Electroconvulsive Therapy, Part 1

UnknownBoth the Jew and the Gentile plan to present more lengthy considerations of faith and mental health, but want to do so in digestible portions. For some time now, I’ve wanted to speak about my year of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT). This is the beginning of what will be quite a few posts. This post’s accompanying picture is that of Ernest Hemingway whose works in High School I came to enjoy because, in part, they were the furthest distance from the Victorian Bataan Death March that is reading anything written by a Brontë Sister. In December of 1960, Hemingway underwent 15 ECT sessions at the Mayo Clinic. Why write about my experience in such detail? When fellow Duke alum, Reynolds Price spoke of his cancer treatments and recovery in “A Whole New Life” he says, “In that deep trough I needed companions more than prayers….” I write not to solicit prayers, but to avoid another trough being lifted by gained companions.

Two things that I now enjoy in a new and, believe me, unforgettable way are the music of Van Morrison and the refreshing taste of Pepsi-Cola, but we’ll get to that much later. I owe such new pleasures to my year of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT). I have carried the diagnosis of recurrent major clinical depression since 2010. Over the course of four years, my psychiatrist, Dr. A., added the adjective “treatment-resistant” And it certainly was? Or is it, it certainly is? While I can say, “I’m not as sick as I once was” I am hesitant to believe I’m cured. I am cautious; thinking it better to remain vigilant in remission. Though when I was first heard the words “treatment-resistant,” Dr. A. might as well have said “treatment-proof.” To be fair, we, him prescribing and me consuming, had tried Zoloft, Celexa, Cymbalta, and Effexor. Judged ineffective, he moved to the tricyclic family. First, Amitriptyline. My dosage was dialed-up to “seizure-inducing” that demanded my neurologist to insist I become a shut-in for six months. My psychiatrist, Dr. A., then went to Desipramine. At one point he also added Lithium which, for me, remains a far more enjoyable Nirvana album than a medication. He prescribed Seroquel as a sedative as my depression always interrupted my circadian rhythm. He added Ambien and briefly the more lethal, so no longer on the market, Chloral Hydrate to treat my sleeplessness. Did I mention that I had crippling anxiety? Well, I did. (Or, again caution, is it I do?) By juggling my general practitioner with a different, more-accommodating, psychiatrist, I feasted on a “benzo buffet” of Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium. It took me a length of inpatient treatment to ween off the benzodiazepines. (For those struggling with benzo-dependency, my anxiety responded to the far from addictive Vistaril.) While speaking about other psychiatrists, my first inpatient one placed me on unusually high doses of Depakote all the while insisting I was bipolar despite my testimony of never having had a manic or hypomanic episode. For good measure, with each hospital stay came Haldol. Back to Dr. A., he tried combinations of the above drugs, minus the benzos, but those combinations took weeks before any relief would register. Even after, he slowly dialed up my dosages. Again, such dialing led to weeks of waiting to see if an increase made for an observable physiological/psychological benefit. Though I did enjoy some immediate short-lived placebo effects. During all the dosing and dialing, I was far too sick to participate in any meaningful psychotherapy. My weeks of such dosing and dialing grew into months and then years. I present this convoluted, if not disjointed, faithful catalog of my medicine cabinet to underscore how confident I was that I had, indeed, exhausted my pharmaceutical options. I liken the dosing and dialing era in my life to being in a fairy tale where I had to kiss the right frog so he would turn into a prince. Except, I had kissed a swamp’s worth of Kermits with only warts to show for my efforts. So with therapy being near impossible, tortured with anxiety, impaired by my medication, at times in a near catatonic state of depression while not responding sooner to medication my good psychiatrist, Dr. A., uttered those three damned letters, “E.C.T.” Unfortunately, it would take a year per letter for me to agree to try such elective electrocution.

3 responses to “Electroconvulsive Therapy, Part 1

  1. Chris, thanks for bravely tackling this topic. I know a number of people that have struggled with the decision to try ECT, in pursuit of a better quality of life. I will look forward to your posts on the topic and share it with friends.

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  2. I, too, have spent years on the meddy go round. I, too, have finally agreed to ECT. What I want to ask you about, however, is the opinion, so often voiced, that if I had more faith I would have better mental health. How do you negociate such conversations?

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    • I love the phrase “meddy-go-round.” The “if I had more faith” notion is nonsense. No one says that in an oncology unit or cardiac unit, just behavioral health. It also confines the power of God to act in only one way (i.e., not through medicine, trained physicians, ECT, therapy, etc.) Faith is not a vaccine against anything. And if it has a benefit, and I think there are times when it doesn’t (an entire blog or podcast worth of thoughts), it is usually in a collaborative model where one meets “God half way.” The Jew, my blog partner, uses the illustration of praying to win the lottery, but never bothering to buy a ticket. Augustine said “Without God I can’t but without me God won’t.” Personally, I have often chosen to navigate those conversations by simply not engaging. It doesn’t do me any good and I don’t feel that I need someone else’s approval for me to do something that could benefit my health. Admittedly, I have responded to such opinions by not so politely pointing out that a village has lost their idiot.

      Liked by 1 person

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