Monthly Archives: January 2015

Remember What Happiness Feels Like

“Remember the Grand Canyon? We all came to see you that summer you worked there and I got really sick?” My brother Scott searched his mind for something he remembered. After six electroconvulsive treatments (ECT) for his bipolar brain disorder, he struggled to remember details of his week in the psychiatric hospital. Six ECT treatments down, four more to go.

I’ve written about mental illness and our journey as a family in my book, and I’ve blogged recently about Scott’s new ECT treatment.

“I wanted to do ECT so that I could say ‘I tried everything’ to treat my depression,” Scott confessed over the phone. Lately he’s feeling pretty discouraged.

“I feel like I’ve done something bad, like partied really hard and then got really hungover, except without all the fun.”

So, you might know what he’s talking about here if you’ve ever been hungover. He doesn’t really remember what happened, he’s got a headache, he feels tired and his whole body aches. A common side effect of ECT is short term memory loss. The nurses tell him that his entire two weeks of ECT at the hospital will probably be a blur.

Scott’s now getting a full range of cocktails to keep the physical pain under control. The nurses say that sometimes he wakes up from the ECT “agitated.” Now, with just four more treatments to go (one a day) he reports still feeling depressed, worried, anxious, and frustrated.

“I’m going stir crazy in here. I haven’t been outside the lockdown unit since I was admitted to the hospital.” It’s winter and there’s a foot of snow outside in Minnesota, so fresh air is not an option for him. Plus, he’s on a secure ward of the hospital because of his sducidal thinking.

“It’s not like prison. It’s nice here. I have bananas and crackers and ping pong and puzzles.” Scott is trying to convince himself that ECT for two weeks in the psych ward isn’t all that bad…could be worse…could be in prison. Yet, this is the problem with suffering. We feel ashamed about it because “it could be worse.”

“It could be worse”…a soundtrack of our generation. Our own family tends to be stoic about suffering. Chin up, smile, and march on. Scott often apologizes after he’s complained about his hardship. “I should be more stoic,” he writes in his email to our family. Does he feel ashamed?

Yeah, it could be worse, but it could also be so much better. Life without a mental illness, without a brain disease, would be better. And nobody, not my brother, not you, not your father, should be ashamed of or be shamed for having mental illness. The discharge papers ask patients, “Will you tell people about your stay at the psychiatric hospital?”

On Monday Scott begins his final week of ECT treatment. I hope to God that the week goes by fast. He’s eager to go home to Florida, to get outside in the warm sunshine and ride motorcycles with our brother Steve. For Scott, that’s what happiness feels like.

Right before he hangs up the phone, he shares one last nagging thought, “I wonder what the rest of my life will be like? Will I have to keep going back to the psychiatric hospital forever?”

It IS Your Grandma’s Shock Therapy

My brother Scott completed his third of 10 electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) sessions today as part of his treatment for bipolar brain disease. He is inpatient at a hospital in Minnesota with the finest brain specialists in the world. This is a great opportunity for him on his journey of healing.

The thing is, it sucks. The first ECT felt like a car crash, aching body and headache in the aftermath. The second treatment was more of the same. Yet after my brother continued to report pain, the nurses gave him some new medication that seems to be helping.

Today my brother told me that he was really nervous anticipating his third treatment. As he waited for his turn for the ECT, he noticed the patient ahead of him was a woman “older than Grandma.” Now, our spunky Grandma just turned 94 on Monday. So this woman, in her 90s, was getting her dosage of ECT. Think about that.

Scott said seeing her gave him courage. If Grandma can handle ECT, then he could too, he reasoned. Without even knowing it, this woman represented determination and hope.

Along with the side effects such as muscle ache and headache, Scott is also coming to terms with the fact that even though he’s “shocking his brain” (an extreme treatment for depression) he is not, in his words, “waking up happy.” ECT is no easy or quick fix. Even after his 10 treatments, he may not “wake up happy.”

How many of us can say that we regularly wake up happy?

What does it mean to wake up happy?

A key part of my daily happiness is having something to look forward to. I wake up looking forward to seeing people I love, talking with a good friend, visiting a new park, or reading a good book. If I were in my brother’s shoes, I don’t think I would wake up happy, either. It would not make me happy to wake up to seven more ECT treatments.

So what if mental hospitals did something to change the dynamics of the day? What if in addition to the ECT treatments, there was something else. This is where outside organizations like scouting, churches, and volunteer organizations could make a positive impact. These groups, with some basic prior mental health education, could be the ones to bring “happy” to the mental hospital in moments of welcomed distraction, helping patients to feel connected to the outside world. Why is the mental hospital often overlooked by volunteer organizations?

I’m grateful to that Grandma getting her ECT. I’m grateful that my brother is feeling more hopeful about his treatment. And I’m grateful for you, for this community we have created together. Thank you for being on this journey of breaking the silence about mental illness with me and my family.

I Don’t Need Google

My brother called me last night from the hospital where he is getting electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to treat his severe bipolar brain disease. ECT is not a cure, but it can significantly improve his depression.

I can hear the fatigue, fear and hunger in his voice. Today he is getting his second round of treatment, which felt like a car wreck the first time, like whiplash and body trauma…head to toe. Next time they’ll use a stronger dosage of muscle relaxers.

It’s what used to be called shock therapy and it’s been around for a long time. I could Google it and know more, but the truth is that right now I don’t want to know more. It is enough to know that my brother is somewhere faraway getting his brain electrocuted. I’m sure it’s not as barbaric as it sounds.

I don’t need Google to tell me how uncertain he feels, how tired and uncomfortable he is in this early stage of treatment. There are therapeutic support groups available in the hospital, but for an extra charge. He can’t afford to get the emotional support, so instead he sits in his hospital room alone.

I don’t need Google to tell me that the mental health care system seems broken and in need of shock therapy itself. How can people fully recover from mental illness if the very methods of treatment are out of reach, whether financially or physically? It seems cruel to have a patient like my brother endure ECT without full support in-between the daily sessions of treatment.

So as is my custom with my family and mental illness, I pray and I write and I worry and I wonder. And I invite whoever will listen to do these things with me.

How can we do this better?

What does hope look like for my brother and millions like him?

Why does the path towards healing involve suffering?