Will Doenlen

Life after near death

In April 2022 an apartment on the floor below me caught on fire in the middle of the night. I woke up at 3 AM with my apartment hot and full of smoke. There were no smoke alarms or fire alarms — just the crackle and roar of the building in flames right outside my window. My then romantic partner and I ran out the fire escape but quickly found ourselves trapped in the building when we realized that the final fire escape ladder to the ground was broken. We waited out the fire initially on the fire escape, but once firefighters began breaking windows over our heads we moved back up the building fire escape and took refuge in my neighbor’s apartment, on the same floor where the fire was still raging. Firefighters eventually put the fire out but the central stairwell collapsed in the process. Not knowing what to do once the fire was out my partner and I climbed back out the fire escape up to my apartment where we were greeted by a group of surprised firefighters. I was given 30 seconds to grab anything I could and then was escorted down the collapsed stairwell, a hellish nightmare of a landscape that I will never forget: pitch black, water pouring out from the ceiling, debris everywhere, everything covered in black soot. I carefully walked down the staircase by myself, hugging the wall as close as I could while I delicately stepped around sharp broken glass, wood and metal in my neighbor’s shower sandals (I had run out the fire escape initially just in my underwear). When I exited the building I realized we had been among the last people out.

Two people died in the fire. The building was immediately deemed unsafe and vacated. I lost access to all of my belongings and only held onto what I had managed to grab on the way out: a pair of shoes, jeans and a T shirt, my phone, my laptop, my wallet and my backpack. I was incredibly lucky to have grabbed what I did. I ended up moving in with my partner who incredibly graciously took me in.

I was traumatized by what had happened. I later learned that people who stay in a burning building like that as long as we did are typically found dead rather than alive. I could barely wrap my head around the fact that it was by pure chance that we didn’t die that night. We had no way out of the building, and if the fire had been worse or had traveled up a different path we could have been gravely injured or dead. I walked out with only minor smoke inhalation issues but others in the building fared worse.

Immediately after the fire I felt extremely dissociated. Nothing felt real. I had had a close brush with death, had lost my home and, as far as I knew at that point, all my belongings. I (yes, stupidly) didn’t have insurance and was faced with the prospect of rebuying everything I owned. I couldn’t feel my body and I remember wandering around the city with my partner, buying necessities I lacked, unsure what else to do. My emotions swung between anger, laughing and inexplicable sadness. I would start talking and stop mid-sentence, forgetting what my point was, unsure how to continue. I felt distant and out of body, and my thoughts scattered and fizzled like dim sparks.

Maybe five days after the fire I was about to take a shower and looked at myself in the mirror. I had this sudden flash of recognition like, oh, that’s me. It just hadn’t occurred to me that that was me. It was so remarkable I took a photo.

It feels even now like one of the weirdest selfies I’ve ever taken. It wasn’t at all lost on me that my one tattoo, which is of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, was both intimately and impersonally involved in the destruction that had occurred.

Ten days after the fire I wrote this:

I never really intended for that to be seen by anyone else. It was just me processing my emotions. But that question in there — Was it really so bad? Am I making too big of a deal of about this? never stopped haunting me. It took me a long time and reading other people’s fire survival stories to understand that I hadn’t overreacted.

The rest of the year ended up being something of a personal annus horribilis. My partner and I broke up. My grandmother died. My childhood cat died. I underwent a previously planned major ear surgery that could have permanently altered my hearing in one ear and brought up repressed trauma around surgeries from my childhood. I couldn’t find housing no matter how hard I tried because of the intensely competitive rental market in New York. And there were a few more things that I’m not comfortable sharing publicly as well. During all of this I was doing my best to keep working on my startup while having nightmares and ruminating intensely on the fire. I regularly had panic attacks. I couldn’t find stability anywhere I looked and it felt like it would never end.

A few months down the line, after being yanked around yet again by the building landlord who was slow-walking the repair of the building, I felt a wild surge of anger. The anger was initially directed towards my landlord and the insane New York housing market that wouldn’t let me rest. But it quickly expanded outward to include everything. How had I gotten here? My life felt like one big joke where I was constantly trying to contort myself into different positions to make things work and they fell apart anyway. Nothing I said or did mattered. Nobody was coming to the rescue, and nobody ever was. How could I think that I ever had control, or that anyone else did for that matter?

That anger eventually subsided but it opened the path to a deep, embodied realization that safety is an illusion. I had the idea of safety all wrong: it doesn’t come from other people. It never came from other people. It doesn’t come from your resources or your situation. Everything can and will fall apart. Nothing is truly safe. Safety can only come from within.

Some months later I wrote:

I feel like something broke inside of me this past four months. I just feel different than I used to. I give less of a shit about things I thought were important. I don’t care about career success. I don’t care about art. I still have energy and passion and interest. But I just don’t know what I care about anymore. I have no clue who I am.

It’s kind of scary but also kind of not. It just is what it is. My entire life has been defined by searching for safety. Knowing that there is no safety, that it comes only from within, who am I now? What do I do?

I feel like I found some secret level in a video game or something. In some ways I feel distant and far away from everyday concerns. There’s just no point to any of it. There never was. None of it was going to help me. But now I get to do whatever I want.

I’m not swimming anymore and maybe that’s part of what this feeling is. I’m just bobbing up and down in the ocean as the waves roll through.

Something had changed within me. My new idea of safety had dramatic downstream consequences: I suddenly cared far, far less about trying to control things, about trying to make people happy, about trying to shape my life to fit a particular mold. None of it matters because nothing will keep you safe except your own conviction that you will always take care of yourself and handle whatever life throws at you, no matter how impossible it may seem. More importantly, this is not purely an intellectual conviction — it is an emotional conviction. I feel it in my body, deep within my bones.

I’m extremely grateful for this understanding. It’s felt transformative in a highly positive way. With my sense of safety not tied to any partiuclar person or situation I feel much freer. I feel less attached to things but I feel like I love just as deeply, if not more. I know everything will disappear and it makes it all just feel that much more tender and precious. I think a lot less about what things mean or what the future holds because who cares? I used to obsess over these questions but they can only take you so far. In turn I feel more in the moment because I frequently have nowhere else to go. Sometimes I find myself just wandering around the city, looking around at nothing in particular — looking at people and trash and pigeons and waiting for late trains — and feeling, This is it and it’s so beautiful.

I settled into my reality and life slowly began to stabilize. My hearing slowly returned to normal as I healed from surgery. I got some of my belongings back. As the rental market cooled down over the fall and upcoming winter I eventually found a wonderful new apartment, 8 months after the fire. I was then able to recover most of my belongings from my original building except for a few things that had smoke damage or had melted because of the heat. I moved in to my new place and felt like a major chapter had closed.

Except I’ve realized it didn’t. I didn’t realize how much emotional work I had put off with the fire until I left my startup and had the space to fully process it. That sense of floating off in a “secret video game level” never completely left, though I feel a lot more grounded now as I process more and more. I’m not, as I thought I might, returning “back to normal” and I’ve recently had to grieve that. I’m actually just a different person now, and I have to undergo some self-discovery to understand what it means. My life priorities are in flux, and I find my life outlook / core emotional experience can be unrelatable to others. It is lonely and beautiful all at once.

I’ve also since realized that some of this is very likely a response to having a near-miss death experience. What happened to me wasn’t a near-death experience since I was largely physically unharmed — instead it was a near-miss experience, where I was faced with a clear and present threat to my life. Near-miss experiences are less studied than near-death experiences but can still cause profound psychological changes. My core realization around safety originally felt a few steps removed from the fire and more related to how I relate to other people. But I don’t think it actually is. This page lists out some common reactions to near-miss experiences that feel familiar to me: preoccupation with the event; a sense of detachment or feeling unrelatable; changed views around what’s important in life. I don’t know if other survivors feel like their experiences are unrelatable just because the experience of a traumatic events is in many ways ineffable or if it’s because they’ve had big, unrelatable life realizations afterward. But I can’t discount the impact of the fire itself and how it primed me to think in different ways.

I don’t know what it means. It might not matter. I’m actually pretty happy, and I’m slowly working through it all. At some point you have to move on.

Sharing this story felt important for a number of reasons. I wanted to get it off my chest as a part of moving on. I also really struggled to relate to others about my experiences during/after the fire and can’t help but think how useful it would’ve been to read something like this while I was in the thick of it. And I want people to know that it’s possible to go through something like this and still feel deep gratitude and love life even more. While I wish all of these terrible things hadn’t happened I also wouldn’t go back in time to who I was before.

Nothing ever stays the same. To me, that’s what the Second Law and my tattoo, both familiar and taunting, are all about. So I expect all of this will transform into something else. I’m growing in new directions both wonderful and unexpected. I can’t wait to see what happens.