How almost dying changes your life

August 18, 2017

I’ve had three experiences which have brought me dangerously close to death. In a weird way, they are the baseline to which I access the quality of my life. This post covers how empowering those experiences can be.

Experiences

Sleigh accident

Year: 1998
Damage: two broken femur bones, concussion
Just like most people, I’ve always loved the feeling of going downhill quickly in any way possible. Cheap metal sleighs were pretty popular in Eastern Europe and I, just like most of the kids in my neighborhood had a favorite hilly road. I used to spend days on it going up and down thousands of times.

One day just lost control and couldn’t stop at the bottom of the road. There was a thick layer of ice bellow the snow and, right where most kids drift to stop, the snow layer had gone thin. I remember feeling paralyzed and not being able to react. The last thing I remember is going down some stairs. When I woke up, I was lying in the abandoned basketball court of the nearby school with a crushing pain all over my hips and upper legs.

Long story short, I had flown off an unsecured staircase. It was a 10m fall and the sleigh fell on my legs too. I had a mild concussion, but, more importantly, both my femurs were fractured, the right one in a few places. This accident took away almost an year of my life and, to this day, is one of the most challenging experiences I’ve faced in my life. I gained a lot of weight and had some pretty bad muscle atrophy. Therapy was hell, but it did the job and I’m now doing 100km XCM races with no bone pain at all.

Almost drowning

Year: 2012
Damage: none
Drowning is by far the worst and scariest feeling I’ve ever experienced, even though I’m not particularly afraid of water. Even though I got away without any physical damage, this accident has left the deepest emotional scar and I’m still getting the shivers when I’m thinking about it. It’s one of the few memories I have that are so strong I’ve forbidden myself from remembering for more than a few seconds.

The worst part is it happened to me and my wife (then girlfriend) and we were both about to drown, at an unsecured beach. I have no idea how it happened, one minute I was lying on my back in the water right next to the shoreline, a few minutes later my feet couldn’t touch the bottom. I was suffering from a herniated disc at that time my right leg was extremely stiff, to the point I couldn’t use it. My wife can’t swim at all and we both panicked, starting to drown. This went on for what must have been 10 minutes, but it felt like hours. We both swallowed some water and jumped of each others shoulders to grasp air and scream.

At some point, an old fisherman who noticed us and saved Kalina (my wife), but he wasn’t strong enough to pull me out too and couldn’t come back for me, so I had to struggle for a breath of air for about 10 more minutes, although I managed to just calm down and float, so it wasn’t that bad. Later, I got saved by a life guard from a nearby beach. I puked some water and that was it.

Bike accident

Year: 2017
Damage: mostly bike damage, severely bruised hip and elbow
Just a few weeks ago, I got hit by a truck on a highway while riding back home from a mountain bike ride.

The driver overtook me too fast and slammed me and my bike with the back of the truck. I’m a mountain biker and I’ve never enjoyed getting home on the road, it always feels scary and sketchy, while local drivers are super disrespectful to cyclist. I tried to counter the push to absolutely no avail, the truck is much heavier than my 75kg and the bike’s 14kg. I tried to slid as much as possible when I hit the tarmac and, thankfully, it worked, even though I was going at 30km/h. I slid for about 10m on the left side of my body. Thankfully, I had kneepads and an enduro helmet, so my head and knees where protected. I bruised my hip really bad and scraped (might have had a hairline puncture too) my left elbow. My bike’s headset was pretty bent too.

The scariest part was this is a busy highway and there were dozens of other cars behind me. Right after I stopped sliding, I stood up, disregarding the pain and raised my hand towards the upcoming traffic. First car stopped around 3m away from me.

I’m painfully cautious even when walking down the street now, which is definitely bad for my brain.

The first week is weird

It’s a crazy mix of:

  • euphoria that you are alive
  • being super appreciative about everything
  • incomparable creativity and productivity spikes
  • terrible flashbacks
  • restless sleep
  • existential thoughts
  • simulation theory obsession

Long-term effects

I can’t deny I’m pretty happy with the results. The effects are hard to describe, but I feel like it’s the most positive perception change I’ve ever experienced.

I’ve adopted a life perspective devoid of cynicism. In a weird way, I feel more like a kid. I enjoy all enjoyable things much more intensely and don’t sweat too much on the days when things are not going that great.

My explanation for this shift is simple. Getting close to death for the first time, especially as an adult, moves the concept of death from the theoretical section of your brain into the practical. It’s something you’ve been so close to you understand it’s true nature. And the true nature of life is it’s fragile and astonishingly short in regard to almost any other timescale.

On one hand, this whole concept can be saddening and heavy. I’m a “glass half-full” kind of person and, sometimes painfully, utilitarian in my thinking, so I found a way to look at those experiences which is practical and empowering. I moved death from the “Afraid of” folder in my head into “Ground rules”, where it lives together with the laws of physics, the way time works, entropy, colors and many others.

Death is now the baseline to which I measure everything that happens in my life. On the negative side of things, something really bad has to happen to completely put me off balance. I compare every “bad” event to the prospect of death. Death is the baseline, it’s enough for me to be alive and healthy to be happy. Being alive is no longer an all-encapsulating realm everything happens in. It’s one of two options, and it’s the far more attractive one. Not being dead, by itself, is a proper achievement.

PS: Don’t read this as “Look for trouble so you can feel what life really is about”. Although I do practice mountain biking, which is considered a dangerous sport by many, none of the three accidents mentioned in the article happened because of carelessness or pushing my limits. I would have strongly preferred not having experienced them at all.