KITTY DUKAKIS HAS LIFESAVING NEWS ABOUT DEPRESSION National Perspective — September 21, 2006 08:00 PM EST — You haven’t heard from Kitty Dukakis for a long time. Not that she’s disappeared. The wife of the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee has been toiling quietly, doing good works, helping to resettle refugees and to rekindle the American conscience. But Mrs. Dukakis is being quiet no longer, and she has something to tell us all.

It’s not that she suffers from depression. A lot of people already knew that, were aware of it for decades, and Mrs. Dukakis herself long has admitted to resorting to pills, and to alcohol, even to nail polish remover and hair spray, to soften her hurt and to get through the day, and then to get through the night. For during the day, even during the good days, there were parts of her life that were a nightmare.

The thing she has to tell us is that she’s found some comfort — not in amphetamines (which she took for two decades, hiding her desperation even from her husband), nor from rubbing alcohol, nor even from more conventional spirits — and has found her voice. She’s aiming to take the stigma away from depression and from its treatments.

The comfort comes from electroconvulsive therapy, a once-dreaded procedure that involves applying a very brief burst of electric stimulus to the brain. This therapy has been around for more than six decades, and so has the concern about short- and medium-term memory loss — so much so that the National Mental Health Association characterizes ECT, as it is often called, as “the most controversial psychiatric treatment.”

But today, because of modern anesthesia techniques, ECT is far more conventional and effective. “This is a procedure that can change people’s lives,” says Paul J. Friday, a clinical psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. It wasn’t always that way, of course. Early movies showed grim, unruly psychiatric patients in holding cells enduring a treatment that was just short of torture. “Where we are right now is very scientifically driven, much more appropriate,” says Dr. Friday, “and I have several patients who without it would probably have committed suicide.”

Mrs. Dukakis now feels better, so very much better, and she’s become something of a campaigner for the benefits of ECT and a warrior against stubborn stereotypes about depression. For Mrs. Dukakis, who joined her husband Michael on four gubernatorial campaigns and one presidential campaign, this is the last, best campaign.

And maybe the most important. This campaign includes television appearances, a book (written with Larry Tye and carrying the title “Shock”) and an evangelical zeal. And, Kitty being Kitty — a harmless phrase today, but one that once meant waves of trepidation for her family and for aides in the Massachusetts State House and on the campaign plane — there are anecdotes galore.

Here’s one she likes: “The other day I was having my nails done. A woman came up to me whom I had seen in town many, many times. She heard I had a book coming out. When she left, another woman sidled up to me, whispering, saying that her son had depression and was reluctant to tell anybody. That kind of summarizes what goes on. There is such a stigma. My effort is to destigmatize it. I remember ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ We have to get away from that.”

Mrs. Dukakis first became aware of depression in 1982, when her husband was trying to retake the governor’s office. He had lost in a humiliating primary defeat to the late Edward J. King in 1978 — an event Mrs. Dukakis so regularly referred to as “a public death” that the phrase has become inextricably linked to the episode. She stopped taking diet pills in the middle of that campaign, still regarded as one of the most bruising in the state’s history, and fell into depression.

“I went through cycles,” she says. “Anti-depressants didn’t work, or worked for a very short period of time, and toward the end of the cycles I would start to drink, I was so desperate. There was a deep, dark hole.”

She lived in that dark hole for years, though not, remarkably, during the 1988 presidential campaign, when Gov. Dukakis emerged from the Democratic field, received his party’s nomination at a triumphant convention in Atlanta, and approached the general election with a big lead over Vice President George H.W. Bush.

“The excitement of the campaign and the learning of the campaign were enough of a stimulus to hold me off,” she says. “Then there was a letdown. But my depression was not based on some reality in my life, like losing the campaign. I was exhausted, of course, and disappointed, but I would have been depressed anyway. It would have come every eight or nine months, because it always did.”

Katharine Dickson Dukakis, who is approaching her 70th birthday, was one of the founders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has been active in refugee affairs and has been deeply involved in efforts with Armenian Americans to cast light on the horrors of genocide. But her legacy may be the forthrightness with which she has attacked depression and shared her experiences.

“I noticed that when I started telling people, they would look at me and be horribly uncomfortable,” she says. “But I tell people I have — had — a mental-health problem that was very serious, that my life wasn’t worth living, just wasn’t, it was so horrible. I don’t want to talk about this in whispers. It is painful enough to go through depression and then to be embarrassed or reluctant to ever say anything to anybody when you are feeling better.”

Re-read that paragraph, and I guarantee one phrase will stick out, the one about having a life that wasn’t worth living. Mrs. Dukakis has disproved that, and, Republican or Democrat, we’re the beneficiaries.



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