Kitty Dukakis recounts ECT in new book
‘I Feel Good, I Feel Alive’
In a new book, Kitty Dukakis credits electroconvulsive therapy for relieving her famously disabling depression.
By Kitty Dukakis

Sept. 18, 2006 issue – As many as 100,000 people in the United States each year receive electroconvulsive therapy, a treatment that has improved dramatically since it was first used in the 1930s. On the advice of her doctors, Kitty Dukakis started ECT treatment in 2001 after suffering for decades from severe depression, substance-abuse problems and hospitalizations. Here, Dukakis’s firsthand account.

Next thing I know I am waking up. I am on an upper floor of Massachusetts General Hospital, in the unit where I slept last night. I feel lightheaded, groggy, the way you do when anesthesia is wearing off and you are floating between sleep and wakefulness. I vaguely recall the anesthesiologist having had me count to 10, but I never got beyond three or four. I am not sure I got the treatment. One clue is a slight headache. Another is the goo in my hair, where they must have attached the electrodes.

There is one more sign that I did in fact have my first session of seizure therapy: I feel good—I feel alive.

Michael is standing there next to the nurse as I struggle to keep my eyes open, and I give him a big grin. That surprises him right away. As we head home to Brookline, I remember that it is our anniversary. Our 38th. I turn to Michael and say, “Let’s go out for dinner tonight!” He asks, “What?” I say, “I’m serious. Let’s do it!”

Michael and I did eat out at a restaurant that night, making an anniversary I wanted to forget into one I will remember always. I was back at the hospital on an outpatient basis the next two weeks for four more treatments. After the second one I went to the hairdresser, then a dinner party and watched the Red Sox on TV.

I have had eight sets of ECT since 2001. It is not an exaggeration to say that electroconvulsive therapy has opened a new reality for me. I used to deny when a depressive episode was coming on, to myself and to others. Now I call my doctor, Charlie Welch, as soon as I spot the gathering clouds. As important, ECT has gotten me off antidepressants. I withdrew slowly, with help from my doctors. Since I have been off I know the full range of my feelings. I get into the car now and put on music, the classical station. I sometimes cry because it conjures up feelings of my dad, who died on March 29, 2003, and was a conductor of the Boston Pops. Once I went off antidepressants, I finally could grieve.

ECT has even helped with talk therapy, strange as that may sound. I had been with Roger Weiss, my therapist, for five or six years. After ECT, I was able to work on issues that I couldn’t before, with him and on my own. I stopped smoking 15 months ago and feel terrific about that. I am working on my road rage, which is especially challenging every winter when we head to L.A. and start driving those confounding freeways. I am even addressing what my kids call my sense of entitlement. They kid me for behaving like the “queen bee.” It is not ECT per se that is curing me of those bad habits. It is staying well enough for long enough that I can start looking at behaviors I want to change. Why, for instance, do I always introduce myself by my last name as well as my first? Kara, Andrea and John say I am seeking the recognition that comes with the name Dukakis. Whether they are right or not, it was impossible to acknowledge they might be when I was depressed.

Memory loss is ECT’s most feared side effect. It is what the public hears about most often and what critics complain about most loudly. I believe anyone who says her ability to remember has been permanently damaged, and that big chunks of her life were lost. Who would make up something like that? On the other hand, most ECT patients I know have had milder memory problems, and some have had none. As for the situation I know best, mine, the memory issues are real but manageable.

Things I lose generally come back. Other memories I prefer to lose, including those about the depression I was suffering. But there are some memories—of meetings I have attended, people’s homes I have visited—that I don’t want to lose but I can’t help it. They generally involve things I did two weeks before and two weeks after ECT. Often they are just wiped out.

I forget telephone numbers, including ones I dial all the time. I sometimes don’t know where I am supposed to go or at what time. What embarrasses me most is forgetting people’s names. I live in a political world. My remembering someone may only be mildly important to them, but it is really important to me. After ECT I still go to receptions, dinners and other public events, with Michael or on my own, but I generally am not on my game. I sometimes forget commitments I make to help people. I tell a refugee from Cambodia that I will call the State Department on his behalf. I tell a friend of a friend that I know just the surgeon for her, or a lawyer, or a psychiatrist. Then I don’t make the call or get back to them with the name. Promising it, then not doing it because I don’t remember, is terrible. They must think I’m a ditz, or maybe insincere.

I have learned ways to partly compensate for whatever loss I still experience. I call my sister Jinny, Michael and my kids, asking what my niece Betsy’s phone number is, what we did yesterday and what we are planning to do tomorrow. I apologize prior to asking. I wonder when they are going to run out of patience with “Kitty being Kitty.” I hate losing memories, which means losing control over my past and my mind, but the control ECT gives me over my disabling depression is worth this relatively minor cost. It just is.

From “Shock” by Kitty Dukakis and Larry Tye. To be published by Avery, a division of Penguin Group (USA). © 2006 by Kitty Dukakis and Larry Tye.

Comments (3)

Ellen SimmonsOctober 6th, 2006 at 11:03 am

Kitty, You have always been a source of inspiration for me and more so even now. I have suffered depression all my life and have for a long time been unable to use antidepressents. Ect has been an option but I have been putting it off due to loose teeth that I want to keep because I am unable to pay for any replacement. Telling your experience with ect has given me some hope.
Thank you so much for your courage and willingness to share. You are a woman of extreme strength whom I admire greatly.
Thank you so much,
Ellen Simmons

Tom BurnsDecember 3rd, 2006 at 6:41 am

Bless Mrs Dukakis. She has so much courage.

ECT saved my life. Mrs. Dukakis is trying to remove the stigma from this life-saving treatment. Let’s hope she does.

Tom Burns

Tom BurnsDecember 3rd, 2006 at 6:49 am

I remember everything!

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