Whether it’s not remembering someone’s name, an item on your mental grocery list, or even something as simple as why you’ve entered a room in the first place, we all experience moments of forgetfulness. Our brains are so full of information that it would be nearly impossible to remember everything, but can you imagine suffering memory loss so great that periods of time in your life become entirely foreign? Or picture not being able to make or retain new memories such as remembering what you ate for breakfast or meeting new people.
This is what amnesia, also known as an amnestic syndrome, can be like for some.
Amnesia is the result of physical factors such as injury, infection, or other trauma that impairs brain function or a psychological cause, like a traumatic experience that serves as a trigger for the loss of memory. Amnesia can be temporary or permanent; those that experience temporary amnesia may eventually regain lost memories or experience the ability to create new memories. Sadly, in situations where there has been extensive physical damage to the brain, memory loss may be permanent.
This video of Su Meck, author of a memoir entitled, I Forgot to Remember, talks about how she lost all her memories from the first 22 years of her life due to a traumatic brain injury.
LIVING WITH AMNESIA
Situations vary in each patient; however, the most common symptoms of amnesia include:
● Inability to recall information, events, people, time periods, and/or experiences
● Difficulty recalling past events that occurred before the beginning of the amnesia – also referred to as retrograde amnesia
● Difficulty remembering new information or events that occur after the beginning of the amnesia – also called anterograde amnesia
● “Memories” of events that didn’t happen, or confusion about when actual events occurred
● General confusion
To fully grasp the enormous effect of amnesia on a person’s life, it’s important to think about how much our memories shape who we are. Our ability to remember the experiences, places, people, and events of the past influences our present day decision making, preferences, personality, and overall outlook..
Simply put, our past provides a link to our present and our future.
According to Everyday Psychology, “Memories can suddenly strike and inflict anxiety and panic in an otherwise harmless situation. Mental noise disrupts the lives of many people. Memories have the capacity to alter our feelings, change our world view, and perception of the realities that surround us.”
Those that suffer from amnesia are forced to adapt to not being able to remember things from the past or be deprived of the chance to make new memories in the future.
CLIVE WEARING: AN EXTREME CASE OF AMNESIA
Clive Wearing is a former renowned British musicologist, conductor, tenor, and keyboardist, known for editing the works of Orlande de Lassus. Wearing is also known as suffering from the worst case of amnesia ever recorded.
In 1985 when Wearing was in his mid-40s, he contracted herpes encephalitis, a brain infection that attacks the nervous system, resulting in chronic anterograde amnesia, as well as retrograde amnesia. As a result,not only is Wearing unable to recall his past memories, but he lacks the ability to form new ones. For example, if Wearing is asked a question, by the time he goes to answer, he may have already forgotten what was asked.
His profound case has drawn much attention, as his memory typically lasts between 7 and 30 seconds.
Wearing’s wife, Deborah, wrote in her 2005 memoir, Forever Today, “It was as if every waking moment was the first waking moment. Clive was under the constant impression that he had just emerged from unconsciousness because he had no evidence in his own mind of ever being awake before…I haven’t heard anything, seen anything, touched anything, smelled anything,’ he would say. ‘It’s like being dead.’”
In studying his case, researchers found that his capacity for explicit memories was damaged, however, his implicit memory was largely intact. Wearing is able to do motor tasks such as read piano music, that he learned prior to the hippocampal damage; however, he would likely have no recollection of doing so minutes after completing the task.
As the months and years passed since Wearing’s diagnosis, with no improvement o his condition, he went on to live at a chronic psychiatric unit (a room he lived in for years but was never able to recognize as his own) and then a small country residence for the brain-injured. His only constants have been Deborah and his music, for which he remembers almost nothing unless he’s actually playing.
In a 2007 article in The New Yorker about Wearing written by Oliver Sacks, he says, “It has been twenty years since Clive’s illness, and, for him, nothing has moved on. One might say he is still in 1985 or, given his retrograde amnesia, in 1965. In some ways, he is not anywhere at all; he has dropped out of space and time altogether. He no longer has any inner narrative; he is not leading a life in the sense that the rest of us do.”
TREATMENT FOR AMNESIA
Clive Wearing’s case of amnesia is extreme and utterly devastating but showcases how powerful our brains and memories truly are, and that often it’s the people closest to us that give us the strength to face the battles ahead.
Depending on the diagnosis, the good news is that several treatment options are available for both neurological and dissociative amnesia. Whether it’s occupational therapy, psychotherapy, nutrition, or hypnosis, there is hope.
Click here for Amnesia treatment options, as well as other amnesia resources and information.
HOW TO SUPPORT A LOVED ONE WITH AMNESIA
Here is a video about a real-life married couple’s experience with amnesia, and how they were able to weather the challenges of his brain disorder:
Coping and supporting a family member or friend suffering from amnesia poses its challenges and frustrations. It can even lead to depression and anxiety.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you support and care for your loved one suffering from amnesia:
● Encourage treatment. Help exists, and it’s important for your loved one to embrace the various opportunities to aid in their recovery
● Be a part of your loved one’s medical appointments. Given the nature of this disorder, your presence and participation will prove effective when communicating with their doctors
● Make your own self-care a priority. In managing the stress of being close to someone with such a serious brain disorder, your overall wellness is crucial. You cannot fully support others if your own mental health tank is not full
● Keep things as light as possible. Those suffering from amnesia may already be under a tremendous amount of stress. Try and provide a safe and secure environment for them to be themselves
● Use technology and other tools to create a reminder and organizational systems for your loved one. These will help with daily functioning and keep things running as smoothly as possible
● Embrace the help of other family members and friends, as you cannot do this all on your own!
● Whether online or locally, seek out a support group. You’ll find that sometimes the best comfort is realizing that other people are going through a similar situation and you are not alone!
Please remember that your friends here at The United Brain Association are supportive of your efforts and are tirelessly working toward research and cures for amnesia and other brain disorders.