How Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) Helped Me Survive to Battle Bipolar Depression

ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy) gave me a second chance at life so I could love my little girl

Ten years ago if you told me I’d beg a stranger to attach electrodes to my head to zap me out of despair, my retort would’ve been:

No way!

Life always has a way of surprising us. My life’s biggest surprise was being diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder (bipolar, peripartum onset). Six weeks postpartum, I was manic and oblivious to the inevitable crash that follows bipolar mania. When depression descended, it was vicious. I tried numerous medications, but my depression wouldn’t budge.

When my father died, my depression intensified more than I ever could’ve anticipated.

Apart from my husband, I considered my dad to be my best friend. He too had bipolar disorder, and when I called him about my bipolar diagnosis, he cried. He said, “I feel guilty for passing the genes on to you.”

Dad’s health began failing during his 70s. Each time when it seemed he reached his end, he’d make a miraculous recovery. But no matter how many remarkable recoveries Dad made, I knew someday I’d lose him forever. I dreaded each day knowing I might get The Call.

When I was told my father died, I became catatonic. My depression plummeted to depths it never reached before. I asked my husband to take me to the hospital because I was experiencing suicidal ideation.

At the hospital I told the staff I had bipolar disorder, I was medication-resistant and I felt suicidal. I hoped I’d be a candidate for ECT (electroconvulsive treatments) in which seizures are electrically induced in patients who are given anesthesia and a muscle relaxant.

My first association with ECT was Jack Nicholson’s character receiving it in the film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Nicholson’s grimace was a horrific depiction of ECT at its worst.

Conversely, many years earlier I read the poignant book Undercurrents by psychologist Dr. Martha Manning. She fell into a depression so deep that she opted for ECT. The treatments helped her enormously. She struggled with fatigue and short-term memory loss, but Dr. Manning made it clear she made a lifesaving choice.

After I arrived at the hospital, I remembered Dr. Manning’s book. Without any hesitation I told the psychiatrist on duty, “I want to do ECT!” I admitted myself to the hospital as an inpatient.

I was informed of ECT’s risks by the hospital staff, but I was already aware of the risks. My father had ECT done in the 1980s. While ECT didn’t help him, it didn’t affect his memory or cause other adverse side effects.

The psychiatrist told me that I would have unilateral rather than bilateral ECT, meaning that electrodes used to stimulate my brain would be placed on one side of my head instead of both sides. This was a conservative approach and meant fewer side effects, most notably less memory loss.

The treatments started at 6 a.m. in the outpatient procedures unit. I was brought there by a kind hospital aide. If I had to be taken to ECT by anyone, he had the perfect type of personality for the job. After I was dropped off in a curtained room, a friendly nurse did her best to set me at ease as she prepped me. She started the IV line that would be used to inject me with general anesthesia. I never had a problem with injections, so that didn’t faze me.

I was looking forward to oblivion very much.

At 6:10 a.m. in walked the psychiatrist accompanied by an extraordinarily handsome anesthesiologist. (Although I was in depression’s pit, I was able to notice physical beauty!) The psychiatrist gently placed several electrodes on my scalp and temples. A small, clear gas mask was placed over my nose and I was finally being able to relax.

At that point, I wasn’t scared. The strong compassion I could feel from my ECT team went a long way in diminishing my anxiety.

The anesthesiologist said, “Okay, Dyane. I want you to count backwards from 10.” When I reached “5,” boom! I was fast asleep. I didn’t feel a thing. There was no pain during or after the ECT.

When I woke up within the hour, I was groggy, but I was coherent in about ten minutes. I had an appetite and ate breakfast. Significantly, my short-term memory loss was minimal. While I was still heartbroken over the loss of my father, I definitely felt much better than I did before the first treatment. With each additional treatment there was improvement in mood.

After a week, I was discharged and had my remaining treatments as an outpatient. My husband dealt with logistics, an enormous stress. He was self-employed and we were very lucky in that respect. However, we didn’t have relatives or friends who could help us during my outpatient procedures. It was very tough on my family. I had to arrange long-term payments with the hospital because my health insurance barely covered expenses, but it was worth it.

I was incredibly fortunate with the outcome. I’ve heard horror stories of those who didn’t have my kind of experience. However, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Last year I found an inspiring TED talk given by Dr. Sherwin Nuland about his ECT. Dr. Nuland’s talk is considered to be one of the most popular TED talks given. If you’re remotely considering ECT, Dr. Nuland will make you laugh, he’ll make you think, and he’ll give you hope.

ECT removed my suicidal ideation and helped me get back on my feet, but I still needed to find medications to lift my treatment-resistant depression. ECT didn’t make everything better, not by a long shot. But it enabled me to get on a proactive path of recovery. I can unequivocally state that doing ECT was the best decision I ever made.

If you’re feeling suicidal, in the U.S. call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. (English/Spanish) open 24 hours, 7 days a week. Lifeline Crisis Chat is available.

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