What It’s Like to Lose Memories After Electroconvulsive Therapy
Between January and February of 2017, I had an extensive course of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). It was following a very dark time in my life. I had been hospitalized — not for the first time, and not for the last — with a severe depressive episode and suicidal thoughts.
So they tell me.
I lost most of my memory of 2016, including the time of my hospitalization and treatment. I suspect the memory loss goes back even further, or perhaps it is selective. Some things are clearer to me than others.
Most patients’ experiences of ECT involve the loss of some memory, but usually it is quite short-term. I had previously had a course of ECT and I did not lose all that much. I even remember quite a lot about the time immediately before the treatment. I think that last year, I was just unlucky.
Losing my memory has resulted in some odd and frustrating experiences in both social and professional contexts. One of the strangest things was losing almost all my memory of a person I had been dating up until a couple of months before the treatment. We spent several months together and had many adventures, but unfortunately they have mostly vanished from my mind. What I have cobbled together is a sort of memory of this person, based on old messages, journal entries and other bits and pieces. Sometimes this cobbling together prompted the resurrection of old memories. It was a strange experience, like re-reading a book I had read years earlier.
I am almost glad that person and I are no longer in contact, because nothing is more embarrassing than having to tell someone you do not remember an important experience you shared. This is something I have experienced repeatedly when talking with friends. So much of the happy or interesting times we shared are gone forever from my mind, but not from theirs. Obviously, this means that sometimes they will remind me of things we did together. For a long time, I bluffed my way through most of these awkward moments. “Ha, yeah, that was fun!” Now I am getting better at saying directly that I do not remember it, although I do not want to offend them. I do not want them to think I forgot what we shared because it did not mean as much to me as it did to them.
If I had just lost the fun experiences, then it would not be so bad; it would just be an odd and slightly amusing quirk. But I feel sometimes I must have also lost track of how my relationships developed over that time. Perhaps I don’t remember important moments in our shared history, or details they told me about themselves. I got into the habit of pretending to know everything about everyone, because the alternative was confessing I no longer knew them as well as they knew me. This could lead to problems. One of my friends moved house shortly before I became ill. I completely forgot, and turned up at his old house one day. The new people who had moved in were very nice about it.
Imagine going through your cupboard and finding brand new clothes. I have to admit, this is a major benefit of memory loss! It is fun to find new clothes, games, books or other things I bought or was given but forgot about. I played a video game during that time and I am told I enjoyed it, so now I get to play it again! Sometimes, Facebook tries to remind me of things from the past — pictures of things I don’t recall at all. Those are always jolts that make me a little sad, but it is also nice to gradually connect the year back together and make sense of it.
One of the worst things about it was the sense I had lost some valuable knowledge or skills surrounding my mental health. There must have been some trigger for my suicidal thoughts, and as someone who has experienced them (and will undoubtedly continue to experience them) for a long time, it is unfortunate to lose the memory of a series of events that could have taught me more about myself and how best to manage my condition. But to that end, I enrolled in a course of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) after being discharged, to learn how to cope with and control the things that have debilitated me in the past. I am nearly finished with it.
There are sadder parts to this story, and if you had ECT I am sure there are sad parts to your story as well. But I do not write this to dissuade other people from accepting or asking for courses of ECT. ECT is a tested and proven treatment for severe depression (although my doctor opines that nobody really knows how it works). Rather, I write this to mourn the loss of that time and to share my experience. ECT probably saved my life, and if I was in the same position today I would do it again. I would rather lose a year of my life than my entire future.
Photo by Lili Kovac on Unsplash