ECT and Me

I said I wouldn’t post personal experiences, really, on this website. Just research and opinion. But here’s my story of undergoing electroconvulsive therapy in the summer of 2008. I had 1 bilateral (both sides) and 5 unilateral (one side) ECT treatments.

ECT is often known as “shock therapy” and the mind goes to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, Sylvia Plath and other scary sounding stories. In truth, it’s a safe procedure. This is how it’s done:

The patient is put under with a short acting general anesthetic via IV. Muscle relaxants are put in through the IV as well, and a blood pressure cuff is attached to one arm, so they can see fingers twitching to see if you’re having a (tonic-clonic) seizure or not. They may also record brain waves (EEG) to tell the duration of the seizure.

Dosage, duration of the seizure, type of anesthetic and muscle relaxant are determined by the psychiatrist in charge of the patient receiving ECT, as well as the anesthesiologist. Bilateral means they shoot electricity through both frontal lobes. Unilateral means they only go through one, which reduces memory loss.

The hospital I was at, St Joe’s in Hamilton had assessed me thoroughly before deciding to go ahead with ECT. It was 100% consensual and part of the reason I had been sent to that hospital. Nobody forced me into it, I signed a lot of papers and I had several counselling sessions. I was inpatient at the time and released shortly after. I met with my social worker and psychiatrist, who agreed with going ahead with ECT. He then had me meet with the ECT psychiatrist who gave his opinion of me to the pychologists and my psychiatrist at the hospital.

It was a go. I suffer from sinus tachycardia, so I underwent an EKG, echcardiogram and Holter monitor to make sure my heart was health and could stand up to the anesthesia and seizure. The seizure only happens in the brain and sometimes the fingers, the body isn’t jerking around, like the movies like to portray.

It was a surprisingly easy procedure. The nurses were not allowed to give me any medications that stop seizures (such as anticonvulsants like Depakote, or my regular Valium) at night. I was not allowed to eat or drink after midnight, and around 5am the ECT nurse came and gathered the patients going for ECT and we would pile into the St Joe’s van and go to the main hospital at the bottom of the hill.

We were to undress and leave only underpants on, no bra, and put a hospital gown on, open in the back. We were assigned a gurney numbering who was up first. It was done early in the morning because they used the Recovery Room for post-surgeries, and at that time, it was least busy. We were on the tenth floor, and went far down for the Recovery Room, in order. I was usually third out of six or seven people.

It is nerve wracking and very scary. I declined a sedative from the nurse, and a small-bore (little needle) IV was placed in my arm and a saline drip started. They covered me in hot blankets and we took the elevators down to the Recovery Room and waited. The noises were scary, you could hear the machine screech. I always wished I was first, so I didn’t have to listen to it. Some people, mostly smokers, had to have some suctioning done in their mouth from things coming up. You could hear the gurgling.

We wore oxygen masks, and when the ECT doctor, anesthesiologist and nurse came to the bed it was switched to an AmbuBag being pumped by a nurse. The ECT doc was always friendy and the anesthesiologist put me out quickly and painlessly (some people report intense pain after being given the anesthesia, before they go under, but this has never happened to me and I’ve been under general anesthesia 8 times in my life) I don’t remember waking up.

The whole thing takes about 5-10 minutes. I remember eating a muffin, being given tylenol for the headache. Some people said they had headaches so bad they needed morphine, but 2 Extra Strength Tylenol did it for me. I remember bumming a smoke from the ECT nurse while we waited for the van to take us back up the hill. I also remember a breakfast burrito, which has turned me off from them since.

I don’t remember a lot of detail in that month I was being given ECT, it is very fuzzy. I had written down all of my computer passwords and important information, but I didn’t lose any memories. The worst was when a rec therapist made me go put a scrapbook together one day. She did get in shit because patients were supposed to, and allowed to, rest all day after ECT. I would come back on the ward, take my medications and go to bed for the day. I had 6 treatments over 3 weeks.

Would I do it again? Most definitely, it brought me out of a crippling depression nothing else would touch. It has made my high’s lower and my low’s higher. I have’t had a full-blown manic or depressive episode since then. I still have mood episodes and I take medication, but not nearly as much as before, and it works better.

It is a serious procedure, because of the use of general anesthetic, but I’d rather get zapped again than go to the dentist. At least you’re unconscious for ECT! One woman in my room went from catatonic to being very active, talkative and started eating again after a few sessions. I saw it help people, and I saw the benefits in it myself. The ECT doc told me that ECT is about 85% effective in treatment resistant mood disorders.