On March 22, 2018, I was rushed to the hospital for life-saving surgery. Due to complications with the procedure, I didn’t regain full, coherent consciousness until the second week in April. For three weeks I was stuck inside my own mind, subject to a seemingly unending series of dreams. Dreams covering on a variety of themes, some light and hopeful, others dark and dismal. I dreamed the end of my life over and over. I was a hero and a villain. Sometimes, but not often, I was Michael Fahey.
Recovery from the surgery necessary to repair an aortic dissection, in which an injury of the aortic wall allows blood to flow between its layers, forcing them apart, is normally relatively quick. My wife was told that I should have been up and talking a couple of hours after the procedure. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Doctors found they could not pull me off the ventilator—if they removed it, I stopped breathing. To make matters worse, as I regained consciousness and discovered the breathing tube down my throat, I panicked and attempted to claw it out. So I was heavily sedated for two weeks. I was treated with paralytic drugs so I could not pull the tubes if I did wake up. I wasn’t in a coma, but I wasn’t conscious, either.
So where was I, as my body lay prone in the intensive care unit at Kennestone Hospital? I was inside of my head. My subconscious wove layer after layer of fictitious narrative, keeping itself occupied as my body healed. I dreamt of superheroes and villains. Of being in exotic lands I’d never had a chance to visit. I gambled for my existence in dark, twisted places. I said goodbye to my life surrounded by my family in the far future. I attempted, through circuitous subconscious methods, to procure pizza and frozen beverages.
This motley collection of visions and medication-fueled delusions have been part of me since the incident. They linger on the edge of my consciousness, rising to the fore during quiet moments, triggered by a familiar sound, sight or scent.
I share these dreams to understand them better and maybe to lessen their power. I’m also sharing them because I hope they might help other people understand what their loved ones who wind up under sedation might be experiencing as family and friends sit at their side. I don’t share this to upset people or discomfort them, as uncomfortable as some of these dreams may be, but instead to provide some insight to the mind, the heart, or even the soul, and to show how those parts of us may seek hope even when our bodies have let us down..
There is no set order to most of the dreams I experienced during my hospital stay, but I do recall how they began: in a world of rust and crimson dust, the air dry, the skies the color of mud. I sat inside a dilapidated storefront in front of a static-filled television, watching for some sign that society was more than mute things scuttling in the dark.
I ran a shop, though there were never any customers, and all I was selling was scraps and junk. Old empty cans, sticks tied together with twine, bits of cardboard with faded retail logos that had lost their significance long ago. I gathered these things in the hopes that others would come for them. I sat and muttered incomprehensibly, trying to remember a time when life had meaning. I scrabbled about for hope and listened to discordant music.
The wasteland dream was the first, and I spent what felt like a great deal of time trapped inside. It was a haunting place, like something out of David Firth’s twisted Salad Fingers shorts, rough, scratchy, and soul-crushingly sad. That this was the place my mind conjured in reaction to my nearly dying terrifies me.
I never really “woke” from the wasteland dream. I just went to a better place.
How do you wake up from a dream when you’re too sedated to actually regain consciousness?
Imagine a massive hole in the Earth, a perfectly circular pit with brown rock walls. Rising up from the center of this pit is a cylindrical plateau covered with soft, green grass. The plateau is high enough to be touched by sunlight passing overhead, but still so low that I can’t see over the sides of the pit. That’s where I would find myself every time I “woke.”
In video game terms, the grassy plateau was my central hub, the area I returned to between subconscious fantasies. It’s where I would realize whichever dream or nightmare I’d just experienced wasn’t real. It’s the only place in my reverie I felt I had any sort of control, if only imagined. “Waking” from a particularly harrowing vision, like a return visit to the wasteland, I would think “Something different, please,” or “Don’t take me back there.” Sometimes it felt as if someone was listening, taking notes and influencing where I went next.
Whatever it was, the grassy plateau was a safe place. To this day, when I feel troubled, I imagine myself lying in that warm grass, and I feel better.
I’ve always wanted to visit Japan. To walk through arcades filled with colorful cabinets and reeking of stale cigarette smoke, or wind my way through the streets of Akihabara, ducking into stores to purchase incomprehensible electronic devices and colorful toys. I want to drink yogurt drinks in a place where they make sense, and eat perfectly-crafted cakes with sliced strawberries on top.
I visited Japan multiple times during my hospital stay, or at least my idealized notion of the country. My first dream visit involved walking along a raised crosswalk over a busy street, some sort of handheld Pokémon device in my hand. It wasn’t a Game Boy or DS of any sort. More like one of the old Pikachu pedometers, a small LCD display in a translucent yellow shell, giving me Japanese travel tips. It was raining, and I wore a transparent plastic raincoat. Years of limited edition game consoles and controllers have linked the country with clear plastic in my mind.
My second visit to dream Japan was more structured. In the dream, I was tasked with learning about my supposedly long-lost uncle, a reclusive yet prolific sculptor of racy Japanese anime statues. Borderline hentai stuff, women in mechs flashing panties, that sort of thing. I traveled from smoky flea market-style shops to back-alley auctions, learning about this man who didn’t actually exist. He seemed like a nice guy, for a relative scumbag.
My final trip to pseudo-Tokyo took an incredibly dark turn. I was a technician tasked with reliving the memories of a murder victim captured via—and this is very strange—a Pokémon experience recorder. It was a handheld electronic device that acts as a Pokémon-themed journal, recording what its users think, see, and feel when they hold it. While not designed as a crime-solving device, authorities discovered they could use it to retrace the final moments of the victims of violent crime. And so I wandered the streets of Japan as a young, female Pokémon fan, knowing that, at any moment, she was going to be viciously attacked. My heart pounded, my breathing was heavy. At times I was overwhelmed by the user’s emotions.
I do not want to go into how that nightmare ended. Of all of my unconscious visions, it’s the one I would most like to forget.
Here’s a fun fact about me. Apparently, my subconscious equates Marvel Comics with good things, and DC Comics with bad. Or at least that’s how it played out over the multiple comic book-themed dreams I experienced during my hospital stay. Marvel equaled bright and happy, while DC dreams were always dark and sinister.
For example, I dreamt I was in a hospital room in downtown Atlanta, which wasn’t a huge stretch, as I was actually in a hospital on the outskirts of the city. They film a lot of Marvel movies in Atlanta, so I sent out a call (I could do that) for Marvel heroes to come and save me. The Avengers were in town filming Infinity War, and I was assured they were on their way. And so the day was saved.
Other fun Marvel dreams include being an ambassador between superheroes and regular humans in the 1970s (I could speak Wakandan), and making an epic pilgrimage to attend a wake for Thor. Oh, Thor died. I guess that was sad.
But that was not nearly as sad as my DC Comics nightmares. I found myself in a competition with the Joker, Poison Ivy, and the Penguin to create deadly cakes, because of course they are all known for their baking. At first, it seemed like I was undercover for a secret government organization, infiltrating the competition, but it turns out I was the real bakery killer all along. I vividly remember hating this turn of events, actively railing against my subconscious to change it. I wanted to be a good guy. Whatever was influencing the dream wanted me to be evil.
I was Dick Grayson, formerly Robin of Batman and Robin fame, using my detective skills to cover up my string of gang murders. It would have made more sense if I were Jason “Red Hood” Todd, but a Robin is a Robin. Later, I would be the producer of a television show starring my stepfather as the leader of a group of evil Teen Titans.
I don’t know the reason for the disparity between the two comic book publishers in my dreamspace. I’ve always enjoyed comics and characters from both sides equally. Or so I thought.
A recurring dream theme that makes perfect sense, given my medical condition at the time, was the struggle between life and death. My wife tells a story about a nurse who was present during one of her early-morning visits to my hospital room. The nurse told her that he spent most of the night trying to wean me off the sedation. He’d start reducing the amount of drugs I was getting, I’d start to crash, and he’d up the dose again to stabilize me. With that sort of action going on, it’s no wonder I dreamed of playing games of chance with my life on the line.
One vision involved a battle between myself, a representative for humanity, and an anthropomorphic chicken. In this bizarre scenario, scientists had supposedly cloned animal hybrids that were perfectly fine being used for food. Why create sentient food beings? I don’t know, man. Point is, this weird chicken thing with arms and legs and armor and metal claws wouldn’t let us eat him unless we earned his respect in life or death combat. I don’t recall much of the actual battle, but the leadup to the fight was excruciating. Days of posturing. Birds are weird.
Another battle for my life, more of a gamble, still haunts me. Somehow I was deep under the ocean, in inky blackness, playing poker with a group of naga, or humanoid serpents. If I won, I received a giant bottle of some sort of whiskey. If I lost, I would be killed. Now, I am not a drinker, so I have no idea how I would have gotten into this strange situation. But there I was, playing cards amid inky swirls of darkness, my breath bubbling in my lungs, making a horrible gurgling sound.
I later realized the gurgling noise was coming from myself. One of the reasons I was having trouble breathing was my lungs were filling with fluid, causing me to gurgle as the respirator helped me breathe. Bubbling sounds make me ill to this day.
Know what else I wasn’t doing in the hospital that first couple of weeks, besides being conscious? I was not eating or drinking. In fact, thanks to the tracheotomy my doctors eventually performed in order to slowly wean me off the respirator, I did not take food or drink by mouth until the end of May. So I dreamt about food.
Not sitting and eating food. That would be easy. Instead, I dreamt about events involving food. For instance, one lengthy dream involved the re-release of the original Star Wars in theaters. According to my subconscious hallucinations, restaurants across the country were offering a special large pizza and pitcher of Coke deal, and I craved sweet, sparkling sugar water and hot, melted cheese. In my dream I saw commercials for the deal. I walked by restaurants, peeking in to see others devouring pizza and cola. Never once did I get to partake. My dreams can be real assholes.
I was a talking rat in a post-apocalyptic world, teaching my fellow rodents how to make baked Italian subs, but I could not eat them due to horrific heartburn. I was at a cast party for a Spanish-language Hollywood blockbuster, but the lavish spread of finger foods made my stomach churn. Later I learned that the Ensure nutrition drinks I was being fed through a tube directly into my stomach were triggering acid reflux. It’s pretty amazing how what’s going on with the body manifests in the unconscious mind. My stomach hurts just thinking about it.
Many of the dreams I experienced during my sedation revolved around family. Not always my family, but certainly being a member of some sort of familial unit. One moment, I was meeting up with my mother and my older brother and sister later in life, catching up with one another while lounging about my penthouse high above a gleaming silver city. The next, I was an anthropomorphic personification of autumn, an ethereal being like something out of a Neil Gaiman comic, meeting up with my siblings one last time before the world ended. There was even a very strange sequence set in a future where people can reproduce by eating alien plants at McDonald’s, but that one’s fading fast in my memory.
My favorite family dream involved my older brother and sister, Richard and Phyllis. I was dying, which wasn’t great, but we knew it was coming, so it wasn’t all that bad. My siblings met me in Japan. This was a follow-up to the very dark sequence I mentioned earlier. They’d signed me up for a service that would allow me to die in virtual reality as my favorite song played. I don’t recall the song. I do recall being at peace. It was a good way to go.
What’s missing here? I am a son and a sibling, but I am also a husband and a father. My wife, Emily, and my children, seven-year-old twins Archer and Seamus, never appeared in my dreams. They were not mentioned. There were no pictures. I love all three of them, more than anything, but my subconscious censored them from my dreams.
I don’t think my mind could handle the thought of losing them. Of leaving them behind.
My first conscious memory after going under sedation for the procedure in March is seeing my wife Emily standing over me in mid-April. According to my family, I’d been in and out of consciousness for days, now and then mumbling incoherent nonsense. My eyes would open and wander about my hospital room, never focusing on any one thing, probably because no one knew to give me my glasses.
Bits of the room began to infiltrate my dreams. The wall-mounted computer running the Windows ribbons screensaver became a device that I could use to purchase and materialize snacks from television commercials. The industrial fans on the roof of the building outside my window became freezer units for an ice cream truck. One of my night shift nurses, a young man with a short and scraggly beard, showed up in one of my nightmares, seeing if he could get my foot to move using a scalpel. My younger sister Nadine visited, and I hallucinated a lengthy conversation with her that, in actuality, ended up being me quietly mouthing words she didn’t understand—I couldn’t speak with the tracheotomy.
In late May I finally came off the ventilator. My trach tube was removed. I could speak. After a little training to make sure I could swallow, I started to eat and drink. My hands and arms slowly regained movement. My lower body... well, who knows; one day that might come back.
Sometimes we struggle to hold on to a dream. It’s fresh in the mind upon waking, but quickly fades. Not these dreams. These had time to seep in and leave indelible imprints. The smells, sounds, sights and feelings were just there, as accessible as any waking memory. They may as well have been real.
For a while after waking up, it was difficult distinguishing my sedation dreams from reality. As far-fetched as many of them were, they were such a strong part of who I was during my unconscious period that they felt less like remembered dreams than memories of things that never actually happened. There are real emotions tied to those visions. I recall being a murderous Batman villain and I feel guilty. To this day I think back to the desolate storefront from The Wasteland and my heart rate briefly quickens in panic. One of the reasons I talk so much about my dreams to friends and family is to confirm to myself that none of it was real. Part of me still isn’t sure.
It’s been a year since I was rushed to the hospital. A year since I went under for surgery and the parade of strange dreams began. The Japan dreams. The comic book dreams. The dreams of death and life beyond. Dozens of stories made up by my subconscious mind to help me deal with my faltering body, or at least distract me while it healed.
I still dream. In fact, I dream more nowadays than I ever did before. Sometimes I even find myself revisiting the less pleasant dreamscapes that emerged during my sedation. Only now I can wake up any time I want.