Tea With Thanatos At 3AM

“I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”—Woody Allen


Sometimes insomnia is interesting, sitting you up in the middle of the night to visit a calmness and silence the days don’t afford. You have the illusion of life in suspension, with most human activity, including bouts of traffic, stilled for the time. The moon is so clear, the stars so vital. If a tree rustles or a window rattles, it seems intended especially for you; the breezes outside seem to want to say hello and check in on your night before they go on. The world is all yours for a short while, so instead of getting too worked up over the lack of sleep, it becomes a calm time to boil water and steep yourself a cup of Sleepytime tea until you’re ready get aligned again with your expected biological rhythm as a sleep at night, wake at day, human creature.

Sometimes insomnia means you have a little too much on your mind, say a fear or something like that. Say a phobia, maybe even thanatophobia. Thanatophobia is the phobia of death; not just a basic fear of dying, according to the description I found myself reading at 3AM, but “an intense, overwhelming fear of death.” Reading on to the causes—which I almost didn’t, because what causes the fear of death does seem fairly apparent—the roots of any phobia, including thanatophobia, are said to be based in early trauma of the phobia sufferer’s life. The symptoms of thanatophobia are described as follows: “symptoms of thanatophobia are as individual as the people coping with this phobia. Some people, when confronted with their fear of death and dying, may feel slightly uncomfortable, nauseated or simply begin to perspire. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some people are so severely affected by this phobia, that they will experience anxiety and/or panic attacks.” To meet the criteria of a phobia, there must be both emotional and physical reactions when confronted by a fearful stimulus. Some people are so affected by a fear of dying and non-existence that to be thanatophobic can bring “intense, crippling anxiety that disrupts a person’s daily life.” The panic attacks themselves worsen the situation as they often bring the physical symptoms of dry mouth, muscle tension, fear of impending disaster, feeling short of breath, heart palpitations, and feelings of losing control–physical and mental sensations that become interpreted as feelings of impending death.

On this particular 3AM, I was thankfully free of any type of crippling anxiety, heart palpitations, and urges to unnecessarily shake my husband—so peacefully sleeping in blissful unawareness—awake to beg him to tighten the blood pressure cuff from the closet around my arm “just to be sure.” Although my blood pressure runs low and I’m not under medical surveillance for anything, the mind in the middle of a phobic attack can make you doubt most anything rational, especially when having a little fear-of-death moment and your home is filled with such gems as sphygmomanometers, pulse oximeters, and stethoscopes–tools of the trade from my previous nurse assisting gigs, not the stockpile of a hypochondriac, I assure you–all begging you to obsessively check to be sure all is working well. This, however, was not one of those times of full-out, panic-stricken, irrational thoughts of doom. So I decided to make the best of it by, of all things, slowing my thoughts, taking a breath, and focusing. Sometimes we just need a quiet moment to analyze a situation until it finally snaps clearly into focus, therefore making more sense to us.

Since childhood, I’ve fit with the thanatophobes of the world; only mildly at first, but over time with a little more pronouncement. I have a few friends from childhood who interestingly enough have had the same experience throughout their lives, having what seems like a natural inclination for a close, tumultuous relationship with an acute awareness of mortality resulting in acute questioning, seeking, and at times fearing. Fear of death and questioning the reason for existence when faced with mortality are not uncommon; 68% of the American population are said to admit to necrophobia, which is fear of death but also of things related to death, such as coffins or funeral homes or dead things lying around—a bird or a squirrel stone cold in an otherwise lovely spring garden, for example. It’s perfectly natural to be human and fear that which we don’t understand, including the loss of the lives we are so accustomed to; the burden of being human tends to lie in being sentient. Why be given something so amazing, a life so full of beauty and love, and the capacity to be so fully aware of it only to have to one day be erased from it? How unfair, and uncomfortable, is that? Woody Allen said it well by saying he isn’t afraid of death, he just doesn’t want to be there when it happens. In some parallel universe, couldn’t it just be that even though we die, we really don’t, since we didn’t have to be there when it happened?

Is it any wonder these thoughts sometimes keep us up and afraid to go back to sleep at 3AM?

There’s nothing overtly traumatic in my childhood regarding death, but my guess is that since I also fit well with the description of a HSP, or highly sensitive person (which I think means sensitive enough to be considered “abnormal” but with the right amount of mental/emotional stability to avoid a proper DSM diagnosis), the lessons of death and dying and afterlife that began at birth were something my mind wasn’t ready to take on at early ages. Being raised in a Catholic family meant going to church weekly, starting as a bundled up infant without a care or an awareness of the deeply philosophical subject matter of religion but, nonetheless, taking the words into consciousness during all of those formative months and years of developing language and understanding its meanings. Heaven, hell, death, God, angels, resurrection, eternity. Oh my. It’s not a complaint or a regret, though, I don’t believe we should shelter young minds from learning about life, including big subjects like mortality and the mystery of both life and death–it’s a great spiritual and intellectual opportunity to be introduced to such lofty concepts at an early age. I only believe we need to be aware of why we might think in a certain way when it becomes in some way uncomfortable or destructive; we should be willing to look into our own histories and examine what it can be traced back to, if anything.

Sometimes knowing the start of an issue helps you understand why you have been holding on to negative thoughts or energy for too long; it helps you release that which hurts you, so that you may heal. Often we do develop fears or worries in childhood along with ineffective methods for dealing with them, then become emotionally controlled by our habitual methods and forget to learn how to let a fear go. Couple this with heightened sensitivity in the emotional realm and you can wind up with a phobia so developed it really does have its own entity, accompanying you through life like the evil twin you never wished you had.

What a great revelation, and sweet moment. For once, I was able to slow my mind and think these things, and let husband sleep his comfortable sleep most likely filled with life-affirming dreams (and dreams of fresh falafels, which he often misses because you just can’t access them in the Omaha area the way you can in Chicago, or back home in Palestine). For once, I developed a new method based on the idea of facing your fears: if death, for whatever reason, has stepped into my mind again in such a negative way, why not approach death not as a fear, but as a face. An entity. A person one could sit and share a cup of tea with.

Thanatophobia derives its name from Thanatose, the Greek personification of death. I figured I would start there. Next step: pulling a comfortable blanket around my shoulders, pouring more tea, and settling onto the warm, cozy couch. When you are physically comfortable anything scary or otherwise negative is often easier to deal with.

I considered pouring an extra cup of tea to set on the table (and if husband were to wake I could simply offer it to him—It’s for you, dear! I’m not sitting here talking to ghosts! Really, I’m okay!) the way people offer food and drink and other gifts to the spirits of deceased loved ones on Dia de los Muertos, the way people leave fruits and money and various objects at the altars within Hindu and Buddhist temples for beings of the transcendent realms, or light candles when praying to Jesus, Mary, or the saints. Here, Thanatose, use my favorite cup, and we’ll sit and talk like friends.

I figured the spiritual realm operates a little differently, though, so I left it to a B.Y.O.T.C. situation; even death may have his own favorite tea cup. I settled in and decided, once and for all, to stop seeing a natural, unavoidable part of existence fundamentally as a fear. It didn’t seem very possible considering I’ve been wishing to resolve this problem for decades now, with little true progress, but I realized the wishing has been part of the problem—too much passive wishing, not enough active deciding.

The way I met with Thanatos was to learn more about him, to go back to the mythology and see his origins and trace the idea people have developed of Thanatos and other ideas of death over time. What caught my attention first was the description of Thanatos; I was surprised to see he was not described simply as death, but as the god of non-violent death who has a touch that is “gentle, likened to that of his twin brother Hypnos (Sleep).” He does have “blood-craving” sisters, the Keres, whose domain is that of slaughter and disease, but Thanatos himself is more like a simple fact of mortality, a rational explanation that all things living do approach an end. All of this information was thought-provoking; I was on the right path. Is there a fear of a certain kind of death? Is nonexistence and the disappearance of this life, where I am recognized by name and physicality, a more comfortable concept when you can truly imagine it as a peaceful transition of mind and soul? Something gentle within nature that simply wants to guide you into another phase of what you are as a sentient being, made of more than observable matter, made also of energy, emotion, and intellect. Made of what we cannot see or understand by tangible means, yet it exists.

Into the next hour I read, pushing on as the familiar senses of fear, anxiety, and other discomfort billowed through mind and body. I don’t want to take this fear with me through every day; I want to learn more about life by accepting every aspect of it, including its ending. I want to form some semblance of peace that is constant, not just one that at times improves a little but then rushes back because some comment or movie or book or visit to the doctor’s got me thinking in a phobic way again. Enough is enough. I want to have peace with every aspect of life in the same way I like to get along with every person I meet. It’s just the healthiest way.

Somewhere near 5AM, somewhere between articles about various cultural beliefs and fears surrounding death, various mythological descriptions of death, and a few websites addressing methods for dealing with fears of dying, the Sleepytime tea, cozy set up in the living room, and glimmering snow visible at the balcony window had all crept into my senses to infuse a sense of calm. It was time to sleep.

Sometimes insomnia might have a purpose, rousing us at a time when we are stuck alone with our thoughts and emotions, with plenty of time to focus on them without the interruption of our waking routines. All in all, I’m happy that fear and a lack of sleep inspired an invitation extended to Thanatos, whom I had imagined as a demonic entity with solid muscles and a cruel face of icy eyes and even icier breath. Not only did Thanatos turn out to be depicted as a calm-faced, bearded man—amazingly enough looking more like my kind father than a demon—but there was a more rational characterization for him: that of a gentle, and one could suppose conscientious or compassionate, death.

Like many others, like 68% of Americans or possibly even 68% of all humans, I still have a level of discomfort with mortality and may not be at complete peace with the idea of shuffling off this mortal coil and gliding into the unknown. I do hope, though, that I have finally learned the key to accepting all aspects of existence as beautiful, integral parts of each other that are nothing to fear. That is yet to be seen for sure, but I think I’m on the right path.

Regardless of my evolution, I’m sure I will still hold an appreciation for Woody Allen quotes.