I Stopped Watching Her Today

Being somewhat of a country music fan, I felt duty-bound to watch Showtime’s six-part miniseries about George Jones and Tammy Wynette.  The series has wrapped up, but I couldn’t make it past the beginning of part II. Part II opens with a flash forward to Tammy being strapped in for shock therapy.

Nope. Stop. Not gonna watch. Click to another channel. 

I can watch bodies get blown up and dismembered on Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan. I’m not a fan of slasher movies, but I can sit through them. I have to look away when the dog gets shot in Big Jake and other westerns. But electroshock treatment? Not gonna watch it.

A treatment known as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), commonly known as shock therapy, was developed in 1938.  It is used today as a last ditch attempt at intervention for those with conditions unresponsive to medicine — extremely difficult cases of unipolar or bipolar depression, mania, and catatonia.  It’s used on patients with potentially life threatening conditions, particularly catatonia or prolonged and extreme mania, because it works faster than medicine.  Nobody knows how it works.  But then again, we don’t really know how the medications work either.

Boris Yeltsin’s economics for Russia in the early 1990s were called shock therapy.  Allowing market reforms were going to mean inflation and unemployment.  The reforms were going to hurt before they were going to help.  And ECT sort of has that reputation. 

Like the blood letting of old.  Or even today’s poisonous cancer treatments, chemotherapy and radiation, that kill cancer cells but also healthy ones.  My hope is that in the near future people will look at the history of cancer treatment and say,  “They did what?!”  Same with ECT.

In the 1930s, there was a doctor in Budapest, Ladislas von Meduna, who discovered that when schizophrenic patients convulsed they seemed to get better, albeit temporarily.  So the next step was to try to chemically induce convulsions.  In 1934, Meduna applied a drug called metrazol, which convulsed patients injuriously.  The patients would literally sustain injuries, such as broken bones, torn muscles, and loosened teeth.

An Italian doctor, Ugo Cerletti, experimented on dogs by shocking their heads.  His dogs would not become as famous as Pavlov’s, but Cerletti and his protege, Lucio Bini, developed a machine that they felt could deliver a more controllable way to induce convulsions.  (Actually, at first he was killing too many dogs by sending currents through their bodies.  A trip to a slaughterhouse would show him how effective it was to shock a pig’s head.)

The crude, primitive machine had ugly effects on human subjects, who arched violently, suffered bone fractures, thrashed around, and lost control of their bowel movements.

The first recipient of electroshock is known in medical history as “E.S.”  He was picked up by the police, wandering around and mumbling to himself.  Consent not being as important then, they hooked up the machine to him.  And zap, literally, just like that he was able speak coherently, go home to his wife, and go back to work.  For a while.

Meanwhile insulin shock therapy was becoming popular in the United States after having been brought here by the Austrian doctor,  Manfred Sakel.  But it was dangerous.  It brought patients into a hypoglycemic state, right to the brink of death.  Its results were not impressive.

There are all kinds of reasons why ECT has a bad reputation.  The crudeness of the early contraptions is one.  The historical uses of it is another.  There was a time when it was used, unsuccessfully, to “treat” homosexuality.  

ECT would be overused.  It would be wheeled around on a cart and administered in front of dozens of other patients. There was a doctor in England who would shock some of his patients thousands of times.  And then in the 1970s, it virtually disappeared.

ECT was used as a punishment against Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”  And in real life, Ernest Hemingway was treated with ECT.  Just before he shot himself.

Sylvia Plath’s protagonist in The Bell Jar describes it this way:  “With each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.”

The Nazis used ECT, not surprisingly.  They used it for torture and euthanasia-murder.  If that were more well known to people today, that would add even more to the perceived evil of the procedure.  

The modern procedure induces seizures to patients who are given general anesthesia and a muscle relaxant. ECT is administered to as many as 100,000 patients a year. 

Carrie Fisher, best known for her portrayal of Princess Leia in “Star Wars,” swore by the benefits of the procedure on Oprah.  Unfortunately, like many bipolar sufferers, she lived a short life.  She died at age 60 with cocaine and heroin in her system.

So Ernest Hemingway and Carrie Fisher.  Other celebrities to receive this treatment?  Many.  And many of their stories end badly.  Because it is sufferers of very serious symptoms that have the procedure done.  Here’s an incomplete list:                                       

Clara Bow

Judy Garland

Vladimir Horowitz

Vivien Liegh

Ives Saint-Laurent

Dick Cavett

And of course, Tammy Wynette.

Senator Thomas Eagleton was discovered to have had it and was dropped as the 1972 Democratic vice presidential nominee.  Winston Churchill’s wife had it done, as well as Kitty Dukakis, wife of 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.

ECT is not  guaranteed to be effective, and frequently there is relapse within months. Which means more procedures.  What it has in common with many of the “scientific” treatments of the past, is that doctors insist that it must be repeated many times.

Why does it sometimes work?  Nobody has a clue. To be sure, its less than stellar track record reflects, in large part, the fact that it’s used on very difficult cases to treat.  It’s also challenging to quantify its effectiveness when results are gleaned from asking patients, well, do you feel any better?

I have no personal experience with shock treatment. I hope I won’t. And I don’t want to see it.