01:36 - Source: CNN
Navy vet wakes up, only speaks Swedish

Story highlights

Michael Boatwright has dissociative amnesia

He doesn't speak English anymore and now speaks only Swedish

His ex-girlfriend is helping him get his life together in Sweden

CNN —  

Michael Boatwright got off the flight from Los Angeles to Sweden and tightly embraced an unfamiliar woman as if they were old friends.

They were. The two had dated briefly in the 1980s.

But Boatwright doesn’t remember any of that.

The 61-year-old Florida-born U.S. Navy vet woke up in a California hospital earlier this year speaking only Swedish.

He had lived in Sweden off and on for about 20 years. Now, here he was at Goteborg Landvetter Airport, where that old friend, Ewa Espling, plans to help him get himself together in her country.

“I just want to be able to live a normal life and hopefully get my memory back,” Boatwright said Tuesday.

Boatwright has been diagnosed with dissociative amnesia, a rare psychiatric condition typically associated with a traumatic event. He says he has no memory of his past.

Police found him unconscious in a Southern California Motel 6 in February.

Navy vet wakes up, speaks only Swedish

Ewa Espling and Michael Boatwright, who has dissociative amnesia, reunited on Tuesday in Sweden.
Per Nyberg/CNN
Ewa Espling and Michael Boatwright, who has dissociative amnesia, reunited on Tuesday in Sweden.

Tuesday, Boatwright recalled that, waking up in the hospital this year, he looked at himself in the mirror and started crying. He didn’t recognize the face looking back.

When doctors tried to talk to him, he thought that his name was Johan Ek and that he was from Sweden. He didn’t know why he had five tennis rackets in his hotel room.

He was treated at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs. The hospital discharged him to Roy’s Desert Resource Center, where he has spent the past two weeks.

The Riverside County Department of Mental Health bought him a one-way ticket to Gothenburg after Boatwright made it clear that he wants to live in Sweden.

Boatwright said Tuesday that he is grateful for all of the help he has received.

In the United States, Boatwright said, he felt like a stranger in his own country because he didn’t speak the language: English.

In Sweden, he feels safe and more calm and believes he’ll be able to start rebuilding his life.

“I think it’s the best solution for Michael, because he can’t speak English,” Espling said. “To recover fully, I think he needs to come where he’s safe and understands what’s happening around him.”

Before Tuesday, Espling and Boatwright hadn’t seen each other since 1984.

Espling has arranged for a place for Boatwright to live in Sweden. She said she will try to assist as much as she can while he works through rebuilding his life.

“He’s going to have a home as long as he needs it,” she said.

She identified Boatwright in a Swedish newspaper article this year.

Exes Espling and Boatwright hadn't seen each other since 1984.
Per Nyberg/CNN
Exes Espling and Boatwright hadn't seen each other since 1984.

“Michael asked me, ‘Why are you doing this for me?’ Because I know Michael would have done the same thing for me. If he had found me in the papers. This is a very nice man with a very big heart,” Espling said.

In an exclusive CNN interview this month, Boatwright said he suffers from recurring nightmares too disturbing to describe.

Boatwright said he is pleased to be in Sweden and wants to start working once he gets his memory back. He hopes to become a tennis instructor because, in his view, it’s the one thing he’s good at.

Boatwright compared his life to an empty chalkboard.

“After death, this is probably the worst thing you could ever go through,” he said.

Small pieces are starting to come back, however. Recently, a Swedish song called “Sol, vind och vatten” (“Sun, Wind and Water”) popped into his head as if it were on repeat all day long. He had no idea where it came from.

He doesn’t recall any experiences that he and Espling shared in the 1980s, but some emotional remnants of the past remain.

Asked how he feels about Espling, he said, “I feel warm on the inside.”

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CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen contributed to this report.