Yesterday was my assessment for, and first treatment of, TMS therapy. I don’t even know how to describe the experience in one word. I’ve been using the word “intense” but that doesn’t really cover it.
It started out ok. Well, not great. I became easily overwhelmed by the hospital complex getting turned around several times trying to find the correct parking lot. After 15 minutes of driving in circles and another 10 sorting out a parking pass, I was able to park and make my way inside. I breezed through security and reception without incident, found a seat in the waiting room and settled in to read my book. So far, not too bad.
A short time later two nurses came out, introduced themselves, and took my vitals. My blood pressure was MUCH higher than usual. Apparently, I wasn’t fooling anyone with my calm demeanor. My anxiety was through the roof. The nurses left, assuring me the doctor would be out shortly which he was.
The doctor led the way to the TMS room where I would spend the next hour. In it were a table and set of chairs, where we sat while he asked me standard questions to chart my level of depression and anxiety; a utility sink; a desk and chair; some cabinets; some rather expensive and complicated-looking machinery; and in the centre of the room a large chair reminiscent of a dentist’s chair. It was covered in a white sheet and was surrounded by more large, expensive-looking medical equipment.
The doctor explained the procedure to me then left the room to consult with another doctor leaving me alone in the TMS room (that’s when I snapped the picture; not entirely sure if it was allowed). J, who runs the clinic, joined me to further explain the steps that would be taken as part of the assessment including measuring my head. By this time my brain was going mushy. I can’t remember who explained this was a new machine and I would be the first patient it would be used on – would I mind if they brought in a few more people and another doctor for training purposes? I said of course not. How are people to learn if we don’t help out?
The doctor returned and asked if he could have my permission to measure my head. This was done so they know where to position the machine to be the most effective for treatment. After gaining my verbal permission (it’s important that all contact be approved) he pulled out a small measuring tape and began mapping my skull. This proved to be a bit challenging for the doctor as I have a lot of very dark, very thick hair. After watching the doctor struggle for a couple of minutes one of the nurses stepped in to help separate and hold my hair. I sat as still as possible while he measured and marked my scalp with a red Sharpie.
Once the measuring was completed and all the staff was assembled I was asked to alight the TMS throne. I was made comfortable and given noise-canceling earphones. For anyone who has had a traditional MRI, you will know how loud they are. This small device wasn’t much quieter. After some adjustment of both me and the machine, including a threshold test where my fingers were observed for twitching, the treatment began.
It was nothing like what I was expecting. I had watched a few videos of people getting TMS treatment. They appeared restful and relaxed. I can tell you the experience was neither restful nor relaxing. The machine proceeded to rapidly tap my head. I believe only a tree being assaulted by a woodpecker pecking out an urgent Morse code message could fully understand the sensation. It wasn’t long before my eye began to twitch uncontrollably and my jaw rattled of its own accord. I had control over neither.
I had a thousand feelings at that point – hope that this treatment actually proves beneficial; anxiety because they had started on the right side of my head and I knew they still had to do the left side; despair because I knew I was going to experience this pain daily for the next month.
At that point, the tears started. I held them in for as long as I could but they came just the same. I didn’t figure out why I cried until last night after supper. It wasn’t so much the “discomfort” (I’ll borrow the medical world’s word for “pain”) instead it was because I could envision what I looked like sitting there in that big chair – hair disheveled from the measuring; a straw sticking out of my mouth to prevent my teeth from clacking together; a machine crammed against my skull; blue headphones encircling my face while tears streamed down my cheeks – each one representing the loss what little dignity I had left.
Being ill holds little glamour. Anyone who has ever sat in a hospital gown with their fanny exposed can attest to that. Being a mental health patient brings with it the stigma and embarrassment of being “crazy” and “unstable”. One’s sense of self and self-worth erode over time and one is willing to do just about anything to try to regain one’s sense of humanity. As I sat there, with the last of my dignity streaming down my face and seeping into my sweater, I wondered if this was going to be worth it.
I was reminded of a scene from the movie The Cutting Edge, a rom-com about a hockey player who loses his peripheral vision and can no longer play professionally. Doug, played by D.B. Sweeney, begs the doctor for help – “Okay, you don’t do it, but somebody, somewhere, down in Mexico City, they shoot shark piss up your nose, you sit in traction for eight months.” It’s amazing what we are willing to go through for the promise of good health.
I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression – the staff was amazing. Doctors and nurses were handing me tissues and murmuring words of encouragement. Assuring me that many people cried during their first treatment. It was a normal reaction. It still didn’t stop me from feeling like a fool. No one likes to be seen as weak and crying is considered one of the weakest human states of all.
I don’t know how much time passed before the treatment was completed but when it was over the doctors removed themselves and the nurses took over (it is no secret that nurses are the driving force behind medical care and truly underrated medical practitioners). They released me from the machine all the time speaking words of consolement, and reassurance, promising it would get easier. They were lovely, compassionate angels.
So here I sit at 2 AM. Awakened from sleep with nightmares and a deep sense of foreboding because I know what is to come in 8 hours and I am clinging to their words that treatment gets easier with time.
Disclaimer – This is a description of my experience with TMS and does not necessarily reflect anyone else’s experience. As with any medical treatment each individual responds differently to treatment. If you are considering TMS please don’t let this deter you.