You might think you can’t tell a story that you don’t remember. But you can.
Monday October 12, 2012. Odd day as I woke up in hospital. Memory lapse. Rob’s MS not a shock. Jane came. Spoke to family.
That was my mum’s diary entry for the day she had a flash flood of amnesia. She’s kept a five-year diary since she was eleven-years-old. She says she wouldn’t remember a thing if she didn’t write it down and likes to dig out past volumes of her life (there are 10 so far) to prove points and put her finger on facts that escape her. (We all need some kind of record. Our sieve-brains can only hold on to so much of our long-lived lives.)
I hadn’t heard those short stubs of sentences, or even thought about what the diary entry for October 12th would say, until I called her recently and, awkwardly, asked if she would read them to me. She seemed surprised, as if she’d forgotten the entry existed, which made me worry that this was an intrusion. But I’m glad I asked because the understated recollection is so perfectly in character that I couldn’t have written it myself. Almost two years on, she says she still only really recalls being in the hospital, making her consistent with other cases of transient global amnesia (which is what we were told her memory loss was called) and making her diary entry for the day inaccurate. She didn’t wake up in hospital; it only felt like she did.
To start at the actual beginning: that morning she’d taken the bus to her parents’s (my grandparents’s) house to meet a woman about installing a Stannah Stairlift. She arrived and, presumably, began discussing the impossibility of installing a Stannah Stairlift in a house with such narrow staircases and then, at some point, her memory cut loose and she became confused as to how she had arrived at my grandparents’ house and why there was so much talk about Stannah Stairlifts. Understandably, this was odd for the now nameless architect, and she took my drifting mother to the local hospital.
None of this made it into her diary entry because she can’t remember it happening—transient global amnesia, aka TGA, wipes clean your short- but not your long-term memory. (This explains why my dad’s multiple sclerosis, aka MS, wasn’t a shock.) Although even if she could remember the morning’s events, they probably wouldn’t have made the cut because each day in a five-year-diary is only apportioned six or so lines—which is usually enough room to say that you had beans for tea (trans. dinner) and thought about arguing with someone. As a writer and my mum’s daughter, my instinct is to pad out the patchy story of that Monday. But despite thinking this day deserves more than six-lines of room, filling in the gaps is embarrassingly tricky. Mainly because my sister and I—not having passed on our latest phone numbers to all of the relevant relatives—were almost as late to this knowledge as our mum was. I found out at very close to 17:30 in the evening which, despite being one of the few solid facts I have of the day, I really wish was a little less concrete. I can’t claim to have heard any sooner, though, because I remember answering the phone as I was leaving work; Hannah had finally been reached and rang me to pass on the news.
Once she or I had clicked off the call, I was left holding an odd sense of relief. The kind of relief that follows a very short but very acute moment of panic—there’s no way to impart bad news without accidentally introducing the possibility of the worst possible news. It wasn’t good news, but, in the larger sense of life and death and all the other permanently horrible diseases, everything was going to be okay. So on my way to the hospital I allowed myself to tot up the cost of this unexpected detour. I must have adopted the face of a very worried person because the man opposite me said, “Cheer up! It might never happen!” I remember looking away, thinking: he may not have an “it” in mind, but one of my “its” has happened and I want him to know it. When I did arrive at the hospital (via the Piccadilly Line and these two selfish realisations—the first, that this would be an unusually expensive tube journey home and the second, that I wanted people to feel sorry for me), I was greeted by a goldfish.
That might sound glib, but there was no other way to fathom her at that moment; she was so far from what I knew of her. Although it’s still something of a medical mystery, all accounts of TGA overlap in their description of the repetitive list of questions that the patient plays on loop. I expect that this symptom is singled out because of the insistence of the inquisition; it’s still one of my overriding memories of the evening. It wasn’t just that she was confused and determined to attach a question mark to the end of every sentence, but that the questions were phrased identically, as if she were a reliable Groundhog Day extra.
“Hannah finally has a job?” [At a theatre production company called Fuel, not Fire, nor Oil.]
“Where’s Jane?” [Her sister, my aunt, had already been and left.]
“And William’s at university?” [My brother had dropped out a month or two previously after realising a house full of drunken students was not somewhere he could live and, after a semester of complete silence, had sent a heartbreaking letter telling her this.]
“The car! Where’s the car?” [At home. She had, as I mentioned earlier, taken the bus to my grandparents’ that morning.]
In a twisted role-reversal, suddenly she was the confused and crumple-faced child struggling to comprehend life and how she fitted into it. “Is that the sea?” “Are we there yet?” “When do we get to go hoooome?” “Why can’t I eat another bag of crisps and throw my crusts over the hedge?” “Why can’t granddad hear me?” It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so very not-funny.
For those looking at the larger picture of the amnesiac at work, it’s grating as well as distressing to have to reiterate these things even more than once. But for the amnesiac unceremoniously dropped into the memory blank the words aren’t a frustrating repetition but a logical way of collecting together all the relevant bits of the information. That’s not to say that she was blissfully ignorant of life at LARGE. In fact, she seemed dimly to fully aware that she wasn’t in possession of all the facts. My cousin Nicky, who she’d spoken to on the phone and who also happens to be a nurse, had told her that writing things down would help. Although useful advice, the shaky notes she’d made were sad to look at, sad in the same way that it’s sad to look at old men sitting at bus stops, or lost tourists or, worst, old men sitting at bus stops, who are also lost tourists.
The wobbly notes matched her wobbly voice. She sounded so unsure, as if she was acting and unconvinced of her own performance. The thought that this might be a ruse did cross my mind. I didn’t think that she’d faked the whole episode (this account is not the source material for a Hollywood psycho-drama-thriller), just that she was willingly prolonging the charade of forgetting because she’d had enough of us all. I only thought this for a second but I did think it. Actually, she was just defaulting to the questions that everyone knows they’re supposed to ask. Two or so years later, I can recognise this pattern more easily because my granny, who’s slipping into senile dementia, does the same thing.
But luckily this type of amnesia wasn’t the lasting kind. As the hours went on, the spool of her memory elongated and more facts could be retained in one cycle. Her slow construction work reminded me of life-drawing classes where, with every change in pose, the aging artist or artful hipster who leads the class allows you a little extra time to sketch the model in front of you. In 30 seconds you can detain an outline; in 60, there’s time to mess up the nose and shade in an ab or two; in 5 minutes you can mess up everything and in 15 you have time to use a putty rubber and fix your mistakes (ears and eyes will never align first time round). As you flip back through the drawings of the session you see the body of the model build up; a little more context added each time. It’s not so much the exercise as the timeline that reminds me of sitting in the hospital waiting for my mum to slot back into the world. Not being able to hold onto more than a few minutes of new information at a time makes you very hard to hang out with (unless both of you are drunk, and I hadn’t thought to bring any alcohol with me).
My own timeline of the evening is neither as linear nor as fleshed out as I’d like it to be but that’s the way memory goes. I know we were all there that day (even if I was a little/lot late—don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten) but recalling the facts is hard. Multiple single moments lacking in connectives get dropped into the larger narrative of everything we know we remember. So it’s only when you try to isolate these individual memories that you catch them out. I’d like to remember more, what earrings my mum was wearing—maybe the twiddly silver ones I gave her for her birthday—or what jumper my dad had on—I often picture him in his woollen Norwegian jumper, the one that I took to Glastonbury and lost. But I can’t remember seeing my mum’s ear lobes and by the time I arrived my dad had left (MS has a habit of making you tired) so I didn’t see any part of him I don’t think. It was just my sister, my brother and me sitting there repeating the answers to repeated questions not really knowing that our collective mum would be okay again in approx. 2-6 hours.
Unsurprisingly, the feeling of not knowing was a reoccurring theme. Hospitals are odd places: full of information which you can’t for the life of you find. But I Googled it later and discovered that TGA is a type of temporary anterograde amnesia brought on either by stress or emotional trauma and exasperated by a prior tendency for migraines or, maybe, an overuse of bleach-based products. My mother does suffer from migraines (though I used to think she was exaggerating them because they often happened to rise up at inconvenient times—like other people’s birthdays) and she does use bleach-based products (there’s a red plastic basket filled with toilet cleaner and inside-out rubber gloves in the cupboard under the sink).
But she was also under some emotional strain that autumn. As I mentioned, my brother had recently dropped out of university, my sister had only just found a paid job in theatre after a year of working unpaid internships and existing on no sleep and no money, and I had just gone back to university (read: tucked myself out of sight). Then in the second week of October she’d had an argument with my dad, who suffers from bouts of depression and the aforementioned MS (which, as well as making you tired, unfortunately does not come and go but carries on crumbling away like coastal erosion), in which he said some things he didn’t mean. In fact, it wasn’t really him she was arguing with but the medication he was on at the time. So on reflection, it would have been weird if she hadn’t fallen prey to TGA what with all the stress and the migraines and the bleach. She was certainly part of the “at risk” group. I can understand why she might want to erase us; she’s right when she says we can be “right little shits” sometimes.
Apart from a failure to recall the approx. 2-6 hours of the attack, TGA has no lasting after-effects. I don’t have to say that this is a good thing, a bloody great thing, but it does muddy the water RE: next steps. There was no medicine to administer at set times of the day, no proper procedure to be carried out, no first-aid training to be taught. It was just back to normal. But was our normal normal? We aren’t the kind of family to discuss things like this at length but, equally, this isn’t the sort of thing you should or can ignore. I could make excuses and say that the episode wanted to be forgotten. After all, the onset of amnesia sought to edit out the unpleasant part of the story—Freud eat your heart out. The trouble is, it did a terrible job of deleting itself. We all successfully forget things but when the memory lapse is so abrupt and intentional you’re alerted, even if not immediately, to its loss. Like when your flatmates use the last of the olive oil and return the empty bottle to the cupboard, leaving it to confront you with its absence, rather than slipping it into the recycling bin, allowing you to question whether you had any in the first place.
My point being that the procedure for certain missing things is clear. If it’s the olive oil you curse your flatmates for a moment and buy a new bottle, but what if the missing thing is in the middle of something? What if the things around it continue to reference its absence? Then you have to talk about it.
And my family can talk about some catastrophes. Every Easter my mother used to make a Simnel cake. She never quite got the hang of the recipe, which had been passed down to her by my granny (the one without the Stannah Stairlift and with the beginnings of senile dementia). It was something to do with the oven temperatures I think. I do know that every year the same something went wrong. The heavy marzipan would sink to the bottom and every Easter without fail the entire middle of the cake sunk in on itself. Boom! Or maybe: KerPlunk! Hannah and William and I used to reference the embarrassing crater by arranging the 12 marzipan disciples (who looked a lot like the cookie cutters that gave birth to them) as if they were the victims of a sinkholing disaster. To make sure the little cut-outs couldn’t weasel out of their fate we’d stick them down with apricot jam. You might have gathered that we’re not a religious family. Maybe that’s why the hole of the cake refused to rise for us.
So is this olive oil or Simnel cake? Should I replace or reference the missing portion of the person? Part of me needs to fill the blank bit with other memories, wants to copy and paste another day’s diary entry in its place and hope we all believe it. Another part of me needs to acknowledge the narrative hole whilst simultaneously letting it lie empty; that bit thinks I should respond to the disaster by arranging cut-out marzipan disciples around it, or something like that. Memorials, of any size, are tricky to get right.
Fortunately, TGA is rare and is not often experienced more than once by the same patient, though the acronym crops up regularly enough on the web because some cases are triggered by sex, which, you have to concede, does make for a good headline: SEX SO GOOD SHE FORGOT WHERE SHE WAS. Worldwide, its incidence is approximately 2.9–10/100, 000 cases per year. That exact phrase is repeated up and down the internet. This is usually a sign that no one fully understands what a statement means or either it’s a sign that there just aren’t many facts to cite. In the case of TGA, it’s both. It still isn’t fully understood and because it’s mainly talked about on a case-by-case basis there are more stories than statistics to be found floating around online. Science isn’t exactly stumped by this arguably harmless attack of anterograde amnesia but, because there are no lasting after effects, science has more important things to be worrying about.
I remember my siblings and I decamping to a restaurant—Pizza Express—across the road from the hospital. They were keeping our mum in hospital overnight but would let her come home the next day, they said. It was just before closing time—so maybe 23:00— and I was eating one of those low-calorie pizzas with a hole in the middle, which they fill with salad, wishing there was pizza where my salad was and thinking about the absolute impossibility of my mum never writing an eleventh five-year diary.
Worldwide, the incidence of this thought is far, far more than approximately 2.9–10/100, 000 cases per year.
Emma is a writer living in London and working for The Wylie Agency. Her writing has found its way onto The Huffington Post and the occasional dating website. She is also the author of one half of a published book about university. She can be found and hired here: @emma_etc.