Tuesday, March 12, 2013

My Truth About Electroshock Therapy

"What these shock doctors don't know is about writers and such…. They should make all psychiatrists take a course in creative writing so they know about writers.… Well, what is the sense of ruining my head and erasing my memory, which is my capital, and putting me out of business? It was a brilliant cure, but we lost the patient…."  
-Earnest Heminway
As my regular readers know, I was admitted to The Center for Addiction and Mental Health at the end of September 2012. I stayed for approximately a month and half, where I underwent a series of different forms of therapy, including ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy AKA Electroshock Therapy). Upon my release from hospital, I flew back to my home in LA where despite bi-weekly therapy with a psychologist and psychiatrist quickly spiraled downward with the help of drugs and alcohol. I was flown back up to CAMH where I am currently residing at day 43 (35 more days to go). A week after my primary release, I did an interview for @AriShaffir's podcast (https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/ari-shaffirs-skeptic-tank/id468293449) discussing my experience with ECT. Since it had been less than 10 days since my last treatment, I recently told him that I wished I could re-do that interview. The freshness of it has appeal but it lacks objectivity and a fair interval of my recuperation. The reality is that after 3 months my conviction is different from what it was. In another 3 it may differ even more and probably will so.
ECT has serious side effects that need to weighed against the alternative which for me was death. I was obsessed with killing myself- I was (am) very sick (bi-polar II & PMDD) and medication, meditation and therapy were no longer working. Generally ECT is a last resort. One of the primary side-effects is memory-loss. This affected me greatly. I had met many people in the past year who I could not remember, been places I'd felt I'd never seen, forgot my entire act (stand-up comedy) forgot friends' weddings, funerals, children's names, etc… I was in a state of constant confusion. No one prepared me for how bad it would/might get. Lately I have been re-watching the 1st 2 seasons of the HBO show Homeland, starring Inigo Montoya and Angela Chase (you're welcome, cool people). I had been watching it while it ran but most of it's been erased from my mind so I'm watching it again for the 1st time. In the show, Claire Danes suffers from bi-polar I, which is the same disease that I suffer from only she leans towards the manic side while I lean towards the depressed one. Not to spoiler the shit out of it, but her character undergoes a series of ECT treatments and I was very dubious of how they might portray it. In my humble and sick opinion they do a great job of not only showing how vehement the disease itself can be, but are almost right on about how the treatment works as well. It's not 100% but for the rest I'm trying to suspend my disbelief for my love of the show.
I want to be clear in that I do not condemn ECT. It has helped countless patients overcome their depression. My friends and family (though they hope I will no longer need it for maintenance or rehabilitation ever again) remind me often that it "saved my life". When I agreed to undergo the violent electrocution there was little choice. I no longer cared what happened to me & often hoped the doctors and administrators would make a mistake & kill me throughout the process. This hope coexisted with the congenital fear that I would be electrocuted to death. I didn't mind fasting before such treatments as I've been known to pee my pants or shit myself *curtsey* for any number of biological disruptions. I did mind that I wasn't allowed to take any benzos to calm my crippling anxiety about it. The fear was so acute I prayed & cried that I might be somehow spared the (maximum) 10 minute procedure. You don't actually feel anything throughout the procedure- you are completely out. However until the doctors and anesthesiologists perfect the dose of muscle relaxants, anti-nausea, electrical current etc… and even when they do- you wake feeling as if you've been hit by a wrecking-ball. It's confusing, you feel like you've been out for hours & every muscle in your body hurts. Your skin feels tight, lights blur your vision, sound pierces your auditory canals and you want to throw up. The only thing that could ever begin to make me feel right was to see my mom in the waiting room, a large cup of coffee and face-covering sunglasses. You want to sleep but you're restless and you're so disoriented you want to cry.
The positive effects of ECT last approximately 6 months. Your short-term memory comes back-if ever- by the end of 9 months. This means you can get depressed again before you even remember what the hell your life had been like in the year prior to your depression. Mostly I'm glad to have forgotten but I can see the look of hurt in my friends'  & family's eyes when I forget trips we took, jokes we made and precious moments we shared. They don't blame me. They feel sorry for me. And I feel sorry for myself. Wah.
This time upon my re-admittance, I refused the treatment. Had I not indulged in substance abuse literally the DAY AFTER my last ECT treatment, I might have recovered in a much more explicit way. My memory might not have been so altogether expunged. We'll never know & it doesn't matter now anyway.
We can change the name to ECT to soften the hard edge of it's stigma. We can tell people it's "much better than it used to be". It's still electrocution to the brain. And you feel something- if not during- after. When your entire body is capsizing and your mind is being blasted by electricity, you fucking feel something. And then you lose a lot.
And then you live. You go on living.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Me too sister. About 16 years ago. Saved my life.
Jo.

Anonymous said...

Stay strong Claire......thank you for your honesty. You Will get through this!

Anonymous said...

Luv ya doll and I cringe at the thought of what you have been going through.You are in my thoughts and I wish only great things for you.xx
shawn

Anonymous said...

Hey there...I posted awhile ago and I didn't say a few things that I should have. Mental illness sucks, I understand...I live with BP 1
You are brave to write this..more importantly you are alive to write this. What you have been through here, and what you are going through/will go through...you will make it. It took guts to write and publish this...and you got guts lady. Let's keep breaking down the stigma.
Jo

Anonymous said...

The way you describe it, I don't see the positive. You say you've been hit by a wrecking ball, you're disoriented, you want to sleep but can't, you're confused... and then you become the guy from Memento -- your memory is shot. You're supposed to feel better for 6 months, but you had to be re-admitted less than 6 months after your last round of ECT. And you can get depressed again after 6 months?

Why not try alternatives? Why not take a controlled, therapist guided dose of pure MDMA, as it was used in the United States legally until 1983? With that drug, if taken properly, you feel better, you can do massive amounts of therapy work in a single session and if you don't overdo it and take good supplements the next day, you feel no depression.

Worth a shot, though I'm sure your doctors won't approve. Refer them to the German studies of MDMA where it shows only a 4% reduction in serotonin production for the first month after recreational use and recovered fully with no measureable effects.

Anonymous said...

Homeland is on Showtime, not HBO. Just saying..

Anonymous said...

It sounds like you had extreme manifestations of some of the side effects (many of which are mostly due to the anesthesia). ECT without anesthesia was certainly cruel to the patients and also dangerous, as the seizures could result in broken bones. Using anesthetics and neuro muscular blocking agents to minimize limb flailing has made the procedure much safer. But like all treatments, it doesn't work for everyone, and some people will suffer from terrible side effects. I'm so sorry this happened to you and I'm glad you are sharing your perspective.

2willowsart said...

Hey Claire, I was leaving AIM as you were coming in. I think we were in a couple groups at the same time. I went through two courses of ECT, I have no idea how many individual treatments I received, must be over twenty.
Then a year of rTMS treatments. I can relate to the memory loss especially movies and TV. Odd sensation watching a program you know you've seen but have no recollection of the content.
Also I am sure the body remembers the ECT episode even though it has been knocked out. It helped me sure, I think... maybe... not sure... yes it did.
Best wishes to you.

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