When I was four years old, I experienced the most frightening, heart-pounding nightmares. These weren’t your typical nightmares of being chased by a gorilla or bear. These were deep, frightening nightmares that would shake me to my core. I would wake up sweating, out of breath, in absolute fear.
These nightmares, which are still hard to put into words today, were about things like contemplating infinity, trying to count the total number of grains of sand on the beach, infinite blackness and infinite depth. And when I would wake up, the thought of dying was always on my mind. Pretty heavy for a little four-year-old dude.
It was impossible for me to describe these dreams to my parents at the time, with my limited vocabulary and all. It was more of a feeling than actual visions, but one thing I was certain about was that it had something to do with death.
These dreams continued into elementary school and then middle school. It was at this point that I realized I had a massive fear of death and dying. It was always in the back of my mind and plagued me every single day and every single night before I went to sleep.
In eighth grade, I remember being so consumed by this fear that I was able to convince my mother I was sick for a week. I couldn’t bear the thought of being in class with my happy friends, while I was haunted by the idea of imminent death at any moment.
It’s important to note that it wasn’t the idea of dying that would break me, but more so the thought of what happens at the time of death and afterwards. Infinity is very hard for our intellectual brain to contemplate. This contemplation of death and infinity would throw me into panic attacks. Contemplating this at such a young age was pretty heavy.
Fast-forward to high school and nothing changed. The constantly whirring thoughts of death and infinity were always in the back of my brain. While taking tests, studying, eating, hanging out with friends and family, any lapse of “intellectual doing” would allow this fear to surface. I just couldn’t shake it. However, I was able to convince myself that I would be going away to college soon and it would surely pass by then.
I was lucky enough to earn a scholarship to play soccer at Longwood University. I was literally in the prime of my life. All of the perfect distractions were right at my fingertips: dating, drinking, drugs, soccer and very occasionally some schoolwork. The perfect concoction to completely avoid and suppress any feelings or upwelling of the demon lurking in my mind.
But it never went away.
The buzzing thoughts of death were always in the background. I remember a particular moment in a huddle right before a soccer game. I could feel the fear creeping in. I tried my best to put it out of my mind. “I have to play this game.” “Don’t worry I’ll have some drinks after the game and feel better.” “I’ll call this person to hang out, that would be a good distraction.”
But it didn’t work. I had to separate myself from the huddle, and I had a panic attack. These attacks were luckily very short — maybe 5–10 seconds. It is a feeling that I would never wish on any other life-form in this universe. Anyone who has ever had a panic attack can relate to the immersion into that deep, dark place. Your entire world caves in. A million pounds of pressure immediately lands on your chest. You are literally entering into the worst place on earth. In that moment, there is no end. It is literally hell, infinite, unbridled hell. No way out.
Then it passes. But it never goes away. It’s as if the fear smiles at you and says, “I’ll be sitting over here for a bit, but I’ll be back.”
As college wore on, I found myself drinking as much as possible, because I knew if I went to bed completely sober, the fear would rear its ugly head. If I drank, I would fall into a drunken slumber until the morning. However, this temporary suppression didn’t come without consequences. Sure, hangovers suck and you feel bad, but anxiety is also a well-known byproduct. And when you are already a ball of anxiety and fear, this hangover anxiety can throw you into a panic attack in seconds. So the drinking could commence again.
A literal and vicious cycle.
I somehow managed to graduate college in four years. I moved to Florida with my then girlfriend (now wife) where we were going to live by the beach Endless Summer-style. I surfed, free-dove, fished, and literally submerged myself in the ocean culture. I’ve always been drawn to the ocean. In fact, when I was by the water, I never had panic attacks and that fear was always subdued. Even with the early nightmares of counting sand grains on the beach (a contemplation of infinity), it never occurred while standing on those same grains. It was (and still is) my safe place. It’s where I go when things get really rough and heavy. It’s where I go when things are really good. It’s where I go when things are balanced. It’s where I go.
But anywhere else, the anxiety and fear got worse.
When we moved to Florida, we were extremely lucky to be befriended by a beautiful soul named Danielle. She came from a big family, like my wife and I, and we instantly hit it off. Her family, and parents specifically, welcomed us into their hearts and home. They were our parents away from ours. We spent so much time at their house, we never had to knock to go in.
After being close with them for a few years, in a completely freak accident, Danielle’s father was killed by a drunk driver on a Saturday night going to get Chinese food. Her mother, who was a stage-four breast cancer survivor, succumbed to that very disease three months later. My best friend’s world was turned upside down. Two people that I had become very close with, were now completely gone. Three months later, I lost my last remaining grand-parent, my grandmother.
Death was no longer buzzing in the background, it had just punched me right in the damn face.
At this point in my life, I had a work-from-home job and rarely left the house. I despised being in the outside world.
I recall trying to go for a walk, and my sister very sincerely asked me what was wrong. I told her there was no way I could ever explain it.
On one occasion I did make it out of the house and went to the mall with my wife. I began looking around at all the happy people carrying their shopping bags, and I thought, “How can they be this happy? Don’t they know they are going to eventually die? How can you be happy if you know you are going to die?”
I was done. I was completely miserable. I found myself yelling out loud to try and suppress and drown my fear of death and what happens after death. The thought of living like this was its own version of hell. I didn’t want to live anymore. I had plenty of thoughts about killing myself so I could no longer deal with the fear and the constant worry that it would come back. The future was bleak, dark and heavy, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
One evening, my wife and mother forced me to run an errand with them. At this point in my life, I was pale and skinny. The taste of food sucked, and I had zero energy. While waiting for the garage door to open, my mom asked me the question that I had heard a million times: “Are you okay?”
Now my mother, who I love dearly, is a devout Catholic. Growing up, everything was answered by simply saying, “Just go to church.” And so I was hesitant to open up at the point, because I knew what she was going to say, but I looked up, tears in my eyes, and said, “No. No I’m not.”
There was a brief pause. I knew the whole “church” thing was coming.
She then said, “You need to find balance.”
“Yes, you need to find balance in your life. I don’t care if it’s religious or not, you just need to find a balance.”
This was the first time I felt a small opening of energy. I was not being told to go to church, or told that I was weird for feeling that way. It was an invitation to find myself.
The next day, I decided to start looking for myself — on the Internet, of course.
I searched high and low for the meaning of death and what happened afterwards. I read books, and listened to audiobooks. What do doctors say? What do Jews say? What do Hindus say? What do Buddhists say? What do Christians say? What do Muslims say? Hell, what do atheists say? I was open to anything and everything.
And there was one topic that every one of those particular philosophies mentioned: Meditation.
So I tried a few guided meditations, and read about meditation, but nothing really “did” anything. So I was pretty close to giving up.
It’s funny how you find answers in life when you stop searching.
Being an ocean lover, Surfline was a site I would visit daily. It’s a surf forecasting website that tells you when there will be waves coming your way and how big they are. They also have some great editorial pieces. One day, I checked the forecast and came across a featured piece about one of my favorite surfers. The article was discussing how he kept in shape during the grueling year-long professional surfing season.
The article discussed different diet and fitness programs and also how meditation helps you to be able to relax and not feel wound up all the time.
I loved surfing and their diet and fitness recommendations seemed spot on. So why not give meditation a shot?
I went online and found a meditation book that felt right to me and began reading it every morning and doing the meditation practice. This specific method is not guided, there is no specific seating or stance, no candles, no incense, no cushions, no breath watching. It is about getting your mind to a still point.
For someone who had spent their life with their brain constantly screaming at them, this was extremely difficult to do. Quieting my mind after decades of the hamster wheel spinning at hyper speed was one of the most difficult things I had ever done. It took discipline. Ten minutes in the morning and in the evening.
After about 3–4 months of doing the practice every day, I sat down one evening, my wife already in bed. I started my meditation practice. Brain chatter at hyper speed. Whirring and buzzing.
Then it started to slow down a bit, which felt good. Feeling good at this point in my life was something that rarely happened, so I sat with that good feeling. No judging, no describing, just feeling good.
The chatter slowed even more. It slowed, and slowed, and slowed.
Until there was nothing.
For the first time in 25 years, there was no worry, no background fear, no thoughts. Nothing but complete stillness — for a few seconds — then brain chatter slowly came back and I was done with my practice.
It was at that moment I realized that the same feeling I had when I was 4, 13, 18 21, 26 years old — the same feeling of infinite depth, infinite space, and what happens after death, all the things that scared me to no end — I had just experienced in that moment of stillness. It was the most peaceful feeling I had ever felt in my entire life.
(As a side note, I took a deep pause after writing that. Still to this day, it’s a deep feeling of peace that will never go away.)
Since that very moment, I have never had another panic attack. My depression is gone. I have completely detached from my fear. Thoughts of killing myself and suicide are gone. This meditation literally saved my life.
A lot of people ask me how and why I started The Alternative Daily. And this is exactly how it began. I wanted to provide thoughts, ideas, outlets and information to empower people to make the best change they can in their world. Change happens only when you initiate it for yourself.
Just when you think you can’t go on, you find your strength from within.
I encourage you to share this with friends and loved ones who you may feel could benefit from my experience and words.
Jake Carney is CEO & Co-Founder of The Alternative Daily. Jake also hosts a weekly podcast. When not working, he surfs, plays his ukulele and spends his days by the ocean with his wife, daughter and two dogs. You can follow him on twitter @JakeSurfs