Surviving Electric Shock Treatment

  • Post author:
  • Reading time:8 mins read

The barbaric, so-called therapy that nearly destroyed me

Seven years ago, I was administered electric shock treatment for a disorder I later learnt I didn’t have. Not only was it the most traumatic and evidently unnecessary experience of my life, I am no longer the same person because of it.

Back then, after a long bout of depression, my psychiatrist diagnosed bipolar, although why exactly is a mystery given I had no history of mania. In hindsight, he never seemed quite certain.

Correct label or not, my depression was classified treatment resistant, which basically means antidepressants did nothing but offer unpleasant side effects. Despite endless appointments and drug cocktails, my original symptoms only worsened.

Apparently the next logical step was to be electrically shocked — over and over.

In my desperation for relief, having suffered more withdrawals from medication changes than I dared to remember, I succumbed while being assured all other options had been exhausted.

The doctor advised the archaic treatment, known as ECT, was potentially life saving — the only risk being short term memory loss. I subsequently landed in hospital, the recipient of about 120 volts and accompanying general anaesthetic every other day for three weeks.

He was right about one thing — the memory loss. Only it wasn’t short term. I lost about six months initially with little recollection of events, conversations or my own aspirations. Some people even report not recognising their own children.

Funnily enough, though, I remember telling him after each session (usually in tears) that I felt increasingly worse. His solution? More shocks at heightened intensity. Had it not been for an imminent holiday forcing my eventual discharge, I shudder to think how much more I might have been subjected to.

Apparently, the first month following treatment, I was in what you might call a stupor. A childlike trance, if you will. I seemed happier, though, because, according to family, I was so out of my mind I was oblivious to almost everything. Could that have been the desired result?

Strange stupors and memory loss, however, have been a breeze compared to what has followed.

Debilitating migraines, severely weak bladder, vision disturbances, painfully dry eyes and significant vitamin deficiencies resulting in chronic fatigue. Not to mention extreme insomnia, which had me addicted to sleeping tablets for years, and is yet to be managed properly, even by the state’s best sleep doctors.

Worst of all, however, have been the personality changes. I went from a reasonably outgoing and sociable person to a withdrawn introvert with a propensity to isolate most of the time. I hide it well, though, and most don’t initially notice. On a rare good day or two, I can enjoy close friends in small doses, but it’s often excessively taxing followed by the need to recharge.

Dating has become more challenging than it already is, as, understandably, few have the patience for my ailments, slow pace and frequent need for solitude. I’ve never been lonelier but my efforts to combat that have only reaffirmed my predicament.

Likewise, working more than one or two days in a row usually results in an inevitable recovery period, adding a financial cost to the mix.

Unfortunately, the brain and nervous system deterioration caused by electrical injuries is often a gradual onset and not necessarily apparent for months or years after.

I, therefore, hadn’t connected my own symptoms to ECT until recently, and assumed other causes were at play. I attributed the insomnia, for example, to the stress of splitting with my ex shortly after treatment.

However, joining an online support group for ECT survivors recently confirmed everything. Virtually everyone in the large forum encounters the same ailments. I’ve learnt that the positioning of certain implements too close to the eyes causes the dryness, while insomnia results from electricity damaging the part of the brain that regulates sleep.

And brain damage is exactly what it is. It’s considered a traumatic brain injury and these ruinous wounds are in line with what many victims of accidental electric shock report experiencing after just one incident. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that ECT is destroying lives, given some patients are administered shocks hundreds of times over, while being assured of their safety.

Yet, sadly, these injuries are invisible to doctors, so gaslighting and invalidation is rife. Similar to concussion, the damage is cellular and cannot be seen on typical brain scans, in spite of clear changes in brain function.

Legal channels are generally impossible against the medical profession, particularly as formal consent is usually sought prior, despite patients not necessarily having all the facts or being of sound mind.

It’s unsurprising the barbaric treatment has been outlawed in practically every nation, save for a few. A BBC article last year asserted “ECT should be immediately suspended”, while Somatics, a manufacturer of ECT machines only recently added “permanent brain damage” to the list of treatment risks. Another manufacturer is no longer eligible for public liability insurance due to the amount of pending lawsuits against them.

Admittedly, some recipients consider ECT a game changer, but is that because their ‘trance’ has been maintained? Periodical top up sessions are standard for many, and I wonder if the apparent success stories are simply being retained in a naive state, somewhat free from full awareness.

That might arguably be preferred for some. Personally, however, I was assured ECT would relieve my symptoms, not just make me ignorant about them.

It’s heartbreaking that prior to treatment, I was already vulnerable and unwell, and trusted my doctor to help, only to emerge more traumatised with an additional slew of injuries, increasing my mental anguish while adding physical ailments to the mix.

Insult was added to those injuries when my next doctor immediately recognised the incorrect diagnosis and spotted the more accurate one — for which medication has little place and ECT has none.

Seven years on and I’m only recently able to relive the experience and piece the facts together. I’m still coming to terms with allowing my body and mind to be so brutally disrespected while reminded daily that I’m a shadow of who I was.

Yet, I continue to search for answers and have found some improvement in vitality since maintaining a strict diet and addressing the vitamin imbalances. I also cling to the gratitude around the timing of that holiday which expedited my discharge and know that, eventually, I will learn to forgive myself. Forgiving my doctor, however, won’t be quite as easy.

Photo / artwork credit: Steve Edwards

Originally published on The Medium January 2022

Ross Larkin

red head & bearded man smiling warmly with arms crossed. He's wearing a black shirt, arrow tattoo partially visible on one arm
Ross is an Australian journalist and opinion writer with a focus on mental health, sexuality and the human condition. He is also active on the arts scene as an actor, reviewer and scriptwriter.