Chances are, you've never experienced amnesia yourself. From what you've picked up from TV
and movies and the like, it seems bizarre, arbitrary, and a little funny. People forget
some things, but remember
others. They may lose all memory
but can still speak, read, and write a language they don't recall learning, not to mention use any other skill they might have picked up.
Well, in real life... okay, it's still bizarre, arbitrary, and a little funny. You want to know what amnesia is like? Okay, I'll tell you.
July 15, 1997. I was at a weeklong summer camp in Seattle (Magic Camp, run by Wizards of the Coast, but that's a matter for another node.)
In any case, we were staying in dorms on the University of Washington campus, and one afternoon we went to a soccer field for some outdoor play - we broke up into informal groups and did ultimate frisbee, soccer, and myriad other diversions. I wasn't all that athletic or well-coordinated at the time, so rather than join a game, I raced someone from one end of the field to the other a few times. After that wore thin, I was persuaded by a counselor to join the soccer game after all. I had fun for a while, and did better than I expected, though I accidentally got my legs tangled and fell with another player while trying to take the ball from him. I got up, unharmed, and apologized profusely, but then a minute later I went down again, this time catching my left foot on my right.
This was not the first time I'd done such a thing. In the only league football game I ever played in, I, as a safety, tripped over my feet running backwards, knocking down the other safety and clearing the field for the game-winning touchdown. But that time I was wearing a few pounds of padding and safety gear. Today my only accessory was a pair of glasses, one of the lenses of which had fallen out when I hit the ground. As I got up and put the lens back in, I had the strongest sense of deja vu I've ever had in my life. This, too, was not a first-time thing. I'd had at least two concussions and more than my share of strong blows to the head (mostly falling out, off, or over things), all of which had been accompanied by this particular sensation. I guess it makes sense - give the brain a good jarring, and you shouldn't be surprised if it has a few problems restoring normal operations.
Unfortunately, this wasn't the end of it. I finished off the game without noticing much (how complex are your thoughts playing soccer?), and we started to go back to the dorms for the rest of the afternoon's schedule. As we walked, I tried to recall what was next, and realized I didn't know what day it was.
"Hey, guys, how many days have we been here?"
Three, or so. Okay. Wait, what exactly did we do? Damned if I could remember - all I got were little snatches of memory, brief, isolated images. Now, at the time, WotC
operated a "Game Center" in Seattle that was a frequent stop on our itinerary
. Among other things, they operated a very good BattleTech
-based "virtual reality
simulator pod" game, which was essentially a very amped-up game of MechWarrior
. At the higher levels, the game became very intricate - you would have to reroute power to damaged systems, deal with ammunition fires, and the like. Beth Moursund
, in an Elemental
on hard mode, once wiped the floor with our 3 easy-mode Timber Wolves
. But I digress. In any case, all I could dredge up was a vague image of this game. (This is Retrograde Amnesia
, the inability to recall events before the onset of the condition.)
"They have BattleTech pods here, right?"
This got me a few weird looks, and an assurance that yes, they did. Fuck. I hope I'd get to play them - come to think of it, these coming days will have a lot to live up to - after all, I don't remember anything that came before, so they'll be all I have. Wait, how many days do I have left?
"Hey, guys, how many days have we been here?
This is Anterograde Amnesia
, the inability to form new memories from after the onset. Yes, if you've seen Memento
, it actually works that way. Two minutes after I asked a question, I would forget the answer. I would forget that I had asked the question. I would forget almost everything, and start to wonder about it. This would lead me to wonder the same things and ask the same questions that I had repeatedly asked before, at 3 minute intervals. My fellow campers
mostly thought I was pulling a joke, or just being an ass. Meanwhile, I was staring wide-eyed around the city streets (condition aside, we had only taken this route once or twice anyway), and trying to make some sense of my situation.
By the time we got back to the dorm and had an hour or so free (most of us started to play games, reasonably enough), I had realized that while I knew who I was and could determine where I was in a general sense (in a dormitory in a city), I had no clue as to the specifics, and in any case had no idea why I was there or how I came to be there. Even if I couldn't maintain a train of thought for more than a few minutes, I knew something was terribly wrong, and I decided to call my parents. In an amnesiac haze, I remembered to dial 1-800-COLLECT. To this day, I have a healthy respect for the power of advertising. I told my mother everything I could think of (I hit my head, I can't remember things, I think I have amnesia). She said that I should immediately go tell a counselor about my situation. I set off to do just that, but was distracted by a box of crackers that my roommate had on his desk. I felt hungry, and I wasn't sure that I had had lunch (I knew from the sun that it was somewhere in the afternoon), so I snatched some, and by the time I ate them and resealed the box, I had forgotten about the phone call entirely.
In any case, it didn't matter too much, because apparently someone had spoken to someone else had spoken to someone else had decided that maybe I wasn't making this up, and so after being taken down to the lobby by a counselor, the camp director, a fairly nice thirtysomething named Steve took me to the UW Medical Center in an electric car. It was utterly silent driving, but the engine squealed on turns.
We showed up only to hang around in the waiting room for approximately forever (well, it's not like I was in danger of forgetting more), during which the amnesia cleared up entirely - most of what had happened since I hit my head was a blur, but I was fine on anything before that, and my short term memory was back to normal. They brought me a wheelchair, but I refused it (If I can, I always walk, rules or no. Security isn't going to kick me out.), and I was taken in for some blood tests and a CAT scan, which was mostly uneventful. For the record, those things don't give me any sense of claustrophobia at all.
Waiting in the hall for the results, the director and I played 20 Questions with Magic cards to pass the time - in retrospect, I bet he was also trying to sound out whether I'd regained full use of my mental faculties. I imagine he was pretty relieved - if I could identify Dark Maze and Wall of Kelp as the only blue walls in Homelands, he or his employers probably weren't going to get sued.
Around 10 PM I heard back - no apparent permanent damage, and I was told my memory should clear up later on. With this, we went back to the dorm. My roommate was told to wake me every two hours during the night - either to make sure I hadn't fallen into a coma and died, or to alert someone that I had fallen into a coma and died, I guess. By mutual consensus, we decided to drop the whole thing and just go to sleep. The remainder of the week passed (relatively) unremarkably.
As I had been told, with time I began to recall more and more, until about a month later, when I could recount the entire experience, as I am doing here. Ironically enough, it's now probably one of the best-remembered episodes of my life. The morning, however, appears to be permanently lost. I'm told I toured the Wizards campus and met Richard Garfield that day - I've even got a signed card (Serendib Efreet, I think) to prove it. I can't dredge up any memory whatsoever.
With the benefit of later experience, I can say that the whole experience was somewhat like a less giggly, but otherwise hyper-intense marijuana high - the memory loss, the inability to hold onto a thought, the disordered mental functioning. If you're not expecting it, though, the effect can be quite scary - you don't know how it happened, you don't know when (or if) it'll end, and no one around you has a clue what's going on. Still, in retrospect I'm glad I got to see what it's like, at least once - it was an interesting experience, one few people have had, and it gives you a pretty rare insight into how miraculous it is when things work right the rest of the time.
(Not to mention it works as a great conversation starter...)