A few weeks ago, I went to see Kitty Dukakis discuss her book, Shock, about how electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) saved and continues to save her from debilitating depression. For any young ones out there, she is the wife of former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, (1975 to 1979 and 1983 to 1991). He was the governor when I first came to Boston in 1983, so I feel a nostalgic connection to them both. I was devastated when his bid for the White House in 1988 went down in flames, and George Bush, elder, won. Of course, time and perspective are everything, and I would not consider Bush that bad a thing right now.
But that’s a different post.
I thought it would be interesting, but I wasn’t dying to attend. A friend invited me, and at the last-minute he got stuck at work and couldn’t go. He asked me to go anyway and tell him about it. I’d had a hectic day myself, and I was tempted to go home to a cocoon of wine and binge watching “Will and Grace” reruns. But I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I decided to go, even though I left with just enough time to get there at the start, if nothing went wrong with the train.
Like that strategy ever worked.
I got a seat on the train and checked my watch — there was a good possibility I’d make it, so I turned contentedly to my book and settled in. Not long after, however, the lack of movement started to seep into my peripheral consciousness. I looked up and could see we were stuck in between stops. I wasn’t worried yet, as I knew this line often stopped briefly.
“Attention passengers, we’re standing by because of traffic ahead.” Actually it sounded more like, “crackle, hiss, pop, crackle standing pop, hiss, crackle, traffic crackle, hiss, pop, crackle.” But I’m fairly fluent in Boston subway speak, so I got it that we weren’t moving anytime soon.
Crap. Deep breath. Maybe it wouldn’t be too long. But we continued to stand still, and with each minute ticking away, I added a minute onto my arrival time. I began to hear the siren call of wine and “Will and Grace” again. What’s the point of going if I’m going to miss half of it? I’d like to say that I put my big girl pants on and stayed the course. I did stay the course; however, it was more because waiting on the train was less work than figuring out how to get home from the line I was riding without having to backtrack or get out and walk to a different line.
Finally we lurched forward and moved along, and to my surprise, I was only 10 minutes late. Kitty was talking about her book, while I found a single seat in the filled up room. And in the next 50 minutes I was unexpectedly moved and inspired.
Kitty is turning 80 next month and he’s 84, but you’d never know it. In addition to writing two books and working on a third, she is also a tireless advocate for demystifying and destigmatizing ECT. She says most people equate it with electric shock in the 1975 movie, “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” While she doesn’t deny it was used indiscriminately back then, in the past 40 years, the treatment has been refined and targeted to the point where Kitty goes in every 5-6 weeks for a maintenance 15-minute treatment. She discovered the hard way that if she stops, her depression comes back just as deep and devastating as ever. She and Mike run an ECT support group in their home, and welcome people who have had ECT treatment and those who are thinking of having it. It’s usually a last resort for deep depression that won’t respond to other types of treatment.
Kitty’s passion for helping people navigate ECT came through clearly, and I was happy to see Michael there too. I had a moment of “it’s cool being in the same room with well-known people” feeling. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but I did not expect the amount of tenderness and respect that passed between them. She’d turn to him to help her find a word or remember a fact, and he did the same with her. They finished each other’s sentences. All this with the back drop of what they had both suffered, mostly in the public eye, due to her alcohol addiction. Before she received ECT, it was the only way she could blot out the depression. When he described coming home one day and finding her passed out from alcohol on the floor, I welled up. He said he was at heart an optimistic person and kept hoping each treatment they tried would be the one. She experienced this depression for 17 years. That is some kind of badass optimism.
He said that he is still an optimistic person, even now, in our current political climate. “We’ve been through worse, and we’ll get through this.” Hearing an elder politician who’s been around the block or two and is still so clearly committed to service to others made me believe he could be right.
And he is committed. He is just as passionate about ECT as Kitty. You could see how disturbed he was when he noted that 20 military vets commit suicide a day, many with depression. He and Kitty have been working with the VA to offer ECT as a treatment option, and they are very close to setting up a pilot in Massachusetts that they hope could be a model for the rest of the country. During Michael’s 1988 presidential campaign he was made fun of because he still had a 20-year old snowblower that he used himself, he took the train to work as governor, and to this day he can be spotted in his neighborhood picking up trash. These may have played some part in his failure to reach the White House, but from where I sat, they were hallmarks of a life lived with intention.
Being in their presence was very powerful: in their 80s, over coming alcoholism, depression, bitter political defeat. And still passionately working together to make things better for others, both one-on-one and on a bigger scale. Thank you to both of them for reminding me that we have been through worse, and we will get through this. And the way to do to it is head down, doing what you can small and large every day that makes a difference for someone. Some days you have to get off the delayed train to wine and Will and Grace. But when you can, it’s better to stay on the train and make use of where it leads you.
Visit Kitty’s educational ECT website to learn more.