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ECTs and Me

They saved my life but did not cure me


Updated June 25, 2006

I write this story not to call attention to myself but to help give hope and education to others who are struggling with mental and psychological issues of critical natures.

My life was very normal and happy until age 26, when I developed severe major depression and anxiety. I had experienced no trauma, abuse or emotional neglect in my life. In fact, I had a BA in psychology and was happily married with a small son.

In a couple of months, I became so ill that I could not eat or sleep and had suicidal thoughts. I also paced the floor every waking hour, sobbing in misery, as if someone were pumping lethal amounts of adrenaline in my body.

I was heavily sedated in an inpatient psychiatric hospital at the University of Iowa and immediately put on several antidepressants (in the 1980s). Those medications failed to help me significantly, so electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) was considered.

Appropriate ECT is not something that is done lightly. ECTs are for people who are not responding to medication and other treatment methods, or sometimes are pregnant or elderly and cannot tolerate medications that could otherwise save their lives.

In effect, ECT is not a cure; rather it is a method of buying precious time to find treatments which do work - for those individuals who are worsening or not responding to current treatment and/or medications.

In my case, I readily agreed to have ECTs since I was not unlike a cancer patient with one last option left for life.

I had seen ECT patients improve in my psych ward, many times more quickly than those on medications. I consented and was given ECTs. I was given both unilateral and bilateral treatments over a period of time. ECTs allowed much needed relief that I was not getting with the initial medications prescribed for me. So this precious time of relief was utilized once again by trying other medications that had not been utilized before.

A medication for treatment resistant depression and anxiety was then given to me after I had the ECTs. That particular medication has saved my life and given me precious recovery. But I might not have been alive to try that medication if I had not been given ECTs first.

ECTs are not for everyone. They can cause memory loss, mostly of recent events, not long-term events. They can also cause some temporary confusion in many clients. It is important that clients, family members and friends be aware of this risk and all other potential risks and benefits of ECTs before consenting to treatment.

ECTs cannot cure personality disorders or take away trauma. They can buy precious time, however, to find treatment methods that do work for certain individuals.

ECTs are given in safe environments - usually recovery rooms in hospitals where medical professionals and equipment are present: an anesthesiologist, attending psychiatrist who gives the treatments, sometimes cardiologists, but always cardiology monitors, psychiatric ECT trained nurses and all the medical and life saving equipment found in hospitals.

A client is gently sedated so he feels no pain at all. His muscles are anesthetized and the ECT produces a type of seizure in the brain. The treatment lasts only a few minutes. Observation of the treatment might reveal a wiggling of the client's toes.

Shortly after the treatment, the client wakes up, is checked thoroughly by medical personnel, and is allowed to go back home or to the hospital. After an ECT, the client may have a slight headache, some drowsiness and temporary confusion, but anything more serious is extremely rare.

Clients who are considering ECT should understand all risks and benefits before consenting. There are people who claim they have suffered adverse affects - such as a more permanent type of concentration or memory loss. These people should be listened to and research in this area should be taken seriously.

The most important aspect, however, is an accurate presentation of both the pros and cons of ECTs to the client, family and friends. There are endless professional and consumer resources on ECTs, both con and pro, that can be readily obtained to help make a decision.

For me, ECTs were the instrument that saved my life, in that they bought the precious time I was running out of to find a medication treatment that would help me.

Today I work in the mental health field as an educator and enthusiastic advocate. As a member and leader of local chapters of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), and recent staff member of the Mental Health Association of Central Florida, I can attest to hope and recovery for those who struggle with life-threatening mental illnesses.

Soon I will be a licensed mental health therapist in the state of Colorado. My heart will NEVER DEPART from being a mental illness supporter and advocate. I hope to minister with heartfelt support to others who are experiencing the pain of mental illness. They need to know there IS HOPE and that WE ARE NOT OUR DIAGNOSES!

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