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Losing My Memory Helped Me Discover Who I Really Was

11/09/2017 17:19 | Updated 13 September 2017
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I wanted a fresh start. I was living in New York. My boyfriend, Adam, had just broken up with me and moved across the country to Los Angeles. He was a good guy - it was just one of those 'going nowhere for three years' relationships.

Neither of us had done anything horrible, like have an affair. We just weren't a good fit. Which my mother used to tell me on the phone the whole three years. Very gently. Like, "You're both such nice people. Maybe you're just not a good fit."

But Adam and I were both just passive enough to keep it going. If things got bad, and one of us might begin to muster the courage to pull the plug, then it would be one of our birthdays. Or we'd get really great concert tickets. And that would keep the relationship going for a few more months. And months turned into years.

In three years Adam never told me he loved me. And I think I loved him, but I wasn't going to say it first. (Because I'm so mature.) Then one night Adam took me out to this beautiful dinner. He told me he cared about me very deeply. And that he never wanted to marry me. It was essentially a reverse proposal.

And that was it. He broke up with me, he moved to Los Angeles, it was over. And it was so painful for me.

I remember just wanting to forget him - forget the past three years and just wake up one morning and start fresh. I got my wish.

I woke up in an ambulance, wearing a cheerleading outfit (which, if you're over 30 and it's not Halloween, raises questions, you know?).

There were EMTs (emergency medical technicians) all around me, and then I was on a gurney. Then I was being placed into a CT scanner, and then I was in this hospital room with all these concerned strangers gathered around me. But they weren't strangers. I just couldn't identify them.

What I didn't know was that earlier that day there'd been an accident. I'd been filming this television pilot. It was a movie spoof show. The pilot was a parody of Bring It On, the cheerleading movie. We were asked to do a stunt that we never rehearsed.

The stunt was I was to be thrown high up in the air and caught. I was thrown high up in the air... but I landed on my back and my head. I suffered a massive concussion and a slipped disk in my back. I could barely walk, and I had no idea who I was. Diagnosis: amnesia.

So I also didn't know that my boyfriend had dumped me a few weeks before and moved to Los Angeles. I didn't know anything.

In the hospital someone put a phone up to my ear and told me it was my mother. I heard this frantic female voice on the other end of the line, and it meant nothing. A friend knew where I lived, took me home, dug the keys out of my purse, got me into my apartment, and put me into bed.

I wanted to call my dad. I remember having that thought. My friend said, "Why don't you rest? We can call him later."

But I wanted to call my dad, and I needed help, because I didn't know the number.

Again my friend kind of put me off. "Why don't you rest? We'll call later. Sleep a couple of hours."

I started getting frustrated. "Why aren't you helping me? I want to call my dad!"

My friend was looking at me like I was out of my mind.

Finally he said, "Don't you remember? You just called your dad. You've talked to him three times. We've done this three times. So you can call him, but it'll be the fourth time. And I'm just worried we're starting to freak him out."

This whole conversation, by the way, is happening with me still wearing the cheerleading outfit. This little white pleated skirt and matching top. Because when the hospital discharges you, it's like prison - they give you the clothes you showed up in, which for me was the costume from the pilot.

ncaa football cheerleaders

I had both short and long-term amnesia. So I knew some things: I knew how to speak and I knew how to read. But I didn't know the big stuff, like who I was. I also couldn't retain anything. So if someone left the room and came back 10 minutes later, we had to start over.

I was living quite literally moment to moment.

A cat walks into the bedroom. Why is there a cat in here? People tell me it's my cat.

Everyone that came and went, they were just strangers to me from a past I didn't even know existed.

They tried to help. I remember my best friend, Amy, stormed into the bedroom, screaming, "She's a vegetarian! Don't let her eat any meat!"

That sounded familiar, but it didn't mean anything. I mean, I could have been gnawing on a veal shank. But it sounded important, and I didn't want to forget it, so I wrote it down. There was a pad of Post-it notes on a table next to my bed. I wrote, "You are a vegetarian."

Someone had called Adam, and he flew in from L.A. right away and was at my bedside with tears in his eyes.

In fact, the first night he slept in my bed with me, which I remember was kind of weird and, I thought, presumptuous because, like, 'who is this guy in my bed? He said he was my boyfriend, but he could have been the mailman. I don't know - I've got amnesia.'

The next day Adam showed me pictures of us together, to see if maybe that would jog my memory (and maybe even to make a case for the fact that we were a couple). Pictures of a recent trip I had taken to L.A.: Adam and Cole at the beach, Adam and Cole in front of Mann's Chinese Theatre, Adam and Cole in the Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier. I was in the pictures but I remembered none of it.

santa monica pier

I wrote down everything. I was terrified of forgetting. Every piece of information was precious. Anytime someone told me something, or on the rare occasions when something might come back on its own, I wrote it down.

"You are a vegetarian."

"We are at war with Iraq."

"Kristen is your friend who is slutty."

One afternoon I was in a cab, coming home from physical therapy, going over the Queensboro Bridge. I noticed the hole in the skyline where the Twin Towers used to be. My accident happened in November of 2001, and this was a month or so after that.

I thought, that's funny...

I wrote it down on a Post-it: "Twin Towers gone."

Adam was the Wonderful Boyfriend. This accident was the best thing that could ever have happened to our relationship. He moved into my apartment. He took me to my weekly neurologist appointments and almost-daily physical therapy. He doled out my medications at night and then held me when I woke screaming in the middle of the night from the nightmares that those medications gave me. Or from the sheer disorientation of not knowing who or where I was.

A girl from yoga visited. I do yoga? What else do I do? I was on this detective mission to find out who I was.

I found journals written in my handwriting, in another language. Adam told me it was Portuguese from when I lived in Brazil. I lived in Brazil?

Cool. What else? Do I paint? Can I cook? Am I an asshole? (I mean, what if I'm an asshole?)

I overheard doctors saying things like, "We don't know how long she's going to be like this" and "We're not sure if she'll ever fully recover." And they're talking about me. I mean, I'm sitting right there in the room. The only thing I could be sure of was this growing pile of Post-it notes on my bedside table. I thought the bigger that pile got, the more of a person I became. But it still wasn't me. It was just information, filling an empty space.

Then one afternoon I was in a cab coming home from physical therapy, going over the Queensboro Bridge again. I started to cry. I had no idea why. But I couldn't stop.

And it was right as we passed the hole in the skyline where the Twin Towers used to be. When it first happened, there was that really chilling empty space, like ghosts of buildings.

I felt flooded. I mean, I wailed. And I couldn't figure it out. And then it came to me: I was remembering. But it wasn't a fact or a thing - it was a feeling. It was the first time since the accident that I felt real.

twin towers new york

That night Adam was tucking me into bed. He had just given me my medications, and he was writing it down on a Post-it note, for when in five minutes I asked if it was time for my medications, as I did every night.

I watched this man taking such wonderful care of me, and I was overcome with emotion. I said, "I love you."

And he said nothing.

So I said it again (because I had amnesia and I could get away with that).

"I love you."

Again nothing. I didn't understand.

And then I remembered. The breakup and all the pain that went with it. His move to L.A. Then a post-9/11 reconciliation. September 11 happened, and we were going to give it one more try.

I went out to L.A. to visit him. We went to the beach, and we went to Mann's Chinese Theatre, and we rode the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier. I thought of everything he was doing for me. If this wasn't love, what was?

Why was he even here? And I think the answer is, he's a good, good man, and he cared for me very deeply. But he was a Giuliani boyfriend. Good in crisis.

Maybe he loved me and just couldn't say the words. I'll never know. I mean, I think I loved him, and I wanted to hear it. But maybe I just wanted to say, "Thank you," and I couldn't differentiate.

It took about six months for me to recover. My memory just came back slowly over time. And then I must have been fully healed, because a few months after that, Adam and I broke up again. Only this time I knew it was coming because we'd done it before.

I wanted this fresh start. And I got it. I lost myself completely, and then got myself back, almost as if following a script, replaying my entire history with Adam. Nothing had changed.

But this time, that was comforting. Because if nothing changed, it meant I knew who I was. That I was a real person. And that even without my memory, I was still me.

cole kazdin

This story is cross-posted from The Moth's latest book, All These Wonders, for a special edition of HuffPost UK's Life Less Ordinary blog series. You can buy the book here and listen to Cole tell her story live here.

Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird and wonderful life experiences. If you've got something extraordinary to share please email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.

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