By: Sayuri Ayers
Water sings in the scuffed porcelain tub as I turn on the shower. Undressing, I inspect the scar on my right arm, a circle smaller than the diamonds of my wedding band. Over the past three years, the scar has lightened from a dark brown to white. My flesh where the needle was inserted gleams pale and puckered.
For years, depression’s barbed vines slowly entangled me. Poison blackened my mind as I heard dark murmurs urging me to carve myself with razors, to suffocate my child. When the doctors proposed electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), I leaped at the chance– anything to save my family, myself.
Like the scar, my memories of hospitalization and ECT have faded. After showering, I brew Darjeeling in an orange teapot and gaze out the window at the May garden, the emerging lilies and brightening begonia buds. On mornings like this, I can recall the darkness without being drawn into back it. Yes, I think. Electricity coursed through your body. Yes, you survived. Now, tell your story.
I see myself on the operating table. I’m, then, thirty-seven, dressed in a hospital gown. A nurse swabs my arm with rust-brown antiseptic solution and numbing medication—the stench of iodine wafts over my prone body. She explains a peripherally inserted central catheter line (PICC line) will make ECT easier. I nod, grateful for less needle sticks for anaesthesia.
“Stay perfectly still,” she says, leaning over me. The frigid needle pierces my flesh, burrowing into me. The nurse passes the ultrasound wand over my arm, watching the PICC line travel the length of my vein.
Looking upwards, I count the ceiling panels by ones, then fives, then tens.
The tiles drift away like a flurry of dandelion seeds, revealing a spring sky. In a vision, my son and I twirl, laughter weaving through the waving grasses of an open field. His small arms intertwine with my own.
I’m coming home soon, I tell my son. In my mind, he gleams, dappled gold and white with sunlight.
Three years after my experience with ECT, I delve into online resources, trying to understand the medical procedure. I search for video testimonies from patients who had received ECT. As their voices flow from my computer speakers, the patients’ faces waver in front of me.
Please, I ask them, tell me that I’m not alone.
Standing behind the lectern in the Royal Mental Health Care Centre, Beverley clears her throat, shuffling lined papers. She looks up into the video camera before speaking. She recollects the crushing depression following her menopause. “I have had over a hundred ECTs…” she says. “I credit ECT for saving my life…it has been a miracle to me.”
She gazes into the off-camera audience. Her lips lift in a small smile. “Don’t be afraid,” she says. “It’s not as bad as it seems.”
After finishing the last of the Darjeeling, I rinse out the orange teapot in the kitchen sink. At the window, a sun-catcher dangles on a suction cup. As I stroke its strands of plastic beads, morning light sparkles from faded blue and red facets.
I’m transported back to the ward, where I received my in-patient ECT treatments. I lean over the bolted-down table, opening the bag containing red and blue beads, pieces of a sun-catcher. Taking the beads in my trembling hands, I feed them onto short strands of fishing wire. Holding up the finished sun-catcher, I imagine the hush of fragrant grasses, my son beckoning me into a golden meadow.
Please, I plead into the light, he’s waiting for me.
Memories of my first ECT treatment flicker in the distance. I’m wheeled into a room full of other patients. A man is pushed out of the ECT room on a gurney—his eyes are still closed, mouth agape. For a moment, we pass each other, my wheeled hospital bed sliding past him as I’m taken into the white room.
The machines chime and blink as the anesthesiologist plugs a syringe into my PICC line. The doctor gazes down at me as a oxygen mask is placed over my mouth and nose. “Breathe in deeply,” he says.
I take one breath for my son, one breath for my husband, one breath for myself.
My son’s and husband’s smiling faces pulse before me.
I’m doing this for us, I tell them. I have to get better.
The room sways like sweet grass sweeping a darkening sky. Dizziness swells in my head and everything fades into a black haze.
Suddenly, I wake under the glaring lights of the ECT recovery room, a plastic cup of water tilting in my numb hands.
How did it get there? I wonder.
Hushed sighs rise from behind white nylon curtains as other patients rouse.
How long is this going to take? I ask the cup of water. I want to go home.
During my research, I find videos of patients receiving ECT treatments. Introducing the video of his ECT, Peter writes: “Here is an ECT session I had in 2009. There is no silver bullet but this has been a key part of my recovery. Please note that having family and friends attend my treatments was incredibly comforting for me and my loved ones.”
In his video, Peter lies on a wheeled hospital bed, his eyes closed. A doctor hovers at his side, plunging syringes full of anaesthesia and muscle relaxants into an IV. A woman smiles, cradling Peter’s hand. In a moment, he is asleep.
“Here we go with the electrodes,” the cameraman says as the doctor gently secures a band with two metal disks to Peter’s head.
For five seconds, an electrical current courses through Peter. His mouth clenches into a grimace, but his body remains motionless, stilled by the muscle relaxants.
“He’s having his seizure now,” the doctor says, holding Peter’s right hand.
“We isolate this hand with a tourniquet,” he continues, “to keep it from being paralyzed so that we can monitor the seizure…we paralyze the rest of the body to protect it against the risk of injury.”
Peter’s hand flutters, bumping against the doctor’s fingers like a moth.
After finishing my tea, I return to my office. The morning sunlight streams through an open window. Outside, a bird trills from the garden beds, calling to the brightening buds: Open! Open! Open!
I try to write, but spend an hour online. While scrolling through my social media, I find a picture from my son’s third birthday party taken three months before my ECT treatments. I’m clothed in a gray sweater and dress. Blue and pink flowered earrings dangle from my earlobes. My son and I lean over his glowing cake, our mouths shaped in O’s. I’m gently holding his hand away from the flames.
Shutting my laptop, I close my eyes, trying to recall the pictured moment. I push into the humming darkness, pleading for a clue: a whiff of smoke, the pressure of small fingers clutching my hand, the tacky sweetness of grocery store frosting. To my despair, there is nothing.
What else have I lost? I wonder. Have I lost part of myself?
After rousing from an ECT treatment, I wander to the front desk in a daze. Scanning the visitors’ list on the counter, I recognize my loved ones’ signatures: my mother, father, husband, and friends.
Instead of being filled with memories of their smiling faces, my mind pulses with static, the cold hiss of a void.
Why can’t I remember these visits from the people I love?
Day after day, the ward’s landscape smears into gray and black. Voices break from the darkness—mine and the doctor’s.
“I’m afraid that I’ll kill myself,” I say, looking down at my clenched hands.
“It’s not fucking fair, you know,” the doctor says. “What do you think suicide does to a kid?” His words slash through the twisted thicket of my depression, my self pity.
Yes. That’s why I’m here, I think, rising from my slouched position. I must get better—there’s no other option.
Anne B. Donahue’s voice rises from the pages of The Journal of ECT. Speaking of the ECT treatments she endured, she writes: “…often it is a sadness…It is a grief that keeps deepening over time…”
Donahue writes of the years she lost because of the ECT treatments—how she can’t recall hosting and driving Mother Teresa or her brother’s wedding. “Human memory,” she says, “seems to me to be one of the most precious aspects of our personality, since our memories are so critical to who we are and how we see ourselves and others…I have lost part of myself.”
As she mourns, Donahue searches for hope, writing: “…if my voice is heard, and heard to speak for others like me–then my own sense of damage and abandonment will be assuaged.”
I imagine Donahue reaching into the darkness. She finds my hand and pulls me into a field full of sunlight. Swaying sweet grass swirls around us, a fragrant halo. Embracing her, I place my head on her shoulder.
Thank you, I tell her. Thank you for seeing me.
I gaze outside my office window, down into the front yard garden. The rose of Sharon that I planted three years ago blazes green against the azure sky. Smiling, I imagine the summertime—my family’s blue house gliding on a haze of pale blossoms.
Just a month ago, I had worried over the graying tips of the bush’s branches, bending each twig to check for dry rot. Week after week, the bush lay dormant, bare branches scraping at the clouded sky.
This bush will never bloom again, I thought. I grieved for the white blossoms, their scarlet centers coursing with nectar. I grieved for the memories I had lost, for the parts of myself swept away by a surge of electricity.
Please let the bush live, I prayed into the wind. Please—I want to live. If I can’t remember, help me mourn. Help me heal.
“You’re ready to go home,” the doctor says, watching my three-year-old son bound around the small visitor’s room. “But,” he says, “you’ll still have ECT treatments on an out-patient basis.”
Over the next few months, I finish over twenty rounds of ECT. Slowly, food begins to taste better and the morning sun shines brighter. I can slip on my clothes and brush my hair. Embracing my son, I’m able to savour his sweet scent, his laughter.
“I feel so good,” I tell my husband one afternoon. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
After reading Donahue’s article, I send her an email, thanking her for her story. “I was curious,” I write, “to know if sharing your story has helped with your senses of damage and abandonment…I hope that through my journey of writing and researching, that I can come to some version of peace with my past.”
In my mind, fragrant grasses whisper as an unseen animal rustles past me. I wade into the field, goldenrod brushing my thighs. For a moment, my breathing slows into the steady rhythm of clouds circling the sun.
Please, I ask silently, tell me that peace is possible.
Afternoon sun streams through the window, light falling onto my arm, the scar. I bring out a boxful of cards and letters I’ve collected over the years—some from my time in the mental ward where I received ECT treatments.
Opening a card embossed with pink and red petals, I read my friend’s greeting: “Peace. Strength. Love. Hope. Friendship. Here for you, for all of these.” I don’t remember my friend’s visit to the ward, but her looping cursive bears witness to her love, her compassion.
In the distance, a house shimmers, sweet grass stroking its sides like green flame. The house’s stones call out to me in the voices of my husband, my son, my loved ones. Beckoning, they sing: Come, precious, dearest, my sweetest one.
This, I think, has to be enough: the evidence of love, rather than the memory of it. The peace I’ve sought hovers in front of me, delicate as a white and red blossom. Closing my eyes, I reach for it, stepping into the fragrant meadow, into the gleaming house.
Sayuri Ayers is a prose writer and poet from Columbus, Ohio. Her work appears in Entropy, The Account, SWWIM Every Day and Blanket Sea Magazine and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She is the author of two chapbooks: Mother/Wound (Full/Crescent Press, 2020) and Radish Legs, Duck Feet (Green Bottle Press, 2016). Sayuri is a Kundiman Fellow and recipient of The Ohio Arts Council’s 2020 Individual Excellence Award. Visit her at sayuriayers.com.