Disclaimer: So clearly I’m not an expert on ECT. I’m just one person who did it, and have some opinions on it. Take it or leave it. Also, this is a long-ass post. Feel free to skim or ignore.
Ok, I know it’s not a well-known procedure but wow, you’d think with all the mental illness coverage in the news, people would fucking … nevermind. why actually know what you’re talking about before you judge it? where’s the fun in that? it’s almost become “unamerican” now to not judge a book by its’ cover. ECT gets such a bad rap – and it’s so uncommon. If people were dying left and right, I could see why people are so terrified, but the disgust people show when I mention it, it’s just so unfounded, uneducated and rude.
There’s a long, not always glowing, history behind electroconvulsive therapy. It started basically as a way to completely erase people’s minds, and was used as torture starting in the 50’s. (I’m not a historian and too lazy to look up dates, so consider this a generalization.) However, like most cutting edge science, it takes time to figure out the best way to administer a treatment. How many vaccines killed people before they figured out the right antidote? How many procedures of the heart, lungs, pancreas failed miserably before they could do transplants, remove polyps? How many people still die today due to unforeseen complications? Any time you have a procedure, there’s risk. ECT is not terribly higher than other procedures – I think that’s just a misconception.
And as we mentally ill know, scientists are still way behind when it comes to the brain. They study the shit out of it, and come to a lot of theories, but it’s still such a complicated piece of machinery and no one quite knows how it works. After all, what makes me bipolar II and someone not? Why do some medications work on some people and others with the same illness have no relief? Just like each one us, the study and research behind medical advancements in mental health take time, missteps, trials, and perseverance. Ok, I’ll step off the soap box now.
So why did I choose to get ECT? Let me tell you, it wasn’t at the top of the list. I had been on medication since I graduated college. I went through the alphabet of drugs – since there’s no real “test” to know what illness you have, doctors generally give you meds until one works and then treat the other symptoms and side effects with other meds. For a while there, I couldn’t even keep track of the drugs I had taken. At this point, most drugs sound familiar. I hated my psychiatrist in DC, but I was too depressed to change. Besides, nothing was working and it gave me someone to blame besides the illness which felt like a part of me, which I already blamed enough. Needless to say, I’m shocked I lasted as long as I did before my breakdown.
By the time I moved back home to California, I was a mess. I didn’t have good weeks – I barely had good days. And I was going to be turning 30, only I decided that I wouldn’t. At the time, I had found a psychiatrist who was amazing – even though the medications weren’t working, she was thoughtful, and went above and beyond to think of ways to help. But I think at a certain point, we felt like we were out of options. I had tried medications and DBT and therapy, and nothing seemed to work. I was getting worse and my birthday was approaching. She had actually done her residency with a doctor who studies and performs ECT and brought it up.
I didn’t really know very much about it, besides “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I read “Shock” by Kitty Dukakis and I sat down and thought about it:
- There is a tiny chance of death, like most surgeries anesthetic complications, etc. But I was planning on killing myself so if this was the worst case scenario, what me worry?
- It could effect my short-term memory. I had completely destroyed my life – why would I worry about forgetting if I had gone to the store or not? Besides, I’ve been an airhead since I was born.
- I could have headaches after the procedure and possible body aches. Well, my depression was giving me severe migraines, and at the time, any pain felt deserved.
- ECT is still viewed as “freakish” and “horrific” in society. Yeah, well so was my life.
Now maybe I got lucky, and maybe my memory is fuzzy, but when I think back to my time doing ECT, I have great memories of a calm, positive time in my life. My doctor was a genius. Plus, he had this amazing combination of being serious and then cracking a dry joke out of nowhere. The nurses never looked at me like I was a beaten puppy. They asked difficult questions but there was no judgement in their eyes. I have shitty veins, so I do think when they saw me, they probably played rock, paper, scissors to find my vein, but they knew my name, smiled, and I developed a pattern that they all knew. My anesthesiologist – I wanted to adopt him as my uncle. Turns out my family actually knew him, but I didn’t remember him. He was this sweet, cuddly man who was light-hearted, but confident. I just trusted him completely.
So every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, my mother would wake me quite early in the morning and drive all the way into the city. (Yes, she received her 8th sainthood medal at this time.) She would sit in the waiting room but she loved it (unless she lied to me to make me feel less guilty but I choose not to dwell on that) – she got to drink coffee and read her library books which she generally never got around to when she was at home. Meanwhile, I changed into my robe and the doctor came by and put my tres fashionable stickers on my head, chest and foot.
They’d wheel me to a room and I would see the post-op nurses and we’d exchange jokes and pleasantries. Everyone on the medical team had this ongoing joke with me. Well, they thought it was hilarious – I smiled because hey, these people had my life in their hands so whatever they want, they get. So when I first saw my doctor, he asked for my allergies. I was nervous and when I get nervous I tell the truth – but like way too much truth. So I mentioned that I was allergic to eggplant. Clearly this is not a problem in a surgery situation but every time I wheeled into the room, there it was – Allergies: latex, codeine, eggplant.
They gave my fentanyl, which honestly, is the best drug I have ever had. If you could have a crush on a drug, it would be fentanyl. Anyway, they check all your vitals, and stick all the cords into your head and chest, etc. I can’t imagine how awesome I looked. In the past with ECT, one of the problems was that they gave the seizure and people’s bodies would obviously seize as well. Hence, biting their tongue or hurting themselves accidentally and having major muscle aches afterwards. I don’t know how they do it, because doctors are magical beings, but they have now figured out how to temporarily paralyze the body except for the right big toe. When they are attempting to find the right level to engage the seizure, the big toe moves and they know from that and the screen that the seizure is occurring.
Now I’m one of those people who overcompensate my fear when in front of others so I was always making jokes and teasing. But I was always scared that they would start the procedure before I was fully asleep. Totally irrational but scared every time. I told the nurse the first week I was there to promise not to start until I was out. She promised me and took my hand. From then on, every time I went in, she held my hand as I counted backwards. Evidently, the procedure only takes 15 minutes. Pre-op and post-op are what take so frickin’ long.
I was friends with the post-op crew – they knew what I liked after and how to help when I had the occasional headache. They would let my mom come in and visit me, which was actually the hardest part just because – I can’t really describe her face. I imagine it’s frightening to have your daughter have “surgery” three days a week for months on end. And while I was feeling better, she also saw my memory slip a bit, my headaches, and I’m her baby – I just felt like I saw all that on her face, all tied up in an attempt to look brave and happy.
I’d usually go home and take a nap until the meds wore off. I couldn’t drive, but as I started to feel better, I would sit in the car while my mom ran errands. I started to have dinner with my family, until I remembered that meant eating with my father. I started taking the dog on walks. I called my friends.
I had found my cure and I didn’t care about the side effects. I didn’t want to die anymore, and the deep pain had passed. I was high on hope and it was awesome. The more I did it, the more I did notice my cognitive skills slipping a bit. I would ask my mom a question and then ask again five minutes later. We assumed it was ECT and made tons of jokes, but honestly, I still do that sometimes now – like I said, born airhead. I guess I started to feel cured. I was ready to get my life back. I wasn’t in therapy or on meds but I started to look for jobs. I had to stay in California – if I could have had a leash, I think my mother would have bought one. I had scared the shit out of them, and I think they had more trepidation than I did. I don’t think I was numb, but I definitely wasn’t how I am now.
I thought it was my new normal, I felt lighter, calmer. I got the job, and it was two hours away. Once I got there, I started to feel like shit again. So I started trying to go home every other week for a treatment. That was when I noticed I would come back to my job and I didn’t feel better. I just started to feel worse. I also couldn’t remember where I had saved documents.
I called my doctor in a panic – I was slipping again. We tried more treatments and then he and my psychiatrist gave me the news. See, ECT is really good for schizophrenia, major depression, and bipolar I. And I had always been diagnosed as having major depression. But bipolar II, which I had never heard of, had a caveat with ECT. It would work the first time, but once you stopped, if you went back, it wouldn’t work. In fact, it wasn’t until then that we knew I had bipolar II, which in the end was a blessing because it explained why my meds weren’t working and I probably wouldn’t have found the cocktail I have today.
But at the time, I was devastated. My safety net was gone. I couldn’t remember shit. I hated my job. I was back to my self-harming ways. I kicked ass at my job but I went home and just laid in bed under my covers. I avoided all my friends and left really vague texts with my mom. I finished the event I had been planning and then started to miss work. It was Washington, DC all over again. I quit my job, came home, and then spent another two years in bed, trying to find the right medication mix before I decided to stop trying.
The rest is history and irrelevant.When I speak to people about ECT, I talk about it with joy and hope. While it wasn’t the right fit for me, I saw it change people’s lives, and for a bit there, it saved me from myself. ECT is not a cure-all. It will not fix you completely. You will still need to supplement it with medication, therapy, exercise, the whole song and dance for mental health quality. But for those of you who have tried and just can’t get up anymore. For those of you who are just hurting everywhere and it feels like it pulsates from every pore of your body, I think it should be something to seriously look into.
They are constantly improving, understanding the brain more and more and making the treatment faster, more effective, and with less side effects. They are researching the shit out of it and kicking ass and taking names.
II know this sounds weird, but I miss those days. Between the depression and the ECT, I really don’t remember most of the last decade – but most of the memories were shitty, and the good ones my friends and family tell me about. I am happy with my current set-up of medication, therapy, and besides this insomnia, keeping my body healthy. I have bad days and I go to the gym when I don’t want to, and I deal with the side effects of my meds, and I push past my anxiety as much as I can to take steps towards finding myself. And it doesn’t feel quite as good, but it feels real. Not having clinical depression, it’s like redefining a life I never knew I could have. It certainly isn’t perfect, but there is some hope, some laughter, and hopefully a future.
I see so many people in pain, who could be freed from their agony. i see people taking medications with such severe side effects and I just think – if only they would try. While ECT stopped working for me, it was a blessing, not only while I was doing it, but because it helped us see that I actually was bipolar II, change my medications, and now I feel so much better.
I truly believe I would not be where I am today without the ECT. I would not have survived to be able to fight today, tomorrow, and hopefully into the future. So yeah, I’m e.c.teed_off and proud of it.