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Flying Over The Cuckoo's Nest - ECT: Not Your Old Time Shock Therapy

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(Written by a current RAHN consumer)

To give you a quick introduction, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder type I (the more severe form) when I was sixteen. Although I have the diagnosis of bipolar, I have always had severe depression. Although I was not officially diagnosed until I was sixteen, I have been on psychiatric medication since I was fourteen.

I have tried every type of drug: antidepressants, anti-psychotics, mood stabilizers, benzodiazepines…you name it, I’ve probably taken it. I’ve also done multiple types of “talk” therapy (mainly CBT and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), but I felt nothing was working.

In June of 2008, I ended up in the hospital from toxicity from one of my psychiatric medications. While there, they diagnosed me with a heart condition and took me off all but two medications. Because of this heart condition, there are about three psychiatric medications that I can safely take. Being taken off the medications triggered my depression.

By last December, I had reached the end of the line. I was constantly depressed and almost all aspects of my life were suffering. I was having a lot of trouble in school, I didn’t want to be around my family or friends, I had lost all pleasure in my hobbies and it took nearly all of my energy just to get out of bed in the mornings, let alone go through the daily routines of my life.

My depression became so unbearable that I felt one of the only options I had left was suicide. It was at that point a friend came to me and suggested I look into ECT (electroconvulsive therapy, also known as “shock therapy”).

At first, I balked. My first thought was something from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. I thought that the only people who got shock therapy were really sick: delusional, psychotic, talking to walls and seeing things that weren’t there. I was not one of those people.

I never saw myself as receiving ECT, but I was at the absolute end of the line and had no other options left. Six years of traditional talk therapy and medication therapy weren’t working and I was absolutely miserable. The way I saw it, I had two options: suicide or ECT.

I began looking into ECT. I did a lot of research on my own before approaching the idea with my psychiatrist. After talking with her, she referred me to a local hospital that performs ECT.

I was put on a schedule for ECT which is fairly common: the first month I went three times a week and then tapered down to only once a month (this took place over the span of about eight months).

I met with the doctor who would perform the actual procedure and learned what it would entail. An IV is inserted so that they can administer the various medications used. He explained they would sedate me with a general anesthetic, give me a medication to temporarily paralyze me, caffeine would be given to intensify the seizure, I would be given oxygen through an oxygen mask, and then the actual procedure would take place.

An electrode is placed on either one (unilateral) or both (bilateral) temples. A bite guard is placed in the mouth to keep from the tongue or teeth being injured.

At that point, a small current of electricity is passed through the electrodes, and a 30 to 60 second seizure is induced.

(If you watch a person being given ECT, you may sometimes notice their hand or foot twitch, but this is generally the only way you can tell they are having a seizure.)

They also warned me that I would probably encounter headaches, nausea and some short-term memory loss.

My experiences with ECT were overall very positive. Within three to four treatments I felt as though my life had done a 180-degree turn. I was able to function in my life again. I felt happy, and I began to come out of the darkness of depression and into the light of life.

Although I feel like my overall experience with ECT was very effective, there were short-term side effects. The days that I had my sessions, I felt like I had been hit by a train; my head hurt, I was nauseous and I felt like I had the flu.

And although it has been nearly a year since I began ECT, I still struggle with some short-term memory loss. I find that I have to make lists to help me remember small things ranging from homework to shopping lists. I have trouble remembering names and phone numbers, but in the end, I feel that the side effects were more than worth the positive outcomes I’ve experienced.

Given the choice, ECT was thoroughly worth it. Short-term memory loss and a headache is nothing compared to ending your life. Feeling nauseous for a day is nothing compared to the physical pain and nausea I felt on a daily basis at the worst of my depression.

ECT is not for “crazy” people. It is not the barbaric procedure it used to be in the past. It has helped a tremendous number of people turn their lives around and beat their depression. It may not have cured my depression, but I feel like it boosted me enough to where I was able to really get down to treating my depression. If it weren’t for the ECT, I might not be here to share my experiences.

I truly believe ECT saved my life.



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The Recovery and Hope Network (RAHN) is a small yet wildly successful local nonprofit serving people with severe and persistent mental illness in Douglas County. Written by members and staff of RAHN (it’s pronounced “rain”), the purpose of this blog – Flying Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – is to educate people about mental illness and the possibility of recovery, to reduce fear and stigma, and to reach out to those in need and their families and friends, neighbors and coworkers.

1009 New Hampshire, Suites C & D
Lawrence, KS 66044

Tel: 785-856-1222
Email: info@recoveryandhope.org
Website: http://recoveryandhope.org
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Recovery-and-Hope-Network-RAHN/114529948569741
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