A Jolt to the System

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By the mid-1990s, Davis was facing his worst bouts of depression and suffered two panic attacks so severe that during one of his two hospital stays, he woke with a memory so impaired that it took about a month to recover it. The doctors had suggested shock therapy, but the thought of its most scary side effect, memory loss, kept him away.

For years, those words--darkness, hole, hell--couldn't describe life for him. Thoughts of death were never far away. "I didn't see it as a selfish act," he says. "I thought it was no different than dying of a terminal disease and wanting to be euthanized."

By then, he was talking about suicide almost daily. He assured his wife, Jilynn, that he wouldn't act on those feelings, but that didn't ease her fears. Then one night, she saw that he'd written a detailed note on his computer about his funeral wishes. "When you live with someone suffering from depression," she says, "it affects every aspect of your life." And there were many times the two came close to divorcing.

"Living with death daily" is what she calls her years of watching her husband slip deeper into a depression. She lost a life partner, someone with whom she could confide in, to share her own worries and fears.

Davis was seeing a psychiatrist in late 1998, when his doctor said that Rush of UT Southwestern had called, inquiring if he had any patients who'd run out of chances. "Pure serendipity" is what Davis now calls that moment.

Davis filled the bill. Soon, he met with Rush and his team. He weighed, as best he could in his "haze," VNS' side effects, the most serious of which seemed to be hoarseness of voice, because the device also stimulates one of the nerves that affects speech.

Several months after the implant, Davis began feeling some slight changes. The world looked less bleak. The panic attacks stopped. He knew it wasn't circumstantial; his anti-depressant dosage hadn't been increased. In fact, it was lower. When a stressful situation would arise, he no longer felt as if the walls were closing in on him, that he was about to die.

"I still go through mood changes," he says. "I have my blue days and good days, but there are a lot more good days now."

His main side effect has been the hoarseness, which comes every five minutes for a few seconds. At those times, it sounds as if he's being strangled, but he says that he doesn't feel pain, just slight pressure on his larynx. If he wants to shut off the device, he can, with the use of a magnet strapped to his wrist. And though doctors have yet to attribute use of the device to constipation, Davis says that's also been a factor.

Whether or not the FDA approves the device, Davis says he's not worried: "It works for me." Still, he occasionally questions what the long-term effects of continually stimulating the vagus nerve might be. "I do worry about that," he says, then quickly adds, "not worry, think about it."

His wife, after all those years of seeing him go from one treatment to another, was reluctant to believe something was finally triggering improvement. "When depression becomes a part of your life, it never leaves," she says. Yes, she sees a change in him, a "return of confidence," but she still can't conceive of depression ever vanishing from their lives.

"I have this thing of not looking directly in the eyes," she says, "because I think people can see inside me, and that makes me ashamed."

Seated near a large window, this woman of 48, who asks that she not be identified, clutches the sides of her chair. Dressed in a gray, baggy sweater and full skirt that cover most of her, she all the while averts the gaze of a stranger.

The shame. Only at the age of 39 in the confines of a therapist's office was she finally able to speak of her past, of her childhood in the Midwest, of how she and two other sisters were molested by both her father and two older brothers. Of the abuse, she says that by "today's standards," it would be considered rape.

"I'm an incest survivor," she says. "I've been in psychotherapy for 10 years and probably will be the rest of my life." And she's on medication, which, she says, does little to improve her moods. "After a length of time, the body becomes immune to it," she says. When not at work or at home, she's usually in therapy, group and individual.

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Lisa Singh
Contact: Lisa Singh