Saturday, September 6, 2008

The piece that got me writing again

I found this- and thought I would share it. It was originally published on Furious Seasons last summer. This is the article that made me start writing again. Enjoy!


In the evening, the place I was in took a rhythm of it’s own. People fell asleep on chairs, and games of checkers and chess sat on the table, half played, like a lone sandwich sitting next to them.

It was nighttime. The patients had all been fed, and medicated, and were left in front of the TV while something as insipid as the Home Shopping Channel droned on providing white noise.

I had been in this locked ward for approx 20 days. My insurance, though I did not know it at the time, pooped out at 30.

And I hadn’t gotten better, I had gotten worse.

My doctor, who ran the hospital had unbeknownst to me called in my parents for a meeting, as well as the three doctors under him. All I knew was tonight I didn’t have my supper; instead one of the nurses helped me in the shower and bathed me because I was too catatonic to do so. She helped me get dressed and finally put on those slipper socks that all the inmates wear because our shoes had all been stripped of their laces.

She walked me out of the locked ward, stopping at the Christmas tree by the Nurses station in the main part, and let me touch an ornament. I smiled. We went into the doctor’s office and there was my mom, and dad sitting on a plushy bluish purple sofa, and three doctors I never saw before.

“Mr. and Mrs. S” went my doctor – “We’ve tried everything on your daughter but she is extremely depressed and still suicidal. We’ve tried several different drug therapies and nothing is working, and we are left with two things. She has ten days left on her insurance and if she is still like the way she is now, we will be forced to put her in a state hospital. Or we can try ECT”.

ECT was then explained to my parents, and they saw a video. And with the State’s leading expert on ECT who told them he would be personally administering it, papers were signed, I was convinced by mom and dad “ do this to make your mother happy”, and the next day woken up at 5 am to be driven to the local teaching hospital for my first round.

This isn’t the time or place to get into the fine details. Suffice it to say I was strapped down to a gurney and got poked prodded, IV’ed and what not. I saw monitors and a little contraption by my bedside that looked like R2D2. When the good doctor got to me, I had my treatment, later waking up and changing back to my street clothes and out of those hospital garbs that show your ass to the universe.

What was unusual was when they asked me who the President was; I thought it was Bill Clinton. But I got the other questions correct and maybe it’s a good thing to forget a few years of history.

But as the treatments went on, I noticed several things. I had a photographic memory prior. I could not recall huge events in my life. I would look at family pictures and know something happened but couldn’t recall it. Huge chunks of my adolescence and childhood went Poof! I also had the ability to recall in graphic detail every book I had ever read from “Green Eggs and Ham” to the last book I had been reading in the hospital which was of all weird things “ A Noonday Demon’. I had been a contestant on Jeopardy. Now I couldn’t even name the hosts name.

I couldn’t read anymore. I couldn’t even read a newspaper. I couldn’t watch TV. I forgot how to get to places I was driving to, even though I had been driving the same routes for years.

Now this may seem trivial. To some people, thinking the last president was Clinton could be a good thing. To some people forgetting horrible adolescence is a good thing.

But when you are a writer, someone who makes their LIVING out of writing, and cannot anymore its death.

Imagine you are an Olympic athlete or a pro ball player. You are injured to such an extent that you are living, but your career is gone. All you have, as a reminder that you were once one of the best in your field are medals, trophies, articles. But it’s all gone. This is your identity. Your whole life has been building up to this career, and it’s all gone, what do you do?

Coach. What do you do if your brain able to recall things well enough to teach/coach? You are a baseball player and you can’t explain to someone the difference between a ball and a bunt?

In other words, your body is living, breathing thing. Everything is working fine, your heart, your legs, and your eyes. But what about the brain? It’s like going into a house that has just been sold and is lying vacant while the new owners wait to get in. Functional but no one home.

ECT is one of those things, which seems to have its pros and cons, each group vocal. I mentioned to a friend today I was writing something about ECT and she acted like I was writing about clubbing baby seals.

I can tell you that the man who was next to me in all my treatments did fine. His memory loss was minimal. It helped him.

But I will also tell you that those of us who have had the bad experiences are afraid to or don’t know how to write or talk about their experience.

I tell people to please make sure about ECT- it’s a procedure. Know the pros and cons and don’t let a doctor coerce you into ANY procedure. Get a second opinion. Be informed. Ask to see the facility if possible, and talk to the nurses who will be assisting.

For me, it was a mistake. Most of my memory did come back 5 years later. I no longer act like a stroke victim where I cannot string two sentences together when I talk, and point to the TV when I mean the Fridge. I can read, and I can look now at my library and recall the majority of the books I have read, albeit not in such graphic detail, hut I will settle for that.

What I cannot settle for is it destroyed my writing career. My rasion d’etre. Everything I write now seems Sophomoric, and I struggle to do that. It’s like “Flowers For Algernon”, I have been a genius, and now I am sub standard. It pains me. It’s also humbled me.

I wrote earlier had I had a gun after my treatment ended, I would have eaten it. I still feel that way now. What holds me back is the hope that if it took 5 years for my memory to right itself. Maybe my writing will come back. But to go from writing at a degree of a Hemingway- to now where most days all I can write is “Pat the Bunny” has destroyed my heart and my soul.


Ana said...

I don't know what to say now.
I'm deeply touched.
Friday I met a mother on the mental institution near my house and her 33 years old daughter had ECT ne week ago and had a seizure while coming back home.
They have put her on the psychiatry institute... to have others ECT sessions.
Now reading you I'm feeling sad. Not angry. Sad...

Larry said...

Once I get past the emotion (it ain't easy, trust me ...), what strikes me is how psychiatry as a profession has tried to characterize ECT as a "normal" procedure.

Just because it's done much more humanely than in the bad old "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" days doesn't mean the risk/reward ratio isn't enormous. To use the sports analogy, it's not "three yards and a cloud of dust," it's a "Hail Mary."

I know people whose lives have truly been saved by ECT. I know others who have ended off even worse off. (Yes, it's possible ...)

To echo Philip, TRULY "informed consent" is the key to the use of ECT, psychotropic medications, etc., etc. Better disclosures by docs and Big Pharma (mandated by the government, obviously) would go a long way.

Gianna said...

mmm...I read this on Furious Seasons at the time he published it and I thought, awww...this woman can still write...though I trust there was a time when your truly couldn't, just like there was for me...

so happy you have your gift back and can use it...

love to you

Ana said...

That's exactly the way psychiatrist convince their patients:
"-ECT is different now! It's made under supervision and care with anesthesia. blah blah blah..."
That's what the mother I met said.
Gianna also did it...

normal procedure!:(

Gianna said...

you said "Gianna also did it."

what do you mean?

I've not had ECT...but maybe I'm not understanding you...

I lost my cognition through heavy drug use, did that make you think I'd had ECT?

sorry I'm confused....

G said...

This is such a powerful piece Susan. You're great! It's interesting that you mention Hemingway as well. Did you know that he committed suicide soon after an ECT treatment or was that just a coincidence?

susan said...

@Ana, don't feel sad. It's a procedure and I just want people to know the pros and cons before they have it. There are a lot of bloggers that have had it that feel it was a good thing, the most vocal would be Tracy. And there are those of us who feel it was a mistake and the side effects were caustic. I am doing OK now.

@Larry, thank you again for the criticism. you are a great writing coach. Don't always agree with you, but hell, you inspire me.

@Gianna, thank you. For everything and your friendship, fellow cat purrson.

@G-thank you. Yes, I know that Hemingway suicided 6 months after his ECT treatment. He said the procedure killed the patient.....It may have changed in the 40 years between his procedure and mine, but for all the time I had it, until now, I know what Hemingway meant. I still cannot write as well as I use to once apon a time, and that saddens me. You are nother heck of writer.

Samantha said...

"That's a great post. Here's a website on developing
photographic memory. Check out the tips that they offer. They worked pretty well for me. It's at"

Anonymous said...

I had ECT in the old days "the way they used to do it."

Depression had robbed me of anything that could truly be referred to as "life" for years prior.

I was among the walking(crawling?) dead so had nothing to lose. Depression had already robbed my brain of it's normal capacity to remember.

My pdoc/tdoc refused to treat me any longer because I made the decision to have ECT. He meant a lot to me and I cried for days over being abandoned by him.

But he had nothing to offer as I'd taken literally every med on the market. He wouldn't have been liable if my ECT had a bad outcome.

In my deepest depression I had to go shopping for a new pdoc who'd refer me to a good ECT pdoc.

My parents and a sibling refused to acknowledge my six week hospitalization.

They literally pretended not to hear when another relative mentioned my name. I never received a phone call or even a card. My treatments had brought shame upon the family such that they literally denied my existence.

I lost memories. That alienated even those who hadn't previously abandoned me. My inability to remember a wedding or other celbratory event was taken as a personal affront.

Memories of significant events have yet to return decades later.

But I'm alive. Should I apologize to those who don't approve of the treatment I underwent?

What's life without risk taking? I've always taken risks in hope of improving my life and felt no hesitation in taking this one. How could I considering the severity of my illness?

Informed consent is necessary for any medical procedure. Of course no one should be coerced into treatment.

By the same token, no one should discourage a patient left with
no other options to reject a potentially life saving treatment.

susan said...

@Samantha, thank you, I will certainly check out that site.

@ Anon- I don't know what to say. I cried when I read your post. What a strong person you are!

I agree with you as the last resort. We were desperate to do anything to get me out of my catatonic state. Like I said here, I did see it work on some people. It just didn't work for me.

I am so sorry to hear about your family. I cannot believe people still feel this way in the 21st century.

Take good care of yourself. I am glad to meet you.

Anonymous said...

We'll meeet again soon, IRL! :)

Dano MacNamarrah said...

I read this right after looking at your post about 9/11. I cannot remember 9/11, because even though I stayed home and watched it all day on the television, the ECT has wreaked terrible damage.

I chose the "treatment" when I was hospitalized for suicidal depression. My boy-friend and my best friend tried to talk me out of it, knowing this would not have been my choice in a less fragile and shattered state.

After over 20 shocks, I was still slicing up my wrists, barely able to function and I'm told, not any better. It was probably the worst decision of my life. My memory used to be photographic, but now it's like swiss cheese.

I've had years of cross-word puzzles to repair my brain, watching a movie up to five times before realizing I've seen it before, and the awful moments when you run into some one you used to know, but now don't.

Like Anon, my family does not treat my many hospital stays as any of their business. They came once, out the roughly ten lengthy stays. I believe that if mental illness were viewed with the same caring, compassion and concern shown toward physical illness, I might have seen more of them.

Your extraordinary writing is nothing to feel shameful about. You have lost so much, rejoice in all that you have achieved...Much easier to write than to practice that advice!

Congratulations on your well-deserved award.

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