Meet The Woman With No Memory Who Needs Daily Updates From Her Husband
In May 2012 Catherine Harding lost her memory, and every day since then she has had to start her life anew.
For the past six years, Catherine Harding has woken up terrified.
As the 48-year-old slowly opens her eyes, she rolls over and stares, heart racing, at the bearded man lying next to her. Gently, he tells her that "everything is OK", that she is safe, and that they know each other.
That man is Cathy's husband of 18 years, Andrew.
After consoling her, a still-bemused Cathy is led downstairs and shown a whiteboard upon which Andrew has written up the date, her name and any plans for the day.
Cathy suffers from disassociative amnesia.
What Is Disassociative Amnesia?
The condition sits under the umbrella term of Functioning Neurological Disorders, according to psychiatrist Dr Matthew Mcfarlane.
"These are conditions that generally arise as a reaction to negative emotions," he told 10 daily.
Mcfarlane, who treated Cathy, said that the symptoms of sufferers can vary -- some can even go blind -- as a result of the brain's reaction to the stress.
"Through no conscious or unconscious effort of their own, sufferers end up turning off or dissociating from the negative emotions," he said.
While there is no definitive explanation, Mcfarlene said the general theory is that the brain does this as "part of a coping mechanism".
People are not intentionally doing this, and they don’t have an awful lot of control over what symptoms eventuate.
Life wasn't always like this for Cathy, and, contrary to popular belief as fuelled by movies such as 50 First Dates, Cathy didn't lose her memory after suffering some kind of major physical trauma.
For the mother-of-three, it was psychological and eventuated after a "slow-burn breakdown".
"There was a family incident," she told 10 daily.
"That seemed to be the tipping point for me."
In 2015 Cathy suffered a breakdown that saw her admitted to a hospital, something she tells 10 daily she has "no memory of".
Curiously, the last firm memory Cathy had occurred three years before her breakdown, in the autumn of May 2012.
She recalls her doctors told her this was when her breakdown began, although she wasn't aware of it at the time.
"I know it was around that time because I can look at pictures today that were taken in 2013 and I have no memory of anything," she said.
After being discharged from the hospital, Cathy's entire life had to be rejigged to help her not only learn how to live again but also work out who she was.
"I would wake up every day and be totally confused," she said.
There was a massive loss of independence. There was a loss of self because I couldn’t remember things from day to day. Like who my husband was, or where he worked.
Cathy said she began to feel as though she was "losing her mind" and needed "constant reassurance from people that I was OK".
"I'm not a needy person. But I ended up having to depend on other people to tell me things and because I couldn't remember anything I had to trust them."
Cathy recalls every morning her husband would wake her up before he went to work "as gently as he could without frightening me".
"Because imagine waking up suddenly and seeing this stranger in the bed next to you," she said.
Then he would talk her through everything that happened, and write on a whiteboard what day of the week it was and what plans she had for the day.
Cathy's three children also played a "huge part" in her care, with her twin daughters helping to make her lunch before going to school in the morning.
Nearly four years on from her breakdown, Cathy is beginning to remember things from "day to day".
"It's clear I won't get all my memories back, but things are slowly starting to float back in," she said.
Mcfarlene said that for patients like Cathy the best treatment option isn't necessarily to make them try and remember their past, but to help them deal with the present and moving on into the future.
He explains: "That's because the function of the memory and things coming in still works to an extent -- but it’s the ability for people to retrieve that memory that is hard."
We focus on working on a rehabilitative model rather than talking about your amnesia or your underlying trauma -- we tend to say things like 'what do you want to do' -- because those are the things we can manage.
Mcfarlene said he hopes that cases such as Cathy's will help to remove some of the stigma surrounding dissociative amnesia and the medical profession's attitude towards the condition.
"Because you can't see the issue a lot of people shrug it off and think sufferers are being hypochondriacs or making it up," he said.
"But think of it this way: If you had a bug or your computer crashed and you looked at the circuit boards -- there’s nothing wrong with the structure -- it’s the way the software is functioning."
If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.
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