Fear of the Afterlife & Panic Attacks

By Naj
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I always feared the afterlife.

So when I experienced my first onset of hard-hitting panic attacks, I thought that I was going to die and be thrown into that world I feared the most.

My first panic attack struck when I was 16. I was spacing out in Malay class when I caught a brief glimpse of what looked like a white figure at the side of the classroom. Before I knew it, I experienced a painful throb in my heart. It felt like my heart was producing one final beat before ceasing to beat completely. In came the heart palpitations, the breathlessness, and that sense of impending doom which made me think I was encountering a heart attack, and inevitably, death. The thought made me spiral into a full blown panic attack.  

I spent the rest of the day trying to calm myself down, but my heart continued palpitating, my hands and my feet were cold, and I couldn’t breathe properly. On the way back from school that day, I received a phone call from my mum. My maternal atuk (grandfather) just passed away.

I was summoned to nenek’s (grandmother’s) house right after. Most of my close relatives were already gathered, and I approached atuk who laid on the bed, life robbed from him. I can’t believe he passed away so suddenly. Everywhere, people were crying, people were reciting the surah yasin, and people were praying that God wouldn’t take away their lives prematurely. As the topic of mortality plagued the air, I wondered: was I next?

My family slept at nenek’s house that night and my panic attacks did not stop. As I laid on the mattress, I was wondering if the malaikat maut (angel of death) was lurking around, waiting to take my life next. I was fairly certain he was. I wondered if the malaikat was actually the white figure I saw during Malay class. I finally managed to fall asleep, only to dream that the malaikat maut taking away my life. I couldn’t sleep afterwards.

The next day I watched as atuk was lowered into his grave. I didn’t wish that he’d rest in peace. I wished that he would be free from the siksaan kubor (punishments of the grave). While everyone left, I was reluctant to step away. Apparently, after the last person took seven steps away from the grave, the siksaan kubor would commence.

I remembered what we were taught in religious class. The first thing that would happen when you were lowered in the grave, was that the two malaikats, Mungkar and Nakir, would flank you on either sides. They would then question you: “who is your God?”; “who is your prophet?” It sounds simple, except you wouldn’t be able to answer those questions yourself verbally. Only your body would be able to do the answering for you. Whether you were able to answer them or not was reliant on the amount of prayers you did in your life. If you couldn’t answer, a variety of punishments would commence. Some include being engulfed in fire, being wrapped in metallic chains causing one to bleed, and having a rock dropped upon you, crushing your skull. These punishments would continue on until the day of reckoning or judgment day.

Judgment day (which was the stage before heaven and hell) had its own set of punishments, and the list is truly extensive. They mostly involve people being resurrected in less than favorable forms, such as having fire in the pits of the stomach, having your head in the place of your genitals, among others. All of this precedes going to hell.

The afterlife is truly sadistic and punitive. This made it tough for me to get out of my rut. For the days that followed, I had recurrent insomnia and anxiety. I tried to tell my parents everything that was going on but they were dismissive – my mum told me to “stop saying such nonsensical things” while my dad told me “these were the whispers of Syaitan.” When I told my mum I really feared for my life, she finally relented to having me checked.

After the doctor checked my heart rate and blood pressure, he sighed and said “there’s nothing wrong with you.” I was relieved but it was followed by him saying “If you’re going to come here again, I’ll have to send you to the psychiatrist.” While he was dismissive, I was relieved to know there was nothing wrong with me. My mum however, took the doctor’s dismissiveness badly. She was angry that she had me checked for nothing. She told me “not to complain anymore and that I should stop thinking the worst.” After that, I began adopting a dismissive attitude towards my illness. While I got slightly better after the doctor’s affirmation, the problems were simmering underneath.  

A few months after, my dad talked about a relative of his who passed away from heart failure. That was when my mum began reading up on it and spun a cautionary tale about how it happens even without prior warning, and that it can happen to anyone at any age. Hearing this was unbearable for me and I shut myself off in my room to be away from it. I couldn’t listen to any reminder of death, especially if it was related to a heart condition. That day, my anxiety began skyrocketing again.

While being dismissive towards my anxiety worked for a few months, this time, it didn’t. This time I felt I was going out of control. However, when my parents invited me to solat jemaah (pray together) with them, I was finally able to center my mind on something else besides my anxiety. The mindless and meditative nature of prayer somehow eased my mind. At that point of time, everything clicked. Was this it? Was I meant to find solace in prayer? Was this the whole point of me getting a panic attack? Did God give me an anxiety problem to teach me to become more religious? I thought yes, it must be. And I was euphoric upon this realization.

Doing prayer was just the antidote I needed for my anxiety. It feels good to pray. You feel you’re securing more points for the afterlife, and it gives you the assurance that you will be safe there. I felt good knowing I was doing all the much needed preparations to die. In this way, dying wouldn’t be so bad. If I were to die, I would die with my mind at ease, knowing I was sufficiently prepared for the afterlife.

From then on, I became religious. I didn’t miss a single prayer and for once, I had no qualms wearing the hijab, something which I’ve absolutely hated for the longest time. I really felt God’s mercy, and I reveled in his love. This illness was actually the loving push he gave to steer me on the righteous path. And I was very thankful.

My dad saw an improvement in my piety and he was really happy to see this change. He told me he was relieved that his efforts bore fruit – at least one of his children was pious for once. He told me that he was happy that I “dah tak tinggalkan solat” (no longer missed my prayers) unlike my brother. My dad hoped that my brother would soon see the light. I would just laugh uncomfortably.

A few years later, when my paternal grandma was nearing her last breath, my dad was distraught. He was not only grieving the loss of a mother who had grown distant from him but he was worried about what her afterlife would entail. Because she hadn’t been praying, he really worried about whether she would be safe in the afterlife. He began performing prayers on her behalf. It was a sweet gesture which was not exactly altruistic. In the past, my dad would often remind my bedridden grandma to be closer to the religion and God. My grandma would ignore him, all she wanted in that state was to be given love and not a timely reminder about her own death. On a separate day, my dad told my mum he was afraid that he was going to be accountable for my grandma’s irreligiosity in the afterlife. My mum gave him hell for that.

I was fairly certain then that part of my anxiety came from my father. The religion he was taught instilled fear in the minds of everyone. In their minds, God was a punitive being. If you contract any sort of illness, it is God’s way of telling you that you need to change your ways. If you miss one prayer session, you would be subjected to a 1,000 years in hell. If you didn’t contribute to Zakat, you’d be resurrected on the day of judgment with your stomach full of snakes. My dad knew every punishment for every sin like the back of his hand.

I realized how pervasive the problem was when I went to my grandma’s tahlil, and the main prayer was something along of the lines of “O god, please do not let us die in an irreligious state”, “O god, please protect us from hellfire”, “O god, please free us from the punishments in the afterlife”. These weren’t the usual mindless recitations, as some people would tear up and wail when they said these things. They truly meant it.

Because of this I began wondering how many others shared the same anxieties I had regarding death. Like me, most people turn to religion as a sort of shield to grant them safety in the afterlife. And many were performing rituals not out of love for the faith but out of fear for the afterlife and the punitive God. I never understood the appeal of religiosity and rituals until only then. And I still find this whole notion strange.

It doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t allow you to have a healthy understanding of death. It doesn’t allow you to have a healthy understanding of religion. It also doesn’t allow you to have a healthy mind. Nor a healthy body.

And as for me, my mental illness story didn’t end in a happily ever after once I found religion again. Religion didn’t heal my mental illness. It was for a short while, a placebo for it, but more importantly, the cause for my illness.

Recently, I read an article about religious trauma syndrome (RTS) and I realized that it aligned with my experiences. RTS is a result experiencing an authoritarian mode of religion—one which instills fear to deter you from doing “sinful” things. You are always in danger of sinning and eternal punishment. It has the ability to impair your cognitive ability by seeding self-doubt and it even causes severe emotional distress for others. Sufferers of RTS are usually indoctrinated with these beliefs in childhood. And because the phobia indoctrination in childhood is so powerful, the fear of the afterlife may last a lifetime.

The thing with RTS is that it is often misunderstood, and many therapists cannot identify or understand it unless they went through an authoritarian mode of religion themselves. I remember talking to my counsellor about my fear of the afterlife and how it caused my anxiety. For the first time, he didn’t have a solution. He then proceeded to make me do awareness exercises.

I was later referred to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me as having a panic disorder, characterized by my frequent panic attacks and my fear of dying. My physiological symptoms ceased after my psychologist told me that panic attacks do not lead to heart attacks and that people don’t die from an anxiety problem. However, what therapy wasn’t able to do was solve the root of my anxiety and allay the fears I had of the afterlife.

Due to this, my fear of the afterlife will always be here to stay.

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Naj is a 25 year-old who doesn’t know what she wants to do in life. She struggles between wanting to be a writer, illustrator or pastry chef. She previously had a stint at writing for a TV drama but now she’s jobless.

Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu

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