Nothing was working. Nothing could seem to break depression’s hold on me. Its fingers gripped my neck, choking me at every turn — invisible hands pulling me even deeper down into despair.
Eleven years. That’s how long I had already suffered at the hands of depression. By this point, I had already tried seven medications, with results varying from non-stop nausea to reasonable stability. But I still didn’t feel right. Doctors had also assigned vitamins and drugs designed to enhance the effect of my anti-depressants. Those didn’t do much either.
So when my psychiatrist suggested TMS, I was intrigued.
Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulation
TMS, or transcranial magnetic stimulation, stimulates the nervous system by way of powerful magnetic fields in hopes of re-igniting areas of the brain tied to depression.
Side effects are rare, and it’s not invasive in the slightest. The main barrier to success with TMS is commitment: the procedure requires you to come in for treatment at least five days a week for about a month and a half. I was on break from my studies at the time, so a rigorous treatment schedule was no problem for me. I was eager to sacrifice my time if it meant I’d feel better.
When Nothing Has Worked
Treatment-resistant depression wears on you. After trying so many different things, after so many hollow failures, it’s impossible to avoid a deep sense of hopelessness. There’s something spiritually draining about seeing all your treatment options come and go with no results.
Every time I began a new treatment, I’d feel hope balloon in my chest — Maybe this is what does it! But with every failed treatment, the balloon would become smaller and smaller, until it was finally just a wrinkled and floppy piece of latex.
Hope Via Magnets
When I first heard of TMS, I was skeptical. How could simple magnets alter your brain chemistry? But the research-backed it up, and the results are statistically significant — Between 50% and 60% of patients with treatment-resistant depression who undergo a TMS regimen experience a significant improvement in their symptoms.
According to my psychiatrist, the chances of a new medication working are actually less than the previous one. But that didn’t apply to TMS. Sixty percent. The number stared me in the eye, challenging my pessimism. The odds were, for once, in my favor.
I decided to pursue TMS.
The TMS Journey
The room itself was cozy, with a painting of a forest on the opposite wall. But the chair was intimidating. It reminded me of a dentist’s chair — except instead of an overhead lamp, there was a magnet attached to an arm.
I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect from the procedure itself. The pamphlet said it would not be painful, though I could end up with a headache afterward. The attendant, a young lady, was kind and courteous as she took a written inventory of my depression symptoms. I answered the same symptom questionnaires every day for six weeks to keep track of my progress. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get tiring, being asked the same questions over and over again.
Despite its ominous look, the chair was well-padded, almost comfortable. And with an affirming smile, the attendant pressed the magnet against my head.
The noise startled me — an impossibly loud clacking, somewhere between a toy machine gun and an over-enthusiastic keyboard typist. And then there came the unnerving pressure. I felt as though someone was gripping my head, pressing their palms into my skull — not hard enough to hurt, but enough to be uncomfortable.
That would be one hour out of every weekday for the next six weeks.
Highs and Lows
Turns out that exposing your brain to magnetic waves does some funny things.
At the beginning of my treatment, the attendant warned me that things might get worse before they got better. It happened just as she said. Some days, I felt as usual, as though nothing had changed. Then the next day, I’d suddenly feel worse: intense suicidal thoughts, unbearable exhaustion. It seemed like TMS was just making everything worse.
Still, I trusted my doctor and kept going. I soon learned that the severe depressive episodes only lasted a couple of days each. Other days, I experienced the opposite: for once in my life, I felt okay! Not great, not thrilled. But “okay” still counted as “better” by my standards.
Unfortunately, just like the depressive episodes, these spats of relief only lasted a couple of days at most.
And then there was what I call That One Day.
There was one morning, halfway through my treatment, when I woke up feeling fantastic. My energy was suddenly unlimited. I could do day-to-day tasks without being filled with dread! I had broken free from hopelessness. And I was — happy?
I’m not saying I had never felt happiness before. But there was something incredible about sitting on the lawn beside the University of Houston fountains that afternoon. I held my boyfriend’s hand, and we sat side by side, admiring the watery lights as the sun went down.
And in that instant, things were perfect.
I never reached that point of perfection again.
My TMS Failed — But Still Worked for Me
Upon finishing my TMS treatments, I was told to wait a couple of months. That sometimes it takes a bit for the full effect of TMS to be felt.
It’s been four years, and I still haven’t seen any lasting effects. Every so often, I think back to That One Day. I imagine that’s what being neurotypical feels like. And I still long for it. I had it in my grasp, I tasted it on my tongue, and then it was gone.
At first, that experience of normalcy made my depression all the harder to bear. But over the years I’ve come to see it in a different light. TMS is a beacon of hope for many who suffer from depression. And I’m still young. Science may come up with an equally innovative treatment before I die.
I tasted happiness. And although it was taken from me, I maintain hope that one day I will experience it again. I know first-hand what I have to look forward to.
Author Bio: A passionate advocate for mental health, Steph Matthiesen tries to make the world a better place with her writing. Steph is a freelance writer for hire at wordgrower.net, where she also shares her first-hand struggles with depression and anxiety in hopes of inspiring others.
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.
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