My Personal Experience With TMS (Part 1)

I reached a point of desperation about two and a half months ago. The wait between that point and the beginning of my TMS treatments was agony. TMS stands for transcranial magnetic stimulation. It’s not ECT (electroconvulsive therapy); it’s a noninvasive procedure of magnetic field pulses sent to the left side of my brain because that’s the side the magnet waves go for depression. TMS is utilized when antidepressants and therapy don’t work or have become stale.

My sleep schedule was super strict because my shift was in the morning. My job was “following up”, which meant checking on other people to see if someone else did something I needed weeks ago, filling out repetitive documents, navigating the auditory nightmare that is IVRs, and correcting other people’s work. My entire existence was a delicate mental balance of long-term and short-term goals, deadlines, due dates, social etiquette, other people’s ridiculous expectations, and the lengths my ambition went to meet them. After all, the reason I went to therapy and got diagnosed in the first place was that I wasn’t succeeding at the same pace as other women with my skin tone.

I walked into my doctor’s office waiting room and filled out the GAD-PHQ worksheet like I do every visit. This time at the bottom of the page, they added something new: a checkbox for anxiety and depression treatment options that weren’t medication. I checked it. I gave the form back to the reception staff and waited. When they called me back, my doctor told me she was happy I checked the box. We discussed the guidelines for one of the treatment options, TMS, for the office: the patient (me) had to have been on two different classes of antidepressants (SSRI, SNRI, MAOR, tricyclic, or atypical) and been through at least nine months of therapy. I had been through multiple classes of antidepressants over the last few years and had been in therapy this time for eleven months. She thought I was an excellent candidate.

Over the next two weeks, I prepped for my new treatment by reading about other peoples’ social experiences with TMS. As someone perceived as a woman of color, I learned to look for the physical signs of someone being dangerous, sad, and happy. I learned to read the general feelings of the person I’m interacting with (most of the time). As an adult who’s been through the proverbial ringer, I wondered how this treatment would affect me or my perceptions in social interactions.

I had been going through this big self-discovery since 2016, and I learned so much about the world and myself. Once I established myself as an autistic professional, I was able to speak for myself and my work, and it went well for a while. My therapy sessions focused on giving me safer coping mechanisms and managing my PTSD. That said, fighting my depression daily and warding off PTSD flashbacks and panic attacks all the time was wearing me down on every level. Maintaining my social survival mask was getting harder and harder.

The time it took to get my treatment off the ground was longer than I expected. Getting records from my therapist, sorting out paperwork, and verifying my insurance benefits took a few weeks. While I waited, I did my best to ward off panic attacks at work and communicate with my management.

I wasn’t completely surprised when I lost my job. Is anyone ever “completely surprised” when they lose their job? There’s always writing on the wall, and I saw it. I also feel like I probably helped write it; I have my regrets about my frank honesty with my management team, but there I was, only minorly startled. It wasn’t losing the job that startled me though, it was the sudden loss of routine. Even though my schedule wasn’t compatible with my natural body clock, it was fine-tuned to maximize my ability to produce work for that job. The stranger part of it still, was the phone call I received a couple of hours after my lay-off video call from the TMS coordinator. They wanted to begin my TMS treatment the next day. The cosmic timing was not lost on me.

Climbing out of the burnout hole has been a different story. What does successful treatment look like for me? I lost my job. At first, I thought that being rid of neurotypical confines would allow me to flourish. At second, I thought the original plan was to find a job first, to be “ready”. I had done it before, ten years ago, but time was escaping me. I felt like I was walking on Swiss cheese, and I kept falling into the holes repeatedly, anxious about my next move. That day, I had a bittersweet realization that something cosmic happened on a timeline I wasn’t “ready” for because my timeline didn’t line up with my destiny.

My TMS treatment is for my depression (side note: TMS is also a treatment for anxiety) and is thirty minutes every day for six weeks. I’m technically in my third week of treatments. The clicking is painful and annoying, but taking Tylenol helps. The coordinator and I’ve watched My Fair Lady, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Labyrinth, and we’ve started Hairspray. The treatments themselves are fun in nature and only kind of painful. I have noticed a difference so far is in my internal emotional expression.

Communicating when I’m agitated feels easier and milder, with less urgency. I’ve been cleaning and writing down ideas. The cloud of hope that felt far away seems closer now. Sometimes I get headaches and I remember songs from My Fair Lady and Labyrinth. Another strange experience is that the feelings that had I’d numbed down were coming up again, not as flashes like my PTSD, but as considerate reactions with a mysterious motivation to fix it.

After ten visits, I saw my doctor. We discussed my GAD-PHQ scores from when I started TMS therapy up until that point. My scores had lowered dramatically! I was reporting less frequent symptoms of depression! I noticed that I spent less time trying to get out of my depression holes because somehow my brain now knows how to get back to ‘Good’. I can recognize why I’m upset quicker, but my audio processing acts up when I’m upset and makes for near-constant misunderstandings. It is still difficult for me to get my words together and communicate my feeling effectively. That said, I’m excited to see what else is this therapy has in store for me. I haven’t felt this excited regarding treatment in a very long time.

As for work, I am open to projects and work-from-home positions. I look forward to the next phase of my career as an autistic professional.