Chris Dubey recalls pretending to his East Coast doctors that shock therapy had cured his depression. [Reader warning - this article contains distressing content.]
During electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), also called shock therapy, the patient is anesthetized and then an electric current is transmitted through the brain, causing a seizure that some psychiatrists believe to be therapeutic for depression and other illnesses.
"I realized that I only had two options."
Nevertheless, the treatment is extremely controversial. Many patients report cognitive deficits, memory loss, and emotional trauma. I personally have communicated with many “electroshock survivors” who feel harmed by the treatment.
I myself am one of those survivors. In early November 2005, I was extremely depressed and agitated. Following a previous suicide attempt, I attempted suicide by jumping off an overpass in Middletown. I was taken to hospital and treated for my broken legs. After recovering enough to use a wheelchair, I was transferred from the main hospital to the psychiatric facility.
I was 22-years-old. My stay lasted until February 17, 2006. It was the most traumatic experience of my life. While there, the staff obtained a legal order from a probate judge enabling them to legally electroshock me against my will, which they did 16 times, according to memory.
The process started with the urging of my first psychiatrist that ECT was my best treatment option, as I had tried a few psychotropics that did not work adequately.
Eventually, my first psychiatrist’s idea gained traction with my psychologist, the head of the institute, and the second psychiatrist, who replaced him for unknown reasons. A hearing was held by a probate judge, during which I argued against allowing the staff to involuntarily electroshock me. My brother, mother, father, and a long-time friend argued on my behalf. In the end, the judge sided with the hospital staff, apparently assuming their expertise.
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Each day of the treatment, I was wheeled to the ECT Room, forced to get up on the shock table, and to allow the staff to prepare the machine and the procedure, including attaching equipment to my temples. After maybe only the first treatment, I had aches in my jaw and a headache. But emotionally, I felt extremely violated. When asked by my psychologist and the group therapy staff how the treatment felt, I remember stating, “It feels like being raped.” Some people to whom I later told that statement said it is an offensive statement, but it was my feeling at the time.
I had nightmares, including one in which I was helplessly arguing against the judge. I had memory lapses, forgetting names of staff and patients. One day I screamed wildly in fear while being wheeled to the ECT Room. Another day, I actually became so disoriented after getting back in my chair after treatment that I leaned forward and fell on the floor. Later, I developed pneumonia, which I had not had since childhood. I became so desperate for a way to escape the torture that one day, in front of the nurse at the medication dispensal window, I swallowed part of a paper napkin. I knew eating before the treatment was forbidden, because of the risk of choking later. After the treatment that day, I was taken to the emergency room for abnormal breathing.
In the end, I realized that I only had two options: Continue my honest opposition and fighting the staff, while my memory and body seemed to get worse… or start lying about how the treatment was slowly making me feel better. I chose option two, exaggerating whatever positive effect the treatment might have had on my mood, doing it slowly to make it more believable. I lied not only to the staff, but also to friends and family who visited. It felt horrible, but that was how fearful I was. But it worked and on February 17, I was released, keeping my dissident opinions and continuing suicidal fantasies to myself.
Chris Dubey is author of Electroconvulsive therapy and brain damage: Survey of the evidence from a philosophical promontory. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, 19(1), 24–50. doi:10.1891/1559-43126.96.36.199 He advocates for the end of non-consensual ECT in the US, UK and elsewhere.