“I’m just beginning to see, now I’m on my way.”- The Moody Blues
Merriam-Webster offers several definitions of the word “shock.” Two, in particular, stand out to me: 1) “a sudden or violent mental or emotional disturbance/something that causes such disturbance, and 2) sudden stimulation of the nerves and convulsive contraction of the muscles caused by the discharge of electricity through the animal body
For many people, including myself, it came as a shock when, in 2006, I allowed myself to be shocked in the name of my sanity.
The public image of shock, more accurately referred to as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), largely comes from the 1975 movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Jack Nicholson as McMurphy, strapped down, with a rubber stopper in between his teeth, body thrashing about in convulsions as a doctor stimulates the electrodes on his forehead. That one scene pretty much set the negative opinion most people have on ECT- that it’s scary and barbaric. Who would willingly submit to such a treatment?
I did. I was 32 years old, in the midst of the worst depressive breakdown of my life. I existed in a continuous state of anxiety and dread that no dose of tranquilizers could abate. Uninterested in food, unable to sleep, constantly shaking, and wishing I could slip into an endless sleep, I willingly entered a long-term psychiatric facility. It was there that one of the doctors brought up the possibility of ECT. My initial reaction was fear, based on what I’d seen on tv. But as the doctor explained it to me, using an educational video, my fear lessened. At that point, I felt so desperate to escape the torment in my mind that running an electric current through my brain didn’t seem like such a crazy idea after all. And besides, I’d be under anesthesia during the procedure, able to find some internal quiet, at least for the fifteen or so minutes it took.
My family took some convincing, but they consented. And so my ECT began. Before breakfast, a staff member walked me through the geriatric ward of the hospital, leading me to the ECT suite. I had to take off my glasses (no contact lenses allowed under anesthesia) and any jewelry and place them in a paper bag that had my name on it. The waiting area had a row of around four stretchers, and I got onto a stretcher with my bag was placed beneath it. This is when shit got real- no turning back- and I felt anxiety build about what I was about to have done. But the staff was kind and reassuring, and I resigned myself to following through. A nurse inserted a needle into my hand for the anesthesia that was to come. Every so often, a door at the end of the room opened, and the next stretcher in line was pushed through. Soon my turn came. The nurse wheeled me into the treatment room, where a kind anesthesiologist told me I’d be going to sleep in a minute, and asked me to count backward from 10. I didn’t make it too far before the tingling of the anesthesia sucked my consciousness away.
When I woke up, a nurse was with me, offering me juice and asking my name. I felt groggy and a bit achy, looking forward to returning to my bed after being escorted back to my unit. I’d survived my first ECT treatment.
Treatments are spaced out, usually three times a week at first. I was receiving unipolar ECT, meaning the electric current was applied to one temple, one hemisphere of my brain, in hopes of seizing my brain back into a more normal state of mind. Of course, there’s no physical test of the brain that determines depression, or lack thereof, so the measure of success is in the patient’s mood and effect. My memory of this time is kind of sketchy (memory loss surrounding ECT being a side effect), but apparently, I didn’t feel my anxiety was getting any better, at least, not fast enough. My doctor suggested we try bipolar ECT- shocking both hemispheres of my brain. Ignoring the caution of my family, I agreed- anything to feel like myself again, despite the increased risk of memory loss. After several weeks, I was well enough to return home from the hospital, though I continued to go there twice a week for treatments.
I was far from myself, still feeling lost and depressed, though thankfully the soul-crushing dread I felt before my treatments had ebbed. I still needed structure, in the form of a day treatment program, meds, and therapy. My memory, as predicted, suffered. I remember going back to church after my nearly four weeks in the hospital. My friends greeted me warmly, and while I recognized their faces, I couldn’t immediately recall their names. This eventually resolved, but I lost long-term memories. Trips my husband and I had taken in the two years prior to treatment, including a dream trip to Ireland, existed mainly in my mind via the photographs we had taken. Conversations, family events, lost- to this day, my mom or husband will bring up something from that period of time and I’ll draw a blank. A part of my life has been lost, and if I allow myself to dwell on that, a sadness settles over me.
At the time, I said ECT saved my life. Now, twelve years later, I wonder if time would have done the same, without the cost of my memories. But when you’re trapped like a rabbit in the cage of your mind, there’s no other thought but immediate escape. I felt I wouldn’t survive the terror of my own anxiety, so I grabbed at ECT’s promise of salvation, side effects or not. I cannot rewrite the past, but by sharing my story, I can help rewrite the image of ECT, especially for those who are trapped in their minds as I was, seeking any way out.
Mariah Warren lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband and son. She has experienced both major depressive disorder and postpartum depression/anxiety and has turned those experiences into poetry and blog posts. Mariah serves as the chief ecclesiastical officer (otherwise known as Clerk of Session) for Gilead Presbyterian Church and sings whenever and wherever she gets the chance. She loves to read and considers Belle her incarnation in the Disney universe. She hopes to figure out what she wants to be one of these days! You can read more on her blog, Living in Sanity (www.livinginsanitycom.