My Experience Having Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

 

This morning I was visiting an online bipolar support group and saw a member asking people about their experience(s) with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), more casually called “shock treatments”. That reminded me of my past research, before having ECT, when I found plenty of positive stories, as well as what I believe to be exaggerated horror stories. I’ll tell you now, that ECT is no longer what people saw in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and hasn’t been since well before the movie was made in 1975. Nevertheless, it is still a serious treatment for some types of mental disorders, which should be done only after careful consideration.

Believe me when I say I had initial reservations about having such serious treatments. I remember the first time it was suggested I was manic with mixed features, meaning manic with also depressive symptoms mixed in. The mental healthcare professional that first suggested it was very new to me, and being manic, I was far from being an agreeable person. If I recall correctly, her suggestion even triggered me to have a major anger outburst so severe that I was dragged into an isolation room and sedated by medication injection. I was in the psychiatric hospital at the time.

During the above-mentioned hospitalization, I believe I was put on some rather high doses of an anti-manic medication that were also supposed to be helpful for mixed manic and depressive symptoms. The medications seemed to help bring down my mania rather quickly, so I was discharged in a couple of weeks or so to an Intensive Outpatient Program. My memory is a bit sketchy of that time, but I know my mood eventually switched to a pure depression, with no mania. The medication cocktail didn’t even touch my low moods, and over a short time it made me rapidly gain weight to the point of near obesity. Hopelessness set in and I became severely numb in spirit. Almost one year passed. I had been seeing my regular psychiatrist again for what had been severe depression. When he suggested ECT, I finally felt it was worth a try. It finally seemed like the last resort, and I trusted this psychiatrist.

ECT can be done in-patient or outpatient. My first ECT treatment was outpatient. My husband took me, waited, and then was home with me afterwards, as they suggested, because a light level anesthesia is administered. You are therefore unconscious during the actual procedure/seizure, so do not feel any pain or shock. A neuromuscular blocker is also administered to prevent injury. Some people receive unilateral treatments (on one side of the head), others bilateral (on both). I received unilateral, which is generally thought to cause fewer side effects. After the procedure is done, patients wake up a bit later and generally have a light snack and drink, since treatments must be done on an empty stomach.

People receiving ECT generally receive multiple treatments. I happened to receive seven in total. After my first treatment, my husband and I decided that I’d have the rest inpatient because, frankly, no one was available (or willing) to take me, wait, and stay with me afterwards. I confess that some of my treatments are absent from my memory. I only know the numbers from being told afterwards. Yes, memory issues are experienced by some (not all) people receiving ECT, but usually just during the course of the treatments or slightly after. My minor memory issues seemed to start after my third treatment. The most notable were after my last, which included forgetting how my husband took his coffee, forgetting how to get to the phlebotomist office, forgetting where my husband was taking me on the way to a ballet in New York City, and forgetting that I had sworn off drinking. These may sound scary, but I did not forget anything bigger or more important, and when my husband would remind me of things, I would usually say “Yes, I remember!”  Other people I know had even lesser issues. I’ve only read of a few with worse. My memory issues passed after a short bit.

My husband said I expressed a significant improvement in my depression after the fifth of seven ECT treatments. After my seventh, I returned home from the hospital. The psychiatrist wanted me to have maintenance treatments, but my husband and I decided that I wouldn’t. I felt better, we didn’t want the extra expense, the memory issues were a little disconcerting, and I would still have the issue of not having anyone to take me and stay with me on those days. Unfortunately, my depression crept back after a short while. I suppose I could have gone back for more ECT and found someone to take me. Perhaps. Instead, my Intensive Outpatient Program psychiatrist totally overhauled my medication mix. My regular psychiatrist added a couple additional medications, and I finally started to get relief again that lasted a while. I’m not sure, but I sometimes think that having had ECT made it possible for the new medication mix to work, where it might not have otherwise.

If I encounter a very long hard to treat depression in the future, I wouldn’t rule out ECT again. I wouldn’t rule it out, either, if I had a very long hard to treat full blown mania, or related issue. I would still use it as a last resort, though. In those cases, it can be a lifesaver.

24 thoughts on “My Experience Having Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

  1. henacynflin January 2, 2018 / 9:03 pm

    Thank you for this piece. I think it might well help people who have to make the difficult decision about ECT for themselves, especially when there is so much scaremongering about it. My mother was saved, and I don’t use this word lightly, from a dreadfully severe bout of depression with ECT. We thought that we were going to loose her before it was started. Similarly my brother did very well with this treatment. So far I have been lucky enough to avoid this illness that runs in my family but I know that if it ever strikes, then I too may have to consider this type of treatment if it is thought helpful.

    Liked by 2 people

    • updownflight January 2, 2018 / 10:07 pm

      Thank you so much for your comment, henacynflin! It is helpful to hear from others on this topic. I’m so glad that your mother and brother benefited so much from ECT. I’ve heard so many other people talk about how it saved their lives, too, but sometimes such conversations are limited to only certain places. The stigma of mental illness and treatments like ECT is still unfortunately strong.

      I hope that you continue to be spared mental illness, and I thank you for being such a great support to your family.

      Liked by 1 person

    • updownflight January 3, 2018 / 1:33 pm

      I hope you don’t either. I hope I don’t need it again. Wishing both of us a healthy happy 2018!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. bravingmentalillness January 2, 2018 / 11:18 pm

    Hi! Thanks for being so open about your experience. I haven’t looked into ECT or known anyone who’s tried it. So, this information is great in case someone asks me. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kira January 3, 2018 / 5:08 am

    I also had ECT. It really helped me and I had no significant negative side effects. My memory wasn’t affected much. I had unilateral ECT that included maintenance treatments. I have no idea how many total treatments I had but it was a lot.

    Liked by 2 people

    • updownflight January 3, 2018 / 1:40 pm

      Thanking for sharing, Kira! I’m glad ECT helped you and am happy to hear from someone who went on to have the maintenance treatments with no significant side effects.

      Like

  4. Cogitator January 3, 2018 / 7:33 am

    What a story to share, and helpful to many I am sure. I have not had ECT but my friend has, and she had serious memory gaps. Its interesting to hear an insiders view.

    Liked by 1 person

    • updownflight January 3, 2018 / 1:43 pm

      Thank you for your kind feedback on my ECT post, Cogitator! I hope both you and your friend are doing well now.

      Like

  5. tonyroberts January 3, 2018 / 8:21 am

    Thank you for this well-written, dispassionate, personal narrative about a treatment vastly misunderstood in our society. I received six rounds of treatment which did no significant harm or good. I saw others, however, who rebounded tremendously. My assessment is that it should be a last-resort treatment in a highly monitored setting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • updownflight January 3, 2018 / 1:47 pm

      I appreciate your kind feedback and your sharing your experience, tonyroberts. I’m sorry that ECT was not entirely helpful for you. I hope by now you are feeling better from some other treatment, time, or healthy living/self care.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Besticanbe January 3, 2018 / 3:49 pm

    Thank you for your very informative post. In 2010 I had to go into a mental hospital for a severe depression. I stayed in bed and slept for six days, only getting up to go to the bathroom. The combination of medications they gave me were totally ineffective. Then as a last resort, the hospital psychiatrist suggested I have ECT.

    When I look back I am amazed that I was so ignorant about that treatment. Many of the things you mentioned were things I had never even considered: I wasn’t prepared to have more than one treatment, paid no thought to the expense, and certainly had nobody who would be willing to stay with afterwards.

    I felt so bad I agreed immediately, my thought processes were non existent at the time, but as far as I can remember he changed his mind about giving me this treatment. So I have no experience of it, but I am pleased I now know more about it so that I can make an informed decision should I need to in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • updownflight January 3, 2018 / 4:54 pm

      Hi besticanbe. It is a shame that people know so little about ECT other than the frightening images from long ago in the past. I recall when it was first suggested to me that the doctor didn’t even explain it much to me, and I was too mentally unwell to think about asking questions.

      Like

  7. BipolarOnFire January 3, 2018 / 5:48 pm

    I have had over 40 ECT treatments and I am now stable and completely off ECT. I hope to God I never need it again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • updownflight January 3, 2018 / 7:36 pm

      I’m so glad to read that you are stable, BipolarOnFire. Thank you for sharing your success story. It’s important for people with bipolar disorder to know that stability eventually returns, even if you have to use intense treatments to get it. It’s a shame we sometimes have to put ourselves through so much stress to rid ourselves of it.

      I, too, hope you never need ECT again.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Vincent Schrader February 21, 2018 / 4:49 am

    I’ve fought depression since my dad came home from WWII. I’m 75+ now. Been through every chemical “fix” known. Nothing works any more. I have a good doc who says ECT is most effective on his geriatric patients. I’m still raising a granddaughter, supporting a totally disabled son-in-law, a 35 yr old autistic son. They’re the only things that keep me alive, other than my wife and some xanax (strictly monitored). I wish I could take the leap, but the memory issues scare hell out of me.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Vince February 21, 2018 / 4:54 am

    I’ve fought depression since my dad came home from WWII. I’m 75+ now. Been through every chemical “fix” known. Nothing works any more. I have a good doc who says ECT is most effective on his geriatric patients. I’m still raising a granddaughter, supporting a totally disabled son-in-law, a 35 yr old autistic son. They’re the only things that keep me alive, other than my wife and some xanax (strictly monitored). I wish I could take the leap, but the memory issues scare hell out of me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • updownflight February 21, 2018 / 1:57 pm

      I can understand the fear of memory issues, but as I said, they weren’t permanent for me and not so severe as to seriously affect my functioning. I guess it depends on various factors. I’ve read that unilateral treatments are less notorious for that side effect than bilateral. If you are interested in ECT, do ask your doctor lots of questions. It’s good to learn that it is known to be effective for geriatric patients.

      I hope you can finally get some relief from depression soon.

      Like

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