When I was eighteen years old, my life broke cleanly in two.

My memory had been so completely destroyed that I couldn’t remember that I couldn’t remember.

An orange Cannondale racing bicycle delivered me to a fracture on the island of Martha’s Vineyard on the Fourth of July, 1999. An oncoming Nissan Pathfinder, driven by a sixteen-year-old with a carload of friends, turned across my path. Police present at the scene estimated my speed at the moment of impact above thirty miles per hour.

Much later I saw a photo of the car. It showed a windshield broken as if struck by a bowling ball. My head made that spider web of cracks. My body broke off the side mirror. My bike, cracked in two, scratched the side panels as momentum carried me along and dumped me on the pavement. The medics reported that I was combative. They cut off my backpack, detatched me from my clipless pedals, injected a sedative, and loaded me into a helicopter bound for Massachusetts General Hospital on the mainland.

I don’t remember a thing about the accident. Those three words became like a mantra.

I don’t remember… what happened.

I don’t remember… why I’m in the hospital.

I don’t remember… the last two years of my life.

Memory isn’t just one operation. It’s complex, broken up into different types and processes, and our imperfect knowledge about memory comes from studying people like me – people with amnesia – and also people with degenerative brain disorders.

The doctors warned my parents, and they warned my girlfriend. He might be different when he wakes. Brain trauma can change a person, especially cases so serious. He might be mean. Disagreeable. You might never again speak with the same person.

I woke after three days, aching and stupid. I asked why I was in the hospital so many times that the question feels like the shadow of a real memory. My family worried over me in the ICU as I slowly advanced through stages of near-infantile confusion to the capacity of a ten-year-old.

Two weeks later, the torture began.

They moved me to a rehabilitation center. Every day demonstrated the futility of my efforts.

“Say these numbers back to me: five, three, eight, six.”

“Um. Did you say five?”

Occupational therapy and speech therapy were like the rack and the iron maiden to my pulverized brain. Those wonderful, dedicated, talented women would clap me in irons daily to inflict pain. I hated failure. I hated myself. I hated the rehab center. I hated the ache in my jaw provoked by the meat served on cafeteria trays. Say, wasn’t I vegetarian before, you know, before all this?

“If you ate one red M&M and then one blue M&M, what was the color of the first M&M?”

“I don’t know.”

Denise, my occupational therapist, asked me to write down my meals. She wanted a full report on what I ate for breakfast, what I found for snacks in the trove my family brought during their visits. I forgot to write down what I was supposed to write down to remember. And this was my life. My memory had been so completely destroyed that I couldn’t remember that I couldn’t remember. The notepad traveled around in my pocket like a piece of lint – useless and ignored and when found tossed aside because “What was this for?”

Getting lost in the rehab center was standard operating procedure. I didn’t know where my room was. I didn’t know where the PT facility was. Hey, they had a pool in here?

Then one day I saw the red cover and the black spiral of my notepad and an explosion of memory speared my mind. This was for writing, writing down something about food.

The explosions, those shocking moments when a series of neurons connect and fire together, they started happening more often. Pudding, chicken, and cereal. Soup, hotdogs, and iced tea.  Food began to fill up the pages of my memory journal. Then Denise stopped going easy on me. The torture escalated.

“What did you do in physical therapy today?”

“I don’t remember.”

“When did you last speak with your mother or father?”

I gazed out the window and wondered which day of the week it was. It looked like summer.

After a few weeks, they let me move home with my parents and continue therapy as an outpatient. Everything at home told me about something I had forgotten. I was supposed to go to college next month. I had been training to join the cross-country running team. Dozens of get-well cards said they were sorry. Photos surrounded me that I couldn’t place, places stared at me that I couldn’t name, names were gone like the future that was supposed to be waiting for me. Gone.

It wasn’t nice to be home.

Major depressive disorder is a frequent complication of [traumatic brain injury] that exerts a deleterious effect on the recovery process and psychosocial outcome of patients with brain injuries. (Jorge, Richardo, et al. Article.)

The weirdest part was looking at the photos. Not only did I not remember where and when many of them were taken, but I didn’t know that person in my body. Who was that? It wasn’t me. My parents confirmed it. My girlfriend agreed. So did the people who, evidently, were my friends. I was different. A different person. “I liked the old Dan better,” my father said.

My jaw, they discovered, was broken. “Wire it shut,” they said and wire it shut they did. For the next five weeks, I would drink calories through a straw, waste away to skin and bones because sucking is no way to eat.

At that time, I wanted nothing more than to go back, to return to my life and return to a personality everybody liked better, whatever it was. But I was off trail, standing in a wilderness that didn’t look familiar. There was no way to retrace my path, no landmarks or features showing me the way back.

That was the break. The fracture that split my life in two.

And life, as they say, went on. For me. For others. Proof arrived in the mail six weeks after the accident.

Please remit payment within four weeks after receiving this notification. You owe $2,650 in damages to our client’s Nissan Pathfinder.


5 thoughts on “AMNESIA

  1. This is a perspective I haven’t seen you write or speak of the accident from. I didn’t know what your day to day life in rehabilitation was like and, reading this, I now realize that there was no way to know – at least not to this extent. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Wow, thanks for sharing. I remember hearing about the accident. I even think Jed was with me when he heard. I remember the perspective from Jed, your friend, seeing how much you had changed. How he could see your pain. But also his pain in going through it from his side. How incredibly hard…

    • Exactly. The experience was hard for me but also for Jed, my family, Kate, and others. It’s amazing how a random event in a single person’s life can ripple out through the world, creating turmoil along the way. And some of that damage doesn’t seem to fade.

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