I spent the majority of my 20’s contemplating my own mortality. This is no surprise. As a child, I often thought about dying (I was apparently a very self-aware child). Growing up Catholic, I imagined I would end up in the haunted realm of purgatory atoning for my sins. But when I reached adolescence, I grew attached to the idea of reincarnation. And then during a major depressive episode in college, I imagined ending up among the meadows of my happy place.
But as an adult diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, I stopped imagining what it would be like to die. I suddenly had a very good reason to value life. In my early 20’s, I experienced two life-threatening seizures as a result of Type 1 diabetes, and while I have written about those experiences, both on this blog and in my book, I had never written about that moment when I realized I might die, and there was nothing I could do.
So, appropriately, a few months before I turned 30, I sat down and wrote about this experience. This takes place at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport in late 2011, two years after I was diagnosed with diabetes and during my second year of graduate school. I’ve never shared this publicly until now.
What Would It Be Like To Die?
The fluorescent lights flickered above as I left airport security behind and pulled my red suitcase towards the nearest women’s restroom. I felt shaky just from the stress of walking through a metal detector with my diabetes syringes and vials in tow. They made it through the x-ray machine, no harm, no foul. But I couldn’t calm my nerves.
There was a line. Of course. I needed to know what my blood sugar level was. I couldn’t figure out whether the shakiness was attributed to stress or low blood sugar or both. So, I stopped at the bathroom counter and pulled out my small black purse. It contained my glucometer, test strips and lancets. I took a deep breath and tried to ignore the potential stares.
I pricked my left middle finger and placed a drop on the test strip. My shakiness increased, and I continued to take deep breaths. But then my vision started going blurry, and I held on to the counter for balance. The glucometer read 40. I immediately pulled the glucose tablets from my purse and chewed three quickly. I despised the chalky aftertaste.
I must have taken too much insulin for breakfast. I had used my insulin flex-pen, but I could only dial in one-unit increments. It’s possible I over-estimated, and the stress of security did not aid in my blood sugar’s stability. All I could do now was wait for the glucose to kick in and give my blood sugar the boost it needed to re-stabilize.
Except I didn’t account for how fast it was dropping. I didn’t have the luxury of a continuous glucose monitoring system. I had no idea how much active insulin was still in my system, also contributing to the drop. All I could rely on were my body’s signs telling me it was quickly shutting down. All I could rely on were the fast-acting tablets in my purse.
I was scared. I could feel my body and my mind slip away from consciousness, and I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t think about my diabetes or my family or my dreams or even the boyfriend I was flying to visit. No, all I could comprehend in those few seconds was that I had lost the fight, that this was it. I didn’t even consider that I might be dying. I just knew that I had done everything I could, and it wasn’t enough. But I had tried, and that was okay.
So I held on to that counter as tight as I could. And then the haziness went black.
I imagine if I actually died, that’s what it would be like. Just gone. No consciousness. No self-awareness. No floating limbo or a reincarnated essence. Just nothing.
It’s a scary thought when I think about it – the idea of nothingness. It’s probably why I’m so fascinated and yet terrified of the universe. It may be why I often question the point of my existence. What am I really leaving behind? Does it matter? Why do I feel so guilty about my behavior or decisions I’ve made when I won’t lament over them when I’m gone? The only ones affected by my presence will be those I leave behind, but I won’t remember them or watch over them. I will just cease to be.
But as I’ve come to explore this topic more, especially in the face of diabetes, I realize that although my consciousness will cease to exist (unless cryogenics works out in my favor), there will be no pain. I won’t know that I don’t exist because I just won’t be anymore. It’s like those few minutes in between blacking out and waking up. I never knew I was unconscious. I never knew I may not wake up. Until I did.
It’s somewhat calming to think coming to the end of your life you feel at peace with the world, like you did everything you were supposed to do and now you can let your consciousness go. You can relieve yourself of the pain of remembering or the stress of suffering and let your essence be recycled unto the Earth. It’s quite peaceful.
But I also like life. I love learning and connecting with others and being aware of the known universe. I love feeling pain and suffering and coming to terms with it. I love questioning my own mortality and the life I want to lead. I love being self-aware and writing about the beauty as well as the haziness.
Because there is a moment when that haziness becomes a soft glow and you relinquish your grip and let your body go – when you see soft undertones of orange and blue and gray, and all you can do is see. You cannot comprehend. You just feel and smell and taste. And you don’t even know what you’re feeling, smelling and tasting. You just are. And then you close your eyes, and all feeling of pain and awareness disappears.
You tilt your head back and look up, but you don’t know that you’re looking up because the world is black behind your eyelids. Just like it was the moment you realized it existed at all.
Synonymous … with you.