ECT is barbaric and should be banned. Right? That's what someone said to me last night on Twitter.
It’s a no-brainer (to coin a black humour pun), isn’t it? ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) involves putting an electric shock through someone’s head to trigger an epileptic seizure. The psychiatrists can’t even say for sure how it might work. Totally unproven.
Cut and dried, huh?
Except no. Not really.
I know more than I should about ECT. I have trawled websites; I have studied academic papers; I have read interviews with those for it and those vehemently against it.
Would I ban it? No.
Why? Because I was put in the invidious position of having to decide if someone I loved should have it. I made that decision – not remotely lightly – and it, quite literally, saved her sanity and her life.
This is a difficult subject for me, as some of you will know. I can’t use names because – last time I tried to talk about the circumstances that led up to this – it caused a huge rift with people I love. So.
Let’s just say someone close to me – let’s call her Josephine – developed severe psychosis. As in, she thought she'd killed people. She thought she was being tortured. She thought she was being crucified, for pity's sake. Over and over again.
She tried to kill herself in hospital. When she was transferred to a mental health unit, she tried to kill herself again. And again. When she ran out of the means and strength for quick active suicide attempts, she stopped eating and drinking and tried to kill herself that way. Medication did nothing. Therapy? Don’t be stupid. She thought anyone who talked to her was a devil. The devil.
Basically she was running out of time. Let me be very clear here. I have nothing but praise for that mental health unit. They were superb. Her psychiatrist was the most humane, intelligent and downright kind doctor I’ve ever met. Somewhere I still have all his phone numbers – yup, home and mobile included.
When he suggested ECT as a ‘last ditch option’, he put it like this. ‘You won’t like the idea. Nobody does. I don’t. I only suggest it as I think, right now, it’s the only way to save her life.’ He went on to say. ‘We don’t know how it works. Not really. But sometimes it does. Will it work for her? I don’t know but, frankly, it’s all we’ve got.’
Let’s get a few things straight. ECT is given under general anaesthetic, with a muscle relaxant. When 'Josephine' was able to talk about it, she said there was no pain.
And, yes, she was able to talk about it because, to cut a long story short, it worked. It brought her back. How? I dunno. But I do think that sometimes our brains develop sheep-tracks...synaptic pathways which become hard-wired through constant use. What ECT seems to do is to switch the train tracks (to mix my metaphors quite appallingly) so the brain stops using that particularly dark synaptic pathway. Once she realised what was happening (after three sessions) she chose to continue with the ECT – her own choice. There was some short-term memory loss but we all accepted that as a small price to pay for her peace of mind and sanity.
Yes, it’s a very crude treatment. Yes, it’s distasteful. And yes, I’m sure, in some cases it is used inappropriately, just as many drugs are given inappropriately; just as many things are done inappropriately. I am quite sure there are some terrible abuses. But just remember, before you ban it…things are rarely black and white. It is so damn easy to judge. So so easy. Because, let’s be honest, it makes life a lot simpler, huh?
One thing, however, is very clear to me. Without ECT ‘Josephine’ would have died in mental torment. I can’t stress that enough – she believed she was in hell – real living Hell. She was existing in mortal terror and bitter despair every moment of the day. This ‘barbaric’ treatment brought her peace.
Black and white? Cut and dried?
For an informed overview of ECT I’d suggest you look at the MIND website here.