My unhealthy obsession with death (749)

I’ve always had a very unhealthy obses­sion with death, mainly my own.

I’ve imag­ined my own death count­less times, in count­less ways.

I’ve pic­tured myself pass­ing qui­etly in a ster­ile white hos­pi­tal room, alone, at a very old age, in the dark.

I’ve seen myself col­lapse in the street, clutch­ing my chest, sud­denly and with­out warning.

I’ve thought about all man­ner of vio­lent death too, from a hor­ri­ble car crash, to being bru­tally beaten sense­less by a gang of teenage thugs.

I’ve thought about this a lot, too much, to the point of it being eas­ily labelled a decades’ old obsession.

Its not really death that I fear, its the process of dying and my mor­bid curios­ity at how I will go, when­ever that time comes.

Will it be painful?

Will I suffer?

Will I linger?

Will it take long?

Is it going to hap­pen soon?

The roots of my fear of death were planted by my father. He was an older dad, I was the child of a sec­ond mar­riage who came late in his life. He talked about dying all the time and how he just wanted to live long enough to see me and my brother right in the world.

As a child, hear­ing this mantra of his fre­quently, I wor­ried about his death a lot. I was close with my father when I was a child, his talk of death scared me and dug deep into my sub-conscious, where it remains to this day.

As it turned out, he lived a pretty long life, but had an unpleas­antly long and drawn out death. From his diag­no­sis to his pass­ing, it took about a year, with his health declin­ing steadily in between. The last cou­ple of months were par­tic­u­larly bad, with his decline ever more steep and his hopes dashed with each treat­ment option fail­ing. His final days were spent heav­ily med­icated, but he was at home, in his own bed when he drew his last breath.

As deaths go, I’d give it a 6, he loses points for the dura­tion of suf­fer­ing, but gains some for being able to choose to be at home. Also, he scores well on the life to death ratio, he lived to be 84 and was sick for only a year.

You can’t really do a score­card for death, each one is unique.

There’s an old joke about a guy who, when asked how he’d like to die, said “when I’m 100 years old I’d like to be shot by a jeal­ous hus­band”. That sounds like an OK way to go, as long as you’re a sprightly 100.

My mother’s death, unlike my father’s, was rel­a­tively quick, hap­pen­ing over about 48 hour period, from becom­ing ill to slip­ping qui­etly away.

Where my mother loses out is in the qual­ity of life stakes, she had a mas­sive stroke about 7 years before, which left her severely impaired.

She couldn’t walk, had a lot of trou­ble talk­ing too, and her coor­di­na­tion was par­tic­u­larly poor. For the 7 years she sur­vived after the stroke, she was depen­dent upon help for absolutely every­thing, like dress­ing, wash­ing, eat­ing and going to the toi­let. Its no way for any­one to live, or rather exist.

When my mother had the stroke and was being treated in the hos­pi­tal, my father was given a choice of whether or not to put her on life support.

He had been told it was a very bad stroke and her recov­ery would be prob­lem­atic and never com­plete. He was also aware my mother had a liv­ing will, which pretty much said, if she was ever in this posi­tion, not to take dras­tic mea­sures to keep her alive if the prog­no­sis for recov­ery was grim.

My father ignored my mother’s wishes and said yes to the life sup­port. He couldn’t bare to think of life with­out my her nor could he imag­ine her not mak­ing a full recov­ery. Nature would have killed my mother off then and there, peace­fully, in her sleep, but instead my father chose to use every mir­a­cle machine known to mod­ern med­i­cine to sus­tain my mother’s life.

His mantra to all hos­pi­tal staff became this: “She walked into this hos­pi­tal on her own and she’s damn well going to walk back out”.

How wrong he was.

My father could have spared my mother seven years of a hor­ri­ble exis­tence, but he was self­ish. He paid for this deci­sion him­self as his life got much harder when my mother was finally allowed to go home after sev­eral months in the hos­pi­tal and a rehab facility.

My mother could only get around in a wheel­chair and had sev­eral med­ical appoint­ments a week that my father had to trans­port her to, unaided. He was in his 80s.

He refused all assis­tance at first, and not until he was over­whelmed, did he relent and hire some home help.

My father’s own death obses­sion kicked into over­drive and his new catch­phrase became this: “What would hap­pen to my wife if some­thing hap­pened to me?” This thought ran through his head con­stantly, it kept him up at night, he men­tioned it every time he spoke to me. His fear of his own death now had a tan­gi­ble focus, my mother’s fate.

What you think about can become real, as it wasn’t too long after this that they found a large, malig­nant and inop­er­a­ble tumour in his blad­der. Thus began his one year decline into death.

The “what to do about my mother” ques­tion became inter­twined with the “beat­ing this can­cer” goal. “If I can just beat this can­cer,” thought my father. “then I can con­tinue to care for my wife.” It took him a few months to realise he couldn’t and the part time home help turned into a full time, live in carer for both of them.

When my father died, my mother con­tin­ued to live in their house, with the live in carer. As it turned out, she would have had enough money to con­tinue liv­ing this way, which was what I wanted for her, but her fear helped her decide to move into a care home. It was a good one, but expen­sive, more expen­sive than stay­ing in her home, but it was my mother’s choice.

My mother spent the last five plus years of her life in that care home, before slip­ping into a coma and dying in a hos­pi­tal bed, alone and uncon­scious. She should have died many years before, her life was no richer for those last, post-stroke years of hard­ship and suffering.

We all have to face death in all its var­ied forms and per­mu­ta­tions. Death and dying come in many assorted flavours.

I lost four friends and many more col­leagues, who all died while doing what we do, cov­er­ing the news. I’ve been a jour­nal­ist for over 20 years and when I was younger and more fool­ish, put myself in harm’s way too.

I’ve spent time in war zones and other dan­ger­ous places and the peo­ple I work with still do, every day, to tell you about peo­ple and places many peo­ple don’t give a shit about. Hey ho.

My four friends who all per­ished while work­ing abroad, had quick, yet vio­lent deaths. I’m not going get into any great detail here, Three of them were chased by armed men or rebels before being gunned down, one was killed by a stray, unex­pected mor­tar shell. Each death effected me per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally in quite pro­found ways.

All four of them were rel­a­tively young, some left behind part­ners and chil­dren. Each one was a decent, thought­ful and respected col­league and journalist.

One of these deaths was par­tic­u­larly hard on me because I was on duty when the news broke. I was work­ing on a news desk, the cen­tral point of con­tact for every­one in my organ­i­sa­tion. A lot of the tele­phone calls I received were from dis­traught peo­ple all over the world, wak­ing up to the news of the death of a close friend. Many were in tears, many wanted me to tell them that the news got it wrong.

I wish I could have.

When death comes to the young and good, its par­tic­u­larly hard on those left behind, try­ing to make sense of out it, try­ing to under­stand it.

I’ll tell you some­thing right now, there is no sense in any sense­less death, there is no under­stand­ing. Shit hap­pens, you just deal with it as best you can.

After that spate of deaths, my indus­try tried to improve on safety. More hos­tile envi­ron­ment train­ing was brought in, safety advi­sors in dan­ger­ous places are deployed reg­u­larly now, but jour­nal­ists still con­tinue to be killed in the line of duty.

Los­ing friends makes you think about your own mor­tal­ity, not that I needed any help.

There are two other friends I lost, both of their deaths remark­ably similar.

They were both about the same age, both had sim­i­lar inter­ests and lifestyles. One was a musi­cian, the other a journalist.

Both of my friends were 50 years old when they died, both had mas­sive heart attacks. One was found in his flat, sit­ting in his favourite chair, the other was at home with his part­ner and fell over dead as he got up from the sofa. Both died fairly instantly and may not have had much time to work out what was happening.

Both used via­gra and cocaine reg­u­larly and drank heav­ily too. You don’t need to be a doc­tor to work out that’s a bad combination.

As I get older, my death obses­sion seems to have more things to fuel it.

Peo­ple my age (I’m push­ing 50) die from all sorts of things, nat­ural and oth­er­wise. I think about my health more often. I don’t actu­ally do much about it, but I think about it…does that count for anything?

I get my cho­les­terol and glu­cose checked reg­u­larly, along with my blood pres­sure. All are good, espe­cially my cho­les­terol, which was 3.1 at my most recent test. I don’t look like I should have low cho­les­terol, but I do. Go figure.

None of that means I’m immune from whatever’s lurk­ing out there, wait­ing to pounce on me. I don’t drink at all, but I do smoke, cig­a­rettes and weed. I don’t exer­cise, I don’t watch my diet and I work only nights. Not exactly the regime you’d pay a thou­sand quid a day for at a health farm.

If you would pay a grand a day to live my lifestyle, get in touch, I’d be happy to sort you out, as long as you are happy always being high and mas­tur­bat­ing sev­eral times a day, but not in pub­lic, because that’s just gross.

Will it be a heart attack that gets me? My father had one of those.

How about a stroke? My mother’s got that covered.

Can­cer? It got most of my aunts and uncles on my mother’s side.

Car acci­dent? I think about it every time I get behind the wheel. Will this be my last jour­ney? Is there a drunk dri­ver or over­tired lorry dri­ver out there with with me in his sights?

How about some freak acci­dent, like a plum­met­ing jet engine a’la Donny Darko? A stray bul­let from some silly gang related shoot­ing on my north Lon­don ghetto street? That could hap­pen too.

Ter­ror­ism, viral pan­demic, earth­quake, tor­nado, take your pick, the news is full of so many lethal things.

There are so many ways I could die and not know­ing how its going to turn out for me is a gen­uine obsession.

But would I really want to know how I’m going to die?

Wouldn’t it be the ulti­mate spoiler?

If there was a box I could click online that would reveal the details of my death, would I click it?

Would I really want to know the big three facts about my inevitable death; when? where? how?

Hell, yes! I would def­i­nitely click that box. And then I am sure I would regret it.

What would I do if I did knew the details of my death?

I’d try to cheat it, if I could. If I knew a bus was going to hit me on the high street next Fri­day, I’d damn make sure I was some­place else.

But what if I couldn’t cheat it, some hor­ri­ble dis­ease or med­ical cat­a­stro­phe that couldn’t be avoided. What would I do with that knowl­edge, that my own body was a tick­ing time bomb, wait­ing to go off on a cer­tain date?

Would I get my affairs in order, what­ever that means?

Would I make a bucket list and try to cram what­ever time I had left on doing things I sud­denly felt were important?

Or would I just sit qui­etly, await­ing des­tiny, safe with the knowl­edge that my fate was well and truly sealed?

Who knows? I’ll never find out.

There is no real way to know when you’re going to die. Some peo­ple do find out the “how” from their doc­tors, along with a rough timescale, but I think that’s about as close as it gets. In that sit­u­a­tion, I’d have no choice but to know.

Whether or not know­ing would be help­ful, well, who’s to say?

What­ever does get me, is out there some­where right now, in the world or inside my body. Whether its today, tomor­row, next week, next year or next cen­tury is anybody’s guess. Who knows what mir­a­cles sci­ence might pro­vide in the next decades?

There are two things I’ve always thought would hap­pen to help peo­ple cheat death.

One is my view that age­ing is sim­ply a genetic dis­or­der that even­tu­ally will be cor­rected with gene ther­apy. I think they are close to this dis­cov­ery, iso­lat­ing what it is in our DNA that makes our bod­ies age and then fig­ur­ing out how to manip­u­late it and switch it off. It may sound like sci-fi, but its not and it will have all sorts of eth­i­cal and prac­ti­cal impli­ca­tions for the future of our planet.

Per­haps only the super rich will ben­e­fit from this dis­cov­ery, maybe it will be avail­able to any­one and every­one. Maybe it will be manda­tory. Maybe it will be kept a secret.

While not deliv­er­ing real immor­tal­ity, it cer­tainly would be a mas­sive step in that direc­tion, as long as you’re not hit by that bus on the high street.

The sec­ond sci­en­tific inno­va­tion that I think will even­tu­ally come, will be the abil­ity to import (ingest? upload? scan? pick a verb) the entire con­tents of a human brain into a com­puter. Once you can do that, you could effec­tively recre­ate a person’s con­scious­ness and con­struct a vir­tual world for them to exist inside. As long as you had a sus­tain­able power source, this the­o­ret­i­cally could deliver immor­tal­ity for all.

Imag­ine being able to con­tinue your exis­tence in a per­fect dig­i­tal world, freed of the con­straints of your flesh. For all inten­sive pur­poses, this dig­i­tal world would be as real as our world and your sense of self, your iden­tity, who you are, would be the same too. You would be reunited with your friends, your rel­a­tives, your loved ones, to spend eter­nity together in the most won­der­ful place imaginable.

That sounds a lot like heaven in the tra­di­tional sense, with one key dif­fer­ence. The heaven of our ances­tors was an imag­i­nary idea, this heaven I pro­pose would be built by man and could one day really exist.

Do I think I’ll see these inno­va­tions in my life­time? That’s the tril­lion dol­lar question.

I think the genetic dis­cov­ery is not that far off, but its use in prac­tise much fur­ther. Its unlikely in my socio-economic class that I will have access to it, if it is in my time.

The dig­i­tal after­life is harder to pre­dict, as guess­ing at the future capa­bil­i­ties of com­puter equip­ment and the rate of change is slightly more com­plex than Moore’s Law would have you believe. Advances in quan­tum com­put­ing are mak­ing the news and once the real break­through hap­pens, we very well may end up with more afford­able com­puter power than any­one can cur­rently imagine.

The sin­gu­lar­ity, anyone?

Once the con­tents of a human brain can be uploaded into a com­puter of unimag­in­able power, a mul­ti­verse of pos­si­bil­i­ties awaits. If I can live long enough to see that hap­pen, I will be very lucky indeed.

I don’t hold out much hope.

I’ve always thought these amaz­ing inno­va­tions would come the day after I die.

So it goes, as Von­negut used to say.

That leaves me with a death obses­sion that won’t be resolved until its my time to shake off this mor­tal coil.

At least I have a pas­time. They say hav­ing a hobby adds years to your life.

One thought on “My unhealthy obsession with death (749)”

  1. I came across your blog/article ran­domly and I thought that I’d say thank you for shar­ing your thoughts. I’m 33..but I have an unhealthy obses­sion with death too. It plagues me each day to the point that I actu­ally put myself in panic attacks think­ing about the future. I also have had a long his­tory in deal­ing with death and sick­ness in fam­ily. Some very trau­matic occur­rences. I also think about tech­nol­ogy and how it will advance…how it will affect human beings. So, thank you for shar­ing. At least I don’t feel alone in think­ing this way. — Angela

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Security Code: