Before the post, I want to thank Dyane for sharing to help us learn, consider and hear positively what ECT is. I'd also like to be clear that I have have not had this treatment so can't answer any questions about it, nor I am 'promoting' it. I know Dyane would be very happy to chat about it, so please get in touch. I realise there are many types of experience with ECT and I am just highlighting one of them. If you are considering this or need advice please ask your GP, DR or Health Care Proffessional, who can advise what is right for you. If you want to know more about ECT, I've added a couple of helpful links think at the end.
How ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy) Helped My Postpartum Bipolar Depression
By Dyane Leshin-Harwood
Ten years ago if you told me I’d beg a stranger to attach electrodes to my head to zap me out of despair, my retort would’ve been:
Life always has a way of surprising us. My life’s biggest surprise was being diagnosed with postpartum bipolar (bipolar, peripartum onset). Six weeks postpartum, I was manic and oblivious to the inevitable crash that follows bipolar mania. When depression descended, it was vicious. I tried numerous medications, but my depression wouldn’t budge.
When my father died, my depression intensified more than I ever could’ve anticipated. Apart from my husband, I considered my Dad to be my best friend. He too had bipolar disorder, and when I called him about my bipolar diagnosis, he cried. He said, “I feel guilty for passing the genes on to you.”
Dad’s health began failing during his seventies. Each time when it seemed he reached his end, he’d make a miraculous recovery. But no matter how many remarkable recoveries Dad made, I knew someday I’d lose him forever. I dreaded each day knowing I might get The Call.
When I was told my father died, I became catatonic. My depression plummeted to depths it never reached before. I asked my husband to take me to the hospital because I was experiencing suicidal ideation.
At the hospital I told the staff I had bipolar disorder, I was medication-resistant and I felt suicidal. I asked for ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) in which seizures are electrically induced in patients who are first given anesthesia and a muscle relaxant.
My initial association with ECT was Jack Nicholson’s character receiving it in the film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Nicholson’s grimace was a horrific depiction of ECT at its worst. Conversely, years prior to my bipolar diagnosis I read the poignant memoir Undercurrents – A Life Beneath the Surface by psychologist Dr. Martha Manning. She fell into a depression so deep that she opted for ECT. The treatments helped her enormously. She struggled with fatigue and short-term memory loss, but Dr. Manning made it clear she made a lifesaving choice.
After I arrived at the hospital, to say I felt desperate for ECT was a massive understatement. I remembered Dr. Manning’s book. Without any hesitation I told the psychiatrist on duty, “I want to do ECT!” I admitted myself to the hospital as an inpatient.
I was informed of ECT’s risks by the hospital staff, but I was already aware of the risks. My father had ECT done in the 1980’s at U.C.L.A.’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. While ECT didn’t help him, it didn’t affect his memory or cause other adverse side effects.
The psychiatrist explained that I would have unilateral rather than bilateral ECT. This meant that electrodes used to stimulate my brain would be placed on one side of my head instead of both sides (bilateral). This was the conservative approach (which is usually good when dealing with a brain!) and meant fewer side effects, most notably less memory loss.
The treatments started at 6:00 a.m. in the unit allocated for outpatient procedures. “B.”, a kind hospital aide, brought me to the unit. If I had to be taken to ECT by anyone, he had the perfect kind of personality for the job. After B. dropped me off in a small, curtained room, I was prepped by a friendly nurse who immediately noted how down I was. She did her best to set me at ease and started the I.V. line that would be used to inject me with general anesthesia. I never had a problem with injections, luckily, so that didn’t faze me one bit.
I was looking forward to oblivion very much.
At 6:10 a.m. in walked the psychiatrist Dr. C. accompanied by a handsome anesthesiologist. (Although I was in the pit of depression, I was able to notice physical beauty!) Dr. C. gently placed several electrodes on my scalp and temples. A small, clear gas mask was placed over my nose and I remember finally being able to relax.
At that point, I wasn’t scared. The tangible compassion I could feel from the staff around me went a long way to lessen my anxiety.
The anesthesiologist said “Okay, Dyane. I want you to count backwards from 10”. When I reached “5”, boom! I was fast asleep. I didn’t feel a thing. There was no pain during or after the ECT.
When I woke up within the hour, I was groggy, but I was completely coherent in about ten minutes. I had an appetite and ate breakfast. Significantly, my short-term memory loss was minimal. While I was still heartbroken over the loss of my father, I definitely felt better than I did before the first treatment. With each additional treatment there was improvement in mood.
After a week, I was discharged and had my remaining treatments as an outpatient. My husband dealt with logistics, an enormous stress. He was self-employed and we were extremely lucky in that respect, but we didn’t have relatives or friends who could help us during my outpatient procedures. It was very tough on my family. I had to arrange long-term payments with the hospital because my health insurance barely covered anything, but it was worth it.
I was incredibly fortunate with the outcome. I’ve heard horror stories of those who didn’t have my kind of experience. However, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Last year I found a deeply inspiring TED talk given by Dr. Sherwin Nuland about his ECT experience. Dr. Nuland’s talk is considered to be one of the most popular TED talks ever given. If you’re remotely considering ECT, Dr. Nuland will make you laugh, he’ll make you think, and he’ll give you hope.
ECT removed my suicidal ideation and helped me get back on my feet, but I still needed to find medications that would lift my treatment-resistant depression. ECT didn’t make everything better, not by a long shot. But it enabled me to get on a proactive path of recovery. I can unequivocally state that doing ECT was the best decision I ever made.
You can read more of Dyane’s story, her info and contact details here, as she has shared her struggles with us before. Thanks again, Dyane, for reaching out to help others.
Links to more info on ECT - Mind Charity - What is ECT and what is it used for? The Guardian - Whats is having ECT like?