Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I belong? What is my purpose?
These are existential questions that I find myself asking from time to time—especially after a crisis or the death of a loved one.
But can you ever fathom asking these questions literally? What if you lost yourself— utterly and completely—all at once? Imagine that suddenly you have NO idea who you are, or where you are from, and your surroundings are completely foreign to you. Your sense of self and location vanishes in a wash of temporary amnesia. What would you do?
Skeptics wonder if temporary amnesia is possible. Many say the condition must be a hoax dreamt up by those who seek an escape to their circumstances. Others argue that temporary amnesia is some sort of subconsciously-triggered chemical reaction within the brain in response to extreme stress, or blocked memories of violence or childhood abuse as they begin to surface.
Neuroscientists and psychologists really don’t have an explanation for the documented and treated cases of temporary amnesia that have occurred around the world. But they do happen. And I’m completely fascinated by them. At one point in my life, eight and a half years ago, I slipped for a few minutes, into the unknown. It was only for a few minutes, but it was terrifying. Walking my then 7 year old to a play-date, I said good bye to the mom and then turned to walk back home. Suddenly, nothing was recognizable. NOTHING. The street, the street name, the houses. I turned and walked down a street, lost, then turned around again, not knowing how to get back home, where my baby was with a sitter. I sat down and began to hyperventilate. Now I didn’t forget who I was, but everything else was a blur. I was under extreme stress, so I’m convinced that my brain was on tilt. I had just discovered the night before (via snooping) that my husband was continuing his affair that he had promised was over. I had little sleep, as my baby was colicky. Later that week, before my husband had returned, I fell, while holding the baby. While on a walk, picturing him with his mistress, I just couldn’t breathe. I became confused and suddenly stopped breathing, passing out. I came through due to the baby crying, but walked home in a fog, getting lost several times. I didn’t have amnesia, but definitely a mild state of dissociation from severe stress. Those days are long gone, thankfully.
But I am forever fascinated by them, and the stories of others who lapsed into complete amnesia. In fact, they have inspired my next novel (working title Orbiting Jupiter). My protagonist develops temporary amnesia while on vacation, and for three months, believes she is someone else—while everyone in her family thinks she has been kidnapped or has died. That’s all I’ll reveal now, as I delve into mysterious aspects of the self she identified with for three months.
While my novel is pure fiction, real cases have existed and been documented. In all of them, the person who develops amnesia, suddenly becomes someone else. After a period of time, they just as quickly come back to their original identity, with NO knowledge of the past days, months, or even years, while living as someone else.
How is that possible? Is it mental illness? Is it past-life transgression? Is it some sort of worm hole in time that a person slips into? (Can you tell my son is obsessed with Dr. Who?!) Those who study physics will say time is an illusion anyway. Is it possible, then, that someone could literally slip into another period on their soul journey—either past or future—by mental slip, or accident? Or is it just pure unfathomable stress that triggers a brain-chemical reaction spurring this lost identity?
Take Agatha Christie’s case. The famous author developed temporary amnesia and went missing for eleven days. Already quite famous in her mid-30s, a massive manhunt ensued to find Ms. Christie, even recruiting other famous contemporary authors, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Dorothy L Sayers. author of the Lord Peter Wimsey series. I’ve read a few accounts of her mysterious missing days, as nearly every paper covered it, including The New York Times. Theories vary as to why she ‘lost her self,’ but unequivocally, she did. Friday, Dec. 3, 1926 at 9:30 p.m., after putting her daughter to bed, Ms. Christie got into her car and drove away. The car, later discovered abandoned, but in good condition, showed no signs of accident. Apparently, Ms. Christie then walked to Harrington Yorkshire and began staying at The Swan Hydro Inn, under the name of Theresa Neele, one of her husband’s mistresses. According to all reports, she referred to herself as Ms. Neele the entire time. Eleven days later, someone recognized her at the hotel, yet she didn’t recognize her name or her pictures in the newspaper. After her husband picked her up, she had no memory of the past eleven days, nor did she know exactly who she was or who he was. Perhaps Ms. Christie snapped due to the stress of her husband’s infidelities, as well as her pressure to write more best-selling novels, while also taking care of her daughter? We’ll never know. The author never spoke about her disappearance.
Temporary amnesia, however, doesn’t always occur due to extreme stress. While doing more research, a friend sent me this New Yorker article about a woman who continued to experience temporary amnesia throughout her life. Hannah Upp disappeared for weeks at a time. In one instance, she left her Manhattan apartment to go for a jog. Wearing a jogging bra, shorts and running shoes, Ms Upp shifted mentally during the run. That’s all she reported. She went missing for weeks—her friends and family thinking she had been abducted. Tapes within an Apple store show the young woman looking at computers, still wearing her jogging gear, but looking a little raged. The school teacher had no keys, no wallet, no phone, no identification and must have wandered around New York City aimlessly. She was found floating in the East River, remarkably still alive, but not knowing who she was until she came through while receiving treatment in a hospital. Ms. Upp’s story is intriguing because in two of her cases, only mild stress could have triggered her lapse of identity. The beginning of the school year is hardly a major life stressor. Yet that was when these situations occurred. Both parents reported that she had no abuse or trauma in childhood. Her father, however, was an evangelical minister, perhaps she had a conflict within her faith? We’ll never know. Her last jaunt into the unknown, tragically is still happening, as she is currently missing and considered dead. Just before she ‘left’ Ms. Upp had said goodbye to her boyfriend and was helping the principal of the school where she taught in St. Thomas, prepare for another storm. The principal reported that Ms. Upp was responding to her in a monotone tone of voice while providing one sentence responses—something not usual for the friendly, chatty woman. Some speculate that Ms. Upp slipped into a state of dissociation before completely transitioning into amnesia.
Another bizarre case is that of Ansel Bourne (the inspiration for the character Jason Bourne). Ansel Bourne was an evangelical preacher from Greene, Rhode Island, who took a trip to visit his sister in Providence on January 17, 1887. However, for unexplained reasons, he ended up withdrawing his savings instead and traveling to Norristown, Pennsylvania, where he opened up a variety store and started a new life as Albert J Brown.
When Bourne woke up on the morning of March 15, he had no idea where he was. In his mind, it was still January 17 and he had no memory of being Albert J Brown or owning a variety store. Ansel found his way back home and back to his family, resuming his life without any recurrences of Albert J. Brown. It was documented that he had suffered from a psychiatric disorder described as a ‘fugue state.”
What do you think? Is it possible to just suddenly forget who you are? Can a person slip into another identity and over time come back to their original one without any memory of the lapse? And if so, how do they pick that identity? It’s a mystery. And one I’m exploring. I hope you’re becoming as intrigued, as I am!