Dead For Twelve Minutes

When I was twelve, I started to have some strange medical problems. I would pass out and turn blue. The first time my mother saw it happen, she thought I was faking it and holding my breath. Then it occurred to her that if I were holding my breath I would be red, not blue. I went to the doctor several times, and once had to wear a heart monitor for a few days, but no specialist could find anything wrong with me. Then one afternoon I was at the doctor’s office to get more blood drawn so more tests could be run.

As I stood up, the world fell away beneath my feet. I remember wavering and my mother looked back at me, and then I collapsed.

Even as I remember it, I can’t imagine how it looked to outsiders. From inside my body, it was very bright. I felt no pain or fear, but I couldn’t get up. I heard the doctors buzzing around me; I heard someone say that I had no pulse and no blood pressure; I remember that because that was the first time it really occurred to me that I was dead.

I had died on that floor out there. For no good reason, or at least a reason no doctors could find. I had passed out and almost instantly my lips and fingernails turned blue, and then the rest of me followed a minute later.

I don’t know how long they worked on me, but the brightness of my body began to flicker. It was like a city at night and then watching as the lights twinkled out, first in my fingers and toes, and then my shoulders, and the last to go was my heart.

At some point I was back, like a power surge that puts your house back online after briefly losing power.

Though I had died, I had no great knowledge to share with anyone about death. I saw no angels, no God, nothing like that. I only saw the city, darkening at the edges.

I think the point is that death is as meaningless as life. There is nothing waiting for us over there, just as there is nothing waiting here. The line is thin and black and easy to miss. One day you think you’re alive and you’re really dead. I suppose it could go the other way too.

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  1. Strange: a really good friend of mine had a near-drowning experience last week and had to be rescued from the ocean. She explained her experience of it to me in minute detail and echoes a lot of what you say here. A crazy sensation of meaninglessness came over her as she began to lose the fight – there was no comfort, no white tunnel, no sense of peace … who knows. But she had a similar experience and it was very psychologically upsetting for her.

  2. Did they ever figure out why you were turning blue? Circulation? Panic attacks?

  3. Cara Ellison says:

    Nope. I just outgrew them eventually. The thing that finally convinced them it was real was actually SEEING ME TURN BLUE. My mother had told them but until they actually saw it with their own two eyes, they didn’t quite believe it.

    I sort of wish there was some great epiphany but nope, it was just sort of … nothing.

    I’m sorry about your friend. Is she okay now??

    • She’s a bit traumatized. Lots of weeping. She had a couple of friends whose responses left something to be desired. Like: “But couldn’t you have swum to that nearby rock?” You know, questioning her experience – not realizing that panic is the thing that gets you – you’re not thinking clearly in the 2 to 3 seconds when you start to actually drown.

      Good for you for SHOWING THEM that what was happening to you was actually happening.

  4. Cara Ellison says:

    Ugh. I’m so sick of people with that response, the second guessers, those who so casually (and with such certainty) tell you exactly what you should have done. To them I say fuck you. Unless you’ve been there – shut up. And even if you have been there, people are different and will respond in different ways to things.

  5. Totally. Shut the fuck up. She was drowning. You think you have 20 minutes to contemplate and think clearly? SOME people who have survival training are better equipped for this stuff – but the majority of us are not. That’s why we have lifeguards, and Navy SEALS and firefighters, for God’s sake. Otherwise, we wouldn’t ever need help. Sheesh, it drives me crazy.

    • Cara Ellison says:

      Yep. We can’t all be SEALs.

      Even when you’re not in immediate danger, but dealing with some problem, there are people out there who have no respect for the process, who just “know” what you should do. Like people are just generic, interchangeable units and there’s a manual for What To Do in any case and your failing is that you failed to read it.

      I’m becoming quite protective of my own process right now, as you can probably tell.

  6. People have a really really hard time when confronted with either meaningless or human failings. Any time I write anything even mildly uncertain on my blog, someone races in to give me the solution. Now, this is actually a good quality in some respects – but not always. Definitely not in the aftermath of a crisis or a scary situation. Second-guessing the experience of someone who has survived something traumatic is almost always a bad bad idea.

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