In September 2006, 39-year-old Jeff Ingram said goodbye to his fiancée, pulled out of his driveway in Olympia, Washington, and vanished. He had two suitcases with him and was looking forward to visiting home. Jeff was a Canadian native getting ready to visit his parents in northern Alberta, a 988-mile journey that he has made plenty of times before. But this time, memory loss came over him.
When he didn’t return or at least call home, his fiancée knew that something was wrong. Strangely, Jeff’s amnesia didn’t come about as a result of a car accident, or some type of injury. It seemingly came out of the blue. He had no recollection of who he was, let alone who his fiancée was. Jeff’s story demonstrates how delicate our brain chemistry is. Something as simple as stress can trigger memory loss.
This is the story of a couple who stuck by each other in sickness and in health.
Jeff met his fiancée, Penny Hansen, in a chatroom called pogo.com in 2003. The pair bonded over their love of a slots game called Vaults of Atlantic. Beginning in the summer of 2005, Jeff would regularly cross the border to visit Penny, who lived in Washington and worked as a policy assistant for the state. As their relationship progressed, the pair couldn’t stand to be apart. Eventually, Jeff quit his job, sold his house, and moved in with Penny.
Their relationship had a fun, childlike essence to it. The pair loved to cook together, and, at times, it got very messy. Penny admitted, “We have food fights in the kitchen.” They both loved all kinds of games: board games, card games, computer games, and they even hosted game night once a month. The pair also enjoyed camping near Mount Rainier, where they went fishing and searched for gold.
But, on that fateful autumn day in 2006, Jeff was going to see his mother and visit a friend’s wife who had cancer. Penny, who was 41 at the time, felt like something was wrong: “I had the weirdest feeling. He touched my heart and said, ‘When you miss me, I’ll be right there.’ But when he got to the end of the stairs, it was the glance he gave back. There was something in his eyes.”
After crossing the border into Canada, Jeff was supposed to call like he normally did, but that would have been Wednesday afternoon. By Friday, Jeff’s mom, Doreen Tomkins, called Penny and asked her if she had heard anything. Penny explained, “At that point, we knew we had a problem.” Luckily, she had an idea of what it was.
Jeff wasn’t known as the reckless type. He was a quiet, balding man who never drank alcohol and was extremely against drugs. Penny even said he “drove like a grandma.” He even referred to himself as a pretty boring dude. But before they even met in person, Jeff opened up to Penny and told her that while he was living in Slave Lake in 1995, he had disappeared for nine months.
He explained to Penny that when he was found in Seattle, he didn’t know who he was, let alone what he had been doing for the past nine months. Unfortunately, his memory never came back after that scary incident. He went on to marry a woman named Melanie but got divorced. He learned everything about his past from other people.
Jeff wouldn’t have known his mother’s name or his passion for poker if others hadn’t taught him. For Jeff, it was like taking a history class about himself. Amnesia is a general medical term that refers to short or long term forgetfulness caused by physical trauma, psychological stress, or both. However, it’s rare to find cases where someone loses all memory of their personal life.
Doctors described Jeff’s amnesia as a dissociative fugue – a memory shutdown that comes with willful wandering, perhaps to escape some kind of stress or anxiety. Stanford University psychiatrist and expert on memory disorders, David Spiegel, says, “We don’t know for sure what causes it.”
Spiegel went on to explain, “It’s probably a combination of personality factors – people who tend to deal with problems by putting them out of their mind.” According to Spiegel, people like that could be predisposed to amnesia: “They remain vulnerable to subsequent episodes.”
Because of his previous forgetfulness, Penny didn’t believe Jeff slid off the road or had been kidnapped; she was convinced it was amnesia. But the problem was convincing the authorities. The cops didn’t believe the amnesia story at first. Penny said that “The police said ‘He’s an adult. You two could have had a fight, maybe he left you, he’s from Canada…’”
Penny was justifiably frustrated. She was extremely worried and began calling hospitals in the Washington area. She said, “There are 400 between here and the border.” But since she and Jeff weren’t married, they were only able to give Penny limited information because of medical privacy laws. Finally, on September 10, four days after Jeff went missing, a friend in Slave Lake finally got a missing-person report issued through the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
That morning, folks in downtown Denver were trying to avoid an annoying man pleading, “Help me, please! I need to get to a hospital!” He was clean-shaven, and his clothes were clean, but his scary desperation was worrisome.
Jeff’s loving mother described her son as always being a happy, healthy kid: “He always did things to please you. I had no signs of anything that would be wrong with him.” Jeff was born in Nova Scotia, where his dad served in the Canadian armed forces. When he was only five, his parents split up.
Doreen remarried and moved to Slave Lake with her son and said he was always good with his hands. He was artistic and had a natural gift for drawing. The creative boy even designed intricate LEGO models as a child. He also loved having pets. He once groomed a cat to look like a poodle, and he and Penny had a Chihuahua named Taco.
When he completed high school, Jeff enrolled in college. He planned to study math and eventually become a doctor or veterinarian. But, Doreen said that after one year, “he started getting bad headaches and took time off. Then he just kind of worked, and it never happened.”
The first thing Jeff remembers about his life is “picking myself off the ground” in Denver, despite not knowing who or where he was at the time. He didn’t have a license or any identification on hand. He was wearing a ring, a watch, and had eight dollars in his pocket (he had left with $700 in cash). He appeared unharmed, suggesting he hadn’t been a victim of any crime. However, his car was never found.
He didn’t lose his functional memory, meaning he could speak and remember words. But at a certain point, he stopped asking for help and walked about 6-8 hours until he ended up at Denver Health Medical Center. He walked in and told the desk attendant, “I don’t know who I am.”
“What do you mean?” she replied. The receptionist gave him an admittance form, which is kind of pointless for someone who doesn’t know his name. It was clear that this wasn’t going to be easy. Hospital employees were in disbelief and kept asking him who he was and where he was from. Jeff had no answers for them.
Not knowing what was wrong with him, doctors sent Jeff to the neurology ward, hoping to figure it out. He spent a week getting MRIs, CT scans, blood tests, and spinal taps. But doctors didn’t find any physical injuries. Next, he went to the psychiatric ward for a week of observation. Jeff took IQ tests and solved puzzles. He explained that “They wanted to make sure this wasn’t a put-on job.”
While he was under hypnosis, Jeff revealed to doctors that his wife and kids were killed by a drunk driver. However, Jeff had no children, and his ex-wife Melanie was alive and well. Experts say that it’s not uncommon for patients to come up with false memories under hypnosis.
Interestingly, Jeff remembered his wife’s first name being Penny. At this point, the real Penny had no clue that her fiancé was okay in a Denver hospital, where the staff started referring to him as Amnesia Al. Finally, doctors reached out to police in hopes of figuring out this man’s identity. They started by running his fingerprints through a crime database, but nothing matched.
Jeff wasn’t aware, but his 40th birthday was on October 18th. Penny made her missing fiancé a cake, and friends and family continued searching Washington State and western Canada in hopes of finding him. His bank and phone records showed no activity. Unfortunately, they couldn’t locate his phone with tracking technology either.
Back at the hospital, doctors didn’t know what else they could do for Jeff, and he was transferred to a halfway house. The tenants were mentally ill patients or recovering drug addicts. Jeff recalled, “They all had Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, but there was no Anonymous Anonymous for me to go to.”
As you can imagine, Jeff sank into deep despair; he had no one to turn to. Then, two Denver police officers, Virginia Quinones and Sonny Jackson decided to publicize his face and story, hoping a family member would come forward. Quinones stated, “I felt for the guy because everybody has memories to talk about, but he had nothing to share.”
Jeff walked into a Denver Studio for his network news appearance on October 22nd. He looked at the cameras and said, “I’m asking for help to find out who I am.” That morning, Penny received a call from her brother Greg who told her, “Jeff’s on TV!” Minutes later, Penny was on the computer, emailing pictures of her fiancé to Denver police.
Jeff said that they started laying pictures out in front of him: “I’m just shocked. I’m going, ‘That’s me, and that’s me, and that’s me.’ And I just started bawling my face off. ‘Somebody knows I’m here!’” Jeff and Penny spoke on the phone, and when she asked if he remembers her, Jeff said no.
Penny wasn’t mad at Jeff and was understanding of the situation. She replied, “Well, I am Penny, and I am your fiancée. We used to know each other quite well.” Jeff and Penny believe in Aristotle’s philosophy that memories reside in the heart. That Sunday, Detective Jackson and Jeff hopped on a plane headed for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
As she was anxiously waiting at the airport, Penny was scared that Jeff wouldn’t want her. She recalled, “Everybody said, ‘He fell in love with you once, he’ll fall in love with you again.’” She wasn’t so sure though and had to mentally prepare. She told herself that if he wanted to leave, she would let him. The pair met and hugged for the first time, again.
Jeff said, “I’ve been looking for you,” and, with tears in her eyes, Penny told him, “I’ve been looking for you too.” It had been 47 days since they were apart, and, to Jeff, that was a lifetime. Even though he didn’t remember Penny, he listened to his heart. “That’s all I had to go on. I had to trust something. And it just felt right,” he said.
When they finally got home, Taco the Chihuahua jumped on Jeff, excited to see him. Bedtime wasn’t as awkward as you would expect. Penny wanted to give Jeff space and said, “I can go to the spare room, or you can go to the spare room…” Jeff said no. He just wanted to be hugged and touched.
On New Year’s Eve, the pair got married. Taco was their ring bearer and even wore a tuxedo. In his vows, Jeff proclaimed, “Penny, today you honor me by being my wife. You never gave up on me when others might have.” Penny also spoke heartwarming words, “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 newlyweds started going to therapy together. The treatment goal was for Jeff to regain his memory. Dr. Spiegel explained that “Most people do eventually recover their pre-fugue memories.” Jeff worked with Dr. Stephen Langer, a clinical psychologist in Olympia, to help him get his memory back.
Part of the therapy involves paradoxically, which would help Jeff stop thinking too much. Langer explained, “He remembers things through the intellectual process of remembering facts. I’m trying to get him to remember things based on the feeling.” Jeff revealed that he does have a problem with over-thinking: I always try to think things through. I can’t turn it off. It’s overwhelming. I deal with panic attacks.”
Jeff went on to say that nights are particularly difficult: “Sometimes I’m out here crying or she’s out here crying,” referring to the inevitable struggles of rebuilding their relationship. Sometimes, they would go into their Jacuzzi tub and hang out. “We’ll light candles, crawl in there, and just talk. We can’t afford to be lazy in our relationship,” Jeff explained.
The other therapy goal is to help Penny and Jeff recognize signs of another amnesia occurrence. Langer thinks that Jeff’s seemingly sudden amnesia was triggered by negative emotions, including his friend’s cancer. According to Lander, “The challenge is to get Jeff to be aware of those factors. We want him to get stronger in terms of dealing with emotions instead of the primitive defense of blocking it all out.”
Jeff got a tattoo on his right bicep. It’s a flaming orange and yellow phoenix rising from his ashes with a banner that states his name and his Washington State ID number. That way, if he gets lost again, he will be easily identified.
The tattoo was a smart idea, and it actually worked on April 25th, when Jeff went missing again. Penny had a strange feeling around 4 p.m. while she was at work that day. After calling home and no one picked up, she frantically raced home, only to find Jeff gone. She immediately filed a missing-person report.
That evening, Jeff turned up in downtown Olympia not knowing who he was. He found a phone booth nearby and called 911. When the police arrived, they noticed that his tattoo matched the description Penny gave. Tragically, Jeff lost his memory all over again. Devastated, Penny said, “Dr. Langer thinks Jeff could have been on the verge of a breakthrough and something overwhelmed him. I know it sounds crazy, but we could be making progress.”
The couple continues watching the History Channel and the Discovery Channel. Jeff loves learning and absorbing new facts. Since he isn’t quite ready to work yet, he stays home, drawing, and writing. Parenthood is also a distant dream of his. Penny expressed, “Jeff wanted to have several children before this happened, but now he doesn’t want to have any.”
Jeff is understandably worried about having children of his own: “I’m afraid that I’ll walk out, leave the kid unattended or forget that I even have a kid.” Penny is looking for a GPS tracking device for Jeff, and he has been working hard to regain his memory. Jeff also said that he and his wife will “continue to make new memories.”
This isn’t the only couple who had to deal with memory loss in their relationship. The most famous example is the couple in Nicholas Sparks’ love story, The Notebook, who stay in love despite Allie’s Alzheimer’s. Isabell and Preble Staver’s fairy tale is amazingly similar to the fictional one described in The Notebook.