Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Memory and ECT

Is ECT worth the risk?

"ECT saved my life," folk singer-songwriter Heather McCready admitted in front of a crowd of 150+. "Two of my family members refused the treatment and died by suicide." The crowd listened in stunned silence, but I knew Heather's story.

Folk Singer-Songwriter Heather McCready

We'd connected a year before at one of my talks. I felt proud, another solid example of phenomenal results with ECT. "But lately," Heather continued, "I have trouble remembering lyrics, names... do you think this might be a delayed reaction to ECT?"

My stomach sank for two reasons. I'd assembled this group partly to celebrate my appearance on the Dr. Oz show about ECT, but also to provide a public forum to discuss ECT. I'd invited three psychiatrists I deeply admire to sit on a panel to discuss the procedure in detail. We viewed the Dr. Oz show. Afterward, I moderated the panel. The dread of having my panelist friends dragged into catfight about ECT was my second reaction. My first, honestly, was oh shit, what if this happens to me?

Drs. Raza, Husain and McClintock from UT Southwestern answered with such caring, undefensive clarity, I knew Heather felt validated. Their answers lacked the sugar coat a person who had ECT might like to hear. We lack the long-term data to know for sure. Memory loss is a tough thing to peg because so many things influence memory. They talked reassuringly about how ECT has been improved, and what a safe procedure it has become. The also emphasized neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to establish new connections and adapt. The trick is to keep learning. Stretch the brain and the brain retains its resiliency. Even so, the idea of losing words stuck in my throat. As a writer, words are who I am.

Dr. Raza addresses the question with compassion

I received my solace from an unexpected source. An Internet friend from Ireland (long backstory, comment if curious) congratulated me on my Dr. Oz appearance. My internet pal asked me if I'd ever seen the TED lecture by Dr. Sherwin Nuland. A successful surgeon, Nuland suffered depression so severe in the 1970s that his medical friends thought a lobotomy the only way he could escape the torture of his mental state. One psychiatrist friend insisted that Nuland try ECT instead. Nuland did. Nuland not only fully recovered, he rebuilt his practice and wrote 13 books after he retired.

Nuland is a lovable character on video. Bright, funny, engaging, Nuland's quick wit sears and heals in the same instant. Still a little skeptical, I grabbed my IPAD and downloaded Nuland's The Art of Aging. Although I thought this impossible, Nuland is even more engaging with the written word than on stage.

As I zipped through several chapters, the fear of latent ECT aftershock dissipated. If I can write half as well as Nuland when I'm 76 (from my estimate, this is the age when he wrote that book, followed by another at age 79), and possess a fraction of his vocabulary, I will die a happy woman. Who knows, maybe he will read this blog and tell me he is writing his next book at age 82. If that happens, I might have to travel to Connecticut and kiss Dr. Nuland full on the lips.

Not only does Nuland write masterfully, he conveys a depth of emotion and wisdom that can only be a result of a full life. Not only does Nuland think, he feels. He is.

Are there some risks with ECT? Absolutely. But think of Nuland's life with a lobotomy, Heather McCready's songs never sung, or my life ended in a garage at age 41. ECT is only a procedure, and the decision to proceed involves assessment of risk. My memories gained in an added decade of life far exceed any snippets lost. Nuland's experience gives me hope my brain can stretch to span any gap the future brings. What if the future brings a loss of words? I will find new ones. My decision to have ECT, a series in 2001 and another in 2007, still makes sense. I must live to write. If I count missing words, I've missed the point.

More from Julie K. Hersh
More from Psychology Today
More from Julie K. Hersh
More from Psychology Today