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How Electroshock Therapy Changed My Life

Personal Perspective: A terrible loss can have surprisingly good consequences.


  • Electroshock therapy, a procedure used for treatment-resistant depression, may cause significant memory loss.
  • Sometimes a loss can unexpectedly result in the opening of other doors.
  • Changing professions can change one’s identity for the better.

In 1994, I experienced one of the worst depressive episodes I’ve ever endured. There was no question in my mind that death was the only possible remedy for my pain. But my doctors thought differently, and to humor them—I’m nothing if not a good patient—I let them talk me into doing electroconvulsive (electroshock) therapy, or ECT, as it’s commonly known.

ECT has greatly improved in recent years, and I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone who is considering it. But at that time, it was a last-ditch procedure, used only when repeated medication trials had failed. It carried a heavy stigma, coupled in the public’s mind with Jack Nicholson’s zombified stare in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The most prevalent side effect was severe loss of memory, which might or might not eventually return. But I figured there was nothing about my life I wanted to remember, so what did I have to lose?

A lot, as it turns out. My doctors had assured me that I could return to work after the three months of procedures were over—that I’d be good as new and depression-free. They were right, to some extent, about the depression lifting. They were wrong about everything else.

I’d taken a leave of absence from my job at a prestigious law firm, where I worked as an entertainment litigator. It was a stressful position, which no doubt contributed greatly to my breakdown. Because my firm represented celebrities and major motion picture studios, the stakes were always high, with millions of dollars at issue in almost every case. It was not a place where one could operate at diminished capacity—and boy, was I diminished.

After my first few ECT sessions, I couldn’t remember the most basic things, like the president’s first name or the purpose of silverware. My brain felt like a fog had roiled through, blanketing my intellect in a stubborn haze. The loss of memory was acute—January through March 1994 simply didn’t exist—but also stretched back to my childhood. I could recall, for example, how to add, but I couldn’t subtract or comprehend fractions. I had to relearn who my friends and lovers were and what each one had meant to me.

There was no way I could go back to being a high-profile lawyer. Nor did I want to—regrettably, the ECT hadn’t obliterated my memories of how litigation had made me feel. I could still recall the throat-tightening, fist-clenching, stomach-churning stress I had gone through every morning as I amped myself up to perform. Just the thought of driving down the street where my office was located made my heart throb with anxiety. And what use is a lawyer who can’t remember the difference between plaintiff and defendant?

So I let the job go, and with it, my identity as a successful, hard-driving, take-no-prisoners litigator. It was heartbreaking to lose the instant credibility I used to get whenever I’d whip out my business card. Plus, all that educationgoing to waste, all the money my parents had spent on it, and the agony I’d gone through to rise up the ranks of my profession… It felt like I had thrown the first half of my life away, and to what avail? What in God’s name was I going to do now?

But the universe had one last trick up its sleeve. I had always wanted to write ever since I was a little girl scribbling poetry on my father’s cocktail napkins. After the ECT was over, I had nowhere to go and nothing but regrets to occupy my mind, so I started to write again. Words did not come easily to me—I’d forgotten so many I had to type with a thesaurus always at hand. But the one thing I hadn’t forgotten, strangely enough, was the pain of my depression. It was so vivid, so relentless, I knew I had to give it voice, or it would haunt me forever. And so I did. I bore witness to what I had experienced, in all its brutal torment.

Slowly, word by word and page by page, I began to heal. As I set my memories down, the trauma no longer owned me—I shaped it, and I owned it. I began to think of myself less and less as a lawyer and more as a writer. It was a powerful shift of identity. I was becoming the person I’d always wanted to be for as far back as I could remember.

Today, I have a hard time recalling those days in the law—not because of any cognitive impairment, but because I think of it so rarely. I have much lovelier memories to look back on now: three published memoirs, several stories in anthologies, and a new career as a mental health advocate. People often congratulate me on having the courage to leave such a stressful profession. I thank them for the compliment, but inwardly I smile: Were it not for the fallout of the ECT, I doubt I would ever have had the courage to leave all that money and prestige behind. But one never knows what will come from loss—perhaps the life one was meant to live.

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