“I’m basically getting my brain fried with electricity,” I told my friend, deadpan.
A shocked (no pun intended) expression crossed her face. I burst out laughing.
“I don’t feel a thing,” I added. “They knock me right out.”
My friend was eager to know more about the procedure, and was genuinely concerned about my well-being.
I then confessed that the night before my first electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatment, I’d fallen asleep reading “The Bell Jar.” One of my favorite poets, Sylvia Plath had always fascinated me and I hoped that perhaps “The Bell Jar” could have provided me with the much needed comfort and reassurance needed.
Sadly, that was not the case.
After all, ECT had a not so fine history, and the controversial treatment had not only been banned in some countries, but had also acquired a negative reputation which led to stigma and an array of misconceptions. That night, lying in the dark though, all I could think about was how anxious I felt. I didn’t know what to expect. I lay in bed, unnerved, and wondered what lied ahead. As I drifted off to sleep, all I could think about, clinging to my copy of The Bell Jar, was my deep desire to live, unlike Plath, who died by suicide.
A few days prior to my first treatment, my psychiatrist warned me about the stigma, although he tried his best to reassure me. He admitted that ECT didn’t have the best reputation on the internet and in the media, partly due to Jack Nicholson’s character in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I told him I had never laid hands on a copy of the film, and reassured him I didn’t plan on it, either.
My friends were fascinated with the procedure and my parents were surprisingly cool with it as well. The night before my first treatment, I was asked to wash my hair. I was not allowed any food or drink after midnight, and was woken up early in the morning by my nurse, who asked me to change into one of those ugly, blue hospital gowns.
Needless to say, I felt quite exposed and unattractive. Then I was directed towards a wheelchair, where I sat, until the nurse wheeled me out towards the elevator, then down to the third floor, where the post-anesthesia care unit is located. There, I lay on a bed under warm blankets while a different nurse attached electrocardiogram leads on my chest and hooked me up to the different equipment, as well as monitors. It would be my first time getting put to sleep. But first, the anesthetic resident had to find a suitable vein, and after several sharp, prolonged pokes, he finally got the intravenous running. He secured it with a piece of tape, and I thought the whole thing was comparable to a delicate procedure. The psychiatrist then placed electrodes on my forehead, on both temples. I was given an oxygen mask to breathe into, and before I knew it, a muscle relaxant was injected. Then, before I knew it, the general anesthesia was administered.
One moment, I was looking up at the ceiling lights, then the room began spinning, the bright lights became blurry…
And then I was awake. Before I knew it, I had regained consciousness.
The IV was removed, I was given Tylenol Extra Strength for potential headaches, and rubbed peppermint oil on my temples to ease the pain. I was then wheeled back upstairs to the Mental Health Treatment Unit where I was quizzed on the date and time. For some, ECT can cause confusion and disorientation. Later during the day, I complained of a killer headache, and told the nurses that my head was basically on fire.
What prompted my decision to give ECT a try was mere desperation. After a trial of medications, serious suicidal ideation and two hospitalizations, I was desperate for a solution, and ECT might just have the potential to provide me with some relief from this crushing depression. After seven years of active symptoms, a counselor, two social workers and family doctors as well as seven psychiatrists, I was finally figuring my mental illness out. And if brief therapeutic seizures were needed to give me a respite from my mental illness, then so be it.
Although at first, I hesitated. I had my doubts. I wondered if electrical shocks to my brain could really provide the much desired relief. But the truth is, as bizarre as it sounds, sometimes when electric currents are passed through the brain, they have power to alter brain chemistry.
Although ECT is considered by many to be a form of horrific torture, the traumatic depictions of the treatment haven’t accurately represented it, in my opinion.
When I asked my psychiatrist if he could recommend any good books that portrayed ECT accurately, he shook his head.
“You’ll have to write the damn book,” he joked.
I told him I would, then walked out of his office, easing the door shut behind me.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
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Thinkstock photo via faustasyan.