I recently finished a three-month course of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to treat my extremely stubborn depressive disorder. The process required me to make a few minor lifestyle changes: I couldn’t drive or drink alcohol, and I had to fast in a very specific way the day before each of my 19 appointments. Fortunately, though, all of that was temporary. As soon as I finished ECT, I regained the privileges that had been off limits while I was being treated. There have been very few lasting negative effects.
However, there is one side effect that has stuck around, even though it’s been weeks since I had a treatment: memory loss. When I talk about this inconvenient consequence of ECT, people are usually very curious about the specifics of my forgetfulness. Do I remember seeing my friends during the months I was receiving treatment? Can I recall things I said yesterday, last week, a year ago? Which memories am I missing, and when will they come back, if ever?
I’m not typically able to give satisfying answers to those questions, because I don’t know what I’ve forgotten. The ECT manual I was given by my doctor, however, sheds some light on the topic: while most of my memories will return as my brain heals, there are chunks of time that I’ll never remember. They occurred shortly before and after each treatment, when my ability to store long-term memories was interrupted by the ECT process. The things I experienced during those moments didn’t get filed away in my memory, so I’ll never be able to recall them.
Thankfully, those blackout periods were short, so not many memories slipped by me. As I recover from treatment, recollections from the three months I spent as an ECT patient will likely filter back into my brain.
Healing from ECT takes a while, though, and recent memories from my everyday life still slip between my fingers. Usually, it’s just a minor irritation. I repeat myself a lot because I don’t remember saying things the first time, so I’ve gotten into the habit of starting my statements with “Stop me if I’ve already told you this.” I also have to use Google maps to get anywhere in my little town, because I’ve forgotten where everything is, though I’ve lived here for more than a decade. It’s a pain, but according to everything I’ve read about ECT, it should get better.
The only time my memory loss becomes consequential is when the people in my life surprise me with stories of unpleasant things that happened during my blackouts. I’m always a little frightened that I’ll hear about something embarrassing I said or did that I don’t remember. It’s scary knowing the people around me carry bits of my past that I can’t recall.
That being said, ECT was a wonderfully beneficial process that I cannot recommend highly enough to anyone who suffers from treatment-resistant depression. After only doing it for a few weeks, I felt the ice of my mood disorder begin to thaw for the first time in years. When my symptoms do recur, they’re much more responsive to therapy than they were before I did ECT. Losing a few memories of my depressed days was a small price to pay for being able to enjoy my future.