“Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly known as electroshock therapy, and often referred to as shock treatment, is a psychiatric treatment in which seizures are electrically induced in patients to provide relief from psychiatric illnesses” -Wikipedia
Basically, ECT is a treatment by which patients consent to have seizures intentionally triggered by electric shocks which are applied to the brain.
When you put it that way, it sounds barbaric and unnecessary. Why would someone consent to have electric currents put through their brain under general anesthetic and undergo seizures?
The desperation and intense suicidal ideation that can accompany treatment resistant depression can be unbearable and even fatal. Given the choice between suicide and ECT, some people choose ECT. I was one of those people.
In 2011, I was caught in the grips of one of the worst depressive episodes of my life. I was fighting off constant thoughts of suicide and severe self harm. I was having difficulty functioning in my day to day life. I had tried every medication known to human kind. I was truly desperate and ECT was a last resort, something I hadn’t tried and something I hoped would provide even brief respite from my suicidal depression.
Over the course of about 8 weeks I received 15 electroconvulsive treatments. This means I was put under general anesthetic 15 times and I had 15 seizures. Some were unilateral (one side of the brain) and some were bilateral (both sides shocked simultaneously). I received the treatment as an outpatient, twice a week, Monday and Friday mornings at a hospital near my home.
Each morning I would report to the inpatient psychiatry floor around 6:30AM. I would change into a hospital gown, remove my jewelry and be taken on a stretcher, by an orderly, down to the surgical area of the hospital. I would wait in the semi-darkness, dimmed light of the surgical recovery room. While in this room, nurses would place an IV into my hand so the necessary medications could be injected. I was hooked up to heart rate monitor and other monitors. There were usually 4-6 of us lying there, side by side, waiting our turn in the treatment room. As I would wait, I would see the previous person being wheeled out of the treatment room, unconscious. It was unsettling, as I knew my turn was coming soon.
The ECT room was a small procedure room attached to the surgical recovery room. It was just large enough for a stretcher, the medical professionals and the necessary equipment. It was bright and clinical.
Nurses and doctors began to work on me quickly. I had the impression of an assembly line, a schedule being kept, patient in, treatment given, next patient in and so on. My temples were wiped with alcohol swabs and electrodes attached. The anesthesiologist talked to me about the medications he was going to administer. A nurse would often hold my hand, there to keep me calm as everything was arranged. The medications were injected one by one through the IV. I could feel the cold fluid entering into the veins in my left hand. I would keep my eyes fixed on the clock, trying to remember the time as I went unconscious, to later compare to the time on the clock when I awoke. Sometimes I would lose no more than 15 minutes of time, the procedure was very quick.
I remember feeling afraid. The nurse asked me to count backwards. An oxygen mask was applied to my face and nose, ready to breath for me while I was unconscious. The medications worked quickly and then nothing. There was only one time of the 15 when I was aware of part of the process. The medications they injected to relax my muscles began to act before I was unconscious, I felt like I was suffocating. I couldn’t breathe and I started panicking. I literally couldn’t breathe, but I was awake. I could hear them talking and feel the next medication being injected and then nothing.
I would wake up 15 minutes later. Back in a different curtained bay of the recovery room. I could hear the nurses helping the other patients on either side of me, also recovering from ECT. This was the part of the treatments that I hated most. I had to stay in the recovery room for 30 minutes following the treatment, as they monitored my blood pressure and other vital signs. I felt trapped. I was hooked up to machines. I often had a sense of panic and wanting to flee, to leave, to be outside. Sometimes I would cry and I don’t think the nurses understood why. Eventually the Doctor would come, talk to me briefly and I would be released. The first time I could barely walk and the nurses wheeled me to the entrance to meet my family member. I was usually home by 9 am. The whole process taking 2-3 hours.
Usually I would stumble, drowsy and disoriented to the car. I would be driven home and I would go straight to bed. Usually I would sleep and rest for most of the day. I lost a lot of weight over those few weeks because I ate so little due to missing breakfast and then being nauseous from the medications. I also had severe headaches due to the shocks, and many side effects from the medications. I felt like a zombie. My short term memory was foggy as to the events during those 8 weeks. During that time, my grandmother passed away and the experience was surreal through the state of mind I was in. I have no memory of my own birthday that year, and few of my daughter’s.
In terms of long term side effects from the treatments, I found that the area of my brain which recalled the order of the months of the year and the seasons of the year were impacted. If someone asked me “What season comes before Fall?” I would feel confused and have to think very hard to answer “Summer” Similarly with the months of the year and the order of the holidays in the calendar.
Overall I don’t think I suffered any major memory loss. At the time I thought that the treatments helped my depression a little.
Sadly, I only realized about 9 months later that a large portion of my depression was situational, related to my abusive marriage. In the end, the treatment for my depression was to move away from him.
If I’d realized this sooner, I probably would not have endured ECT.
Looking back on the whole series of treatments, it feels unreal. It feels traumatic. It feels strange and difficult to process.
In what world does it make sense to further traumatize a traumatized brain? But desperation will make a person take desperate measures. I survived and that is what matters.