After the birth of her son in 1996, author Caroline Leavitt was put in a medically induced coma. At the time, neither she nor her doctors knew she was suffering from a rare blood disorder, which had caused her to hemorrhage uncontrollably. Three weeks later, after five emergency surgeries, Leavitt emerged from the coma—completely and utterly confused.
Doctors had given Leavitt memory blockers to prevent her from remembering her ordeal. But when Leavitt asked friends and family about it, nobody wanted to recount the details.
“Everyone around me was traumatized,” Leavitt says. “Nobody really wanted to talk about it.” Leavitt was on her own to make sense of what had happened.
“I kept having all these terrible post-traumatic triggers,” recalls the Hoboken resident. “I’d walk into a grocery store and see soup packaging, and I’d break out in a cold sweat because it reminded me of the hospital.”
At a therapist’s recommendation, Leavitt wrote Coming Back to Me (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), about a woman who goes into a coma after childbirth. “It was very dark,” she says. “I didn’t feel better.”
The trauma continued. Leavitt was afraid to fall asleep. Certain smells bothered her. She tried another therapist, who concluded she had written the wrong book. This therapist suggested she write about a woman who remembers her coma.
The result is Leavitt’s 12th novel, With or Without You (Algonquin Books), the story of Stella, a woman who falls into a coma after mixing a bad concoction of medicines the night before her longtime boyfriend, Simon, is leaving for a gig with his band. When Stella wakes up two months later, everything has changed. She’s interested in new things; she has new talents. Meanwhile, Simon has become close with her best friend, Libby. Now, Stella must learn to fit the old pieces of her life into her new one.
Leavitt’s new perspective has given her the closure she’s been searching for.
“At literally any moment, things can change in your life,” Leavitt says. “It can be good change, or it can be something horrifying that sort of splits your life open, but if you’re open to it, it can be transcendent.”