PROFILE

The man who lost himself

NICHOLAS KÖHLER May 7 2007
PROFILE

The man who lost himself

NICHOLAS KÖHLER May 7 2007

The man who lost himself

Jeff Ingram rebuilt his life after suffering total amnesia. Then it happened again.

NICHOLAS KÖHLER

PROFILE

On the morning of Sept. 6, 2006, Jeff Ingram, a balding 39year-old with a soul patch and handlebar moustache, said goodbye to his fiancée and left his home in Olympia, Wash., carrying two suitcases, one full of clothing, the other containing a remote-controlled fart machine and a pink dress designed to be worn by a dog. Jeff, a Canadian who planned to visit his parents in northern Alberta, would not be seen again for weeks, a period that became a nightmare of frantic searching for his fiancée, Penny Hansen, who feared she’d lost him forever. But on Oct. 22 Penny arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to greet Jeff, who had been discovered at a Denver, Colo., hospital but who no longer knew her, did not recall his mother’s name, and who believed that hospital food, the only fare he knew, was the height of culinary achievement.

This was Jeff’s second bout of dissociative fugue—fugue from the Latin for “to flee”-a rare psychological disorder characterized by amnesia and a compulsion to travel far from one’s routine life. Thought to be brought on by stress—financial trouble, bereavement, connubial worry—the condition is often confused with malingering. Yet, like all cases of

amnesia, Jeff’s story demonstrates how delicately balanced are the parts of the mind that combine to make us who we are. After a sixweek stay as a John Doe in a Denver psychiatric ward, authorities reunited Jeff with Penny, a woman who, for all their shared history, was now a stranger to him. On his first night at their Olympia home, Penny offered Jeff, an impish man with a shrugging, disarming sense of humour, the spare bedroom. “I gave him the option,” she says. “He didn’t want the option.” Instead, they lay together in bed and wept.

HIS FIRST EPISODE of dissociative fugue began on Nov. 6, 1994, when Jeff, then a butcher, left his home in Calgary for work and vanished. When a friend noticed his absence he alerted Jeff’s mother, Doreen Tompkins, who called police. But days later, when a second friend saw Jeff, an expert dart player, throwing a game in Las Vegas, he promised to phone home, causing Tompkins to withdraw the missing person’s report. Yet she would not hear from him until nine months later, not long after Aug. 11,1995, when Jeff regained consciousness in a Seattle, Wash., ambulance, the victim of a brutal beating. He had likely been robbed and held no identification. But tucked into the pages of a book he carried, hospital staff found a doctor’s appointment card with a time and date that eventually led authorities to Tompkins. “They phoned me up and told me they had a John Doe who had

amnesia,” Tompkins says. “I didn’t even know what amnesia was. I had to look it up in the book.” Tompkins still dissolves into tears at the memory of her first contact with her son, who had no idea who she was, and who hospital staff had kept strapped down for fear he would flee. “I told him that I loved him every day,” she says. “It was very, very hard, him not knowing who I was.” Jeff’s memory loss didn’t change him—“He was still myjeff, right?” says Tompkins—nor, except for subtle discrepancies, did it impact his world knowledge. “He knew the grass was green but he

didn’t know why,” Tompkins told a reporter. “He knew the grass was called green and he knew how to do his math.”

Though he never regained memory of the time before August 1995Jeff’s life unfolded with a surprising degree of normalcy. Within months of moving to Slave Lake, Alta., about 250 km north of Edmonton, to recuperate with his parents, he had married and was working in a coffee shop. On the first anniversary of his waking in Seattle, Jeff, convinced he would never recall his past and exhausted by his efforts to do so, devised an unusual ceremony. “We gather here today,” a story in the Slave Lake Lakeside Leader that describes the proceedings begins, “to say goodbye to the former Jeffrey Allen Ingram.” During the “funeral,” Jeff dug up a dead tree and replaced it with a living one. “Although I was not fortunate enough to know him, like the rest of you, I wish to honour him by wishing him rest and farewell,” his friend, Dan Poliues, said during the rite.

In 2003, Jeff, a computer game enthusiast, met Penny, a civil servant with the Washington state government, on a free Internet gaming site. A year and a half later, Jeff; who’d

divorced his wife, was making plans to drive to Olympia, the Washington state capital, to visit. “I’m no Barbie, if you’re looking for Barbie,” Penny told him. Then she admitted to a medical condition—a rare and serious eye ailment. Jeff said he too had something to tell her. She accepted his past bout of amnesia as a medical condition not unlike her damaged sight. As their relationship grew—he began spending as much time in Olympia as his Canadian citizenship allowed— Penny thought little of it. “We never thought it would happen again,” she says.

So she paid little attention on Sept. 6 as Jeff, who by then had asked her to marry him, packed for his latest trip to Slave Lake. There he would start the paperwork for his move to the U.S. and spend time with Poliues and Poliues’s wife, Terry, who was dying of cancer.

He didn't know who was president or what happened on Sept. 11. ‘I didn’t have a concept of a city, I didn’t know what a state was.’ Eating a farm egg was ecstasy.

The remote-controlled fart machine he packed he would stow beneath Terry’s hospital bed to make her smile; the pink dress was for the Poliues’s dog. But all was not well. “His behaviour was different that morning,” says Penny. “He was going to leave without saying goodbye.” Then, she says, “He touched my heart and said, ‘When you miss me, I’ll be here.’ ” On the last step outside the front door, Jeff turned to her. “There was a look in his eyes,” she says. With that he jumped into his lightblue Dodge Neon and drove off. When he didn’t call, Penny felt sure he’d driven off the road or hit a moose and started calling police and area hospitals. Weeks into his disappearance and desperate for clues, Penny searched her home: Jeff’s winter coat, a Slave Lake necessity, still hung in the closet. Somehow, she knew then that he was out there, somewhere, and that he had forgotten her.

NORMALLY TREATED with hypnosis, dissociative fugue is rare but spectacular. In most cases, the person in a fugue state, best thought

of as a kind of trance, reawakens in alien surroundings with no past memory, then lapses, almost haphazardly, into a new identity. In one case, a 39-year-old female journalist from Tacoma, Wash., who’d vanished in 1985, surfaced 12 years later living under another name in Alaska, married with children and with no clue who she had been. David Spiegel, a Stanford University psychiatrist, describes the fugue-susceptible patient as “the kind of person who would be a good actor, who can enter the acting role to such an extent that they temporarily suspend awareness of who they normally are.” While other dissociative disorders often stem from traumas, fugue states are triggered by milder stress—the loss of a parent, for example. “The odd thing is, they seem strangely unperturbed by it,” says Spiegel. “Part of what

enables you to accept the incongruity of suddenly not having a past is that the part of your brain that judges and evaluates and criticizes is probably in low gear.”

Memory can be divided into four parts: procedural memory, the almost instinctive knowledge absorbed through experience that allows, say, a trained typist to dash off a letter; semantic memory, or the facts we know of the world (the capital of France or where an egg comes from); episodic memory, which recalls experience as we ourselves were involved; and autobiographical memory, the narrative created by stringing together these episodes. “Normal personality is this con-

federation of states operating together,” says Ottawa psychiatrist George Fraser, “and we only see them when something happens to knock them out of balance.” In a fugue state, the glue that fuses these aspects of memory together melts, often leaving intact world memory—though not always—while gutting episodic and autobiographical memory.

On his arrival at the Denver Medical Health Center on Sept. 10, the man staff would come to call Alpha 74 approached a nurse and said he did not know his name or recall anything prior to the moment that morning when he’d picked himself up off the pavement 10 blocks away. Now clean-shaven, wearing different glasses, a different cap and different clothes than those he’d left Olympia in four days earlier, Jeff was in obvious distress. He had spent hours walking the streets, confused,

seeking help, before stumbling into the hospital. The nurse slapped a form on the counter, instructing him to fill in his details. Jeff repeated that he did not know his name. Soon, security arrived and emptied his pockets, finding eight dollars and a cigarette lighter but no ID. Soon, a cadre of doctors confronted him: What’s the date? Who’s president? What happened on Sept. 11? Jeff could answer none of their queries.

So began the life of Alpha 74—or, as Jeff called himself, “Al,” a diminutive that felt “more human.” He ate hospital meals as though he’d never before tasted food. (Later, eating a farm egg in Olympia would be ecstasy.) “I didn’t have a concept of a city,

I didn’t know what a state was—it’s even

bizarre to me,” Jeff says in retrospect, recall¿

ing a geography lesson from a doctor. Otherwise, he knew the world only through TV news, a vivid but unflattering portrait of what lay beyond the psych ward. “No wonder I’m in here,” he thought. Hospital staff,

On their first night back together, she offered the 'option' of the spare bedroom. He didn’t want it. They lay in bed together and wept.

meanwhile, tried to rule out malingering with “head games” and watching for “tells” that might suggest fakery. (Psychiatrists prefer not to discuss what constitutes such a tell.) A male nurse barged into Jeff’s room, subjecting him to a loud harangue and claiming his doctors knew him to be a phony. CT scans, MRIs and two spinal taps followed, finding nothing.

A week into his stay, Jeff underwent hypnosis, recounting how he was an artist from New York whose wife, Penny, and two sons, James and Gerry, were killed in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. “I think I need a smoke,” a shaken Jeff said before lighting his first cigarette since his arrival. (A session in which Jeff was administered sodium amytal, a truth serum, only reinforced this false story.) Questions continued to muscle through his mind. “Who am I, what kind of person am I? Was I mean?” His fingerprints, meanwhile, found no matches in U.S. databases. At times, fellow patients approached him: “I wish I could do that—just wipe everything clean and start over,” one would say. “No you don’t,” said Jeff. “This is hell.” At night he snatched an hour or two of sleep before waking to stare out the window—“Who’s out there looking for me”—and “vibrating” with anxiety. “I figured I was losing a bit of myself every day,” he says.

After 46 days in hospital, doctors moved Jeff to a Denver halfway house, where he spent his days smoking relentlessly. Soon, police contacted him, asking if he wanted help. Within days he had appeared on national television, pleading: “If anybody recognizes me, knows who I am, please let somebody know.” The morning of his press conference, when a police officer took him to breakfast, Jeff could not decipher the menu. Police ordered him one of everything, filling the table. The next day, Penny received a call from her brother: Jeff was on television.

PENNY’S LIFE after JEFF’S departure had been a torment. She and her family had scoured the highways and repeatedly contacted police. But their search was hampered by privacy

laws and skepticism: was Jeff on drugs? Drink? “Did he leave you?” It was a possibility Penny wouldn’t accept. On Oct. 18, his birthday, Penny baked a cake and celebrated Jeff’s turning 40. Four days later, minutes after her

brother’s call, Penny was talking to Jeff on the phone. “It was a little awkward,” recalls Jeff. “I just introduced myself,” says Penny. “Do we have animals?” he asked. (They have two cats and Taco, a chihuahua.) “Do I have children?” (No.) “What do I like to eat?” Later, at the airport, Penny knew she would be greeting a man to whom she was a stranger. “It was awful,” says Jeff. “I could have hurled right there,” Penny agrees. “I was too drugged up to hurl,” says Jeff.

Six months on, Penny says Jeff is the same man: “I never fell out of love with Jeff. I had the pleasure of doing it twice.” Jeff, meanwhile, has had the pleasure of watching the Star Wars films, always favourites, twice again for the first time. Once he disliked green pepper and coconut; now he enjoys them. His

favourite colour has gone from blue to yellow. Looking at old snapshots of himself, he says, “I want to be that guy again.” He describes the absence of memory as “missing yourself—losing yourself. I just don’t feel complete.” And he worries he will lose himself again. “When I go outside for a smoke,” he says, “will I come back? I don’t go beyond the driveway.” Most difficult is meeting friends and family he no longer knows yet who say they love him: “He couldn’t,” says Penny. “And he felt guilty about that.” Of a recent visit from his mother, Jeff says: “She’s just a lady—a nice lady.” Yet his feelings for Penny are unchanged—“I found my other part,” he says, “all my trust and everything went into her hands”—a continuity Penny attributes to an emotional form of memory not discussed in the psychiatric literature. Before asking Penny to marry—again—in November, Jeff called her mother’s seeking her blessing. He did not remember it, but he had made the same call last summer. Jeff and Penny were married on Dec. 31. Meanwhile, the mystery of his whereabouts during the four days between leaving Olympia and his arrival at the Denver hospital persists. The Dodge Neon he left in has never been found. M