Great Britain

I forgot my husband and kids every day after a mental breakdown made me lose 5 years of memories

AFTER a mental breakdown in 2012, Cathy O'Brien forgot her husband and kids.

The mum-of-three, now 47, from Wollongong, New South Wales, had to be reminded who her family were every day - with her memory loss often leaving her terrified.

Each morning, husband Andrew patiently talked her through her rare condition and updated her on the last few years, only for Cathy to forget all over again that night.

Speaking exclusively to Fabulous Digital, Cathy tells her story...

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 too.

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

I didn’t know what was happening, but the fact I was in bed with him made me think 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", 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 husband of 15 years, named Andrew.

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

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

Cathy O'Brien47

When I’d woken up I had no memory. Snippets slowly returned throughout the day but my mind was still in early 2012 – when Andrew didn’t have a beard. I was living in the past.

Andrew patiently explained that, 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 erased.

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

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

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

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

Cathy O'Brien47

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

My children had aged four years, left primary school to join 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.

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 OK 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.

Dissociative amnesia

Dissociative disorders are the mind's way of coping with too much stress. They're often sparked by a previous traumatic experience.

Dissociative amnesia causes periods of time where a person can't remember info about themselves or events in their past life.

These gaps in memory are more severe than normal forgetfulness and are not the result of an underlying medical condition.

The blank episodes can last for several minutes, hours or days. In rare cases, they can last for months or years.

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. I'd find 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 of Denmark 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.

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 these events even happened.

Then, in 2017, things started to improve. I’ll never have all of my memory back, but I’ve learned to accept this.

And my family know any reference to something which happened between 2012 and 2017 results in a blank stare from me.

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

What is FND?

Functional Neurological Disorder (FND) is a medical condition where there is a problem with the functioning of the nervous system, and how the brain and body sends and receives signals.

Patients often lose their ability to control or access their body normally.

Symptoms range from inability to move to memory loss, seizures and speech problems.

It can stem from past trauma and varies from person to person.

Around a third of patients are unable to work and people often become very distressed by their symptoms.

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 not as bad as I was. 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.

We previously spoke to a woman who had no idea she was pregnant until she gave birth to her son. She was on the pill, had no bump and still had periods.