A death too certain, too soon

As death kept coming like summer rain, day after day, uncountable, nameless, in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Africa and all places between, suddenly one death counted above all the others as America lost an imaginary friend.

It stalked abroad, snuck close as two American aid workers caught Ebola and then death swiftly came home — yet only because millions of people felt like they knew one person who in truth was just as much a stranger as all the rest.

How is it that death can seem so removed from our daily lives when it is just as omnipresent now as it always has been?

However much humans may have advanced since we first recognized our mortality, in that recognition itself it seems we have regressed and now understand death less than did our earliest ancestors.

Never has death seemed so foreign, so removed from life, so lacking in inevitability.

And yet, even though we have become adept at postponing death and sheltering ourselves from its appearance, it is no less inevitable for us as it was for those who first considered its meaning.

The most striking difference between us and our ancestors is that we pursue life as though death was an aberration — something that always happens too soon and never seems certain.

Those individuals who not only abandon their effort to outrun death, but instead turn towards it and choose death in preference to life, appear to have betrayed the living. But that’s only because for most of us it’s hard to imagine such all-consuming pain.

This is how the writer, William Styron, described his own descent into hell:

That fall, as the disorder gradually took full possession of my system, I began to conceive that my mind itself was like one of those outmoded small-town telephone exchanges, being gradually inundated by floodwaters: one by one, the normal circuits began to drown, causing some of the functions of the body and nearly all of those of instinct and intellect to slowly disconnect.

There is a well-known checklist of some of these functions and their failures. Mine conked out fairly close to schedule, many of them following the pattern of depressive seizures. I particularly remember the lamentable near disappearance of my voice. It underwent a strange transformation, becoming at times quite faint, wheezy, and spasmodic — a friend observed later that it was the voice of a ninety-year-old. The libido also made an early exit, as it does in most major illnesses — it is the superfluous need of a body in beleaguered emergency. Many people lose all appetite; mine was relatively normal, but I found myself eating only for subsistence: food, like everything else within the scope of sensation, was utterly without savor. Most distressing of all the instinctual disruptions was that of sleep, along with a complete absence of dreams.

Exhaustion combined with sleeplessness is a rare torture. The two or three hours of sleep I was able to get at night were always at the behest of the minor tranquilizer Halcion — a matter which deserves particular notice. For some time now many experts in psychopharmacology have warned that the benzodiazepine family of tranquilizers, of which Halcion is one (Valium and Ativan are others), is capable of depressing mood and even precipitating a major depression. Over two years before my siege, an insouciant doctor had prescribed Avitan as a bedtime aid, telling me airily that I could take it as casually as aspirin. The Physician’s Desk Reference manual, the pharmacological bible, reveals that the medicine I had been ingesting was (a) three times the normally prescribed strength, (b) not advisable as a medication for more than a month or so, and (c) to be used with special caution by people of my age. At the time of which I am speaking, I had become addicted to Halcion as a sleeping aid, and was consuming large doses. It seems reasonable to think that this was still another contributory factor to the trouble that had come upon me. Certainly, it should be a caution to others.

At any rate, my few hours of sleep were usually terminated at three or four in the morning, when I stared up into yawning darkness, wondering and writhing at the devastation taking place in my mind, and awaiting the dawn, which usually permitted me a feverish, dreamless nap. I’m fairly certain that it was during one of these insomniac trances that there came over me the knowledge — a weird and shocking revelation, like that of some long-beshrouded metaphysical truth — that this condition would cost me my life if it continued on such a course.

What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.

But if those in despair appear at risk of abandoning the living, in a death-denying society it is we in our own refusal to look into oblivion, recognizing its draw and its inevitability, who thereby reinforce the isolation of those who find themselves on the edge of this abyss.

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2 thoughts on “A death too certain, too soon

  1. Syd

    I’ve been reading about the British music halls at the turn of the century and I found this quote by star Marie Loyd about her comedian friend Dan Leno, who died of alcoholism at the age of 43:

    “Ever seen his eyes? The saddest eyes in the whole world. That’s why we all laughed at Danny. Because if we hadn’t laughed, we should have cried ourselves sick. I believe that’s what real comedy is, you know, it’s almost like crying.”

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    When Decca Aitkenhead interviewed Robin Williams in 2010, she wrote: “His bearing is intensely Zen and almost mournful, and when he’s not putting on voices he speaks in a low, tremulous baritone – as if on the verge of tears – that would work very well if he were delivering a funeral eulogy. He seems gentle and kind – even tender – but the overwhelming impression is one of sadness.”

    Does laughter release pent up sadness? Maybe.

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