I was contacted by a Christian friend who has a lifetime of personal experience with depression. After years of counsel and medical intervention, one doctor suggested Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) as a treatment option. This person graciously agreed to share their story so that other Christians struggling with depression or wrestling with treatment options may be encouraged. Here’s their story:
I have struggled through several episodes of major depression in my thirty-three years of life, but this one was beyond bad. It started in a manner that was not atypical from earlier episodes, with one major exception: I was already taking an anti-depressant medication and had been doing so for several years.
It was initially my assumption that, because I was already treating depression physically, it might be a mental or spiritual struggle. A trusted friend encouraged me to talk to a Christian counselor, and drove me to a few dreaded appointments where I hoped and prayed that the Lord would reveal fresh insight and draw me into joy as I celebrated Jesus’s love for me. But none of that happened. While the counselor reinforced that my pain was real, it didn’t go away despite my pleas to God.
From Bad to Worse
Several draining weeks later I returned to my physician, who is also a believer, and he explained that the benefits of some anti-depressants tend to dwindle after a few years. He therefore suggested that we try a new medication. I had been in emotional anguish for about three months at this point, but was hopeful that the new medication would do the trick. But instead, things worsened. And worsened. And then, when they couldn’t possibly worsen any more, they worsened. For the first time, I was truly suicidal. I wanted to die, and death seemed like the best solution since I still trusted in the strength of God’s plan of salvation for sinners like me. I could no longer read or even pray. I did still manage to go to work, but curled up in a ball sobbing my eyes out for the rest of the day.
My physician referred me to a psychiatrist, and that deflated me even more. In my mind, a psych referral confirmed that I was a crazy person. I stayed in survival mode for a couple of months, but suddenly reached a breaking point. The intensity of my anguish seemed to multiply exponentially, and for the first time my work was truly hampered by my inability to stop crying. I sobbed on the phone with my psychiatrist one night, and informed her that I could no longer take the pain and was willing to try one of the next means of treatment for stubborn depression: ECT or TMS.
“Shock Therapy” or TMS?
ECT, or electroconvulsive therapy, has been used to treat depression for decades. There is a stigma attached to “shock therapy,” but when used by caring doctors, it has been proven to be very effective. However, there are a number of side effects to ECT, including a loss of short-term memory. Since I felt like my good memory was one of about two things going for me in life, I wasn’t excited about this option.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) was approved by the FDA in 2008 as a promising, non-invasive treatment for people suffering from major depression. It uses electromagnetic pulses to stimulate a part of the brain that is less active in people who have depression, and it has very limited side effects compared to ECT.
After visiting the TMS center at a local hospital and receiving insurance approval, the same thoughtful friend who drove me to the counselor a year earlier now drove me to my initial TMS treatment as a show of support. I sat in a chair with a helmet strapped to my head that looks like one of those hair dryers in a salon that old ladies sit under while reading magazines. I was able to watch TV during the treatments, which involved around a twenty-second electromagnetic pulse followed by around a thirty-second rest period. The pulse was uncomfortable, but bearable since I obviously survived. Some people compared it to an angry woodpecker on your head…I compared mine to an angry woodpecker operating a jackhammer.
I went to TMS treatments for five days per week (you can miss an odd day or two) for a total of thirty-six treatments. The doctor said that most people start to experience improvement after about fifteen days of treatment. It was while driving home from treatment #17 when I had a subtle realization that I no longer wished to curl up in a corner and die, and this was huge!
The improvements thankfully continued, and the darkness of that long season has finally lifted. While the long-term benefits of TMS treatments are somewhat unknown since this is such a new procedure, I’m still thankful to the Lord for allowing these medical advances in tackling depression and am just so grateful for the relief that it has provided. And I pray that those electromagnetic pulses would help give other depression sufferers a new pulse in life as well.