Treatment Affectionally Named ZAP-ZAP

I have been having Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) since late December last year to treat severe depression with suicidal ideation and not talking about it widely.   I have tried to put on a brave face and tell some of my closest friends and those we see regularly but have not broadcast the fact beyond that and I suddenly realise that is due to shame.

Yesterday I was reading Brené Brown’s ‘Daring Greatly’ when I read a chapter on shame, a compelling exploration of the topic and one that has enabled me to see my shame at my perceived health failings and need for seemingly extreme medical treatment.

As I have digested Brown’s research and conclusions, I find myself agreeing with her, shame is harmful to us and open, honest dialogue about shame itself and whatever we think is shameful is the best path forward for healing.

Those of you who know me, know I work as a health promotion professional and Lord help me, my last role was managing a suicide prevention team within a Mental Health Service.  Our job was to promote open discussion around mental health issues & good mental health practices, work to prevent suicides within the community and support the community when sadly, they did occur.  Depression and mental illness are not unknown to me.

I have personally experienced bouts of depression, usually following a serious health crisis, life alteration and restriction.  Not unreasonable you might say.  Fortunately, these bouts have all resolved thanks to psychotherapy and medication.  I have always been compliant in the application of these interventions and prided myself on doing the necessary ‘work’ to overcome the depression.  I wholeheartedly do not enjoy the smallness of the world when I am afflicted with depression.

This time the depression beat me, but it had an unfair advantage in the form of a medication whose worst known potential side effect is severe depression and suicidal thoughts.

Following brain surgery (to clip aneurysms) in 2016 I began experiencing strange episodes of lost speech and drowsiness.  They were seizures caused by a tiny bit of damage in one of my speech centres and did settle down a lot but not completely.   Working with my Seizure Neurologist I was using an ‘as needs’ medication whenever I felt a seizure coming on.

When we discovered I needed surgery on my spinal cord nerves, I spoke with the Neurologist about taking a preventative seizure medication so as to support my recovery not add to it.  She agreed and prescribed Keppra, a common anti-seizure medication.

It worked fine for preventing seizures but unfortunately had some nasty side effects on my mental health.  As my mental health declined, I consulted a Psychologist, then at her insistence, a Psychiatrist and took the medications he prescribed, whilst continuing with therapy.  When I began getting teary for no reason and having vivid visions of inflicting serious, if not deadly harm upon myself with kitchen knives, Jason insisted I go to the doctor and he came with me.  Once the doctor understood I was experiencing frightening, vivid, suicidal hallucinations, he was quickly on the phone to my Psychiatrist whom recommended putting me in hospital to keep me safe.

Not understanding what was awaiting me, we complied with the doctor’s request.  I’ll stop there for now on the back story of the depression as the experience of being admitted to the ‘Psych’ Ward is a whole other story!

I wanted today to admit to having ECT, to having severe depression and suicidal ideation as I believe we need to be as honest as we can about mental health issues and not drown in shame about them.

However, just writing about it makes me sad because I feel bad about dragging Jason through all this.  It’s been a really long, hard year for us and I can’t help feeling guilty about that.  Perhaps if I’d worked harder in therapy or recognised the warning signs sooner, been stronger, not needed the damn seizure medication or, hell not needed surgery, who knows…

Jason has been simply amazing through all of this and to be honest, I’m still alive because of him.  I just wish I hadn’t had to be reduced to such a low where nothing gave me pleasure, and life didn’t interest me.  I wish I didn’t feel shame at having to need such a seemingly radical medical treatment as ECT; a treatment that renders me near non-functional for days and days.  Leaves me making mistakes daily and wandering around in a near-permanent state of confusion.

An effective treatment that is lifting me out of the dark, restoring my spirit, allowing me to see clearly again so that whilst I can still feel my shame, guilt and sadness at all that has occurred, I also am starting to understand that I’m not to blame, neither is anyone suffering with depression; and it is suffering.  I recently said to my ECT doctor, “I don’t know where I’ve been”, referring to the past six months of my life; too which she replied, “Suffering is where, suffering”.

So, should you find yourself in distress or a perpetual state of sadness, please, please reach out to someone and get help.  I didn’t have the sense to recognise the danger I was in so had I not told my husband about the dangerous hallucinations and thoughts, I could have come to serious harm.  Mental illness can feel as though it still has a stigma attached to it, but you’d be surprised at how supportive and kind people can be and the health professionals working in this area are generally very caring.

As I improve, I realise I do not want to carry a bag full of negative emotions about the experience forward with me, thus I tell you all today where I’ve been recently and what I’ve had to do to get through it.  Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Moving Forward

Between stimulus and response there is a space.

In that space is our power to choose our response.

In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

~Victor Frankl 


Feeling much calmer of late.  I have stopped waking at 4am and laying awake for hours unable to return to sleep.  Things are quieter in my head and I am able to get more done during the day and don’t feel exhausted by day’s end.  The brain frenzy has slowed – thankfully.

It feels as though I’ve been in a foot race and the operation date is the finish line but that isn’t right, the surgery is more of a starting point.

Every job I have held in the past decade has been project and deadline focussed; where all effort is directed toward meeting those hard lines in the sand.  I think without meaning to, I have approached the surgery like that.  My to-do list has been getting longer and longer with each passing day, adding to my sense of urgency, and overall stress level.

About a week ago though I had a moment of clarity.  I tuned in to myself, my thoughts and my body and realised I was distressed, and not just about the surgery but everything; I was losing ground to this panic and causing myself to become overwhelmed.   I did what I do in those moments when I realise I am on auto-pilot, I stopped and I took a slow, deep breath, and again, and again until I was fully focussed on the body sensations associated with breathing, allowing all else to fall away in that moment.  As I stood in my kitchen, feeling as though I was stealing a moment of stillness in the middle of a raging storm, I had a moment of especially clear thinking.  One of those moments when it’s as though a very sensible and protective part of my mind demanded to be heard.

In this moment between one breath and the next I remembered something important and in remembering allowed myself to see the potential bad effect my crazy rush to the finish line was having on me.  The thing I remembered was how if my nervous system is put under great emotional and physical duress, I can start having seizures.

Years ago, I went into my second spinal surgery severely distressed and depressed and on the day I was discharged from hospital, had my first seizure shortly after arriving home; and continued to have them for the next two years until I was (with the right help), able to bring them under control. The type of seizure I was having are called Non-epileptic Attacks* and that period of my life was especially challenging.

This recent moment of clear thinking made me stop and reflect upon the way I was racing through my life toward the surgery deadline.   I realised that I was not doing the right things for my mind or body and that I need to manage those things causing me distress and use every trick I have to be at peace within myself.

Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it?

For a couple of weeks now, my mind has been in both ‘freak-out’ and ‘project deadline’ mode.  These default settings in my brain can be powerful and hard to break free of.  Flipping back and forth between worry and rumination and the whip cracking of my perfectionist aspect, it’s no wonder I have been tired.  But, there it was, the moment that shifted my reality by reminding me that I have been here before, different circumstances but similar enough that I can apply all I have learnt. I just need to dig deep and bring all my internal resources to bear.

My moment of clarity allowed me to understand that going into this operation, on the brain itself, with my nervous system completely agitated, and feeling intense fear, is a recipe for complications, including seizures.  This was quickly followed by the knowledge that I can approach this differently and I do not have to be a slave to the more primitive parts of my brain.  I can make real changes each day that will ultimately calm my mind and spirit and reduce the level of stress hormones coursing through my body.

I begin by trying to do one nice thing for myself each day, something I enjoy – to date, I have done things like a long walk at dusk listening to the birds and watching the changing colours of the MacDonnell Ranges, having a packet of favourite biscuits in the pantry and savouring a couple with a cup of tea or having pastries for breakfast, booking tickets to a show I really want to see, stealing cuddles and kisses with hubby and so on.

I then added some self compassion in the form of challenging unhelpful mental chatter – it’s ok if I don’t feel like exercising today, I can do some tomorrow; it’s understandable that I am craving chocolate coated ice-creams and no I don’t think it matters that I have put on a couple of kilos.  You get the idea.

This moment, seemingly out of nowhere has enabled me to reset in some way, to recognise that looking after Jason and myself is my only real priority right now.  Yes, there are important tasks I want to attend to so I go back over my growing to-do list and begin culling, assessing each job thoroughly, prioritising.   I have a friend here whom will be relived to know I took clearing the gutters off the list!

I share this so I can remember what I need to and because I think it is easy for others to think that someone like me who has endured and overcome a lot of pain and difficulty, is different somehow, doesn’t fall prey to being overwhelmed.  I do – frequently but just as the quote at the top of this post says, we have a choice in how we move forward.


*Non-epileptic attacks (NEAs) are not caused by changes in the brain, which can be picked up with a brain scan or by a neurological disease or disorder. It is better to think about them as a mechanism, which the brain uses to “shut down” when it is overloaded. During NEAs parts of the brain stop working together properly. NEAs happen for different reasons in different people.  NEAs can be linked to emotions or stress, but the causes are not always obvious. Most NEAs are an unconscious mechanism, which the brain uses to protect itself against overwhelming distress.