True Story: I Had Electroconvulsive Therapy

This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/amazing/challenging things. This is the story of Ashley and how she treated her depression with electroconvulsive therapy (previously known as electroshock therapy)

Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m 22, I was raised on a farm in rural Minnesota, and I studied music very seriously throughout high school. I was highly driven, happy, self-assured, and healthy. After high school I attended a conservatory in Ohio for two years before getting ill. To our knowledge, there is not a history of mental health issues in my family.

What led to you getting Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)?
I was severely depressed at the end of my first year of college. I don’t know if I can say a single thing caused my depression, but I gradually accumulated a bitterness and resentment about life that alienated me and ate away at my vitality. I had a number of suicide plans, but I didn’t get help because I didn’t want anyone to think I just wanted attention. I was also confused – when I was with my friends, I smiled, I laughed – how could I be depressed? I stopped taking care of myself, stopped eating, wasn’t sleeping, and cried often – people started to notice. At the end of my second year, I finally saw a doctor on campus and got a diagnosis (major depression).

What other treatments did you try before ECT?
Shortly after my diagnosis I began attending an outpatient program with psychologists and a psychiatrist. I learned about changing your thoughts (cognitive behavioral therapy), assertiveness, and tolerating stress. I also tried a number of different medications for depression and anxiety. By the end of the summer I was discharged.

After that I was to see a therapist twice a month and a psychiatrist every nine weeks. However, that wasn’t enough – not yet. I second guessed myself and never phoned either my doctor or my therapist when I began to have frequent panic attacks. I was calling my friends frequently and relying on them to ‘babysit’ me so I wouldn’t harm myself (I wouldn’t tell them I was thinking about hurting myself). Keeping yourself from killing yourself takes a lot of energy, and I ran out of energy. A friend took me to the emergency room and that’s how I was admitted to the inpatient unit on suicide watch.

What did you think when your doctor first recommended ECT?
I remember feeling scared! I had been in the hospital a few days but wasn’t relaxing or improving in any way. But at that point, I was willing to do anything to feel better, so I agreed to the treatment. The doctors told me the main side effect was memory loss, including retrograde amnesia, and it’s true – a lot of my memory a roughly month before and after ECT is spotty. Shortly after I was discharged I picked out my own Christmas present while with my mother and was completely surprised a month later when I unwrapped the gift. “How did you know?!” – no idea it was headed my way.

Can you tell us how the treatment felt? What did it consist of?
For the actual treatment, I was put under anesthesia and didn’t feel a thing. Then my doctor placed either one (unilateral) or two (bilateral) electrodes near my temples. An electric current would travel through my head and induce a seizure that lasted less than a minute. I had treatment three times a week for four weeks. After ECT I would sometimes wake up confused but that ebbed after a few minutes or an hour.

Did the ECT have a positive effect? How did you feel afterward?
Others can see the effects of ECT before you can feel them. I’ve seen others undergoing ECT and gradually their countenance becomes more alive. I do remember waking up from bilateral treatment and feeling clearer – depression can make your head pretty fuzzy. But at the end, I was not having panic attacks and just being alive was easier. I would say that in my own experience, ECT makes you feel better so you can deal with your depression instead of dying. It does not cure depression.

What advice would you give to others who are struggling with ineffective treatments for depression?
It is possible to get better, though recovery can be bumpy. I’ve been in and out of the hospital since, and on some really bad meds, BUT I have found great ones that have made such a difference and I enjoy living now! At my lowest, I found creating one soothing little ritual in the morning helped me get by. I found meaning in daily tasks such as self-care, and in relationships. Take your illness seriously. Let yourself make modifications as you get well and adjust to taking your life back. Don’t take on too much – your brain is sick. Take your time! Also, you can deal with the existential questions after you find the right meds!

Have you ever tried non-traditional treatments for your health issues? Any questions for Ashley?

17 Comments

Samantha

Thank you for sharing this. Truly I never thought that this was still used to treat people. Where there anyside effects from it? Do you need to keep up the treatments or is the three times a week for a month enough?

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A Frazzled Mommy

I had ECT back in 2008, and it saved my life. I find that people still think of ECT as something drastic and horrible, and it was wonderful to read such a clear, simple description.

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Kalei's Best Friend

I didn't think they did ECT any longer.. My mother's aunt who is now in her 80's had it done 40 years ago.. I remember her talking about it and someone asked what it was like..She said she felt like there was something missing. She said she felt better but had that not complete feeling..And u are right it does not cure.. The only thing that will cure it is coming to terms w/what caused the depression and dealing w/it.

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Anonymous

Deep depression goes beyond language. There is so coming to terms of my life that will cure the depression.

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Lauren

This is fascinating – I know most people (definitely including myself!) probably think about ECT as something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or as a treatment long since abandoned. Really interesting perspective that opened my eyes. Also wishing you all the best. đŸ™‚

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poet

Wow. I had no idea they were still doing this, and I also had no idea that it worked and was possible to be conducted in a humane way (I heard terrible things about how they did ECT in the 50s and 60s). Great for you! Good luck on your further recovery journey!

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Anonymous

My mum, who suffered from severe depression on and off for over 30 years, had it done a few times. Sadly, although it helped a bit, it wasn't the start of recovery for her. But I'm glad to hear it worked on this person. Perhaps my mum had been ill too long for it to work… I wish you all the best for your recovery x

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aliceblue

Thank you for telling us about your experiences with ECT.
I really think that the psychotropic drugs are a very hit and miss area of treatment. They often have a honeymoon period followed by a "poop out" where they stop working. So try and put as many things in place as you can – good diet, exercise and nutritionals( fish oil,calcium and vitD, magnesium) and keep up the cognitive behavior therapy – it has a better track record than meds.

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Miss Peregrin

Wow, this was a truly eye-opening read! Even though I studied psychology at university for three years, I never learned anything beyond the horrific way that electro-convulsive therapy used to be administered. It was very interesting to hear of electro-convulsive therapy as a humane and effective treatment method.

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Ashley

@ anonymous:I am so sorry to hear about your mother. You and your mother are in my thoughts, darling!!!!!!!!

@Samantha: my doctors and I decided that 3 weeks in the hospital was actually more stressful so I went home to Minnesota to be with family. Besides memory loss and confusion, I also experienced headaches from clenching my jaw during the seizure.

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Soup Maniac

Ashley, I've been trying to create a soothing morning ritual for a long time, but I can't seem to find one that is truly soothing or that won't be consumed by my obsessive compulsive tendencies. Do you have any tips? Or, if it's not too private, what is your morning ritual like? Thanks so much for sharing your story!

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Bhagen

I am having trouble finding a hospital or clinic in Minnesota that does this, can you help me out

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Geoffrey Phillips

Thank you for your touching story, which tells me that you are well on the path to happy mental health. My depression witnessed my unconscious suicide attempt in hospital, but ECT was my saviour then and one year hence. I highly recommend the procedure which appears not to have immediate benefit, but future benefit is almost certain if sufficient treatments are administered by an experienced psychiatrist. Good health.

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Judy Hentges

I’m not sure what you are talking about Ashley, because I had 17 ECT to my brain back in 1998 at the age of 39, and I can tell you – it has destroyed my life. If you have enough of them, believe me, they will. Or even just a few. I’m in a mostly catatonic state of existance, lost all friends, and my daughter.
Maybe the short term effects are different for others, like you and these posts. But the long term effects make for a life time of screaming, pain, and anguish, with no identity or abilities.
Good luck to you – but I very much disagree with these posts. As for BHAGEN – ECT can be found in most all MN hospitals – but I’m not going to give the names of 3 of them – to you. Because I care too much for your life. God bless…

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