Hello! Happy Halloween!
I’ve been thinking about death and dying a lot lately. So, naturally, Halloweentime is the perfect time to write and publish this post.
I have very bad depression and anxiety. The way these two disorders operate with each other is very bizarre and may often seem nonsensical. Fluctuating between not caring at all and caring way too much is emotionally draining and incredibly confusing. Although they may seem like a constant battle with each other, these two disorders often feed off one another and can intensify each other.
All in all, it’s incredibly shitty.
So, when thoughts about something as dramatic and frenetic as death and dying drift into my brain, it’s usually a large crisis inside my head.
I can pinpoint the catalyst of these thoughts to a couple moments. One was when I had an edible for the first time and tripped out so hard that I began losing my grasp on reality and the other is when I saw The Matrix for the first time. Two very anxiety inducing firsts. If I could go back in time, I would undo these two things because my mind has been on hyperdrive ever since.
First, when I ate the edible (which, mind you, was a teeny tiny itty bitty little piece that my stupid brain completely overreacted to) I felt like I’d lost control of my body and my thoughts. Eventually I was convinced that my body had died but my consciousness was living on, unable to see or hear or really think, just exist in a space where I had no control. Imagine Get Out, when Chris first sinks into the Sunken Place. He is a passenger in his body with no control. This is exactly how I felt.
Next, it may shock you that I’d never seen The Matrix until this year, but lower your expectations because there are a ton of classic movies I’ve never seen so don’t get too upset. Being presented with the idea that our reality is simply a simulation sent my anxiety on a rampage and I’ve been unable to turn it off since. I’ve watched countless documentaries and YouTube videos and read theories on the probability that such a thing is true, which has only served to scare me more. Especially because, when I get down to the more intricate parts of this panic, I get the thought that everything I consume about the subject is just a part of the simulation, so I may not be granted access to what is real. And if none of this is real, how can I be sure that I’m real? How am I able to think these thoughts right now?
As you can imagine, my depression and anxiety had an absolute field day with these two occurrences.
Fast forward to earlier this month, when work on my job’s newest exhibit, Body Worlds, finalized. We were able to view the gallery and be trained on it. The first time I entered the exhibit, I felt way more nauseous and uneasy than I expected. I mean, I’ve watched 13 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy for crying out loud, I should be used to a couple dead bodies! But, this was different. Seeing the remains of these people, still here physically but no longer mentally, physiologically, emotionally…it was unsettling. To think that we are encased in a physical shell with a time limit is scary, and being in the exhibit scared me.
To make matters worse, my brain delved even deeper, pondering what death does to your mind. I know what happens to a human body when it dies, but what happens to your mind, your consciousness? Where do you go?
This thought has kept me up for the past 2 months and I can’t seem to shake it. It doesn’t allow me to sleep, because sometimes my fear is so great that I feel like if I fall asleep I will never wake up, ironically receiving the answer I so desperately seek. In the past months I’ve done a substantial amount of research about what happens when humans die, but the most common response to this question is physical in nature, and leaves me back at square one.
I have a few theories on what happens to us (meaning our consciousness) when we die.
Theory 1: We Completely Cease to Exist
Similar to before we were born, we would not have a consciousness anymore and no longer be here, mentally or otherwise. This thought scares me for a number of reasons. First of all, as organizationally satisfied the comparison to our lack of a consciousness from before we were born makes me, it also terrifies me. As far as we know, there is a finite amount of time between before we were born and our birth. Time doesn’t expand backwards, only progresses forward, so the time we spent not existing pre-birth is a set amount of time. However, the opposite is….well, the exact opposite. The amount of time that exists and will exist after we die is unknown. It could be 100 years or 100 million years; it could be infinite.
The idea of infinitely not existing is absolutely horrifying to me for reasons that probably do not make much sense. Why should I worry about it, right? If I cease to exist I won’t be around to even be worried about it so it doesn’t matter. The trouble is I do exist here and now and not having a definitive answer is simultaneously frustrating and scary.
Theory 2: Our Consciousness Exists Forever
My second theory is tied to my edible experience and infinitely (heh) more terrifying to me: although our bodies cease to exist after death, our consciousnesses live on, forever. Since our bodies are gone, we will no longer be able to see or hear or move or breathe or react or do anything. But somehow our consciousness sticks around. Despite the nerdy sciencey part of me knowing that once a brain is dead and neurons can no longer fire and there’s no more electrical signals in your brain enabling you to process information, the other part of me is a huge anxiety-riddled asshole that second guesses everything and believes nothing.
Scientists don’t definitively know how we think. They have very educated guesses and theories and are learning more everyday how brains work. And even things that we think are true, hard facts are sometimes incorrect or just theories, like gravity for example. So, this generalized uncertainty lays the groundwork for my anxiety about the fact that there is a possibility that our consciousness is or can be untethered from our physical selves. And if this is true, then that would mean it is possible for us to continue existing forever, just without occupying physical space and the capacity to see or feel or do anything. We would, effectively, be in the Sunken Place Forever
I realize this presents a quite obvious dilemma: if we exist without the ability to do or feel anything, how are we existing? And more to the point, how do we know we are existing? I don’t have a fulfilling answer to this question, especially because it’s so far into the realm of like absolute nonsense that there’s a large chance it doesn’t have an answer. The only thing I can think of is despite the absence of any mental capability there would still be some semblance of awareness. No emotion, no thought process, no senses or anything, just the basest understanding that you still exist coupled with the inability to do anything about it.
If you’ve gotten this far, congratulations! You’ve just experienced what a typical day in my mind is like. It’s not always this bleak and scary and terrifying, but when it is, it is. Whenever I get these uncontrollable thoughts, my first instinct is to research them. It may seem nonsensical to further expose myself to things that scare me, but realizing that humans often fear the unknown gives me logical context. I watch documentaries and read texts on these theories because I don’t have a full understanding of them. I seek out answers in hopes of quelling my lack of knowledge on the subject, in hopes that i will stumble upon an answer, or at least something satisfying enough to quiet these intrusive thoughts.
But, the fact of the matter is, we may never know what happens when we die. How could we; we’re dead when we die and unable to report back(mostly). So, the weight of not knowing increases, magnified by scientific confirmation of not knowing, the testimony of personal anecdotes by people who have been dead for a short period and resuscitated, the vast majority of other theories, ideas, and limited research on the matter.
Is oblivion the end? Reincarnation? Heaven? Hell? Purgatory? Is all life a simulation? Are we in the matrix? Do we get to become ghosts? Are all of the above, and more, simultaneously true and false at the same time, meaning the end of life, and furthermore life itself, is nothing more than a never-expanding paradox?
For right now, I’m choosing this blog post to be the end of my grappling with the subject. It’s exhausted me mentally for nearly two months and I’m hoping a complete brain dump on the topic will allow me some rest away from the matter, at least for now. If this post now has catapulted you on a distressing psychological journey, first of all I sincerely apologize and hope you find something else to focus on quickly. Second, here’s some of the most interesting pieces of information I’ve found over the past two months. Maybe you’ll find it interesting, or depressing. Or, who knows, maybe you’ll be the one to find the answer.