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In a Coma, I Dreamed a Whole Other Life—I'm Still Dreaming It

Why am I still dreaming what I dreamed while in a coma?

After the birth of my son, I got sick, really sick, with a mysterious blood clotting disorder, and because the panicked doctors couldn’t figure out what to do, they put me into a medical coma, with memory blockers. They didn’t want me remembering the pain or any of the procedures.

But coma is a mysterious thing. Nobody knows exactly what happens in a coma. Some scientists believe coma patients don’t see or feel or hear a thing. Others say something different. Some scientists believe that coma patients actually dream.

I don’t know if I dreamed. But I do remember something the memory blockers couldn’t stem. When I woke up, it felt like someone had pulled me violently from one world I knew to another, as if I had stepped from one room to another. I began to talk to Jeff, my husband, to my friends Nancy and Lindy, who had sat by me every day, that I had been living in this imaginary town, and that it had been, well, incredible. It had all these stores, and my apartment was hard to get to, but it was big and beautiful and I knew the streets, the people, and I knew it was real.

They nodded supportively. They encouraged me to talk, but when I told the doctors, they just said, “Well, you’re on a lot of nasty medications.” They told me I was just adjusting now, that all those crazy thoughts and feelings would pass.

Except they didn’t. I kept dreaming about the town.

By the time I got home, the imaginary town kept coming back in my dreams, so real, so vivid, that I knew it was something different than a regular dream. It felt as if it were calling me and I didn’t know why, or what it wanted, or what I was supposed to do. I knew it wasn’t lucid dreaming, where you know in the dream you are dreaming even though everything looks and feels and seems like real life, because I’ve had those dreams. This one felt different.

I just knew that it was real.

The dream kept coming back. Over and over. I was always surprised to see the imaginary town again, surprised that I knew which streets to go down, that I knew how to progress through it. At first, I was living in a house that had no way to get to anywhere at first. there were no subways, and the house had a moat and dangerous animals guarding it.

The next time I dreamed about the town, I heard that someone I had loved who had died shockingly had actually not died at all. He had faked his death and everyone had agreed to pretend about it, and now he was living in California. I bolted awake. But the dream wasn’t gone. Instead, I believed it was true, as if I could hold two realities in my mind.

I’ve kept dreaming over the years, always the same town, the same people in it, but things change. I’ve moved out of the house with the moat and to a place close to the subway, now in the West Village, where I’ve always wanted to live. Do our dreams come out of our emotions? Maybe they do, but I can’t figure out the emotions of this dream, other than I have this complete sense of familiarity and wonder all at once.

I feel like I need to figure out these dreams. I talk to my therapist about them, and she points out, well, they started in the trauma of a coma. It makes sense that they still reappear. Maybe, she says, this is just like the way I immerse myself in another world writing fiction, that I live other lives through my characters in order to understand my own. After all, the worlds I write about in my novels feel just as real to me as the world I navigate. But then I talk to a quantum physicist friend of mine, who tells me about parallel worlds, different realities that can coexist. “Is that just theory or true?” I ask her, and she shrugs. “Who knows for sure?” she says. Maybe the coma did something to my brain to make my dreams appear like real life. Maybe I’m processing some cellular memory from an ancestor. “Who knows?” she tells me.

"But isn’t it exciting?”

The truth is, I don’t know whether to be scared or excited by these strange dreams. All I know is something is happening and I’m choosing to see it as an adventure, to stick around for what might come next. Or not come next. Remember that old song, "Life Is But a Dream"? Maybe in this case, it’s the dreams that are a real life.

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