5 Awful Insights From My Near-Death Experience
Perhaps you’ve heard the term “near-death experience.” Most often it's talked about or depicted in media as a blissful epiphany, or used as proof of life after death, or the reason the guy who works at the gas station tells you he can now hear angels telling him to urinate off the top of the tallest building in town.
Well, in 2019, I almost died, and it was none of those things (I only urinate off the top of the tallest building in town recreationally, not because the angels told me to). In fact, almost dying actually really sucks, and not just in the way you’d expect—there are several other fun, surprising ways you find out about later!
Don’t Count On Angels And A Tunnel
Near-death experiences, or NDEs to those short on time, are usually associated with feelings of warmth, unconditional love, and comforting hallucinations. The idea of an NDE being a joyful, peaceful experience is pretty firmly affixed in our shared cultural consciousness—how many times have you seen a cartoon depiction of death that included some variation of “going into the light?” It’s as ubiquitous as bowel obstructions in a Golden Corral buffet or absolute certain money laundering at an NFT Convention.
Ten percent of people who undergo cardiac arrest in a hospital report NDEs, but here’s the thing: it’s not always nice. I’m not trying to shit on your soiree, but if you’ve ever comforted yourself about the inevitability of death by thinking dying is blissful, well, maybe don’t count on it. In fact, deeply upsetting NDEs might be underreported due to social stigma. Which kind of makes sense—if you tell people you almost died and all you felt was mind-obliterating pain and darkness, they might assume you just got a preview of hell, possibly for jaywalking or pirating unspeakable hentai or that time you called a baby an asshole. Okay, fine, the times you called various babies assholes.
While euphoric NDEs are a pretty well-documented phenomenon (and one I absolutely believe is about as supernatural as your average tax accountant), it's possible that one in five NDEs are less than nice. Negative NDEs are sorted into the categories of “inverse, void, and hellish,” labels I’d previously only seen when trying to organize my The National albums by vibes.
The point here is that sometimes NDEs can be really bad, or in my case, literally the worst thing you’ve ever experienced—and I once got a papercut on my butthole. That’s not a joke, by the way: If you’re ever in a stall and it’s out of toilet paper, do NOT, no matter how much it seems preferable to walking around with a crusty turdcutter, use the mail envelopes you have in your backpack to wipe.
Those Tummy Rumbles Might Be Death Approaching
My wife was at work and I was at home, probably writing but more likely procrastinating by googling things like “is it legal to be naked in your own car,” when I started to feel stomach pain. This is not an unusual occurrence since my diet is 40% pizza, 30% spaghetti, and 30% found food (various). But the pain got worse and worse and became concentrated in the left side of my lower stomach. I was pretty sure my pancreas was shutting down, and as the pain crossed from “having to listen to Top 40 radio” to “Jesus Christ I didn’t know it was possible to hurt this much, no sane god would create a being capable of feeling this much pain,” I did one of the most Midwestern things possible and drove myself to the Emergency Room. After all, ambulances are expensive and Ubers take too long.
I limped into the emergency room and told them I thought I had pancreatic failure, that I was in the worst pain of my life, and I thought I was dying. Had they just let me in and believed me instead of thinking I was someone trying to get drugs in the most insane, expensive, and inefficient way possible, they would have saved me a lot of misery. Instead, they told me I wasn’t visibly injured so I’d have to wait my turn, meaning I had to wait for them to treat the people who got there before me.
One was a man who sprained his wrist playing basketball. Another was a woman who said her stomach “felt funny” after eating some sushi. We’ve all gambled on gas station sushi before, you just ride out the nausea and learn from your mistakes. There’s no way it’s worse than what was going on with me.
Which, by the way, was not pancreatitis. I wouldn’t learn this until later, but one of my kidneys had begun to calcify, partially due to my deeply Caucasian partiality for fried cheese and milk. My body had decided to spontaneously become rocks like I’d swallowed a tiny Medusa, and part of it had shattered and was now forcing its way through my inner workings like a husky child in the tubes of a McDonald’s PlayPlace. Various tubes inside of me were stopped up and bursting, filling my abdominal cavity like a water balloon of piss and blood.
So I walked around the ER, the pain getting worse and worse. I couldn’t sit: the pain was unbearable. I was so soaked with exertion-sweat, it looked like I had just climbed out of a swimming pool.
The Lights Go Out One By One
My wife was at work, away from her cellphone, so I called and left her a voicemail telling her what hospital I was at and also that I loved her, since I wasn’t sure I’d ever see her again. The pain was overwhelming. I could feel the fragile cloth of the self unspooling, coming apart at the seams. My vision was limited to a pinprick before shutting out completely—this, by the way, is common in NDEs, and is the source of the oft-seen “light at the end of the tunnel.”
Maybe you’ve heard that our brains are largely structured from the bottom up? That is, our brainstem handles the most basic functions of life, and as you move up you get to more complex functions. I experienced death, or near death, or whatever, as a process of disassociation as my brain shut down from the most complicated functions to the least. It was like seeing the lights in a house get turned off one by one.
There goes abstract reasoning: goodbye, joke formats! Goodbye, rationalizing why this is happening to me! Then memory. Goodbye, warm Christmases curled up in front of a tree lit up in the dark like a galaxy! Goodbye, dad, you tried your best, it’s not your fault I became a writer! I dimly wondered if the sushi lady got her tummy ache fixed. No, that’s a joke. I couldn’t do that: One by one the flames were pinched out, Human Brain and Ape Brain and Lizard Brain, until I had completely lost the capacity of self-regard.
I had no concept of reality outside the immediate moment, no concept of the past or the future or that this might pass. I was like an animal, and all I knew was a suffering so vast it swallowed the world.
I fell on the floor and started seizing. On the filthy floor of a hospital hallway, where I’d been waiting in mind-obliterating agony for nearly three hours. I have a vague sense of a security guard walking around a corner, seeing me, and saying “Uh-oh! UH-oh!” like a cartoon bumblebee before scurrying off—which, in retrospect, I can appreciate was actually really hilarious.
The Return To Earth Isn't So Fun Either
That security guard must have told the people in the waiting room I needed immediate attention, because I remember a deep and profoundly isolating darkness, and then being stabilized on a hospital bed. This involved getting some intravenous painkillers into me, which I was told took several tries due to my “rolling veins.” Thanks a lot, veins. By the way, if you’re wondering if coming back into the world and having your first sensation being stabbed several times in each elbow-crook with what feels like a large pen is a nice way to get back into the world, it is NOT.
They eventually got me stabilized and flooded my system with what I’m assuming was giraffe-grade painkillers, and I slowly became aware that my wife had gotten to the hospital, which made me feel a lot better. I also realized that I had pissed my pants. Well, mostly piss. There was also a lot of blood and a few calcium shards.
After I’d been given drugs and was starting to regain some semblance of consciousness, the nurse asked me some basic questions, possibly to ensure that I hadn’t gained Forbidden Knowledge from my little foray into the underworld. “Do you know who you are?" she asked.
“Yes,” I said blearily, “my name is William. I am a screenwriter, looking to be staffed,” because having recently returned from the dead and having enough opiates rioting through your nervous system to make Nikki Sixx blush doesn’t mean you get to stop hustling.
“Uh, okay,” said the nurse, “Do you know who I am?”
“You are a beautiful valkyrie, come to escort me to my reward in storied Valhalla,” I replied. The nurse gave my wife a concerned look which seemed to communicate possible brain damage? My wife, picking up on this, said “He’s just always kind of like this.” This exchange actually happened, this is not Comedy Dialogue.
So I was rehydrated, sent through an MRI to see how many razor-sharp rocks the size of Rice Krispies were still trying to worm their way through my kidneys, and given a powerful diuretic. Not too long after, I was at the 24-hour pharmacy to fill the prescription they had given me for Percocet.
I was nearly arrested doing that, by the way. I limped into the pharmacy, clearly still high, soaked in sweat, stinking of piss and probably blood. During the worst of this ordeal I had ruptured a blood vessel in my eye, which turns the white part of your eye red and makes you look like the devil. Remember when I said they had to try several times to get the IV in me? Yeah, I had trackmarks up and down my arms. Here’s the punchline: They forgot to sign the prescription they’d given me. The pharmacist picked up the phone and made it clear that if I didn’t leave immediately, they would call the police. I don’t think getting shot would have improved my fragile condition, so I left.
So we had to drive back to the hospital to get the prescription signed then go once more to the pharmacy. I had my wife come in with me that time, hoping that by proxy I would appear less like the nightmare hobo from Mulholland Drive.
Back To Reality, With Drugs And Money
That worked, and I got a prescription for percocet. This ended up being a huge challenge to my sobriety; even though I had some pretty extreme pain over the next few days, I was worried that the medicine I was taking might make me fall off the wagon and start self-medicating again. So even taking the medication that was supposed to help me was, in a way, frightening and uncomfortable as an all-clown nude revue.
The first night back from the hospital, all I felt was relief. But it wasn’t too long before I started to have complications, and not the medical kind. There’s very little research on the psychological aftereffects of an NDE, and a lot of it is clearly just pseudo-scientific nonsense. No, I did not develop telepathy—if I could read minds, you think I’d be writing internet comedy? Of course not: I’d start a cult faster than you could say “sexual tithing system.” The long-term effects of NDEs are mostly anecdotal, and those focus mostly on the Jesus-is-calling-me-home kind, not the kind I had.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that I started to lose my shit a little bit after experiencing having my cognitive functions stitched back together at Frankenstein’s lab on Bring Your Child to Work Day. I started having severe insomnia. Sleep started to feel too much like The Void, and when I began to fall asleep I would jerk back awake with a jolt of terror. When I did sleep, I had horrific nightmares about the destruction of my sense of self, which is different from my pre-NDE nightmares of “my mother but with the face of my middle school bully,” “chased by horny Gollum,” and “penis spiders.” Are those spiders that come out of the penis, you may ask, or spiders made of penises? The answer is: yes.
This doesn’t even take into account the added stress of the ER bill, which was several thousand dollars. Which is egregious for all the reasons I’m sure you know—ten minutes in an MRI costs three thousand dollars?! Is it powered by blowjobs?!
After calling the hospital and telling them that, like 40% of Americans, I don’t just have thousands of dollars lying around, they told me they’d be willing to reduce the cost—if I’d write them a letter of hardship. Which essentially means, to not lose everything I own, I had to write a letter to the hospital saying that I was a worthless poor piece of shit with no money and no hair and also I’m bad sports.
Anyway, “afraid of sleep” isn’t something I would have anticipated from nearly dying before it happened to me, particularly since I’m only afraid of normal things like twins and the Moon (NOT for werewolf reasons). I felt tired all the time, and not just from the lack of sleep: I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was being weighed down, like swimming in winter clothes.
Okay, I got better in the end. Eventually, I was able to shake the feeling of being a crappy ghost who still has to eat. I'll have to skip of narrating that whole ordeal to you though, because it was a process that took years. Much like college, or learning how to pee without some Bonus Piss dribbling out after I'm done.
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter and Nicholl Top 50 Finalist looking to get staffed or be a writer’s assistant in your room! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.
Top image: Allen Watkin, pxhere