Electroconvulsive therapy saved my life. I don't mean to make it sound so dramatic, but it's true.
Also known as shock treatment (or ECT for short), the procedure is usually used to treat severe depression, which I've been dealing with for years. ECT is the most misunderstood and stigmatized treatment for mental illness. It is not an easy subject to talk about. Part of me wants to move on and leave the whole experience in the past, hopefully for good. But I can't. I know that ECT has a bad reputation. I know that I might even regret writing this. But stigma and reputation aside, ECT saved my life.
It was my last hope. After nearly a decade of fighting a progressively worsening depression, when treatments such as medications and therapy failed one by one, I was desperate. By the time I came around to considering ECT, I needed something that would work and I needed it right away. Because my last relapse, which started last fall, was worse than anything I had ever experienced. I thought I knew depression, thought I'd experienced the worst of its pain and terror. I was wrong. Each episode builds on the last, scars on top of scar tissue, until it is hard to feel anything at all. I guess you could say that my decision to have ECT was my way of giving life one last chance.
But I had my doubts. I didn't know much about ECT and the little I did know came from movies such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which depict the procedure as painful and traumatic. Even though my doctor went over everything that would happen in detail, including the ways in which today's version of ECT is very different from the past, I was still terrified.
The night before the first treatment, I couldn't sleep. I lay awake for hours filled with dread, my mind stuck on an endless loop of anxious thoughts. Why, why, why did I agree to do this? Everybody knows that only really crazy people get ECT. It's going to be horrible. What was I thinking? How am I going to explain this to people? And worst of all, what if it doesn't work?
In the morning I dragged myself into a cab, wishing I was on my way to do pretty much anything other than what I was actually doing. My parents were already in the waiting room by the time I arrived. I don't think I've ever been so glad to see them. My mother held my hand as we waited for the nurse to call my name. I tried to pretend for her sake that I was fine, but I was shaking as I walked into the treatment room.
ECT works by causing a medically controlled seizure in the brain once the patient is under anesthesia. First, a nurse had me lie on a bed while a team of other nurses and doctors hooked me up to machines that would monitor my brain and heart. It took about five minutes to get set up while a doctor put an IV in my hand and a nurse gave me oxygen.
Then they told me to count backward from 10 and before I got to five I was asleep. I woke up in the recovery room about 15 minutes later with a headache that lasted two days, but nothing worse than that. It's not exactly a pleasant experience, but it certainly wasn't the chamber of horrors I've read about or seen in movies. The doctors and nurses at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto are kind and professional. They do everything they can to make the whole experience as comfortable as possible.
At first I had the treatments three times a week, then twice, then once, then once every other week and so on. After about eight treatments I started to feel a shift in my mood, a gradual lightening that would often catch me by surprise. It started with little things like laughing at a joke - genuine laughter at something funny, not the strained smiles and forced, hollow laughter of depression. I started to have more energy, to actually feel like going out and doing things, not staying at home curled up under a blanket all day. If you've never been depressed it may be hard to understand how leaving your apartment or laughing can be a big deal. But that's what depression does: It takes the joy, humour and energy out of things you once took for granted.
I know that I'm not cured and that I'm going to have to be vigilant for the rest of my life. But right now I feel more normal than I have in years. I'm trying to enjoy it while taking precautions against relapse - continuing my medications, making sure I eat well, getting enough sleep and exercise and not letting myself become isolated. The only problem I had with ECT has been its impact on my short-term memory, a common side effect I was warned about.
I don't want to portray ECT as some quick-fix, consequence-free panacea. It's a serious medical procedure that is used to treat serious illness. But I also believe that ECT has been unfairly represented in popular culture, like so many things associated with mental illness.
ECT did more to help ease my depression than anything else ever has. I'm not sure where I'd be right now if I hadn't decided to try it or if it hadn't worked. Most of all it taught me that recovery from depression is possible. It taught me that even when you feel like you've tried everything, even when you've been disappointed again and again and life seems unbearable, there is always hope.
Sarah McCaffrey lives in Toronto.