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How I Experienced Electroconvulsive 'Shock' Therapy

Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping any treatment.

Stigma has generated a lot of fear around ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), and I understand this stigma better than most. At the age of 17, I was recommended for ECT.

I entered the waiting room, sitting down next to an elderly lady casually watching the small television set before us. With the commonly perpetuated image of what was to come scattering my mind, fear jolted through me and I rose with a surge of adrenaline — sprinting directly out of the hospital, across the bustling city road. A nurse running behind me yelled, “Please stop! Come back… I need to pee.”

I slowed, my racing mind interrupted by her surprisingly human plea. I turned around and returned to the hospital. So, yes, I understand the fear surrounding ECT quite well.

In the years that followed, my fear of ECT would be replaced by indifference… and anticipation, if I’m being honest. I would sit in the waiting room, scrolling through Instagram until my name was called. Sometimes it would be a lengthy wait, with so many others receiving treatment.

Then, I would enter the sterile treatment room, greeted kindly by whoever was working that day. I would lay down as leads were attached, waiting impatiently for the pleasurable (yes, pleasurable) feeling of the drugs that would render me unconscious.

As I fight unconsciousness to enjoy the sensation, I am given oxygen and told to close my eyes. As per usual, I ignore this directive in an attempt to stay aware longer — just a little bit. Then, I am awake in the recovery room. I remember nothing of the procedure itself. Some patients, especially those who are new to the treatment, do not remember being in the waiting room or in the recovery room. I have remembered most of these times though.

Recovery is not unpleasant. I lay down next to others; some asleep in trolley beds, some waking up and some waiting to leave in chairs. Nurses check blood pressure like it is going out of fashion. I would always be anxious to leave, desperate for a coffee and cigarette. As the nurse used a mandatory wheelchair to return me to my room on the ward, I wouldn’t even bother to wash the gel (applied during treatment) from my hair — racing from the wheelchair to the coffee machine.

After that, my day would continue as normal.

Some patients experience headaches and pains, although I rarely did. Some are deterred by their very first treatment (which I think is by far the worst), predominantly due to muscle aches. That feeling of having run a marathon.

Everyone experiences ECT differently, and these recollections are simply from my own experiences. I have vaguely described my experiences of ECT as someone who is inpatient, although I have also had the treatment as an outpatient. It is a similar experience of course, requiring more waiting around.

While ECT provided short term relief for me, the treatment was never enough. I also experienced extensive memory loss after countless treatments, which is uncommon, apparently. Most patients simply cannot remember periods of time before and after the treatment. It was given as a last resort. Eventually, I decided against continuing it due to fear of sacrificing even more of my memory. ECT is not a treatment that suits everyone. Luckily, after so many years, I have now found a treatment that does work for me.

However, ECT does provide a great deal of benefit to many people — people for whom the minor risk of ECT is far less than the risk of not pursuing treatment.

I have witnessed the success of ECT and seen lives transformed. I have seen lives saved.

We should never stigmatize a low risk, life-saving treatment.

Personally, I have more fear of being tickled than of ECT.

Seriously, don’t tickle me.

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Thinkstock photo via Siri Stafford