Chapter 30 – Living to Die
“[W]e now know that the human animal is characterized by two great fears that other animals are protected from: the fear of life and the fear of death... Heidegger brought these fears to the center of his existential philosophy. He argued that the basic anxiety of [humanity] is anxiety about being-in-the-world, as well as anxiety of being-in-the-world. That is, both fear of death and fear of life, of experience and individuation.” – Ernest Becker
It seems a bizarre irony that someone so afraid of death would have taken her life right up to the edge for a possible glimpse of the other side. Perhaps I thought I was facing my fear. Regardless, confronting the reality that I might soon die – which I had to do more than once – never actually eased my intense phobia. If anything, it only made it worse. When I was in the throes of anorexia, I would often consider that any given moment could be my last. However, I was never able to let go of all the limitations and restrictions I had placed on myself. I had a bad case of the what-might-bes. I would think of all the foods I had missed tasting, all the life I had missed living, and all the people I had missed meeting. My life had become so narrow, uneventful and gloomy. I needed to know how the story would end, and I didn't want it to end like it was threatening to. It took years for me to reach any kind of balance and start sampling life again. Just as I was beginning to emerge from the ugly black pit of my past, I was struck with the intense feeling I was going to die.
There have been several times in my life when I have come face-to-face with death. The first incident was in grade school. I was at home playing with a friend and suddenly felt a terrible headache coming on. The headache was so bad that I had to ask my friend to leave so I could go lie down. The pain intensified quickly. Before I could even attempt to call out to my mom down the hallway in the other room, I became paralyzed from the severe throbbing pressure growing in my skull. It was as if my brain was going to explode. Any slight movement was far too painful to tolerate, so I stayed as still as possible for over an hour until my mom finally came looking for me. When she entered the room, I saw her panicked face as she leaned over me. My eyes had glazed over and we both thought I would be dead shortly. “My head,” I managed to whisper. She called the hospital, but the nurse told her there was an epidemic of viral meningitis going around. Chances were I was another case. The hospital was swamped. My mom was told to call back only if I didn’t improve over the next three hours and an ambulance would be sent. Viral meningitis is described as a swelling of the outer layer of the brain. It is extremely painful and can cause brain damage, deafness, blindness, and in some instances, death. Fortunately, the pain lessened over the course of the night, and it was indeed, as the ER operator had expected, viral meningitis and not a related – but often lethal – disease, bacterial meningitis. I recovered fully over the next few days and was back to my normal activity in less than a week. Many years later, when I was in my early forties, I would be struck down again with this illness in a much more severe case. Miraculously, in the latter case, after nine days in the hospital with my life hanging in the balance, I was released and started a slow recovery. As a friend of the family put it, "You have bad luck." However, I have to recognize that living in a state of malnutrition for so long probably didn't help me have good luck when it comes to health.
Another brush with death I experienced was in college, when I went river-rafting with a few friends. It was my first experience in a raft. I had grand images of sunning myself on a spacious raft on the calm waters. When the river guide started pumping up the tiny inflatable vessels by hand, my daydream came to a disappointing halt.
I should have figured out that the trip was cursed when, as we were waiting to shove off into the mild waters, a big spider crawled over my hand. We split up into two teams, and just as my team was beginning to get the hang of maneuvering the tiny little raft, the guide yelled out for us to paddle as hard as we could. I heard a loud roar of rushing water before us, and as I lifted my oar out of the water fully intending to plunge it back in as hard as I possibly could, the raft flipped and I was sucked under. My first instinct was to fight to reach the surface, but I was being pulled under with such force, I knew that any effort would be futile. A strange calm took over me as I looked up and saw the raft getting farther and farther away. I convinced myself that the force pulling me down had to stop at some point. I was right. The moment I felt the eddy release me, I swam for the surface with a fury that I had never known before. I could see the sun on the water above me. It seemed so incredibly far away though. I was completely out of breath with a good three feet left to swim. Time stood still and all was quiet just before I broke into the air and sputtered and coughed as the guide quickly maneuvered the raft to me and pulled me aboard.
As traumatic as this was, it was my most serene confrontation with death to date. Somehow the thought of nature being in control had, at that moment, eased my worries about death. The force of nature was something I realized then that I couldn’t fight. If the eddy had continued to pull me under, it was beyond my control to fight. This sense of serenity in the hands of some universal force did not, however, transfer to the relatively microscopic environment of my own body. Once I became anorexic, the seizures and near-death experiences were filled with terror and fear, and just when I thought it was all behind me, I once again came face-to-face with my own mortality.
After I ran my first marathon, I started to experience severe stiffness in my pelvis, hamstrings, lower back and hips. It was such an accomplishment to have finished the marathon, regardless of my time. Despite running much more slowly than I had in the past, I felt satisfied and even a little bit emotional crossing the finish line. Unfortunately, shortly after the race, everything started to hurt, and I could hardly step up a single stair riser normally, let alone jog. It didn’t make sense that I would be this sore when I hadn’t truly raced the marathon and even stopped twice. I saw over 11 practitioners, from chiropractors to medical doctors, none of whom could offer any help or provide a clue as to what was going on in my body. In addition to the chronic stiffness, I was beginning to experience panic attacks. I was worried the seizures were coming back, but I couldn’t figure out why they would occur since my weight and electrolytes were stable. The attacks started fairly mildly; I would get a funny sensation in my back and experience a sense of worry and fear. I tried in vain to reassure myself everything was okay, that I was going to be fine, but the attacks got progressively worse. Eventually I was getting full-blown fight-or-flight responses for no apparent reason.
At this time I was working as a nanny for two fun, outgoing kids in addition to working part-time at a local health-food store. I had to miss a few days of work when the panic became severe, and I noticed both chest pain and shortness of breath. Convinced I had wrecked my body and was paying for my anorexic past, I assumed I was about to have a heart attack. I went to the emergency room in tears with the distinct feeling I was going to die. I was very scared. The fear seemed beyond my control; no amount of positive self-talk could ease my worries and physical symptoms.
For so many years, I had been living in limbo. It seemed unfair that death would squeeze its icy fingers around my heart just at the time I was deciding I wanted to live and not merely exist. In the past, I had lived by default: too afraid to actually kill myself, but equally afraid to really be in the world. I had fallen to a certain level of mediocrity, no longer a heroic athlete or super student. I felt I had failed Life 101. I was thin though, and that meant something. It seemed it was the only thing over which I had any control. Here I was, finally stepping up to experience all I had been missing, and there was death staring at me once again. For the first time in over five years, I was starting to feel again. I even had a slight crush on one of the guys at the health-food store and had gone on my first date in what felt like an eternity. I remember our first kiss like it was my first ever. Suddenly a door that had been closed was thrown open, and I was aware of my own sexuality. The thought of a heart attack sickened me and made me realize my own fate was out of my hands. Eating more or eating less would not solve this problem. I realized how little control one actually does have in life.
The doctor who saw me that day reassured me that my heart was beating fine. She did detect a clicking sound and ordered an ultrasound, which revealed a heart-valve leak. She called it mitral valve prolapse and told me the condition itself actually causes panic attacks. What occurs is a physical response, not a mental or emotional episode. I was instructed to give up chocolate, caffeine, teas and any stimulants and watch my blood-sugar levels. Homeostasis was best for keeping the panic attacks and other symptoms at bay.
With the panic attacks resolved, I was left to once again deal with the pain and stiffness issue. I had started running again in order to train for another marathon or perhaps a half-marathon, but I suffered on my long runs. I shuffled and limped along with my running partners and had trouble keeping up. Running with my new circle of friends had previously allowed me to open up and feel more at ease with myself. However, the pain was forcing me to shut down a bit. Once the chatterbox of the group, I had become quiet and would often fall so far back that my training buddies had to circle around to pick me up again. After a failed attempt to run a half-marathon, I decided to get a coach and see another chiropractor. These would be two of the best moves I ever made in my life.
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