Kitty Dukakis: Shock Therapy Saved My Life

ByABC News via logo
September 18, 2006, 9:34 AM

Sept. 18, 2006 — -- After a lifetime of depression, battles with drug and alcohol addiction, and 25 years on antidepressants, Kitty Dukakis finally found a solution to the mental illness that plagued her: electroconvulsive therapy.

For many people, shock therapy brings to mind scenes from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

But as Dukakis explains, ECT today is very different from a few generations ago.

Her new book, "Shock," co-authored by journalist Larry Tye, talks about Dukakis' personal battle with depression, and describes the evolution of shock therapy and how it has hurt and helped people over the years.

The wife of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis calls ECT a "last resort" treatment, but one that she says saved her life.

Read an excerpt from the book, "Shock," below:

It is June 20, 2001, Michael's and my 38th wedding anniversary. It also is the end of my fourth month of depression, my crisis period. I'm normally a person with enormous enthusiasm for and interest in the world. All that is just missing now. Fun or enjoyment are things I cannot even imagine. I don't speak to my kids on the phone, or to my sister. I do keep up with Dad, but he calls me more than I do him. The last two people I want worrying about me are my father, who is too old and dear, and my husband, who has had to worry for far too long. I have run out of options and I don't want to drink.

These are the times when I am most vulnerable. Having a drink is the only way of bringing me away from the horrendous feelings I am having about myself. It starts out as a glass or two of wine. It generally ends up with vodka. The alcohol is like an amnesiac, it is able to take me away from the darkness. Last night I was so afraid I was going to drink that I had them check me in here at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Today I am going to try the only thing left: electro-convulsive therapy.

Michael and I have reason to be anxious. His older brother, Stelian Panos Dukakis, had ECT back in 1951, in what I think of as the treatment's Dark Ages. Stelian had had a mental breakdown. One day he tossed a pile of sleeping pills in his mouth. They gave him ECT along with insulin coma treatments, which was a combination they often used at the time. Stelian never really was the same person. He had a zombielike look that melted the heart of everyone who knew and loved him.

Neither Michael nor I knew they still were doing electroconvulsive therapy before my doctors showed us a video on it three years ago and explained how the treatment had been transformed. We knew that if the time came again when we were desperate for a solution - some kind of positive action -- we would try it. That time is now. Yesterday they admitted me to the hospital under the name Jane Dee, a pseudonym they use as a courtesy to protect my privacy after my 12 years as first lady of Massachusetts and Michael's long campaign for president in 1988. Today, as I lie here waiting for my treatment, the image of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" flashes through my mind. Getting ECT will make me a full-fledged member of the mental health family. What am I doing?

I am the first patient of the morning. No one else is around. They clip to my finger a device that measures the oxygen in my blood. They stick a bunch of electrical leads on my legs, arms, and over my heart. The anesthesiologist comes over and says, "I'm going to give you a shot of sodium pentothal. You'll be asleep within seconds." I am lying down. He says to think of something bright and cheerful. I think about Michael and our anniversary.


It was the medical madness of an earlier era, a remedy forever equated with thrashing limbs and obliterated memories.

Now, at the same Harvard teaching hospital that Kitty Dukakis gets her treatment, 20 patients a week volunteer for shock therapy. All are tormented by depression too deep to defy or another disabling disease of the mind, and all, like Kitty, are counting on 20 volts of electricity to jolt their brains back into equilibrium. Muscle relaxant ensures that the only signal of their seizure will be a twitch of the toe; anesthesia guarantees they will not remember that paralysis or anything else leading to the convulsion. Scores more line up for similar sessions at two dozen other hospitals across the state. Even at nearby McLean, one of America's most exalted citadels of psychiatry, 50 patients a week are transfused with enough current to kindle a 60-watt bulb and, if the procedure is true to its well-established form, vanquish the demons of the moment.