I Got Help But It Didn’t Help: My Experience With Electroshock Therapy

By Christina Shideler

 

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It takes a pretty deep sadness to say, “Yeah, ok, take me to the hospital and induce a seizure twice a week so something gets recalibrated up there.” That sadness where you wake up from dreamless sleep, or the sleep of dream fragments, and all you’re left with is some vague longing, and you’re so disappointed that you woke up. It just sits inside of you, on you, every day, stealing the taste from food and the joy from being around your favorite people. It makes your dog boring. It makes you really boring, because when you do manage to leave the house, life is a bland colorless cracker and you have nothing to offer anyone but a shrug and your ability to not cry in public today.

I lived in that sadness for two years. I got fat in it, I managed to stay in love in it. Still, most days I woke up and thought, “Please let me become very very very small, and then stop existing. Please let me die.” It’s not that I didn’t remember that life could be very good, it’s just that I didn’t believe that I would ever feel that way about it again.

And I wasn’t just wallowing in it (though I did an awful lot of wallowing). I was changing medications every few weeks, seeing new doctors, going to therapy. But it wasn’t getting better. I’d been there before, sure, in those nights that seemed an endless stretch of absolutely unbearable melancholy. When I first started college and I wasn’t making friends and I was doubting the existence of God, the wind chimes in my surreally bland multi-building apartment complex drove me to the brink of insanity. I would say something to myself and it repeated over and over in my head, and I couldn’t get it to stop. But that was ten years ago. I was just a child painfully becoming an adult and instead of drinking or doing drugs I just got sad and thought too much.

Still, that bout didn’t last, nor did others that visited me throughout my life. Sure, I had developed a fear of flying and was constantly web md-ing myself into cancer, but those were more semi-debilitating quirks than full-blown incapacitating mental disorders.

And here I was, getting everything I always wanted. A wonderful partner, the graduate degree I’d dreamed of since 16, in a city no one can help but romanticize, all with a very cute dog by my side. So who knows why sadness came to cripple me. Could have been a sort of emotional tantrum against the very unstable future of a late-blooming aspiring writer, the sadness of experiencing my city as a way station for wave after wave of departing friends, or just some unkind shift in bodily chemistry that set my default mode to “wanting to disappear.” I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy trying to figure it out, but here’s the scary part: it really can just happen. Sure, you can help prevent it, but the emotional winds can shift and there you are, powerless against your own hopelessness.

So I had spent a year, shifting medications, shifting doctors, fiddling with my brain chemistry and my treatment, having to wait 6-8 weeks to even know if the market’s newest SSRI (all with very stupid, overly-engineered names like Vibryd!) was going to make the slightest difference. “Here, you want to die? Take this pill and wait two months to see if you want to die any less.” It was a horrifying waiting game. On the rare occasions that mental disorders are portrayed in film or television, the character just isn’t getting help. Just get help! It’s their fault for being sad because gosh darn it they’re not seeking help! So imagine how terrifying it is that you are seeking help, have been for years, but the help isn’t working. Week 2, week 3, week 4 on the fifth medication you’ve tried and you wake up every day, wish you hadn’t, and feel like whatever scrap of hope you had left is getting whittled into a fragment of an emotion that you can hardly remember. And your wonderful, supportive boyfriend can only do so much. He can only cook and clean and be supportive for so long. God you know he’s trying, but we all only have so much emotional bandwidth. And around month 11, as his girlfriend has turned into an unrecognizable sadness beast, you can’t blame anyone for getting a bit frayed.

So the last resort treatment started to sound pretty good. It had a higher response rate than anti-depressants. It would work in three to four weeks. It had done wonders for the apocalyptically depressed, who didn’t respond to anything else—the “treatment resistant,” aka me. I was so desperate. Can I tell you again how desperate I was? Nothing was working. I was trying, as best I could, but I was so very crippled. It took a herculean effort to leave the house, to run errands, to go to class. It took everything I had not to cry in public, though the subway is a great place to cry. I wanted to keep my love. I wanted to remember that life could be good. I wanted to wake up and like being awake. I wanted to read a book and feel something again. I wanted love to be something more than a desperate, dependent clinging to the one person that was there, every day.

So I made calls. I found a place that took my insurance and I started going. For about three months, twice a week I went to the hospital. I walked in alone, checked in and changed into a hospital gown, putting my clothes and belongings into a giant plastic sac with my name printed on it. I peed into a cup to prove I wasn’t pregnant. I lay on a hospital bed in a room with dozens of others, waiting for treatment. I was given an IV and read a book I would likely forget.

It was scary. Hospitals aren’t built to be fun and inviting. They are blank canvasses for suffering. But I was so sad there was so little left in me to be afraid. I had to take a survey every week to gauge how sad I was. There aren’t blood tests to check your depression levels. “I no longer enjoy the things I used to. Please score your level of agreement, 1 to 10.” There were many questions. I scored very high.

Finally, they wheeled me into an operating room. An anesthesiologist, the psychiatrist, and a couple of nurses were present under the glaringly bright light. The anesthesiologist explained he would be putting medicine in my IV and I would go unconscious. Then they would induce a seizure, and some time later, I would wake up, alone. The anesthesia went in. I distinctly remember it feeling peppery. Like my veins could taste. I would start to count down from 10. I’d usually be out by 6 or 7.

I’d wake up, alone, in my hospital gown in another anonymous room. Sometimes I would have a headache, or feel a bit light-headed. Someone had to sign me out. So twice a week, every week, my boyfriend took off of work in the afternoon to pick me up and take me home. Twice a week, every week, for around three months it became a routine. Subway to hospital. Check in. Change, pee in a cup. Read and forget and wait. Sleep, wake up, go home. My scores weren’t improving. There was no miracle. My boyfriend and I would watch the same documentary multiple times in a month because I’d completely forgotten it. Though my memory has always been poor, I’d prided myself on remembering important dates. But I found myself unable to remember my boyfriend of five years’ birthday. I surreptitiously checked his driver’s license. I was too ashamed to admit it.

Months in, and the Hail Mary wasn’t working. We decided to stop treatment. Many major events of the last two years were gone. I remembered flashes of a recent trip to Hawaii and nothing of the New Year’s Eve from a few months prior. Friends would recount stories and grow frustrated when I couldn’t reminisce. My boyfriend tried to joke about it, but it was too raw.

Can I possibly express how terrifying this was? I had done this because I was so desperate, and it hadn’t worked. It had cost thousands of dollars, and had stolen a chunk of my life, a chunk of me. Now I was sad and also emptied of my recent past. I felt ashamed, like I was failing those around me who were trying to connect through shared experiences. There was so little of my current self to interact with, and swaths of joint experience gone. I felt like a ghost, haunting my own life.

Things ended okay for me though, don’t worry. I changed treatment again and found a new therapist and psychiatrist. I got a genetic test that told me that SSRIs don’t work for me, so was able to better target my treatment. I did Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and started to feel more alive. My therapist told me major depressive episodes tend to max out at 1.5 to 2 years. I don’t know why it faded, but it did. I can’t say there was a miracle cure, or that I’m not terrified of it descending like a cold snap at any moment. But I do feel better. It was probably just time, allowing my brain chemistry to shift back into a better pattern.

The memory loss still hurts. It’s hard to hear a friend sigh because you don’t recall the inside joke, but I know it’s frustrating for them. But it is painful when ECT or electroshock is some sort of punch line, as I’ve seen recently on Jezebel, or some incredibly uncomplicated character device for someone, like Sam Healy’s mother on the recent season of Orange is the New Black.

Mental health is rarely shown with depth and sympathy in our country, and so much of it is invisible. And electroshock seems so barbaric, that I understand its foreignness being used as lazy shorthand. But know that every time someone is called “crazy,” or your depressed friend flakes on you and you get mad instead of sympathetic, that we’re fighting against ourselves every day. That we’re trying really hard to be people and to love and engage in a less complicated way. Just be patient, and be there when we need you, without pushing it. I know we make it hard, but we want so badly to make it easy. Mental health treatment, even in its most accessible, provided by the most qualified doctors, is still a fledgling science based largely on trial-and-error. Sometimes what we need is a friend showing up with ice cream or sending random texts of encouragement. At least with a little understanding and compassion we can break through the desperation and solitude of mental illness.

 

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