Twirling in Space – a patient relates her experience with electroconvulsive therapy

Twirling in Space – a patient relates her experience with electroconvulsive therapy – Brief Article

Katherine Lerer

My Experience With Shock Therapy

Broken, dejected and shriveled by the ravages of depression and mania, I slumped in the rounded, upholstered chair facing my psychiatrist of two years. I no longer believed I would recover from bipolar illness, in light of numerous failed medication trials. Weeping through my anxiety and despair, I turned to my doctor for help.

As she spoke about electroconvulsive therapy–“shock therapy”–my ears took in the horror of her words. I sensed the acrid smell of electricity and envisioned slick blades of lightning blasting chaotically through my brain. Was she giving up her belief in my recovery by suggesting electrocution? I cowered at the thought of what lay ahead. Courage and grit, where are you?

I spoke to patients and doctors and read journals. No one knows how this seizure treatment works. While it does work for many, its success is random. Graphic side effects, including memory loss, along with optimistic statistics, became familiar to me. Already I had lost 30 pounds and grieved for that lost and starved self. Finally, frightened that my ominous mind was too much to handle, I decided to begin the first round of 18 treatments.

At the hospital a few days later, I whimpered as I prepared to be abandoned. I shivered through a medical examination and numbly answered questions in a small, empty voice unrecognizable to me. An antiquated X-ray machine was wheeled into my hospital room and pictures were taken to ensure that the jagged jolts would not harm my body. I hadn’t considered the electric current running through my muscles, nerves and bones. I grew more frightened.

Very early the next morning, patients scheduled for ECT waited in the shabby reception area. The hunched regulars mingled with the uninitiated. One by one we were called in. When it was my turn, my clothes were taken from me and replaced with a skimpy, blue hospital gown. I sat there silently twisting the ties on my smock. We, pained depressives, living in the sun and shade, gathered in the anteroom together, hoping this mysterious magic might work. Our journey to the stars was to begin, and it was now my turn.

The last thing I remember before the treatment began was lying on a narrow gurney as the nurse secured a wide rubber belt snugly around my head. Almost simultaneously, the anesthesiologist inserted a needle into a vein on the back of my hand. As soon as I tasted a garlicky flavor in the back of my throat, I began my deep descent into complete blankness. It was as if my brain stopped working. My next memory is of wobbling back to the next room guided by a nurse. I felt confused and disoriented, like I was twirling in space. I was glad it was over.

Spread out before me was a cafeteria breakfast with which to break my 14-hour fast. I ate lightly and the milk from my cereal spoon spilled as I concentrated on drawing it to my mouth. They said I might experience fatigue, headache and confusion in the afternoon. After each treatment, I felt all three.

The memory loss was so profound at times that I got lost just walking a few blocks in my neighborhood. The period of time before, during and after my treatment permanently vanished into the deep channels of my mind. Short vignettes are all that I have left of my four months of ECT.

When it became apparent that I had experienced no relief from my depression, it was with tremendous disappointment that I eventually abandoned electroconvulsive treatment.

Katherine Lerer lives in Palo Alto, California.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group