The Consolation of Amnesia and Nonexistence

The worst part about getting old is dying. Freud said the reality of death makes life inherently tragic and that life requires, basically, that we not think about it as long as possible. Fine, but the day arrives when you open your eyes and, even if you’ve enjoyed a life without the constant haunting of depression, you have the experience of nonexistence.

That happened to me on April 12. It is virtually impossible to describe, since nonexistence means you have no self-awareness. On that afternoon I found myself talking to a doctor. I had no idea who he was or where I was. It turned out I was in the emergency room of Emory Midtown Hospital. The doctor told me I’d been in a traffic accident after apparently having a seizure. This occurred, he said, near the state Capitol. He said the driver of the other car was also brought to the hospital, but immediately released because she had no injuries at all.

I had utterly no memory of what happened, and I still don’t. It occurred about four hours before I became self-aware, so I also didn’t recall the CT scan or the countless lab tests I was given, none of which showed abnormal results. The doctor wanted me to stay overnight so a neurologist could see me the next morning. Of course, my insurer, Kaiser, insisted I be discharged and see one of their doctors instead. The discharge papers said I was suffering an hours-long episode of amnesia after a seizure.

Here’s the odd thing. Because I had no memory of the incident, I did not feel particularly upset. I have virtually no trust in the medical system. In fact, when I was 27, I had a classic near-death experience at Piedmont Hospital because the doctor I’d been assigned could not diagnose me and was apparently too vain to consult a specialist until my life began to evaporate. I remember all of that, and the classic narrative changed my life profoundly for many years.

The next day, I took an Uber to the lot where the city tows cars. I was dreading to see the damage on the car I’d wrecked. There was none. I asked the clerk where I could find an accident report. “From the police, of course,” she said. She explained there was also a website that reported accidents. I watched it for the next week and never saw anything. I called the city. They had no record of an accident — just a report that my car had been impounded. 

I asked if I could talk to the cop who was at the scene. Over a week later, he called and told me there was indeed no accident, that I had parked in the middle of the road, that I was “out of it,” and the EMTs called to the scene took me to the hospital.

In the weeks that followed, I had an EEG, an MRI, a spinal tap, and over 30 lab tests. An echocardiogram is on the way. I kept telling my neurologist that I knew what had occurred. I had increased the dose of a new medication the night before and I’d taken it with my usual dose of Ambien plus an earlier small dose of Xanax. I told her I read that the side effects of the new medication included exactly what I’d experienced and could be seriously exaggerated by the other drugs. It turns out I’d also prepared a dessert at 3 am the night before and carried it upstairs. I had no memory of that either. The doctor dismissed my explanation, but the tests found nothing to explain the event. My MRI, however, turned up an almost certainly unrelated abnormality. The neurologist prescribed a brain biopsy. I haven’t arranged it yet. I’m convinced, having a history of medical errors that include the destruction of both my knees, that the brain surgeons will turn my biopsy into a lobotomy.

Amid all this drama, I keep returning to the fact that the amnesia, by basically destroying self-awareness, consoles me more than it troubles me. But I’m aware, too, that in the absence of my memory, the ER doctor constructed a fiction that my neurologist has struggled to reinforce. I have access to her notes and it’s clear she didn’t fully listen to my account of the drugs in our first appointment. Think about that. So much of our life stories is constructed and edited by others when our explanations don’t fit their own stories. I already knew this to some degree. It’s why, despite a Ph.D. and a master’s degree in psychology, I became a rebel.

My mother had a stroke that left her unable to read, write, walk, or talk for 15 years before dying. She did retain much self-awareness and frequently slashed at her throat with her index finger, obviously signifying her wish to die. She occupied a place between existence and nonexistence and was denied full access to the latter. Now I understand the consolation that nonexistence ultimately can be.

Cliff Bostock, Ph.D., is a former psychotherapist who now provides life coaching to creative clients., 404-518-4415,