago, I have re-acquainted myself with this damnable act — more than once. These times, the anteceding circumstances were different … and the outcome was a little graver. I experienced total collapse.

Overstating the obvious: something is wrong with me. The doctors believe my sudden loss in blood pressure, no matter the cause, is at least partially due to a slightly leaky valve in my heart. This fun little defect was detected after undergoing a series of tests at the behest of a cardiologist and my regular doctor. The prognosis at the time was go back to regular activities and keep an eye on it. Had the leaky valve leaked in the opposite direction, my cardiologist said it would be a “stop everything and go into immediate surgery” situation. Whew.

My first episode where I went completely out occurred a few years ago when I was horribly sick with the flu. I had gotten up from my bed and went to the bathroom, on the way back, the low blood pressure episode came upon me. I fainted completely, an outcome I attributed to my weakened state. I awoke with my head pinned against my bedroom wall and the carpet. My wife and son were down the hall and came to my aid after hearing my carcass make contact with the wall and floor.

I said, “Who put all those things in your head?”

There are probably a lot of reasons that explain why a person faints, but in my case, which is fainting due to loss of blood pressure, it’s a total mind eraser. I awoke with no understanding whatsoever of where I was or what had happened. I was a blank slate. I was open to any suggestion of reality and would have believed anything. The people that came rushing down the hall to my aid very well could have been Abraham Lincoln and/or vampires, for all I knew. I was in the midst of reading Seth Grahame-Smith’s book, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (a fun read, but schlocky movie, if you’re wondering). Had the two persons barreling into my bedroom been Abe Lincoln and Henry Sturges, I would not have questioned it. Fortunately, I was met by my wife and son; a far preferable combination, which elicited fewer existential questions for me.

Why am I telling you all this? Two main reasons. One, we’re all going to die. You’re going to die. I assume you’ve given it some thought at one point or another. I’m convinced I know what it’s like. And I’m here to tell you it’s not pleasant. If, you are fated to experience the final ride in a manner that causes you to lose physical control but not your mind, it will go like this. Crushed by rocks? Probably different. Burned in a fire? Probably different. Shot or stabbed in the abdomen … probably a lot like this, with searing pain. Drowning … probably a lot like this, only with more time to panic. Dying by some manner of physical frailty / less immediately fatal injury (probably the most common way we go out) … I think you’ll come to know what I know now.

The second main reason I drag you through this essay on dying is because it just happened to me again, after three-plus years of thinking maybe, possibly I had licked this ailment.

I had fooled myself into believing that, through increased health and fitness, I had moved beyond this sad state of decay. On the morning of March 15, I learned otherwise. On the day of my surprise(ish) 50th birthday party, I awoke at around 2 a.m. with a need to pee. I had fallen asleep on the living room couch and got up to take care of business, which was odd for me. I don’t normally need to have to take a bathroom break in the middle of the night.

Up to that point I felt fine. I had a full week of regular fitness and normal eating habits. I felt out of sorts not in the least. The feeling started slow and I fought it: wondering if it was happening, denying it was happening, fighting the feeling, panicking a little, getting angry about it … all the while going deeper and deeper into a state I could not fight off. I turned away from the bathroom with the intention of waking my wife.

The next thing I knew, a very hard surface was pressing against my face and chest. Eventually, mounting evidence suggested I was feeling the unforgiving surface of our hallway bamboo floors. I came to, slowly — maddeningly slowly. A hapless and helpless passenger on a ride back to what is my new normal. I felt sick, dazed, weak, shaken … near dead. For no understandable reason.

ringo-eye1Things that make me feel that I’m mad

Like before, my mind was essentially erased again. I had no sense of my bearings on this planet. Every sensation (all unpleasant at that point in time) seemed new. Because fate has a cruel sense of humor, a song popped into my head as I lay on the floor trying to recover: “Speeding Back to my Baby” by Ace Frehley. It’s a horrible song. Don’t Google it. Why that one? What caused me to think of that forgotten relic that never even made it into the pop culture zeitgeist? That song right there is enough reason to fear dying.

If you have not yet read Andrew Hessel’s WiseTribe article on what it’s like to turn 50 and 60, I highly recommend it. It will take less of your remaining life’s minutes than this opus. Spoiler alert: Hessel’s take on turning 50 comes down to this: “At 50, you’ve got somewhere between 30 years and 30 minutes.”

You probably see the wisdom in Hessel’s maxim: Time is short. Live well now. That’s all well and good. My point? I’m here to tell you that it’s not really advice at all. Think of it more of a command. One that requires action now. Today and every day. Why the urgency? Well, I just emerged from a situation where I would have gladly taken the 30-minute option.

It can happen at any time. That’s not just a theory. Despite my best efforts, I’m at the age where getting up in the middle of the night for the most mundane of reasons can almost get me killed.

Instead, again, I was lucky. I got whiplash, a slight concussion and a reminder that this whole life game is tenuous at best. Could have been much more serious, again says Captain Obvious.

When your time comes, when you’re really dying, you’ll probably wish for the 30-minute option, too. And this one time, you won’t get it. The time will come when 30 minutes is 30 minutes more than we can hope for.

Knowing it and behaving like you know it are two different things.

And it’s making me feel like I’ve never been born

Coming face-to-face with wondering (with 100 percent of your focus) if you might be dying makes you think. There is clarity in those moments. I know who I want with me when I go: My children and my wife. They cannot go with you; it is an individual, personal journey. But if we are allowed any measure of grace at all in our final moments, the people you love will be there to help you up to the final step.

In the week since my last spell, I’ve gone hiking twice and resumed my weight-lifting regimen. I’m OK. Or so it seems. But just to be sure, I’m going to Hawaii or the Southwest. Soon.


Julian Rogers is a writer, editor, community manager and marketing communications consultant for high-achieving businesses. He is the senior communications consultant for Juju Eye Communications. Find out what he’s thinking about on his blog: mrturophile.com, or connect with him on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

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