Look left, Walk green

by K. Rose Quayle
I think I’m a bit more emotional today because of the shooting that happened downstairs yesterday. It really bothered me to see the SWAT team having us all put our hands up so they could search the ward for the gunman. I think everyone had nightmares last night. We watched ourselves on the news. That was surreal…

I have no memory of this event.

While extremely complex, our own brains are a veritable storm of electricity themselves within the circuit of the entire body, their own microscopic neurons constantly generating electrical impulses from one area to the other to ‘speak’ commands, share information and check in with other parts of the body, with the granddaddy of all internal lightning storms being when the brain experiences an surge of electric activity resulting in a seizure. You can think of the brain as the body’s battery, with each neuron able to generate about 0.07 volts.
But something about the imagery and history of ECT makes us uncomfortable as a nation to allow such a treatment to come any closer to our doctors’ offices or hospital emergency rooms. It seems naturally related to those taboo subjects relegated to discussion in the far corner, not out in front by water cooler. Such a stigma is not attached to the other medical therapies using electricity and some of this has to do with public relations. The National Heart Association has done a bang-up job of educating the masses about heart attack and what to do in the event of. Their massive campaigns have educated us down to the grade-school level about the importance of CPR to save lives and the relevance of keeping AED machines in public places.
I have come to trust the thought that I may not remember or understand what is being told to me. I may have liked it, said it, or done it and no longer know the story but someday might meet that version of me in memories. And perhaps we all should keep in mind that all of us at some point in our lives lose bits of our stories deep inside of ourselves through the distance of the past or the illness of the present. As human beings we are always alone at all times in our memories, in our uniqueness, in our thoughts.

We are, always alone, together.

With even psychiatrists questioning why science hadn’t come up with something better by the 1950s but unable to point to anything else with the same dramatic results, the climate was excellent for a novel new treatment, something as bold as lobotomy but that didn’t involve ruining any kitchen utensils or messing around with anyone’s actual brain matter. Again, it was Europe who stepped up with the next big turn in mental health history.
Directly after ECT I didn’t know my own name and when this came back to me I introduced myself as Mrs. Quayle, unsure of my first and middle name. This was quite odd as no-one ever called me this outside of my husband who does so mostly as an address over an endearment. Likewise, I did not recognize him at times but simply thought of him as a ‘very nice boy’ who took care of me. I thought, perhaps, he was a nurse. “The standard of care must be quite high these days then, ” he mused later when he wasn’t sure whether to be amused or insulted. “The shots come with kisses now.”
We know from medical documentation and personal testimony that ECT effects memory in the vast majority of patients to some extent but the question is, how? What type of memory functions are interrupted and what is the actual mechanism being interrupted? For that matter, what actually happens to create and recall memories? Why is memory loss so damaging and painful rather than just a nuisance to wait out? I mean honestly, is it really so awful to forget your mother’s disaster of a Thanksgiving turkey three years ago (or was that mine?)?
So it was decided right then at the red light as a nod to the humorous outlook we’ve often had to force ourselves to have in the aftermath but has ultimately saved us in the end: The Incognizant Guide to ECT: I Had a Decent Title But I Can’t Remember What It Is! Obviously I didn’t go with that. After much thought I decided on what I said in chapter one of this book, that despair commands its own respect. It would be a lie to gloss over the personal devastation that occurs with memory loss both in oneself and for others involved. Ultimately I chose a title that reflected what was lost and how to move on, because life is about hope. And if we lose what is behind us, we have nowhere to go but forward.
Signing myself in was like turning myself into jail for something I didn’t do and was totally foreign to my sense of survival. But I found a place in myself to hide and disappear to when I knew I’d passed all my own safety checks and had to just have faith the worst thing possible wasn’t going to happen when I signed those papers. I knew that as a person with mental illness, I was already judged guilty by the world of the crimes particular to the crazy; there was no way to redeem myself to it and I no longer cared to prove myself to it. But my loved ones, well. I either had to make a leap and risk die trying, or certainly die.

ECT was my only ladder out of hell. I could only hope the rungs stayed steady enough for me to make it to the top.

Sight is so important to the stigma of the mentally ill. We see people talking to themselves in delusion. We see the dishevelment of the mentally ill homeless on the streets. We see the tears of spouses so brokenhearted that mental illness has brutally kidnapped their loved ones and their utter aloneness as the one who survives. We see gentle children becoming suddenly cruel, confident children being stricken by unimaginable terror or unreserved children disappearing deep inside themselves. We see teens and young adults, full of promise and dreams, suddenly ending their lives. This is the reality of mental illness. This is its toll and its price. What we don’t see is how it happens. Science is getting closer and closer to that point, but human fear takes a long time to be assuaged of something that looks, for all intents and purposes, like a demon.
Any type of cognitive dysfunction is a funny thing. You don’t always know something’s wrong until you send a thought out to test the waters and you expect it to come back with an olive branch but instead it’s awkwardly lugging a refrigerator back with all the poise and grace of toting appliances. What is this? You ask and the Thought answers rather saucily, You said you wanted an olive branch. Then you immediately wonder if you did, in fact ask for a refrigerator and somehow misplaced this notion between turning on the tap and putting the kettle on to boil.
Inside the treatment room anesthesiologist and psychiatrist introduce themselves and ask some medical questions…perform a “time out”. They ask your name and (date of birth).

Anesthesiologist and psychiatrist say the weight of patient and what side of the head they will be doing treatment on and also the amount and then the nurse asks if all agree.

They say yes and the nurse puts EEG leads on, gives anesthesia through the IV line and you are instructed to wiggle your toes if told to. This lets them know your awareness during anesthesia.

Pain extreme today. Leg weakness much worse to start but gradually got better. Slept 3 hours. Pain is unbearable in mouth, back of head, hands, neck and spine. Hurts to talk, cough. Can’t get over how much more painful it is today. Was advised of this by another patient but experiencing it is a whole new matter.

ECT, commonly known as ‘shock therapy,’ has been used to successfully treat various illnesses since the late 1930s and is still in use around the world today. Famous for causing memory loss to some degree, ECT suffers a good deal of misconception about how it works and what it does and doesn’t do.

In this memoir about the ins and outs of this controversial treatment, K. Rose Quayle chronicles the pitfalls and triumphs of losing the past and choosing to gain the future. Perfect for those who’ve gone through ECT, those contemplating choosing ECT and anybody curious in-between.

At age 32 K. Rose Quayle underwent Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) for Bipolar Depression. She writes on her experiences with memory loss and cognitive dysfunction and maintains that a practical approach is best to getting back to one’s life and excelling with mental illness. She resides in Pittsburgh, PA with her husband and The Zoo.

© K.Rose Quayle 2017