Be Informed, Not Afraid: Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) Could Save Your Life
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
I sat for hours in the dining area of Detroit Memorial Hospital, staring down at the golf ball in my hand. It had been given to me by a friend as a sort of anxiety comforting tool.
I was hospitalized for two weeks because of a debilitating case of depression that had evaporated and zapped hope from my senses and turned me into a frozen being. No joy, no caring for anything, not even the family that loved me. I couldn’t fathom why this feeling of doom had overtaken me, but there seemed no way out. I had planned various forms of suicide, which I was committed to completing.
I was 19 years old.
Finally, after almost three weeks of trying several antidepressant medication cocktails, my psychiatrist called in my parents for a consultation. The four of us sat in a quiet room in the psych ward and the doctor laid it out plain.
“Brian has not responded to medication, therapy, or rest. He remains as depressed—or more so—than the day he came to the hospital. He is extremely suicidal and sees no hope for recovering.”
“In my professional opinion,” the doctor continued, “there is only one option.”
She then said nine syllables that would change my life: electroconvulsive therapy.
“Some call it shock treatment. We wait until a patient shows no signs of improvement over a course a period of time before using it, but electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, is the most effective form of treatment for acute depression.”
The silence in the cramped, sterile room stagnated the air. ECT. The doctor described what the procedure entailed, giving us a written explanation.
In electroconvulsive therapy, the patient is given a general anesthetic. A rubber plug is placed in his mouth. This is because electric impulses, or shocks, will be sent to his brain through electrodes placed on his temples. The impulses will cause his entire body to convulse for about one minute. The procedure is observed by a psychiatrist, while an anesthesiologist and orderlies handle the physical elements.
The doctor then explained that once the patient regains consciousness, he is led to his bed to rest for a couple of hours. He then is given juice and toast or other light food to gain strength while coming out of the stupor.
The desired effect of ECT is to see the patient receive a boost in energy and an improvement in thought processes in terms of positive notions and in regaining the will to live.
Generally, multiple treatments are needed. Treatments are given two to three times a week. Most psychiatrists recommend between six and twelve episodes. The number of procedures depends on the progress the patient shows.
For me, there was progress. Slow, gradual progress. After the first treatment, the first thing I recalled was sitting in the dining room with a glass of apple juice and two pieces of toast staring up at me. It tasted like some velvety treat. My appetite had been nil for well before I was hospitalized—resulting in weight loss—and suddenly eating was somewhat pleasurable. The notion of anything being pleasurable again in my life had long since vanished. I was surprised by the glimmer of enjoying something.
I can remember feeling a faint surge of energy and veiled positive vibes. I could see colors again and my stoic solitude was sliced by the ability to hear voices—others laughing or simply talking seemed like senses I had blocked out for months as I wallowed in a self-centered malaise.
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Just as suddenly as those feelings of hope had seeped into my being, they faded by the next day. I hadn’t returned to the full-blown depressive state, but had settled into a feeling of apathy. Colors were turning drab again and I found myself withdrawing.
The doctor told my parents and me that this was natural early in the process. “I believe that Brian will probably require the full series of treatments to give him the best chance of recovering,” the doctor told us.
Just as the treatment is intended, the effect of the procedures gained momentum. The positive notions invaded my brain and stuck around for a while. My appetite became increasingly stronger. Feelings of dark doom had lifted to at least a level of mild depression. By the time I received four or five “fixes,” feelings of hope were beginning to stick.
Something big was happening and I couldn’t deny it. My parents noticed the difference after two weeks of treatments. I could hold a conversation, no longer sitting mute as they struggled to find words to help. We were encouraged by my progress. I was still in the hospital, not able to face the real world, but no longer in the pit of despair.
I indeed received the full twelve sessions. By the time I had the last couple of treatments, I was talking about returning to college, seeing friends, and returning to the real world. My parents were relieved and happy. Suicidal ideations were gone. They never came back.
I was still living at home, a year after high school. While I had regained much of my equilibrium, there was an awkward feeling of how I would explain my absence to friends and family members. I discovered that people are so wound up in their lives that they can be oblivious to what others are going through. Aside from three or four close friends, others didn’t even know I had spent time in the hospital.
I indeed returned to community college classes. Fortunately, it was near the end of a semester when I was hospitalized, and the school honored the work I had done for ninety percent of the semester. I had a week off to catch my footing before heading back. The second semester went smoothly and I transferred to Western Michigan University, where I would earn a degree.
Fast-forward forty years. Living with a rather persistent strain of bipolar disorder has posed serious moments and challenges. There were a handful of hospitalizations over the years, but only to reset my medication regimen and take a break from serious depression. I would not have hesitated, however, to ask for ECT had a slipped into a suicidal state.
Looking back, I have always believed that ECT saved my life. That is, it provided me a life that I had pretty much decided I would end. I cannot say that there hasn’t been some memory loss —the main side effect of ECT— but it is something easily absorbed compared to experiencing debilitating depression.
I hope that readers going through similar dark periods will at least look into consider ECT as an alternative. I strongly believe that the suicide rate in our country would be reduced if more desperately depressed people took on the procedure.
I have lived a productive life as a journalist and father of two. There is joy in my life and a true appreciation for little pleasures that I don’t take for granted.
Electroconvulsive Therapy is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, and the National Institute of Mental Illness.
And most assuredly by Brian Marshall.
If you or someone you know may be in crisis or considering suicide, please call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.