It wasn’t like the movies. ECT didn’t ‘fry my brain’ — it saved my life.
In October 2006, my doctors agreed that medications alone would not control my depression.
I was shivering in a hospital gown and fidgeting with the hospital bracelet that was sliding around the bones of my right wrist. I was a repeat offender, re-admitted to the inpatient psychiatric unit only a few days after I had spent 2 weeks there for a severe depressive episode.
After swallowing an entire bottle of my mood stabilizers that weren’t doing much stabilizing, I stayed in the intensive care unit for a few days, receiving intravenous (IV) fluids and kidney dialysis to help me through the overdose.
While I was there, listening to beeping heart monitors and feeling that cool IV juice flowing through my veins, I knew something had to change. I needed a treatment that would work quickly and dramatically so I could get back to my life.
I hoped I would never end up in that ICU bed again.
After being transferred back to the psych unit, I had to face a team of doctors who didn’t know how to help me anymore. My bipolar depression was so severe that the pills didn’t seem to work and I was too far gone to engage in any sort of meaningful psychotherapy.
I was a sociology major, but my depression made me flee from those gigantic lecture halls where I was supposed to be learning about Marx and Durkheim. My classmates all seemed so content and relaxed, scribbling things down in their notebooks and using their laptops to shop on Amazon while the professor was lecturing.
But for me, everything seemed hopeless. I worried I would never get my brain to work again, that it was entirely broken, and that no psychiatrist could glue the pieces back together again. I had no appetite and felt so slowed down that moving through the psych unit felt like wading through cement.
When the psychiatrists all told me they couldn’t come up with another medication for me to try, I got scared. I couldn’t get out of this alone and the very people who were supposed to help me had decided to just give up?
Luckily for me, the attending psychiatrist consulted the chairman of the department, who suggested I give serious consideration to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
I was apprehensive about the procedure, but not opposed. It sounded drastic, but then again so was my depression. I agreed with the doctors that something had to be done, and they agreed that, if ECT worked, it would work quickly.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) describes ECT as a procedure that uses electric currents to create a controlled seizure to affect the neurons and chemicals in the brain. When a person’s depression is so severe that antidepressants fail to work (or don’t work fast enough), ECT treatments can be an option.
ECT is considered a controversial treatment. In the past, this procedure used high doses of electricity and was done unethically, without anesthesia, and sometimes without consent. This image continues in pop culture depictions of ECT, with it commonly seen as a punitive process used to control patients in psychiatric hospitals — just think “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
It continues to be a debated treatment in medicine, despite radical improvements. There is a lack of proved theory regarding how or why the treatment should work. There’s also conflicting evidence about the benefits of the treatment, which may be impacted by past controversies and continuing negative narratives of the treatment.
But it’s approved and supported by many medical institutions, including the American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association, and the National Institute of Mental Health, with treatments seen to improve depression in 70 to 90 percent of people.
It’s common for anyone to be reluctant to hop onto a stretcher and let a psychiatrist alter one of the most important organs in the body: the brain. But what if nothing else is working and this really is your last choice?
They didn’t do ECT treatments at the hospital in Tucson, so an ambulance delivered me to another psychiatric hospital 2 hours away in Scottsdale, Arizona. My mom lived around there, so it seemed natural that, if I was going to go through something as serious as ECT, I should do it somewhere I had support.
The psychiatrist at this hospital was so troubled by my depression that he made sure a hospital worker stayed by my side at all times. Someone stayed sitting in the doorway of my hospital room while I slept, and they joined me for all my meals so I didn’t have the opportunity to hurt myself.
My first night at this hospital, the nurses showed me a video detailing the ECT process. I learned that, because I would be under anesthesia the whole time, I would not feel a thing. It would not be scary or painful or any of the things I had worried about.
There’s a lot of hype and controversy about ECT, but for me, it was like having any other medical procedure, like having your wisdom teeth or tonsils out. Actually, getting my wisdom teeth extracted was a lot more painful than any of my experiences with ECT.
Three times a week, a hospital worker grabbed my chart and walked me over to the ECT suite where the entire team was waiting for me.
I hopped onto a stretcher, while Dr. E, the psychiatrist, stuck electrodes to my head. A nurse helped me relax and the anesthesiologist put an IV in my vein, so he could administer the medication that would put me to sleep and relax my muscles so that I didn’t hurt myself during the treatment.
Dr. E explained he would be inducing a seizure that would reset those wayward chemicals in my brain. It was his hope that, with about eight treatments, I would feel more like myself again.
The first time was the hardest, because I didn’t know what to expect. But the panic of being put under dissipated after I acclimated to the procedure. I didn’t like the mask they put over my face during the procedure, because I felt like I was suffocating. Luckily, they were able to accommodate me and put the mask on only after I fell asleep.
ECT worked fast and it worked dramatically. It was that quick fix I needed to save my life at that time.
Through all the extremes of my depression, my mom was worried for my safety and my future. When she came to the hospital visiting hours after each successive treatment, she noticed an improvement in my behavior.
I was devouring the food that she brought me, as if I had never eaten before, and I was starting to get wrapped up in novels again.
I was itching to get back to my life, return to college, and catch up on doing all the things I missed out on when I was stuck in the inferno of depression.
The doctors were especially pleased with my recovery. I first came to them practically curled up in a ball, unable to eat or get out of my own head.
They didn’t know the real Elizabeth, but I did, and with each treatment, I got closer and closer to that person I so adored.
The side effects are different for everyone, but there are some commonalities, including confusion and nausea. A lot of people may experience memory loss, like I did. Mine wasn’t severe, but the events surrounding my hospitalization are sort of hazy.
For example, I vividly remember how scared I was when the anesthesiologist inserted my IV, but I don’t remember any of the nurses’ names or what they looked like.
When I woke up in the treatment room after my first ECT session, I was sobbing and disoriented. I didn’t know where I was until the hospital workers reminded me I had just finished my first ECT treatment and they were going to take me back to the psych unit so I could eat my lunch.
Slowly, I came to, and I was thrilled it was over and I had survived. I did have some throbbing headaches and jaw pain, but that was easily treated with some minor pain relievers, like paracetamol or ibuprofen.
All in all, it really wasn’t as bad as I had thought.
I did get depressed again a few months later. But this time, I knew what to do: I begged my psychiatrist for ECT and advocated for myself until I got it. For me, ECT works well and much faster than waiting around for mood stabilizers and other psychiatric medications to kick in.
People often ask me how I could let the doctors “fry my brain” like that. But my depression was so debilitating that I really didn’t have a choice. Of course, I don’t like being put under and waking up with a raging headache, but the sadness of depression is so much scarier. I know that my depression could kill me without modern treatments like medication and ECT.
It’s funny how just a little bit of electricity could set me back in the right direction. But that’s exactly what it’s done for me.
ECT is a debated treatment. It has a controversial history, and there’s a lack of proven theory regarding how or why the treatment should work.
It’s supported by many medical institutions, including the American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association, and the National Institute of Mental Health, with treatments seen to improve depression in 70 to 90 percent of people.
It can be a possible treatment option for severe depression, but it’s important to seek medical advice from professionals you trust. It’s often considered only as a last resort.
Medically reviewed on April 29, 2022
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