We've all seen movies about people who land in comas after sustaining grave injuries or serious illnesses. And though we know comas are really hard on the patient's loved ones, we seldom get to see what it's like for the people who experience comas firsthand.
From the outside, it can seem sad and perhaps a little scary to be in the same room as an unconscious body, but how much of their condition do coma patients really understand? Are they mentally there at all, or is it just the shells of them, with their consciousness floating somewhere above the room?
Thirteen people who've experienced comas opened up about their experiences, which seem to run the gamut.
Read on for a glimpse of what it's like to be in a coma.
1. Some patients compare it to being stuck in a really long dream.
According to many coma survivors, the unconscious experience feels almost like a dream, at least in retrospect. One person said it was "kind of like a normal dream where you don't have any concept of time, but things seem to be happening." This person had "about four different dreams" in their less-than-a-week coma.
Another person who was in a coma for two and a half weeks said they didn't know they were in a coma "until [they] came back."
A third said they experienced dreams as well, but they weren't at all pleasant. "I had a very high temperature and dreamed about burning alive," they write. Absolutely horrible coma dreams we wouldn't wish on our worst enemy.
2. Sometimes, you can still hear everything that's going on around you.
Per one person who survived a coma, "I could hear every word." She explains, "I heard my husband singing 'if you're happy and you know it and your wife won't let you show it...' and it HAUNTS me. I was in there the whole time. I didn't know he was unhappy or felt obligated and I was just there to make him happy." She even heard the EMT who came to her rescue, and she learned a valuable lesson from her coma: "Be nice to people because you never know who's listening these days, and to what."
The daughter of a man who was in a brief coma also opened up about their experience. According to her, her dad felt like he was still there the entire time. "He remembers having a lady performing CPR on him," she writes, and even remembers hearing someone else telling the lady to "just give up, he's gone." Thankfully she didn't give up, and the dad is fine now. Imagine the terror of being trapped and knowing you will die if the person doing CPR on you listens to the man talking to her.
3. For others, it’s complete darkness.
Although some coma survivors report they were completely lucid to the environment that was surrounding them, others say they only saw darkness during their comas.
"I was in a coma for a couple of days," writes one. "I did not hear anyone speaking. All I remember is complete darkness." One day, they just woke up disoriented with no idea of what had happened. "Apparently my family would hold my hand, talk to me, etc.," they recall. "But at one point I guess I mumbled my girlfriend's name ... so they flew her out to see me. I actually woke up the day she arrived." Sounds like a Sleeping Beauty live-action sequel should be in the works.
Another person with no recollection of the coma writes there was "literally nothing, just dead space." After an injury that caused them to break their neck and back "among other things," they had no memory of the crash, which took place on a Monday — "my last memory is of Sunday night." Between then and the time they were woken up, there were "no dreams, no hearing people, no trying to communicate, just lying there."
4. It can be like one long out-of-body experience.
Some survivors liken comas to an uncanny experience where you're wondering if you're the only person feeling what you're feeling. "If I had to compare it to real life," one writes, "I'd say it's like when you hear your name in a crowd. Or a familiar SMS ringtone notification. That feeling of confusion when you're looking around to see if anyone else heard it, too... It's like that, but with complete phrases."
They also write about the hovering sensation we hear about in movies, where the patient somehow gets a bird's-eye view of the whole hospital room. "I vaguely remember seeing myself laying in a hospital bed with my parents hovering around me," they recall. "I distinctly remember the 'moment' I woke up is when I realized that I was in a dream. It all felt like an eternity but a split-second at the same time ... There's a feeling of knowing that you're not exactly supposed to be there and there's another existence waiting for you."
Kind of fascinatingly terrifying, if you ask me.
5. Some people thought they were dead… and wonder now if they’re really alive.
One person who experienced a "medically induced" coma for over two months says the last thing they remember was "laying on a table to receive an MRI."
Next thing they knew, they had "a very long dream that just morphed into other dreams as time went on." Which, from my experience of watching The Sopranos, is supposedly what death is like.
This patient had a few "brief moments of lucid consciousness" and asked themselves the same thing. "I even contemplated if I was dead and in the afterlife," they write. I can't imagine pondering whether or not I'm still alive.
6. Some were able to communicate with people in the world.
I always thought a coma meant you were totally out to the rest of the world, but it seems some people managed to communicate with those who were in the room with them. One person writes, "I did react to my grandma once." Another time, their father asked them if they wanted anything to drink. "I remember seeing light as if you're squinting and seeing through your eyelashes," they write. "I said apple juice ... If I say apple juice today, I can still feel the sensation of the breathing tube in my throat."
Crazy where our memories and traumas are stored even after the fact.
7. Some people lead entire lives in their comas.
One person who claims he's never seen Inception had a coma that was eerily close to what Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page deal with in the film. Following an assault, he led an entire life in the span of a few brief moments, and fell into a 3-year depression even after he came to. Here's temptotosssoon's story, edited for clarity and to remove expletives:
My last semester at a certain college I was assaulted by a football player for walking where he was trying to drive (note he was 325lbs I was 120lbs), while unconscious on the ground I lived a different life.
I met a wonderful young lady, she made my heart skip and my face red, I pursued her for months and dispatched a few jerk boyfriends before I finally won her over, after two years we got married and almost immediately she bore me a daughter.
I had a great job and my wife didn't have to work outside of the house, when my daughter was two, my wife bore me a son. My son was the joy of my life, I would walk into his room every morning before I left for work and doted on him and my daughter.
One day while sitting on the couch I noticed that the perspective of the lamp was odd, like inverted. It was still in 3D but... just.. wrong. (It was a square lamp base, red with gold trim on 4 legs and a white square shade). I was transfixed, I couldn't look away from it. I stayed up all night staring at it, the next morning I didn't go to work, something was just not right about that lamp.
I stopped eating, I left the couch only to use the bathroom at first, soon I stopped that too as I wasn't eating or drinking. I stared at the lamp for 3 days before my wife got really worried, she had someone come and try to talk to me, by this time my cognizance was breaking up and my wife was freaking out. She took the kids to her mother's house just before I had my epiphany.... the lamp is not real.... the house is not real, my wife, my kids... none of that is real... the last 10 years of my life are not real!
The lamp started to grow wider and deeper, it was still inverted dimensions, it took up my entire perspective and all I could see was red, I heard voices, screams, all kinds of weird noises and I became aware of pain.... a ton of pain... the first words I said were "I'm missing teeth" and opened my eyes. I was laying on my back on the sidewalk surrounded by people that I didn't know, lots were freaking out, I was completely confused.
At some point a cop scooped me up, dragged/walked me across the sidewalk and grass and threw me face down in the back of a cop car, I was still confused.
I was taken to the hospital by the cop (seems he didn't want to wait for the ambulance to arrive) and give CT scans and [etc.]..
I went through about 3 years of horrid depression, I was grieving the loss of my wife and children and dealing with the knowledge that they never existed, I was scared that I was going insane as I would cry myself to sleep hoping I would see her in my dreams. I never have, but sometimes I see my son, usually just a glimpse out of my peripheral vision, he is perpetually 5 years old and I can never hear what he says.
The fact that this story is totally plausible is what makes it especially trippy to me. Who's to say whether we're living our lives or just stuck in the dreams of an alternate version of ourselves? I'm giving myself a headache.
8. Hallucinations and real life can blend in for a while, even after the coma wears off.
According to many people who've experienced comas, it's hard to tell reality from delusion once they've woken up.
"My coma hallucinations and my first week post-coma blend together," writes one survivor. "I saw all sorts of bizarre [things]; everything was scary but felt so real, even though it was surreal." After their experience they now understand "why psychotic people can't understand that they're hallucinating": It's because "you don't doubt your own eyes and ears."
OK. This sounds actually terrifying.
Another person writes about their sister's coma, during which she didn't register anything happening around her, but vividly recalls the delusions she had while unconscious. "While in the coma, she believed she was in places she wasn't," they write. "In a kitchen, on a TV show, at a wedding, and so on."
According to this redditor, it's a common misconception that things suddenly go back to normal for patients once they're out of their coma. In reality, "the delirium lasts for weeks." Two weeks after their sister was awake, "she still could not figure out where she was half the time." Often, she was just trying to "go home," and sometimes, she thought she was already dead.
It seems like the inner workings of the brain are absolutely beyond any understanding or rationalization. Have you or a loved one ever experienced a coma? Share your experience with us.