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The near-death encounter that saved me from myself

Updated: Apr 4

My mind told me I was hallucinating, but my instincts told me I’d glimpsed the other side.

Is there life after death?

It’s a question that’s been on our minds for thousands of years. My husband comes down on the side of skepticism — he believes that our consciousness ends as soon as our hearts stop beating. He says that when you die, it’s “lights out.”

There was a time that I would have agreed. As a teen, I rejected the heaven-and-hell paradigm of my Catholic parents, and the ideas of reincarnation imparted by my Taoist grandparents. I turned away from all things religious or spiritual, deciding that the faiths of the world were narratives invented to prevent the reality of death from driving us all insane.

When I was 18, though, something happened that created within me a belief in the spiritual realm, and the afterlife. I was in a particularly destructive phase, following two suicide attempts, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and clinical depression, and eight treatments of electroconvulsive therapy. Realizing that I didn’t really have the “guts” to take my own life, I started abusing solvents — inhaling glue and butane to alter my sour state of mind.

I do not suggest that anyone try this. When you huff, your heart rate increases, your brain is deprived of oxygen, and you often feel quite euphoric. However, the consequences of butane inhalation can be pretty nasty, and I am grateful that I didn’t irreparably damage my brain or other organs.

In retrospect, what I’d hoped to achieve with both the suicide attempts and the solvent abuse was “lights out” — a state of nonconsciousness my husband described as what comes after death. As an adolescent whose self-consciousness grew at a painfully uncomfortable pace, and whose sensitivities to her surroundings were unbearably acute, the idea of nonconsciousness presented itself as “the great relief.”

From deep within this space, I heard a chorus of voices speaking in soft, slow, whispers.

One afternoon, sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor of my bedroom, I sucked down a canister of butane. Usually, when I huffed I would feel lightheaded, then go into a blackout for a few moments. Upon regaining consciousness, I’d be nauseated and my head would ache. This time was different. By the time the canister was nearly empty, all was dark and I heard a wong-wong-wong noise, like the sounds from a didgeridoo. I saw myself looking down into a never-ending, pitch-black, void-like subterranean space. I could see nothing, yet it didn’t feel dark at all.

From deep within this space, I heard a chorus of voices speaking in soft, slow whispers. The cadences conveyed absolute wisdom and compassion, making me feel safer than I’d ever felt in the company of any human being. These voices sounded human, but also more than human. They understood everything about what it meant to be an 18-year-old wanting to give up on life. They understood everything about everything. I had the feeling of being home.

When I came around, I felt like a weight had been lifted, and there was the lingering memory of an answer — The Answer. What the voices had said was so simple yet so profound that it made every cell in my body relax in the knowledge that all was just as it should be. It was such a simple answer, yet it solved all of the conundrums of life, and took away all those knots in my head. But as soon as I became fully conscious, I forgot what the answer was.

Sounds hokey, doesn’t it? Like a story a dope-smoking, UFO-chasing, New Ager once told you, perhaps? If I were a detached observer, I’d wonder about my sanity too. Scientists and psychologists who study near-death experiences will explain that what I went through was not “otherworldly,” but a case of my brain creating a hallucinatory experience. I’m sure many of them would also think me an idiot for abusing butane in the first place. I can accept that.

For the record, though, I have taken acid and other hallucinogens that have caused me to see and hear things that were not there. When the effects of these drugs wore off, I could always look back and distinguish which bits were real and which were illusory. The butane incident felt different. My rational mind told me that my experience was possibly a figment of my subconscious. However, my instincts defied this explanation. The visceral nature of the encounter convinced me that I had glimpsed the other side.

More than two decades later, at 41 years old, I still haven’t been able to shake the feeling that the incident was more than just a story spun by my oxygen-deprived brain. I had a sensory experience that revealed the existence of entities with humanlike consciousness. Though it only lasted a few minutes, it touched the core of my negativistic being and planted a seed of hope. After that, my desire to die decreased. My desire to live increased.

My early adolescence felt like the emotional equivalent of the medieval torture rack. It was an onslaught of “reality bites” moments that fed into an anguish I desperately wanted to escape. But discovering that there was more behind the curtain gave me a reason to grow up and move along, rather than stagnating or regressing. It gave me the sense that there was a grander purpose to being alive, and that there was no need to mourn the passing of time or the arrival of death. That every single person had a purpose more meaningful and necessary than mere survival.

I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that the incident was more than just a story spun by my oxygen-deprived brain.

Even if I’m wrong about what I experienced, it prompted an attitude change in a troubled teenager where psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy, group counseling, and an ever-changing assortment of antidepressants had failed. If it wasn’t for that moment of clarity — or perhaps delusion (who knows, who cares) — brought on by a can of Ronson, I don’t know if I’d have as much impetus to live today.

The “You only have one life, and this is it so suck it up” narrative simply doesn’t work for me. Like the Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, ancient Egyptians, witch doctors, ghost hunters, shamans, and people of all faiths around the world, I need to believe. I need to believe that even as bodies become dust, human consciousness will remain for eternity within that elusive vessel known as the soul. That our memories, knowledge, and feelings — the qualia of “you” and “me” — will live on forever. Perhaps in a different form, but eternally nonetheless.

Of course, my convictions on this matter stem from a singular, unverifiable experience. As much as I’d like to tell my husband, and you dear reader, “Yes! There is life after death!” I know I can’t say that for certain. Perhaps this is all simply the wishful thinking of a small-minded, egotistical, and grasping mortal.

Still, it’s comforting to think that my parents will go to heaven when they die, and that I’ll meet them there if I don’t go to the other place. Or that perhaps, after my last breath, I’ll be reborn as a creature with an even better life than the one I now know. Or, that there are all-wise, all-loving beings on the other side ready to welcome me into a world far superior to this one.

Whatever the truth may be, I’m clinging to the life buoy thrown out to me during my teenage, butane-induced, near-death experience. Because if I let go, then all the growing, learning, striving, struggling, hurting, creating, laughing, crying, loving, grieving; this moment, us, meeting here — well, it all seems pointless, doesn’t it?

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