'My Memory Was Erased:' Cole Kazdin's Story

Imagine not being able to remember your own name, your job, your closest friends. That's the nightmare Cole Kazdin experienced. Her story of living without a past, and finally getting it back, will put your own history in a bright new light.

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I woke up in an ambulance, wearing a cheerleader's outfit — which, if you're a grown woman and it's not Halloween, sets off alarm bells. There were EMTs standing over me, shining a penlight into my eyes and asking me questions I could barely hear above the sound of sirens. It took a moment to register that the sirens were for me, that I was the emergency.

Minutes later, doctors were yelling and lifting me onto a gurney, wheeling me into the ER, then placing me into a CT scanner. The world faded in and out, and eventually I found myself lying in bed in a hospital room, surrounded by complete strangers. They weren't doctors or nurses — they were visitors who held my hands and looked deeply into my eyes, as if searching for something. Who were these people? Were they in the wrong room?

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Finally, someone I recognized walked in. "It's you!" I called out, thankful to see a familiar face.

He came closer. "I just wanted to check on you," he said.

"I know you!" I replied. He smiled gently, and then I noticed his uniform. My relief vanished: He was the EMT from the ambulance. This man I took for a friend was, in fact, a stranger, and the strangers in the hospital room were actually my closest friends. I just didn't remember them.

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I had no recollection of who I was, my age (I was 29), my profession, or the accident earlier that day. I'd been filming a television show where I played a cheerleader, and they had me do a stunt: I'd stand with my feet in the hands of two other actors, who would lift me high over their heads, throw me into the air, and catch me. At least, that was the plan. Instead, I landed on the ground, on my back and my head.

In the hospital, doctors diagnosed me with a concussion, a slipped disk, and amnesia. I learned later that concussions can affect the chemistry of the brain, disrupting the structure of neural networks, including the ones that control your memory. With my concussion, those connections were so damaged that I wasn't able to access old memories or lay down new ones. Living in the present moment wasn't a choice — it was all that my brain allowed. In the days and months ahead, I'd have to rebuild, relearn, and rediscover what it meant to be me. I was a blank slate, in the most profoundly disorienting period of my life.

A Stranger to Myself

The next morning, someone who claimed he was a friend — I had to take him and everyone else at their word — brought me home from the hospital (which was helpful, because I didn't know where I lived). I hit my head getting into his car and laughed, "Isn't that funny? I have a concussion and I just hit my head!" Jim was inexplicably stone-faced. Didn't my joke warrant a smile? He told me later that I repeated that "joke" the entire 45-minute ride home.

Walking into my apartment was like returning to a place where I'd lived a long time ago — vaguely familiar, but not home. As I changed into faded flannel pajamas, I looked around, taking it all in. On the dresser were framed photos of people I didn't recognize, pictures of myself in cities I didn't remember visiting, books I didn't recall reading. None of it meant anything to me — not even the cat that walked into the bedroom and startled me.

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"It's your cat," Jim said. "Natasha." He picked her up and she sniffed at my face, licking my nose. But she, like everyone else, was a stranger.

The next morning, my parents arrived. I recognized them, but I didn't have any feelings toward them — no love or connection. My emotional distance was difficult for my friends and family, but they rallied to help me get through. I had a personal amnesia team, a crew of people coordinating to make sure I was never alone, bringing me soup, taking me to doctor's appointments, and shading back in the missing pieces of who I was. I had no idea what I did for fun, where I'd gone to college, what my favorite color was. Any preferences I'd developed over my almost 30 years on the planet had been deleted, like the hard drive of a computer suddenly wiped out.

I began writing down everything people told me about myself. 'I am half Italian.' 'I grew up in Pittsburgh.'

A couple of days after the accident, a woman came into my bedroom and said, "She's a vegetarian!" — afraid someone visiting might start feeding me chicken soup. "Don't let her eat any meat!" She said she was my best friend Amy, and she didn't want me to regret things I'd done when my memory eventually returned. Vegetarian. I let the word sink in. I didn't really care, to be honest; I could have been eating a veal shank as she told me. But it sounded important, something my former self would want me to know, so I wrote on a Post-it note by my bed: "You are a vegetarian." Because of the damage to my short-term memory, I couldn't retain these details otherwise. If someone left the room for a few minutes, by the time she'd returned, I would have forgotten who she was and we'd have to start over.

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I began writing down everything people told me about myself. "I am half Italian." "I grew up in Pittsburgh." I became desperate to hold on to every bit of information, for fear of losing these newly discovered pieces of my identity.

I didn't know how long I could bear feeling so detached from everything and everyone — especially myself. My doctors told me that it was a matter of time, and that most of my memories would return. The process wouldn't be linear, but rather would occur in unpredictable bursts.

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Navigating the Haze

Medications I was prescribed for my back injury slowed my mental recovery, and they also made my brain feel even foggier. When Thanksgiving came, I purposely didn't take those meds so that I could be as clearheaded as possible. My mother and sister were coming to visit, and bringing with them an entire feast. That Thursday morning after a friend helped me get ready, I sat on the edge of my bed, waiting for my family to arrive. "What time do you think they'll get here?" I asked.

He gave me an odd look. "You don't remember?"

"Remember what?" I said.

He hesitated. "They just left. We had Thanksgiving. It's over."

"No, no!" I panicked, but a glance into the kitchen where dishes were stacked in the sink confirmed it. I burst into tears when I realized that an entire holiday had vanished from my mind.

Whenever I learned about old memories I was missing or new ones I was unable to retain, I became more frustrated. At times I thought it might be better to know nothing rather than to have just a handful of fragments, never able to see the whole picture of who I was or what was happening around me. But I kept trying. Every visitor, every conversation, helped to fill in a blank. A girl from yoga came by. I do yoga? What else do I do? I felt like a detective trying to solve the mystery of me. I found journals written in my handwriting but in another language. A friend told me it was Portuguese, from when I lived in Brazil. Brazil? What else? Do I paint? No. Do I cook? Sometimes. A magazine arrived in the mail and inside was an article I'd written. I'm a writer, too? Yes.

The pile of Post-its on my bedside table was growing, but I lacked the emotional glue that could bind together the bits and pieces of my identity. I didn't have any feelings about the notes I wrote down. It was just information, as if I were putting together a robot's artificial intelligence.

One afternoon, I was in a cab going over a bridge leaving Manhattan when I noticed the gap where the Twin Towers used to be. That's odd, I thought. Weren't there buildings there? I knew the skyline was missing something, but I didn't know what.

Every visitor, every conversation, helped to fill in a blank. A girl from yoga came by. I do yoga? What else do I do?

A month or so later, I was taking the same route home when my eyes snagged again on that hole in the skyline where the Twin Towers once stood. This time I started to cry. I had no idea why — it wasn't that I could recall the tragedy of the September 11 attacks or the burning smell that lasted for weeks after — but I sobbed the entire way home. And then it hit me: It wasn't a fact that had come back to me; it was a feeling. I was making headway.

If this were another Post-it note, I would have written down: "emotional impact," the true missing piece. More than data about my past — that I was a writer and a vegetarian and half Italian — I needed to know how I felt about all of those things.

Before my accident, facts and feelings were naturally intertwined, just like everyone's are. I had an opinion about or an emotional charge attached to all aspects of my life. For instance, "I adore my cat Natasha." The accident severed that link, lifting out the emotional piece of who I was, like separating an egg. To get the "me" back, I had two different hurdles: learning who Natasha was, then remembering my love for her.

And now, after all the programming of information and the Post-it notes, my "feeling memory" was returning. I was becoming a real person again.

Coming Back to Cole

It took me almost six months to fully recover. The process was slow, and at times random. Over a decade has passed since then, and my memory is as complete today as it was before the accident. I can recall childhood scenes and the names of college friends. I remember mistakes I've made and things I said in anger to people I love that I wish I could take back. I remember painful breakups and the day I met the wonderful man I'm now married to.

In our maxed-out, busy lives, everyone talks about the importance of staying in the present moment. Very few people are forced to experience that in a literal way, like I was during my months without a memory reel. I appreciate the now, but I also know that my sense of self depends on allowing my past to surface — even the parts others might want to forget. Being a whole person means remembering all of it, the good and the bad, every piece of Cole.

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