Thanks For Helping Me Through My Childhood Existential Terror, Mom

I don’t remember how I learned about death. It may have been when my grandfather died, or it may have been when I lost Goldfish, my beloved pet goldfish. I don’t remember when I learned how to not name things like an idiot, either.

But however I learned about it, I quickly became obsessed. The concept of death, of simply one day never waking up because you’re dead, sucker, gripped me with a terror even worse than the fear I associated with class presentations and the constantly looming threat of having a video game save file accidently deleted by some mouth-breathing friend. I’m pretty sure you could have locked me in a room with the sex-offendingest looking guy you could find and I would have been more at ease than I was when I thought about death. At least until I realised that I would probably be murdered after the sex offender was done sex offending. Then I would panic.

At night, when I assume other children were spending the time it took to fall asleep thinking about unicorns or winning the Stanley Cup or winning the Stanley Cup with a team of unicorns, I developed a habit of working myself into a frantic, death-obsessed feedback loop. First I would lie perfectly still and take slow, deep breaths to pretend I was six feet under. Then I would think about what it would be like to stop existing and never exist again, to reach a point where not even hockey playing unicorns who also fought crime and did your homework and were your best friends could save you.

I would imagine going to bed and not waking up, I would imagine years and decades and centuries going by without me, and I would imagine the whole world forgetting that I ever existed. All the while my breathing would get quicker and quicker as the thoughts made me more and more anxious. Eventually they’d overwhelm me, at which point I’d sit up straight and gasp like people do in movies after they have a nightmare, and yes, I’m aware that this sounds like I was getting off to some unusually depressing pornography.

After one particularly panicky instance I started crying and ran downstairs for some mothering. When my mom asked what was wrong I choked out “I don’t want to die!” in-between sobs. I assume her first reaction was to make sure I wasn’t being chased by an axe murderer, but after she performed a perimeter check she gathered me in her arms, rocked me back and forth, and tried to comfort me with words that I’ll never forget. “But that won’t happen for a long time!”

Damn, Mom. Look, I understand that I put you in a tough position. When you’re in the kitchen making tea in preparation for a nice, relaxing night of watching Jeopardy!, tactics for helping your son confront his Lovecraftian existential horror will not be at the forefront of your mind. If I was in your situation I would have either said, “Well then you better get your stupid tears off my shirt and get the fuck back to bed,” or yelled, “Go talk to your mother!” before hiding under the nearest blanket and faking a bout of narcolepsy. I’m proud of you for not panicking and trying to find a Berenstain Bears book that covered the situation. The Berenstain Bears and the Terror of the Infinite Void would really fly off the shelves.

But talk about not being comforting. There were no platitudes about going to heaven or wild speculation about medical technology one day being able to put my brain in a computer or cryogenically freeze me until science invented immortality. Not that I would have expected you to go in that direction, but I like the idea of a parent’s comforting words being loosely inspired by Demolition Man.  

No, what I got was a kick the can down the road, deal with it later mentality, which works well for me as an adult when I’m feeling too lazy to do the dishes, but less so as a child facing the most terrifying thing he’s ever learned about. I understand the strategy, because kids are dumb at time. To a kid, the week before Christmas is an eon. Ask a child to comprehend the seventy or so years it will take for them to become a wrinkled old person hanging out on death’s front porch and you can watch their brains seize up. They understand in theory that it’s really long, but the concept of time means about as much to them as the concept of money. They know it exists and it’s important, but they can’t begin to explain why it’s in limited supply. Incidentally, Mom, you never did give me a satisfactory explanation as to why we couldn’t just make everyone rich by printing lots of money.

Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a message of “It won’t happen for a long time, so worry about it later” was interpreted by me as “It won’t happen for a long time, so you better worry about it constantly until it does.” I’m good at worrying. I do it a lot. If I don’t have anything to worry about I worry that I’ve forgotten something. Or, if I’m feeling meta, I’ll worry about how much I worry. Right now I’m worried that I’m talking about my worrying too much. How’s that for meta?

So I went right back to having my little panic attacks. But guess what? Panicking about death became so routine that it started to not scare me anymore, or at least no more than I was scared of anything else in my life, like French homework or girls. I worried myself into a state of tedium. “Ugh, it’s just another night of fretting about the horrible implications of eternal oblivion. I wonder if we’ll play freeze tag tomorrow?” I worried myself into freedom, and while that’s probably the least inspirational story of someone overcoming their fears in human history, it was good enough for me.

Thinking about dying still unnerves me, but no more than I imagine it does most people. So thanks, Mom, for advice that was far more brutally honest than you probably meant it to be. I’m sorry for forcing you to get philosophical on such short notice. I don’t know if our conversation was the sort you’re taught about after “Where do babies come from?” at parenting classes, but you acquitted yourself well.


P.S. I’m also sorry about the time I rolled my foreskin down as far as it could go while I was having a bath and then called you in to look at my amazing accomplishment. Those were my wild days before I began to fear the cold embrace of the grave.

2 thoughts on “Thanks For Helping Me Through My Childhood Existential Terror, Mom

  1. KAS

    I worry about death to a disturbing degree – when I’m reminded that we die, at least. If I can avoid that, I can function pretty well. And the last part? My 4 1/2 year old does the same thing. As moms, it’s our duty to roll our eyes, give a terse “congratulations”, and tell the kid to stop. We understand.

    Also, you rock.

  2. Tiffany

    When I was a kid I was plagued by nightmares. In fact, I still am. But as a kid I always had my insomniac father watching TV in the livingroom to comfort me. He’d offer to let me watch a movie with him. I’m not exactly sure why he thought movies like Leviathan and Aliens would help soothe a terrified child, but often those are the kind of movies we got to watch together. When I was 7 we watched The Omega Man starring the infinitely awesome Chuck Heston. Of all the frightening movies I watched with my not so awesome parent, that one traumatized me the most. For the next 10 years I had a nighttime ritual of lying with the blankets over my head and breathing as quietly and shallowly as possible, trying not to move at all, in the hopes that if the creepy irradiated zombie creatures from the movie found me, that they wouldn’t even check under the covers because they’d believe I was dead. Yes, I spent 10 years practicing the fine art of playing dead. My nightmares now took on a whole new meaning. They’d entered the real world, and I discovered that there were worse things than being dead. Instead of living in fear of being killed by some terrible something, I lived in fear of becoming an irradiated zombie monster, undead, a thing I had never thought of before. I was absolutely terrified of any type of zombie movie where previously they frightened me no more than any other horror film. Over the years my terror grew to absolute phobic proportions.
    When I was 17 I decided, enough is enough. I’m going to desensitize myself to this terror. No longer will I live in fear of something that doesn’t exist! I started with the movie that started it all: The Omega Man. With shaking fingers I pushed the VHS tape into the cassette player and began to watch, fearing the worst, and Oh. My. Gods. It was horrible! The cheesiest, most terribly unfrightening movie I’d ever seen! After all those years of ruminating over this film it had taken on a life of its own in my brain, and I just had no clue how bad it was! Now, with renewed bravery and a strong sense of purpose I rented every zombie film the corner rental store had to offer. Unfortunately, my quest for rapid desensitization began and ended with The Omega Man. The zombie movies set my soul to screaming and it’s never stopped. They only added fuel to the fire! These were not cheesy 70’s Chuck Heston horror/scifi films. These were my worst nightmares on the screen.
    I no longer try to pretend that I’m dead each night before I sleep, but I can’t so much as see a trailer for a zombie film without having a panic attack. Now there are Rage Zombies. Fast, aggressive, unstoppable. And like a complete moron, I did see 28 Days Later in the theater. I watched it between my fingers, my entire body quivering with fear. I had thought, “They aren’t actually zombies! What’s to fear?” Oh, I dunno, hoards of zombie-like killing machines, snarling, red eyed, clawing their way into my nightmares.
    So, while you get to thank your mom for her honesty and helping you in your ability to desensitize yourself to your childhood fear, I get to thank my dad for implanting a lifelong phobia. 😀 Hooray!