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.

Playing with Fire

Yesterday was Territory Day, the one day of the year in the Northern Territory when one cannot only buy fireworks but it’s also legal to let them off.  Having grown up in a state where fireworks were illegal since before I was born, my first experience with fireworks was only about twelve years ago in Canberra where again, there is one night of the year where setting off fireworks in the car park of the apartment block one resides in, is okay; right up to the moment when one of them falls over, shoots exploding balls of fire repeatedly at a neighbours car, setting the alarm off.  That apparently marks the point where everyone grabs up the remaining toys and runs into the shadows as quickly as possible.  If only we had thought to invite said neighbour to our party.  Nonetheless, I was hooked.

I have digressed.

At the discovery that Tuesday was Territory (and fireworks) Day, I became teary.  At first I didn’t understand why but as the weepiness persisted, I realised I was upset at the prospect of me and Jason missing out (again!) on something we get a lot of fun from.  Due to my stupid surgery, we have already missed the Finke Desert Race, the Beanie Festival, early winter camping opportunities and the opportunity to mourn for our fur baby on the one-year anniversary of her death (my surgery date).

Winter is when this town really comes to life.  The next few months are chock full of festivals, fetes, markets, and shows.  It’s a crazy time of year but also an incredibly fun one.  Jason and I have missed out on a lot of fun due to my previous health problems and I guess the thought of missing out on fireworks night just brought all that into sharp focus for me.  We weren’t in the position financially or physically (me) to buy a heap of colourful and oddly named legal explosives and stumble around in the dark trying to outrun the burning wicks of these unpredictable toys.  After a good sob, I reminded myself that soon enough I would be recovered and we will be able to re-join the world and participate in the things we love doing.  It will just take a little while.

Then early Tuesday evening Jason took a call on his mobile and left the room to speak with the caller.  He returns saying our friends S and U are having fireworks at their place and have invited us to join in.  I am thrilled.  He went on to say there would be a number of people there from his work including some visitors from interstate.  I am less thrilled at the thought of navigating a group of strangers but desperately want to see some fireworks and to participate in something other than ‘recovery’.

Once we were ready to head out, I began to feel nervous and Jason asked why.  “I have a giant black eye patch on my face and it seems when in public men can’t help but make jokes about it.  I am moving awkwardly and feel self conscious and the idea of being around a group of people makes me hesitant,” I respond.  He reassured me the group won’t be too big and people won’t make fun of me or ask questions.  Everyone knows he has been on leave to look after me so it will be fine.  As we made our way into the chilly night air, I hope he is right.  It may seem silly but questions about the patch invariably lead to me explaining I’ve had brain surgery (I really need to make up a better story) and the seriousness of that tends to kill conversation and then I own everyone’s discomfort.  I thought facing and having this operation would make me braver and less worried about stupid stuff.  I guess I’m still working on that.

Jason decides to take the four-wheel drive as it’s the older vehicle and there will be lots of falling embers (or a direct attack if history repeats itself).  This seems a sound choice; right up to the moment I opened the passenger door and remember how high the vehicle is.  I make a couple of attempts to get in normally and fail.  My left leg doesn’t have enough strength to push me up, nor does my left arm provide any leverage from the door armrest.  “I want to see fireworks!” is all I can think.   Taking the smaller vehicle never occurs to me and I set about solving this dilemma.  After experimenting, I work out that if I kneel with my right knee on the step, and put my right arm on the seat, I can use my whole of body strength to pull my left knee up so it joins the other.  From there I can push myself up with my right leg and pull myself into the car using the far edge of the seat and the handgrip above the glove box.  I finally arrive in the passenger seat and Jase looks at me, “Are you ok?”  “Yep,” and with that we head off to our friends house, where I kind of slid out of the vehicle, keeping a strong hold on the handgrip above my head.

Our friends great us warmly and have saved a seat for me outside next to the heater and I feel reassured by their thoughtfulness.  We make our way out and I take my reserved seat.  I nod hello to the people at the table and Jason greets those standing.  Within two minutes of sitting, a large, American man at the other end of the table looks at me and loudly asks if we have met before.  Before I can answer, his wife seated to my right replies that we have, at the last get-together here. He then says, “So what’s with the eye patch, is it from an unfortunate fireworks accident.”  I acknowledge that is a good story and I may use it in future.  There are a few quiet laughs.  He throws out another joke and I ask him if this will continue for a while as I might grab pen and paper in case he hits on any good ones.  He then boldly blunders forward, his voice booming, “So what’s with the patch?”  Bereft of a good lie, I tell him, I had brain surgery recently and as a side effect my right eye has been affected.  I need the patch to be able to see normally until it heals.  Short, and to the point.  Silence follows, a few people sip their drinks and look away but the quiet doesn’t last.  The bold American has more.  “Well, don’t I feel like an arse now?!  I mean how could I know that?”  Then he begins mumbling more of the same into his wine glass.  I’d have felt bad for him, had he not zeroed in on me immediately as a potential source of jokes.  There is now a definite awkward silence as he removes himself from the table.  “That went well”, I think to myself sarcastically.  “Yep, no-one will mention the eye patch, no-one at all.”

Post script: We enjoyed the rest of the night, I lasted nearly an hour and a half out and whilst every explosion sent a ripple of pain reverberating along the bones of my head, I was happy to be out watching the fireworks.