'It can't be much worse than licking a battery.' What it's like to have ECT

Lauren Arnold*, as told to Nicola Davis
‘ECT... most people think of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ Photograph: Roxana Wegner/Getty Images/Flickr RF

I have had depression and anxiety, mainly depression, on and off since I was a teenager. After dealing with it for 10 years I had a particularly bad winter when I was working almost 24-hour shifts at work.

I went to visit my aunt overseas because I got a few weeks’ sick leave. I thought I’ll go, I’ll decompress, but while I was there I got sicker and sicker.

The GP there prescribed something called Lyrica [an anti-seizure medication also known as pregabalin]. I don’t know whether that had anything to do with it, but I went into a psychotic episode – I thought I was going to be deported, I had a lot of paranoia.

I suddenly started getting very, very anxious – and took an overdose. That landed me in hospital. I was a voluntary patient but I think I would have been forced if I wasn’t voluntary.

I was there for a really long time – a couple of months. I saw a lot of people come and leave and I wasn’t really able to do anything. They had an ECT [electroconvulsive therapy] clinic downstairs and the psychiatrist kept on suggesting it.

Eventually it came to the point where they had tried all these medications that weren’t working and I was an absolute nightmare – I was really difficult and I couldn’t do anything. After being really reluctant I finally gave in. I thought either I am going to die this way, or ECT might help. My aunt was like: “Well, we have tried everything else.”

They scheduled it super quick. We said yes on Friday and they scheduled it for Monday, then they did it three times a week for two weeks.

At first I was worried because of the image you get from the horror films of people being strapped up and electrocuted. Then I learned a little more about it, although I couldn’t do any reading on my own because I was so anxious – I couldn’t even cope with the phone. But I talked to my aunt who put it in really simple terms and talked about all the side-effects.

The thing that scared me the most was the memory loss. I went to an elite university and I really pride myself on my brain, so I was worried. Was this going to make me stupid? But I reached the point when I said: “Well, I don’t care if I am stupid. If I’m stupid and happy it’ll be fine.” So that is what made me go for it, even though I had a very bad perception of it.

The doctors talked me through the entire process. I had never been under general anaesthetic before and because I was anxious and paranoid about not being in control of my body, that was something I was really afraid of. I agreed to do it if my aunt could be in the room – but she wasn’t allowed in the room when they gave the electric shock because it is so traumatic for loved ones.

Before the ECT, they showed me the equipment and said: “The amount of electricity we are putting through your brain is enough to light a lightbulb for a second.” I was thinking: “How is that going to do anything? It can’t be much worse than licking a battery.”

After the first session all the nurses said: “You are so much calmer. I think this is really working. This is really good.” I thought: “I don’t know what you are talking about. I am still super-anxious and I hate my life.”

But looking back, the change happened almost immediately. After the first week I had hoped that I was going to leave the hospital and by the end of the sixth session, after two weeks, I was ready to get on with my life.

I had problems though – mainly short-term memory. I compensated for that by using a journal. Whatever my therapist advised, I’d write down and look over every day and try to do it. But I constantly found myself being told that I had already just told people something I had said. I had to monitor my medication very carefully. The memory issue went away in the course of the month. The benefit of ECT stayed for about six months and I needed to keep taking medication to prevent a relapse. But it didn’t work.

I was hospitalised again – this time in the UK.

I really wanted ECT. But they said the memory effects can be worse if you do it again and again and at that point I wasn’t psychotic. It is much harder to reach someone once they are psychotic because you can’t really rationalise with them, whereas I did what people told me to do, so that drastic measure of ECT wasn’t really necessary. But as soon as I mentioned ECT to any medical practitioner in the UK they said: “Oh my God, seriously?” The only semi-positive reaction I had from one of my GPs was: “Wow, how was that? I have never met anyone who had it.” He wasn’t judgmental, just really surprised and fascinated. In hindsight, I don’t think ECT was the right thing to do.

Sometime later I relapsed again. This time I had ECT on the NHS. They then diagnosed me as bipolar.

After I first had ECT I was really freaking out about whether I was going to tell people. But because of my short-term memory problems I was forgetting who I had told what and it was getting really stressful. It got to the point where I was anxious to meet people because I was wondering: “How much do they know? What do I say?” Which is why I put it up on Facebook, because that way everyone knows the same thing. But I am quite reluctant to tell people that I had psychosis. Because although mental health issues are more accepted and depression is quite common, psychosis is like really crazy. Taking medication is more accepted now, going to therapy is more accepted, but ECT … I think people think of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

There is definitely a lot of concrete evidence of ECT working. My aunt was absolutely floored by the results and she talked to the nurses and they said: “It is almost like a miracle but we see it every week.”

(*Name changed for confidentiality)