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Choosing ECT

One of the reasons I write this blog is to share my experiences to battle stereotypes and stigmas regarding mental illness. My last post was on my experience in a psych ward but this time I want to tell you about why I went to the psych ward. It wasn’t just because I have a mental illness, was depressed and psychotic. It was because those symptoms were out of control. Traditional medications weren’t working. Alternative medicine wasn’t working. I was running out of options. I went to the inpatient psychiatric unit in preparation for another great stigma: electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

The last few months have been an immense struggle for me. Horribly depressed, I frequently thought about suicide but depression is generally something I can handle -- it’s the psychosis that brings me to my knees. Under the care of a psychiatrist we had tried new meds, old meds, and combinations of meds but still the depression worsened and the psychosis took over.

As days turned into weeks which became months I got worse instead of better. Desperation turned to terror as my mind continued to betray me. Finally, out of options, I turned to a last resort: ECT otherwise known as shock therapy. My psychiatrist first suggested it to me in the 90’s but I fought it. I feared the reported memory loss. I feared losing myself.

Several months ago, my primary care doctor joined my psychiatrist in recommending ECT after I sat in her office in tears and despair. ECT has come a long way since its inception. Boasting a 70-90% success rate, it is now considered by many professionals to be safer than medication. While memory loss is still a concern, the memories do seem to return in time. I found myself looking at it bluntly: what good are memories to a dead person? What would I remember if my mind was locked in a psychotic prison?

After living in a pit for more time than I could bare, I relented to trying ECT. What did I have to lose? I had been asked to resign from a job I loved. Hope had vanished, replaced by doubts that I would ever be able to work again. With large amounts of student loan debt, I didn’t know if I’d ever pay it off or even use the degree it paid for.

So, I elected to pursue ECT. I received my first treatment while still in the psychiatric ward at the hospital. The only word I have to describe it is brutal. I had researched it thoroughly. I knew the pros and the cons. I thought I knew what was involved with the procedure but I didn’t know the details of what it would be really like. The process was simple enough. After fasting all day, I was taken to the outpatient surgery center at the hospital. I was given a gown to wear and an IV was placed in my wrist. Consent forms were signed and after a time I was wheeled back to the surgical suite. I met the anesthesiologist and the procedure began. I had been warned the medicine they would be using would sting. I was not prepared for the burning sensation that ran up my side. They said I would be fine; I would be asleep soon. I was not asleep before the pain reached an agonizing level.

The procedure is quick, you’re given general anesthesia and a muscle relaxer and then a seizure is induced. What I wasn’t prepared for was waking up to a feeling of being suffocated. I won’t go into the medical reasons behind it. It had something to do with my lungs being overinflated to increase the effectiveness of the seizure. All I knew was I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t cry for help. I lay there, terrified -- likely for only seconds but it felt like an eternity. Once I was able to breathe I became aware of the pain in my jaw. As I was moved to recovery the nurse gave me juice and crackers. The juice was great after not having been able to eat all day but I couldn’t eat the crackers because of the pain; I couldn't chew food.

As I returned to the psychiatric unit, still unable to eat without pain I called my spouse and discovered an enlightening fact: my head seemed clearer. I could think and there were no voices. This was after the first treatment. As I write this, it is day two. I’m taking two different pain killers for the stiffness but there are no voices haranguing me and despite the lack of a job and a mountain of student loan debt I have hope for the future. I have nine more treatments ahead of me – three times per week for the next three weeks – and then a week or two of recovery. I’ll be honest, the pain is intimidating but many people undergo seizures without muscle relaxers and survive. The pain is temporary and when I’m having the next treatment and can’t breathe I’ll know it’s part of the process. I’ll go through it nine more times because it’s worth it.

I’m writing this now because the memory loss will begin as the treatments progress. For those of you without mental illness, ECT can seem monstrous but for those of us without hope, betrayed by our own minds, bruised and broken, ECT offers a chance for normalcy and after all I’ve been through, I”ll take that chance. If I can improve after one treatment I hope to be stabilized after 9. It will be a rough few weeks but, God willing, it will be worth it. See you in a month.

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