Artist Who Lost All Memories Puts His Life Back Together with the Help of Art and Instagram
Joe Miller spent his 25th birthday comatose in the hospital after miraculously surviving a stroke that doctors said would leave him brain dead, if alive at all. He shares his incredible story with PEOPLE
In October of last year – right before his 25th birthday – Joe Miller suffered a stroke that left him on life support for 17 days and in a coma for another two weeks. When he woke up, he couldn’t move or speak. He’d lost roughly 95 percent of his memories, and the only person he could recognize was his mother. Miller remembers virtually nothing from his childhood or high school experience, and only when he began looking back at photos on his Instagram and the paintings he’d done, could he begin piecing back together his life – and start fresh. Here’s his incredible story, in his own words.
Before the Accident
I was born in Sao Paolo, Brazil, in 1989. I was adopted by American missionaries as a baby, along with my brother and sister, and we moved to Jackson County, Georgia, when I was 14, so I could get a proper American education.
In 2007, I moved to L.A. to pursue my passion: art. That’s where my curiosity for art grew. I began to paint and to write music and poetry and document my life through photos.
I’ve worked in all areas of art – music, film, fashion. I even worked in accounting for a year to spite my friends who thought I couldn’t. Now, I paint because I love it – and because I want to leave a piece of myself behind. So that when the time comes for me to die, people will know the kind of person I was. My body will decay but my art will stay.
The day of the stroke, I was coming home from my sculpture class. I had a really bad migraine, so I went straight to bed. Next thing you know – three days later – my roommate found me passed out on the floor. He picked me up, gave me a shower (I had thrown up everywhere) and took me to the emergency room. They said I had a stroke. I had a collapsed lung because I had choked on my vomit.
I was very close to death. The doctors were telling my parents in the waiting room, “He’s dead. He’s done.” So many people came to pray for me – Christians, non-Christians. Everyone who came to visit was just praying and hoping that I would survive. God answered that prayer.
When I woke up, I didn’t have any memory of anything. I didn’t know my birthday, what I was, where I was, who was president. I knew one thing – I knew that God saved my life. Those prayers that were made – they were answered. I flatlined several times. The doctors thought that if I did survive, I’d be a vegetable. The fact that I’m talking right now is a miracle.
The only thing I knew about myself when I woke up was that I could paint. They were pushing me out of my hospital room, and I kept yelling, over and over, “Where are my paints? Where are my paints? Where are my paints?” I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew I was an artist. My friends brought me all my acrylic paints and notepads. Next thing I know, I’m going over to the nurses’ break room, painting non-stop. I got employees involved. I got all the patients involved, too – we all just painted together. And I tried to document everything throughout the process.
Trying to Remember
To this day, I don’t remember 95 percent of my life. I can’t remember my childhood or really anything before the stroke. I don’t even know what my favorite ice cream flavor is. But I do have a few memories, and they only came back to me when my friend hung some of my art pieces on the hospital walls. They started giving me flashbacks of my life. I could remember the moment I met up with this girl, and I was walking to my car, and she totally made the first move and gave me a freakin’ kiss! I remember from another painting a time I went camping with my best friend. It was so freezing cold that no matter how many blankets we had, we were still shivering. And I am comfortable saying that he’s the only man I cuddled with my whole life.
The more art pieces that came in, the more I remembered. I kept staring at these pieces and thinking, “Man. I remember everything I felt when I was painting these pieces.”
Our whole lives revolve around our memories. Our conversation starters are about experiences, songs that we once heard. What do you like to do? What’s your favorite food? What do you like to do? I’ll talk about art, but when conversations start about music or movies, or there will be a reference to a TV show that I don’t remember watching it’s crazy how everybody my age talks about experiences and memories. I’m reminded of that every day when I can’t answer basic questions about myself.
When I was in the hospital alone, I was scared of the dark. I was 25 years old, and I was crying. I realized that when I was little and scared of the dark, I guarantee you my mom would come in and say, “Don’t worry Joe, it’s okay, we’re right next door.” It’s crazy that at 25 – when I woke up with no memories – I was scared of the dark because I didn’t have that memory to comfort me.
Thank God for Instagram. Before my stroke, I had an avid Instagram addiction. (By the way, one of the problems of memory loss is that you forget all of your passwords. It’s horrible!) When I first logged in after the accident, I was shocked. I kept going farther and farther back. It’s insane how those little snippets of memories – videos, captions, photos – triggered certain memories. It’s been a huge help. Through Instagram, I’ve been able to relive little bits and pieces of moments that I thought were important enough to document.
Looking at all these old pictures and videos, I couldn’t remember the full story, but I knew just enough to bring a smile to my face. It’s funny. Before my stroke, friends would say, “Joe, you have a bad obsession. You should stop Instagramming or at least take a break.” And I was always like, “No, I need to do this!” Turns out I did need to.
When I was in a coma, I had a dream I was in an amusement park. The man in the ticket booth and the families at the park all had my mother’s face. It was trippy. When I approached the ticket booth, I heard the man say, “Hey Joe. I love you. Wake up, Joe.” And I said, “You re not my mom!” And he said, “Yes I am. I love you, Joe. Wake up, Joe.” That was the dream I woke up from. And since I’d lost all my memories, all those faces of random people and friends were gone – except, of course, the face of my mother.
My mom was the first person out of anybody that I recognized, but the only memory I had of her was from early childhood. My grandmother had given me a stuffed blue dog, but she’d bought my sister and brother a bunch of really cool toys. I remember throwing a fit, hurling the dog across the room and yelling, “You got my sister Barbies and my brother cool toy trucks, and I got this blue dog? It’s not even a Beanie Baby!”
And the next thing I remember is my mom coming over to me, with her beautiful long head of red hair, and saying, “Joe, don’t you know Grandma loves you? You need to be thankful. Make Grandma happy. Try to love that dog. Pick it up. Love takes work, Joe. Show it to her. So I picked up that blue dog, and I hugged it. And I said, “Thank you so much, Grandma so much. I love this blue dog!” When they brought Blue to my bedside in the hospital, I recognized him immediately.
I don’t have any memories of my father, but I recognized him as my dad when he came into my room. It took some time to get to know him. When I moved to Nebraska to live with them after leaving the hospital, I was like, “Hey man, can we get to know each other? Who are you?” He showed me pictures and talked about his life. I still don t know who the heck my sister is. My parents show me photos, but I can’t remember her. I forget her name all the time. I don’t really have memories with my brother, either, but I know he’s my brother now. He’s been really gentle and sweet taking care of me here.
Art has been a huge form of therapy. There isn’t a day I don’t go out without a sketchbook and paint. A few days ago I went to a bar with my sketchbook. A man approached me and asked, “What are you painting?” He ended up buying a page. Art is such a beautiful way to connect with people. Everybody knows how to express themselves through art – we all just do it differently.
This experience couldn t have happened to anyone better than me. I’ve been spending a lot of time with children who’ve experienced strokes and who’ve faced so many challenges – there isn t that much research as to why strokes happen to young people. I’m determined to prevent this from ever happening to anyone again. And if it does happen, to have a better solution for young victims than being treated like a 70-year-old person. I really want to be an advocate – there should be more money in research, and more opportunities for kids who suffer from strokes.
I would love to go to college, but it’s just so expensive. After moving from Brazil, my parents didn’t think about saving up money for me. I feel like college would open up a lot of doors for me. But with or without a degree, I know I’ll be able to make a difference in this world.
As Told to Maria Yagoda