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To the Edge and Back : Mary Kay Blakely Checked Out of Stress, and Into a Coma; Now, She Has Advice for All Women With Too Much to Do

Times Staff Writer

A popular line of thinking these days holds that women are so exhausted all the time because they are trying to do too much.

Phooey, says Mary Kay Blakely.

“Women aren’t trying to do too much,” she said, walking through the Boston Common on a sticky-steamy, hot summer day. “There’s too much to do.”

Jobs that require travel and 60-hour weeks . . . husbands who mean well, but can never quite figure out how to work the clothes dryer . . . children who need braces and ballet lessons, and who also need mom to drive them to and from the braces appointments and the ballet lessons . . . husbands and children who rely on mom for breakfast and dinner, even if they do give her time off for lunch . . . aging parents who lean heavily on their adult daughters . . . siblings who may be suffering from mental or physical maladies . . . car payments . . . house payments. . . .

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“We don’t have any free brain cells,” Blakely said. “All of them have to be functioning all the time.”

Facing the Real Challenge

It’s an enormous trunk of responsibilities that the American woman of the 1980s hauls around with her each day. Sometimes, it seems that the real challenge is how to step back and unload. Blakely, an author and journalist, mother of two, took a rather novel approach.

“Well,” said Blakely in a bright, cheerful voice, “I went into a coma.”

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It may seem an extreme solution to the dilemma of what Blakely agrees should rightly be termed today’s overworking woman.

“For the same amount of time and money that I went into a coma, I could have spent a year in Key West,” Blakely said. “That’s what I’m going to do next time.”

But her experience of nine days in a comatose state does offer certain lessons, Blakely said. Just published, her first book, “Wake Me When It’s Over” (Times Books, $17.95), chronicles how her brush with death taught her to reassess her life and to renegotiate her relationships with those around her.

Coming to a Screeching Halt

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Her abrupt plunge into the abyss of unconsciousness brought her fast-track life to a screeching halt, Blakely said. On the day before she ended up in the intensive care unit at New York’s St. Vincent Hospital, her “typical” workday included meetings with a dozen editors and fellow writers, two job interviews, a meal with old friends, an appointment with a real estate agent and a speech before 300 people.

For this she had flown in from Michigan, where she and her ex-husband juggled their two sons in a complicated custody arrangement. Her career was in New York; the man she loved was in Washington. Unresolved grief over the suicide two years earlier of her beloved brother Frank, a manic-depressive, still plagued her. As a free-lance writer, Blakely was never free of money worries.

And if life wasn’t complicated enough, Blakely, a diabetic, had recently had exploratory lung surgery for what was finally classified as sarcoidosis, a strange, autoimmune condition. Infection set in during surgery, and, as a result, Blakely was walking around with a plastic tube in her chest to provide an exit route for a troublesome ooze from her pleural cavity. Occasionally the pipe volunteered impolite noises, but unfortunately it failed to drain any of the pressure off Blakely’s existence.

“I knew I was in trouble,” Blakely said. “I saw the warning signs clearly. I knew I had to change my life. I could see the picture of my life that I wanted to get to. But I couldn’t get from here to there.”

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On the plane from Michigan to New York that day she downed two stiff drinks, quickly. She rebuffed the seatmate who wanted to make small talk with her. She could feel the stress storming up inside her. She felt lousy from one end of her body to the other. She told herself it must be the flu.

In New York, those same “flu” symptoms forced her to cancel her business meetings. She apologized to Larry Allen, her lover, when she couldn’t pull herself out of bed. Her dreams that day and into the night were about death. Sometime late that night, March 23, 1984, “the slim tether lines anchoring my mind snapped, and I floated out to the edge of human life.”

It was Allen who called 911, the emergency number, when he couldn’t rouse her. “I think it’s a coma,” he told the dispatcher who took his report. “Diabetes. Type one.”

Blakely has no memory of how she actually fell into the coma. But she does remember that in the dream she had just before she fell asleep, she felt herself being pulled toward “this incredible white light.” Since then, she has talked to numerous brain scientists and survivors of the near-death experience. She has read accounts from other cultures. All describe the same piercing white light.

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“It may very well be that that is the chemical state of the brain when you are near death,” Blakely said. She smiled, because “it is an extraordinary pleasant feeling. I didn’t want to come back.”

In her coma, Blakely’s body functioned “like a broken transmitter--I could receive, but I couldn’t send messages.” Officially, the doctors said that her brain waves were “irregular.” Any damage might be permanent, they said, but maybe not. Diabetic comas are neither rare nor common. But it is rare for someone to pull out of a coma with a brain no worse for the wear.

Sometimes Blakely could hear her sister, Gina, who discounted the doctors’ dire predictions by flippantly declaring, “Mary Kay’s brain waves are always a little irregular.” Gina set up shop in the hospital and read her comatose sister short stories from J. D. Salinger. Blakely recounts now that she could feel Gina’s hand on her forehead. She knew when Allen was present, and imagined that she could see the swarm of doctors hovering over her.

“But I couldn’t respond.” Blakely couldn’t speak or open her eyes. Her body showed no response to outside stimuli, and Blakely felt no pain, none at all. Time meant nothing. It could have been nine days, nine hours or nine minutes. Her brain turned into a kind of soup kettle, mixing in elements from the past and the present. She imagined that she was in a surreal reprogramming center, and that her mandate was to relive her entire life.

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With massive medication and intense attention from the battery of physicians, Blakely’s vital signs began to stabilize within a week. But it was still several days before she awakened to find Larry and Gina, as well as several of her friends, beaming over her. In her brain soup, it occurred to Blakely that none of these people really belonged together. She wondered for a moment if she was in Washington, Chicago or New York.

“You’ve been in a coma,” Larry told her. “He kept repeating ‘coma,’ ” Blakely writes, “wanting me to understand.”

When Blakely talks about the changes in her life since she came out of the coma, she speaks first in global terms. Now 41 and a columnist for Lear’s magazine, Blakely came of age in the heady heyday of the women’s movement. Much of her 20s were spent as a founding member of something called the Ft. Wayne Feminists. Her first national writing assignments were for the Hers column of the New York Times, writing about issues of concern to contemporary women.

So one thing she will say about her coma is that it “speeded up” something for her that she suspects had been happening to many, many other women as well--applying the broad, social principles of the women’s movement to their own personal lives.

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“Everyone said the women’s movement died during the 1980s,” Blakely said, now sitting in air conditioning and sipping an iced cappuccino. “But my suspicion is that other people had what happened to me. I wanted to put the theories of the 1970s into effect in my own life. In the ‘80s, all of us took the information from the ‘70s, from the debris of the battle over the ERA, and applied it at home and at work.

“This is a very private battle, a quiet war,” Blakely said. “I think the ‘80s were quiet, but tremendous changes were taking place.”

Emerging from her coma, “everything I had been trying to say became incredibly visible,” Blakely said.

And then, after the coma, “I re-entered a world that was genuinely altered. Everyone’s expectations of me had changed, and my own expectations of myself were not the same.” She no longer assumed she had to do everything for everyone else, Blakely said. What’s more, the rest of the world did not expect her to do it all, either.

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Blakely is whisper-thin, with fine, silvery hair that hangs to her shoulders. Normally she is noted for her quick wit and non-stop bons mots. But certain political issues can fire her up faster than a NASA space vehicle.

For example, “I hate the term Mommy Track, I just really hate it,” Blakely declared. She despises this trendy new description of women who work in fancy jobs for a while, then leave to raise children because “it suggests that only women should be responsible for doing the emotional work at home.” She resents the implication that women in high-pressure jobs can’t somehow be aggressive and strong in the corporate world, then “switch gears” and be kind and nurturing at home.

“If that is true, then what have women and children been living with for all these years--men who aren’t even expected to switch gears. That’s not healthy for the family. That means men can’t make that switch either.”

Women, Blakely believes, “are really emotionally gifted.” In addition to doing “90% of the emotional work” at home and in the workplace--not to mention, study after study confirms, virtually all the housework--"we are responsible to make the changes at home and at work. Nobody knows how draining that is.”

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This kind of role-conditioning also puts women in a supplicant position, Blakely said. “As long as we are petitioning for change, we are asking. I don’t think we should be asking. I think we should just quit. As long as we’re asking, we’re dependent on the answer for any kind of power or permission.”

Teaching women’s studies at Indiana University and elsewhere, Blakely often advised married female students who had children to “take a week off.” A month would be even better, she said, but “the only way your mate is going to know what your life is like is you leave, and you leave for at least a week. Everything you have been trying to communicate will be so much easier.

“If you try to tell them, it will be futile,” she cautioned. “It will be like a white person trying to understand what a black person’s life is like.”

Although she quips that she was “hauled back” from her coma because she had so many stories overdue, she turns serious long enough to say that “it could be that because I am a writer, it is my job to write about this event in a way that other people will know before it happens to them.”

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Her own circumstances were unusual--"this is a very peculiar body I live in,” Blakely said. But there are a lot of people running around with similarly overheaped plates. Depression abounds, Blakely said, far more frequently than it is recognized or diagnosed. Stress has so taken over people’s lives that the simple joys of life just a decade ago have all but disappeared.

“I remember in Ft. Wayne, Ind., lots of dinner parties. We sat on the floor for hours,” Blakely said. “Friendship was our main entertainment.

“Now you call a friend and you say, ‘Let’s get together for lunch,’ and you have to go six weeks to find some white space on the calendar. People are too busy. It’s crazy.”

Material acquisitiveness, jobs that “bubble over” far beyond an eight-hour day and the desire for a rich family life have got women in the squeeze, she said. “We’ve really got to have flex time,” Blakely said. ‘We have to do this for everyone--men and women. We need it to spend time with aging parents, kids, people with a family member with AIDS, everyone.”

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Blakely’s own life has slowed down since the coma. She and Allen live away from the madness of Manhattan, in Greenwich, Conn. Mindful that “there really is a limited time that my kids will be living with me,” she makes it a point to be an active part of the lives of her sons, ages 14 and 15.

“Obviously, there is some recidivism,” she said. “I do get frantic, just like I did before. But it really feels different. I honestly feel that if nobody dies, it’s not an emergency.”

Blakely’s book has made her something of a reluctant expert on the subject of comas. “I no longer feel the urge to list it on my resume,” she said, although here she is, writing a first-person article on the topic for Life magazine.

She cringes when people brand her as some kind of hero for making it through her ordeal. “It feels to me almost the opposite of heroic,” Blakely said. “Knowledge and information could have prevented this disaster.”

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And as she embarks on a tour to publicize her book, “I have nightmares about going on TV and having 2 1/2 minutes to discuss my life as ‘The Coma Lady.’ ” The first time she saw herself billed that way, “I felt like a tabloid headline.”

Not so secretly, she said: “I can’t wait to move on from this topic.”

She is saving string for a novel, and writing about non-coma issues in her magazine column. She continues her political activism, marching, for example, in last year’s pro-abortion demonstration in Washington under a banner that read “Menopausal Women Who Are Nostalgic for Choice.”

She has moved beyond the post-coma period when she suffered from insomnia, worrying each time she tried to go to sleep that “God, the last time I closed my eyes I lost nine days.” She feels blessed, because even though she does sometimes wonder about her brain cells when she puts the wax paper in the refrigerator, no neurologist has found any trace of permanent damage from her coma.

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And now, whenever she gets on an airplane, “I’m never afraid. I think, ‘Hey, this won’t crash, I’ve done my number.’ I had so much tragedy hit one life at one time that I feel like I’ve paid my dues.”

Blakely feels “lucky to be back.” She returned with new power, new sureness about herself and the world around her. And she came back with one giant-sized epiphany, the insight she would like to pass along to others.

“You really can’t change other people,” Blakely said. “You can really only change yourself.”


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