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Demystifying Electroconvulsive Therapy

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I have had ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). There. I said it. Cat is out of the bag. Now a Google search will tell everyone that knows me, as well as those that don’t, that, I have had this “crazy” procedure.

But here’s the thing, it’s not crazy. It’s lifesaving. ECT first got a bad rap in “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest,” a novel published in the 1960s by Ken Kesey and made famous in the 70s by the film with Jack Nicholson.

When my psychiatrist spoke to me about having ECT, this is all I knew. I said no right away and continued to say no for months languishing in a terrible state of depression. Psychiatric meds were not working for what was a yearlong wave of depression. I needed help. There was nothing to read on ECT, no brochure or hand out. There was no one to talk to about having ECT, because no one talks about it. At the time, three years ago, I did not know there were online forums where you could read about others sharing about their experiences which were not always pleasant and did not always work. Honestly, I was glad I did not know about them, or I might not have given it a shot.

I had a total of 12 ECT sessions over about six months. I had the first series a few days apart over a week. After the second week I was like a new person. I was getting out of bed, I was happy to take a shower. I picked up a book and started reading again! The results were immediately apparent to my husband and family.

The sessions were only about a couple of hours start to finish. The procedure itself lasted only a couple of minutes. You spent more time waiting to get started than anything else. Once they called your name, they took vitals, weighed you and put a cuff on your arm where your IV would go. After some time, you are brought back to a room where you get onto a rolling bed. They take off your shoes and attach electrodes all over your body to monitor your heart. Often, I went home — literally almost every time, with electrodes stuck to my body which they forgot to take off. Very sloppy work, I laughed! Then they put some gel on your temples so they could affix the electrodes that would zap you. This goo was always stuck in my hair after my session and was cause for a hot shower afterwards.

The room I was in was the ECT suite. It was small and I was thrilled that mine had a painted ceiling. Clouds and butterfly made things feel more calm. The ECT suite is usually close to the in-patient locked unit of the hospital and I was often in waiting rooms with these patients. The only difference is I wasn’t wearing the bright grippy socks.

The next step was the anesthesia team. I had the same team many times, which was comforting. They often remembered me and even once told me I was looking so much better. Wow, did that make an impact. It really hit home and made me feel good about the procedure. They would explain to me how the anesthesia would work. When I gave them the go ahead, they would start a countdown often telling me to take a trip to my favorite place. Before the count down, the doctor administering the ECT would come to my bedside ask me a few questions and generally made me feel safe.

That literally was it! After going under the ECT would take place — a matter of seconds and it was over. They wheeled me to recovery, and it took about 20 minutes to come to. I often asked after when it would be my turn, not realizing I was on the other side and already finished. That was a good feeling! Side effects included sleepiness, headaches, a tight jaw and sometimes nausea. I rarely had all side effects at once and think I only threw up once. I planned a day free of errands and tasks and often came home and napped for a couple of hours. The next day I was good as new. I will say that it is possible to have some memory loss. I had no loss of time around the six months of procedures, but I cannot recall a trip I took the summer before to Spain. I made peace with that. I can look at pictures and my husband fills in the details.

I am sharing my story because I was embarrassed for a long time that I had had ECT. I was afraid people would think I was crazy, broken, and strange. The exact opposite is true. People are proud of me for getting the help that I needed. I am also able to demystify the process for ECT to others and have recommended the procedure to family and friends. I remind myself of the books I had read by Brene Brown the famous shame researcher.

“If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive,” says Dr. Brene Brown.

I live by that quote and it has set me free. There is no shame in needing help for mental health issues. The brain is an organ in the body just as the liver gets treated for cancer. It is time for those of us that have experienced the benefits of ECT to share our story so we can make this journey less scary for others and to de-stigmatize the ECT procedure itself.

Originally published: February 9, 2023
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