TAKING THE HORROR MOVIE OUT OF ELECTROCONVULSIVE ( or “shock” ) therapy
There’s a dimly lit room at the end of a dimly lit passage. Shadows move along the walls of the room as two figures bend over a bed. A gagged woman lies tied there. Her straightjacket gleams white against the leather of the straps pinning her down.
There is a big, monstrous machine next to the bed. Electrodes connect her brain to the beast.
( cue Chopin’s piano sonata nr 2 “funeral march” )
A low, gutteral inhuman sound comes from her throat as the big black machine next to her is switched on.
Someone quickly closes the door and the screen fades to black…but not before her body is seen lifting off the bed in one big convulsion…
OK PEOPLE. You can wake up now.
What you just read is not the truth about ECT. It is a scene from a horror movie. Which modern-day “shock therapy” is NOT!
I received ECT as treatment for Post-Natal Depression two years ago. It literally saved my life.
At the time I was barely functioning. ( not eating, not getting dressed, unable to read or have a conversation, unwilling to get out of bed, unwilling and unable to take care of myself, much less my son who was 2 years old at the time. Also, I had almost no short-term memory.)
I had suffered from Major Depression all my life. I had been on different treatments on and off for the almost 20 years. ( starting at the age of 18 )
I had 4 unsuccessful suicide attempts behind me. I was “self medicating” with pain killers and alcohol right through my twenties and early 30’s.
And then my mom passed away suddenly in my 4th month of pregnancy. She would never meet her first grandchild.
All of these things caused chemical chaos in my brain.
“I couldn’t be with people and I didn’t want to be alone. Suddenly my perspective whooshed and I was far out in space, watching the world. I could see millions and millions of people, all slotted into their lives; then I could see me—I’d lost my place in the universe. It had closed up and there was nowhere for me to be. I was more lost than I had known it was possible for any human being to be.”
― Marian Keyes, Anybody Out There?
Incorrectly treated depression for such a long period of time causes the brain to eventually “shut down”. The nerve endings literally stop firing .
“It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
Researchers have noted differences in the brains of people who are depressed as compared to people who are not. For instance, the hippocampus, a small part of the brain that is vital to the storage of memories, appears to be smaller in people with a history of depression than in those who’ve never been depressed. A smaller hippocampus has fewer serotonin receptors. Serotonin is a calming brain chemical known as a neurotransmitter that allows communication between nerves in the brain and the body.
And this is where ECT comes into the picture.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a procedure in which electric currents are passed through the brain, deliberately triggering a brief seizure which “wakes up” the nerve endings. Electroconvulsive therapy seems to cause changes in brain chemistry that can immediately reverse symptoms of certain mental illnesses. It often works when other treatments are unsuccessful.
I had 6 treatments over 15 days.
Electrodes were attached to certain areas on my scalp and I received just enough anesthetic to be “lights out”( ! ) for more or less 5 minutes.
I felt no pain and had no memory afterwards of the seizure induced.
When I woke up I my head felt “hot” and I was slightly nauseous. These feelings passed within minutes and I could go home straight afterwards.
No big deal.
Am I “cured”?
I will have to be on medication for the rest of my life.
I have to be careful with things like flu meds and especially with pain killers which affect my mood negatively.
But I’m happy, motivated, energized and completely in awe of my family and how far we’ve come.
I do have “down” times or rather “down moments”, but they don’t overwhelm me and they don’t keep me in bed!
I hope this post debunks some of the myths around ECT and mental disorders.
I finish off with this excellent observation by Andrew Solomon. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
“Since I am writing a book about depression, I am often asked in social situations to describe my own experiences, and I usually end by saying that I am on medication.
“Still?” people ask. “But you seem fine!” To which I invariably reply that I seem fine because I am fine, and that I am fine in part because of medication.
“So how long do you expect to go on taking this stuff?” people ask. When I say that I will be on medication indefinitely, people who have dealt calmly and sympathetically with the news of suicide attempts, catatonia, missed years of work, significant loss of body weight, and so on stare at me with alarm.
“But it’s really bad to be on medicine that way,” they say. “Surely now you are strong enough to be able to phase out some of these drugs!” If you say to them that this is like phasing the carburetor out of your car or the buttresses out of Notre Dame, they laugh.
“So maybe you’ll stay on a really low maintenance dose?” They ask. You explain that the level of medication you take was chosen because it normalizes the systems that can go haywire, and that a low dose of medication would be like removing half of your carburetor. You add that you have experienced almost no side effects from the medication you are taking, and that there is no evidence of negative effects of long-term medication. You say that you really don’t want to get sick again. But wellness is still, in this area, associated not with achieving control of your problem, but with discontinuation of medication.
“Well, I sure hope you get off it sometime soon,” they say. ”
― Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression