Gail Bellissimo spent years trying to get treatment for her depression, but nothing worked for long—until she tried brain-stimulating therapy at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
For Gail Bellissimo, a Mississauga, Ont. wife, mom (of four boys!) and entrepreneur, being diagnosed with major, treatment-resistant depression was like a receiving a life sentence. But then she learned about a clinical trial for repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), a form of brain stimulation therapy using magnetic pulses, at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). It was literally life changing. This is her story.
"People always say appreciate life and treasure the little moments, but when you're depressed there are no little moments. You're just existing. A lot of people are driven to silence by the overwhelming guilt of not being able to 'appreciate life.'
I had suffered from post-partum depression after a couple of my pregnancies and had bouts of depression throughout the 2000s, but I wasn't diagnosed with major depression until 2009 and by that point, I honestly felt like it was just part of who I was. I didn't think of it as an illness I was suffering from, I thought of it as something I should have been able to solve on my own. And I think a lot of people do that. I knew about depression, I was compassionate when it came to other people, but I was very self-stigmatizing.
I was able to function really well despite everything. I ran a small business when my boys were small, I did a lot of volunteering — but it crept in. It's very insidious. I describe depression as silencing your spirit; it takes over, it depletes your senses. It prevented me from finding the words to describe how I was feeling or what I was thinking. Everything was dull, flat, dark, heavy. It even impacted my long- and short-term memory.
There isn't a medication that I hadn't tried. But they would only work temporarily. I'd think I was making progress, and then it would stop working. It was like being thrown back into the pit. The word resilience to me became about a bad a word as depression, because I was just running out. Looking for treatment became futile because I really blamed myself and I hated myself. But, when I did have the energy, I would get on the internet. I had worked in health care for a number of years and I have a real belief in what research does. Research is hope to me, in any illness. So I'd look for research studies for depression, and I found one at CAMH. I had never been to their site before and I didn't know what repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) was, but I started Googling and when I saw that they were going to be starting the study I went to my doctor and said, 'You need to refer me downtown because I want to be able to do this!'
It doesn't work for everyone, but from what I read, 30% to 50% of people with treatment-resistant depression who tried it saw some positive benefit. It wasn't another medication, it wasn't invasive, and so to me it was worth a try. Each treatment took about three minutes and all I felt was a light tapping on one side of my head. And there wasn't any downtime. I walked in, got the treatment, walked out and got on with the rest of my day.
One day near the end of my second week of treatment, I was driving home when I felt a shift. It's hard to describe, but I was driving by the lake and it was a really nice day and I realized I felt lighter and energized. Things were much brighter. It was a little unnerving! It was like, 'What's going on?' Because it wasn't like I was inundated by anything… it's more like I was living in the dark and somebody opened the door.
It's not a cure. It's not like anyone can say, 'Okay, you're free from depression, off you go.' But it is remission. It gave me breathing room so I could begin the work I've been trying to do for years.
It felt like a fog was lifted. There's so much I want to do now."
3 Things You Should Know About rTMS
1. It's not electroshock therapy. Though it's a similar concept, rTMS is not invasive and doesn't have the same side effects as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). In rTMS, magnetic pulses stimulate the brain, which works to change the way neurons fire. ECT uses electric currents to deliberately trigger small seizures. (ECT was once called shock treatment and has a bad reputation in pop culture, but it's actually an effective, if last-ditch, treatment option for some people with depression.)
2. It's not just for depression. Recent studies have explored using rTMS as a treatment for PTSD, autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders and schizophrenia.
3. It's effective — but not yet available throughout Canada. Health Canada approved rTMS for clinical trials on neuropsychiatric illnesses in 2002, but so far it's only covered by health plans in two provinces: Saskatchewan and Quebec. It may soon be available in Ontario, too — it was approved for public funding in March 2016 and it's currently under review by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.
Read three more women's stories about overcoming mental illness.