I think as a child, a catholic child specifically, is when my fascination with life really took a hold. I should clarify, my fascination with what happens to life after death. I have to remember all these years (like almost 40 years) have passed between when I was a little boy and today. In that time my curiosity about life and death have evolved, thinking back now as an adult trying to remember my thoughts, my experience of life and death as child, well they are very different. All the same though, my curiosity on the topic remains.
All this aside, I have always wondered that question, which I suspect many of us do, does life truly end at death, or does this strange phenomenon of awareness of self continue beyond the experience of death? I don't know the answer, but in growing up in the Catholic Church I was given many answers to this question, most of which said resoundingly, yes life goes on. Not only does life go beyond death, but it's better than life here! It is perfect living, especially if you are not a "sinner" (whoa such a qualifier) and even more especially if Jesus Christ is your lord and savior. Now as it was I was indoctrinated into that faith, I never was given the option to choose it so while as a child, and even as a young man I would have said if asked, "Yes, Jesus is my lord and savior." This answer though was meaningless because I had no idea what the alternative was, and in fact did not know that there was an alternative.
Funny stuff this immortality given as a gift only after one dies. Heaven is described as perfection. It was there that we were taught that in heave there existed: no suffering; no fear; no loneliness; total union with the divine; perfect knowledge. And as a young boy I wanted this. I wanted all those things, they sounded so amazing. Yet a caveat existed, you couldn't go to heaven if you committed a mortal sin, and self harm to the point of death (suicide) disqualified you. The act was anathema. And so we had to wait for the gift of heaven until we got old and died, got cancer and died, hit by a car or shot by a bullet and died. No way that was coming to us in the state of knowing that we were (or are) currently in.
But there were those times, evenings often, when I wasn't playing anymore. I would sit alone in my room, surrounded always by my hundreds and hundreds of stuffed animals and wonder then what was heaven really like. My wonder actually was more along the lines of, what is death? So often I would think of this, and wonder that I began to imagine that it might be okay if I died. I began to tell myself that death, in all it's scary "unknowingness" was so tempting, so much a desire, that I was less afraid of it than I was of living. Play into death was as tempting for me as play in life.
But I didn't want to risk it. Not at first anyway.
Now please know, I was in no way neglected or unloved by my family. My mother was a very caring person (still is). She fretted over us, kept us fed, loved us, sang to us. I did have joy in my life, and I wasn't exactly depressed. I did brood (I still do), I did like reading about dark things like dragons, evil wizards, devils and demons, but I also loved bright happy things too. I played for hours with my legos, hot wheels, swords and things. But many times, I would imagine myself dead. Gone, wandering into the next life whatever that life may be.
One memory, so clear for me, is of an evening when I was alone in my room, maybe around 1979. I had a small Swiss army knife, the old kind that had only a few tools and blades. It had one larger blade, and this one was pretty dull. I pulled myself under the blankets in my bed and took out that little knife. I remember holding it in my hand. The sensation of the red plastic case at first cold, then warming to the touch of my skin. I remember flipping open the largest blade, gleaming under the flash light and snapping it shut, time and time again. Then I remember taking this blade and pressing it against my stomach, point into my flesh. I remember pressing it, hard enough to push the skin in deep without cutting, and thinking to myself "press harder, you're so close."
I didn't come so close to death again for a long time after that. Whatever held me back in that moment kept the thoughts of dying at bay for many years. The thought occasionally came into my mind, flittering from time to time, sweeping in like a little humming bird, buzzing around my brain tempting me with, "death just like sleeping, don't you like to dream?"
But there somewhere in my mind are whispers of a darker desire, hints back to my childhood begging me to explore life and it's natural end. Now that I've studied death myths, legends, theories of heaven and afterlife I do not believe there is any type of continuance of existence beyond what we know. I believe that at death I simply cease to exist. Our lives, our consciousness are like light switches, once flicked off, we simply cease to shine. So the fascination with death for me has lost the appeal of escaping into a better existence. But funny, this thought of dying, death has become such a close friend of mine, it's hard to let it go.
There was a time in 1993, January, when I stood on the edge of a rooftop on a building in Rome, some ten stories tall and looked down at the paving stones below and nearly leapt. Now this was a time when I was depressed. I had been living in Rome then, studying to be a priest, struggling with my sexuality, struggling with being an atheist, struggling with a realization that the Catholic Church, which had become my home, my lover, hated me. So standing there on the roof of the Pontifical North American College, looking down in the darkness at the road below, I stood; toes dipped over the edge of the building, the wind buffeting my back, encouraging me, daring me to fly - for a moment - to kiss our earth - to stop being me.
There have been other dark moments in my life and those random thoughts have popped up for me thinking how much easier it could be for me if I just allowed myself to slip into the great sleep. In all these years, with therapy, the right friends, and maintaining a more firm grasp on reality, I've not stepped off the edge, but what my ever present struggle with thoughts of death and suicide have brought me, are an absolute lack of fear. I've known pain, physically with surgeries, a bout with cancer, broken bones. I've known pain in loss of loved ones, death of friends, end of relationships, heart break. I've known pain in feeling insignificant, unimportant, unable to affect change in the world. So yes, those dark thoughts have crept up in my mind, and the faint whispers of my old friend death hisses in my ear, ".....you're so close." And because my old friend death is an ever present part of my personal darkness, I've come to not fear him at all.
I'm happy to discuss this topic and post with you or anyone - leave a comment or send me a message. I've lost friends to suicide. I've lost friends and loved ones to early death, and to death after a long life. And that loss is real. That loss is painful. That loss is hard to bear. I know my life will one day end, hopefully not for a long time, I'm learning there's lots more living to do and I'm only getting started. So in the meantime I'm going to keep growing, keep learning, allowing myself to fail, but always allowing myself to get back up after a failure and try again. I know that death is always close, lurking around the corner but my movie has only just started and I don't want to miss the ending.
I wrote in my "Thoughts Along the Way" journal about this a few months ago. Here are those musings, "I am, for this rather insignificant moment in space and time, aware. Based on the incredible rarity of life, especially life aware of itself, this is the importance of being. Our existence itself seems to point to the meaning of life itself."
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1 (800) 273-8255www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org