ECT, otherwise known as electroconvulsive therapy, is a largely stigmatized form of treatment for the many misconceptions it holds when spoken about aloud. Most people still get spooked out about the word, thinking of the treatment as what was shown so many years ago in the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) film. Instead, nowadays the treatment can be used for mental health conditions, most often depression, that have been unrelenting, severe, and where other treatment options haven’t worked properly before—options such as medications, which were discussed earlier in this series.
While ECT isn’t brain surgery, it’s also not the first go-to for a form of treatment. Medications and behavioral changes tend to be the first and foremost treatment options in Western society at least, and I’d like to discuss in this article what ECT really is, and what my experiences with it have been thus far.
So, first, ECT is something that is performed under general anesthesia. Different hospitals in the United States will have this treatment option available, and what it does is administer little shocks of electricity from electrodes on your forehead while you are out, inducing a small seizure. The procedure can be done either on an inpatient psychiatric service or outpatient, except if done outpatient, the person getting the treatment cannot operate a vehicle after. So, they’ll need to be driven home or have other designated transportation.
ECT, like most other treatments, is not without risk. The most prominent potential side effect from ECT that can cause worry is memory loss. As stated by the Mayo Clinic, this memory loss usually occurs from around the time that the individual receives the treatment to weeks or months prior. ECT, overall, can be a hit-or-miss treatment option. For some people, it is life-saving and makes all the difference in the world, and for others, the effects may be short-lasting. Initial rounds of ECT are usually followed up with maintenance ECT, or “tune-ups” so to speak, that take place in the time after the first ECT was performed.
Originally, I was suggested the idea of ECT back in 2015, when my OCD-specialized therapist wondered if that treatment option would be helpful since I was so often unstable and suicidal. I was a little spooked by the idea at the time, and I think then I needed to explore more medication and therapy changes rather than ECT.
As it turned out, I received ECT my first, and, thus far, only ECT back in September–October 2017 while I was at Unit Z. That was the first and only time in my recovery journey where I stayed five weeks at an inpatient psychiatric hospital, and where I was actively suicidal and self-harming in their care. At that point, my treatment team and I were throwing everything at the wall, hoping for something to stick. I had a lot of medication adjustments then, some of which had annoying side effects that I didn’t realize at the time, and then the idea of ECT was brought up. I remember my social worker, DC, trying to operate a computer to play the old DVD they had on ECT and what the procedure is and what to expect from it. My parents and I watched it, and from there, because Unit Z offered ECT at their hospital, I got cleared to try it.
I remember they would pick me up from the unit early in the morning, at probably six or seven, where the sunrise would be beautiful, leaking into the windows, and I’d be wheeled to the room where they performed it. The nurses and anesthesiologist were really nice, and I remember faint details beyond that before I was put under. Later, I would wake up there and then, after a little while, be taken back up to the unit.
I received six treatments of ECT over the course of two weeks, and I think after the third one I could notice a difference for myself. I felt… happier and lighter than I had in a while, and I was stable. I wasn’t as ill then, I remember that.
The effects, for me, lasted a good two months before I felt that the depression was coming back worse. I don’t know if there’s a causative link there or not; I just know that in my experience, the effects did wear off after some time.
I wound up returning to Unit Z in January 2018, and I was actually up for more ECT treatments, but the psychiatrist on my case felt it would be better to adjust medications and work with behavioral changes instead. And as it turns out, I’m now 10 months stable from when those changes took place, enjoying and loving every moment of true bliss and identity reformation that I’ve been able to have since.