True Love Reunites a Couple Torn Apart by Amnesia

Amnesia sent him spiraling into oblivion. Love brought him back.

By Max Alexander from Reader's Digest | September 2007

They were married on New Year’s Eve. Taco, the ring bearer, wore a tuxedo. In his vows, Jeff said, “Penny, today you honor me by being my wife. You never gave up on me when others might have.”

Penny said, “Jeff, I fell in love with you not once but twice. The first time we met face-to-face, I knew we were meant for each other.”

After the wedding, the couple began going to therapy together. One goal of the treatment is for Jeff to regain his memory. “Your past is what makes you who you are,” he says.

“Most people do eventually recover their pre-fugue memories,” says Dr. Spiegel. To try to bring back his past, Jeff is working with Stephen Langer, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Olympia. Part of the therapy, paradoxically, will be getting Jeff to stop thinking so much.

Says Langer, “He remembers things through the intellectual process of remembering facts. I’m trying to get him to remember things based on the feeling.”

“I’m always trying to think things through,” says Jeff. “I can’t turn it off. It’s overwhelming. I deal with panic attacks.”

So does Penny. Nights can be especially difficult. “Sometimes I’m out here crying or she’s out here crying,” says Jeff, referring to the inevitable frustrations of trying to rebuild their relationship. Sometimes in the wee hours, Penny or Jeff will draw a bath in their oversize Jacuzzi tub. “We’ll light candles, crawl in there and just talk,” Jeff says. “We can’t afford to be lazy in our relationship.” Both occasionally take sleeping pills.

The other goal of therapy has been to help Jeff and Penny recognize the warning signs of another amnesia incident. Langer believes Jeff’s amnesia was likely triggered by a series of negative emotions, including distress over his friend’s cancer. “The challenge is to get Jeff to be aware of those factors,” he says. “We want him to get stronger in terms of dealing with emotions instead of the primitive defense of blocking it all out.”

To help identify him if he gets lost again, Jeff got a tattoo on his right biceps in March: a flaming orange and yellow phoenix rising from its ashes. Clutched in its beak is a banner that reads “Jeff Ingram” followed by his Washington State ID number.

It was that tattoo that led to his quick identification on April 25, when he went missing again. At work that day, Penny got a funny feeling around 4 p.m. After getting no answer at the house, she raced home to find Jeff gone. She quickly filed a missing-person report. When Jeff turned up that evening in downtown Olympia not knowing who he was, he called 911 from a nearby phone booth. Police, when they arrived, matched Penny’s description of the tattoo with the one on Jeff’s arm. Sadly, Jeff had again lost all his memory.

“Dr. Langer thinks Jeff could have been on the verge of a breakthrough and something overwhelmed him,” says Penny. She’s hopeful that his memories will come more quickly now. “I know it sounds crazy, but we could be making progress.”

The couple have resumed watching the Discovery Channel and the History Channel, with Jeff eagerly absorbing facts. He isn’t ready to work yet, so he stays home alone all day, drawing pictures and writing in a journal that may someday become a book. Parenthood is a distant dream. “Jeff wanted to have several children before this happened,” says Penny. “But now he doesn’t want to have any.”

“I’m afraid that I’ll walk out,” he says, “leave the kid unattended or forget that I even have a kid.”

Penny is looking into new GPS tracking technology that could locate Jeff anywhere in the world if he disappears again. Meanwhile, Jeff says, he’ll work hard on regaining his memory for at least two years. And if it doesn’t come back by then? He doesn’t hesitate: “We’ll continue on and make new memories.”

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