When nothing could cure my depression, shock therapy saved my life

This First Person column is the experience of Angelika Matson and her choice to try electroconvulsive therapy for her treatment-resistant depression. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

“I think it’s time to consider it.”

Tears rolled down my cheeks, raw from days of constant crying, as the Alberta Hospital psychiatrist talked about electroconvulsive therapy. It carried a risk of brain damage or memory loss, he said, but was an effective tool for the treatment-resistant depression I suffered from. 

Afterward, my paper booty-clad feet shuffled through hallways to my hospital bedroom, the effort requiring all the strength of my fatigued, aching body. I flopped down on the bed and stared at the wall.

How far would I go to get a chance at a life without depression? Would I risk my thoughts? My memories?

Diagnosed at 16

My biological dad left when I was a toddler, cutting off all contact. When I was five, I learned about suicide after the death of my 13-year-old cousin. My stepfather, the man I referred to as my dad, died when I was seven; I was the one who found him “sleeping” on the couch. 

Throw in some bullying throughout my school years, add a history of mental health issues on both sides of my family, and you’ve got a recipe for mental illness, waiting to happen.

The diagnosis of depression came when I was 16.

On the outside, I remained bubbly and energetic — a 4.0 GPA student, active in community volunteering. But in my early 20s, the severity of my depression began to deepen, sending me spiraling into periods of suicidal ideation, self-loathing, fatigue and negativity. I was in and out of hospital while trying to complete my university degree. I struggled to hold down a job, couldn’t find the energy to lift a fork and sometimes slept 20 hours a day.

I tried one medication after another.

The recommendation of electroshock therapy came at a point when years of severe depression had affected my cognition to the point that I often felt drunk. I struggled to read and write, activities I had always loved.

I called my mom, my rock and number one supporter. “I have to do it,” I told her. “Otherwise, my depression will kill me.”

I was so scared. My brain is who I am and I don’t want to lose my memories. But the promise of a chance at life without depression outweighed my fear.

Electroconvulsive therapy — often referred to as shock treatment — has a long and brutal history, which factored into Matson’s initial reticence. These days, patients are put under an anesthetic which helps control the resulting seizures. (Carl Purcell/Three Lions/Getty Images)

Over the next few days, I learned how modern-day electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) worked. 

Like many, my idea of ECT came from movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with patients strapped down on tables and wildly convulsing after the shock. Indeed, there’s a brutal history behind “shock treatment,” as ECT is sometimes known — forcibly done to unwilling patients, leaving some with broken bones as the result of the seizures.

Instead, the doctors said electrodes would be placed on my head and a small dose of electricity would be given to my brain while I’m under anesthetic. The shock stimulates a seizure, which floods the brain with neurotransmitters and lights it up with activity. 

As my psychiatrist explained, if my brain was a lawn, a seizure was like fertilizer and water, setting the right conditions for my brain cells to thrive in spite of my depression.

When the day for my first treatment arrived, I felt anxious.

An IV was started in the back of my hand and I was brought into the operating room with two nurses, an anesthesiologist, my psychiatrist and a psychiatric medical student.

I felt my heart rate quicken with anxiety as nurses started placing stickers all over my body so an ECG could monitor my heart during the treatment. The adhesive felt icy cold.

They covered me in a blanket and removed my hospital socks. The anesthetic would both put me to sleep and relax my body so I wouldn’t convulse; the medical team would monitor the seizure by watching the twitching of my big toe.

Angelika Matson was overwhelmed by support from Edmontonians when she put out a call asking for help getting to and from appointments to treat her depression. 

Radio Active7:02Battling depression with lots of community support

Angelika Matson talks openly about her struggles on social media, and after putting out a plea for help on Twitter, she was overwhelmed by support from Edmontonians. Matson recently began IV ketamine treatments, but getting safely to and from those appointments was an issue. Last week, dozens of complete strangers stepped up to offer her a free ride and she joins us to talk about her experience and the community support.

An oxygen mask was placed on my face, the nurse joking the rubber would smell “like the back end of a Canadian Tire.” I giggled and felt my chest let out a heavy exhale. It reminded me that I was in the hands of professionals and that this procedure would help me find relief from the depression that had plagued me for over a decade.

I felt the sting of the anesthetic being injected into my hand as I started counting backward from 100. The faces looking down on me started to blur: 99, 98, 97…

I woke up connected to a blood pressure cuff in the recovery room. My muscles ached a bit but otherwise I felt better than normal. “That’s it? Am I done?” The nurse laughed.

Generally, ECT treatments are done in sets of eight or 12, two days apart. After my third treatment, the difference was noticeable to my family and friends. “You have light in your eyes again.” “You’re talking faster and moving normally!” “Your smile looks genuine.”

And, from my beloved mom, “I have my girl back!”

In May, Matson returned to electroconvulsive therapy when her trial of ketamine therapy stopped being effective. (Submitted by Angelika Matson)

I suffered some memory loss but it was overshadowed by the other, better changes. I devoured books again, laughed with friends, slept on a regular schedule and had enough energy to exercise as well. I had so many more opportunities for joy. 

After a few years of ECT treatments I decided to try ketamine therapy — a new depression treatment that is equally misunderstood but, for many, quite effective. Still, ECT has worked the best for me, and I’m finishing up a set of treatments at Alberta Hospital. When not getting treatments, I work full-time in a job that I love and I’m just finishing up my term chairing a committee on women’s issues. In my spare time I am an active mental health advocate on social media. 

I know that ECT wasn’t a magic bolt that made me happy, but it gave me the vitality to pursue happiness in a way I’ve never been able to. 

Even though I lost some memories, I consider myself lucky to be able to make new ones.

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This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you’re worried about.

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