This happened in 1992 when I was 40 and living in Lompoc, CA. I was in a clinical depression, just one of many I experienced every year. So far anti-depressants hadn’t helped and I had tried them all. I tried eating better and exercising more. I read inspiring books on how to reclaim your life. Every year I had a new theory of why this kept happening. I had a wonderful husband and my kids were my world so what did I have to be depressed about? I didn’t know yet about the symptoms of depression, chemical imbalances of the brain or bipolar disorder so I blamed myself for it all.
I was so mentally exhausted and couldn’t imagine a future with more of the same. I was thinking about suicide all the time. At the same time my doctor was watching a swollen lymph node in my neck. Finally, after a CT scan he called me to schedule a biopsy as he feared it could be a cancerous tumor. HA! I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I thought God was answering my prayers by letting me die with dignity instead of the suicide I was thinking of.
So, in February of 1992 I went into surgery. After it was over, it became apparent I have a rare condition known as pseudocholinesterase deficiency (lacking an enzyme to process a certain anesthesia). Something, I found out later, a good friend of mine had died from. After surgery I heard the doctor say, "Wake up now, everything went fine, the tumor was benign." "She's not waking up,” said the nurse who kept tapping my face. The anesthesiologist replied, "I told you to leave her alone. She's paralyzed and won't be waking up anytime soon. We'll all be here for a long haul today. Get her down to ICU, stat.” I listened to this conversation in an unconscious state and found it very interesting. I tried to move my arms and legs but couldn't. By darn, he's right I thought to myself. I am paralyzed. I wasn't at all alarmed but instead became wrapped in a cocoon of complete well-being and peace. I heard thoughts, not mine, spoken in my mind somehow.
"You're going to be OK. It's just going to be a matter of time. We'll keep you safe in here until you wake up."
I then entered a blacker beyond black pyramid-like tunnel, much like an iron lung. The blackness brought even more comfort. It seemed small but also large at the same time.
Hours later I started to awaken. Gone was the peace I felt, replaced by confusion and helplessness. Loud alarms were sounding and people were moving all around me. It seemed the whole room was filled with loud chaos and I didn’t want any part of it. I’ve since read noise is amplified after exiting a peaceful place during an NDE. I wanted to go back to my comforting cocoon. My arms were tied down and an x-ray was being taken to make sure the breathing tube was in place. I couldn't breathe. I fought with all my will to free my hands, cry out for help and gulp in air but couldn't. I was a deer frozen in the headlights of a blinding light that will not let it escape its imminent danger. I have never wanted to live so much in my entire life. The need to breathe seized me and created a frenzy of wild panic.
"Get her husband, quick!” a nurse yelled. Suddenly his face was above me saying, "Denise, you had a reaction to the anesthesia and it paralyzed your body. It doesn't feel like you can breathe but the machines are doing it for you. Try not to fight it. You're going to be OK." Oh, God, I can’t breathe. I’m going to die because I can’t make anyone understand. As the feeling reached a peak of intolerability, I instantly left Ken’s face and the rushed activity of the ICU ward.
I was cradled in an all-encompassing love and peace. It permeated every pore and cell of my body. The love was the most exquisite emotion I have ever felt. I just rolled and basked in it. There aren’t words to express the complete well-being I felt. The stark opposite of emotions felt just a moment ago. Gone was the excruciating need to draw the next breath.
I wasn’t aware of having a body, only consciousness. I didn’t question where this was coming from. I only knew I was having a heavenly experience. I never saw anyone but I could feel at least two presences. I still had thoughts of my own and ones that weren’t mine but were spoken into my brain somehow. There was a distinct difference between these thoughts.
I was then filled with a saturated gratefulness for the love of Ken and his care of me. Surprisingly, those emotions encompassed the family I grew up with but never felt very close to. I loved and belonged to them and felt lucky to have been a part of their lives. I relished memories and knew that was the family experience I was supposed to have for my youth. I did have a thought of surprise I wasn’t being shown my own family.
I didn’t know social anxiety was a thing. I felt awkward and guarded around other people. I dreaded group and individual interaction unless I knew them well. It created so much anxiety sometimes I didn’t feel human at all.
Now I felt a connection with every human being in the universe as if a fine silver thread was sewing us all together. An image of that appeared above me. I couldn’t see how that many people could fit all around me but they did and surrounded me in oneness. I felt how fragile we all are, how much our actions affect one another and how important it was to try our best. Being on earth and having the experience of life was meant for me and I belonged, truly belonged here.
"You are a part of everyone and belong here on earth. All of your lives are difficult and full of trials. You are all struggling. It’s important to live your life well so you don’t create any hardships for others that will make their uphill climb any harder. You can never know what someone else has been through. Do not judge too quickly how easy you think their lives have been."
These were words spoken in my mind again and was a gentle rebuke to slow down my self-centered thinking. Meanings of some of my difficult challenges were revealed to me and how they were helping me live my life well and grow. And I did, I wanted with all my heart to live and do well. Though I can no longer remember all they told me, I feel the revelations are placed somewhere in my soul helping me.
The love, peace, and contentment just continued to glow. I wanted to feel this way forever and stay with them. But I knew I had been told and shown all there was for me to hear and see. Still, I tried as hard as I could to follow them in my mind wherever they were going. They didn’t say anything, just gradually faded away. Their last thought to me was, you are a spirit having a human experience.
Once again, I was acutely aware of discomfort in my body. Ken was wiping tears from my face and trying to console me. I couldn’t tell him the tears were from having the most sacred experience of my life that I wanted to last forever. I couldn’t believe something this wonderous had happened to me. Later I asked Ken if I had drifted off during the first time he was trying to encourage me to when he was trying to comfort me, to account for any time gaps. He said no so how did this happen in between one second to another? How long did the encounter last? I don’t know. It felt at least 30 minutes but time seems to have swallowed the experience to but a blink of an eye. I call it living between the spaces.
That blink gave me important insights about the meaning of my life. I am more compassionate and less prone to believe I have the hardest challenges in life. I lost some of my fear of people but still struggle to heal that part of my life. I used to have a paralyzing anxiety around the fear of death. I’m no longer afraid. I now believe our individual struggles are ours alone but we don't always have to struggle alone. Regardless of our different challenges we are one family of humanity and each life is important.
Reflections over the years: The anesthesia after-effects slowed everything down. I was still depressed months after. However, I tried my best to meet my responsibilities and carry on. My daughter Jana was a big support. She was 14 and helped with meals and entertained her younger brother and sister when I was at my end. I knew I couldn’t take my own life so I made another appointment with my primary care doctor. He said there was a new medication on the market and did I want to try it? The SSRI anti-depressants were being developed with greater success and less side effects than previous ones that had failed to help me. There was no other choice so I was ready to try again. Days after starting Zoloft I woke up one morning and everything had a shine to it. I couldn’t believe it was possible to feel this way. Feeling so ecstatic, I made a cake and told the family it was my birthday cake for the first day of my life. I’m sure there was a lot of eye rolling. I was just giddy and felt the possibilities of a new life. The message couldn’t have been more clear. You are a spirit having a human experience, and you belong here on earth.
I was initially disturbed about the blackness I went into. I thought NDEs were about going to the light. Now that NDEs are widely shared and documented, I realize the experience of going into a peaceful darkness is often present.
My life didn’t sail along in only calm waters because I had experienced something wonderful. Living with bipolar has been the biggest challenge of my lifetime. My depressions have lingered from year to year. The highs were few and far between but could be just as destructive. All of it has tried my very soul and ability to endure. I haven’t always lived life well. But now I have this experience I view as an intervention when I needed it and a message of hope.