by Kimberly Suiters
“A little dab’ll do ya,” Jack Nicholson’s character jokes moments before one of the more haunting scenes in American cinema. The seizure that follows a portrayal of electroshock therapy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest helped form a devastating public opinion of the procedure, including Morry Efrach’s.
“Like Frankenstein, I figured, they attach electricity to your head and they start buzzing your brain. No way,” says Efrach, sitting outside an Arlington cafe on a sunny March morning. “I thought they were crazy. I thought they were trying to kill me.”
Rewind to 2010, the year Efrach, a married father of three and real estate agent, was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, Burkitt’s lymphoma, typically found in children.
“The moment the doctor saw me she said, ‘Young man, get upstairs to oncology immediately.'” It was his first appointment to find out what was causing his night sweats, his physical pain, his bizarre sleeping habits. His cancer had already progressed to stage IV.
A year of chemotherapy followed. Every three weeks, Efrach would check in to the hospital, endure a full week of chemotherapy, and then go home to rest. Looking back, he can see the way depression began to darken his mind.
“It was like a dark cloud beginning to slowly descend upon you. So you’re not really controlling the thought, it’s coming on you. It engulfs your thinking, your perspective, your life.”
Depression morphed into paranoia. Efrach says something in his brain simply snapped, and from that point forward, every day was misery. He holed himself up in his bedroom, grew a beard, lost 60 pounds, and lost all hope.
But his devoted wife, Adriana, did not.
She checked her husband into two different psychiatric wards, first at Dominion Hospital in Falls Church, then at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington. Doctors at both facilities recommended electroconvulsive therapy or ECT.
“I knew what they were up to. I completely thought they were trying to kill me,” Efrach admits. “In my paranoia and mistrust, I refused to have anything to do with it.”
The doctors, Adriana, and friends from their synogogue begged Efrach to reconsider. One year ago, he relented.
“My first or second ECT treatment, that dark cloud receded. I opened my eyes and realized, all those things I had passion about, music, restaurants, friends, drinking, all those things that were gone started to come back.”
ECT has roots in the 16th century, when doctors induced seizures in patients to treat a variety of psychiatric conditions. The therapy gained more traction in Europe throughout the 1940’s and 50’s, but then saw a decline, due predominantly to negative public perception. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” might have been the worst jolt shock therapy ever received.
By 1985, the National Institutes of Health deemed ECT the “most controversial treatment in psychiatry.” There was widespread agreement in the medical community that it could jumpstart the brain, but the benefit did not last, with most patients relapsing within six months. Today, NIH reports that ECT, performed only when patients are under anesthesia, is “very effective” and “generally safe treatment for depression.”
Efrach calls it painless. And miraculous.
“For people who saw me go from stage IV, near death, to, knock wood, healthier, more invigorated, they can’t believe it. It brings tears to their eyes. It absolutely, no doubt in my mind, is a miracle.”
Efrach confesses the caffeine he’s drinking is starting to kick in, and his mind flows with ideas about how to rebuild his real estate business, yes, but now he wants to inspire, motivate, and invigorate the lives of those around him, starting with his family. Adriana does not tire of telling friends, with a smile and a fist-pump, “My Morry is back. He is really baaaaack.” Their three children tend to cuddle up to him more often, he says, having faced the fear that they might never see their father healthy again. Efrach doubts there are many people who feel as awake to life as he does.
“I don’t believe that for a minute! I look around and I don’t see the passion, the drive, the glow that they could have.”
Off all other medication for depression, Efrach may need ECT to keep his brain in balance forever. Every six weeks, he undergoes the shock therapy. But he brushes it off with a pink-cheeked smile, the sunshine twinkling in his bright blue eyes.
“A tune-up. Just a tune-up. And when my friends at the gym see how much energy I have, how much I enjoy my life, they almost wish they could get this ECT too.”