Electroconvulsive Treatment

Helen

Female
Age at interview: 60

Brief outline: Helen had ECT in 1970 aged 17.. She had an unwanted pregnancy and was admitted to an old Victorian hospital where she had ECT. In retrospect she realised she had had puerperal psychosis (severe mental illness after childbirth). Helen suffered for many years with the side effects of ECT, psychiatric medication and mental ill health. She has now recovered her sanity and has improved physical health.

Background: Helen is a retired civil servant, is divorced, lives by herself and has two children aged 43 and 20. She describes her ethnic background as White British.

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Helen had ECT in 1970 when she was seventeen. She had had an unwanted baby who was adopted. After this she said she had been ‘married off’ and had been advised by a doctor to have another baby because she was not coping with the loss. It was only in retrospect that she was suffering from puerperal psychosis, an extreme form of postnatal depression. In total Helen has had three pregnancies and suffered in a similar way with each one. She felt the support in 1970s wasn’t as good as it is now. As Helen had had an illegitimate child she felt she had lost everything - her family, her home, her school and so she went ‘on the run’. She spent some time living rough and described herself as severely mentally ill from the age of sixteen for seven years. Helen’s second baby was taken into care and her husband and in laws helped admit her to a famous country mental hospital. When she was admitted she was stripped naked and they injected her with a tranquiliser. The conditions in the ward were extremely harsh and she was doped up with largactil – an older anti-psychotic medication.  Helen remembers being bussed to another block and given an anaesthetic before she had ECT. She didn’t realise this is what was going to happen. She said her mind was like a ‘black universe’, and she struggled to remember her name. She recalls only having two ECT treatments which were traumatic. Helen remembers feeling acutely suicidal, which she said she hadn’t been the case until after the ECT. 

Later Helen left hospital and her mum helped get her baby back. However, she took an overdose which left her sight badly damaged. She was also given medication that she says ‘very badly messed [her] up’. However she has got on with her life, had three marriages and was able to care for her son. However one of her husbands had Asperger’s that she found difficult to cope with. He was also violent and cruel towards her and she had to flee to a refuge. Later she became involved in specialist teaching and her son grew up, became a Naval officer and was awarded for highest achievement. It is only now in retrospect that she thinks the ECT gave her epileptic fits, a form of cerebral palsy and spastic breathing. She has suffering with dramatic flash backs but managed to maintain a family. She has experienced severe and long-term side effects that she attributes to ECT. She used to be terrified of people yet at the same time desperately wanted company. Now she feels she has her sanity back but experiences pain and a constant ringing in her head. Helen had lots of counselling that has helped her figure out what was real and what wasn’t over the years. She swam for half a mile every week and feels that she is able to cope with the pain she experienced.

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