Years of precious memories were wiped in an instant when Karl Hargreaves was involved in a road traffic collision.
The memories of his girlfriend, the death of his mother and years’ worth of relationships – all gone in a split second.
He said: “Large chunks of my life were initially missing, and I was terrified that things would remain that way. All of my family relationships just didn’t exist in the same way in my mind. Some of them weren’t there at all. It was as if they had been erased.
Perhaps the hardest thing to come to terms with has been that knowing that in a sense, I did die. The old Karl, everything I was, died on that road in 2015.
“My memories, experiences, skills and abilities, all gone. I lost so much and I had to learn to let go and move on – I didn’t have any other choice but to start again from scratch.”
Karl, who is sharing his story as part of Headway’s Memory Loss: A campaign to remember, is working to slowly piece his life - and memories - back together.
His journey with brain injury began in 2015 when he was involved in a road traffic collision. The driver of a car on the opposite side of the road had fallen asleep at the wheel and collided with Karl head on.
He was thrown for his motorbike, left unconscious and wasn’t breathing. He was airlifted to a nearby hospital where immediate scans revealed a subarachnoid haemorrhage and subdural haematoma.
Everything that Karl knows about the accident comes from what others have told him.
He was placed in an induced coma for the next five days and underwent surgery to relieve pressure on his brain.
When he finally woke, he saw his ex-girlfriend Amy standing by his bedside – the only trouble was, Karl had no idea who she was.
He said: “I was told that when I woke up I didn’t recognise anyone around me, not Amy, not my family.
“Eventually little snippets started to come back to me, and when I finally did remember who Amy was, I thought we were still together.”
Over time, some of Karl’s memories have returned, but he’s still trying to fill in the gaps he’s been left with.
So how do you cope when the memories, events and occasions that helped define you are taken away? That’s a question Karl has been faced with ever since his injury.
He said: “Early on, whenever I felt stressed and couldn’t remember things, I looked at the photos of my family and friends on the wall and that would help me to remember who I was and remind me that I was safe.
“I never regained the memories of events immediately prior to or following the accident, and I don’t think I ever will. But distant memories in my past would sometimes return.
“I would often hear a piece of music that triggered a memory and I would associate it with what I had been doing, and suddenly another gap would be filled in. Every time it happened, it was a great comfort and helped me feel a little more connected to myself.
“Music seemed to really unlock things for me. To help me deal with the gaps around the trauma, Katherine, my neuropsychologist, and I did some work on building up a timeline of events using photos, newspaper articles and information from others. This helped me feel a little more in control.”
Karl was also unable to return to his job as a sergeant with the RAF and this was especially difficult for him to come to terms with.
“I had been encouraged to try and get back to work but I was really struggling with the effects of the injury so I wasn’t able to do so,” he said.
I took time to focus on my recovery before trying to go back to work again but the memory loss, fatigue and emotional problems made it impossible and I was forced to retire.
Thankfully, things have started to look up for Karl and he is now sharing his experiences of brain injury within his book Adjusting to Brain Injury:
Reflections from Survivors, Family Members and Clinicians.
“As I was beginning to adjust to my injury and new way of life, I asked Katherine if she could recommend anything written by a brain injury survivor that would resonate with me,” said Karl.
“She tentatively suggested that I told my own story. Katherine and I both co-authored the book along with Ashraf Sheikh, Lisa Summerill and Meg Archer so it gives a real insight into some of the struggles faced after brain injury.
“Family also share their experiences which is really important to understand how roles change and how family members adapt. There are also contributions from various professionals along the rehab journey, explaining more about the brain injury and rehabilitation.
“I wanted to get across the message that no matter how low you may feel some days, it’s important to hang in there. Even when it doesn’t feel like things will get better and when you think you can’t take any more, things will improve, and you will start to come to terms with it. You just have to keep going.
I hope the book gives other survivors hope for the future.
Moving forwards Karl says he plans to take each day as it comes and make the most of what life has to offer.
He said: “I think others underestimate the impact of losing memories and how it changes how you feel about yourself and who you are.
You’ll have some tough times along the way and you may feel like you’ll never adapt to your new way of life, but slowly, you’ll become more accepting of the person you have become.
To pre-order Karl’s book, visit Adjusting-to-Brain-Injury-Reflections-from-Survivors-Family-Members
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