Have you read chapters one, two, and three?
So, electroconvulsive therapy it was. It was decided that I would be admitted back to the unit for the start of the therapy, because one of the side effects is paranoia, and unfortunately I got that in droves. As with so many things during these early days, I don't have clear memories of this period of time, but I do have pieces of my memories that are so vibrant and clear that if I close my eyes I can take myself right back to certain moments, as if I have turned back time.
I can remember everything about the environment in the Mothers and Babies Unit.The colour of the carpet, and the feel of it under my bare feet. The old hospital bed with crisp white sheets and blue bedspread that I had to make every single morning (that was a ward rule). The feeling of sitting in the reclining armchairs in the lounge, and how they were old and lumpy. The smell of the kitchen where I would make Sam's formula, with the buckets of Milton solution that I soaked the bottles in to sterilise them.
I can remember queuing up outside the medication room, waiting to be given my pills, the other room where they monitored my blood pressure, heart rate, took ECGs and weighed me on a regular basis. I remember the torch light during the night when the nurses would check on everyone, every hour, and how they weren't to help anyone feed or settle their babies. That seemed really hard at the time, and although I don't really remember much about being up in the night, I can remember feeling angry because I wanted them to help, I wanted to sleep. I know now that it was all for my own benefit.
I think I remember so much about this time in the ward because that was my longest admission - I was there for 8 weeks, The daily routines became so familiar and safe for me that I remember wanting to stay even after they said I was being discharged! During this stay Mark would take time off work twice a week to come and collect me and take me to Hilmorton Hospital (Christchurch's main psychiatric hospital) for my ECT treatment. I remember going in the first time and there was another lady there. She was older, maybe in her late sixties, and she seemed almost lifeless as she just stared into space and moved really slowly. I can even remember the clothes she would wear because I saw her at a number of consecutive appointments. I remember hoping that I wasn't going to be like that.
Each time I arrived for an appointment I had to have my observations done, and then when it was time I would go through into the procedure room and lie down on a hospital trolley, on my back. There was always a nurse, anesthetist, and a psychiatrist. The nurses were always the same ladies but the psychiatrist and the anesthetist would change from week to week. Two of them stick in my mind - an anesthetist called Duncan, and a psychiatrist who was a very gentle and softly spoken Indian lady.
So when I was lying down I would get an IV line in my arm, and a blanket over me. Mark was always there, and he would hold my hand while everyone was preparing. They put a blood pressure cuff and pulse oximeter on me. The psychiatrist would put a conducting gel on the crown of my head and on the right side just above my ear, then the electrodes (I think that's what they are called...?) were put on over the gel. Sometimes there was discussion about the 'dose' that I would get, and I recall that it was lowered after my experiences with paranoia had become quite bad (I used to call my mum, scared out of my mind because I thought people were following me, and trying to get me. I can't remember that, I only know what mum has told me).
Mark was always right there with me until I went to sleep, and then he would be sent out to the waiting room while I was 'treated'. It really is the funniest things that I remember about these appointments - like how the anesthetist called Duncan (I had him quite a few times) would always say "night night" as he gave me the anesthetic meds and I drifted away. Apparently it was all over and done with in about five minutes, but of course I had no concept of the time had passed, or not passed in this case. The first time I was really confused when I woke up, I didn't know where I was or why I was there, and I had no idea at all why I was wearing hospital pants! I had arrived in my own pants, I had the rest of my own clothes on, and Mark just mumbled something about having an accident. When I found out that I had wet myself when the electricity was turned on I had such a mix of emotions, where I felt confused, embarrassed, ashamed, foolish, and completely and utterly vulnerable in a way I never had before. I was reassured that it was a very common thing that happened, and that I shouldn't worry, but of course I did. Every single time after that I would empty my bladder right before going into the treatment room, and I wore an incontinence pad just in case! The empty bladder strategy worked well because I never wet myself again.
As hard and confusing as it was to go through the course of ECT, it was my turning point. I still don’t really know what it does to the brain, aside from inducing seizure activity, and as far as I’m aware there have been no lasting side effects, apart from stabilising my mood, but I do know that the human brain is an incredible thing and the fact that neural pathways can be broken and new ones formed just blows my mind. However, regardless of how it has changed me I know for a fact that if I did not have that treatment, I would not be here today. My heart and soul were in so much pain and so completely and utterly broken, there was simply no way I could have continued to live in that space.
To be continued…
Chapter five coming soon.
First published in 2019.