Two years ago there was one thing above all in the mental health world that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and it was electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Not the thought of the procedure itself, but the side effects.
As a nursing student, I did a psychiatric placement and part of it involved observing ECT. I saw the amount of care the patients were treated with by the ECT team and how they were all treated with dignity and respect. The patients were given anaesthetic and the whole process from going to sleep to waking-up didn’t last long. The patients didn’t convulse as I had half-expected they would, instead their toes gently twitched. What was truly remarkable and inspiring was the change you could see in the patients. After just two treatments, those who were psychotic were quickly becoming lucid and those who were severely depressed were suddenly smiling. It was truly as if a miracle had occurred.
Yet, despite this, the side effect of memory loss made me never want to have ECT. I am very proud of my memory and view it as part of my intelligence. My memory has always been very strong and I could rely on it to get me over any academic hurdle. I define myself by my good memory. I had heard horror stories of people experiencing substantial amounts of memory loss post-ECT, such as names of their children, entire tertiary level education and up to five years of their life prior to ECT. Additionally, I had also heard that people lost the ability to make new memories for some time post-ECT.
So, naturally, two years ago when my psychiatrist suggested I have ECT for severe depression, I recoiled at the idea. I would rather have died than lose the memories that made me who I am. For a while my psychiatrist tried to persuade me, but I refused.
I guess I became so unwell that I didn’t care what happened to me. I found myself standing on the edge of a cliff one evening, intending to end my life. Thankfully, someone walking past stopped me. The next morning I rang my psychiatrist to tell her that I wanted to have ECT; it was my last hope. I didn’t care at that point about the memory loss — it would have come as a welcome relief to forget that I had bipolar and that I was depressed. Having heard about the events of the night before, my psychiatrist met with me that day to organise the paperwork and I began my first course of ECT.
I wasn’t frightened, I knew the procedure itself wasn’t scary and frankly I didn’t care what happened to me. The nurses and staff were lovely and made me feel very comfortable and I went off to sleep unconcerned. When I woke up from the anaesthetic a while later, I did have a pretty bad headache and my jaw and muscles where quite sore but the pain only lasted for the rest of the day. I had six treatments over two weeks and after the first week everyone, including me, could notice a big difference. My depression was lifting and I was becoming full of life again.
After the full two week course I was back to baseline and I was amazed at how I had recovered from that episode of depression within two weeks; something medication had never been able to do. I was used to medication taking months to work or inducing mania or a mixed state. I had exhausted every possible medication and had resigned myself to waiting out the depressions (even if that option was potentially deadly). Electroconvulsive therapy was my new hope.
I did experience some memory loss as a result of ECT but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. After that first course, when jogged, my memories would return. Six months later I had another course of six ECT treatments for a mixed state. That time, however, I experienced moderate memory loss and had trouble forming new memories.
That second course of ECT was nearly eighteen months ago. I was told it would take three months for my brainwaves to settle and for my memories to come back. However, in all honesty, I am still having minor troubles with my memory. It isn’t as bad as it was at the start — for the first few months I was re-learning quite a lot of information and I had forgotten memories I had made with people, such as travelling or social events. Now I have re-learnt most of the things I have forgotten, but there are still some past events that I can’t remember. Although it is annoying and, at times, upsetting, 18 months of memory loss is a small price to pay if it meant I could return to life in such a short amount of time. Besides, what good are memories if you’re too depressed to enjoy them?