Electroconvulsive Therapy Made Me a Stranger to Myself

elizabeth.heckmann
An illustration of a person and their mind, with clouds around it

After a nearly fatal suicide suicide attempt in August 2013, and many futile medication changes before and after my attempt, my psychiatrist recommended I begin electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). In April 2014, my mom and I sat across the desk from the treating physician. With his elbows resting on a pile of papers, he pushed the bridge of his glasses up with his finger and explained the ECT process in a routine manner. Through his rehearsed presentation and ease of answering questions, it was obvious he did this often.

He suggested that every Monday, Wednesday and Friday he would give me bilateral ECT. While face-up on the gurney, he would adhere electrodes to both temples, the anesthesiologist would fully sedate me and he would then pump enough electricity into my brain to stimulate a grand mal seizure. Rewiring the brain to treat severe, medication-resistant mental illness was the goal.

In between answering my mom’s questions, he continued explaining ECT. Overwhelmed by the information, I said nothing, hands folded in my lap. The side effects he listed included: nausea and vomiting after anesthesia, headache, itching because of the opioids used to treat headaches and lethargy on treatment days. I listened, but my gaze strayed to a blue marble bowl on his bookshelf absorbing a ray of sunshine radiating through a split in the blinds behind my mom and me. Next to the bowl was a picture of the doctor and his wife smiling on a beach, and I wondered, could I ever be that happy? What if ECT is my last option? What if it doesn’t work? Consumed by a chill of fear, I closed my eyes.

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The side effects that worried me most were the short-term and long-term memory loss. Had I grasped the severity of the memory loss, I never would have agreed to undergo treatment. Desperate to cure my hellish major depressive disorder with psychotic features, I agreed to try it. I had faith; I had to. I had faith the electricity could sever my suicidal tendencies and fantasies from the core of my mind. But each memory lost was suicide.

From May 2014 through August 2014, no memories exist. As soon as I created them, I lost them to the ECT. It obliterated my short-term memory for those four months, but it also eviscerated long-term memories. Until I saw a picture of my dad’s brothers hanging in the menagerie of pictures above his staircase, I forgot I had uncles.

Long-term memories I didn’t use I lost. Because I spent three days a week unconscious and the other four recovering, riding my horse wasn’t doable during the acute phase, so I forgot how to tack-up. Defeated, I had to relearn once I could ride. I can’t recall much of what I learned in college where I earned my bachelor’s in Equine Sciences, which is embarrassing working at an equestrian center.

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A few months prior to my 30th birthday, my mom called me wanting to plan a party. She suggested throwing a shindig with my high school and college friends.

“Do you remember I hosted nice, big parties for both of your brothers when they turned 30?” she asked me.

Searching my brain for those memories, I paused. “No. Not at all.” I replied, depressed.
“Oh, well I threw them big parties, and you came to both. I want to do something similar for you!” she stated with a rise of excitement. Her excitement gave way to a bigger drop into sadness. I was silent. “Does it feel like listening to someone talking about a stranger?” “Yes, I guess so,” I said. I never thought about my memory loss like that. Her question exploded like a mortar in my mind, throwing me back, leaving me shell shocked and empty. It made me realize that many of my memories are no longer my own.

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When I describe the memory loss, many people try to turn the sadness into optimism by saying that, “At least you get to experience books and movies again for the first time!” There’s appeal in that, I haven’t bought new books in a while. But being whitewashed by the electricity and losing the details and major plots of many books depresses me. The memory loss is as disheartening as the depression I experienced pre-ECT. The total loss of months and years of my life was not worth the extreme efforts to fight my mental illness. Just as I had done since 2005, I still heard voices, still cut, still idealized suicide, still hated myself and still lived under the heavy veil of my diagnosis.

I have yet to meet a fellow ECT patient. Of course, there were the patients in the waiting room, but they were no more than faces I would forget within the next hour. Not knowing other survivors, I can only compare my experience with those written on the internet. There are a few positive stories stating that ECT saved them from a deadly deluge of multiple suicide attempts. But there are more stories shared detailing the trauma of memory loss, and how such profound damage to the self was not worth it.

I want to believe my psychiatrist and my doctor are competent, but I can’t forgive them for putting me through ECT. It kills me to admit that, because they are professionals I trusted with my life and wellbeing and they wronged me, even though they believed they were doing good. I want to unearth the positives from this experience, but other than giving me something to write about, I can’t think of one. ECT violated my mind, leaving it barren and bitter. I want my memories back, even the bad. I am incomplete without them. I’m forever searching, unfulfilled, through a permanent fog cast by violent waves of electricity. I refuse to accept the loss of so many memories, the loss of life. It was not worth it.

For more information about ECT, check out this explainer from The Mighty.

Have you experienced this? Send Elizabeth some support in the comments below.

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