Taking the Next Step: Who Am I?

Holly sought help from Dr. Phil because she suffers from amnesia and another condition that has hindered her life dramatically:

"There's no question I have an interesting brain: Twenty-five years ago, I suffered complete and total amnesia after being slipped a date rape drug. My brain wiped the slate clean. I had to learn not only the names of my family members, but how to read and write, hold a fork and even open a door. During my first post-amnesia shower in my hospital bathroom, I thought the water was a splashing game and the soap was dissolving my skin.

"With considerable effort and tremendous help from my family, I relearned how to hold a pencil, ride a bike and drive a car. I managed to put myself through college, graduating with a master's degree in special education. Even though I had a lot of different therapies, I was only able to remember two isolated memories from the first 19 years of my life.

"When I was 24, I had a terrible car accident that took away my visual memory, a condition some people call a visual amnesia. I can no longer hold any images in my mind. Whether I try to remember what my mother looks like, my vehicle or even my neighborhood, my mind draws a complete blank.

"I have learned to lean on my strong conceptual memory, finding my way in the world by memorizing long lists of information. For example: I parked my red car in the grocery store lot: third row, five cars down. Or I'm meeting my friend Theresa for lunch. She has long, curly hair and e-mailed me that she's wearing a blue skirt and yellow shirt, so I can find her in the lobby."

Holly gives an update since the show:





Before I came on the Dr. Phil show, I never talked about my amnesia. Trust me, talk about amnesia, and you lose eye contact and stop conversations cold. People think you're looking for pity, psychological help or nutritional advice.

I was invited as a guest on the Dr. Phil show to talk to a man suffering from amnesia. My job was to give him advice, since I've been able to keep a positive attitude of acceptance surrounding my medical issues. During my show, Dr. Phil suggested I talk about my amnesia story with friends. After all, it was a major part of my life. He offered me treatment at the PNP Center in Lewisville, Texas, with the possibility that new treatments could open pathways to my brain in the areas of my visual memory and amnesia.

Really, free treatment? I jumped at the chance and went about a month later.

Dr. Lawlis and Dr. Peavey did brain mapping, memory testing, hyperbaric chamber sessions, sensory treatments, biofeedback breathing techniques and other therapies.

In the end, the doctors gave me a look at my brain map. I was shown centers that were working too hard, and centers that weren't working at all. I learned how to use my senses to connect parts of my brain, and also was given a BAUD noise machine, which increased brain activity in the zones of my brain that were inactive.

They also gave me tips on dealing with the visual memory: ‘Let's believe that you'll remember things you need to remember.' Several techniques they recommended for my continued homework included taking piano lessons, so I might tap into some of the piano skills from my childhood, work on drumming, use an Em-Wave machine, continue breathing exercises, and to remember the importance of optimism in healing.

That old adage, ‘Two steps forward, one step backward' held true for me, as often happens when healing is occurring. Unfortunately, my sense of taste disappeared during my treatments, perhaps because my interesting brain wasn't used to spinning quite so fast. All food became bland, tasteless. I've learned to find enjoyment in the smells and textures of food. Now I crave Indian food for the smell of the curry and the texture of the saag. I've just started regaining the sense of sour, and bitter seems to be on its way back. What this means is that I can eat a key lime pie, but all I taste is the intense lime flavor. Hey, it's a start, a beautiful citrus start.

I did have a new memory emerge from my visit, which is a major gem in my life. Imagine going from having only two memories from the first 19 years of your life to having three memories. That's a gift more valuable than I could ever express.

"I can now remember riding my bicycle on the dead-end road in front of my parent's house when I was about 7 years old. This memory came with a feeling, my first memory feeling: freedom. Riding the bike brought a sense of freedom. I've always wondered how I felt as a child, and I've been given this beautiful glimpse. For at least one moment while riding my bicycle, I felt as free as an adult driving a car. It's a beautiful, cherished memory.

After I went on the show to talk about my amnesia, several friends confided their own experiences with amnesia. One had a car accident; the other two had medical complications from surgery that left them without memory for days at a time. Dr. Phil was right, discussing my amnesia with my friends helped them talk about their own stories.

Most people don't understand how haunting having amnesia can be: it's not like waking in a different room when sleep-walking, or forgetting events from your birthday party last year. It's more like you woke up this morning, only to find many years had passed, but not like the fictional Rip Van Winkle who slept for 40 years. When you're suffering from amnesia, you've lived a rich life, but at most can only remember occasional, if any, patches.

My mom says that as a child I had a leather alligator, and as a teen I was accomplished at karate. Really? These stories feel more like a deliberate brain-washing conspiracy than my truth. I had a life-sized leather alligator as a kid? Are you sure? I don't particularly like alligators now. Alligators and karate? Was I bullied, trying to find symbols of security? Did I want to defend myself against five playful siblings? Was I drawn to the community of karate, the uniform, the spirituality or something else? Where does someone buy a leather alligator, anyway?

If you, dear reader, want a fraction of a feeling of what it's like to have my specific brand of amnesia, let me tell you that you were accomplished at karate and that you, too, had a pet alligator as a child. Don't you remember? Please, try to remember. What do these memories feel like in your body? Please describe the feeling. Stop saying nothing. It must feel like something. These memories are inside of you. Connect to them. Why aren't you trying to remember? OK. I feel I must say there may be a psychological reason you are blocking these memories. What do you think of when I say alligator? Food? OK, never mind that you ate grilled alligator last year and loved it. Forget that memory. Try to remember your childhood. Try, right now. Remember that alligator. Feel it in your body. Imagine what color the memory is. Nothing? There must be a color, something. Try harder. Why aren't you trying? Why are you telling me to stop, don't you want to remember? You might tell me to stop, but know that you're going to spend the next 25 years wondering about the alligator-karate connection to your childhood and also know it was only one very small part of who you were. We'll talk about some other memories that other people have of your life the next time we get together.

Thank you, Dr. Phil, for taking an interest in my case. I am so lucky to have received your suggestions and the treatment. I'm glad you suggested I start talking about my amnesia, and I appreciate having the chance to write about it. I have no visual memory yet. I have complete and total amnesia before the age of 19. Well, except for these three beautiful memories that I bask in from time to time.

When it comes to those living with amnesia, I can only offer my own advice that I still follow:
  1. Stop looking back to what you've forgotten. Be like a frog: Only move forward.
  2. Learn to make new memories every day. It keeps your brain from looking into that black hole of missing information if you have pictures from your recent trip to Yellowstone to look at instead.
  3. Surround yourself with wonderful friends, people who can accept the new you.
  4. Work with what you've got. If you have zero memory of your childhood, then only talk about your teenage years when you're with friends. Since I have zero memory of anything before the age of 19, I get my friends to talk more about their pasts. Hey, trust me, they love that.
  5. Accept what has happened. Because it has happened. And stop the ‘What if' game that might have made your day/year/life different so you might have escaped amnesia. Too late. Hello? THIS is your life.
  6. Help others with amnesia. Or help people who are homeless. Or help people in any way you can. The best way to get out of your small head is to help others. I currently volunteer 20 hours a month. My head is still small, but at least I'm not locked in there all the time.
  7. You have my permission to stop spending time with people who don't understand that your amnesia isn't a choice, or a nutritional deficit, or some sick game you're playing. Discard these people immediately. Well … unless they're family. In case of family, state your truth. My truth was, "Stop. Stop. Stop trying to make me live in the past."
  8. On a day when you're feeling really great, make a list of 20 activities that make you happy. Truly list them out. Then when a dark day comes, force yourself to go to your list and do at least one thing. My list includes playing piano, going for a walk, scribbling with crayons and eating pudding. Make your list on a happy day.
  9. Stop trying to define your amnesia, explain it or announce it to the world. Find a few people to talk to about it, then for the rest, tread lightly on the shadows of your experiences. Spend your time telling people about the joy in your life. Sure, you have amnesia, but have they seen your pictures from Yellowstone yet?
  10. Forgive yourself for getting amnesia. It's not your fault. You did nothing wrong. I don't care how or why you got it; you don't deserve it. You didn't magnetically make it happen or wish for it. Forgive yourself down to your very core for getting it. Then use a mirror to look yourself in the eye and announce, out loud, that you are the new normal. Yes, amnesiac, you are the new picture of complete and utter normality. Congratulations! Now smile and let those sparkles dance in your eyes, because you can.