Survival

‘I was in Ecuador – I had no memory of going there’: what it is like to be in a coma

My own experience of this unfathomable reach of consciousness drew me to explore uncharted province in my novel The Half Life of Joshua

When I woke up, I couldnt recollect what year it was and I didnt know why a doctor was standing over me, speaking Spanish. When I quizzed him, he told me it was 5 March 1992 and that I was in Ecuador. I couldnt remember anything that had occurred in 1992, least of all going to Ecuador.

Apparently, I had been in a bus accident; there had been a collision with a lorry. It was news to me. In the black hole of my mind I knew only one thing: that wherever I was, I had been there with my girlfriend Stella, and that she had died in this accident of which I had no memory. A moment subsequently, the doctor confirmed what I already seemed to know; Stella had indeed died in the crash. But how could I to understand that, when I couldnt remember anything else? How did this information reach my subconscious?

The events surrounding the crash and its aftermath were fictionalised in my first fiction, Random Act of Heroic Love, but I always knew I had unfinished business. Although my memory slowly returned, I still dont remember the accident itself.

When I began writing The Half Life of Joshua Jones a novel about a man who becomes obsessed with the life of a stranger in a coma I had no narrative in mind, only an itching to scratch. I wanted to explore the gossamer interface between the conscious and subconscious worlds and how one hemorrhages into the other. My starting point was the coma, so I interviewed and read the testimonies of those who had survived one.

Of all the people I met, it was the histories of Neil that constructed the greatest impact. More than 20 years ago, Neil had expended seven weeks in a coma. Like many I spoke to, he was adamant that his experience was not ephemeral, like a dream. He said he entered an alternate reality that felt as real and specific as the everyday world. In his coma, Neil expended several months in Africa a continent he had never visited before doing meaningful charity run. He lived with two women in a house built on stilts over a lake, where they would have sex and run diving together. Meanwhile, in the real world, his mother was told that he was brain dead. She was advised to turn off the life support. Thank goodness, she rejected. One day, in the midst of this fabulous journey, Neil woke up in a hospital, bedbound, unable to speak and in terrible pain. His body had wasted away to six stone. At first, he thought he was having a nightmare. Then he was told the truth, that he had been in a coma, but he still believed his African journey was real and that he must have fallen in to the coma while he was there.

His sense of reality was further challenged a week or so afterward: in his coma, his father had been shot in the hand, but when the latter came to visit there was no sign of a meander. How had it mended so quickly? Then fear set in. Where exactly was the boundary between what was real and what was imagined? Which was the dream and which was the reality? At days, the pain was so great that he longed to go back to the coma, back to Africa. But as he mended, the dread subsided and he felt great exhilaration in being alive. Now he credits his coma for having changed his life for the better.

And many people I spoke to had come to the same conclusion. It was as if they had dived deep in to their spirits and returned with some profound insight.

The Half Life of Joshua Jones is my flirting with the subconscious. What genuinely happens when we are unconscious, either asleep or in a coma? Perhaps the intellect grows tired of the plodding the limit of the body and yearns to stray in to the undergrowth where anything is possible. In the morning, the mind returns to the body like a loyal puppy. Sometimes the dog get lost, only to return weeks later with a magnificent bone. And sometimes the dog never returns.

Extract

Angela was floating just under the surface of the real world, unable to broach the impenetrable membrane between consciousness and subconsciousness. What if she was trying to communicate with me in the same style I was trying to communicate with her? Would we ever understand each other? We couldnt even hear each other. She spoke a language beyond logic. It was the language of sleep. She occupied a mosaic world constructed from broken pieces of memory and reality randomly reconfigured to constitute a dreaming from which she could not escape.

Was the dreaming she now found herself in more beautiful than the life she had tried to flee? Perhaps she was running free, like a gazelle on green savannah. Is it a mistake to assume, in a instead imperialistic style, that the conscious world is superior to the subconscious? The ultimate objectives of the medical profession is to bringing the coma patient back to our world, but what if we were to head in the other direction and try to enter the world of the coma? I wondered if I could establish, through the tiny twitchings of her finger, what she was dreaming about.

More about the book

Moving and insightful a riveting page-turner full of unexpected twists. Life, love and death are at the heart of this novel which is told by a gifted storyteller. Sarah Gavron, director of Suffragette

Buy the book

The Half Life of Joshua Jones is published by Unbound at 7.99 and is available from the Guardian bookshop for 6.79.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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