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February 5, 2013

Virginia woman pieces together 17 years lost to amnesia

(Continued)

Some physicians have suggested to Shawnda that the cocktail of steroids and other drugs she was prescribed might have caused the memory loss, but Nath said that was unlikely. Still, he said that it's puzzling that she lost so much, so abruptly.

From 2005 on, Shawnda began counting her birthdays at zero, signifying that while her body is 38, she has only eight years and counting of life experience. She refers to herself pre-amnesia as "she" and "her," rather than "I" and "me."

She had to relearn virtually everything since adolescence. As her symptoms regularly confined her to the house and to bed, she watched TV for cues on the rhythms and tools of human interaction. The characters in daytime soap operas and syndicated sitcoms at night, especially "George Lopez," served as her examples of how to talk and act.

"I know that life is not a sitcom," she said in an interview in 2012. "But I also want people to understand that's how I've had to learn. I don't know any life any other way, because I lost my memory. People had the opportunity to come out of the womb and go through school and learn friendships and stuff. I lost all that."

She watched the same shows every day, latching onto anything that could become familiar in a hurry. She used her daughter's math homework to relearn multiplication tables. Even when Shawnda learned how to operate a cellphone again, she didn't know any of the names in it. Marsha told her what she could about the names she knew.

When Shawnda did try to reconnect with the people in the contacts list, their meetings were often awkward and pointless. Old friends would sometimes be frustrated that anything they brought up from the past was lost on her. For Shawnda, trying to explain what was wrong with her mind to someone she couldn't remember was exasperating. "I'd just sit in tears the whole time," she said.

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