What It's Really Like to Get Electroconvulsive 'Shock' Therapy

When you think of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), what comes to mind? Is it “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest?”

I don’t think people really talk about what it’s really like to receive ECT. You might hear it referred to as “shock therapy,” but it’s correct terminology is electroconvulsive therapy. And no, it’s not like what you see in the movies. You don’t have to be “certifiably insane” to need ECT treatment. It can be a helpful tool in the recovery process for lots of people struggling with serious or ongoing mental illnesses.

I have received 24 treatments of ECT and it changed my life. I won’t lie, it’s scary. But it’s not what you think. At the age of 21 I checked myself into a long-term mental health facility for treatment. It was recommended to me by my doctor there after several suicide attempts and years of struggling with my mental illnesses. I discussed it at length with my doctor, mother and father. I think aside from my doctors, we were all nervous about it. The day I started treatment I couldn’t eat or drink anything beforehand. I was given a shot about 15 to 30 minutes before. I was taken to a different level of the hospital with a few other patients. I was asked to put a gown on. I wasn’t allowed to take my anxiety medication before because it could interfere with the treatment, which only made my anxiety worse. I asked a nurse all sorts of questions as I was asked to lay down on a bed in the hall. She calmly responded to everything I asked while she hooked me up to a bunch of wires and put a wedge under my head to elevate me. Then came the worst of it. I was rolled into the room. I saw all these machines. They started attaching stickers with wires to my head, hooking me up to a blood pressure machine and getting everything else ready. Amazingly, the doctors were wonderful at easing my concern and anxiety, even making jokes to match mine. The nurse held my hand as they put the anesthetic in my hand and had me count back from 10.

I woke up confused and groggy in the recovery room. As I came to, a nurse asked me some questions. Do you know your name? Do you know where you are? Who is the president? I laughed a little and answered. They then helped me out of bed and into a wheelchair. They wheeled me over to a table and ask what kind of juice I wanted. After about 15 minutes, they brought me back down to the floor where I stayed. I went to my room and slept for a while after the first treatment. When I woke up I had a headache, but to my surprise, that was the extent of the immediate side effects. This has been a similar experience for every other time I’ve had ECT.

While my memory has been effected in some ways, this treatment has helped me greatly. I have gone an entire month without feeling like I wanted to die which has been an amazing outcome. My depression was lessened, although my anxiety stayed the same. Overall, ECT was a really powerful tool that I will be resuming in the future. I would recommend talking to your doctor and loved ones if you feel this may be an option for you. Overcoming the fear and stigma of this treatment is half the battle, but a battle worth fighting.

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, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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