Barbara Collins-Layton could not wait. Like millions of Americans, the retired banker suffers serious depression, and has since childhood. Her bathroom vanity was beginning to look like pharmacy, stocked with Risperdal, Zyprexa, Lamictal, and other psychotropic drugs that once worked but did no longer. Her desk was cluttered with crumpled bills from therapists. It had gotten to where she would wake in the morning and make a beeline for the living room and her rocking chair. Forward and back. All day long for six long weeks. While she rocked, her 3-year-old adopted son whispered: "Did I make mommy sick?" Collins-Layton finally went to her psychiatrist and pleaded, "I can't do this any longer. I can't live in this state of mind." He suggested ECT.
Looking back six years later, Collins-Layton, now 56, realizes how radical a treatment ECT is. Was I afraid to get electricity to my brain?" she asks. "Hell, yes!" She knows there are questions still unanswered, like whether her lost memories will return. "But it made me function again," Collins-Layton explains from her home in Portage, Indiana. "You don't function sitting in a rocking chair. I didn't shower. I couldn't cook. couldn't take care of my family. It takes a while with ECT. I had like six treatments. But when I came home from the hospital I was functioning again. ECT gave me my life back."
Next thing I know I am waking up. I am back on an upper floor of Mass. General, in the unit where I slept last night. I feel lightheaded, groggy, the way you do when anesthesia is wearing off . I vaguely recall the anesthesiologist having had me count to 10, but I never got beyond three or four. I remember Dr. Charlie Welch and his ECT team but am not sure whether not I got the treatment. One clue is a slight headache. Another is the goo on my hair, where they must have attached the electrodes.
There is one more sign that I did in fact have my first session of seizure therapy: I feel good -- I feel alive.
Michael is standing there as I struggle to keep my eyes open, and I give him a big grin. That surprises him right away. After a bit more dozing I am awake for good, and get dressed. Michael takes me to the car. I have been warned not to expect too much from any single ECT treatment, especially my first. But I already can detect difference. Feeling this good is truly amazing given where I am coming from, which is a very dark place that has lasted a very long time. As we head home to Brookline, I remember that it is our anniversary. I turn Michael and say, "Let's go out for dinner tonight!" asks, "What?" I say, "I'm serious. Let's do it!"
Michael and I did eat out at a restaurant that night, remaking an anniversary I wanted to forget into one I will remember always. I was back at the hospital on an outpatient basis the next two weeks for four more treatments. After the second one I went to the hairdresser, then a dinner party, and watched the Red Sox on TV.
Love it or hate it. That is the way things have been with ECT since the 1960s. There are two camps, at war. One labels the treatment the best in psychiatry and says it is vastly underused. The other brands it brain-damaging and insists it be banned. Both argue their positions with a righteousness and pertinacity reminiscent of third rail issues like abortion and evolution. Both say it is their way or no way.