I can’t seem to remember: side effects of ECT

What is ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy)?

Per the Mayo Clinic’s website, Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a procedure, done under general anesthesia, in which small electric currents are passed through the brain, intentionally triggering a brief seizure. ECT seems to cause changes in brain chemistry that can quickly reverse symptoms of certain mental health conditions.”

Why is it performed?

Also from the Mayo website (chock full of great information), the reasons that ECT is performed is for the following conditions:

  • Severe depression, particularly when accompanied by detachment from reality (psychosis), a desire to commit suicide or refusal to eat.
  • Treatment-resistant depression, a severe depression that doesn’t improve with medications or other treatments.
  • Severe mania, a state of intense euphoria, agitation or hyperactivity that occurs as part of bipolar disorder. Other signs of mania include impaired decision-making, impulsive or risky behavior, substance abuse, and psychosis.
  • Catatonia, characterized by lack of movement, fast or strange movements, lack of speech, and other symptoms. It’s associated with schizophrenia and certain other psychiatric disorders. In some cases, catatonia is caused by a medical illness.

I have been receiving ECT treatments for several months now for severe depression that was not being managed with other therapies.  I am in the 20 range when it comes to counting the number of procedures that I have undergone.  It wasn’t until recently (and the addition of Wellbutrin to my mix of medications) that I started to have break throughs.  It’s hard to know if the positive changes were from the medication, the ECT, or a combination of both.  Regardless of the source, I am beyond thankful and grateful for the positive change in my mood. 

I am currently receiving weekly procedures, a change from the three times a week that I was undergoing just a few weeks ago.  It is a welcome change, and something I have pride in.  Progressing to less frequent procedures tells me that I am making progress and gives me something tactile to identify my success.  It is a source of joy.

I am eager to wrap up the ECT treatments, namely because of some side effects that I am experiencing.  The Mayo Clinic provides the following as side effects from ECT treatments:

Although ECT is generally safe, risks and side effects may include:

  • Confusion. Immediately after treatment, you may experience confusion, which can last from a few minutes to several hours. You may not know where you are or why you’re there. Rarely, confusion may last several days or longer. Confusion is generally more noticeable in older adults.
  • Memory loss. Some people have trouble remembering events that occurred right before treatment or in the weeks or months before treatment or, rarely, from previous years. This condition is called retrograde amnesia. You may also have trouble recalling events that occurred during the weeks of your treatment. For most people, these memory problems usually improve within a couple of months after treatment ends.
  • Physical side effects. On the days of an ECT treatment, some people experience nausea, headache, jaw pain or muscle ache. These generally can be treated with medications.
  • Medical complications. As with any type of medical procedure, especially one that involves anesthesia, there are risks of medical complications. During ECT, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and in rare cases, that can lead to serious heart problems. If you have heart problems, ECT may be more risky.

The side effect that is causing me the greatest amount of angst is memory loss.  Its to the point where I can’t remember how to get to specific locations while driving, and I have little to no memories of past events.  This has posed a number of problems when it comes to trying to work part time.  How am I supposed to work when I can’t remember what it is that I do?

In some regards, there isn’t even cobwebs, there is just blank space, a dark hole and abyss.  I just simply have no memory of events, people, places and things.  It is quite frustrating and embarrassing.  They (the treatment staff) claim that this will get better.  We already changed from bi-lateral to uni-lateral treatments due to the severe memory loss that I was experiencing.  It breaks my heart when I am sitting at a family dinner and my family members are talking about past events and I have no clue what they are talking about.  I long for the day that my memory returns and I am better able to participate in day-to-day conversations, and when I don’t rely so heavily on the maps function on my phone for driving directions.

I guess if I had to answer the question of “is it worth it?” I would have to say yes.  One positive part of the memory loss is that I don’t remember all the details associated with the severe depression that I was going through during the summer months.  Those dark days are memories that are few and far in between, which is a gift.  I remember enough to know that I never want to be in that place again, but I am spared the intimate details of all that actually transpired during that period of time.

My family has been amazingly patient with me during this whole ordeal. The confusion post treatment, along with the tiredness. The memory loss is a big one. They patiently and lovingly remind me of events that have occurred. They do not get frustrated with me, or impatient. They act in a loving manner, which means the world to me.

I know that with all things, there are side effects.  Taking medication has a number of side effects, and going through therapy does as well.  With all good things there are hurdles that need to be overcome.  I often wonder what will happen if I don’t get my memories back.  This hurts my heart, but it is a part of reality that I feel like I need to ponder.  I still think that the choice of going through ECT was worth the side effects.  To have my life back is a gift that words can not begin to describe.  Each day I wake up, thrilled to have another day on this green earth and excited for what the day may hold.  And that is a gift that I have been given that is indescribable.

This Wednesday I will undergo another session.  I will not plan to do much that day, maybe do some painting to pass the time or read out of the books that I am half way through.  It will be a day of waiting.  One thing that I have experienced most recently is waiting.  It seems like it dominates my life, but has taught me to slow down and live each moment fully.  I patiently await the day that I am done with treatment and I can continue to heal, living my life to the fullest with the most amount of joy possible.

1 thought on “I can’t seem to remember: side effects of ECT”

  1. Be patient with yourself my Dear Lil Roo. Remember that healing is a process. I am beyond proud of your for going to such great lengths to make changes in your life and the humility it takes to share your experiences to help others!
    Love you!


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