In the course of dealing with my bipolar disorder, I had a near brush with electroshock. I managed to avoid it, but I did give it serious thought.
Now 60 Minutes has come out with a piece called “Is Shock Therapy Making a Comeback?” You can see the segment here: 60 Minutes.
ECT(electroconvulsive therapy, the modern name for the procedure), which is often done on an outpatient basis, works by inducing a brief seizure in a patient. The seizure, which lasts about a minute, releases multiple neurotransmitters in the brain, all at once. The patient is required to have someone to transport them to and from the appointment. Treatments are typically applied one or two times per week for 6-8 weeks.
In a brief article excerpted from the news show segment, Dr. Charlie Welch, of McLean Psychiatric Hospital, explains how ECT differs from how it was performed in the past: “What’s different first of all is that it’s done under general anesthesia with a muscle relaxant. So when the treatment is done, the patient is sound asleep and completely relaxed.” Call it a kinder, gentler shock treatment.
That was the procedure that my psychiatrist offered me after he had spent a number of years trying me on various medications that either didn’t work, or helped only partially.
My immediate reaction was negative. I recall thinking, “Fuck, NO! Keep away from my brain, you Nazi sadist!” After I calmed down a bit, I did some research.
ECT, my sources said, was a long way from the cruel, stigmatizing procedure portrayed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Internet was little help, though. The opinions and experiences of people who had undergone electroshock ranged from “It was hideous” to “It was a miracle.”
Truthfully, I was appalled by the notion of electrical jolts surging through my brain. My precious brain, which had both sustained me and betrayed me throughout my life.
Then I thought some more. So ECT sometimes causes memory loss. I already had that, thanks to some of my meds. I would be altering my brain with electricity. But hadn’t I been altering it for years with chemicals – medications that no one seemed to know how they worked?
So I went back to my doctor and said I would at least talk to the doctor who would perform the procedure. And I lined up a journalist friend to write about my experiences if her editor approved. (Note: In the 60 Minutes piece, former Massachusetts First Lady Kitty Dukakis gave permission to have her treatment filmed and broadcast.)
My psychiatrist, however, had one more medication that he wanted me to try before we took that next step. And it worked. So much for electroshock.
Now as to that side effect of memory loss – Dr. Sarah Lisanby of the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland has developed a new treatment that seems to avoid that particular consequence.
The procedure is called Magnetic Seizure Therapy (MST) and it uses magnets (duh!) to stimulate more precisely focused seizures than ECT does. These focused seizures seem to avoid the parts of the brain associated with memories. As Dr. Lisanby told the 60 Minutes reporters, “For some people, ECT may still be needed. But if Magnetic Seizure Therapy could be effective without the memory loss who wouldn’t want to try that first?”
Would I try MST if I relapsed into treatment-resistant depression? I would certainly consider it, if it were out of the testing stage by then. And I’d do that before I signed up for ECT. While I have memories I’d prefer to forget, with my luck, those would be the ones left unaffected.
The cynical side of me says that these seizure-causing therapies are becoming more popular because insurance companies like the notion of a short course of 6-8 weeks of treatment instead of years of talk-and-medication. (Although Kitty Dukakis said that she has done ECT for years now and expects to continue into the foreseeable future.)
But I could be wrong. It is possible that some kind of treatment could be short in length but longer-lasting in effectiveness. I’m not ruling it out. At this point I’m not ruling out anything that could aid in my progress and my healing.