Sherwin Nuland: From Electroshock to Recovery

Sherwin Nuland is the best-selling author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter and many other books. As he says in this video, he had never before disclosed the experience behind the spiritual dimensions of his writing until presenting this talk at the TED Conference in 2001. Everyone’s reaction will differ, of course, but for me this is one of the most moving stories of recovery I’ve ever heard.

I want to offer a caution or two. In the first part of the video, Nuland sketches a quick history of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and the many earlier treatments that stimulated convulsions as a way of shocking people out of mental illness. ECT elicits strong reactions from many, including me. He doesn’t disclose up front where he’s going with that overview of the technology, but at 7:14 minutes in, he starts the story that puts ECT into the setting of his own devastating depression. If you prefer, you can jump to that point in the video, though it’s well worth it to hear about ECT from a point of view you may not agree with.

2 Responses to “Sherwin Nuland: From Electroshock to Recovery”

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  1. Donna-1 says:

    In 1996, having depression that did not respond to therapy or medication, I was given a course of 19 ECT treatments. I was in a stupor before and after. I was depressed before and after. I was suicidal before and after. And remained all these things for several years…after. So I thought that ECT was a crock and totally worthless. But in these last couple of years, I have begun to rethink the experience. It took 11 weeks for the entire series. The last 7 were each Friday morning. A work friend took me to the hospital and dropped me off at 7am and came back at noon to pick me up and take me to work. Then I worked from noon until 4:30 that afternoon. How I worked after having ECT is till a mystery to me, but I had no headache, no sleepiness. It did, however, destroy much of my memory for quite a while. I couldn’t remember how to add 7 + 3 in my head — I couldn’t even remember how to add the two numbers with a calculator. I couldn’t remember my address or home telephone number. I couldn’t remember the names of the people with whom I had worked for 11 years. The quality of my work? I’m sure it was greatly lacking, but they still allowed me to be there and do what I could. For years afterward, I could not balance my checkbook each month. Nor could I run a cash register at subsequent jobs. Numbers became a complete mystery. In fact, I have only regained most of my number-sense in the last 4 years. So how has my thinking about the experience changed? I think that it kept me from killing myself those 11 weeks. And I was extremely suicidal at the time. Because of the ECT I could not immediately formulate a plan to commit suicide, so perhaps it kept me alive during that period of time. And of course, that is worth a lot to me now! I have also seen other patients greatly transformed by ECT. One salesman was on the brink of total disaster due to depression. After 5 ECT treatments, he was back on his feet in top form again, only requiring a “booster” treatment now and then. I know of others who have had these boosters continually for years in order to survive. And then at some point were able to discontinue them and remain recovered. For me perhaps ECT did save my life and get me past a vulnerable period. I went on to attempt suicide twice later, but my family refused to let me have more ECT treatments because of how my memory was affected due to the first series. My psychiatrist has since suggested I undergo more ECT when depressed, and I have not done so. But if it came to the point where I was suicidal again, I think I would go for it. Temporary loss of memory is nothing compared to permanent loss of life.

    • Hi, Donna –

      I’ve never had ECT, and none of the psychiatrists I’ve seen over the years have suggested I go for it. As long as I’m well short of suicidal, I won’t elect to do it either. It clearly saved your life, but the cognitive impairment is not something I want to live with. A friend of mine did ECT about the same number of times as Nuland, but it didn’t help his depression. For a while he had difficulty getting the words of his sentences together. He had to concentrate and speak slowly – and he also had the memory problems you describe. What bothers me most about it is the shotgun approach. I’d be more comfortable if they really knew why it worked sometimes (I often see it referred to as the gold standard of treatment!) – exactly what effect on which areas of the brain it had, etc. Inducing a brain seizure seems pretty crude to me – though I know the procedure has been greatly refined over the years. So I’ll pray that neither you nor I get into such bad shape that ECT is the only thing left to try.


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