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People often ask me if electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) can erase bad memories. I made this video to answer that question by sharing my experience with traumatic memories before and after shock therapy to show how it can impact people with complex PTSD, like me.
I love seeing Jim Carrey Play serious roles. While mostly known for his off-the-wall physical comedy, he has a few dramas in his film roster. A favorite of mine is The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s a story about a couple’s turbulent relationship and painful breakup. Clementine, played by Kate Winslet, undergoes a procedure to erase Joel, played by Jim Carrey, from her memory. Devastated, Joel has her erased in turn.
I watched this movie often after my brain was damaged by ECT. I’d gone so long without talking to anyone who could relate my problems after shock treatment– my doctors kept telling me ECT doesn’t cause the symptoms I described– I think I was searching for a reflection of my strange new reality after losing memories, and my ability to make new ones was wrecked (anterograde amnesia).
The film’s choppy edits and shuffled timelines felt true to my early recovery days after ECT. Back then, I was constantly confused and struggled to make sense of my fragmented memories.
I would go to places I’d been before but couldn’t remember, talk to people I sensed I knew but couldn’t place, and feel like something was missing but not know what.
The idea of selectively erasing traumatic memories is interesting, but is it possible?
There’s research on using ECT as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, like in Carrey’s movie, to erase traumatic memories selectively.
Over the years, this prospect has generated a lot of pop-science buzz in the media, often referencing the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind like I’m doing now. But I can speculate where they can’t because I’ve lived it.
Many considering ECT say they don’t care if their memories are erased by the treatment. I was one of those people. I wish I’d known more about how memory works before having ECT for my so-called “treatment-resistant depression.” (CPTSD and life-threatening undiagnosed medical conditions — all treatable with the right care.)
Memory is not a buffet.
Doctors can’t control the electricity in a brain made up of mostly water, let alone identify and target specific memories while leaving other memories and cognition intact. The process of creating, storing, and losing memories is more complex than what this fictional scenario allows for.
A friend and fellow researcher tells people who ask her if ECT helps with PTSD, is that memory is not a buffet you can pick and choose from. You can’t know what memories you will lose with each treatment.
In addition to unpredictable memory loss, cranial nerves involved in trauma responses are at risk of damage in ways we’re only beginning to understand.
ECT isn’t effective for trauma.
What’s more, the ECT device makers, Somatics LLC, say ECT isn’t helpful for PTSD. Another peer who had ECT sent me this quote from the Thymatron® System IV manual:
“ECT does not reliably treat PTSD, other anxiety disorders, personality disorders, or medical disorders that cause symptoms of major depression, and the Thymatron System IV is not intended for use in treating such disorders. Anxiety disorders, PTSD, personality disorders, and medical disorders can underlie major depression or coexist with it, causing suicidality or other depressive symptoms.”
One way ECT is ineffective for trauma is by reducing brain connectivity. This article explains how damage to certain parts of the brain can make PTSD symptoms worse.
PTSD mixed with brain damage is a hell I could never have imagined.
People like me desperately need comprehensive testing and rehabilitation so we can recover from our trauma and get back to our lives. For that, we need our doctors to believe us, which rarely happens. People disabled by ECT often spend years fighting for help.
Organizations like the American Psychiatric Association (APA) have made efforts to get recognition harder. In 2016 the APA opposed mandatory neuropsychological testing proposed by the FDA when the shock device was being reclassified.
And even though electroconvulsive therapy has been used for over 80 years and device makers have admitted brain damage happens, there’s still no rehabilitation specifically designed to help people with the many complex problems caused by ECT.
“At the time of writing, no attempts have been made to rehabilitate patients who experience persistent adverse cognitive effects, but clinicians should be aware of the potential beneficial role of cognitive rehabilitation in the treatment and management of these effects.”cognitive-rehabilitation-assessment-and-treatment-of-persistent-memory-impairments-following-ect.pdf (cambridge.org)
An important 2006 Cambridge research article recognizes ECT can cause disabling memory problems. However, the treating psychiatrists may not be trained to recognize them and may not want to refer patients for testing out of fear of personal liability.
Whether you’re for or against the treatment, everyone who has ECT should have access to comprehensive testing and rehabilitation if they need it.
Doctors and device makers have known about these side effects for a long time, but people like me are still left to fend for themselves when it comes to recovery.
For those considering ECT for memory loss…
As the Thymatron manual says, ECT isn’t recommended for trauma. Despite what researchers and journalists suggest, ECT can’t erase specific memories like in the movie because memory, the brain, and the nervous system are too complex for this oversimplistic theory.
The consequences of ECT brain damage are unpredictable and can make recovering from trauma difficult.
If you’re considering ECT because you want to erase your painful past, I encourage you to first learn as much as you can about how memory and your nervous system work. This aspect of human physiology is often left out of mental health treatment discussion, but it’s actually very important in understanding PTSD. There are other treatments besides talk therapy, pills, and ECT that address the underlying causes of this difficult condition.
Wired for survival.
Humans are wired to remember dangerous, painful events so they can avoid them in the future. Even if you destroy the brain cells with bad memories, your body may still “remember” bad events as a survival response. For me, amnesia around my traumatic past has made it hard, if not impossible, to manage flashbacks.
If you choose to have ECT, I wish you the best. Here are resources if you have problems after.
- Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. Directed by Michel Gondry, performances by Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet. Focus Features, 2004. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0338013/
- Gifs https://giphy.com/
- Music courtesy of : RYYZN MEMORIES ERASED https://hypeddit.com/track/3zzfl9
- An electroconvulsive therapy procedure impairs reconsolidation of episodic memories in humans | Nature Neuroscience
- Could electroconvulsive therapy zap worst nightmares? – BBC News
- Electroshock therapy is actually still in use—and could help treat PTSD (popsci.com)
- Erasing Painful Memories With Shock Treatment | TIME.com
- Researchers find ECT can rid the mind of selected memory (medicalxpress.com)
- The Ethics of Erasing Bad Memories – The Atlantic
- MKULTRA Experiments to obliterate memories Brainwashed | CBC Radio
- Electroconvulsive Therapy for Traumatic Memories – Full Text View – ClinicalTrials.gov
- Severity of PTSD Symptoms Linked to Decreased Activity in Hippocampus – Neuroscience News
The following are resources that have helped me understand trauma, how it impacts my mental health and strategies for dealing with them. These are for information proposes only. See disclaimer:
- Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A GUIDE AND MAP FOR RECOVERING FROM CHILDHOOD TRAUMA eBook : Walker, Pete
- Irene Lyon – Nervous System Expert
- The body keeps score
- The Daily Practice Archives – The Crappy Childhood Fairy
- Patrick Teahan LICSW
- How Trauma Gets Trapped in Your Body Part 2 | Vagus Nerve, Orienting Reflex and the Amygdala
- Severity of PTSD Symptoms Linked to Decreased Activity in Hippocampus – Neuroscience News
- The Power of Validation: Arming Your Child Against Bullying, Peer Pressure, Addiction, Self-Harm, and Out-of-Control Emotions: Karyn D. Hall, Melissa Cook
ECT injury resources
- Resources page
- Comprehensive Neuropsych and Rehabilitation Assessments for ECT Recipients
- I’m shocked: informed consent in ECT and the phenomenological-self
- Understanding Electrical Injury – Dr. Marc Jeschke
- Sarah Price Hancock: Electrical Injuries: Comm. & Speech disorders & AAC (Info on cranial nerves and trauma responses)
- Aging after ECT, episodic paroxsomal neuromuscular symptoms and blood brain barrier
- Vision Therapy for ECT Injury (Electroconvulsive therapy)
- Microstructural Damages Caused by Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)
- Decision making and support available to individuals considering and undertaking electroconvulsive therapy (ECT): a qualitative, consumer-led study
- Device manufacturer rep acknowledges ECT Heart Attack “Common.”
- ECT Device Manufacturer Admits Brain Damage as a Risk of Electroconvulsive Therapy
- Brain Damage and Memory Loss from ECT, Dr. Peter Sterling