Rounding the Madness: My Depression and ECT

Squinting, I could see the clock on my cell phone. It had been daylight for hours now, and the bright sun shone in the white room making shadows on the cheap blue carpet. Clocks are meaningless when time is irrelevant. Back against the cold concrete wall, I sat up on my futon mattress spread across the middle of the floor. Old Imo’s pizza boxes and cases of empty Corona beer bottles lined the corners. It had been at least six days since I’d showered. Vomit stuck in my hair, my ability to be presentable had expired. No one knew, no one cared. Prayers were not answered that day.

And, it was all too ordinary. It wasn’t as bad as it had been or as bad as it would be. It was an average day, just a moment segued between a depression that had gripped me for years and a future that could not exist any longer as the status quo. Something had to give. Something had to go. I decided that something had to be me. I wasn’t even in tears over it. Pills and alcohol and experimental slashes stained my past. What difference now? I wasn’t angry either. Just hurting so much with no one to understand me, I truly believed that the sheer agony and grief would never go away. It seemed hopeless. The nagging, invasive thoughts could not be handled any longer.

It was not the first or the last attempt to end my life. My plan was spontaneous. A bag that had contained bedding would serve to suffocate and stop my breathing. I could have as easily ran to the Valium, but the idea of a stomach pump kept me from overdosing.

The choices get really immediate when the pain is that immobilizing. There was no grand scheme, though later I would make one of those too. I could only handle so many failed attempts, so I would need a guaranteed scheme that would end in peace.

If someone could have just warped me through a wormhole and shown me the person I am now … But, that’s never possible in those moments. That doesn’t happen when despair and a hunger for escape from it recur for weeks or months at a time … even years. No, there is no magic wand or crystal ball to hold and transform the bitter circumstances. It’s just cold and empty, a haunting lonely space of a fear that is probably the greatest fear of all. It is the fear of an unending colossal magnitude of pain that takes on even physical proportions. Weeping. It’s bad. It hurts. Many people don’t survive it.

I did. I have survived a lot, but surviving those indescribable moments in hell trying to escape best I could from it all, numerous times, is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. At some point, there had to be an answer.

After my father’s death in 2008, I suffered a spell of Bi-Polar mania where I thought it feasible to move to the UK by flying with two huge suitcases on a one-way ticket. It resulted in deportation and ended in my having to move back from California to Missouri to live with my mom. My life was in shambles.

I had no job, no money. I had lost my car when it was too expensive to get it out of the airport parking garage after my deportation.

I filed complete bankruptcy. And, I had been close to my late father, and the highs and lows after his death with the resulting mania and severe depression were more than I could handle. Numerous, previous hospitalizations served as a gauge to what another long-term treatment plan could offer, and that’s when the hospital psychiatrist suggested ECT, Electro-Convulsive Therapy.

My family and I had never heard of ECT treatment up until that day. The hospital psychiatrist acted quickly, due to insurance demands, and referred me to have me transported to a hospital a few hours away where ECT treatment could be performed. In order for the insurance to pay for the treatment, I would need to forfeit additional time to consider the treatment. And, after arriving at the hospital, more confusion and agony ensued, as the treatments were bi-lateral instead of unilateral and resulted in a great deal of confusion and short and long-term memory loss.

While everyone reacts differently, I found that I was very upset and confused right after the treatments. The initial short-term memory loss wore off while the long-term memory loss wasn’t as significant but seems to stay permanently. I have blank spots throughout my long-term recall of events, which is frustrating. But, was it worth it?

That’s the big question in most people’s minds.

Does ECT work?

For me, and it is such a personal decision, it was effective and worth it. It essentially saved my life. I would try ECT again—despite the initial confusion, upset and long-term memory loss—if suffering with the severe depression I had before. Like I did, many sufferers of depression and/or Bi-Polar disorder have a dual diagnosis of substance abuse in conjunction with their mental illness. The ideal solution to my problem might have been a long-term treatment option that would have included treatment of the substance abuse. But, the question stands: Would I have made it through long-term treatment alive?

I believe I might not have made it through a long-term treatment program before taking my life. ECT can be very effective, but it is not a resource to use lightly at all, as the drawbacks to ECT are significant and there is always the chance for relapse. To me, ECT is a last resort or last ditch effort. I wouldn’t treat normal depression with ECT, but if battling suicidal tendencies or persistent severe depression or resistant depression, I believe as a personal choice, left to the individual, ECT can be healing and effective.

So, what have the benefits of ECT been for me personally? The death of my father is a type of event long treated with ECT. That event was not forgotten or lost but “distanced” from me. It is a phenomena that makes the event seem like it happened longer ago for me. I still grieve my father’s death, but I don’t have the magnitude of upset that I had immediately after his death—a dangerously high magnitude. I also found some, but not as much, benefit for treating my generalized everyday mood, which was then depressed. However, even sustained ECT treatments did not completely rid the depression or improve it enough to discontinue my anti-depressant and mood stabilizer medications.

Another, perhaps more significant, benefit of ECT for me personally was that it lifted the depression I was experiencing, enough to where I could then address my substance abuse issues, which in turn decreased the overall depression and suicidal tendencies.

Sometimes, there is not enough time to manage the substance abuse before it leads to a negative or traumatic event. For me, ECT proved helpful in lessening the magnitude of crisis from traumatic events while lifting everyday depression enough to address the substance abuse issues I was dealing with.

So, would I recommend ECT?

In the end, I’ve been lucky, really lucky. I didn’t suffocate, I didn’t die. And, thanks to ECT treatment, I am alive. I was lifted from depression enough to beat the substance abuse and find a stable long-term treatment option with medication and counseling. If someone were to ask me about ECT, I would advise great caution. But, I’d never keep someone from receiving the life-saving care ECT treatment can provide. If darker days lie ahead, I do know of one hope, and that is the hope that there is help with ECT treatment for me if I relapse. There is comfort in that, and for now, that’s enough.

Kristina Farrow

Kristina is a lover of art, poetry, philosophy, Dostoevsky (and other classic lit), everything French and Japanese, cats, the West Coast and dreams...

  1. Avatar

    Thank you for such an honest someone that has attempted suicide and been to the pits of hell myself it is encouraging to hear from a fellow survivor!! I pray you never return to the place where You need to use ECT again. I am grateful it was successful for you! All the best in your future!

  2. Drew Sheldon

    I really appreciate this. No treatment is 100% effective, but so many get treated as if they are. On the other hand, when a treatment is found not to be, it tends to get completely trashed. You do a great job of explaining how ECT was beneficial to you while still advising great caution. This is brilliant, and I thank you very much.

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