Electroconvulsive Therapy: what I wish I’d known

electric shock.jpg

Not this bad.

So. When I was in the psych ward last year and my doctors approached me with the idea of electric shock treatment (aka ECT: electroconvulsive therapy), my first reaction was, “that still exists?!” It turns out it’s not the torture treatment it used to be. It’s safe, quick, easy, and very effective. But my hospital wasn’t very good at giving me the full picture, so here’s what I’d like you to know if you’re considering ECT. (Please note, these explanations are in my own words. I’m don’t know if they are 100% accurate, and I’m sure they’re not technically correct. Double-check with a good doctor!)

  1. It’s an option for people who are already using the conventional means of therapy and/or medication, and aren’t getting better; and for people who need to get better in a hurry. As a postpartum mother of 4 with suicidal depression, who’d already been on medication and therapy for years, I needed something to change, quick.
  2. It re-sets your brain. My husband did a lot of research and found out that ECT kind of erases some of the thought patterns that have built up in your head. If you head back home after your treatments into a situation that hasn’t changed, with all the same stressors and problems, your mind will fall back into its old patterns again. You need to take advantage of the time after ECT to work hard and establish good new patterns for your brain: coping strategies, positive thinking, relaxation techniques, etc. I found Cognitive Behavioral Therapy extremely helpful for this.
  3. That means that you’re going to have a long recovery period. You’ll probably need to take time off work, or lessen your other responsibilities. You’ll need people nearby to cover for you and help you out. You’ll need someone to drive you to your treatments and stay in the hospital the whole time, and you’ll need someone to check in on you while you’re recovering. Obviously this is a tall order. But apparently, unless you take these precautions, your ECT may not have much effect and you may end up back where you started.
  4. My side effects were short-lived irritability and confusion, and some fairly significant memory loss. I was told that I would lose the memory of the morning before the treatment, and that was it; but in my case, that wasn’t true. I’ve lost memories from the last few years of my life, mostly the last year. I can’t remember places we went, things the kids did, books I’ve read, people I visited. I can’t remember what my friends’ youngest kids are named, or what they’ve told me about recent developments in their lives. It hasn’t really affected my life that much, but it makes me sad. I feel like I’ve lost part of my identity. I think it was worth it, though. I’m not sure how much of my recovery was due to the ECT, and how much was due to medication, therapy, and changes in my situation; but I’ve talked to people for whom ECT was an unequivocal success, even a life-saver.
  5. Get somebody you trust to help you research and make the decision, especially if you’re in the hospital or in the middle of a crisis. I was scared, uninformed, panicky, and generally not in any state to make important decisions. I was so lucky to have my persevering husband to depend on. This is something you shouldn’t do alone.

Please write to me if you’d like to talk about it! My email is preverized@aol.com

Wonderful things that happened after my crisis

Long story short: after my fourth baby, I went into a tailspin. I tried a couple different medications, and Wellbutrin made me suicidal, so I checked into the hospital. I spent ten very good days in the psychiatric ward and had electroconvulsive therapy. (See my article about the spiritual effects of it here). After that I was supposed to remove stress and responsibility from my life for a while, so that my brain would have time to build on the changes from the shock therapy and establish a more positive thought pattern. So we attempted to free me up from some of the stress of living with a 6-year-old, 4-year-old, 2-year-old, and newborn, in my parents’ house, with my mother who has Alzheimer’s. Ha ha! That didn’t work. Instead my brother and sister-in-law took the three big kids into their home, and I moved into my sister’s house with my husband and newborn to recover.

What a mess! Except it wasn’t. Here are some wonderful things that God did in my family’s life as a result of this crisis.

  1. My family came together. They have always been loving and supportive, but my breakdown provided an opportunity for them to get even closer. There were several family meetings, in which my parents and all 7 of my siblings got together to help us figure out what to do, and how they could help. Everyone gave what they could: babysitting, money, shelter, driving, prayer, and help figuring out logistics and planning. And afterwards, when things were a bit more stable, they kept up the group conversation, to keep us all in touch and within reach for mutual help.
  2. I got wonderful one-on-one time with the baby. Instead of being the littlest of four, always set down so I could feed the big kids, or carried like a football while I did the laundry, she got to have that only-child experience of being the center of my universe. I think she’d be fine either way,  but it was nice for me! I had similar experiences with the other kids; my family’s help made it possible for me to spend a glorious hour outside with my two year old,  enjoying the wind and the shadows and the trees and the mud, and give my other kids their heart’s desires: my undivided attention to their very favorite Legos and ponies, respectively.
  3. We experienced life with my sister’s family, who are called to a special charism of poverty and generosity. We learned to live with less stuff, waste less, and pay special attention to the liturgical seasons. We learned to live in a sort of community, everyone contributing to the household and accepting anyone who showed up.
  4. We lived out of our suitcases for three months. It actually helped me appreciate what I had, and appreciate what it would be like to be dirt poor–using both sides of every paper, saving boxes to keep my clothes in, piecing together my sewing scraps to make a wall hanging because I had no pictures. And I missed very little of the massive pile of stuff I left at my parents’ house. We’ll see how quickly I can keep this new-found minimalism, but so far in our new apartment we’ve managed to get rid of a lot of junk and live with less than we’ve ever done.
  5. My family’s generous actions had good results for them, too. My sister, whose kids are almost all grown, got to have a baby around the house again; my other sister, who did a heroic amount of babysitting for me, told me that she’d been helped out a lot at another stage in her life, and it was nice to have the opportunity to pay it forward and help someone else. Driving us and our kids back and forth for visits and moving gave my siblings opportunities for long-awaited visits with each other. Siblings got to catch up, aunts and uncles got to know nieces and nephews, cousins got to play together. Yup, one big long crisis-fueled family reunion!
  6. My children had the experience of living at my brother and sister-in-law’s house. They came back home with all sorts of wonderful habits, like brushing their teeth and following along at Mass and clearing their plates after dinner, and all sorts of other things that I totally would have taught them, any day now. They learned to play with kids of different ages and how to adjust to a different family’s schedule.
  7.  _I_ learned how resilient and grounded they are. My kids’ maturity and patience in dealing with all the changes (along with my sister-in-law’s kind updates on their little triumphs and achievements) was really encouraging to me as a parent.

There was no avoiding this huge disruption, and I thought my family and I would barely survive it. God had plans to bring a lot of unexpected good out of it. Thank you, God.

Find the rest of the 7 Quick Takes here.

Renoir onions

“Onions” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1881