REAL LIFE

This Aussie mum-of-three needs her husband to jog her memory every single day

A mental breakdown wiped years of memories from Cathy’s brain

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Cathy O’Brien, 47, from Wollongong in NSW, lost four years of memories and needs her husband to remind her of what she’s missed every day.

Here, Cathy tells the story in her own words. 

As my eyes slowly flickered open, I rolled over to see 
a man lying next to me. Heart racing, I stared at the bearded stranger.

Noticing my panic, he woke up too.

‘Everything is okay, you know me,’ he told me gently. ‘I’m your husband, Andrew.’

I didn’t know what was happening, but I thought the fact I was in bed with him surely meant he was telling the truth.

Still in a daze, he led me downstairs. In the kitchen sat a whiteboard with writing scrawled all over it.

Names, dates and details of my day were drawn out on a calendar.

Today is Monday and you have a doctor’s appointment, one part of it read.

‘What’s going on?’ I asked Andrew cautiously.

‘You don’t remember, but it’s March 30, 2016,’ he said.

As my haze lifted, I learned a few things about myself.

My name was Catherine, I was 44 and I had a hubby of 15 years, named Andrew.

I had a son, Zac, 13, and twin daughters, Charlotte and Lily, 10.

When I’d woken up I had no memory.

Then, although snippets slowly returned, my mind was still early 2012 – when Andrew didn’t have a beard!

But in reality, it was 2016, and I was living in the past.

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(Credit: Supplied)
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(Credit: Supplied)

A year earlier, I’d been admitted to hospital after a mental breakdown.

My brain had disconnected from the entire left side of my body, leaving me unable to move it at all.

Soon after, my neurologist diagnosed me with a condition called Functional Neurological Disorder (FND).

‘It’s affected your long-term memory,’ he explained.

Unlike memory loss caused from physical trauma, mine stemmed from emotional distress.

I’d been disassociating myself from unhappy memories. But my brain couldn’t tell the difference between good and bad ones, so it just wiped it all clean.

I was like a computer hard drive that had been completely deleted.

After six weeks relearning how to use my body, I returned home to my beautiful family.

That’s when the daily memory erasure began and I’d wake up confused and disorientated.

Luckily, I had Andrew to fill in the blanks every single morning.

It was like all the birthdays, family outings, anniversaries, deaths or holidays since 2012 had never even happened.

My children had aged four years, had graduated from primary school to high school and we had two dogs now.

I’d spend the day re-learning details of the past four years until it was time to go to bed.

The next morning, the whole charade would start all over again.

It was like someone had pressed a ‘restart’ button on my brain.

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(Credit: Supplied)

Waking up next to Andrew, the slightest thing could send me into a spiralling panic.

‘Honey, don’t be scared, I’ve got a beard now,’ he’d tell me. ‘And the kids are older than you think.’

It would take a few hours to really comprehend what was happening.

Charlotte and Lily would help me with the morning routine, making themselves lunch and talking me through it.

‘It’s okay Mum, we know you don’t remember,’ they’d say when I grew frustrated.

Reading my own detailed journals, I’d teach myself about everything in my new, scary world too.

Each day, I had to relearn that I was suffering from dissociative amnesia, which is a neurological disorder.

‘Look at the notes on your phone,’ Andrew prompted.

Checking my phone, there were little reminders I’d jotted days or weeks earlier.

You see a psychologist now, your husband has changed jobs, your parents have moved house and your friend just had a baby…

Flicking through photo albums, I struggled to remember things. It was like I was looking at another family’s memories.

I saw pictures from a 2013 family trip to Disneyland with Andrew and the kids, but I might as well have been photoshopped into them.

How can I not remember any of this? I’d ask myself.

I couldn’t even recall meeting Princess Mary and Prince Frederik when they’d visited the hospital for an event.

Looking at my smiling face, there’s no way you’d know there was anything wrong. But I have absolutely no recollection of it.

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(Credit: Supplied)
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(Credit: Supplied)

Reading through old photos and conversations on Facebook, I desperately tried to re-jig my memory.

I also depended on my husband, children and friends to reassure me that these events even happened.

I’ll never have all of my memory back, but I’ve learned to accept this.

My family have also learned that any reference 
to something between 2012-2017 just results in 
a blank stare from me!

‘Don’t worry Mum,’ they’ll say when I forget.

I still see a psychologist and my doctor has helped me better understand FND.

Now when I wake up, I’m still confused about Andrew sometimes, but it’s getting much better.

I’m trying to focus on making new memories with my beautiful family.

Living with an invisible illness like mine can be very lonely and scary.

People assume that just because they can’t see what’s wrong, my condition isn’t medical. But it’s as real and as medical as a broken arm.

I want other people living with mental illnesses to know their pain is valid

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