By James Heaton
For those that don’t know what ECT is, it’s a procedure call Electro Convulsive Therapy. It is done while the patient is under sedation and a bite guard is used to prevent damage to the tongue and teeth. Typically, 70 to 120 volts is applied in either bilateral or unilateral positions. The procedure causes a brief grand mal seizure that resets the brain. It was once called Electroshock Therapy and has been used on some notable celebrities like Carrie Fisher and Ernest Hemingway.
This fall I’ll be four years out from ECT, and the experience and after-effects still linger. It’s been a journey, one that has changed not only my life but the lives of those who I call family. I written several pieces on ECT, each from a different time and noting my experiences. This is not only helpful for my memory, but I hope that it can help anyone looking to try Electro-Convulsive Therapy.
After a week in the behavioral health facility aka, the mental hospital in the late summer of 2018 I was told by the doctors that the best treatment for my obsessive suicidal ideation was several session of ECT. My bipolar disorder had pushed me to edge of breaking. It was either ECT or another week or two in the hospital. I chose ECT. I did eight sessions over a two-month period and instead of doing the fifteen sessions suggested I ended it at eight. I felt like anymore and I would be lost forever. The sessions were exhausting, and it left me dazed and confused, my memories had all but disappeared. My balance was off and all I wanted was to sleep. My wife watched from the distance as her husband began a change that would be both saddening and life changing.
After the eight sessions, I no longer obsessed on suicide, or self-harm. Instead, I was in a state of confusion daily. I felt unsure of my balance, and I slurred my words. Instead of the chatty, hyper person everyone knew so well, I was quiet and distant. My mind was silent when it had once been plagued by constant noise and chatter.
This lasted a few months then slowly began to get use to the feelings of fatigue and confusion. But every day was a struggle. My memories had been wiped, simple things that I should have known were gone.
A year after the procedure I noticed cracks in my teeth and have had one tooth pulled from the break and two others that are broken as well. The seizure can cause not only tooth damage as well as sore or torn muscles and in some instances the patient loses control of their bladder during the procedure. Although this isn’t the case for every patient, I have discovered through reading hundreds of stories from patients that these things do in fact happen regularly.
For two years the things I didn’t know plagued me. It was a very confusing time for not only me but for my family. It was as if I had awakened from a long coma, and I was forced to relearn the simplest of things. I learned that the things that I didn’t know that I didn’t know were the worst part of the entire procedure. What memories have been permanently deleted from my brain? There are times when I look through old photos that I see events that I cant recall being a part of, but there I am in the picture.
My condition improved every few days over the next few years, but the hardest part was learning my past from my wife. She would tell me things about my past that seemed alien to me. I learned more and more about the man I had been and one of the most useful tools were daily visits to my Facebook memories. I had a view of the man I once was, he was aggressive and said things that this new me would never say.
By the second year after ECT I had a grasp on who I use to be, and every day I would catch a fragmented view of things from the past. The memories were fuzzy and not in any sort of order, I had to reconstruct my life via a series of questions to my wife. I watched as her heart broke daily, I had become an entirely new person. According to her I was no longer the man who she married, I was calmer and solemn. The man she knew floated through manic phase after manic phase and then crash into a deep depression. She had become accustomed to that man, and now he was the exact opposite.
There is a movie from 1993, Sommersby, where the protagonist returns from the Civil War and even though he looks the same, he is different. The entire movie focuses on how his wife slowly discovers the truth. He had met her husband in a prison and their appearances were so similar that it was enough to convince the wife that he was her husband. I felt that this movie depicted the reality of ECT in a distinct perspective. I had been one man before ECT and returned someone completely different. I used this movie as a way to explain to others what I was experiencing.
Three years after and I was calmer and more complacent with life, but still I learned daily something new about my past. I grew to dislike the man I had been he was the evil side of me, the broken and unhappy side of me. I had tried to reconnect with people in my life that were important to me pre-ECT, but the feelings weren’t the same. I had to relearn how to play guitar, something I excelled at, and it took a while to regain my skill level. I found a clarity that had never been present before. It was as if there was a small part of my brain that was normal, and it could see the bipolar part. This new section of my brain could identify when I was doing something that was bipolar related. I had a new outlook on my behavior. The anger I harnessed for years had faded and I could enjoy the new me. Music that I had loved in the past was new to me, clothes in my closet were strange to me. Where had all my possessions come from? Where did I get this and when did I buy that? Things were strange and daily I realized that ECT had wiped so much from my brain. I felt like I was living in somebody else’s body. I would stare at the mirror and try to understand who was looking back at me. I didn’t know this person, but at the same time I was discovering the person behind the bipolar mess that plagued me for years.
Heading into my fourth year I would have days that the bipolar peaked, those old feelings of hopelessness would appear and then disappear. And even though I would tell the same stories of times I remembered, my wife would tell me that they were all from a new and unique perspective. She would explain that it was the same stories I told her years ago, but it was as if it was told by someone other than me. She saw a new side to the old me. But still my memories were just fragments, brief views of the past that I was unable to place by the year. Things that I thought were in 2007 were actually from 2012 and so forth and so on.
My wife and I recently took a much-needed vacation. Over the last three years I had published four books and I was accessing a new part of my brain that was flooded with thoughts and creativity. I published four series on the Kindle Vella program, weekly series of stories that flowed from my brain. I worked daily for hours, lost in writing, and creating. I had become a much better musician by this time, but I was exhausted from dividing my creativity between music, writing and art. The vacation was my time to relax for once.
I was able to sit on the beach and just stare at the water for the first time in years. My wife told me that the old me couldn’t be still long enough to just relax in thought. Sitting on the beach I wrote for brief periods of time, working on plotting my stories. The creativity flowed and yet I was feeling new feelings. Being on a beach that we had always visited throughout the years brought on a flood of memories. But these new memories weren’t in order by year, I couldn’t tell the difference in five years or fifteen years. Luckily, I had my wife to guide me. Processing these memories wasn’t easy, and it was in fact, overwhelming.
On our third day of the vacation, we spent part of the day in the pool. The sparkling water, my body floating in the warm water, I was bombarded with a flood of memories. Things I hadn’t felt or thought of in years suddenly filled my head. My wife could see I was visually disturbed by these memories. I explained that I had so many glimpses of the past, things I didn’t know that were in my head, things that were buried deep into my brain. The pool had triggered these memories in a way that I couldn’t have imagined. I realized that there were things that could trigger these memories that I thought I had lost. It was a lot like trying to recover old computer files, some files were fragmented and destroyed. It made me realize how much like a computer our brains actually are.
I had looked forwarded to spending a full day visiting the town of Savannah, but I decided against it because I feared that the memories would be overwhelming and could be different from what I thought I knew. I didn’t want to tarnish the pleasant memories of my years spent in college in the beautiful city, the days when I moved back after my divorce from my first marriage. Those memories, the ones I had were all pleasant, what would happen if those memories were false? How could I live with myself if I went to Savannah and new memories surfaced, destroying the facade of happiness that I held onto like a security blanket.
This was very strange for my wife, to see me sway away from visiting the one place on earth that I called home. I wanted to hold onto the good memories and not taint the things in my head. How was this an effective way to live? Being afraid to destroy something so cherished because I couldn’t trust my own brain. I wasn’t prepared for this new feeling, these realizations that old memories could be false.
In the current days I experience small episodes of suicidal thoughts and then the very next day I’m happy and positive. I’ve considered doing ECT again, but I have to say that, even though it did its job, it was a life changing experience that I honestly do not wish to repeat. The thought of experiencing the absolute bizarre feelings of the process are enough to sway my mind. The one thing that stands out from my time receiving the treatment was waking up from the sedation and feeling terrified at the state of mind I was in. Those moments in recovery were the strangest moments of my life, the noise in my head was haunting and unsettling.
I’ve had an ever-changing view of the session I experienced, directly after I said I would never do it again. After the first two years I saw it as a necessary thing but still disliked the experience. I have even said in the past year I might reconsider it, but the loss of memories is the clincher. Loosing years, loosing precious memories that I might never recover is more than I can’t handle. I appreciate how it reset my brain to a point that I had a greater and clearer insight, but the trauma of the experience was too much.
I hold firm on my stance that if a person is consumed with suicidal thoughts and nothing can change their mind, if medicine and therapy become useless, then ECT is the best option. But being bipolar is a lifelong commitment to medication and therapy. Weekly or monthly visits to a licensed, professional counselor are essential. Medication and regular visits to a professional psychiatrist are the most important treatment. A life of consistent medication adjustments is difficult but necessary.
So, to summarize, ECT is a life saver for those that are plagued with the constant desire to harm themselves to the point of ending their life. But for people who only suffer from mood swings, I wouldn’t recommend it. I look forward to seeing what the next year reveals as my brain heals more and more from the treatments.
DISCLAIMER: These views are not based on a medical expert’s opinion but from an actual patient who has experienced ECT, and the article is not meant to diagnose or offer medical advice. You should discuss these things with a licensed medical doctor.