One of my purposes here is to destigmatize ECT. I understand and support people who make an informed decision not to have the treatment. That said, in my experience a lot of people reject the treatment solely based on its stigma. I know I did. My doctor recommended ECT for 10 years and I rejected the idea until I was hospitalized and spoke with other patients getting the treatment.
Most people’s idea of what ECT is like comes from the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Given that the film is more than 45 years old (i.e., science and technology have advanced since then) and contains a ton of artistic license, current ECT treatments are nothing like that depicted in the film. And the thing is not only do prospective patients not have a clear idea of what ECT does and does not entail, many physicians don’t have the full picture either. Last year in a 10 day period I was asked by 5 different physicians (PCP, gastroenterologist, etc.) about my ECT experience. The typical questions were “Does it hurt?” and “Does it work?” I bitched about that to my psychiatrist who simply stated that ECT is something they learned about in medical school but that I was probably the first person they’d ever encountered who had undergone the treatment.
As “Does it hurt?” is the most common question that I’m asked I may as well address that right off the bat. No. It does not hurt. At all. In any many whatsoever. The treatment is done under anesthesia. People like my brother who don’t like needles may not enjoy getting an IV but yeah, no pain. Sometimes my muscles feel a bit sore afterward but no more so than after a good workout.
As for “Does it work?” Yes. It does. ECT saved my life. I have a very severe case of bipolar disorder with treatment resistant depression. I’ve tried 20+ different meds alone and in combinations. And that didn’t entail swallowing a pill and seeing if I felt better the next morning. It meant taking a small dose of a particular medicine to determine whether I would have a negative reaction to it. Then I would (more accurately my psychiatrist would have me) slowly increase the dose until I got to a therapeutic level. Then we’d wait to see if it worked. And when it inevitably didn’t work we’d increase the dose to the max recommended and wait to see if that worked. And when it did not we’d slowly titrate down. And this was repeated over and over and over. Only ECT has worked. I began with treatments three times per week and slowly decreased from there. At this juncture I’m on maintenance and get treatments every 10 weeks.
Many people ask about the side effects as well. The most common side effect is loss of short term memory. I absolutely had some when I was on the 3x week schedule but once my treatments became more spread out the memory loss dissipated. My attorney father was afraid that I’d forget everything I’d learned in law school so after my first few treatments he gave me a mini Bar Exam until he was convinced otherwise. Furthermore, I CAN put 2 sentences together so ECT obviously doesn’t fry your brain to the 9th degree.
I intend to go into more detail about the rewards and the side effects (they do exist) as my blog journey unfolds but for now please know that for me the positives far outweigh the negatives.