Climbing Out of the Rabbit Hole with ECT, DBT & Art Therapy
This is the third of three essays by Emilia in a series. The artwork in this post is by Emilia.
It was during one of my many confinements at “The Hotel California” (my term of endearment for the psychiatric ward at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, AR) that I finally I agreed to ECT (electroconvulsive therapy).
This treatment was previously offered to me, but I immediately shut the very notion of it down. What kind of “special crazy” would allow doctors to send electric shocks through their brain in order to induce seizures? However, at this point I was desperate and the controversial treatment seemed like my only hope. My second marriage was on the verge of ending. I convinced myself that my husband would simply be better off if he didn’t have to constantly worry about me.
I didn’t realize at this point that I hadn’t been in total control of my emotions, thoughts, and subsequent behaviors for a very long time. And even though I could “fake being well” for varying periods of time, I was in constant pain. I cried daily, sometimes for hours. At other times I hated the world and wanted to set everything ablaze. Nearly every moment, both conscious and asleep, was consumed by thoughts of the loss of my children, their unimaginable suffering, or reliving all of the horrible abuses I had experienced on an endless loop.
I didn’t truly wish to die. If I died then I would never hold my children again. I didn’t fully understand that I wasn’t a lost cause, that there was a tether of hope for my marriage, and that I could reconnect with the tiny handful of friends that didn’t judge or abandon me. I didn’t yet understand that I have a place in the world and that I could, again, contribute to society. The truth was that due to the fact that I literally saw nothing the times that I had been clinically dead, I actually want to live forever. And yet I was constantly plagued by thoughts of self-harm, suicidal ideations, and negative behaviors that would culminate in actual suicide attempts.
And so I made my inquiries, did my research, and consented to the ECT treatments. I was both intrigued and terrified. I felt at that juncture, I had nothing left to lose. I had risked it all so many times previously because the black noise in my head drowned out thoughts of anything else. What was the worst thing that could happen? I’d be put to sleep and never again wake up. But I didn’t see this as being any different than one of my many suicide attempts with the exception that this might actually help.
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I know that all of this may sound pretty scary. But I don’t think that sugar-coating any aspect of serious mental illness will make it any more palatable. The truth is that this is just one aspect of what a person struggling with mental health issues may have to face at any given point in time. Some mental illnesses are chronic, with no known cure but have only treatments designed to manage symptoms. Many of those treatments have side effects that can be relatively benign like dry mouth or weight gain. Or they can be as severe as horrible grogginess and cognitive impairment, uncontrollable tremors, or permanent memory loss.
The treatment schedule was a total of 12 treatments. The treatment schedule was as follows: three times per week for the first two weeks. Then the treatments tapered. For the following two weeks, there were two treatments per week. Thereafter there was only one treatment per week for two weeks. Finally, there were only maintenance treatments that could be as infrequent as one treatment per six to nine months or more. The frequency of maintenance treatments varies contingent upon the needs of each patient.
At first, I felt so poorly after the treatments. I honestly felt like I was helplessly caught up in a never-ending free fall, on my way to the final descent towards the bottom of the rabbit hole. I had terrible head, jaw, and neck pain. Substantial nausea and grogginess rendered me useless for the rest of the day on treatment days.
But by the end of the first week or two of treatments, the haze lifted and for the first time since I could remember I started to feel human again. I was still sad over the situation with my children. But it wasn’t a hopeless struggle to get out of bed anymore. I wasn’t plagued by constant suicidal ideations and negative self-talk. I was actually looking forward to getting up and going about my day. I started back to the gym. I allowed people back into my life. My relationship with my husband seemed to improve. I actually began enjoying DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) group therapy. And I decided to get back to my art.
Even though the side effects from ECT treatments are substantial (my short term memory loss has increased exponentially, which accounts for cognitive impairment that I find to be quite troubling), I’d still do it all over again because it literally saved my life. It was the springboard that would halt my life-threatening depression and manic periods allowing me to sleep, help my medications to actually have a positive impact on my symptoms, and cause a greater desire on my part to engage in therapy. All of this facilitated my getting back to living and not merely existing. So, the combination of ECT (which resets the brain), talk therapy (both individual and group), and medication put me back in a place where I could at least function somewhat, stop having constant nightmares and suicidal ideations, and get back to the business of finding meaning in my life.
Before the favorable results I experienced from ECT, I absolutely detested any sort of group therapy. I felt that my privacy was being invaded by a bunch of people who — though very nice — “just didn’t get me.” I would flat-out refuse to go no matter how much it was recommended that I attend. I didn’t want to hear about more psycho-babble that was designed to “trick me into feeling better.” I mean, “Hello! I’m parted from my children who have been and continue to be abused. All of this feels a thousand times worse because of the fact that there is nothing I can do to help them. And y’all expect me to just relive that nightmare again and again in front of a group of people who can’t understand? And a bunch of silly mental exercises are going to change this reality? And I’m the one with mental illness? Seriously?!” (Not real positive thinking, was it?)
But once I got my thoughts and emotions back on track, my behaviors would naturally fall in line. And this is the entire premise of DBT. I began to enjoy attending DBT group, getting more and more out of it with each session.
Somewhere along the line it occurred to me one day that I needed to get back to my art. I’ve always been artistically inclined. But I never thought I was good enough to get paid for those talents. I’ve written and illustrated children’s books, had an exposition in Paris, and dabbled with my art here and there. But I never appreciated how important this talent was for me, specifically as an individual struggling with mental health issues.
Since I don’t have any formal training, every project that I undertake is for the first time, whether that be making jewelry from bent wire and fused art glass, manipulating cut and painted water color paper to form collages adorned with positive ideations, or combining acrylic paint and whatever media I could get my hands on to make my visions and feelings come to life on canvases.
Not only do I have to think creatively, but I also have to solve the problem of how I’m going to make my vision “work.” For the cluttered, constantly active bipolar mind this “trouble” is actually a blessing. As long as my mind is filled with art there can be no room for constant strife, fear, worry, and aggression regarding the tragic plight of my children. You can’t just erase the fact that you were once a happy, loving, productive mother to the most awesome children ever, not even though they are now grown. So now I work to express myself with my art. And when I’m not creating art or figuring out how to make my art “work,” whether that be a happy thought or an expression of rage or deep depression, then I’m working on having my art work displayed and hopefully sold. Currently, I have my art displayed for sale at two local businesses here in Little Rock, Arkansas.
I want to affect people positively with my unique gifts in any way I can. Sometimes my art may offer comfort and camaraderie because “I get it” and give voice to feelings however dark, confused, or troublesome. At other times I deliver expressions that are meant to be uplifting, reassuring, and supporting. And sometimes I just want to make someone smile because I’ve created something heartfelt and joyful.
A mental illness diagnosis can strip you of all sense of pride, joy, self-confidence, dignity, competence and the feeling that you fit in within this world. It can knock you down so low that you feel you are not worthy of love and respect. Producing beauty, solving a creative problem, fashioning something that moves another human being — this gives me back what mental illness took from me.
I want to make everyone who loves me, proud of me.
Does the mental illness get in the way? Honestly, I don’t know if all the noise in my head helps more or harms. It’s a constant struggle to block the grief and fury out. But as long as I have canvases and paint and glue and paper and twine and wire and glass and whatever media I can get my hands on, I’m good. For those moments when I am just too sad or upset to create art, I have my support system.
It’s interesting to me that the stigma of mental illness took nearly everyone I had left in life away from me. But once I turned the corner, when I gained understanding of my specific bipolar and PTSD, how I relate to the illness and how it affects me, I found that regardless of the stigma, the “true few” individuals that are here for me, in person, in whatever capacity I need them, and a vast online community, as well as community offered by local businesses I frequent, the mental illness isn’t what matters to them. It is me! I matter!
My friends Renee, Leia, and Beth never judged me. They didn’t run the opposite direction when I told them my diagnosis or that I needed yet another trip to “The Hotel California” (where you can check out any time you want but you can never leave). They stuck around and asked me questions about my illness instead of wondering in silence what bits of information they know about my illness are fact and which are fiction. They keep in touch with me regarding my struggles and triumphs, just like “normal” friends do. We vent. We laugh. We encourage one another. But they are “way above normal” because they lend me kind words of support, ask for my opinion regarding matters of consequence, as well as the silly little decisions in life. But (I think) of the utmost importance, they give me space when I need to retreat into my head for a while without taking it personally. And they respond with affection when I finally emerge from my cocoon as if I’d never shut down. Words can not express my gratitude for their friendship.
I also have a vast network of kind, loving, and supportive online friends; some who I had known previously in real time, others who I’ve only known through the internet. To date, I have found this group of childhood friends, past school mates, wonderful human beings that I’ve only known through chats, texts, emails and phone calls to be extremely helpful in my recovery. I know so many wonderful women and men through Parental alienation organizations, domestic violence survivors, fitness enthusiasts, and dozens of happenstances; all due to online communities and social media. Any time I feel so compelled if I need someone to talk to, express my grief, need a laugh, or seek support and understanding, all I have to do is log on and engage “my online posse.” The support of my “above average friends,” my online posse, all the wonderful mental health professionals who genuinely care about my wellbeing, the awesome ladies of my DBT group, and my supportive friends at the local businesses I frequent have given me the courage to keep waking up.
Having said all of this, it is also of paramount importance to realize and accept that sometimes it just isn’t possible to derail the bipolar roller coaster, and more serious measures such as a confinement in a psychiatric ward at the hospital might be necessary so that I can be safely monitored and treated until my condition improves. There is no shame in being sick. But there can be grave consequences in refusing to ask for help if your condition takes a turn for the worse. It would be ridiculous to suggest that a patient with known heart disease be expected to “just think themselves better” if they experience symptoms that suggest heart failure. So why is it that it is acceptable mental illness stigma to suggest that a patient who is known to be mentally ill “just snap out of it and think themselves happy” when they exhibit equally life-threatening symptoms? That just doesn’t make sense now, does it?
Though I have had minor success reconnecting with one of my children for brief periods here and there, for all intents and purposes as I now author this article, all four of my children are still actively alienated from me. So I keep living with the strong hope that one day we will find our way back to one another. As my children have suffered a life-time of abuses themselves, they will need me to be mentally strong when they are ready to allow me to come back into their lives. I am duty-bound to do whatever I need to do in order to continue my journey of mental health recovery for my proper role as parent as well as productive member of society. My children deserve to be happy, true. But I am also deserving of happiness. My sincerest wish is that we will be happy together and this goal will only be accomplished if I continue to properly address my illness. Therefore, I must:
1. Continue to be an active participant in my recovery by working together with my doctors so that we can continuously address my changing needs regarding treatment. I don’t like this at all because I’m a firm believer that one should first eat well, be active, and sleep properly before relying on pharmaceutical agents for improving an undesirable physical condition. Unfortunately, attending to my illness by engaging in a healthy life-style just isn’t enough. So I need to take my medication and report any changing needs to my psychiatrist so that together, we can make the best decisions possible for my continued recovery.
2. Attend both individual as well as group therapy so that I can best realize solutions to difficult and negative thought patterns. Venting is important, yes. But I don’t have all the answers. It’s important, as well, for me to attend and engage so that I can also be monitored lest I suffer negative symptoms that my illness may not allow me to recognize before it’s too late.
3. Live with as much positivity as I can muster whether this be through staying out of unnecessarily stressful situations and drama, engaging my friends and community through positive and uplifting interactions, or just simply sharing my artwork with the world.
4. Always treat my illness as something serious. If I do not, the consequences will become dire.
I strive to be a nurturer, supporter and role model to everyone that life brings me. This is especially important to me regarding my children (and maybe one day, grandchildren). I would love to inspire and give pleasure to everyone with my artwork and ultimately, be the kind of person that will be remembered fondly when I’m no longer here.
Being stricken with mental illness is extremely painful for a host of reasons. This agony is compounded by the stigmas of shame, incompetence, and fear. Society often makes cruel jokes about those who struggle with mental health issues. While others turn their backs on those who they once professed to love. Mental illness hurts, no question. But I’m a pretty tough character. If my art or story can help or inspire just one person to get treatment, encourage a family member or friend to get help, or inspire someone to go into the mental health profession, then I’ll just keep saying, “Stigma shmigma!”