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.
Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash
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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20 thoughts on “How TMS Worked for Me, Even When It Didn’t”
“That One Day” happened to me too! It was on one of my last days of TMS treatment. Just for that fleeting day, I was happy again! The memories of what it used to be like, the happy feelings came rushing back. To feel like my old self again…that’s what patients like me wanted. A fair chance at life again.
Thank you for sharing your experience with TMS. I’m glad it was a successful treatment for you!
Thank you for sharing this. I am currently undergoing treatment and have had a hard time finding articles like this one.
I sure hope it works for me. I’m approx halfway through treatment. I do feel like I had 2 better than normal days, but my default seems to still be…below neutral. The treatments are so short…I wish they lasted longer tbh. They are soothing in a way, and I’m not sure how they arrived at the times (approx 5 mins right side, 3 left side).
I’m glad to read it at least did something. I guess every day closer to the end of treatment, without having some sort of breakthrough, makes me more anxious that once again, like with every other therapy, I’ll remain treatment-resistant, despite wanting it to work.
Thanks for sharing your experience with TMS so far.
I hope you find relief from your depression, even if the treatment isn’t perfect.
I wanted to let the Guest Author know that I went through the same ordeal but I decided to go back and do another course of treatment. It had also been approximately four years since I had completed my first course of treatment.
The treatment has changed for the better, as they now use a helmet that provides stronger selective magnet currents where it is most needed; based on the patient’s condition.
Halfway through, I had to postpone the remainder of my treatment due to Covid-19, with the intention of completing my TMS when it was considered safe. BTW: This this was my choice, as the place I was receiving treatment was taking every precaution to ensure their patients would remain safe.
Anyway, I left treatment feeling not particularly well, however, several weeks later I began to feel like the old me. I’m waking up in the morning feeling wonderful; having full days, and swiftly falling asleep every night because my days are filled doing things I’ve put off doing for years!
I wanted to share this with you and others because TMS has in my case has improved dramatically in the four years or so, when I had my first TMS course of treatment.
Thanks for sharing your experience with TMS. Sorry to hear that your treatment was interrupted by the pandemic, but glad that you are feeling better now.
It’s encouraging to hear that the treatment methods have improved since you first tried it four years ago.
i am glad to have found this .. i too am nearing the end of my treatment and trying to reconcile that this isn’t going to be the answer i am desperately hoping for … the idea of doing it again is simply unbearable … has anyone tried a stellate ganglion block ? this is one last option my devoted husband is looking into…. would love to hear if anyone’s experiences … thank you and blessings to all for recovery and healing
I felt relief from TMS after 6 days. I became happy and full of energy. It was perfect! Then after 4 weeks…it went away. It was brutal. Living as someone who felt happiness and excitement for each day was overwhelmingly awesome and having that ripped away was overwhelmingly horrible. I’m hopeful to find that feeling again but this has been a battle I’ve had since I was 11 and now being 33 I’m just tired of feeling empty.
I’m glad you received some temporary relief from your initial TMS treatments.
It sounds like you have had a long and difficult struggle with your mental health. I hope you find relief again.
Thanks for reading the blog and commenting.
Depression has been linked to an abnormal function of nerve cells in a specific part of the brain. Highly focused magnetic field pulses used in Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) therapy gently stimulate these nerve cells.
I am halfway through week 3 and want to quit. I cry on the drive there knowing I will be in 20 minutes of pain. I cry on the way home because it hurt and was traumatizing.
I had high hopes for this. If it’s not going to work I’m out of options and stuck with this depression.
I haven’t had a happy day or even an ”okay” one in over 4 years.
I had it back in 2009 with no solid results. I put a lot of hope into TMS knowing that I definitely didn’t want to go back to ECT. I did have a few good days during the course of treatment, but I had hoped to be able to feel joy and peace more consistently. I might try again if it has improved! I don’t mind the pain.
Thank you SO much for writing about this. I keep a diary of how I felt day-to-day of my TMS experience and I relate to soooo much of what you wrote about (and so many of the comments)! I had “That One Day” a few times throughout my TMS experience. What’s interesting is that I’m about two months out of being completely finished with my first round of treatment and I have had those, what I like to call “lifts” and “dips”. The lifts are based on what you describe as “That One Day” and the dips are the days that my depression got more severe during treatment and occasionally after treatment. What is even more interesting is that those “lifts” tend to happen right after I’ve had a really bad period of a “dip”. It’s almost like it switches the next day to feeling like I’ve had a “lift”. The “lifts” tend to last for a few hours or so. I don’t know the neurochemistry behind that phenomenon, but my “normal” before I went through TMS was what I describe as feeling like I was in a constant TMS “dip”. The depression made me feel like I was drowning on a daily basis. I felt like I couldn’t get out of bed every single day, complete exhaustion, and complete hopelessness. I definitely feel more stable now that I have gone through TMS, but only that basically each day is bearable. That’s the major takeaway I got from it. So, in a way, I am much better off than I used to be; if feeling “much better off” means feeling that life is now bearable. However, a normal, non-neurotypical person would still be baffled at the lack of emotion I feel on a daily basis if they could spend a day in my shoes- a lack of joy, a lack of excitement, a lack of passion for anything, a lack of me. But before I went through TMS, I NEVER felt these “lifts” that I occasionally feel maybe once every few weeks now. I felt them more when I was actually receiving treatment. I don’t know if that means I should have kept doing more treatments, but 36 treatments was what my insurance would cover and, as a semi-broke recent college graduate, I literally couldn’t do any more than that. But those moments….. those “lifted” moments where I seriously feel like myself more than I have in 8 years…. those are the moments I live for. It’s as if something lines up in my brain the way it was always supposed to and my brain is actually functioning correctly. I feel like me. Not the me that forces that fake smile on my face that we depression-sufferers have come to know so well, but the REAL me that has passions and excitement and zest for life! These moments come out of nowhere most of the time, and they don’t come often enough. I plan on doing a second round of TMS in a few months to see if that will make them stick around instead of remain fleeting, as they so often do. But I ask: Has anyone else felt this? Exactly what the author described, but in a more broken-up version of a few hours separated by weeks at a time? Does anyone else experience these “lifts” where they feel like their real, old selves before they developed depression? Full of joy and passion and excitement for what is to come and not just “being here” day in and day out?
Thank you for this article. I am at the end of my treatment and I experinced “Those two days” back to back. God they were lovely. It’s good to know that I’m not alone.
This is a perfect description of my results. At various times during my treatment I really felt like it was working. Now, I’m on my last week and have been feeling very depressed and hopeless. Do you take antidepressants to? I have been off them since during treatment, but it looks like I may need to get back on them.
I did 36 rounds of treatment at the end of 2021 .. I experienced the dip as many people describe about two weeks into the treatment. My treatments were everyday Monday through Friday.. I remember feeling great on the drives back home after some of the treatments. It seemed to me on the weekends I would start to drift down a bit. About two months after the treatments were complete I seemed somewhat OK. .. but still had issues with compulsion, just seemed the hole I would fall into was not as deep. Then an unexpected tragedy happened and it seemed that after grieving for a long period of time I had returned to the pretty much the way I was. They want to do the whole 36 treatments on me again but I just don’t have the desire to do it all again.
Thank you for reading the blog and commenting on TMS.
Sorry to hear that you experienced an unexpected tragedy. Have you evaluated the pros and the cons of doing the treatment again with your therapist? Unfortunately, due to the tragedy, it is possible that you did not get the full benefit of the treatment. You may also want to discuss if grief counseling would be an option for you.
You will be contacted directly with some additional resources, please check your email.
I thought TMS was helping but then I missed two days because of Holidays and even when I started 5 days a week I felt more depressed. This is my 2 nd go round so I don’t think it is going to help me. I have nothing else and I’m 70 years old. Why do some people rally and others have to suffer until they give up or die!
We appreciate you sharing as this takes a lot of courage.
I will contact you directly with some resources please check your email.