A writer reflects on how electroshock has impacted memory. This anonymous piece was posted on the excellent blog by Philip Dawdy, called Furious Seasons.
Original was posted on this excellent blog:
July 13, 2007
A Reader’s ECT Experience
The following was sent to me by SS, a reader, who wanted me to post it. I’ll let it speak for itself.
In the evening, the place I was in took a rhythm of it’s own. People fell asleep on chairs, and games of checkers and chess sat on the table, half played, like a lone sandwich sitting next to them.
It was nighttime. The patients had all been fed, and medicated, and were left in front of the TV while something as insipid as the Home Shopping Channel droned on providing white noise.
I had been in this locked ward for approx 20 days. My insurance, though I did not know it at the time, pooped out at 30.
And I hadn’t gotten better, I had gotten worse.
My doctor, who ran the hospital had unbeknownst to me called in my parents for a meeting, as well as the three doctors under him. All I knew was tonight I didn’t have my supper; instead one of the nurses helped me in the shower and bathed me because I was too catatonic to do so. She helped me get dressed and finally put on those slipper socks that all the inmates wear because our shoes had all been stripped of their laces.
She walked me out of the locked ward, stopping at the Christmas tree by the Nurses station in the main part, and let me touch an ornament. I smiled. We went into the doctor’s office and there was my mom, and dad sitting on a plushy bluish purple sofa, and three doctors I never saw before.
“Mr. and Mrs. S” went my doctor – “We’ve tried everything on your daughter but she is extremely depressed and still suicidal. We’ve tried several different drug therapies and nothing is working, and we are left with two things. She has ten days left on her insurance and if she is still like the way she is now, we will be forced to put her in a state hospital. Or we can try ECT”.
ECT was then explained to my parents, and they saw a video. And with the State’s leading expert on ECT who told them he would be personally administering it, papers were signed, I was convinced by mom and dad “ do this to make your mother happy”, and the next day woken up at 5 am to be driven to the local teaching hospital for my first round.
This isn’t the time or place to get into the fine details. Suffice it to say I was strapped down to a gurney and got poked prodded, IV’ed and what not. I saw monitors and a little contraption by my bedside that looked like R2D2. When the good doctor got to me, I had my treatment, later waking up and changing back to my street clothes and out of those hospital garbs that show your ass to the universe.
What was unusual was when they asked me who the President was; I thought it was Bill Clinton. But I got the other questions correct and maybe it’s a good thing to forget a few years of history.
But as the treatments went on, I noticed several things. I had a photographic memory prior. I could not recall huge events in my life. I would look at family pictures and know something happened but couldn’t recall it. Huge chunks of my adolescence and childhood went Poof! I also had the ability to recall in graphic detail every book I had ever read from “Green Eggs and Ham” to the last book I had been reading in the hospital which was of all weird things “ A Noonday Demon’. I had been a contestant on Jeopardy. Now I couldn’t even name the hosts name.
I couldn’t read anymore. I couldn’t even read a newspaper. I couldn’t watch TV. I forgot how to get to places I was driving to, even though I had been driving the same routes for years.
Now this may seem trivial. To some people, thinking the last president was Clinton could be a good thing. To some people forgetting horrible adolescence is a good thing.
But when you are a writer, someone who makes their LIVING out of writing, and cannot anymore its death.
Imagine you are an Olympic athlete or a pro ball player. You are injured to such an extent that you are living, but your career is gone. All you have, as a reminder that you were once one of the best in your field are medals, trophies, articles. But it’s all gone. This is your identity. Your whole life has been building up to this career, and it’s all gone, what do you do?
Coach. What do you do if your brain able to recall things well enough to teach/coach? You are a baseball player and you can’t explain to someone the difference between a ball and a bunt?
In other words, your body is living, breathing thing. Everything is working fine, your heart, your legs, and your eyes. But what about the brain? It’s like going into a house that has just been sold and is lying vacant while the new owners wait to get in. Functional but no one home.
ECT is one of those things, which seems to have its pros and cons, each group vocal. I mentioned to a friend today I was writing something about ECT and she acted like I was writing about clubbing baby seals.
I can tell you that the man who was next to me in all my treatments did fine. His memory loss was minimal. It helped him.
But I will also tell you that those of us who have had the bad experiences are afraid to or don’t know how to write or talk about their experience.
I tell people to please make sure about ECT- it’s a procedure. Know the pros and cons and don’t let a doctor coerce you into ANY procedure. Get a second opinion. Be informed. Ask to see the facility if possible, and talk to the nurses who will be assisting.
For me, it was a mistake. Most of my memory did come back 5 years later. I no longer act like a stroke victim where I cannot string two sentences together when I talk, and point to the TV when I mean the Fridge. I can read, and I can look now at my library and recall the majority of the books I have read, albeit not in such graphic detail, hut I will settle for that.
What I cannot settle for is it destroyed my writing career. My rasion d’etre. Everything I write now seems Sophomoric, and I struggle to do that. It’s like “Flowers For Algernon”, I have been a genius, and now I am sub standard. It pains me. It’s also humbled me.
I wrote earlier had I had a gun after my treatment ended, I would have eaten it. I still feel that way now. What holds me back is the hope that if it took 5 years for my memory to right itself. Maybe my writing will come back. But to go from writing at a degree of a Hemingway- to now where most days all I can write is “Pat the Bunny” has destroyed my heart and my soul.