ECT on TV: Six Feet Under

ECT is sometimes an enigma. We’ve all heard of ‘shock treatments,’ but we’ve never really seen how it’s really done. Most of us just conjure up an image a la ‘Cuckoo’s Next,’ and even when the procedure”s been explained verbally, it’s practically impossible to understand how it’s done. So, when a recent television program ‘shows’ a scene containing ECT, it intrigues me.

One such episode is from the HBO drama ‘Six Feet Under,’ entitled “A Coat of White Primer.” George, Ruth’s husband, has depressive psychosis and is taken to a psychiatric hospital after secluding himself in his makeshift ‘bomb shelter.’ When medication fails to work, George and his doctor decide that ECT is the next option. When the family members are told of this plan, his daughter asks back, “Shock treatments?” The doctor tries to assure her that it’s not what she thinks it is, as George says, “nothing is working.”

The scene changes to George having ECT. The camera shows the Thymatron machine, the actual device used for ECT (unless it’s for me, since they use the sine-wave machine on me…). Nothing looks painful. The only image that shows any pain is of Ruth, who looks obviously distraught and stressed out from months of trying to help and support her husband.

In general, I think the way this show decided to capture someone (and by extention, his/her family) dealing with ECT is depicted fairly accurately. My actual ECT room looks a lot less alone since other patients are lined up on beds next to mine. The emotions that arises surrounding the ECT is well captured. In fact, there’s another episode where George has started on maintenance treatments and is talking about it with Billy, a character with bipolar disorder. Here’s the dialogue:

[Billy and George Sibley are talking on the porch. Billy is sneaking a beer.]
George Sibley: So, you stopped taking them? Just like that?
Billy: Yep.
George Sibley: How do you feel?
Billy: I feel a little tingly. That’s about it. What do they got you on these days?
George Sibley: Well they just switched me from Lithium to Tophranil…
Billy: Oh.
George Sibley: … in between the shock treatments.
Billy: What are those like?
George Sibley: Honestly, I don’t know. I go in. They put me on a bed. They give me some oxygen. They say, “You’re going to feel a little prick in your hand.” That always makes me laugh. And then the next thing I know I wake up with the worst headache I’ve had in my life.
Billy: You think it’s helping?
George Sibley: I think that, as Émile Coué used to say, “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” But not everyone agrees.
Billy: Yeah. It’s hard to get your shit together with someone watching all the time.
George Sibley: Hmm, yeah it is. But when no one is watching, then where are you? Where the fuck are you then?

I think the matter-of-fact tone in the way George talks is pretty much how I’ve eventually begun to feel about the treatments. I really appreciate this dialogue because, to me, it somehow knew to show that the ECT patients themselves begin to feel a lot less uncomfortable in talking about ECT–because we know the routine by this point. The sense of nervousness  and, dare I say, horror, in our voices in the beginning has diminished. Other conversations show that the people around George are the ones who are very concerned about his decision to have more ECT.

There’s some sense of sensationalism that comes along with television shows, but I appreciate how ‘Six Feet Under’ decided to depict mental illness in general and what it’s like to go through electroconvulsive therapy, for both the patient and the people around the patient.


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