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The Time I Faced Death, and How It Saved My Life

I had a near-death experience at twenty-one.

Some people know this. Others know I got sick, but never understood the severity of the incident or its impact on me. And who can blame them? Most of my doctors didn’t understand what was going on at that time, and there isn’t any way of telling how someone is going to react to that sort of an experience.

I suspect some people, though perhaps not many, are capable of shrugging off a “minor” brush with death. For me, I’ve only recently been able to say that I’ve gotten past it. I can talk about it now, here or there. It took over seven years to get to this point, but at least I am here.

I reacted, initially, when the ordeal first ended, by avoiding my feelings. Defying them. At the time, it was the only thing I could do. People tried to help me and I said I was fine. I pressed forward. For a while this behavior helped. But sooner or later, every trauma demands its day of reckoning.

I’ve started this particular post, about this particular subject, about ten times over the past several months. I could never finish it. Today, I can. I want to finish it. I want to share what I’ve learned, over the past several years, after such a life-changing experience. I think it’s the next step in my healing process.

The details are simple and obscure. I caught a virus while traveling abroad (in Europe). It began its assault on my body near the tail-end of the trip, which had been a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, up to that point.

The symptoms began when I was making my way slowly back to New York. They were comparatively tame at first, and isolated to one bodily system. I was supposed to spend a few days in Paris before my return. After spending all but an afternoon’s worth of that time sick in a friend’s cousin’s apartment, I made the flight back to my place in the city and then I didn’t get better.

I got much worse. An initial trip to the emergency room didn’t trigger any alarms. They gave me an IV for dehydration (my symptoms had been purely gastrointestinal  until then) and sent me home. A day later I all-but-collapsed trying to make it up a flight of six steps.

The virus attacked everything. Everything. I had almost collapsed because it had made its way into my heart, which was sustaining damage. You never expect, at twenty-one, to be able to cut the line at the emergency room because of that sign that says: “If you are experiencing shortness of breath or chest pain come to the nurse’s window immediately.” But this can now be counted among my life’s achievements.

I don’t want to talk too much more about the rest of the experience. It was horrible. The doctors (I had a small army of them) were never able to isolate or identify the virus. The main battle lasted about two weeks. They were able to monitor me and give my body what it was lacking while I couldn’t eat or get out of bed. They helped me fight a dangerous fever. But, for all purposes, despite every attempt on the part of the hospital staff to find some way of identifying a treatment, it was me against the virus.

I don’t even know if, despite the severity of the episode, I was ever truly in danger of dying. I do know it was serious for the first few days. I did get the sense that, if my body wasn’t up to the fight, that there weren’t too many other options.

But my body was up to the fight. I was young, and relatively healthy. Despite the quiet horror of the experience – you don’t expect to be admitted to the cardiac ICU at twenty-one– I won.

This is something I can feel good about, now. The fallout of those weeks, though, lasted years. In some ways, perhaps, it may never end.

It is not a minor thing, to have to face the real possibility of your own death at an age when most men and women are still capable of holding onto the dear, childish illusion – that we are invincible. Neither is it an easy experience to handle, after the fact, when you’re someone who is used to charging through life with definitive reasons for needing that illusion.

Before the experience, I was an anxious person. I struggled, internally, with demons of an at-that-time indeterminate origin. Once I was out of the hospital, once I rested and got better – everything got worse.

I had a year left of college to complete at the time. Several people advised me to take a semester off. I refused. I couldn’t do that. I was too scared. Having glimpsed death, I couldn’t do anything, in the wake of that experience, but grip life more firmly than before. For better or worse, my reaction was a mix of healthy and unhealthy. People reached out to me, but no one got through to me. I was very convincing, when repeating the refrain that I was “okay”.

There was a moment, when I was first admitted to the hospital, before anyone knew the extent of the damage my heart had sustained, when I was alone in my room. Everything had happened quickly up until that point. The fraternity brother who had taken me to the hospital (while we’re here, don’t judge fraternities, my brothers helped save my life) wasn’t allowed up to my room. They had already taken about as much blood as they could take, so that a battery of tests could be run on it. A legion of specialists would soon be on their way. But, for the moment, I had no roommate. It was my first opportunity to process what was happening, alone, for myself.

This is very hard for me to admit, and it took me a very long time to come to terms with what happened next, but I feel it’s important to be honest about this. Regardless of factual accuracy, I felt a very real sense at that moment that it could all be over.

And I was relieved.

I have learned, since, that my reaction was not necessarily abnormal. For a long time, before that, I feared that it meant that, pre-virus, I was already broken beyond repair. I didn’t understand how I could feel relief in the face of prospective death.

We are conditioned to believe that we should always want to live, and that if we don’t, something is wrong. This is, obviously, as it should be. But at that moment, at least, the simplicity of my position – of finding myself suddenly balancing exactly over the fulcrum between life and death, with nothing else existing between – it appealed to me.

Now, after years of therapy, I have a better understanding of what happened that day. I know that my reaction was not about how little or how much I valued my life. I had been relieved, but not because I didn’t want to live. Life, as we all know, is rarely simple, and frequently difficult. For everyone.

Again, this took a very long time to completely sink in (and I am still in the process of implementing and applying what I have learned), but I think that what I really needed at that time was to put an end to how I had been living.

In this way, facing death saved my life. In this way, I became fortunate. Despite all reasons to believe the contrary, my experience was not only negative. It hasn’t been an easy path or a natural one, but what happened to me at that time in my life, and in the years since, did allow me, at a young age, to jump to a new set of tracks. Even if I didn’t know it was happening.

I have always had a few demons in me. They came with me, to the new set of tracks. That, unfortunately, is the way this sort of thing works, for those of us who have to deal with such a reality.

But my physical victory over a deadly threat to my life graced me with the opportunity to begin appreciating and valuing that life in all other arenas. That which used to be a struggle for me (against my self), in all other terms, slowly became a war (for myself).

I’ll repeat it again. It took years. It did not go smoothly and I did not make all the right decisions in getting to this point. But the fact remains that I faced the void. The fact remains that, having glimpsed it, and despite many wrong turns and many low periods, I eventually stopped staring at it and turned back to face life.

And I want to tell you why I was able to do that.

Something else happened when I was alone in that hospital room. Something else happened after I was left there wondering why I wasn’t scared to die.

Once that moment passed, I realized that I had to call my parents. Which I did.

I told them that I was in the hospital, that there was something wrong with my heart, and that the doctor’s didn’t know anything else. They got the name of the hospital, said they were on their way, and they hung up.

And then I cried. Quietly, and privately. Because I was scared and I didn’t want to die.

I needed to share this story for that reason. I want it to be clear, why I do what I do. Why I am here, on this site, and out there, struggling for my films.

My connections to life, my family and my friends, proved to me that there was value to my existence, even at a time when I couldn’t find that value for myself. This is the truth that love brings to our lives. This is why, for me, love is life. It is the only thing that can combat death. On any scale. In whatever terms.

While that all sounds tidy, in retrospect, the fact remains that I’ve spent much of my interior and private life, over the past seven years, fighting my fear of that initial reaction – that first feeling of apathy in the face of death. At the same time, out of a very real fear of the sheer power of love as death’s opposite, I don’t know that I’ve ever fully embraced the idea that it too, is something that, at the end of the day, requires some sort of abandonment-of-the-self in order to thrive. This is a perhaps common philosophical comparison that thinkers and poets have struggled with and attempted to define for a long time. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that our relationship with that comparison must become personal in order for us to begin to at least respect its mystery.

This is understandable. Love, like life, is a weighty proposition. As a young man, I was of that typical poetic sort who was in love with the idea of love. I am no longer afflicted with that temporary, imperfect, half-realized definition of the word.

For me, at least, for now, life and love is about releasing my hold on fear. Not fear’s hold on me. My hold on fear.

I repeat: what I’ve learned about demons, through all this, is that they don’t die. They don’t go away. They can’t be vanquished and they can’t be ignored. If they exist for you, they are permanent. Perhaps our demons are even a naturally occurring part of the human condition. It would make sense, but I won’t speak for everyone.

So what, specifically, changed? What did I do, to come around in the way that I have, after everything I went through?

How did I begin opposing my fears – of death, love, life – insofar as anything like this can be done?

Slowly and methodically, I went after the demons. I sourced them out, I learned what sustained them, and I cut off their supply. I began working to strengthen that version of myself who hadn’t been up to the fight, so many years ago. I began trusting the at-that-time mysterious part of myself that helped pull me through. I started to trust the people in my life who deserved that trust, and began distancing myself from those who could not be trusted. If my demons won’t ever die, at least I can see to it that they are starved, powerless pathetic creatures.

It’s been a long and difficult journey to get to this point, but I think I was finally able to finish this post because now I truly believe it – I’m okay.

michaeldibiasio

Writer and Filmmaker

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