A Shocking Development: How ECT Gave Me Back My Writing
"There is not much else I can do for you chemically," my psychiatrist told me directly.
"And that means?" I asked, trying to care.
"I'm recommending ECT."
ECT. Electro-convulsive therapy, once known as electro-shock. I knew what that was all about, or at least I thought I did. I'd seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
But I also understood that it was time for something drastic. My moods have always been on a roller coaster to hell thanks to my bipolar disorder. In December of last year, a cruel depression had swept in, obliterating everything that was good in my life. Motivation became a thing of the past. Next my concentration failed me and I began making stupid, rookie mistakes. As one medication after another failed to restore me to even a semblance of normalcy, my thoughts turned to suicide. And fixated there.
Yes, it was time for something drastic, but I still trembled as I approached the hospital for my first session of ECT. (The initial phase of ECT usually consists of three outpatient treatments a week for four weeks.) I had visions of being dragged into an empty room and restrained in a straitjacket.
Instead a friendly nurse in light green scrubs helped me fill out some simple paperwork and escorted me to a gurney in a large treatment area. All around me, patients who were further along in the treatment process than I was laughed and joked with the staff as they kicked off their shoes and made themselves as comfortable as possible. The nurses moved around the room, pulling privacy curtains, hooking up cardiac monitoring equipment, and starting IVs. (ECT is always given under complete sedation.)
One of the nurses noticed I was crying and stopped by my bed to talk to me. I told her I was afraid that the treatment would damage my brain and rob me of my ability to write.
"Oh, honey, it won't," she said. "The biggest side effect of ECT is temporary short-term memory loss, and not everyone has that. You won't lose who you are and what you love."
I turned away, more tears rolling down my cheeks as I reflected I already had lost myself as a writer. The depression had stolen it from me.
Before I knew it, they were ready to begin my treatment. The doctor in charge of the program took my hand and asked me to meditate with him as a nurse anesthetist administered the sedation. The last thing I remember is someone putting an oxygen bag over my nose and mouth…
…then I was waking up, and the nurse was telling me that everything had gone well. I hadn't felt any pain at all.
I wish I could say that that first treatment was the turning point, but it wasn't. In fact, it took nearly ten treatments before I began to notice a slight difference, and another three or four after that – they extended the initial series – before I could honestly say that my depression was manageable. I'm still receiving two treatments per week.
But my thoughts of suicide have receded, replaced by thoughts of projects I want to work on and things I want to write. A few days ago, for the first time in months, I sat down and wrote a few articles. They were pretty pedestrian stuff to be quite honest, but they were proof that my writing muscle was still there. The more I exercise it, the stronger it will grow.
ECT wasn't the end of the line for me as a person or as a writer. It was a new beginning. I'm back!