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Politics

The Shocking Story of Kitty Dukakis’ Recovery from Alcoholism, Depression

January 4, 2017

BROOKLINE, Mass. — Her husband lost the 1988 Presidential election but Kitty Dukakis lost more, falling into a depression and alcoholic haze that wasn’t lifted until she found electroshock therapy.

“An alcoholic can contain himself for only so long,” Mrs. Dukakis would later write. “When a crisis hits, the restraints snap.”

In a detailed feature, the New York Times wrote about how the episode changed her life – saved it, really – and led her to champion a technique widely poo-poohed after the film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest made it seem like quack therapy and was widely discredited.

She was undeterred, believing it was the antidote to what led her into depression and the bottle, a common secret among those who knew her and even some in the media who had long known Kitty and her husband, Michael, the former Massachusetts Governor who looked like he would be the first Greek-American President before his campaign against George H.W. Bush – father of another President later, George W. Bush – spectacularly unraveled.

Her husband has a reputation for being unflappable and rock-steady but she wasn’t, and his loss and other factors drove her to dive into booze in search of relief and answers, but finding neither.

Her drinking masked a long-smoldering depression that eventually led her to receive electroconvulsive therapy, also known as electroshock therapy or ECT, the Times reported.

It took her 13 years, until 2001 at age 64, to turn to the shock. She said she was surprised it helped.

After the first treatment, Mrs. Dukakis wrote, “I felt alive,” as if a cloud had lifted — so much so that when her husband picked her up at Massachusetts General Hospital, she astonished him by proposing that they go out to dinner.

“I was so shocked I almost drove off Storrow Drive,” he told the paper.“I had left this wife of mine at the hospital a basket case just the night before.”

If the results were instantaneous they need refreshing and she still undergoes them but she said she felt such joy at overcoming her ailments that she has taken to telling everyone and to extol ECT as a treatment some should seek.

Doubters, and cynics, persist and there are few in her corner, although the late Carrie Fisher tried it and so did talk show host Dick Cavett, who both said their results were positive.

Mrs. Dukakis, 80, still receives maintenance treatment every seven or eight weeks. She said that she had minor memory lapses but that the treatment had banished her demons and that she no longer drank, smoked or took antidepressants.

She went public with her use of electroshock in 2006 in her book, Shock: The Healing Power of Electroconvulsive Therapy, which she wrote with the journalist and former Boston Globe Staff Writer Larry Tye.

Michael Dukakis, 83, still teaches full-time at Boston’s Northeastern University but when they have time the famous couple promote ECT, including holding support groups at their home just outside Boston, manage a website, ecttreatment.org; and answer inquiries from people seeking guidance.

They have tried to convince the Department of Veterans Affairs to make the procedure more accessible. Mrs. Dukakis also gives speeches around the country and abroad.“I have lots to be grateful for,” she said. “And lots to look forward to.”

THE DRINKING LIFE

Alcohol is a potent and insidious demon, one which too many who have lost the battle with thought they could control.

During the 1988 campaign, Mrs. Dukakis said, she generally limited herself to one shot of vodka at night, although she got so drunk a couple of times she cancelled appearance.

When her husband was thumped bad, she took it worse and went so deep into liquor that she spent years trying to recover and had to overcome depression at the same time as the two fed off each other and ate her up, even as she went into rehabilitation.

In the mornings, she would see her husband off to work, then drink, retreat to her room and pass out. Her family sometimes found her passed out in her vomit.

“Once I came home and couldn’t find her,” Mr. Dukakis recalled. “I finally went up to the third floor, and I saw what I thought was a bunch of rags on the floor. It was my wife. This beautiful …” His voice broke off. “Jesus,” he said.

They had heard about ECT but were skeptical. Michael Dukakis’ brother, Stelian, had had an ECT session in 1951 and was never the same.

Her sister’s husband also had ECT therapy in the 1950s but had kept it secret. When he learned that Mrs. Dukakis was considering it, he told her that he had had a positive outcome; he lost some memory, but his psychosis was gone.

THE MYSTERY

No one knows exactly how electroshock eases depression, if only temporarily, in many people. It sends an electrical current to the brain that triggers a brief seizure. The result is like rebooting a computer, say those who have had positive results.

The Times wrote how shock therapy was developed in 1938 when patients weren’t given anesthesia and the voltage was stronger.

By the 1960s it was almost in vogue, drawing such high-level personalities as the suicidal poet Sylvia Plath Senator Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri, the 1972 Democratic vice-presidential candidate, who was booted off the ticket when his treatment was made public.

Critics say proponents deliberately minimize the dangers — starting with their use of sanitizing nomenclature like ECT and that it can cause severe memory problems and be an irrecoverable shock to the system, a jarring jolt and cause brain damage, which is in dispute.

Jonathan Cott, a writer and editor, wrote in his 2005 book, On the Sea of Memory: A Journey From Forgetting to Remembering, that his shock therapy had wiped out 15 years of memories, including of his own books and friends in his address book.

“The pact with the devil that is ECT,” he wrote, “requires that one trade certain memory loss (short-term, long-term or both), possible brain damage and cognitive dysfunction for the temporary relief of depression.”

Despite its negative image, ECT has remained the go-to option for severely depressed people who do not respond well to antidepressants or other treatments. It is usually fast acting, which can mean the difference between life and death in patients who are suicidal.

“Public awareness of the use of ECT has waxed and waned, but in medical practice, we have continuously used it,” Dr. Sarah Lisanby, a specialist in ECT at the National Institute of Mental Health told The Times.

In the old days, patients convulsed during therapy sessions, sometimes so violently that they broke their bones or teeth. Today, with anesthesia and muscle relaxants, such reactions are rare.

“ECT is the single most efficacious treatment that we have and the treatment of choice if you absolutely had to get someone out of a severe depression within a day or two,” said Steven D. Hollon, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, who has studied the treatment of depression.

But, he added, electroconvulsive therapy can potentially cause serious side effects, most notably long-term memory problems, some of which are temporary. Even patients whose depression goes into remission almost always need maintenance treatment, with ECT, antidepressants or both.

Mrs. Dukakis receives her maintenance therapy at McLean Hospital in suburban Boston, one of the world’s largest and most renowned psychiatric hospitals. McLean does about 10,000 such treatments a year, up from 2,500 treatments in 1999, Dr. Stephen Seiner, McLean’s Director of ECT, said. Each patient generally receives eight to 20 treatments.

For most patients,” said Mrs. Dukakis’s psychiatrist, Dr. Charles Welch, “depression is a chronic and recurring illness that requires good lifetime management.”

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