The Current

This woman went to the brink of death — and back — to treat her depression

Heather B. Armstrong went to the brink of death 10 times as part of an experiment trial to reverse the effects of depression on her brain. We speak to the author about the life-changing experience, and hear from an expert at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health about new treatment for depression.

Writer Heather B. Armstrong on the experimental trial she says healed her brain

Heather B. Armstrong is the author of The Valedictorian of Being Dead, a memoir about her participation in an experimental trial for depression treatment that put her in chemically induced comas. (Angela Monson; Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster)
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A woman who was brought to the brink of death 10 times as part of an experimental clinical trial to treat depression likened waking up from the experience to "Dorothy opening the door into Oz and seeing colour for the first time."

"Colour was brighter and more vibrant. Sound was more like it echoed in every molecule of my body," writer Heather B. Armstrong told The Current's guest host Matt Galloway.

"The smell of the air, the colour of the sky — everything was just so much more intense and lovely and joyous that I knew something marvelous had happened."

Armstrong, who's best known for her lifestyle and motherhood blog, was the third patient in an experiment designed to reset subjects' brains by giving them the powerful anesthetic propofol. The drug was used to continuously stop, and then ignite, activity in her brain for about 15 minutes at a time — something Armstrong did 10 times over a matter of three weeks.

"What they're trying to do with this therapy is sort of like rewire some [brain] circuitry that has become ill or has become damaged because of stress, because of life," Armstrong explained, comparing the experiment to rebooting a computer after it crashes.

"And I really do believe that my circuitry was healed."

She's written about the process and her gruelling battle with depression in her new book, The Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live.

Rewiring brain circuitry

Armstrong, a single, working mother of two girls, said she struggled with depression and a feeling of inadequacy for years. Even though she knew her kids could see how sad she was, she didn't know how to fix it.

Yet she "avoided all help." Armstrong said she feared that if someone saw the mental state she was in, she would lose custody of her children — the one thing that kept her alive.

It wasn't until a particularly "bad episode" one night that she finally decided to talk to someone. Armstrong phoned her mother, who drove 40 minutes to her house and forced her to call the psychiatrist the next morning.

As part of the experiment, an anesthesiologist gave Armstrong propofol. This powerful drug triggered a halting of her brain activity, followed by a burst of activity. (Shutterstock / sfam_photo)

It was a few weeks later, sitting in his office, that Armstrong learned about the experimental trial.

He's like: 'You could die, but you're not going to die.'- Heather B. Armstrong

"He called his colleague right then and he said, 'Do you have a room in the study?' Armstrong recalled.

"I mean, there was a tiny part of me that was worried. But he's like, 'There's no side effects. There's no memory loss. There's no migraines … You're going to go to sleep and you're going to wake up.'

"He's like: 'You could die, but you're not going to die.'"

Waking up without anxiety

At first, Armstrong explained she would wake up from the treatments with not a clue about where she was. She felt drowsy, angry, and often said "crazy things."

But after the fifth time, something changed. When she woke up the next morning, she no longer felt anxious.

"It was almost like a cord that had gotten pulled out of a socket and it finally got plugged back in," she said.

Daniel Blumberger, co-director of the Temerty Centre for Therapeutic Brain Intervention at Toronto's Centre for Addiction Mental Health and Addiction (CAMH), said Armstrong's treatment is similar to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which involves stimulating the brain using electric currents.

The point of these experiments is to "increase the brain's inhibitory capacity," he said, pointing out that a brain with depression is like a traffic system where all the green lights are on and causing crashes.

"[What] we think is happening in depression is a lack of the red lights working, so a lack of the inhibitory capacity," Blumberger said.

But ECT can increase the brain's inhibitory capacity, he noted. 

Armstrong still takes medication for depression and sees her psychiatrist every few months.

But she said the treatment has given her the ability to look at life differently — to recognize what triggers her depression, and to stay calm in situations that used to bring her to tears.

"And there was no way — before the treatment — that my brain could wrap itself around that."

Where to get help

Canada Suicide Prevention Service

Toll-free 1-833-456-4566

Text: 45645

Chat: crisisservicescanada.ca

In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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