Thanks For The Memory

When I woke after four months from my Sepsis coma, aged 38, I couldn’t remember a thing about my past life. Everything was gone. 

There was a beautiful woman sitting by my hospital bed, smiling at me. She was cradling a newborn baby in her arms. She told me she was my wife, and introduced me to our son, Freddy. She told me that we also had a daughter back at home, and that we lived in a cottage on the peninsular in the middle of a huge lake.

I couldn’t hold on to any of this information. Nic had to tell it to me over and over.

Slowly, I started to build a picture based on glimpses of the past. They stopped and started, froze and blurred over, but I worked at it.

Eighteen years after sepsis, I still struggle to retain facts.

My inability to follow the plot of a TV drama has become a running joke in our family. My favourite show is Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander, but the complicated storylines are a serious problem for me. I have to write things down, I keep copious notes on my phone about the kind of day to day stuff that most people just… well… remember. If you told me the story of your life, I’d probably be wiping tears from my eyes, but I wouldn’t remember a thing about it, the next day.

How frustrating is that?

Nic and I do a lot of public speaking, and we’ve been preparing for a Ted Talk opportunity that’s coming up soon. That’s fifteen minutes or so, on your feet, in front of an audience and without notes. OK. I absolutely love public speaking, we’ve got some great things to tell the world about Resilience, I want to be good at it. So I’ve been dutifully trying to memorise our script, repeating it a hundred times a day to myself, storing trigger points in my brain. I know that if I leave it unrehearsed for more than a day, the memory of it will all be gone. Wish me luck with that – I’ll definitely need it.

I used to be an actor.

My job was to learn lines, then to deliver them perfectly, in the moment – without stumbling, without hesitation, with vitality and as if my life depended on it. I was Macbeth, I acted in brilliant David Hare plays, I worshipped Marlon Brando and all of the method school actors who performed everything like it was really, really, real. Before sepsis, it was so much easier to make connections. Now, I work hard to maintain a tight mental framework – it takes discipline, application, and resilience when I fail.

I’ve stolen back some of the memories sepsis tried to take from me.

I treasure all the photos and mementos I have from the past. I look through my keepsakes often. Also, I’m very lucky still to have Nic with me, as she can fill in a lot of the gaps. Because although the Tom Ray that I was kind of died in December 1999, I’ve managed bit by bit and day by day to reconstruct him as a different, wiser sort of person, holding on tight to a select little bunch of cherished facts that my wife handed back to me.

Sometimes, we have to work at stuff, so it stays important. We all need to know the way back to the people we’ve been before, to understand today, and to help us become what we can tomorrow.

Things you can do to recover or sharpen your memory after trauma:

  1. Stimulate your brain with simple or complex games, research your favourite subjects.
  2. Work with rehab or counselling specialists to stimulate your brain.
  3. Post reminders for yourself or keep a notebook handy.
  4. Make up mnemonics to help you with important things.
  5. Get organised. For example, lay tomorrow’s clothes out by your bedside.
  6. Repeat and rehearse all the key stuff – break longer speeches into smaller chunks.
  7. Stay active. You’ll always feel sharper after exercise.
  8. Feed your brain with fresh fruit, vegetables and fish rich in Omega 3.

Good luck. And don’t forget the most important thing – however you remember it, it’s all good.