So this is something that generally freaks people out. That is understandable. It freaks me out, too. Going to hospital and having ECT (electroconvulsive or shock therapy) was like a freaky-good horror movie that you hate watching but cannot turn your head. I am purposely writing minuscule details about hospital and ECT to get it out of my system and hopefully give more info to anyone out there that needs it to make decisions about their own or their loved one’s care. P.S. I use words like, “loony,” because I’m reclaiming it. I think people that by and large have a stigmatized illness, attend hospital and get ECT are often experts at hiding illness and often acting more “normal” than most people. I know I have played that game for years. I choose to get the right help these days even if people think I’m batshit crazy. That’s their issue.
I was at the depths of the human experience a couple years ago. My memory is a bit vague and shoddy, but I will share what I remember. I was working full time and a full-time partner and parent to a young child for a few months with only little waves of ebbs and flows to my mood for months. I exercised, ate pretty well, spent 1.5 hours getting ready in the mornings, kept up with friends and generally was unaffected by illness. I think I was on a low dose of Seroquel and Lithium at that time. I gradually started feeling a little low so the dose was increased. Once I was on more meds I felt slow, foggy and like my ears were not working. It was not treating my bipolar II well despite it being the most recommended drug for bipolar II (to my knowledge, at least).
My normal weekly psychiatrist visit increased to 2 times a week due to my worsening depression. I had to take off of work for a couple hours for that, and it soon changed to the whole day. My depression worsened to the point I could not stand up without extreme effort, and my partner had to call my work in partnership with my doctor’s advice that I needed extended leave. I stared at the wall during waking hours and slept about 20 hours a day. Showering was impossible. Sitting up was impossible. Walking to the toilet took me about 1 hour to psych myself up to the point I almost wet myself. I do not have food related memories. The worse symptom is that I became mute. I was trapped in a numb trance surrounded by thick commercial-grade foam where breathing was nearly non-existent. Death was all I wanted but even if I had a gun in my hand I would not have had the strength to lift it to my head.
My doctor suggested a private hospital, a private room and ECT. My room was large. There was no TV, but the shower and bed were nice. I think I spent about week in bed. They brought food to me and I had one lovely nurse who had the kindest and most non-judgmental eyes. I think she probably helped me recover more than anything throughout my stay. I do not remember eating at that point.
I woke up about a week later. They started making me walk about 20 steps to get my drugs from the drug closet. Within a day or two, I was strongly encouraged to go get my meals. It was weird seeing the people in there. My fellow patients’ attributes are forever sealed in my memory more than any other memory on this planet. It is a weird and chilling but somewhat comfortable phenomenon. I noticed every detail, expression and movement. I felt as though I was inside a video game and that I needed to dodge other patients. I went to one group in the 4 weeks I was there. It was about CBT or social rhythym therapy. I cannot remember much except the do-gooder patient that was trying to impress everyone with her self awareness.
I did not talk to another human while in hospital except for those caring for me and the family that visited. None of my closest friends knew about my brain fry or even that I had depression until I disclosed it to them months after leaving hospital. I was too ashamed. I still have not disclosed to some of my most immediate family members and many friends because of that. It is too complicated with my family because their dense understanding of mental illness is too swollen in stigma and probably either self denial or self preservation since bipolar runs in genetic material like a reckless steam train out of control. Now I am less ashamed of myself and more aware of the real-life consequences of disclosure. I’ll talk about my genetic and family history stuff some other time. I could write books about real-life consequences of disclosure so I am sure that will come up for me at some point.
TRIGGER WARNING, SUICIDE: So in full disclosure, one of the things that gave me the shits and panic with my hospitalization is that the person staying in the room next to me completed suicide. I was in my room and heard the nurse yell a code out to other nurses. Everyone ran panicked. CPR, etc. Patient was wheeled out covered head to toe by a sheet. This was obviously something disturbing to witness even if I were well, but it had an effect on my feelings of safety and recovery.
Soon my “shock the fuck out of my brain therapy” began. Please pardon my French. They woke me up at about 4:30 am. No food. I had to go to this holding space with other patients and sit on ugly wingback chairs with sweaty hand stains that were last upholstered circa 1994. I felt like a dazed and unknowing cow before it feels the burn of branding or even the electric shock of the abattoir. We could be seen by anyone was awake at that hour so even in the hospital it felt embarrassing to me. They would call my name and buzz me into a corridor like those cold white halls of a hospital. I could see other patients passed out in an adjoining room. I had to hop up on a hospital bed, and say hello to the same nurse with a long brown ponytail, my crazy shock doc (said with all the love one has for a mad scientist) and the anesthetist. It smelled like operating room. They would talk about daily news while they put this tight rubber strap with double belt holes around my head. It was cold but felt similar to the way the tourniquet does when they take blood from your arm. They put thick gel goo all throughout my long hair with electrodes hooked to it. The anesthetist would give me a shot (or an IV, I can’t remember), and my doctor would still be talking about elephants in Zimbabwe or something and sleep would zap me. [Just so you know, I think they also used Ketamine somewhere, but do not quote me on that. It is something I need to find out because my memory is a bit lapsed in that area.]
When I woke, my jaw would be SOOO sore for days to the point it felt like I had been beaten by someone holding bricks. Nonetheless, I would sit up in a recliner and eat the hospital breakfast they served. Dry toast with super cold unspreadable butter, corn flakes, stewed prunes. Uuugh. I had to sit there 90 minutes or so and was cold and needed a blanket. My brain felt the way it feels when you are really drunk without the feelings of euphoria. Things were confusing and memories only existed in the time and place I was present. I had gel glue mushed in my hair as a tell-tell sign to everyone else in hospital that I had ECT. Many days I was not strong enough to shower. I think I had ECT 15 times in my month long hospital stay and as an outpatient for about two additional weeks where relatives brought me back to the hospital.
I felt about 82% better, but not like, “OMG!! I’m healed Jesus, I’m healed!!” My memory has been affected, but I do not really notice it because I do not remember what I do not remember, if that makes sense. I look at pictures of my child, and it’s like, “Oh, I don’t remember taking those photos.” I find that can happen in normal life anyway, too. However, I have noticed other gaps in my longer term memory that do not make sense. It is as though my memory has taken all the marshmallows spread throughout Lucky Charms cereal. It’s just not as good without the colorful bits.
Okay, as for the long term result, I think ECT lasted about 3 months. It turns out that I’m largely treatment resistant. For me, I would give ECT 1.5 stars out of 5. The reason I would only give it 1.5 stars is because of the trauma I feel around the experience. It did not last long enough to pay off for me.