Electroconvulsive Therapy (AKA “shock” therapy)

When you hear of “shock” therapy, what do you think of? One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Old, outdated methods involving painful seizures?

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a very misunderstood, stigmatized method of treatment. Take a look at some of these comments from Youtube on a video of someone’s ECT treatment:

ECT ECT ECT ECT

It is ignorance and shitty comments like these that perpetuate the stigma around an amazing treatment. Do us all a favor and do some research before you comment on a treatment you don’t understand. Believe me, I tried alcohol and drugs. I tried self-medicating. It only landed me in rehab.

I am an ECT patient.

These treatments have saved my life. I have been battling my treatment-resistant bipolar disorder for 12 years. I’ve been on countless medications. I’ve seen several cognitive therapists. I was still suffering. In my third and most recent hospitalization this past March, I began my acute series of ECT. I’m now into maintenance treatments. After 6 in my acute series, I was feeling well and my doctors and I made the decision to try to stop at that. A week later, I had a dip in my mood, and ended up going back for 3 more treatments for a total of 9 in the series. We made the decision to go right into maintenence to prevent another relapse. Right now I go once a week, then they will begin spacing the treatments out with more and more time in between.

Let me dispel some myths and misunderstandings.

ECT is not painful. For every treatment, I am given general anesthesia through an IV, as well as a type of benzodiazepine and toradol. Getting the IV is the worst part, and even that’s done in just a few minutes. The anesthesia burns once it’s injected, and within a few seconds I’m out. I do get mild headaches sometimes after I wake up, but those have stopped since they began giving me toradol.

ECT does not make you lose all your memories. While memory loss is a possible side effect, it is less common with unilateral ECT. I have had some memory loss, but it is very minor.

ECT is not torture. I was not forced to undergo these treatments. The hospital I go to is very careful that I sign a consent form before each treatment, and it is filed in my chart each time. Forcing people to suffer through mental illness because some people don’t understand ECT — that’s torture.

The treatments are nothing like what most people have seen in movies such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You can search on Youtube and see what a modern treatment looks like. It really doesn’t look like much. No violent seizures. No Nurse Ratchet holding big electrodes on the patient’s head. Let me give you a rundown of how my treatments go:

The hospital I go to has a separate treatment room and a recovery room. While I wait my turn, I sit on a gurney in the recovery room. As the previous patient is being wheeled from the treatment room to the recovery room, I’m being wheeled in. The hospital is also a “teaching” hospital (I have to also sign a consent form that I understand there are med students), so there are at least two doctors, a nurse, and at least two people from anesthesiology. Sometimes there are more doctors for a treatment, but that’s always the minimum. While one of the anesthesiologists ties a tourniquet on my arm, looks for a vein, sets up the IV (the worst part!), one of the doctors is hooking me up to electrodes. I get electrodes on my chest and on my sides to monitor my heart, then an electrode behind each ear, and on one foot, and finally the unilateral electrodes — one on the right side of my forehead and one on the right side of my skull. It all happens very fast, and the doctors are masters of distraction while the IV is being set up. The nurse wraps a blood pressure cuff around my ankle (it stops the muscle relaxant from going to my foot). They always call a “time out”; they verify my name, DOB, and patient ID#. It all happens very fast. They place what looks like a nasal cannula on my face to measure my O2 levels during the treatment, then an oxygen mask. The anesthesia is injected into the IV. I begin feeling a burning sensation up my arm. Within 30 seconds, I’m out.
After the treatment, once the anesthesia wears off, I wake up in the recovery room. A nurse takes my pulse and blood pressure, then sends my husband or my dad (or whoever happened to bring me that day) to pull the car up to the building. Once I’ve woken up a bit, although still groggy, they wheel me to the car. By now I’ve woken up enough that we usually go out to breakfast, as I’m not allowed to eat or drink anything after midnight the night before. IHOP is a favorite spot for my dad and I.

If you are considering ECT, I highly recommend talking to your doctor about it. It really has done wonders for me. My mood has been stable. I’ve been able to focus a lot more — enough that I was able to finish the manuscript I’ve been working on for over a year.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask.

Please note that I am not a doctor and cannot give medical advice. I can only give my personal experiences. Here are some links with information on ECT:
How Does ECT Work?
NAMI on ECT

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