They said I was traumatized, and that my fragile mental state would have to indefinitely play catchup with my rapidly healing body.
Later, in possession of the rare perspective that near-death grants you, I tried to tell my friends what this transition was like. I wished I could rely on clichés: “Everything faded to black.” “I followed a light.” “I floated above my body, watching myself receive CPR then get carried into an ambulance.”
But that’s not what happened. Because, well, nothing happened. Every single part of the world and every single thing I knew, including myself, merely ceased to exist for me. Death could have finished the job, right then and there, and in a matter of seconds I wouldn’t have even known I’d ever been alive. I still haven’t decided if that’s comforting.
For nine whole days, I didn’t really exist—except for the machines in the ICU that kept me breathing. Then, just as suddenly as I’d separated from all forms of awareness, Iwoke up—strapped to a hospital bed, eerily calm, and able to remember exactly where I’d been in the minutes preceding my collapse. “Catastrophic” was the word I kept hearing doctors pass around as they hovered over my bedside.
Soon, I learned they were describing a traumatic brain injury called a spontaneous vertebral artery dissection (SVAD). It occurs when—for seemingly no reason—an artery in your neck that facilitates blood flow to the brain tears apart on its own, causing a blood clot to form. Most have never heard of such a thing. The rate of it occurring annually to people aged eighteen to forty-five isone per one hundred thousand people. Or .001%—just enough room to fit me into the statistic.
After my artery dissected, I had a stroke, survived cardiac arrest, and underwent emergency brain surgery. For those initial nine days, my medical team’s prognosis was that I’d remain unconscious for at least three months, then wake up cognitively impaired and paralyzed—if I woke up at all. Instead, I regained consciousness after a little more than a week, my cognitive ability unaffected and all physical damage reversible.
Doctors admitted they couldn’t make sense of my recovery or, frankly, my survival. Nurses walked into my room in the ICU and shook my hand, saying they wanted to meet the girl who was barely clinging to life only days ago. That they couldn’t believe she was sitting up and talking and was going to be okay; they needed to see it for themselves.
If they couldn’t believe it, then how could I?
I was eventually transferred to a neurorehabilitation center where I was an inpatient for a few more weeks. There, I re-learned how to walk and met with social workers each day to help me process the magnitude of my sudden illness and inexplicable recovery. They said I was traumatized, and that my fragile mental state would have to indefinitely play catchup with my rapidly healing body.
The best way to overcome this dissonance, they explained, was to immediately resume a “normal” life upon discharge so my mind and body could realign. So, for instance, when my medical team decided I’d be released a day before my graduation ceremony, a neurologist said my attendance wasn’t up for debate.
“Were you going to be at your graduation before this happened?” he asked, rhetorically. “Then you have to go now.”
In a session with social workers on my last night at the facility, I asked a question I’d been unable to answer for myself. It was the same concern I mulled over every night when I was finally alone in my room, after the blood tests and the heel-to-toe walking exercises and the assisted showering: My life had become unrecognizable. The nauseated brain surgery patient with a half-shaved head in my mirror—reflection blurry from double vision, nearing skeletal after losing all muscle—was unrecognizable. Yet I’d never cried about any of it. Why not?
“You don’t have time to cry or feel anything,” one of the social workers replied. “You only have time to think about getting out and surviving.” He warned me that, one day, I would have to process my sickness and, when I did, I would cry.
“It could take months,” he said. “It could take years.”
When my friends texted me that night the following January, asking if I felt ready to dance to ’80s and ’90s mashups, I’d been out of the hospital for almost seven months. The further away the date of the incident, though, the harder it became to remember who I’d been before I almost died.
At that point, I was walking on my own without mobility aids, even jogging. I couldn’t drive, but I could safely take public transportation—if it wasn’t for the panic attacks that struck each time I stepped onto a bus. (I’d been riding a bus, as I often did, on the morning of my stroke.) Wanting to do nothing more boring than independently transport myself to a measly CVS or Coffee Bean, I’d find myself rushing back out the passenger door before ever inserting my fare.
Though my neurologist told me I was stable enough to work, I couldn’t imagine holding down a job when all affordable forms of independent transportation were either inaccessible or terrifying. I still hadn’t cried.
I had been a social butterfly in college. Parties multiple times a week, road trips with friends, late nights at local concerts, like the night before the stroke. Now a friend simply had to drive us to a nearby park on a Saturday afternoon for those newly familiar feelings to announce themselves: impending doom. Racing heartbeat. Desperation to return home. One particular thought hummed loudly in my brain: Is this where I want to be when I die? My life already almost ended itself once; I wasn’t too naive to think it couldn’t happen again.
Yet when Lee and Andrew invited me out on one of the first nights of the new year, I said yes. Perhaps it was the pressure of “new year, new me” ideology. Perhaps I wanted an excuse to finally wear the ska-adjacent black and white checkered sweatshirt hanging in my closet. Maybe I thought I’d feel lonelier bailing on my friends than I’d feel anxious dancing in a crowded space. Or, maybe I remembered what my neurologist said: If I would have done it before, then I have to do it now.
My trusty phone charger in my bag, I followed Lee and Andrew into the club, then deeper into the mass of people donning neon denim overalls and side ponytails. We claimed a few feet by the stage where a DJ and go-go dancers excited scores of partygoers. I was hyper aware of each person pushing past me to get closer to the speakers, but I was genuinely thrilled to be there. I’d forgotten about the effervescent energy borne from crowds dancing to music. The hope for that one song to start playing. The air, thick with alcohol. The line for the bathroom, even.I’d missed it.
Or, maybe I remembered what my neurologist said: If I would have done it before, then I have to do it now.
Still too tense to do more than sway, I enjoyed the music cautiously—combinations of Duran Duran and NSYNC, C + C Music Factory and Spice Girls. A couple hours into the evening, the DJ played a track I’d learn was called“Knock Out Eileen:” a mashup of “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners and “Mama Said Knock You Out” by LL Cool J. Two songs I loved and had listened to countless times throughout my life but had never heard like this.
As “Come On Eileen’s” euphoric fiddles swelled behind LL Cool J’s decisive enunciation of “I’m gonna take this itty bitty world by storm,” my subconscious unfurled thoughts faster than I could overanalyze them: I never thought I’d hear these songs together. I almost never heard these songs again. But here I am, dancing, and hearing them together, because I did not die. Dexys Midnight Runners and LL Cool J, together, because I did not die. I probably won’t die before this song is over.
The one-hit wonders’ climactic bridge—“too-ra-loo-ra, too-ra-loo-rye-ay”—took hold. My face became hot. I started to cry. For the first time since I’d collapsed in May, I cried. I cried because I wasn’t dead.
Not sobs. I didn’t weep. I just let something go. My body would always carry what happened to me, but it could no longer carry what hadn’t. I didn’t die when I went into cardiac arrest on an operating table, and I didn’t die without ever again hearing the cheerful bass line in “Come on Eileen.” For those three minutes and twenty-three seconds of East Coast hip hop and Celtic New Wave, I didn’t think I was going to die either. Tears rolled down my cheeks, mixing with beads of sweat, each drop a quiet celebration.
I turned my back to Lee and Andrew. I didn’t want to startle them, and I didn’t want to explain. I cried and danced(not swayed) for the rest of the song. Heartbeat steady, only desperate for one more key change. We danced for another hour before making our way back to their apartment, though I can’t remember a single song after “Knock Out Eileen.” I crashed on their couch, falling asleep instantly.
When I woke up the next morning, I checked a rideshare app on my phone so I could go back home. Prices were high. There was a convenient bus line nearby, and I knew I would have taken it before I got sick . . . It wasn’t a conscious decision. I wasn’t challenging myself. It just seemed that, all of a sudden, I had options.
I walked to the corner, hopped on the bus without incident, and rode it to my destination for thirty minutes.
That week, I started applying to jobs since I’d have a way to get myself there. Soon, I was a hostess at a Buca di Beppo in Santa Monica. Any employment was a victorious return to normalcy, even if I hadn’t yet caught up with the person I thought I was going to be. Finally, after four months of seating tourists while donning a tomato-print tie, I accepted that I wouldn’t necessarily drop dead at my workplace.
By summer, I started interning at an organization where I’d wanted to work since college. It was my first glimpse into a life that had nothing to do with that one time I had a stroke. I was replying to emails and listening to music at my desk when “Come On Eileen” began playing in my headphones. I hadn’t thought about ’80s vs. ’90s night, not consciously, anyway, but I started to remember.
When a social worker told me that, one day, I would have to process almost losing my life, I wondered if it would happen during a transcendent experience in nature that reminded me I’m one with the matter in the universe. Or maybe after a particularly hard-won accomplishment only made possible by the grit I picked up in the ICU. Something symbolic, cinematic, obvious. But it actually started on a sweaty dance floor with Dexys Midnight Runners, LL Cool J, and a three-minute mashup track produced by a person called DJ Lobsterdust.When life is shrunk into three-minute intervals, you don’t have enough time to panic over what your next catastrophe might be. For so long, I thought I needed to come to terms with almost dying. I needed to come to terms with the fact I’d lived.
Rachel Sanoff is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She was previously the features editor at HelloGiggles and an essays editor at O.school, a digital sex education platform. You can read more of her work in MTV News, Jezebel, Bustle, The Guardian, and other places on the internet. Follow her on Twitterand visit her website.
I debated for a long time whether I would describe sex with Reese. I didn’t know if I could stand knowing that it might turn some readers on, that it could sustain their fantasies about underage girls. Some of you have come to this essay for the sex, whether you’d admit to it or not.