The Missing Past, the Unrememberable Present
This continued and increasing realization that I can no longer do things I used to be able to do gnaws at me constantly. My mental capacity isn’t getting better. My memory isn’t improving. Its as though when I elected to undergo ECT to relieve depression, I unknowingly (I know, Sally T, some of you told me) elected to change who I am, what I am capable of doing, and what contribution I can make to my family, my community and the world. I knew about the possibility of lasting memory loss. I didn’t understand that ECT would create a new “me.” ECT did improve my mental illness. At the point in my life at which I chose ECT, my options for a future were limited. And in my case, I had a family pleading with me to undergo ECT before I elected to leave them via suicide.
What if I had just, on my own, decided to undergo ECT, side effects be damned, without my family’s support and encouragement? A novel by Keith Ablow, “Murder Suicide”, poses an interesting philosophical question. In the story, there is a brilliant scientist who suffers from a seizure disorder manifesting itself at times when he pushes his brilliant mind the hardest (or maybe too hard). While he is a brilliant man, his own brain limits the usefulness of his mental capabilities, leaving him unable to fully tap into his intellect. He is contemplating undergoing elective and experimental surgery which would remove the part of his brain responsible for the seizures, leaving him to live a life free of this ailment and free to use his brilliance to its fullest. The surgery would, however, almost certainly leave him with a nearly complete amnesia, removing any memory of his former life or his family and friends (while, presumably, leaving his learned knowledge intact.) In the man’s journal, he asks the following question: (Those that I know personally, please understand that the book poses an interesting question, but I do not seek to abandon my life or my loved ones. The scenario is just so closely relatable to that of a person undergoing ECT, assuming the worst case side effects, that the philosophy is interesting. The facts specified in the passage below do not match my own situation.)
Does a [person] have the right to begin life anew? Is he the full owner of his existence, or is he merely a limited partner? Example: A woman is married 20 years with teenage children and a husband. A home. Pets. Photo albums and scrapbooks brimming with memories. What happens when this woman no longer feels any passion for a shared future with her husband and children? What if she feels non-existent?
Is she depressed? Does she need Zoloft? A higher dose? Or is it possible her life has carried her so far from her internal truth that she is, for all intents and purposes, a zombie – one of the living dead?
Is that woman within her rights – morally and ethically – to leave her home and friends, leave them so completely that she has no memory of them? Having brought her children into the world, does she owe them the rest of her life or is she free to celebrate the past and move on to create a new future without them [but congruent with her true destiny] ?
A person can be spiritually deceased, the carcass of his soul adrift inside a cage of skin and bone that has outlived him. What sort of mother or father, sister or brother, husband or wife would put his or her attachment to a shared past [with a loved one] above [the loved one’s] future, [forcing him or her to continue this soulless life of the living dead]?
True love would never exact such suffering.
If ECT could ease the suffering of depression and remove a patient from the verge of certain suicide, but with side effects of total memory loss: Ethically/morally/philosophically, where does a person’s (the “Patient”) right to begin life anew, free of the constant pain of depression, end? With respect to those sharing the Patient’s life, where do their rights to continuity begin? Consider the comparison between the “beginning life anew” scenario and one in which the Patient elects suicide instead. Does the Patient violate the rights of those sharing his life when he abandons all hope and commits suicide? Would suicide be easier for “those in one’s life” to handle, knowing that the Patient left life, as a whole, rather than abandoning the people in his life for a new life without suffering (and without them?) How does choosing amnesia for the sake of obtaining a life worth living (without depression) differ from just deciding to leave your old life behind and start another (for example, just moving to a different city and leaving your family and “life” behind)?