This story is over 5 years old.

The Horror Issue

Been There, Done That

I have been clinically dead five times, not even counting sudden CPR rescues by ambulance or passersby. I once had no vital signs for 20 minutes unofficially and 15 officially. I should have the intelligence of a plant at most

Photo from Corbis

I have been clinically dead five times, not even counting sudden CPR rescues by ambulance or passersby. I once had no vital signs for 20 minutes unofficially and 15 officially. I should have the intelligence of a plant at most. I’m a severe asthmatic. I go from reasonably or even very well to collapse in a very short time. It took several episodes for me to remember and to begin to see the pattern of my near-death experiences and to remember them accurately. Dying is not easy. All sensation increases, with sharply heightened sensitivity to sounds and light: ambulance sirens screaming, voices speaking, bumping of your body in the ambulance, the sudden cold and jolts of the exit from the ambulance, lights overhead, drip/infusion bottles clanging and people running and antiseptic hospital scents. Each breath is shorter and more greedily grabbed at than the last. “Breathe,” they say. Breathe? Idiots. If I could breathe, I wouldn’t be here. It hurts. Then I hear, “She’s getting no oxygen” from the staff, and panic is hard to suppress as people grab at my arms, legs, and torso trying to get needles into the veins to give me the life sustaining drugs I need.
The people caring for me are my very, very best friends at this moment. They rank above my family. They are my final thread to life, but it’s hard to remember who they are or what they look like. In my heightening awareness I notice strange details: people’s breathing sounds or the hairs up their noses. On being resuscitated with CPR, people breathe this absolutely stinking stuff into me from their own expelled breath, which I would not wish on the ozone layer if it were my worst enemy. It doesn’t feel like oxygen and probably isn’t exactly laden with it. To add insult to misery, I shit myself. This is not a standard toilet visit. This is all the contents of my bowels and all the shits I ever had imagined rolled into one great heave of the body to survive, to shed itself of stress. It’s like having an involuntary colonic. I am swimming in it, I can smell it, and I can feel people reacting to it (though fortunately it’s hidden under the sheets). I am far too into my struggle to regard it as terribly important. Cleaning me up is not an option at this point. That is left either to the mortician or to my unfortunate nurse, if I pull through. A particularly harassed doctor of mine once made the remark, “Well, we can always be sure that you will come up smelling roses either way.” When I have actually stopped breathing, I can still hear people discussing me. “She’s gone, mate, we’re wasting our time here.” “How many kids has she got?” I’ve even heard, as they are putting the paddles on my chest to kick-start my heart, “Shit, I don’t know how to do this, can you help?” I wanted to scream, “Excuse me but I HEARD THAT!” but I am more helpless than a baby—who can at least kick and cry. Pain keeps right on heightening, every moment a summit of it spreading over the whole body right to the fingertips and toes like intense pins and needles. Here comes the parts that, understandably, are hard to believe. But trust me, I have done this five times now. This is what happens when you die. You have the sensation of being fitted into a wet suit that shrinks several sizes as it surrounds you. You get this sense that this is the “new you,” and the moments that you are in this state have a timeless feeling—like it’s an infinitesimal and inestimable length of time all at once. You also will have a very “trippy” realization that you are merely a tiny pinprick of the universe’s enormous consciousness. You genuinely feel like one little itsy-bitsy part of something limitless. Then you’re shot out of this wetsuit at an unimaginable velocity, through its narrowest part, head first, into another even tighter space. It’s like going through a tube of toothpaste the size of a cannon. Next, you’ll find yourself falling through blackness without the slightest idea of up or down, and going at a ridiculous speed. It’s lonely, scary, dark as black velvet, and endless. Then suddenly the pluses of dying kick in with a kaleidoscope of intense and myriad vibrant color and vibration. You are no longer falling and there is no sound at all, which is really weird. This world of vision is stunningly beautiful and all-enveloping. The exposure to this explosion of color and vibration is enormous enough an event to forget the pain forever, but in real time probably lasts seconds. This whole episode of falling and then witnessing the colors is well-documented by everyone who has had a near-death experience, and has been explained by neurologists as the brain’s chemical reactions to death and trauma. A free trip, in other words. Whether it is biology or spirituality, this is just how it happens every time I die. Next, you’ll experience what I think is the real moment of death. There are sensations of being surrounded by gentle beings and white light within which are figures that exude comfort, relief, warmth, release, and liberation. Meeting dead people is a singular experience. I once met an acquaintance of many years who had died about a year prior. He looked casually at me and said, “Oh, no use talking to you yet. You aren’t staying.” I recall saying, “Shit, I hope the others know that,” meaning my hardworking rescue team, slaving away on my body somewhere else. I got the distinct impression that my friend was a guardian of some sort, not of me or of people, but of the realm his bulk (yes, there is an impression of substance) was maddeningly obscuring the view of. On another occasion, I saw a very dear friend who had died in a horrific car crash in which she had burned to death. This had happened some three years before. She did not notice me at first, so I called to her, “Hey, Donna, what are you waiting for?” She looked up without any surprise at seeing me and said, “My son.” At that time this child, my godson, was a healthy little boy. Sadly, Max died in a house fire about a year after this encounter. I am always comforted that his mother told me she was waiting for him and that they are with each other now. As a result of these experiences I think I am now kinder than I was and more considerate. I am fatter, too. I don’t fear death, but I now fear the act of dying. I would be stupid not to. It’s a painful and scary process, just as being born probably is. Look, I know that half of you aren’t buying this. What can I say? Not my problem. After you go through the whole damn thing, I’ll find you on the other side, walk right up to you, and say, “Hi. I told you so.” PAETATA CLARK