Bliss and the Memory Machine

Updated: February 16, 2013


They don’t knock. They’re just there, inside your room, without warning. And they don’t say much. They don’t have to. The needle is in your arm before you know they’re in the room, and then there’s not a damn thing you can do.


You’re on the gurney, rolling down the long hallway toward ECT, toward the Room, the Place, the Buzz Shop, the Electric Chair, the Box, the Gizmo, the Memory Machine. More names rise in your brain to protest where they’re taking you, but on they take you, the gurney wheels rolling, the anaesthetic flowing, the fog descending, and you think Holy Hammerin’ Hank, what the balk? But there’s nothing to do, the ship has sailed, the train is rolling down the line, the flaps are down and the wheels are up, and we have lift off.

Electro-Convulsive Therapy


Into the wild blue younder you go, leaving it all behind—the earth, the hospital, the gurney, even your body, all abandoned as you sail off into … what?


You don’t know. You don’t remember. From the moment the sweet bliss of anaesthesia reaches your blood stream to the groggy bumble of recovery, you have no memory.


What did you think about? they ask after the therapy. Did you see any images? Was it like a dream?


And you tell them. It was one big nothing. No feelings, no thoughts, no dreams. You can’t even tell them what the inside of the ECT room looks like. 


You have no memory.



Ah, they say, disappointed, and they make a note on their pads. What you don’t tell them, what they will never understand, is how warm it felt, how soft and comfortable, and how liberating that big nothing is. 


Like those delicious childhood dreams of falling, in slow motion, gently downward, light headed, drifting, like floating in a pool of warm water, like …


It’s the end of the journey that jolts you, train stuttering into the station, ship bumping the dock. That hurts. Your eyes burn, your muscles ache, and with the first wave of consciousness comes memory. Mother of Mantle, that’s what hurts! 


But wait. Fragments return. Pieces of memories, nothing whole, nothing to hang your cap on. You remember where you are—the Recovery Room—been there many times, a couple doors down from the Electro-Convulsive Therapy Room. The good ol’ ECT, with its wires and electrodes, its sound-proof walls and its Shock Box, the Gizmo, the Doohickey, the memorable Memory Machine. Holy electricity!The Memory Machine


Strange we should call it that, he thinks, the Memory Machine, since it erases memory, not restores it. But erasure is what you want. Erasure is the best pain medicine ever invented. Erasure is the only way out.


You have no memory. So you are free. Of pain, of doubt, of guilt, of regret. As well as free of desire and yearning and expectation. Free just to lie on the gurney and stare at the ceiling and not be bored or anxious or angry. Free not to be. As good as death itself, the Great Liberator, only better! Because you can experience it. You can taste it (a slight metallic taste under the tongue) and smell it (something singed) and hear its echoes (a faint buzzing in the distance). You can see the world, though you can’t focus. You can hear them talking to you, though you don’t understand a word they’re saying. You are thinking, but you can’t remember about what, and you’re free, though you can’t move.


Alive, that’s about all you are, just alive—and that’s enough.


Holy Sufferin’ Shoeless Joe! Freedom from pain is bliss. You smile a smile of the demented when they talk to you, and they assume you understand. But you don’t care. You. Don’t. Care. How big, how unspeakably HUGE, that is.


And then you sleep.


When you wake, they will tell you about your therapy. How many milliamps, how many watts, and how the brief-pulse current they now use has none of the dangers of earlier practices. They’ll give you the figures of how many successful treatments they’ve administered, and they’ll explain the headaches and sore muscles (consequences of the muscle-relaxing drugs and anaesthesia) and how your memory will slowly return over the next weeks. What they will not do is explain how electroconvulsive therapy works. They don’t know. They just know it does. Sometimes.


And then you sleep a whole lot more.


Each time you awaken, another fragment of memory slips back into place. And with it, the pain or doubt or anxiety that accompanies what we know about ourselves. Why is there no joy in these returning memories? Why is happiness so hard to remember, and pain so damnably easy? 


They don’t know.


Day by day, fragment by fragment, like some galaxy-sized jigsaw puzzle of your life, the pieces reassemble themselves, and you are put back together again. The first thing you do each time you waken from another nap or sleep is wonder: What do I remember now? And with each recovered memory you wish you could return to the bliss of memorylessness.


In a week, you feel almost whole again, almost your old self. Less angry, less depressed, but no less unhappy at still being stuck inside this institution. Take a walk, they say, it’ll do you good. But outside you feel even less comfortable, more unhappy. The blue expanse of sky makes you feel lost. The mountains in the distance remind you of something you don’t want to remember. The sound of birds is irritating. The smell of sage and lavender triggers nausea. So you return to the comparative sterility inside the hospital. And yearn for the great white emptiness. The fog of no memory.


You awaken one morning during the second week after your shock therapy and remember you hid a treasure, a secret, in the pillow you’ve been sleeping on. You hold the pillow close to you, afraid to open it, afraid to discover that they’ve discovered your secret. So you save it, save the secret, whatever it is, for some time when you will really need it.


You know it’s coming. It always comes back. And you coddle the pillow like a child. Your salvation.


And then, in the middle of a perfectly normal day, a day of routines like any other day, you walk into the TV Room in the afternoon to find someone has left the television on. There are men on tv, in uniforms, running and standing and running again. And then you see it, and the moment you see it you remember. A tidal wave of memory sweeps you away. You drown in the past, in all you’ve lost, in all you now remember.


What you see is one man tossing a ball to another man.Someone left the tv on.


It’s baseball you’ve lost! It’s baseball you’ve saved for your recovery. But in the pillow? How do you get baseball into a pillow? One way to find out. 


You sprint—as much as a sixty-year old man can—back to your room to reveal the hidden secret. You’re happy for the first time since … since, well, you can’t remember. You’re looking forward to something. You hold it, the pillow, in your arms. With one hand, you reach inside, fumble about, until feel something, that something, the big IT.


And in a flash you remember what you hid away for yourself. You remember the secret. You remember! And you grin a grin that would make the Say Hey Kid proud.


You have recovered the secret to surviving this place, the reason you keep on keeping on, and you are back to the beginning.


In the beginning was baseball …