Imagine waking up every single morning not knowing what day it is. Forgetting how old your children are, what year they’re in at school, or even what your husband looks like.
And on top of all that, having three whole years of your life completely wiped from your memory.
It sounds like the Hollywood movie 50 First Dates, but it’s the shocking reality for Aussie mum Catherine O’Brien, who suffered acute memory loss after a mental health breakdown in 2015.
She was effectively stuck in May 2012, with no way of moving forward.
“Every time I went to sleep I would wake up with a fright because my husband has a beard and he didn’t in 2012,” Catherine tells Be exclusively.
“My children looked bigger than I remember. The dogs would run in and I don’t remember getting them.
“My husband would have to reorientate me every morning, and I had to absorb everything as best as I could. Some days that worked better than others.”
“It was all very daunting and overwhelming, and there were lots of tears.”
Up until May 2012, Catherine and husband Andrew were living a normal suburban life in their Wollongong, NSW, home with their three children Zac, and twins Charlotte and Lillian.
But a traumatic event that same month saw Catherine eventually suffer a mental health breakdown. That didn’t happen though, until February 2015, when she woke up in hospital with absolutely no memory of the previous three years.
“I basically lost three years of my life,” she tells us. “My last really solid, firm memory is from May in 2012.
“I know it was around Mother’s Day, I can almost describe it down to the clothes we were wearing and the food we ate.”
Doctors diagnosed Catherine with functional neurological disorder and dissociative amnesia, explaining to her that her brain had shut out not only her painful memories but ALL memories made after the moment of trauma.
After spending six weeks in hospital, Catherine was allowed to go home, but for the next two years Andrew had to remind her every single day what had changed since 2012.
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“I look at photos of my kids during that time and things that happened over that three-year period and I don’t remember it at all,” Catherine explains.
Her son Zac had graduated from primary school and started high school, and the children started playing cricket. In 2013, the girls and her were able to meet Princess Mary of Denmark and Prince Frederick during their tour of Australia.
And yet Catherine remembers none of it.
“We went to Disneyland as a family in 2013 with my parents, and my brother and his family. They are all in the photos but I have no memory of going which is really sad,” she says.
“I feel like I’ve been robbed of a big period of our lives.
“But I can’t dwell on the things I can’t access, because otherwise I won’t move past it.”
Catherine’s memories from before May 2012 remain untouched, with doctors comparing her situation to PTSD, but instead of replaying the event over and over, her brain has completely locked it away.
“The thought process is that the memories are there but I can’t access them,” she says.
“The doctors believe it has stemmed from a really long history of mental health issues, but the trigger in the end was the traumatic event.
“My psychiatrist actually thinks I had the breakdown then, but for the next three years kept operating through it, until it got to the point that my brain shut off.”
Catherine, who has been sharing her journey on a blog called Life through the Haze, says most days she would feel ‘sad, empty, anxious, overwhelmed and confused’.
“There was a total ache in my heart and I was exhausted from feeling all of those feelings all the time, and trying to work out what is going on,” she says.
“I just resigned myself to the fact that I would never be able to access my memories. I resigned myself to the fact I didn’t recognise my kids, my dogs, my husband, my house.”
Every day Andrew had to leave a whiteboard explaining where he and the kids were, what day it was and anything planned. Catherine says, while she eventually learned to live that way, it was particularly hard on the kids.
“It’s hard to see mum that way. Physically I’m there but I’m not mum anymore, I’m not independent, able to drive them around, chase after them. Their life changed significantly,” she says.
Miraculously, Catherine turned a corner in late 2016, when she began creating new memories again, and Andrew no longer had to remind her of things every morning.
“Generally I think things are better now that I am making day to day memories and it’s not so taxing on the family,” Catherine says.
She keeps daily journals, writes notes, has an online blog, and takes photos daily to help her trigger her memories.
“I still don’t access memories easy now. If you ask me what has happened in the last week or two I would have to go back to my diaries and look,” she says.
“These days it’s more like I know that we went on a family holiday and did a cruise, but don’t know when. I can work it out. And I know because I am looking at photos.
“But I have no memory of being in hospital, of having the breakdown, of my husband having to tell me what happened every day.”
She’s even been able to get her driver’s license back, something she says has been huge for the kids.
Her focus now is taking things day by day and working with her psychologists and psychiatrists to ‘unpack everything’.
“Essentially what we’ve decided is they will come back when they are ready, because there is no physical reason for what is happening,” she explains.
And while she admits she is resigned to the fact that they may never come back, she is so glad to have the important photos to cherish.
“Sometimes I’ll have really random memories and not know where it can from,” she says.
“I have a lot of love and support around me and all I can focus on is those things because if I focus on everything that I can’t remember it makes me really sad.”
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