Shocked back to Life

Gabrielle looking at the sunshine

I feel moved to write this short account of what has happened to me over the past few years.

I am not sure what my intention is exactly but I feel it is three-fold:

  • Release some of the internal pressure I feel when I think about it all and empty my head to make room for new thoughts
  • Re-connect with my love of language and writing after being unable to write for such a long time
  • Reflect on what I have learnt from what I have experienced.

This is an entirely selfish enterprise that I am engaging in for my own purpose and satisfaction. In a way, I feel (that word again) that I have to write for me before I can write for others as well.

I was diagnosed with manic depression in my early thirties. From that very first mention of my condition, I fought against it. I even refused the diagnosis because there was no way I was going to follow in my father’s footsteps: NO WAY! I grew up suffering at the hands of the unpredictable and often violent behaviour of a manic-depressive and I absolutely refused to even consider that I could have the same illness as my father. I was even more reluctant to accept the diagnosis I had been given because it also followed in a long family history of mental illness: not just my father but also his mother, her brother, her daughter (my father’s sister) were all/had all been ‘mental patients’. After all, who wants to be a ‘nutter’, right?! For a good long while, I refused to take any medication and it is only when I collapsed completely that I was forced to face up to the reality of my situation and deal with it. I also realised that I had a lot of psychological baggage left over from my childhood and adolescence and I was horrified when I realised that the ‘monster’ I thought I had left on the other side of the Channel when I moved over from France to England was actually living inside of me too: my own behaviour with my son had become unpredictable and occasionally violent too. I took myself to psychotherapy and considered my mission to cut the chain of violence that had affected my father and his family for generations. (What my own father has suffered as a child is unspeakable….). I am grateful that my father and I have both been alive long enough to heal our relationship and repair our common broken past. My Dad is a wonderful understanding ally these days who understands from his own experience what this illness does to you.

As a result of the combination of pharmaceutical drugs (Dothiepin [Prothiaden] at the time) and psychotherapy, my state of health improved considerably and, after a couple of years, I thought I was cured. Under proper medical supervision, I gradually weaned myself off my medication and functioned pretty well until my early forties when I crashed again. This time, I recognised the symptoms early on and went back on my daily dose of Prothiaden immediately; I stayed on it for the following twelve years, during which I was reasonably stable.

Unfortunately for me, during all those years, I was also badly affected by terrible hormonal migraines that became gradually worse through time. As I reached the menopause, the migraines became atrocious and more or less constant. In fact, the last migraine I had lasted two years! By that stage, I was in my early fifties and no longer on medication for manic depression because that side of things seemed to have settled down.

I think the two-year migraine (for which I was being treated unsuccessfully although very supportively by the Migraine Clinic in London) took a great deal out of me and, frankly, drained me totally. Just as I reached the end of those ghastly two years, we moved to Wolverhampton and three months after the move, I crashed again, this time spectacularly. Over the following three years, I started by being put back on Prothiaden, with no effect whatsoever. The dosage was increased to its maximum but nothing happened and was still very ill. The trouble with anti-depressants of any kind is that they take a while to take effect so it takes ages to try a medication, then - after three to four weeks - increase the dose, then - after two to three more weeks - increase the dose again until it is inescapably obvious that the medication is not working. Then, you switch to another medication in the same ‘class’ of drugs and start the process all over again. When two or three drugs in the same ‘class’ prove ineffective, new drugs from a different ‘class’ are introduced and the same trial process starts again. By the time I had exhausted all the different types of pharmaceutical drugs in different dosages (anti-depressants and anti-psychotics), I had trialled fourteen different ineffective medications over a period of three years, including high doses of Lithium. Not only had they not helped me one bit with the manic depression (or, as it is now known, the bi-polar disorder) but they had also inflicted on me an array of really unpleasant side-effects ranging from constant nausea to vision blurring, muscle aching, disgusting taste in my mouth, and goodness knows what else.

I can honestly say that those three years were hell - up and down, roller-coaster hell. Not just for me but for my husband as well. They cost me (and us) dearly in every way. Unable to work, unable to earn, unable to function for most of the time, unable to live, I got to know a place I did not know existed. Forget the dark night of the soul - try the dark years of the whole person: body, heart and spirit instead.

Having exhausted all medical options, I was left with one treatment option only: ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy, commonly referred to as ‘electro-shock’ treatment). My father had had ECT so I was familiar with it and I knew it wasn’t ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ territory. In fact, my father had benefited from ECT.

Even though I have read, and been impressed by, the NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence in the UK) guidelines for the administration of ECT, naturally, I cannot vouch for the way other ECT teams operate but I can bear witness to the care I have received at the hands of the ECT team at Penn Psychiatric Hospital. I have never felt so empowered and respected as a patient before. These people deserve to be recognised and rewarded for their professionalism and their humanity. I trust them with my life, literally, without a second thought. In fact, I feel like a member of the team, more than I do a patient. I participate fully in any decision that affects my treatment and all my questions are answered comprehensively with kindness and good humour. Believe it or not, I laugh a lot when I go for my ECT treatment! After being originally terrified (if not horrified), my family, friends and neighbours have become so comfortable with my ECT treatment that it has become part of our common ‘folklore’. ‘When are you next getting zapped?’ is a very common question that is always delivered to me with a broad grin. The people around me have witnessed the spectacular improvement in my state of health lately and they have become as impressed as I am with this therapy.

I wish ECT had a better reputation and I will tell the truth about it whenever I have the opportunity. A recent report published by an American medical study group stated that 85% of the people interviewed who had experienced ECT had said they found a visit to the dentist more distressing! (That, by the way, amused my own dentist greatly…).

I am so grateful I was offered ECT as a treatment option because it immediately felt like a miraculous intervention for me: I felt an improvement after the very first treatment. I could not believe it. After having felt so terribly ill and lived on the edge of self-destruction for so long, it felt like a true miracle. The sessions started twice a week and, after a few sessions, changed to once a week. After twelve sessions, I felt totally well so I went away on holiday with my parents in late summer 2007 and had a wonderful time. I knew there was a chance of relapse so I was not surprised - although naturally disappointed - when I felt myself slipping again three months or so after my return from holiday.

In full collaboration with my doctor, I was recommended for a second series of ECT and, once again, felt immediate relief and improvement. Incredible!

The only side effect of ECT for me is memory disruption. I don’t get headaches (I can hardly believe this!), confusion or any other problems. I take the memory disruption with good grace and humour because, although inconvenient, embarrassing and occasionally disrupting, it feels like a small price to pay for being given my life back.

This time, to support my body in its recovery journey, I have also been given access to Reiki and Acupuncture. These are wonderful support therapies for me because they increase my sense of well being without any side effects whatsoever. In a way, it is as if ‘energy therapies’, which is after all what ECT, Reiki and Acupuncture are, (electricity is a form of energy, is it not?), suit me so much better than pharmaceutical drugs. By the way, I have nothing against drugs: it’s just that they don’t help me with this condition.

I was also offered psychotherapy from the onset but I did not immediately use it. Firstly, I felt much better with the first ECT series of sessions and I did not consider I had any psychological issues ‘left-over’ from my childhood and adolescence since I had gone through a comprehensive and extensive psychotherapy programme in my thirties. Secondly, when I relapsed after the first series of ECT sessions, I felt too low on energy to take part in psychotherapy. There is no point in going to psychotherapy unless you are prepared - and able - to commit fully to, and participate wholeheartedly in, the psychotherapeutic process. However, as my state of well-being improved again after the second series of ECT had started, strange ‘things’ started to happen for which I was keen to seek support.

(As for any condition, I believe it is crucial for the patient to take personal responsibility for his/her recovery. Therefore, I do everything in my power to help myself and use the support of all those I have come to regard as my Healing Team.)

I started to notice that I had this strange feeling of being physically very small, as if I had somehow shrunk and the world around me had inflated. I could not make any sense of this and I just ignored it at first. Then, I started feeling afraid of the dark, something I had never experienced previously. This fear became so pronounced that I could not be in the house at night unless ALL the lights on all floors were switched on. The fear increased until I could not even sit and watch TV by myself, even with all the lights on, and I started following my husband around the house like a frightened child would follow a parent. Then, I noticed I could not eat normal food any more: all I wanted and could eat were things like semolina, porridge, very bland milky soft foods. This went on for quite some time so I was relieved to have access to my psychotherapist in order to share these experiences with someone else, a part of my poor long-suffering husband!

During the psychotherapy sessions that ensued, I was encouraged at working very gently at unpacking what my body could be telling me through all these ‘strange’ experiences. As this process unfolded, I started remembering some things my mother had told me in the past about my early life. By the time I was four months old, I had developed severe chronic ear infections - my pain was so severe that my poor distressed mother watched me bang my little head against the sides of my cot for hours on end. Numerous medications failed to help (that sounds familiar) and when I was eight months old, I was hospitalised and my mastoids (the spongy bones behind the ears) were surgically removed. I nearly died a few times as a result of this very serious operation and was kept in hospital for months afterwards. As my parents were in Germany at the time (my father was in the French occupying military forces immediately after the end of the second world war), I was treated in a German military hospital - not the most child friendly environment - and my mother was not allowed to stay with me at night to comfort me. She since told me she spent hours standing behind a locked door, crying and looking at me who was also crying through the glass panel in the door. She and I spent nights upon nights like that. I was in and out of hospital, sometimes separated from my mother for weeks on end, until I was sixteen months old. To this day, this is a time my mum finds very difficult to talk about and she even recoils from looking at my early baby pictures. She certainly consciously remembers everything.

We will never know for sure what suddenly triggered my body to unconsciously ‘remember’ that very early part of my life. I certainly don’t remember it consciously but, since these strange experiences, I somehow feel what it felt like, if that makes any sense.

One possible explanation is provided by EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), which broadly consists in tapping acupuncture points on the body in order to stimulate the release of ‘trapped’ emotion in the body. Tapping the lateral temporal lobes in EFT is a way of releasing such traumatic emotional memories. ECT electrically stimulates the temporal lobes in order to provoke a short controlled convulsion that, I suppose you could say, ‘resets’ the brain just as electricity shocks restart the heart. If the second series of ECT did unwittingly help me release these early unconsciously remembered traumas, then it did me a double favour - not only did it help me feel so much better but it also helped me establish what I can only describe as a new relationship with my body. I am aware this sounds a bit airy-fairy but it feels true. It is as if I can now feel ‘everything’ that is there, physically and emotionally, and I am OK with it. I am no longer afraid to feel ‘everything’: that’s the best way I can put it for now.

So what now? I am not sure, except that I know I will continue on my healing journey, with the love, help and support of my family, friends, neighbours, my wonderful Healing Team, and with my own love, help and support for me too (that’s the tough bit: I am remarkably ungentle with myself....)

I am not fully recovered by any stretch of the imagination, yet. My energy levels fluctuate up and down, sometimes from one hour to the next, more commonly from one day to the next. Rather than say “I feel ill” or “I feel tired”, which frankly have become meaningless in their overuse and vagueness, I use the scale of 1 to 10 to communicate what is going on. Levels1 to 4 are very low energy range, levels 7 to 10 are high energy range. Level 1: I can barely get out of bed - Level 10: I feel ‘normal’. My emotional state fluctuates wildly also and I sometimes feel like I am on a funfair ride, except that it doesn’t feel like much fun! If I did not watch it, I could easily be a very moody person :0). I do however my utmost to remember that I do now have control over how I choose to feel at any one time. Actually, I don’t like the word ‘control’: it’s too harsh and it smacks of the ‘old’ me. I prefer ‘creative authorship’, even if I am aware that it could easily sound pretentious…. I can feel very low and despairing, frustrated, broken in spirit OR I can feel very low and relaxed, vaguely amused and appreciative of the beauty of the things that surround me.

So, I hear you ask, what’s ECT done for you (what have the Romans ever done for us?) if you’re still roller coasting like that? Well, I am no longer that broken, tormented, despairing soul in excruciating pain, at the limit of endurance, on the edge of life itself. I am just me, travelling different ups and downs. The two experiences, pre-ECT and post-ECT don’t live in the same galaxy - let alone the same street. ECT has given me back: me.

ECT has not just removed most of the pain; it has given me back the choice of how I deal with the remnants.

There is humour in any situation and I admit that I am amused by my current inadequacies. I have always hated letting people down and being disorganised - this actually ‘hurts’. These days, as I never know what I am going to be like from one minute to the next, I have become Little Miss Unreliable, Little Miss Disorganised and I am totally unable to plan forward, one of my old favourite occupations. Fortunately, my family and friends are understanding and forgiving beyond the call of duty, and the psychiatric support unit that I need to visit regularly is just around the corner! In this regard, my move to Wolverhampton was prescient inspiration…

I have a profound feeling (yes, that word yet again) that I will not need to go back to the dark world I have known because I have now learnt - or I am in the process of learning - all that I needed to learn from it.

From this point onward, at the beginning of 2008, I feel an exciting and gently powerful journey ahead. No pain, no fighting, no struggle, no more resistance - just acceptance, gratitude, love AND fun!! After so long spent in a dark heavy place, I feel the need for Light; in its visual sense of daylight and sunshine; it is kinaesthetic sense of feathery weightlessness; in its humourous sense as in ‘making light of’. I want to enter a part of my life that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Sounds like a good programme to me :0).


Shocked back to life

Gabrielle - you are a total inspiration - I've known you for about 5 years, you were the person who helped me to know that my authentic self is absolutely good enough, and to read your story, which you've shared with many of us along the way, once again makes me realise that all our authentic selves, even in dark days, are absolutely good enough - and that we have the 'creative authorship' (love it!) to take ourselves to better places. Thank you for sharing your story - I look forward to reading the book!!!

Liz Wilson

Hello Liz!

I am so happy to hear from you :0)  Thank you for your encouragement and support, as always.  You certainly Give as Good as you Get.....  Big Love.  G xxxxxx


Gabrielle, I'm not quite sure what to say! You write in amazing style, easy to understand and expansive to the mind. I benefit from the learning I gained from you each day, and having been through a remarkably similar situation with my partner, I was moved to read what you've endured, but inspired to hear how you have done it. I look forward to reading how things develop, and supporting you however i can. Much love to both you and Richard xxxxx

Anonymous Comment

 Thank you so much to whoever wrote this comment.  I appreciate it :0)

 G xxxxx

it was oli!

forgot to put my name!

Hi, your new neighbour


your new neighbour here, I love this site, it brings me peace to know that I am not alone - not that I suffer with bi-polar, but I do with panic attacks and have felt somewhat alone for many years. I take two forms of medication and hate it - diazepam - when needed, and cipralex an anti depressant that calms the anxieties and nerves - although this has made it somewhat better I am no where near where I want to be to be able to think of coming off the meds. At a time where life is so unsettled and what with moving away from all I know and love to be with the one I love I don't feel ready. I will add this page to my favourites and continue to read your blog and no doubt we'll get to sit and chat soon.


Thank you J

We are so hard on ourselves when we need medication and yet we would never think of kicking our crutches away if we had bad legs....  Panic attacks are HELL: simple as that.

Do pop in for a chat when you feel a bit more settled.  We can compare crutches :0)

G xxxxx

Defo will take you up on

Defo will take you up on that!

so wonderful

to hear such an honest simply put post of how you have experienced this! i have been depressed for years, have anxiety, agoraphobia and who knows what else. i am up & down every day and theres no tellin how its going to be. very hard to plan activities with my family. i always feel like i'm letting my boys down. then to deal w/the guilt of that plus all the other self inflicted emotions~its very hard. i havent found a med that really helps me. it might keep me from flyin off the hook but i still experience all these symptoms. so many things i could go on & on its feels really good to read your post and know there are others out there, i know there are but its hard to find people who will talk about it and be honest about it, thak you so much. i will be coming back here often! you are truly an inspiration and a beautiful person ♥

Thank you Shell

You sound like you have been though it and are still going through it - and I am sorry to hear that. I am so glad you have found some encouragement and comfort in this site. You might also like to join our little community on Facebook

where you will find plenty of humourous yet authentic encouragement and laughter about our mental health conditions.

Hope to see you there soon :D xx

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