The Woman Who Woke Up in the Future
Naomi Jacobs went to bed a 32-year-old woman and woke up believing she was a teenager again. After temporarily losing 17 years of memories from a rare form of amnesia, Jacobs wrote a memoir about piecing her life back together.
Photo by Flickr user Loren Kerns
Naomi Jacobs was a 32-year-old single mother living in Manchester, England, when she went to sleep on April 30, 2008. She lived in a small flat with her ten-year-old son Leo and their cat Sophia. At the time, she was unemployed, but she had gone back to school, where she was pursuing a degree in psychology. When Naomi woke up the next morning, she didn't remember any of this. Instead, she woke up believing she was 15 years old, bewildered by how she had ended up in the future.
It took years for Naomi to figure out what happened to her that night, but eventually, doctors gave her the diagnosis: transient global amnesia. The disorder only affects about five per 100,000 people each year, and results in sudden loss of memories. Unlike other forms of amnesia, people typically remember who they are and how to do stuff (Naomi, for example, could still remember her pin number and how to drive a car), but they forget qualitative memories. Those memories return eventually, but not before the traumatic, disorienting experience of feeling like you've traveled through time.
For Naomi, the experience wasn't just jarring—it was a catalyst to change her life. Now, seven years later, she's detailed everything that happened in a memoir, called Forgotten Girl. The book reveals a woman who forget the entirety of her adult life, rediscovered the person she grew up to be, and ultimately learned how to forgive herself.
VICE: Tell me what happened when you woke up that morning in 2008.
Naomi Jacobs: I had woken up that morning and saw my son Leo off to school. Then I went back to sleep. I hadn't been sleeping very well. I'd had a stomach virus and tonsillitis, and I'd just broken up with my ex-boyfriend—so my sleeping pattern was all over the place.
When I woke up, the first thing I saw were the curtains opposite me. I didn't recognize them, and then I looked down I didn't know the bed or the bedroom I was in. I jumped out of the bed. Initially, for the first couple of minutes, I still thought I was dreaming. It wasn't until I dashed into the bathroom and I saw my face in the mirror, and saw that I'd aged. I didn't know 17 years at that point, but I could tell I'd aged significantly from the age of 15. And that's when I realized I wasn't dreaming.
What was going through your mind at that point?
Terror. Complete shock. Then fear. I didn't know where I was, when I was, whose bedroom it was, which city I was in...
I was convinced that I'd be fine. I thought, I'll just fall asleep tonight and I'll just wake back up in 1992.
In the book, you describe having this telephone number in your head, and intuitively knowing who to call.
I didn't really know if it was a telephone number at first, but when I kept running around the house in a panic and every time I looked at this strange-looking house phone—it looked very, very different from the way cordless phones looked in 1992—this number just kept popping into my head. In the end, I felt like I had no choice but to press these numbers into the phone.
It was my friend Katie's telephone number. I knew the name attached to those numbers was Katie, but when this woman answered the phone, I knew straight away that I didn't know her. I didn't recognize her voice. But I just burst into tears, really distressed, and I told her on the phone that I hadn't a clue what was happening to me or where I was.
How did she react to what you were telling her?
She laughed at first, because I think she thought I might've been joking. But once she realized I was really quite upset, she kicked into gear and said 'I'll be there shortly.' When she came to get me, I saw her for the first time and I knew I didn't know her, but once she told me that she'd called my sister, I thought, 'Well, OK, she knows my sister, so maybe I'll be OK.'
They asked me as many questions as they could, because I had a lot of pain in my head—my head was pounding. But I was convinced that I'd be fine. I thought, I'll just fall asleep tonight and I'll just wake back up in 1992. That's what I told myself for those first 24 hours to get me through the trauma of what was happening.
But then, of course, you didn't go back to 1992.
Right. When I woke up the next day and I [still wasn't] 15, I thought, This might be permanent. My sister was insistent that I see a doctor, but I refused.
Why were you reluctant to see a doctor?
In my head, I was like, It's OK, I'm not even going to be here tomorrow—I'm going back to 1992! It took four days until I did see a doctor, because my practitioner—the doctor who knew me and my medical history—was away on vacation. So I went to see a replacement doctor, who saw me a few days later.
He was no help at all. He just told me that it was all in my imagination; go home, take a sleeping tablet, have a cup of tea, and everything will be fine the next day. That was traumatic in itself.
Eventually, when I did go back to my doctor, he was livid that I'd been treated that way. But it took me a long, long time to figure out what had actually happened to me, because it was so rare. Over the consequent five years, it took me seeing so many different doctors and psychiatrists—because the memory loss was psychological, not organic or caused by head trauma—to figure out what happened and to get a diagnosis.
It took five years to figure out what happened?
Yeah. At the time it happened, I was getting my degree in psychology. It was kind of serendipitous, I suppose. I was studying for my exams and I'd commandeered all of these books on brain and behavior from the library. So when I had the amnesia, once I realized Oh crap, this might last, I started trying to research what could possibly be wrong with me. We eventually found the answer in the psychology books. When I found "transient global amnesia," I said, "I think I might have this," because I could remember numbers and how to drive, but I couldn't remember giving birth to my son. And he was just dismissive of that. So when I came away, I was like, "I've got transient global amnesia." I needed that to anchor me—I suppose to have something tangible? I reckon that helped me. Those psychology textbooks were my saving grace.
I feel like I've been given a second chance.
You also had a lifetime worth of diaries to read through, right?
Yeah, I had 20 years worth of diaries. As a teenager, I thought, This is really sad. Like, I can't believe I'm an adult who still writes in a diary. But I was really glad they were there, because they allowed me to peel back the layers, bit by bit, of the complicated adult life.
What was it like to read about your life without remembering you'd lived that life?
It was like reading somebody else's life, somebody else's story, because I had no emotional attachment to these memories that had been documented in these journals. So it wasn't my life. I hadn't lived it. It was a big of an emotional rollercoaster. I found the more I read, the more involved I got in this woman's life and more attached I got to her. I became more understanding and more compassionate. At 15, you don't know what you're going to be at 32, and to wake up 17 years in the future and think, Wait a minute, nothing has turned out the way I've expected—I was a single mother, living in this really tiny council house, with a cat, and a beaten-up car. I was unemployed, doing a psychology degree, taking government hand-outs. How had I ended up like this? I was so disappointed, and disgusted, and devastated in my adult life that I really didn't want any part in it until I started reading the diaries. Then, those diaries started to explain to me what had actually taken place in the 17 years, and by the time I reached the last diary, I found this deep sense of compassion for myself.
Did that change the way you lived your adult life going forward?
Absolutely. In reading the diaries, I found I'd struggled with drug addiction, struggled with damage and trauma for sexual abuse, I was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, I did a whole lot of LSD in my teenage years, my relationship with my mother had broken down, because she was an alcoholic... There was so much in there that made me understand, like, it's not as black and white as I'd originally thought it was, from my teenaged perspective. Teenagers can be quite black and white about things; adults know life is a lot more complex. So realizing all of this about myself not only allowed me to kind of forgive myself, but it was also the catalyst for huge change in my life. I went on a 12-step program, I let go of unhealthy friendships and relationships, I started to exercise, I quit smoking, and I started to write. I started to finally understand what it would be to live a life without basing my identity on victimhood. I feel like I've been given a second chance.
Related: VICE travels to Minneapolis—which boasts the largest concentration of drug addicts and churches in America—to try to get high on the glory of God.
It took seeing yourself from 15-year-old eyes again to make that change.
When I was 15, I had all these hopes for my future—hopes for who I would be, growing up, or the woman that I would turn into eventually. I saw this great potential within myself to achieve whatever it was that I wanted to achieve. I wanted to be a journalist, I wanted to travel the world, and I knew I wanted to do something artistic. Those dreams were destroyed over the space of a year from the age of 15 to 16, when my whole family life fell apart. It was my first real attempt at an overdose. My relationship with my mother was really breaking down and I sort of thought I didn't matter. I thought, if I can't do what I dreamed I deserve in life, then there's no point. I don't matter. So I'm just going to take loads of drugs and live a crusty life. I didn't believe in myself.
Then I had Leo, my son, and I really promised him when he was born that whatever problems that I had—whatever damage or wounds that were inside of me—I was going to do everything in my power to heal them. My 20s were a kind of journey of trying to heal the things that had happened in my past, but I was very stuck in the past and traumas and hurts that had taken place. I never felt like I could fully move on from them. There would be times when I thought I was OK and then something would happen and it would push me back into that painful place, and the only thing I could use to help me deal with it was drugs. It wasn't until the amnesia that I think my mind was just like "No, we're not doing this anymore" and went back to when this all started.
So the fact that you woke up believing you were 15 is meaningful, because that's when your troubles began?
It's hard to explain in an interview (that's why I wrote the book!) because it's so multi-layered and complex. When the story first was out there and people were asking me "Why 15?" I just said, "I went back to a time when I felt safe." But once I started to write the book, I started to peel back the layers and do the same thing that my teenage self did. I deconstructed myself. Fifteen was the point in my life where I gave up on myself; where I believed that I was not worthy of living a good life. I believed I didn't matter. There was no point in believing that I could achieve my dreams, because I thought I would always be at the whims of other people, or people would hurt me and push me down. So I gave up on myself.
When I got the amnesia, I didn't remember this. It was only when I read the diaries, and I got to the diary that I wrote in when I was 15 and 16, and that diary reminds me of what happened to me and I realized, This all started with me.
While all of this was happening, you were living with your ten-year-old son, who you didn't remember having. How did he deal with this?
He was at school the first few hours that I had the amnesia, so my sister and Katie prepared me a little bit: "You have a son, his name is Leo. He is ten years of age, he likes skateboarding, and he's a really good kid." So when I went to collect him from school, my sister was there with me. We had discussed in the car what to do, and I was like, "No, no, don't tell him," because again, in the first 24 hours, I thought I was going to fall asleep and wake up back in 1992. So I was like, "Don't tell him, we'll scare him."
Seeing him walk out of the school gates—I still remember it now—I can't describe the way I felt. It was shock and horror that I've got a child—I never wanted children growing up!—but also this weird joy of seeing this miniature version of myself, because he looks so much like me and my sister, and he had this huge smile walking out of the gates. I was in awe of him—the way he talked, the way he talked; this overwhelming emotion at being introduced to a ten-year-old, three-foot version of me. He just seemed really cool and really laid back. I went to high-five him, because I saw that my sister had high-fived me, and he just looked at me strangely and put his schoolbag in my hand and walked off. I was like, "I guess mothers don't high-five their kids?" I had to follow my sister's cues, because I didn't know how to react to him, but I also wanted to keep the fact that I felt 15 hidden from him.
The amnesia wasn't just a catalyst to change in my life; it was a catalyst to change in my sisters' and my mothers' lives as well.
Did you tell him eventually? It seems like he must've been able to figure out that something was off about you.
A couple of months after the amnesia, we did talk about it, and I asked, "Did you suspect anything?" He was like, "I knew something was happening, and I wondered why you'd ask me what time I should go to bed, but I just thought you were joking."
I know it's difficult to believe, and some people have said, "Well, my child would know." And he did know, on some level, because I'm his mom and he's my son. He knows me. Also, I cannot stress how much Simone and Katy really helped. They essential became the mothers and they took care of 15-year-old me and ten-year-old Leo, who felt like my younger brother that I was babysitting for. I really felt like I had a little brother. He introduced me to the wonders of 21st century technologies: Xbox and Playstation and Google and YouTube. The times that I spent with him were the only times I wasn't afraid.
That must've been cool to transcend the parent-child relationship and bond with him in that way.
It was, but I was only able to do that because of my sister and Katie. They gave me the time and space to navigate my way through the amnesia. I dedicated the book to them: to Simone, Katie, and Leo. I couldn't have gotten through any of this without them.
It's been seven years since this happened. How are you doing now?
I'm in a really, really great place—mentally, emotionally, and physically. Leo is 17 now. He still skateboards and he's working in digital marketing. My sister lives in Dubai, and we're the best of friends. The amnesia wasn't just a catalyst to change in my life; it was a catalyst to change in my sisters' and my mothers' [lives] as well. My mother has been sober for six years now and we're really close. I hadn't seen her in four years [at the time of the amnesia] and now we're the best of friends. There have been so many positive changes in my life. Of course, life is not perfect! I still get my period, I still eat too much chocolate, I still have one glass of wine too many, and I'm still human. But it's different now.
When I wake up, I focus on what really matters in life. Even if it's just one thing, once a day, I try to do things that make me feel good about being me. For too long before the amnesia, I was surrounded by people making me feel bad about being me. It took the amnesia for me to realize that I don't need to feel that way. That's the foundation that I build my life on now.
Naomi Jacobs' memoir will be released later this month in the UK (under the title Forgotten Girl) and in Australia/New Zealand in next month (under the title I Woke Up in the Future).
Follow Arielle Pardes on Twitter.