Lots of people have asked me why I chose to take my college courses online. I used to tell them the same thing every time, “I was having some medical issues and couldn’t deal with on-campus classes back then.” What I didn’t tell them, though, was that those “medical issues” were months of crippling depression for which I was being treated with tri-weekly sessions of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Because of the stigma, I used to avoid talking about my experience with ECT out of fear of being judged. Now, because of the stigma, I use my experience to educate those who still think ECT is a mirror image of what they see on “American Horror Story” or “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
If you’re like most people who have heard of ECT but don’t really know much about it, you’re probably either shocked or disturbed by the fact that ECT still exists or you’re sympathetic that I had to go through such a “traumatic” ordeal. While I truly appreciate the concern from those who don’t know the reality behind ECT, I always ensure them that I underwent the procedure voluntarily and that had I not done so, I’d probably be dead by now. There’s usually a moment of stunned silence following that particular bit, so I take a second to let the words sink in. I then go on to recount the three months I spent receiving ECT treatments on every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and how they undeniably saved my life.
The first thing you should know about ECT is that it’s a last resort treatment. It’s a procedure you’ll qualify for only if you’ve exhausted all other options. When I first heard about ECT, I had just graduated high school. I had been medicated for my depression since the age of 14 and, during the last few months of my senior year, it suddenly became overwhelming and unbearable. Just two months before I was supposed to graduate, I took a whole bottle of Prozac in hopes that I’d die in my sleep. Luckily, a friend of mine alerted my parents and drove me to the nearest hospital where I spent the night hooked up to an IV that flushed the toxins out of my system. After that, I was involuntarily sectioned, meaning I was sent to a psychiatric facility, where I spent five days in a behavioral center before I was released to go home. This was in 2012.
Since I had already earned enough credits to graduate, the headmaster of my high school told me that I didn’t have to return prior to the ceremony. Instead of spending my days in class where other students would, without a doubt, whisper to one another about my suicide attempt, I was allowed to stay home and, with any luck, work toward recovery.
Unfortunately, that was not the case and I only grew weaker and less motivated as time went on. Soon after graduation, I began to deteriorate rapidly, both physically and mentally. I was sleeping for up to 15 hours a day, I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t showering, I wasn’t changing my clothes, and the only time I got out of bed was when I needed to use the bathroom. Emotionally, I was all over the place and my suicidal ideations became increasingly hard to control. I remember crying hysterically while telling one of my relatives that if I didn’t get serious help, I really didn’t think I would live. For me, that was rock bottom.
Now the only good thing about rock bottom is that once you’re there, the only place you can go is up. Having said that, I first discovered ECT when I was searching the Internet for last-resort treatment options. Talk therapy had been useless, medications had worked only up to a certain point, and concepts such as exercise and adhering to a regular sleep schedule weren’t proving to be fruitful either. It was when I landed on the website for McLean Hospital that I realized there was still treatment available for people like me. There, I read all about ECT, noting what disorders it could treat and what its success rate was. I compiled all the information and brought it up with my mom who, luckily, was on board with the idea. The next time I saw my psychiatrist, I mentioned it to him, too, and he said I would definitely be a good candidate. It was then that I realized I had a chance to escape rock bottom.
After meeting with a doctor and having bloodwork done, I was given the official OK to start ECT. I was told that I would be going in for treatment three times a week and that I would need one of my parents there with me to drive me home after each session. The doctor explained the risks that were involved, what I could expect from the procedure, and what side effects I might display afterward. I was shocked (no pun intended) to find out that the procedure itself would only take a couple of minutes and that most of my time would be spent recovering from the anesthesia in the room next door.
Still uneasy about the concept of undergoing medically induced seizures, I asked about whether I’d feel any pain, to which the doctor said no. If anything, he told me, I would have somewhat of a headache for which I could take some Tylenol. While I did experience frequent headaches immediately following my ECT sessions, as well as some temporary memory loss, it was absolutely worth it in the long run. I’d rather have ECT headaches every day of the year than spend even one more day in the state I was in before I sought treatment.
Unlike in the movies, I neither convulsed on the table nor had burn marks on my head. I was given a muscle relaxant via IV, was told to recite my name, birthdate, and the current date before the anesthesia was administered and I soon woke up in the recovery room. A little disoriented after waking up, a nurse would help me walk from my hospital bed over to a recliner where I’d sit for another hour and have something to eat and drink — usually I opted for oatmeal and ginger ale.
Most times, there were a couple of other ECT patients recovering in the room at the same time as me. We didn’t often talk because the process was pretty exhausting. The silence was never awkward, though, it was just kind of expected. In a way, it was very similar to what I experience when taking public transit in Boston: everybody simply minds their own business and it’s nothing out of the ordinary.
I will admit that I didn’t see any improvement until I had my fourth treatment. However, I was told that it was normal and I prayed that I’d see some inkling of progress in the near future. Gradually, my doctor allowed me to undergo slightly more powerful ECT sessions and by treatment 6, I was feeling a bit better. While the few months I received treatment are, overall, still a bit hazy due to memory loss, I will say that all the other side effects I experienced had disappeared completely after about three to four months following my last session. All that remained was a young woman who had gone from near-death to neutral in terms of being able to live with her disorder.
That said, I believe it’s extremely important to be as transparent as possible, so I’ll be straightforward and say that ECT did not cure me of my depression and it did not magically make me happy, either. What it did do was take me from the verge of death and bring me back to 0. I went from suicidal to neutral. A few months prior to my treatment, I was bedridden because my depression was so debilitating, but ECT made me functional once again. For me, that was more than I ever could’ve hoped for — it really was a second chance at life. ECT was a reset button if there ever was one and I truly believe I owe my life to all of those early morning procedures. Since then, I’ve been able to manage my depression through medication alone, but I know that if I ever hit rock bottom again, I can count on ECT to bring me back to a place of control.
Hospital photo available from Shutterstock