Shared Stories: Electric Shock Therapy in the Modern Age

Cynthia Vanasse struggles with a problem shared by many people – serious depression. Many will be surprised to learn that she found help from electric shock therapy after her medication of many years lost its effectiveness. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns.


By Cynthia Vanasse

After experiencing a major clinical bout of depression, which included flying over the cuckoo’s nest (shock treatment in non-movie terms), I found myself in the pool at L.A. Fitness Club.  I was feeling my normal non-athletic self and thoroughly enjoying being immersed in water.  

Because it was Christmas break, there were no water aerobics classes; thus, it was easy to talk to those few brave souls who were there without instruction. The first woman to whom I talked was gently stroking the water and about my age (over 70).  

She was curious as to why I was tootling around by myself, as she also was. Being very up front, I told her I was just recovering from a major depressive episode and wanted to put some weight on my chicken bones and some muscle under them. She was fascinated with my illness and began a long litany about her granddaughter’s continuous fight with a similar condition.

After the first lady left to warmer territory (the hot tub), I struck up a conversation with another single soul who also had a similar situation in her family. It has been my experience that honesty about depression almost always brings about a discussion revolving around the other person’s family or friends who have similar experiences in their lives.  

It’s a fact that one out of every four people in America has suffered some form of depression, and that more than 60 percent of the people who succeed in committing suicide were suffering from depression.

Several months earlier, I had begun to feel the first symptoms of an oncoming depression.  I couldn’t concentrate, didn’t have much of an appetite, found sleeping difficult, and was just not a very happy camper.  

Life had, until then, been blissfully normal for me (if my life is ever really normal) on a psychotropic medication by the generic name of Lamictal. So it was a total shock when I found myself in my psychiatrist’s office begging for some miracle pill to put an end to these nagging conditions.  

That pill did not exist. My doctor explained that my previous meds had hit a “window,” and would most likely be ineffective now and possibly in the future.

Several weeks later my daughter, at my request, took me to a local psychiatric hospital. My experience there was not good. If you weren’t sick before you entered the doors to this place, you would most likely be sick when you left.  

It is very expensive to run psychiatric facilities, and most hospitals have closed their doors. The staff just kept giving me pills that didn’t work, letting me sleep most all day, and giving no helpful “therapy.” After a couple of weeks of this, Kaiser had me transferred to their hospital in Los Angeles.

What a welcome facility Kaiser’s psychiatric hospital was! The doctors were excellent; the nurses were sympathetic; my double room was spacious; the food was edible; there were classes. It was a place where it would be possible to regain my “regular mind” and continue with life.  

I was also treated with various drugs and again had no success. It was at this point (after about two to three weeks), that the decision was made to try ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy). This decision met with my full approval, as several years before I had been treated with ECT with immediate favorable results.

Most people are not aware that “shock treatment” is still available. And many have only the images of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as a reference. The movie was sensationalized, as the treatment is nothing like what is shown.  

I lay down on a bed with machines at the top. I didn’t know when the anesthesia was administered. All I was aware of was waking up surrounded by smiling, caring nurses. That was it; nothing was scary; nothing hurt.

After two or three treatments, my depression began to totally lift. After six sessions I was well enough to go home. ECT was a total success, was a life saver, and I will always be thankful there are doctors who can administer it.

After success with ECT and my initial time returning to the gym, I again found myself talking to the ladies at L.A.Fitness. I am doing better with water aerobics, but still look like chicken skin on a human frame.  

One of the ladies with whom I had a sustained conversation has a daughter who was born like a vegetable. She cannot talk; she cannot eat; she cannot walk. The family has to care for her 24 hours a day. I was appalled at what she has to do to keep her daughter alive.  

Again the hot tub and pool taught me another lesson: How lucky I am to have an illness where there is a way to contain it. Bi-polarism is genetic and runs in my mother’s family. Science knows this now, and is able to treat it with drugs, therapy, and ECT.  

I should add that I am now trying to find the right combination of drugs that will again stabilize my condition. My previous drug, Lamictal, had worked like a charm and kept me totally void of depression for over 10 years.