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Martha Rhodes

When Antidepressants Failed, TMS—Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation—Saved Me From Depression

Real Women, Real Stories

By Martha Rhodes

No one could have been more surprised than I when I landed in an emergency room being saved from a self-inflicted Xanax overdose. It was utterly inconceivable that someone with as much going for her as I would ever choose to die. But severe depression eclipsed my rational thoughts.

Despite the ever-nagging sadness that underscored even the happiest days of my life since childhood, I've managed to pull off a successful career in New York advertising, stay married to a wonderful, patient husband for 36 years and raise two amazing children. That's the good news.

The bad news is, although I took antidepressants when I was first diagnosed with major depressive disorder, after many years—and unbeknownst to me—they stopped working.

After my suicide attempt, I tried different medications for several months and nothing helped. I actually felt worse than when I started, trying to find the one pill—or combination of pills—that would help me. Either they were flat-out ineffective or the side effects were simply intolerable. I was scared, frustrated and angry.

I had to manufacture a false smile when I wanted to weep, pretending to be happy so I wouldn't worry my family and friends who knew of my depression and who felt helpless to do anything about it. I felt constant guilt that I didn't have the faculties to embrace their love and support because my brain refused to operate in a way that made it possible.

Then, my sister shared an ad she had found for transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy. I made an appointment to see if I was a candidate for the treatment. The verdict was "yes."

Initially, I was cautious about such a new technology, but I was comfortable with the research results gathered during the 20 years before it received FDA approval in October 2008.

TMS is a noninvasive therapy that uses powerful magnetic fields to stimulate the cerebral cortex. It is used to treat major depressive disorder in adults like me who failed on prior antidepressant medications.

A TMS treatment session is surprisingly simple. I sit in a reclining chair with music or TV available and I relax. At first the magnetic pulsing felt like an intense tapping on the outside of my head, like when my brother gave me a noogie when we were kids. It took me about a week to get used to the sensation, and now I hardly notice it. The TMS coil taps for four seconds, then rests for 26 seconds, on and off in that sequence for 37 minutes for a total of 3,000 pulses per session.

There is no sedative or anesthesia (as is the case with electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT) so I don't feel sleepy afterward. The best part is there are no side effects: no headache, no upset tummy, no disoriented feeling. I drive myself to and from my therapy, and appointments last less than an hour.

The initial regimen is 30 sessions over five to six weeks. Because I didn't notice an improvement in my mood until three weeks into the therapy, I had to simply trust that TMS would work. Taking a pill every morning is a tangible thing. You hold it, you swallow it, you know it's going into your bloodstream and will hopefully do the trick. I often wondered, "How the heck is an invisible magnetic pulse tapping on my head going to get rid of all this sadness and misery?"

The "lift" happened when I awoke one morning without feeling the predictable and disgusting "emotional nausea." I began to play music again during the long car rides to my treatments—it became more upbeat, and I started singing to the tunes. I reached out to people and had more energy. My tears dried up and I caught myself laughing.

Today, I'm finally out of the dark cave. I'm clearer and more centered now than I have ever felt before. Depression is a chronic illness, but with periodic TMS treatments, I manage the symptoms and lead a happy and productive life. Most important, I embrace a newfound value for my life—it really is worth living!

For more information on TMS treatments, visit

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