What terrifies you? I don’t scare easily. During my 45 years on this planet I have stared down the barrel of a loaded gun, made speeches to hundreds of people and had laser eye surgery (yes, you can smell your eyeball scorching!) None of it was particularly frightening. I don’t believe in ghosts, flying doesn’t bother me and I have a high pain threshold too: tattoos simply scratch a little (grown men being inked were passing out next to me!) and I can have a Hollywood wax and simultaneously hold a conversation And that ultimate fear, death, doesn’t frighten me, having stared it down a couple of times.
I am inexplicably terrified of getting my head underwater. Maybe I drowned in a past life. This is a problem as a Baptist as I have yet to have my full adult immersion. I did manage an underwater ocean walk in Mauritius many years ago after several refusals at the last minute — until the crew on the boat got fed up and just forcibly pushed me under which is one way to overcome your fears quickly. My husband, a keen diver, really wanted me to experience the wonders of the ocean bed. I say if we were meant to do that, God would have given us fins. But I did it and it was great and, once I got there, not that scary.
So what about dying? And when you think you’re going to die, does your life really flash in front of you? Yes, it does, but not in the way I thought. And there’s nothing like the click of a gun’s safety catch to give a sharp sense of perspective.
With famous British reserve we don’t talk about death, although it is inevitable (Like taxes. Unless you are a mega rich tax exile but you are still going to die some day.) I am always mystified as to why we are, as a nation, so reticent. Our Victorian ancestors with their gruesome death obsession loved the melodrama of it all but today as a nation it is still spoken about in hushed tones. Even the vocabulary round it is cloaked in whispers: “passed away”, “left us”, “called to eternal glory”. What is wrong with plain old “died”?
I was discussing fear of dying with friends a few weeks ago over dinner at London’s aptly named Bleeding Heart restaurant, the scene of a famous death in Bleeding Heart Yard outside (Google it and go there — it’s awesome!) Unsuitable dinner conversation, maybe, but then the neighbouring table were cheerfully discussing paternity test results. (It wasn’t his, in case you are wondering). Two of us aren’t afraid of death at all, and interestingly we have both had close calls, the third friend thought the conversation horribly morbid and wouldn’t talk about it. “I’m not scared” said my second friend. “I just don’t want to know about it when it happens to me.”
It doesn’t scare me either, having come quite close on a couple of occasions during my adult life. My faith helps, but mostly I believe that turning round and confronting death takes away its sting: like all bullies, it is a coward when called out. My will is written and my funeral planned right down to the playlist, so now I can forget all about it. Women from both paternal and maternal sides of my family are very long lived therefore I’m not planning on checking out any time soon. During my 21 year legal career I have worked on enough inquests and public inquiries to understand the factual, medical and practical side of dying . But what does it feel like when you think your number is up?
None of us actually know what dying is like, of course. Film and literature has had a good go at guessing. I’m thinking of the movie Flatliners or Alice Sebold’s wonderful book, The Lovely Bones, written from the afterlife. The hardest piece I ever wrote for this blog was the last day on earth – and the passing to the other side — from the point of view of my beloved dog Dexter last year which was read hundreds of times and, so I am told, made everyone cry. (What a fantastic privilege it is to move people to such emotions through your writing.) I’ve read numerous accounts of the phenomenon of near death experience, of travelling down tunnels of light and looking down on your lifeless body in the operating theatre. But is it, as scientists would have us believe, a trick of a dying brain?
My closest call came in the late 1990s when I found myself staring down the barrel of a loaded gun one night on a beach in West Africa. (Long story, I’ll skip to the end. When we are young we feel invincible and take stupid risks). The corrupt police officer had removed his badge and after levelling the gun at me, made me undress. My only thought at the time “This isn’t how it is meant to end. I’m not ready!” Total panic, then icy acceptance. I wanted it done quick. Did I plead for my life? (Of course I f*****g did, wouldn’t you? ) It was right before Christmas and I told him again and again I wanted to go back to my family (‘You can see your family again — in hell’) It was at this point that my life flashed before me. Random things that had happened years ago, fragments like a kaleidoscope. My grandparents’ old dog. An apartment I lived in when working in Bermuda, in minute detail, which I couldn’t have recalled if I tried. Then the dead man’s click of the safety catch. Waiting. This is it now. Don’t touch me and just do it quick. I saw myself arguing with mum about the very tiny velvet hot pants I wore to my 21st party instead of a ‘nice dress’. Bizarre shards of jumbled memories, a whole life. The things I wouldn’t ever get to do. The words I wouldn’t now say to people. Again the anger of “I’m not ready!” The marriage proposal I hadn’t accepted. The only man who, at that time, I had ever loved — and the fact he wouldn’t miss me.
I survived the incident with surprisingly few emotional effects. When I talk about past trauma that close call doesn’t feature. I’ve always been able to reason my way out of situations and there’s very little a cash bribe won’t do in the third world. It didn’t stop me travelling but I am a lot more careful. Incidentally, I saw the man a couple of years later in passing when I was back out in West Africa and he just said hello as if nothing had happened. Humans never cease to mystify me.
There have been a couple of other close calls since but my guardian angel looks after me. Like everyone I have phobias and I am still working on that total immersion. I am quite scared of a particular very formidable female High Court judge but then so is the whole legal profession!
Face your fears and they no longer become scary. Don’t let dying scare you because often living is more frightening. As a writer and a human being, such experiences can only enrich you. Most of all, remember to be scared by your dreams, and, as the saying goes, if your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.