AMNESIA: Memory as Identity

At eight years old, I was fascinated by the movie Regarding Henry. It stars Harrison Ford. His character suffers a traumatic brain injury from a gunshot wound. Henry has to piece his life back together, but the viewer knows he will never be the same, and in his case, that’s a good thing. He was a bastard before the mugging. Henry’s forgotten who he was and his memory’s been wiped clean. It’s a story of redemption through head trauma.

Never did I expect to go through a similar experience – in reverse. When you don’t start as a backstabbing, adulterous, mean guy and end up an angel, it’s a little harder to make meaning from the challenges of recreating yourself. When there’s no predetermined plot arc showing you the way to go, it feels a lot like being cut adrift.

Who am I?

I’m a collection of memories housed in a brain with unique wiring. But what happens when the structure gets jostled? What happens when some of the memories are dislodged and the wiring rerouted?

Am I the same person?

You could say we change every day, since we’re making new memories every day. And that’s true – to an extent. It’s a gentle change, though, a glacial shift hardly noticeable because the pace is typically so bloody slow.

An oncoming car connecting with a noggin at more than thirty miles per hour – that’s a recipe for fast change.

College.

I took only three classes, which earned me my first embarrassing C-level grades. My jaw had just been released from its metal prison, so I was eating again. I went to the dining hall and ran into a pretty girl from Proctor Academy, the prep school I attended in central New Hampshire. I guess that’s where we had known each other. She said, “Dan! Oh, it’s good to see you!” She grabbed me in a long, tight hug, and I smelled flowers in her hair.

“It’s good to– good to see you too,” I stammered.

“How’s running going? Are you on the team?”

“No, I’m not. Uh, how are you?”

“Great. I had a great summer. Field hockey is going well. How’s your mom? Here, do you want to stand in line with me?”

“Um, no. Sorry. I have to go meet someone.”

I ran away. I still don’t know who that nice girl was. She knew all about me, and I didn’t even recognize her. Not one bit. She didn’t even look familiar.

Believe me, this isn’t the only time it happened. A guy at the dorm mailroom reached out the window and grabbed my hand. “Dan! Hey, man, how are you?”

“I’m good. Sorry, gotta run to class.”

After these first two encounters and more, I began to understand how important memory is, not just for keeping track of your life, but for having an identity. What does it mean when you can’t remember somebody? It can only mean that you don’t care about them, that you don’t value them as a person and a contact. I couldn’t bring myself to tell the truth. I couldn’t bring myself to say:

“I’m sorry. When I was bicycling this summer, a car hit me. I have retrograde amnesia. Can you help me remember how we know each other?”

It’s a simple explanation – plausible and pitiable. But what if I had brought myself to say this? It would have been an admission that my memories of this person were gone. If one half of an equation disappears, the solution is meaningless. If someone doesn’t remember who you are, what’s the point? You can never go back. You can’t ever have the same relationship that you once did.

How much effort would you want to invest in an idiot without a single scrap of memory about all the time you spent together?

These were the easy encounters. Harder was learning from my mother that Jed, my best friend, spoke about me during his salutatorian speech. No, I didn’t remember graduation. Apparently among other things, Jed spoke about how after twelve years as best friends, we had grown even closer during our semester of travel with Mountain Classroom. No, I didn’t remember Mountain Classroom.

Harder was holding up the relationship I had with a girlfriend of three years. I didn’t feel as close to her. I didn’t remember so many of the things she remembered. I didn’t seem to value the same stuff as the old version of myself, partly because I couldn’t remember what I was like before the accident and partly because what I could remember seemed so foreign.

No, I didn’t remember her birthday.

No, I didn’t daydream about getting married.

No, I didn’t want to have kids.

No, I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore.

As my brain healed, as I rose up out of a trauma-induced depression, I began to inventory the things in my life – my values and assumptions and principles. I held each one up for examination.

When your memories have been chopped up and destroyed, so that the people you knew look like strangers and those you remember are disappointed by what they see, there’s only one direction. Forward.

To what would I say yes? This is where my new plot line began. It’s not as flashy or redeeming as Henry’s. I haven’t solved a mystery or rebuilt a family. I said goodbye to my lost past and accepted that a new life lay ahead. That was the key to healing, the door to a new life: acceptance. Maybe this is a different plot line than I was supposed to have, but I like it. I’ve accepted the new me. Without this bit of personal redemption, I don’t think everything else could seem so damn beautiful to me.

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