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Memory… I can't seem to find it…

When I was in my 20s (I'm 37 now), my bipolar depression got so severe that the docs decided it was time to try ECT, Electroconvulsive Therapy. In the old days, they called it “shock therapy”. The premise is sound: if you cause a 10-60 second seizure in the brain, in at least 10 consecutive treatments, certain biochemicals “right” themselves and those suffering from extreme depression feel better. There is still a cloud of mystery surrounding why the treatment works, but I was willing to try anything. 

I have had a few concentrated sessions of ECT over the past 13 years. I'm around the #100 treatment mark. Unfortunately, I'm suffering from one of the side effects: memory loss. 

In most ECT patients, memory loss is common to some extent. One doctor explained to me that because of the induced seizure in the brain, the memories you make a few days before treatment won't necessarily make it all the way to the long-term memory portion of the cerebrum. She went on to explain that you may have a bit of long-term memory loss, but that it returns within a few weeks of the last treatment in 99% of patients. 

From my experience, it would appear that I am a member of the 1%. 

My recall of the last 10 years is not so great. Certain big events such as my wedding and the birth of my nephews and nieces have not completely diminished, but it seems that my husband starts most sentences these days with “Do you remember…?” It’s exasperating at best, and downright humiliating at its worst. 

It was a recent heart-to-heart conversation with a friend I had not spoken to in a while that brought my weakened memory to light. In the midst of it, I asked about the health of her significant other; the same significant other she had broken up with three years prior. To make matters worse, I had even helped her through the breakup! I was mortified, and my friend was angry. Even after I explained why I didn't remember, and apologized profusely, she was still unhappy. This kind of thing happens to me a lot now; some days seeming filled with apologies.   

I finally called the clinic where I had ECT, and asked about this extreme memory loss I was experiencing. They sadly agreed that while almost everyone is able to recover their long-term memory, I would not get it back if it had not already returned (my last treatment was 10 months ago).

Please, do not misinterpret what I am saying: ECT SAVED MY LIFE! I was suicidal, and medications, therapy, and hospitalizations were not enough. However, now I find that I am developing new ways of helping myself remember things to keep my brain working as well as it can. Perhaps some of the following can help you as well:

-Nutrition: I love junk food of any kind. If it's processed, you can count me in! But it is ultimately bad for my brain, so I have incorporated some healthy eating habits into my day. I purchased a NutriBullet for my house, and I don't eat carbs. (I still eat cheese and ice cream: a girl can't give all tasty treats up!)

-Brain games: I have installed some cool games on my phone that help to keep the brain active. Some are puzzles, some are word games, and some are math-related. They are a nice thing to play when I have a bit of time to spare and I don't want to get sucked into the vortex of Facebook.

-Keeping lists: I never used the notes app on my phone before, but now I can't live without it. I make sure that I keep track of all of my commitments and tasks, but I also use it to quickly type out things I suddenly remember, before they escape from my memory again.

-Friends & Family: I have encouraged my support system to tell me stories and reminisce with me, even if they think I remember. This allows me to jot them down (see above) and keep a running tally of good memories. 

I'm sure most people with bipolar disorder would agree that there are good and bad things about the treatments available at the present time. I am learning in my own bipolar “bubble” of treatment to supplement the bad with the good. I will continue to be my best self, even when it doesn't come so easily.

Read more from Laura at her personal blog Coffee and Lithium, or see the rest of her posts for IBPF here.


Hi, this is interesting to me because having had ect in two rounds a few years apart, I have never been able to get a doctor to admit that my memory loss was due to ect. It bothered me immensely. I eventually moved on and decided that the loads of medications I've taken over the years probably is just as suspect as the ect. I'm glad you list at the bottom things that are helpful to you. It's important, I think, to recognize that you can only move forward and do your best with what you have--including taking what you've learned and using the tools you have now.

I have a problem with short term memory loss after 5 years since having ECT. I guess this can happen. But, ECT saved my life too.

I also am in that 1%. I had quite a few ECT treatments. It's been six years since my last treatment and I'm still having a lot of trouble with short memory and my long term memory hasn't recovered.

I have Bipolar and PTSD. ECT has been my major treatment for depression and suicidal ideation from age 13 till 6 months ago. I am now 50 years old. I have found my memory is taking longer to return after treatment. When my mood changes I tend to be able to find memories in great information and detail but they trigger flashbacks and anxiety. I cannot recall many memorable, positive or important details to help counteract mood swings and thoughts. I forget my psychotherapy to help myself recover. I have started to have an infusion of ketamine and it influences my mood positively. I know I had to have ECT and I would have committed suicide without it. Lithium long term can effect organs and thyroid glands. I suffer severe refractory migraines with neurological effects such as symptoms of stroke. I am unsure if these are caused by ECT.

I too, have long term memories totally lost, never to return, from the ECT I had 20 years ago. The lost memories don't always come back. My family finds it amusing when they mention someone I supposedly dated that I don't have any recollection of!

i always forget but it comes back to me sometimes but its hard and sometimes i dont know my friends...

I had 10 treatments of ECT 25 years ago, and I attribute my memory issues to it. There are years of my life that I don't remember, and I also deal with short-term memory loss. I strongly doubt that 99% of patients have no permanent side effects from ECT. I actually have yet to meet someone who has received ECT, no matter how long ago, who feels they did not have any negative, permanent effects from it relating to their memory. It is well accepted within the medical community that for people with seizure disorders, the more seizures they have, the more brain damage occurs. I wish I knew all of the wellness tools back then that I know now and could have avoided ECT, as well as all of the other harmful psychiatric treatments I endured over the years. So that just fuels my passion to share the message that there are many things we can do to get better and stay well, outside of harmful psychiatric treatments.

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