My father picked me up from the airport for Christmas, my first one home post-college. There were changes in the air that year. It was our first time being together as a whole family since my brother had come out of the closet. Also, my father had recently said goodbye to his brother Henry. He was also gay, so maybe the proximity of the revelation of his son’s sexual orientation on top of the death of his homosexual brother… I think it was a bit much for him. Henry also did not have the most graceful exit, and the whole thing felt raw. The month before, my father had sped down I-95 to catch Henry before he died, but he wasn’t going to make it in time. Instead, he had to say his goodbyes over the phone. Henry had led a troubled life, and he told my father in his final moments, “I’m not ready to die. This just wasn’t the life I had planned for myself.”
We arrived at home from the airport late, and my mother was already asleep. My father had always been nurturing and up for any one-on-one time his children, so he suggested hot chocolate with a dab of Bailey’s and some conversation. I was tired from all the traveling, but I agreed. Our chat began in the superficial – work, weather, television. But before long, as the hour stretched past midnight and the twilight squeaked on, we transitioned into more serious conversation. He told me that he regretted not being able to get to Henry in time before his death. He didn’t blame himself though, because he had tried his best to get there. However, the whole the experience was rocking his world a bit. Here, his older brother was dead, and he was left alive. On average, that happened a lot, he supposed – younger brothers experiencing the death of an older one. Those were just simple odds. But for some reason, he could not wrap his mind around the fact that his brother had experienced the moment of death already – that ultimate moment that we would all experience. He had grown up with a person who now no longer existed, and one day, he would join him. He wondered what he would be thinking in that moment, if he would be peaceful or if he would go kicking and screaming into the afterlife, like Henry had.
I have never seen my father drunk (including that night), but he unfortunately cannot say the same about me. The conversation was just a bit too esoteric and blunt for me, and I felt a twinge of anxiety, one that I had not felt in a long, long time. So, I snuck a few extra sips from the Bailey’s bottle until the buzz came on and deadened the sense of apprehension. My tiredness became exhaustion, and I excused myself to bed.
The next day, as I sat across my father in our neighborhood pizza place, I had my first panic attack in nearly four years. My eyes blurred; my heart flew up into my throat. I jumped up out my seat with such ferocity that my father jolted and shouted. Are you okay? No, Dad. I’m not. I sprinted for the door and started pacing in the parking lot. He recognized my behavior immediately, knew it to be the return of my childhood anxiety. But even though he was so familiar with my panic attacks, it surprised him. He assumed all of that was behind me. And when he came into the parking lot to calm me down and take me home, there was both fear and guilt in his eyes. He knew that he was the cause of all this pain, at least by proxy.
See, I have never liked thinking about death, and his candid words about how he was processing his brother’s passing were a bit too much for my brain to handle. It brought back a rush of fears that I believed were settled in my mind. Simply, it triggered my apeirophobia – that is, my fear of eternity. It was a fear that defined my childhood. I remember the first time I processed the concept of death, the idea that one day, this would all end. But my Sunday School teachers and my parents had a solution. If I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, then I would go to heaven and live forever. This was a comfort to millions and millions of Christians, that this life was a mere blink in the eye as compared to our time in heaven, and for some reason, that rubbed me the wrong way. It devalued the life in front of me – it also made everything, including heaven and faith, utterly pointless to me. If we would continue to exist forever, then what was the purpose of this life? Why do good? Why ever take satisfaction, or displeasure, in any experience? Why try? I was barely in first grade when I started waking up my parents in the middle of the night, begging for them to take away this eternal gift. I did not want to live forever, I whined. To go on and on and on. I couldn’t picture it. When I thought about the heavenly experience, all I saw as a sky that traveled on endlessly, with no Earth below it, nothing to ground me. And my body just flew throughout the clouds, hovering in space-time. I was with others, with my family and friends, with all of humanity, with all the faithful servants of God, flying into the infinite expanse, but even with all that company, I felt utterly alone. It was my greatest fear. When I succumbed to the anxiety, I typically began pacing wildly around my house before trying to run outside onto the sidewalks, to get out of range of the fear. Later, I learned this was the flight portion of the fight-or-flight instinctual response. My body was reacting to the thought of eternity like a caveman responded to the sighting of a predator. Run, fight, or die. I would run.
As you can imagine, this fear set me in direct opposition with my faith (this was before my sexuality set me in further opposition). As I got older and the ”episodes” became more frequent, I grew more reticent about being honest with my peers. All of my fellow Christian friends and relatives openly spoke of their excitement for the paradise of heaven, their great reward for a life well lived and a faith well kept. Half of all the sermons at church referenced God’s gift of eternal life, and nearly every prayer thanked the Lord for His grace. I could not tell them that the mere thought of eternity sent me hiding under the pews, shaking with nihilism. They would think I was ridiculous.
So I kept it in. I learned some extremely unhealthy coping strategies. Getting tanked helped significantly, because it scrambled my thoughts and calmed my heart rate. But that had its obvious side effects. Mindless distraction also proved to be effective, though I could not rely on that in the most extreme circumstances, when the thoughts attacked me at a particularly high ferocity. Before long, my fearful thoughts conjured within me something resembling an existential rage. Why had God created me with such a deep alarm – one that flew in the face of His entire pitch for belief? I knew Him to be all-powerful, so this must have been His doing. He could easily take it away. I began losing my faith around that time. I felt like Pharaoh in Exodus, like God was actively hardening my heart and putting me on display for the world, as an example of bad faith for the true followers to avoid. I felt abused.
I resented God for forcing a gift on me that encapsulated my worst nightmares. I was angry. I resented Christians who taught me to live solely for the afterlife, who made light of my fear for it was inconceivable to them. I was afraid. I resented myself for obsessing over something so far outside of my control – for being weak. My heart hardened. I did not want to die like Uncle Henry, having not seen the importance of this life, having not lived it as intended. I did not want to sit on the edge of eternity and regret everything. I was consumed by fear.
Why was I consumed by fear? So God could show His power. Why did God need to show His power? Because I was consumed by fear.
And so the cycle continued – the one started with Pharaoh.
Right now I am in a lull – panic attack free for almost a year. I do not rely on unhealthy means to keep my apeirophobia at bay – therapy has helped provide me with concrete exercises to quell the physical symptoms from getting out of control. But I feel the fear creeping still, lying-in-wait for the next triggering tragedy or too-blunt conversation. I have learned to stop avoiding the concept of eternity, and instead to begin conceptualizing it in different ways, so as to take away some of its power. But the experience has still hardened my heart. I worry that letting God in will send my mind rolling across the floor again. I worry that my logic will never allow my faith to come back, because I logically know that my faith led to some incredible moments of fear. But I’ve been actively engaging in the Bible for a few weeks, and it all seems okay for now. So maybe there is some hope for a softer heart in the year ahead.
Have you ever experienced a fear of death or eternity? Has anything helped you deal with those thoughts? Sound off below.