By Beatrice Glickman
When you read the words electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), I’m guessing most of you start picturing some black and white image of a frizzy haired, cross-eyed woman tied to a bed, screaming.
At least, that’s what I pictured when my psychiatrist first suggested it. I told her no, I would be sticking with my wonderful, completely ineffective string of anti-depressants, thank you very much. But a couple of months ago, I finally agreed to do it. And now I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time feeling awful.
I have struggled for many years with severe depression and generalized anxiety disorder, and that’s often kept me from functioning. I feel hopeless, nervous, exhausted; I stop eating and sleeping; I can’t concentrate on anything; and I stop caring about the things that matter to me. Sometimes, I spend all day long hiding under the covers, worrying about what a garbage human being I am. I’m a university student (usually, quite a good one), and I LOVE school. But when I’m really depressed, I don’t go to class, and I can’t complete assignments. When I get like this, I’m convinced that I don’t deserve anyone’s help, so it takes me a long time to reach out. It took me hurting myself and being taken to the hospital by my friends for me start trying to get help.
I had to take a medical leave from university and come home. I went to therapy and started seeing a psychiatrist. I started exercising; I tried yoga, meditation and ten different psychiatric medications. And no, that’s not an exaggeration. That is the actual number of medications. But none of them worked.
Turns out, I have something called treatment-resistant depression, which is exactly what it sounds like. After all that, my doctor brought up ECT again. And this time, I said yes. She told me that it was not what it used to be. In fact, it is the most effective method of treating depression, with a higher success rate compared to anti-depressants. And it’s safe and painless: they give you a muscle relaxant, knock you out, and then they attach a couple of electrodes to your forehead and give you a seizure. The whole thing takes about ten minutes, and they let you go home when you wake up from the anesthesia.
I had to go to the hospital to do ECT three times per week for four weeks. It’s been scary and tiring going to the hospital so often, and it’s tough to see some of the other psych patients who have had a more difficult time than I have. But I swear, it’s magic. I have no idea how it works (and I don’t think anyone else does either), but after about two weeks, I started to feel like me again—a possibility I had completely given up on. I’ve been smiling and laughing, I can read and write and swim and hang around outside, I can socialize without feeling anxious, and I have energy that I haven’t had in years. It’s amazing. It’s like being able to breathe again.
In addition to feeling much less depressed, I’m now a little closer to achieving my goal of becoming Carrie Fisher, who was an advocate for ECT. The next step will be adopting a dog as awesome as Gary. Here he is, taking a little rest on the red carpet:
Unfortunately, ECT comes with a terrifying side effect: memory loss. Since starting treatment, I have been experiencing both retrograde and anterograde amnesia. I have forgotten a lot of events from months and years before treatment, and I have forgotten most of the last month. It’s not like it is in the movies though: I know who I am, and I remember enough to know that I’ve been feeling better and having fun. But there are big pieces missing all over the place.
The other rough part is that because of my history, my psychiatrist thinks that if I were to completely stop treatment, it’s likely that I would relapse, which means I have to keep doing maintenance treatment once per month. When I asked the psychiatrist performing the treatment if I had to do this forever, he matter-of-factly said, “not forever, just indefinitely.” Which is as hysterical as it is frustrating. But “indefinitely” would be fine, as long as my memory improves.
As it is, I’m confused a lot of the time. People mention things we’ve done in the past, or something that I said yesterday, and I usually have no idea what they’re talking about. When I’m watching a show or reading a book, I have to flip back or ask questions because I can’t remember what I’ve just learned. I try to find the right word, or remember a fact or historical event, and it’s not in my head anymore. This is particularly scary for me because I used to have an outrageously good memory. I used to be able to remember exact quotations from books that I read or conversations that I had years ago; when studying for a test, I could recite 50+ pages of lecture notes word for word; I could count cards; and apparently as a toddler, my dad used to read me stories for the first time, and I would recite them back to him. Going from that to not knowing the plot of the story I wrote a few days ago is horrifying to me. (By the way, it took me about fifteen minutes to come up with that example because I can’t even remember what I can’t remember).
I’ve been told that most people’s memory improves with time, but I’m terrified that mine won’t and by getting ECT once a month, I won’t be able to finish my degree or go to grad school.
But I try to think about what Carrie Fisher said: “Some of my memories will never return. They are lost—along with the crippling feeling of defeat and hopelessness. Not a tremendous price to pay.”
I’m choosing to believe her.