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...)

When I was four, my mom was taking night classes at Philadelphia Community College to become a registered nurse. Sometimes my dad would let me stay up and wait for her to come home, and sometimes I snuck out of bed and waited without him knowning. I wasn't a kid who liked going to bed early.

So one night, my mom came home, and I was playing on the couch--namely, I was sitting on one of the arms, my feet on the cusions of the couch--a precarious position. I don't know how many times my parents told me not to sit like that, but I've never been good at doing what I'm told.

Well, naturally, this was the night when I finally fell. Back I went, head first into wall. I put a good-sized dent in the plaster, about a half an inch thick. I don't remember it happening. I vaugely remember my parents taking me to Children's Hospital, but really, it's a blur, except for being really hungry for french fries at the McDonalds in the hospital.

Fast forward about a year. I was rollerskating--old Fischer-Price rollerskates that you slipped your shoes into, instead of real rollerskates like the older kids. The wheels are spaced farther apart, making it more difficult to lose your balance, or so the theory goes. Well, I'm skating and I feel myself begin to fall backwards. Naturually, I reached my hand out to the wall next to me. And, naturally, I grabbed the one loose brick. So down I went, the back of my head hitting the pavement, the top of my head being hit with the brick.

That year, I started having this problem. I can be sitting, watching tv, basically doing nothing special. Someone might be talking to me, having a normal conversation. And suddenly, I can't remember who they are. I can't remember who I am, either. It usually only lasts about thirty seconds, but they are some of the worst seconds in my life.

I sit there, perfectly normal. Randomly, it's like someone hit the reset button. Like someone wiped my hard drive. But like all hard drives, the information isn't really gone, just hard to recover. It's a jolt, a literal though physically small jolt--I feel dizzy, sometimes nauseous, sometimes nothing at all. But always, I forget my entire emotional history.

My uncle died when I was 15. I remember sitting in the basement, watching tv while my mom talked to me about it. Suddenly, it came on me, and I didn't recognize her at all. I had no idea who she was, who I was, what I was doing there. After about five seconds like this, I'm able to tell myself--"You're Mary. This is your mom. This is your house." But all emotional memory is gone--I don't know her as anything other than a fact that doesn't feel at all attached to me. After a minute or so of feeling this way, it eventually returns and I'm OK.

My husband and I were in the supermarket, standing at the deli counter. And suddenly, I couldn't remember who he was. Our entire past (admittedly only three years) was gone. Who I am was gone. He knows, he understands.

For years I kept it a secret. I tried telling a few therapists about it, but they dismissed it--I suppose they just didn't know what it was or what to tell me.

There is no way to explain how terrifying it is to experience this fairly frequently. It's never for a long duration--probably the most was about a minute and a half. I spent that minute staring at myself in the mirror, waiting for what I saw to make sense.

What hurts, what scares me, is that every couple of weeks, (though sometimes I can go for months) I forget everything.

I forget my life.

I forget my family.

But the weird thing is, I also forget every stupid, embarrassing, damning thing I've ever done. I forget every argument, every petty hatred, every insult I've received and given. I forget the breakups, I forget the carjacking, I forget the reasons I drink too much and can be emotionally distant. Because at that moment, there are no emotions, there is no past.

For those few seconds, I'm free.

Am*ne"si*a (#), n. [NL., fr. Gr. ; priv. + to remember.] Med.

Forgetfulness; also, a defect of speech, from cerebral disease, in which the patient substitutes wrong words or names in the place of those he wishes to employ.

Quian.

 

© Webster 1913.

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