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Anya Zharova, April 2019

She only knew her own name Fifteen-year-old Anya Zharova lost her memory half a year ago. She’s making YouTube videos to try and get it back.

Source: Meduza
Anya Zharova, April 2019
Anya Zharova, April 2019
Ivan Kleimenov for Meduza

A few months ago, Anya Zharova left her apartment in the Moscow suburb of Balashikha to take out the trash and never came back. Several hours later, Anya’s family found her in a hospital, but she didn’t recognize them. Now, Anya is running a YouTube channel in an attempt to remember who she was before — and to warn friends from her past life that she no longer knows who they are. Meduza asked Kommersant correspondent Ksenia Mironova to tell Anya’s story.

Part one

YouTube therapy

On March 21, 2019, a channel called “Unplanned reborn” appeared on YouTube. At the time of this writing, it only had 30 subscribers. Each of the eight videos on the channel begins with Anya Zharova’s voice saying “Hello” and “Stardate…” followed by the day and the month when the video was recorded. Anya thought of that opening motif after watching Star Trek for the first time in her new life. “I’m a pretty big kid, but my soul is only two months old,” Anya says, smiling, in a video posted this March.

Anya smiles in almost all of her videos except for the first three, which describe what are now her earliest memories: how, on January 11, 2019, she woke up lying in the snow on an unfamiliar street and felt a shot of pain in her hand. “My earliest memory is of cold, blood, and snow,” the teenager says in her first video. For 10 minutes, Anya describes how she saw a church and knocked on the door, but nobody answered. Then, she spent a long while knocking at the doors of residential buildings until a guard noticed her and called an ambulance. Someone else let her warm up in their car until she left for the hospital. When, at the hospital, a woman who called herself Anya’s mother arrived to see her, the teenager was afraid — she thought it was all an elaborate deception.

“The story of a rebirth, part 1,” one of the first videos on Anya Zharova’s YouTube channel
Unplanned reborn

The fourth video, which was filmed four months later, is an interview between Anya and her mother.

“What was I like?” Anya asks Yelena Zharova, standing next to her mother against the wall of her room. And Yelena tells her: Anya was a dreamer, intelligent from the get-go, a talented actress who liked to experiment with bold hairstyles. At the same time, her character was weak; she was egotistical. Anya fluctuates from disappointment to surprise to laughing with her hand over her mouth.

“You would give up too fast,” her mother says. “You didn’t want to fight for things. You quit taekwondo. You found it easier to go with the flow. I thought acting was supposed to strengthen character…”

Yelena is the artistic director of the theater studio Anya attended before the amnesia hit.

“But people are telling me that I fought,” the teenager says quietly.

“When did you fight?”

“You know, when it happened. Because I knocked on all the doors.”

Yelena responds with a long pause.

“We can only guess why this happened to you. Until you remember it yourself… But nothing all that bad happened! Sometimes you just didn’t want to fight.”

part two

The divorce

On that same day, January 11, 2019, Anya, her mother, and her 16-year-old brother Volodya were sorting through the clothing in the family’s wardrobe. The wardrobe had to be emptied because the court order dividing the family’s property between Anya and Volodya’s parents dictated that it belonged to their father.

He had left the family in 2014. That same year, Anya’s parents officially divorced, and she and her father practically stopped communicating. That’s what Yelena and her friends say, at least. Meduza was unable to make contact with Anya’s father: he did not respond to messages sent by email, Telegram, or WhatsApp. According to Yelena, he got in touch once in 2017 to invite the children to their grandmother’s dacha. The kids packed for two days, but he brought them back after one. Anya’s parents grappled over their property in court for several years, ultimately dividing up the apartment where Anya grew up, the car they sometimes used to drive her to school, the family’s appliances, and its furniture.

Family friends said that Volodya became more closed off and his grades slipped as the court case proceeded. Anya continued to do well in school; she supported her mother and prepared to apply for theatrical colleges. However, on January 11, she suddenly announced that she wanted to go to a salon and get her hair cut. Yelena didn’t let her: she argued that it would be best to leave her hair alone during the application process.

Anya had barely seen her father at all in the previous five years, and that evening, he was supposed to arrive to take away the wardrobe. “Anya was standing here and singing. Now I understand that she was doing it for show. I thought, ‘What an odd kid. She’s just too cheerful,’” Yelena recounted.

At 8:00 PM, Anya left to take out the trash. Fifteen minutes later, her mother sent Volodya to look for her to no avail. She ran out herself and checked all of the local salons — maybe she had gone to get her hair cut after all. They were all closed. She began calling all the friends and hospitals she could think of, and she ultimately found Anya in the central district hospital of Balashikha.

No one knows what happened to Anya in the two hours she spent outside because there are no cameras on the town’s streets. The ambulance picked her up a 40-minute walk from her home. Aside from her telephone, which she may have dropped when she fell, Anya had all of her things. The blood she remembers in her first YouTube video did not exist: doctors did not find any injuries or signs of violence on her body except for a mild scrape on her palm from the fall. They also did not find signs of drug or alcohol use. MRI and CT scans came back negative. After a few hours, Anya was released to go home. She faced the task of recognizing her family, coming to feel at home in her own room, trying to go back to school, and remembering what happened to her.

part three

As far from an Oscar as she is from the moon

Doctors gave Anya multiple diagnoses. Some said she had dissociative amnesia: memory loss caused by acute stress. Others said a specific subset of dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, was at play: that diagnosis describes cases when a patient travels to an unfamiliar place and simultaneously loses some or all of their memory. The neurologist Yelena Preobrazhenskaya, who examined Anya, agreed that she suffered from some kind of neurological pathology but advised patience in the diagnosis and treatment process: “When little bursts of memory start coming through, then we can get to work.”

For now, Anya (and her mother alongside her) is taking antidepressants. The psychologist Alyona Sinkevich works with the teenager for free to help her become socialized again. “We have to remember that amnesia can be a defensive function. Our brains can use it to erase traumatizing memories,” Sinkevich said.

Anya decided to start a YouTube channel when the concept of social media was explained to her after her fall. Sinkevich said Anya’s video blog cannot help her get her memory back, but she is not opposed to the project. At first, she was concerned that a flood of subscribers and bullying would interfere with Anya’s recovery, but at first, very few people watched her videos. Now, the psychologist believes her patient can handle the pressure: “Acting and creating help her become socialized.”

Anya Zharova with her mother, Yelena. April 2019
Ivan Kleimenov for Meduza

Sinkevich also said that when she began working with Anya, the teenager did not remember her multiplication tables even though she was previously a good student. “At the same time, she knew how to count by tens. It’s not clear why her knowledge and her experiences were preserved on that particular level. But she still has her emotions, and she’s better-oriented in her emotional world than many of her peers.”

Both Anya’s mother and her psychologist say a lot of people do not believe she has amnesia: they think she is attracting attention to herself after suffering through her parents’ divorce. Yelena Zharova said the youth administrator at the Balashikha hospital asked her about that possibility right after she first found Anya there on January 11. “I said, ‘You know, Anya has been acting for nine years, but she’s as far from an Oscar as she is from the moon,’” Yelena remembered. “As someone who is working with her, I can say that she is not pretending,” Sinkevich confirmed.

part four

A different person

What all of Anya’s friends and loved ones definitely do believe is that the girl changed drastically after she returned from the hospital. The old Anya, her mother said, was loud and cheery, the life of the party (when Anya hears this, she doesn’t quite remember the expression). She wore jeans and loose-fitting shirts with hair down to her waist. Her YouTube channel has a video that her mother took a few days after her daughter’s memory loss: Anya is sitting in McDonald’s; she still has long hair, and she looks frightened. Yelena hands her daughter what used to be her favorite iced coffee drink, but she doesn’t like it much now.

Nowadays, Anya is shy. She wears dresses, blouses, and pink sweaters. When there are strangers around, she sits with her hands crossed on her knees and answers questions in monosyllables. After she left the hospital, her mother finally let her go to a salon. Now, she has an asymmetrical, face-framing haircut.

Before, she knew English well and translated films and cartoons for her family. Now, she doesn’t remember the language at all. The family collectively thought up her YouTube channel’s title, but when the phrase “Unplanned reborn” showed up onscreen, Anya said she remembered it.

Her musical preferences changed too: Anya used to be a K-pop fan, but now almost any music can catch her fancy. She recently said she liked a song by the folk-rock group Melnitsa.

Anya’s room was recently remodeled. “We started this remodeling project to get Anya out of hibernation somehow,” her mother explained, “and I tried to include her in all of the decisions involved. I’m being a farsighted person here and keeping all the receipts: when you remember everything, Anya, there’ll be proof right here that you chose this wallpaper with the roses on it of your own free will. Because I know that you would never have chosen roses before.”

According to Yelena, Anya was able to sleep for days at a time in the first few months after the incident. “I only woke her up to feed her. She would go to the bathroom and right back to bed. The remodeling was a good shake-up. At least she’s stopped sleeping so much.”

part five

Opening up the circle

I visited Anya on her 15th birthday — or her first, she quips. Since January, she hasn’t gone to school. The family tried to transfer her to homeschooling, but that process turned out to be more complex than they expected: Balashikha’s education administrators sent the family to a special psychological commission. The commission was supposed to develop an entire individualized education plan.

“Anyway, they called me back from the center and said, ‘You’re registered in Moscow, so go to Moscow,’” Yelena told me. “The plan was simple: they wanted Anya to start as a second-year in the fall.”

Anya interviews her mother
Unplanned reborn

In the video of Anya’s interview with her mother, the two talk a good deal about the importance of perseverance and long-term planning.

When I asked Anya what plans she has now, she thought for a bit and said she wants to go to the family dacha. Then, she folded her hands on her knees and sat in silence again. “That’s quite a big plan,” Yelena explained. “When we went to the psychologist for the first time, they asked her to draw a circle for how she saw the present. She drew a medium-sized circle. Then, for her past, she drew a teeny-tiny one because she didn’t know anything but her own name. The circle for the future was the same size as the one for the past.”

In her videos, Anya comes off as a relatively spirited child, but in person, it quickly becomes clear that she is not. Conversation is difficult for her.

“There was your friend Nastya, you don’t remember her,” Yelena told her daughter. “You were inseparable in school, and she didn’t believe you [about the amnesia]. She said that if you don’t want to talk to her, you don’t have to. And that’s how your relationship ended.”

Anya explained that she needs her video blog primarily to warn her old friends that she may not remember them. “Or maybe someone else has a similar problem. Maybe that’ll help,” she added.

part six

A new personality

Alexander Tkhostov, the chair of the division for neuropsychology and pathopsychology at Moscow State University’s psychology department, said disorders like Anya’s are rare and therefore poorly studied. He acknowledged that it is impossible to say when or whether Anya’s memory will return.

At the same time, recent studies have argued that childhood trauma is one of the most common causes of dissociative amnesia. Trauma in such cases is typically caused by other human beings, not natural disasters, and close relationships between the victim and the perpetrator, including betrayal by a loved one, also increase the probability of the disorder.

A patient’s memory can come back even without therapy in these cases. The likelihood of recovery rises in correlation with feelings of safety and human support. However, memory loss in patients with dissociative amnesia tends to be more persistent and longer-lasting if they have dissociative fugue, as Anya’s doctors said she might.

Anya Zharova, April 2019
Ivan Kleimenov for Meduza

Oleg Lukyanov, who directs the personality psychology division at Tomsk State University, said the primary concern in Anya’s case should be to track whether the personality she had before she lost her memory is disintegrating, whether in part or in full. According to Lukyanov, in some similar cases, patients begin building their characters from scratch, and after their memory returns, their personalities find themselves in conflict.

“It seemed to me that in the video where you interview your mom, her criticism disappointed you. Is it possible that you’re trying to ‘turn off’ the characteristics she said were negative?”

“Probably, yeah.”

Yelena has told her daughter she sees what happened as a unique opportunity to start life over again. She said Anya announced not long ago that she wanted to be a professional diver: “I don’t know why! But all right then, let her be a diver.”

Ksenia Mironova

Translation by Hilah Kohen