Illustration by Clara Nicoll
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Back in September, my life was normal. I worked and wrote and lived with my family, and then, out of the blue, things changed. I suspected that I was becoming depressed, perhaps because I have had episodes of severe depression before; unusually, I wrote a series of poems about how I felt. Then, in October, my mood dropped suddenly and catastrophically, and I could no longer work. There was no obvious precipitant, but there was a precedent for what to do next. I have suffered with bouts of depression over several decades, and have previously both been an in-patient and had electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). The prospect of repeating either of these options seemed horrible, but so did the alternative—of doing nothing.
I went with my husband to see my psychiatrist, a professor who has known me for decades. Although I can remember nothing of our meeting, or much of the surrounding time, my husband said I was unable to eat, barely able to drink, and hardly spending any time out of bed. In view of this, the option of out-patient ECT was quickly agreed. My long-term diagnosis is of psychotic depression and bipolar disorder, and when I had multiple ECT courses before, the main side effect was memory loss. I thought to myself that surely I would be able to retain my memory on this occasion; surely I could make the effort.
Needless to say, I was wrong. My husband tells me that my memory loss was not immediate, but that within about four treatments it was apparent. The whole experience was bizarre and disorientating, although all the staff I encountered were very kind to me. I suspect I was treated particularly well, given that I’m a psychiatrist in the same hospital, but it felt very odd. I knew all of the treating psychiatrists, but fortunately not the anaesthetists. I work with anaesthetists in the chronic pain service—but being put to sleep by someone I knew would have felt surreal and exposing. I was very confused at times, and I imagine it was difficult for anyone to know how best to talk to me. I was also assessed on several occasions by a different psychiatrist to my usual one, as he was on leave, and that was even odder, because I knew this other man too. It can’t have been easy for anyone. One thing that has been markedly better this time is being allowed to wear my contact lenses.
Previously, I would go blindly through a door in the wall, like that in the story by HG Wells, searching, somehow, for something beautiful, which I never found. Now that I can see what is happening, this makes a huge difference. I feel much less uncertain about the procedure. After the treatment, I did get slowly better, I think, although my memory got incrementally worse. It was quite peculiar—I couldn’t remember who the prime minister was, or even had been, but given the revolving door at Number 10 last year, who can blame me? More problematically, trying to remember the right Christmas presents for my family was a shocker! I had been working on a novel over the past year—I had no recollection of it. Another feature of my experience was overspending. My husband was rendered slightly exasperated by the arrival in the post of lots of brightly coloured clothing. We managed to work out, by a process of elimination, that I had bought it all for myself. Fortunately it’s very pretty, but I would never have purchased it normally.
The memory loss has been particularly confusing in that it’s hard to know what I’ve forgotten, especially in relation to work, or to understand why I made certain decisions. I had a lead role in addiction psychiatry, from which I stepped down during my rapid descent into illness. I wish I could step aside with ease from the rest of my work and life, but this is very hard to do sensibly when ill, and more confusing when I can’t remember what I’ve abandoned.
I am less depressed now than I was, but not yet what I would call “well”. I hope that I won’t have more than a few further treatments, and that my mood starts to stabilise. Mostly, I just hope my memory returns.