A Statement by Cynthia

I first witnessed the enormous healing power of ECT when I was a college student and mental health worker at a community hospital in the 1970’s.  I was assigned to assist an elderly woman with catatonia (a form of depression), who I will call Mrs. Murphy, who had been brought into the hospital by ambulance because of her extremely fragile condition.  She hadn’t talked or eaten in several days.  Family and friends worried that she would die unless her depression was brought under control.  I looked into her sad eyes and wondered how she could possibly survive. 

I learned that Mrs. Murphy had taken several different kinds of antidepressants and none had helped her.  When the attending psychiatrist reported that ECT was her only hope, I cringed with fear for her safety.  I had read the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and seen the movie, and it showed some terrifying scenes based around ECT. So I was very scared for Mrs. Murphy. 

But I watched as Mrs. Murphy emerged from her catatonic state due to her ECT treatments.   After eight treatments, Mrs. Murphy smiled and thanked the whole staff for helping her.  This wonderful woman, so very far from the silent, sad woman who had walked into the hospital, seemed very familiar to me and I remember thinking she reminded me of my grandmother.

Little could I have imagined that Mrs. Murphy would have a profound effect on my life twenty years after I met her.  After several health challenges (chronic back pain resulting from a car accident, Lyme Disease and Toxic Hepatitis) I had become profoundly depressed.  I tried a number of medications and could not find any that helped me.  One actually made me worse, to the verge of suicidal thinking.  Although I was a public health educator and should have known better, I feared that my depression would never lift, which only made me feel worse about myself.  I could barely get to my work and back.  I was a very social person, but I cut myself off from friends and family.  I spent most of my free time in bed, with my husband as my primary link to the outside world.

As I spiraled down, somehow I remembered Mrs. Murphy and pleaded with my primary care physician to refer me for ECT.  After several consultations, I convinced the doctors that I absolutely wanted ECT, even if I would likely encounter memory loss as a result.  With drugs having failed, the doctors finally agreed.

My first hospitalization for ECT required 12 treatments before I felt like myself.  But those treatments did bring me out of the depression.  After stabilizing my mood, the doctors prescribed a combination of an anti-depressant (Prozac) and a mood stabilizer (lithium) because they concluded that I likely had bipolar illness (with hypomania), given my family history, the quick onset of depression, and the effectiveness of ECT in treating it.  I distinctly remember thinking of Mrs. Murphy as I enthusiastically thanked the hospital staff for “saving my life”.

After leaving the hospital 17 years ago, I vowed to do everything I could to remain well and I felt confident that I would never be hospitalized for depression again.  I exercised regularly and used stress-management techniques such as reiki and massage.  I continued working and sometime after, my husband and I adopted our daughter.

Then menopause hit me.   In June, 2009, during a particularly gray and wet period and after several months of decreased menstruation, I awoke with unrelenting anxiety. I immediately sensed I was in trouble.  In consultation with my provider, I increased my psychiatric medication, my exercise, acupuncture, reiki and massage.  Nevertheless, the anxiety continued and was accompanied with profound sadness, self-loathing, and the loss of energy, concentration and appetite.  After several days, I knew that I needed to be hospitalized.  Telling my daughter what was going on was very hard, but also necessary.

In the hospital, my staff psychiatrist quickly assessed that I should have ECT again since it had worked so effectively the first time.  She theorized that the hormonal shifts during menopause had led to the depression despite all the safeguards that were in place (i.e., Prozac and lithium, long with lots of stress-management tools).  When I complained that I had worked SO HARD to avoid this happening, she reminded me that I wasn’t in control of my “gene pool” or menopause.  She also helped me appreciate how lucky I was to have ECT as my effective tool in the challenging battle with depression.  I told her that depression felt like a wave sweeping me into a dark hole without a lifeboat or the energy to climb out of the dark, frightening place.

After four treatments, I could feel my own personal dark cloud lifting as I smiled for the first time in weeks and joked with another patient. After seven treatments of ECT, I could feel my humor and “spirit” were fully back and I was hungry and wanting to go home.  Once again, ECT helped save my life.  Yes, I had some memory issues—but they were much easier to deal with than the deep depression I’d been in before.

I left the hospital with determination to help others know the potential value of ECT as a treatment for depression, bipolar, and catatonia.  While ECT has clear risks associated with it, most especially short-term headaches and memory loss, so does virtually every medicine.  I think of ECT as “rebooting” my brain’s computer.  I wonder why people view it with so much more distrust than they do defibrulators that apply electricity to the heart?

Someday, I’d like to meet Mrs. Murphy again, remind her of the 20 year-old mental health worker who was lucky enough to witness the potential healing power of ECT, and to thank her.  I have called on the power of ECT twice and am grateful that it is a tool I can count on again if I need it.
Play Frank Maroney's song, "A Light in the Darkness."