She called me about two weeks ago. Her voice was almost inaudible. Robotic-sounding. All she said was, "What do you know about ECT?"
As it happens, I know a lot. And we discussed it. Or rather, I discussed it. She listened so intently, it felt as if there was physical tension on my land-line.
She said, at one point, "I can't turn off the suicidal thoughts. And nothing is working."
She has been struggling, no, suffering with fierce, deep and intractable depression for several years, as long as I've known her. About three years ago, she became so immobilized by her depression, she had to leave a senior position with a marketing firm.
"My mind wasn't working any more. I had tip-of-the-finger syndrome. I couldn't quite come up with the right words."
That's when the suicidal thoughts started, though she didn't tell me at the time.
Last spring, for the first time, she called me one night, threatening to kill herself. As soon as I got off the phone with her, I called her partner and he told me she'd been threatening for days. "She's been calling several people. She's done this before." This time, he sounded worried.
For years, a series of family doctors had been prescribing anti-depressants. None of them worked. She had spent a fortune seeing psychologists and other counsellors because she hadn't been able to find a psychiatrist she felt she could work with.
She couldn't sleep, so her GP added sleeping pills to the mix. They didn't help. She would fall asleep and awaken at 3 a.m. They fogged her up so much, one night she accidentally overdosed and ended up in Emergency having her stomach pumped. Although she was feeling suicidal, she swore at that the time, "that was no attempt."
Five months ago, finally, she was able to start seeing a very good psychiatrist at a Toronto teaching hospital, with an expertise in women's issues, depression and psychopharmacology, who reassessed her medications and started her on a new regime.
"They make me feel like I have no personality," she would say.
I told her to give it time. It takes time. I was wrong.
"I feel monochrome. I'm still not sleeping. I feel flat."
When I saw her, she tried her best to rally for me. She did everything she could to try to break through the haze. She took up sculpture. She dragged herself to her local gym. But most of the time, she stayed at home and thought about what a relief it would be to "not exist anymore."
Over the holidays, she and her man went up north for a few days, but her depression and her suicidal thoughts travelled with her. Then, on Thursday, January 7, at about 6:30 p.m. she called and asked me about ECT.
I told her about my experiences in the 1960s and 1970s. I told her about several people I know personally who have had remarkable success with ECT. I sent her the two links to the July 2008 posts I wrote here about ECT and other "current" therapies. I told her that it's definitely something to consider.
On January 11, she called sounding more lively than she had in months. "I told my psychiatrist I'm thinking about ECT and she said 'it's certainly something we can explore.' I've decided I want to do it."
She had done her research.
"Where did you get the idea to even consider it," I asked.
"It came to me out of the blue," she said. "I think I was watching something on TV. I can't remember. I just know nothing is working and this is a chance."
A few days later, she received a call from the psychiatrist who will administer her ECT treatments. Her psychiatrist had made the connection.
"I wasn't expecting him to call me," she told me. "It was a real surprise. He was great. So encouraging and informative. He had already spoken with my psychiatrist and he knew all about me. He said he thought it would be best for me to have two sessions a week of unilateral ECT for between eight and 12 weeks. Early morning sessions. He asked me to join a study and I said I would."
I couldn't remember her sounding so positive.
"Do you think I could follow your experiences while you're going through it?" I asked. "Since you're in this study, you're helping to further scientific research. My writing about your entire experience might help people see ECT as it really is and how it really works. It might clear up some misconceptions."
She said, "Yes, of course. That would be a good idea. It might really help. But please don't use my real name, okay?"
"Okay," I said. "Thank you."