Electroboy: He was Hooked Up, Switched On, Blissed Out
(Published in The New York Times Magazine)
© 1999 Andy Behrman
I'm lying on a gurney in the operating room at Gracie Square Hospital. I feel
as if I'm waiting for either the scariest roller-coaster ride of my life for my
own execution. I'm convinced that if I live, my brain will be reduced to a blank
Rolodex. I look down at my bare feet. A flawless loafer tan line. Maybe I'll die
wearing flesh-tone loafers.
As far as manic-depressive tales go, my stories are typical. My illness went
undiagnosed for a decade, a period of euphoric highs and desperate lows highlighted
by $25,000 shopping sprees, impetuous trips to Tokyo, Paris and Milan, drug and
alcohol binges, days without sleep, sex with strangers and jail time. After seeing
eight psychiatrists, I finally received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder on my
32nd birthday. Over the next year and a half, I was treated unsuccessfully with
more than 30 medications. My suburban New Jersey upbringing, my achievements as
a film major at Wesleyan and a thriving career in public relations couldn't help
April 11, 1995. I'm in front of Barneys when it finally happens. My skin starts
tingling and I feel as if my insides are spilling onto the sidewalk. Everything
moves in slow motion. I can't hear. I rush home and climb into the empty bathtub.
I lie still for hours. As a last resort, I'm admitted to the hospital for ECT,
electroconvulsive therapy, more commonly known as electroshock. The doctor explains
the procedure to me. But most important, he tells me that I will get better.
Seven A.M. The doctor and his team, as well as a group of residents, hover
over me. Standing room only. I'm about to have my brains jolted with 200 volts
of electricity while 10 note-taking spectators gawk. I'm thinking about being
struck by lightning and the electric chair. I'm joking incessantly to fend off
the terror. Is it too late for the call from the Governor? No call. The show must
'Got an Amstel Light?' I ask. No response. I give the thumbs up. An IV of Brevital,
an anesthetic, is stuck into my arm, silencing me. I struggle to stay awake --
a losing battle. But I've been told what will happen: an IV of succinylcholine
goes in next, relaxing my muscles to prevent broken bones and cracked vertebrae.
The nurse sticks a rubber block in my mouth so I don't bite off my tongue, a mask
over my mouth and nose so my brain is not deprived of oxygen, and electrodes on
my temples. All clear. The doctor presses a button. Electric current shoots through
my brain for an instant, causing a grand-mal seizure for 20 seconds. My toes curl.
It's over. My brain has been ''reset'' like a windup toy.
I wake up 30 minutes later and think I'm in a hotel room in Acapulco. My head
feels as if I've just downed a frozen margarita too quickly. My jaw and limbs
ache. But I feel elated. 'Come, Electroboy,' says the nurse in a thick Jamaican
accent. I take a sip of juice as she grabs my arm and escorts me downstairs, where
my father is waiting with my best friend, a turkey sandwich and a Diet Coke. I
ask questions. Do I have a job? No. An apartment? Yes. A dog? No.
When I get home, I reacquaint myself with my apartment. I'm not really sure
it's mine. It feels as if I've been away for years. After a nap, I shower, get
dressed and hail a cab. By 8 P.M., I'm at a restaurant downtown, deliberating
between the salmon and the veal.
After four treatments, there is marked improvement. No more egregious highs
or lows. But there are huge gaps in my memory. I avoid friends and neighbors because
I don't know their names anymore. I can't remember the books I've read or the
movies I've seen. I have trouble recalling simple vocabulary. I forget phone numbers.
Sometimes I even forget what floor I live on. It's embarrassing. But I continue
treatment because I'm getting better.
And I actually start to love ECT. I have 19 treatments over the course of a
year. I look forward to them. It's like receiving a blessing in a sanctuary. I
rearrange my treatment schedule so that one falls on my birthday. I start believing
that electric current purifies me. I become addicted to the rituals - fasting
the night before, driving across Central Park to the hospital in the early morning,
connecting to the machines that monitor my vital signs, closing my eyes and counting
backward. It's an oddly religious experience. It's my meditation, my yoga, my
On the one-year anniversary of my first electroshock treatment, I'm clearheaded
and even-keeled. I call my doctor to announce my ''new and improved'' status and
ask to be excused from ECT that week. He agrees to suspend treatment temporarily.
Surprisingly, I'm disappointed. ECT reassures me. Soon I miss the hospital and
my ''maintenance'' regimen. But I never see the doctor again. Two and a half years
later, I still miss ECT. But medication keeps my illness in check, and I'm more
sane than I've ever been. If I could only remember the capital of Chile.