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Electroshock Therapy May Seem Like Torture, But It Gave Me A Mom

How Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) Saved My Mom From Bipolar Disorder

I used to think my mother was dumb.

I thought she was stupid, and I hated her for it.

I was embarrassed by her and never wanted any of my friends to meet her. I never wanted her to chaperone on the many field trips at school. I never wanted her to get out of the car when she picked me up. I never wanted her to come to the mother-daughter lunches my school held every Friday for the little ones.

I used to wish she was someone else — that my real mom was my friend’s mom, the one with a doctorate and a real job.

I found my own mother's idiocy to be weak and I didn’t like it, especially considering all the heroic things my father did. It kills me to this day that I used to think he deserved better than my mother.

I used to get angry at her all the time for having to repeat myself several times, or when she would speak incorrectly or spell something wrong.

I remember thinking, “God, can’t she just act like her age or at least an adult?”

I never knew just how unbelievably strong my mother was until I was older.

With my teenage years came the horrible attitude of puberty. I began to get mouthy with my mother instead of keeping mean comments to myself, though they were usually said under my breath unless she really got on my nerves.

One day after my dad came home from work, he sat me down in my room to have a “little chat.” I was expecting a lecture since our “little chats” were usually him telling me to do better, so I rolled my eyes and went into the room with him.

We sat on the edge of my bed and my dad calmly looked over at me and came straight out to bat with, “Your mother is bipolar.”

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I honestly didn’t know how that made me feel. I didn’t get what the big deal was.

I vaguely knew bipolar disorder had to do with being up and then down a lot. I knew my friends joked about mental disorders all the time, bipolar disorder being one of them.

Shocked? Startled? I honestly haven’t a clue how that specific part of our talk made me feel, but I think I was just processing it as it came.

My father continued, “Your mother is much more than you think of her, and I know you think very little of her right now. I’ve been thinking about telling you this for a while now and I believe you’re ready to hear it. That you need to hear it.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You know your mother grew up in foster care, right? Well, it's time you heard what she went through in there.”

I was surprised because we never talk about my mom’s past. We could talk all day about my father’s childhood and his wild stories about his mother, but we didn’t dare talk about my mother’s. It was taboo. And I now understand why.

My mother was treated horribly in the foster care system.

The foster care system is a messed-up institution I believe needs to be burned to the ground and built back up the right way.

I remember being quiet as my dad retold my mother’s childhood tale.

She was beaten until she bled, locked in cages like an animal, and left in a closet with no food for days. She was neglected to the point she would pass out and not be found for hours on end. She was harassed by her foster parents. She bounced from one bad home to the next, never having a safe haven to go to until she met my dad while living in a home for girls. Even in that home, she wasn’t treated right.

She was kicked out of the home when she was 18 because the home would no longer receive a check from the state to pay for her. She wasn’t even out of high school yet. Despicable people.

My grandmother (my father’s mother) heard what happened and immediately agreed to let my mother stay with them. My grandmother was the first parental figure my mother had who loved and looked out for her, even if it was to yell at her son for something he did to her. They were a little family for my mother.

But then my grandmother got sick and my mother had to watch the only mother figure she had known die slowly.

“That, along with everything else she went through, does something to you,” my father said, as his voice broke a little.

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A year later I was born, and things were good for my mother. Married, children, a family, a home.

Photo: Courtesy of the author

Then my mom had her first major breakdown.

My father had come home from the hospital where he was working as a floor nurse to find my mother crouched in a corner screaming. My sister and I were very little and crying due to the ruckus. My father told me he had no idea what was going on and tried to talk to my mother, but all she did was strike out at him and scream.

She didn’t know where she was, she didn’t know who he was, and she didn’t know who she was. She was in hysterics, manic.

My mother was quickly taken to the hospital, where my father found out about my mother’s mental state.

I can’t tell you exactly what happened to my mother’s mind or what the doctors told my dad that day, but I can tell you it was serious. They didn’t know if my mother would come back from this, or from the treatment they planned to try on her — electroconvulsive therapy.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly known as electroshock (or just shock) therapy, involves sending small electric currents through the brain with the intention of triggering brief seizures, altering the brain's chemistry.

After hearing my mother’s story, my position on this controversial treatment is complicated.

On one hand, ECT gave me a mom. On the other hand, it took away who she was; it made her a different person.

This treatment has limitations. The doctors told my father there are only a certain number of times you can send strong currents of electrical shocks to the brain before the patient becomes a vegetable.

My mother’s number was eight.

My dad had to pause his tale. He was still holding my hand and I watched him try to control his breathing, which was becoming shallow as he went further into my mom's story. I wiped my cheeks as a few of my tears escaped, and I saw tears stream down my dad’s face, too.

I instantly got scared, but I found that dumb. Why was I scared? I knew the outcome of this story. My mother was literally in the kitchen right then unloading the dishwasher. I knew she made it out of there okay.

But my father’s sadness was contagious. I immediately felt dread for what was to come next.

He told me the doctors wouldn’t go ahead with the treatment unless my father agreed to it. He visited my mom once more, but he only looked through a window since, if he came into the room, she would throw things or start screaming. He found the doctor and signed the papers. The treatments started, one after the other.

“It wasn’t working, but we had one more try before she would be gone for good,” he told me.

My dad went to her room where she was being kept sedated to keep her safe from doing anything to harm herself or others. He told me he sat there for a good few hours going over their entire time together, just remembering his wife, the person he fell in love with, with whom he wanted to have a family and share his life.

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My father was openly crying in front of me now, which only made me cry with him.

“So I stroked her hair and kissed the person I knew goodbye before they took her into the room for the ECT.”

My mother came out of that room changed. She remembered things, but she was a completely different person.

She was cautious and less reckless. She was anxious all the time, didn’t handle change well, and got shaky around new people.

“Your mom used to be a lot of fun. She was the life of the party.”

My dad was describing her personality before her breakdown. “She did so many wild things.”

He smiled a little as he remembered her old self.

“But your mother is still an incredible woman. Many doctors said she wouldn’t be very functional in society with how vulnerable her mind was, but here she is. Holding down a job, getting you to school, and dance class, and all these things. She does everything for you and your sister.”

He kept going. “Your mother has done all she can to make sure you never felt bad about who she is or ever have to go through what she had to.”

I could see the pride and adoration for her he had.

“Your mother doesn’t know I’m telling you this. She doesn’t want you to know about all this, but I feel it's something you need to know about now," my father finished.

Our "little chat” was over.

I felt awful for how I’d been treating her. I couldn’t believe it. How absolutely rotten I was as a person.

I thought I was better than her, when in reality she was ten times a better, stronger person than I was.

I started to cry. It was too much. I felt horrible for thinking all those awful things about her. My heart was broken with myself.

My dad rubbed my back as I cried for my mother. For the person I’d never known. For my terrible attitude. For hurting her.

I never wanted to hurt her ever again.

After I cleaned my face, I sought out my mother in her room. She was hanging up her clothing. I didn’t say anything, just went up to her and wrapped my arms around her, hiding my face in her neck.

She jumped, then relaxed into the hug and smoothed my hair. I told her I loved her and that I was so sorry for being a bad daughter. She laughed it off and said she loved me as well.

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My mom's breakdowns were few and far apart. She only had one other really bad breakdown.

I was a senior in high school. This time, however, I was the one who found her. I came home from school to find her crouched in her closet shaking violently. I approached her cautiously, “Mom?”

She shook her head, “No, I’m not…” then started crying.

I knew exactly what was happening, but I was terrified. I was alone. My sister was MIA and my father was in Dallas for a nursing conference. I called the hospital and an ambulance came to get my mom.

The whole ordeal was chilling to the bone.

They strapped my mother down like she was a monster. I’d seen this happen in movies but in real life, being there, it felt wrong.

“I’m going to be sick,” I remember telling one of the medics. They simply threw me a bag to hurl in if I had to.

They rushed my mother into a room and directed me to a waiting room. I called my father who told me to put him on with the doctor. The doctor gave him the shpiel about her mind going back to her trauma.

They spoke for a while before the doctor said he got everything and handed me the phone back with what he thought would lift my spirits.

“This is a first for me,” he joked.

I looked at him, blank-faced, and took the phone back. My father said he’d be on the next flight out and not to worry.

I waited, seated in the horrible chairs holding a dumb magazine. I never liked hospitals. I always felt like they give off the vibe of a horror movie. One of the nurses would randomly check up on me. One of them brought me a sandwich to eat. I think she felt sorry I was alone.

I waited that whole day, seeing different loved ones of patients come through. Some stood. Some paced. Some were on their phones. Others flipped through magazines. Some prayed.

The nurse who gave me the sandwich came by and said I could see my mother if I wanted to.

“She’s under a sedative," she told me.

I liked her; she was like the character in the beginning of the horror movie that tells the group of kids not to go into the woods after dark.

I felt like she was telling me it was okay to go into my mother’s dark room. She can’t throw anything, I remember thinking as I made my way into the room.

It was colder in there and I put an extra blanket on her. I pulled up the one chair by her bed and sat there quietly for a few minutes before I said anything.

At first, I didn’t really know what to say to someone who wouldn’t talk back. I’ve always been like that, even with babies. They can’t say anything, so why talk to them? But I felt that it was important that I say something... anything.

“You really scared me, Mom.”

Yeah, that’s what you should tell her, I thought right after the words left my mouth.

“I meant, I don’t know, I’m sorry you have to go through all of this. I never realized how... well, scary it all is. I’m sorry, Mom.”

After I said that, the words just kept tumbling out. I told her how gross I felt about how I used to think she was a dumb person, how confused I was by knowing about her mental illness, how tired I was of having to step around topics as not to upset her, and how angry I was that the illness took away the person she was.

I just kept going, and going, and going.

I told her everything that was in my head. How I was worried about maybe inheriting the disease through genetics or my kids getting it. I talked about having to hide what I knew from her. I told her how scared I was when I found her and how I had a newfound respect for my dad having to go through the experience of finding someone you love in such a vulnerable state.

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My dad arrived at the hospital that night.

He stumbled into the room looking ragged and worn down. He hugged me and then demanded to see a doctor. He kept apologizing to me that he wasn’t there while kissing the top of my head and thanking me for being there.

It was the first time I cried that day.

My mother came around within 48 hours, which was pretty quick, the doctor had told us. They actually didn’t have to do anything but wait it out. He gave her some medicine to take and advised us to have her see her psychiatrist more often.

She didn’t remember having the breakdown. She didn't remember anything that had happened. My father and I agreed not to tell her so she would think I didn’t know about her mental health issues. We told her she fell down the stairs, and she believed us.

Now I know there are certain things we have to tiptoe around so we don’t set her off on another breakdown.

We ease her into changes. We prepare her to meet new people. I’ve come to understand that she isn’t broken or damaged, but sensitive and needing of a little more attention, a little more care.

I’m okay with that, and I still beat myself up every now and then for ever thinking my mother was anything less than the incredible woman she is now.

And may God help anyone who I hear disrespect her or the treatment that gave her to me.

My mother's bipolar disorder is on the extreme side. When she becomes manic, she may need hospitalization for months on end. She also experiences the super-lows of bipolar disorder and is on suicide watch every now and then.

But my mother is a miracle.

I don’t care how cliché that sounds. My mother is a miracle. Period.

With all that she had to go through and is still fighting to this day, I don’t know many people who would be able to do what she's done. It’s one of the many reasons I believe there’s a higher power at work in life.

My mother taught me what real strength looks like. I can only hope to be just as strong one day.

I’m grateful for the years we've had and for whatever time we have left with her.

I remember those who prayed in the hospital that time I was alone, and how I didn’t do so then. Now all I do is pray for more time with the miraculous woman who is my mother, because she deserves every minute she is here, living the life many said she couldn’t have.

Photo: Courtesy of the author

I thank ECT for my mother, and I will go to bat for the treatment when used appropriately.

I understand why many don't agree with it. I understand that many in the media have used their platforms to present a twisted view of what ECT really does.

I understand its association with conversion therapy. I get that it's use for that purpose is wrong.

But ECT was created to help ease symptoms of extreme cases of mental illnesses. It was developed by several psychiatrists in Italy in the 1930s and produces a substantial improvement in approximately 80% of patients with uncomplicated but severe major depression.

ECT gets a bad name because it was put into the hands of people who used it as a punishment and people who abused it. However, that is not fault of the treatment, but of the people performing it.

I urge people to please note that distinction.

I do believe ECT should be a last resort, since there are a plethora of other options for treating mental illnesses and there are side effects the patient and their family must live with. Most medical professionals won't even consider ECT until after exhausting all other methods of treatment because of the stigma surrounding it.

It isn't right that the practice itself is considered taboo when it has been proven to save lives.

ECT is an invaluable treatment for many people, just like it was for my mom.

In certain cases, like my mother's, ECT was the best option.

I share my mother's story to help bring awareness to the fact that ECT doesn't just affect the patient, it affects everyone around them.

I share her story to show that not every ECT experience is a horror story.

I share her story because people need to look closer at what this practice can accomplish instead of focusing on its shady history and what it can take away.

And I will stand by that until the day I die.

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Deauna Nunes is an associate editor and writer who covers relationships, pop culture, and lifestyle. She's been published by Emerson College's literary magazine, Generic. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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