Silencing a Scream

I left her in the psychiatric ward for the first time, walked outside, and howled into the night. In the months before, her anti-depressant medication had failed. She tried a few others, working with a psychiatrist, and they also failed to arrest her depression. Indeed, one of the medications deepened her depression and increased her suicidal thinking.

My wife could, with a great deal of preparation and effort, handle work. But she had a terrible time with any social activities, with friends, with family. Her self-confidence disappeared, her fears grew, and molehills became mountain ranges. So, for the most part, she spent much of her time alone in the bedroom, in darkness. I took care of her as best I could, watching with mounting frustration as my efforts to help seemed to accomplish nothing.

On a day she was due to see her psychiatrist, as I pulled up in the car to pick her up, she ran from me. When I finally found her, and she calmed down, we saw the psychiatrist. We decided she needed to go to the hospital. When I left her there, about to enter a locked ward, I walked outside and yelled, knowing the pain my wife was in and that I could not save her.

In the end, it was not talk therapy, or drugs, or me that saved her. It was ECT. She went through twelve sessions or so, with improvement showing up after the first two or three.

After the ECT sessions, we did find some drugs that worked and we made some other changes in our lives to do what we could to ensure the depression would not come back. We were able to move forward, adding a daughter, a dog, and a new home.

Depression, though, is a brutal, patient, and crafty adversary for too many people. Some folks can beat it every day for years, only to find it returning on the day after those years. And so it came back to haunt my wife. Medicine and lifestyle changes were no match for misfiring neurons, genetically designed bad chemicals, menopausal hormones, or whatever. Once again, my wife began seeing nothing but darkness and misery, feeling little but fear, doubt, and self-loathing.

This time, she went back to a different hospital. I didn't scream when I left, but in some ways it was harder. We had to explain what was happening to our pre-teen daughter, which only deepened my wife's disgust with herself.

A smart psychiatrist figured out that if ECT had worked quickly and well once, it was likely to do so again. And it did. Again, there was improvement after a few sessions and she needed only seven sessions.

ECT worked for my wife, but it's not easy. My wife comes out of the first few sessions with memory gaps and with much confusion, leaving me scared that things won't get better. But she does improve after that. And the fact that she's forgotten many of the details surrounding her hospitalizations is a blessing.

Drugs have worked for us most of the time, and she still relies on them on a daily basis. But ECT has worked when drugs have failed. I don't pretend to know why, and I don't pretend that ECT is an easy choice. Except, of course, it's easy when drugs are not working. And in our case, happily, ECT has worked far more quickly and visibly than any drugs.

Just as drugs have different impacts on different people, I expect ECT may have varying impacts on different people. In our case, it has improved our lives dramatically. It has allowed my wife to return to her normal life. It has pulled my wife out of a serious depression, fairly quickly and with modest side effects. We're very grateful ECT has been available and we encourage others in pain and difficulty to think about it as a treatment.

Caring for someone going through a major depression poses enormous challenges. The depressed person is completely irrational and most of the time, little we as caregivers say or do improves the outlook of the person we love. No surprise, that—our loving acts wouldn't cure diabetes or a broken arm or cancer, so we have to accept we can't fix depression, either. But we still have to reassure our loved one—just as we have to keep the household going, work, consult with the doctors, and deal with the rest of our family and friends. I get all that, and I understand that the prospect of adding ECT to the list of things you have to worry about is daunting. But I urge you to discuss it with the doctors or other families—what starts out scary may turn out to be a lifesaver.

Aka Dan Kardon

Play Frank Maroney's song, "A Light in the Darkness."