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Pebbles, Potholes, and PerspectiveMental Illness and Memory Loss
by Sarah Hancock
Depression effects autobiographical memory. “Sixty percent of patients were found to have deficits in autobiographical memory for incidents in their earlier life; these deficits were associated with significant impairments in personal semantic memory of facts from their past life” (www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1076/1380-3395(200002)22:1;1-8;FT125). What the heck is semantic memory? Basically it’s any memory which is attached to a symbol or meaning. For example, what does a red rose mean to you?
While many people who have depression experience memory loss, this column is going to talk specifically about my memory loss resulting from extensive Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) also known as shock treatments. Before I go into details, I also need to impress upon you that ECT is a very controversial treatment. I believe much of the controversy stems from the lack of regulations associated with administering ECT. While ECT is very effective for some people, it is very ineffective for others. Truth be told, even the most recent research cannot explain why ECT does or doesn’t work. Lack of regulatory measures allows each doctor to administer ECT using their own methods. There are some doctors who are very skilled and apply current research, using modern machines. Mine did not. I need to impress upon you that my experience is unique in many aspects because I’ve had more than 100 ECT treatments. I do not write this column to dissuade you from chosing this method of treatment for yourself or a loved one, I write it simply to share my experience because although it is uniquely mine, in many ways there is a common thread woven through the experiences of others treated with ECT in the past 20 years. If you would like to read more about memory loss and the rehabilitation required for people to improve quality of life after ECT, please see this link: www.ECTanswers.blogspot.com
First you have to understand the magnitude of ECT treatments I've had. Not only have I had more than 100, I had them from three times a week to every other week, depending on how well I was doing.
Kitty Dukakis had ECT. It affected her differently. I heard one interview where she said ECT was the best thing that ever happened to her and that the only thing she'd forgotten was a trip to Europe. This is awesome, for her. She discusses her experience with ECT in a book entitled “Shock” (http://www.amazon.com/Shock-Kitty-Dukakis/dp/1583332839). Truthfully, I'm kinda mad at her for saying that because it discounts the major memory loss experienced by others. It also allows people to rely on the judgment of their doctor without doing their own research. In doing so, many people believe the memory loss will be minimal. For many it is. I am not one of the many.
I can say that I've forgotten probably 99.9999% of 1993-2009. In fact, if there were one standardized way of testing autobiographical memory (which as of today’s publication, there isn’t), I think the examiner would testify to the fact that I’ve forgotten 90% of my life from 1975-1993.
Let's think about this a little harder . . . all emotions and attachments we feel are generated by experiences we've had. So if you can't remember the experiences, you can't attach them to the emotion which results in feeling detached from everyone because you can't remember any experience once shared. Now that you understand this concept, you can better understand why I would be willing to wager that all of the emotional attachment to anything or anyone I experienced during that period is completely gone. The only exception is with people I connected with on a very regular basis. Even still, I can feel emotions about these people, I just can’t always identify why.
Everything I know about what I experienced during my life are only what I have gathered from reading and rereading my own journals, flipping through photo albums and recognizing my face in a sea of individuals I couldn’t identify and retelling stories people have told me. I can tell you facts. I cannot tell you or re-feel the emotions. Weird? Yes.
I can't remember people's faces, personalities or any of that. I find this strange because I am really a people person and to have forgotten what I love most about life is really strange. It's almost like I've mentally experienced a time warp because nothing registers and because there isn't even a shadow or hint of the life I’ve lived. It's like it never happened.
I quit ECT against medical advice in July 1, 2009. Although it’s been more than a year, I cannot say my memory loss is permanent. However, I had ECT in 2002-2004, and my journal records that I still had not begun remembering my previous college experience, relationships or training by the time I began to have ECT again in the fall of 2007.
For a long time, I allowed my memory loss to really make me mad. I think it was because like many of you, I learned that “Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (1915–1985) explained that “life never was intended to be easy. It is a probationary estate in which we are tested physically, mentally, morally, and spiritually.”2We groan when someone tells us that we will learn from the trials we experience. In my family we’d moan over having to go through something again and again until we learned from our experience and could move on. Here I am with no memory, horrified that I would have to go through my entire 37 years of trials again so that I could relearn what I’d forgotten! “No, the thought makes reason stare!” (Snow, Eliza R., O My Father, Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985, p. 292)
The idea terrified me! So I started to look for ways I could see my memory loss from a different and more positive perspective. After years of desperately searching, I finally found it.
I now better understand the atonement. As a child I could never understand how the lord could forget my sins. I mean, when I sinned, I didn’t have to be brought before God to “have a bright recollection of all [my] guilt” (Alma: 11:43). I couldn’t fathom how if I truly and sincerely repented of my wrong doings my Savior would “remember them no more” (D&C 58:42). Growing up I could remember all the good and bad I’d done with such detail that the concept of forgetting something just didn’t register. And yet the Lord promises us complete forgiveness. Not just forgiveness, but He promises us he will not even remember the bad we did. Isaiah talks about this principle when he says in chapter one, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1: 18) . How is that even possible? Honestly, I had no clue. No clue until I experienced ECT. Now I can honestly testify that when the Lord says He’ll “remember [our sins] no more,” I believe Him. I can testify that when you have truly repented of something you will “receive remission of [your] sins, and rejoice with exceedingly great joy” (Mosiah 3:13). The Father will truly erase them from His mind. There won’t even be a hint or shadow of whatever wrong you’ve done. God truly no longer remembers it.
I share this with you in hopes that doing so can bring you peace. Yes, you can still remember the good and ill you’ve done. You can remember because you need to learn from it. But don’t allow your learning to impede your journey. Let go of those things for which you’ve truly repented. Move forward as though enjoying the veil of innocence, having faith that although you can remember, Heavenly Father doesn’t. Of this I testify in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, amen.
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