I remember the nurse’s name as being Al, even though it probably wasn’t, but the man was practically an Al Franken tribute band, with the look and feel of the real deal, an amazing facsimile. Al held my hand every time I cried, which was every time a jittery med student nervously attempted to start my IV – two, three, four stabs, then jiggling the needle around to hit the sweet spot – this despite me telling them that my veins rolled, that they were unusually narrow, that I needed a butterfly needle. I cried every time they placed the gas mask over my nose and mouth—the two plastic prongs never quite fitting in my nostrils—and told me to breathe gently, to count back from 100.
I cried because it hurt, and because I was clinically depressed. I cried because I was terrified that I would never wake up, never see my kids again. I cried because the whole thing seemed like a last ditch crapshoot anyway, with minimal chances of working to cure my treatment resistant bipolar disorder. I cried during each one of the ten ECT sessions I had over the course of a month until, as they geared up to start my eleventh go-round, I found my voice and said, “No more. I’m done.”
And every time I cried, Al held my hand, his gray hair, laughing eyes, and wire rim glasses a constant I’d home in on as I drifted off and awoke later in recovery, head pounding, body aching, tears flowing.
Today is the two year anniversary of my first electroshock therapy treatment. Two years ago I spent a month away from my children, head under the covers, tiptoeing around my then in-laws’ condominium, trying to make my invasion of their space as small as possible, folding and refolding my clothes to fit the allotted child-sized dresser from IKEA, tidying my books, watching movies on my laptop in the guest bedroom, making small snacks and rinsing off my plate immediately, being quiet.
Before ECT, I would lie prone on the shower floor, sobbing as the spray washed over me, unable to move for a half hour, 45 minutes, an hour. I’d make lists of things to do that included tasks like “brush hair” and “make tea,” and “call insurance company,” most of which I never crossed off. I struggled to sit at my keyboard, frozen and unable to type, earning no money.
After ECT, it wasn’t like I suddenly came back online, raring to go. It was more like I rebooted and then waited through 32 updates so I could slowly log back into my life. My to-do lists grew to again include speaking gigs, kids’ birthday parties, coffee with friends, writing projects.
Since that awful month two years ago, big and shitty and stressful things have happened and I have felt shitty and stressed out about them, but I’ve survived. I divorced. Two-thirds of my dogs died in a week. I struggle to pay my bills. But big and amazing things have happened that I never thought would again. I’ve made a few local friends, though I still tend toward introversion and fight a constant battle between loneliness and the desire to be alone. Every day I walk the freelancing tightrope but, more often than not, I’m pretty sure I can make it work. I get anxious, and I get over it. I smile again, and laugh.
On my recovery days off from ECT, I’d hike a path through a mangrove forest not far from where my in-laws lived. At first I took only tentative steps into the isolated woods. But every time I’d venture deeper into its mazes, finding hidden treehouse-like platforms from which I could view the Port of Charleston and watch dolphins flip alongside barges as they pushed in from the sea. I waded to the edges of marshy swamps, waiting like a statue for the birds to materialize from their hiding places around me. I stroked the fronds of unfurling ferns, almost desperately seeking their delicate beauty. The soles of my shoes grew muddy, and I brushed them off carefully before getting back into the elevator.
A month ago, I made another trek, this time hiking seven miles up and out of the Grand Canyon, the world’s longest Stairmaster. After five hours, we emerged into a blizzard, blinded by sideways falling snow, to see a shuttle bus waiting in the distance like a mirage. We sprinted toward it, clambering over decorative boulders to ensure we’d get a well-earned seat. Sinking down, my two-dollar plastic rain poncho dripping on the floor around me, I cried again, this time with the tears of someone who knows she is now truly alive, and how close she was to not making it.