Tuesday, May 16, 2017

I Saw Absolutely Nothing When I Died but Carl Jung Did

I have a bad heart. A really crappy, beat up, scarred, and weak heart. It's flat out not any good and even up and quit entirely on me three years ago. That year, on Father's Day, I had a massive heart attack. Flatlined. Was paddled back to life, and had a heart procedure for a stent placement in my right coronary artery all within a matter of hours. According to the medical staff working the emergency room that day, if I hadn't lived so close (a ten minute drive) to the hospital I would have absolutely died before getting there.

For the past two months I've been having chest pains. There's nothing more terrifying than trying to sit still and prepare for death. Because here's what you need to know: there is no preparing for death, and there is nothing more terrifying than being right at the edge of it. If anybody tells you differently, they simply haven't experienced near-death.

On the way to the hospital three years ago, I was convinced I was having a heat stroke. It was a particularly hot day that day and I was cutting grass when I started losing my breath and couldn't get it back. My mouth started to draw and my fingers started to curl up. And all this time I still couldn't catch my breath. I heaved hard and long, the way you do after running at a full clip for as long as you can, but could never catch my breath. It was a deeply black shade of horror.

I was, in fact, having a massive heart attack while on the table in the ER. A nurse who had been wiring me up and holding me still while other nurses and assistants cut my jeans from me said, "Mr. Compton you're having a heart attack." I thought she was made of plastic. I thought she had fallen from a cartoon somewhere or was an extra on Cheers who had slipped through the barely stitched together fabric of the universe and landed in the hospital just to mess with me. Everything after that is unclear except the moment I flatlined. I had my head held up looking around the room when I started feeling it get really heavy, sort of like it was filled with wet sand. About one second later, I felt the back of my head hit the bed and everything went black.

Since everyone asks me what happened during the roughly 20 seconds I was dead, I'm going to give you the visual answer:

Yep. Not one thing. Nada. A big whole bag of zero.

Back in the world of the living, I thought I had passed out, even saying as much when all the shocking me with paddles actually kicked my heart back to life. "I passed out," I said, and even giggled a little, embarrassed. I don't remember anything after that, really. I left the hospital and my days of worry began.

Yes, the worry started after the heart attack. Before the heart attack I never thought about death. Death was, as everyone knows before suffering near-death, only an abstract notion. Something that would happen when you've got gray hair or no hair or wearing diapers in a nursing home somewhere. But post-attack a small pang of pressure anywhere near the area of my chest where my heart is sends me into total lock down mode. I have to start the process in my mind of accepting the insane fact that I am about to leave the world I have always known. Forever. And I have no idea what, if anything, is on the other side. All I've seen of that place was blackness, a dreamless sleep, nothingness times infinity. All of which means nothing, really. Nothing one way or the other.

Fear of death has spawned religions since time immemorial. Living each minute having to be prepared for my final breath gives me a certain amount of envy for people who can take comfort in some idea of where they go when they die and what will happen at that time. Envy isn't too strong of a word. But if the religious beliefs you had instilled in your youth somehow gets tilted or even shattered, getting back to that place of pure belief again is impossible.

Carl Jung once broke his foot and then subsequently, and somewhat strangely, had a heart attack. Jung wrote that while he was hanging at the edge of death he saw the earth from a thousand miles above somewhere in space. Of course at the time he was experiencing deliriums and visions while attending medical professionals gave him oxygen and administered camphor injections. So mostly unreliable, probably. And it's Jung, who was a genius who gave us analytical psychology but was crazy as a cracked out bedbug.

Thing is, Jung's descriptions of the earth viewed from space were stunningly accurate. That wouldn't mean much except his heart attack and vision happened in 1944, roughly two decades before people would travel to space. Do with that what you will.


  1. Dear Sheldon, your story saddened me. Søren Kierkegaard wrote that, while “admiration is happy self-surrender,” “envy is unhappy self-assertion.” Admiration inspires through hope, envy motivates through need. If you feel the need to believe, the spirit helping you to hope will surely visit you. The blackness that you felt may not be what you will see once for yourself - perhaps you weren't meant to look behind the curtain yet. To me, this is a sign that hope is at hand. I have come face to face with death a couple of times myself though I never passed out, it feels nevertheless as if my mind passed through something and came out the other side having lost a sense of futility and fierce clinginess to life that marks the agnostic. Words may not describe well what I wish to say - or perhaps I am not the man to say it - but at any rate, this is what I think. I wish you all the best, mate! Cheers from Berlin, Marcus

    1. Thanks Marcus my brother. It's nice to think that maybe what I was seeing was still behind the curtain. The entire thing was mind-bending in general though. Dying wasn't nearly as hard and painful as I thought it was going to be.


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