“You might wonder how it feels to wake up one morning and not know who you are,” writes Su Meck. In a casual, matter-of-fact style, Ms. Meck recounts the harrowing experience of waking up in a hospital bed without the faintest idea of who she was. Her book, “I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia” explores her ongoing recovery from a traumatic brain injury that literally erased her mind.
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Ms. Meck has no recollection of what she refers to as “my first life” or her memories up to that fateful night in 1988 when a ceiling fan fell on her head. The injury left her suffering from complete retrograde amnesia, a condition that wiped out her ability to remember facts or recall past experiences.
She writes about her first 22 years as if she is a different person altogether. “She never knew me, and I know nothing of her except what people have told me,” she writes. “She rebelled; I conform. She broke rules; I follow them.”
In the immediate aftermath of the injury, it was difficult for family members or even doctors to grasp the severity of Ms. Meck’s condition. But the married woman could not recognize the face of her husband nor recall that she had two young toddlers.
It soon became obvious that this was only scratching the surface of the problem. As she explains: “I didn’t know the purpose of school, or that I had ever attended one. I didn’t know what a city was; the name Fort Worth did not register, nor did the terms Texas, United States, and Earth.”
Still, doctors discharged Ms. Meck after a mere three-week hospital stay. Without any visible trace of brain damage on her MRIs, some specialists suggested that Ms. Meck’s amnesia was psychological. Eventually, Ms. Meck and her husband decided to forgo seeing specialists altogether.
Without professional assistance, Ms. Meck’s life began again at age 22. For a time, she could not form new memories. Each day, the young woman woke up completely unaware of where or who she was. It brings to mind the film “50 First Dates.” Jokingly, she offers that “Su 2.0” as her husband has teased, was born sometime in the early 1990s.
Su Meck’s recovery would involve extensive relearning. She had no idea as to what “family” meant. Her husband, for example, had been “assigned” to her. Love, sex marriage and motherhood were all unfamiliar concepts.
For a time, it was her toddlers whom she relied upon for help in making grocery lists, or even remembering to pick them up from school. Still, Ms. Meck managed to survive without inflicting much harm to herself or her children whom she was oftentimes left with unattended. She also, and impressively, grappled with changing environments: first a move from Texas to Maryland, and then, a complete transition to life in Egypt, before returning to the U.S.
Incredibly, Ms. Meck, who had twice dropped out of college prior to the accident, pursued an associate degree in music in her 40s, and is now at work on a bachelor’s degree.
“I Forgot to Remember” not only took courage, but pain-staking research, as Ms. Meck relied upon the testimonies of friends and family to recall the personality and experiences of her past self. She also received help and support from journalist Daniel de Vise, who originally reported on her story in The Washington Post.
Hopeful as it is tragic, “I Forgot to Remember” is more than a memoir. It is proof that recovery from traumatic brain injuries is possible, and for those who have suffered from similar experiences, this book may offer some hope.
Evi Heilbrunn is the associate editor of Health Care Analysis at U.S. News & World Report (firstname.lastname@example.org).