Neurofeedback, The $5,000 Videogame That Permanently Cured My Clinical Depression

After having neuroscientists analyze my brainscan results, she sat down with me and put their findings in something pretty close to English: certain parts of my brain made either too many or too few waves that were too fast or too slow; how it manifested itself in the world was as depressive behavior.

Sep 6, 2012 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

I was first diagnosed with depression when I was six years old. My family thought I would outgrow it, but a combination of life events (like having to visit my addict mother at an increasingly scary stream of rehabs and funny farms, her death, having a year of my life taken away by a massive car accident that put me in a coma, the death of my adoptive parents), neurological trauma (the aforementioned coma, several serious concussions), and wonky hormones ensured that the depression stayed with me. Over its course, I tried everything possible to treat it: psychologists, psychiatrists, spiritual cleansing, self-medication, meditation, hospitalization, diets, exercise, occult rituals and more. 

You will notice medication is not on that list. Because every member in my family has been addicted to something, and I myself did a couple of adolescent stints in rehab, my mature self has always been profoundly anti-drug. My stubbornness only increased with the Prozac boom, after seeing so many people I know turn into lifeless, listless husks.

Through my teenage years and into my twenties, I shuffled through my repertoire of balms -- doing OK enough until another catastrophe sent me back into hibernation. After a couple of months shutting myself off from the world and spending every night praying that I would be dead by morning, I would call my shrink du jour for another round of treatment. It wasn’t great, but I was getting by.

Until 2004, when everything bad happened to me. Any one of these events would have been enough to trigger a depressive episode, but in the space of five months, I was laid off from my dream job; I was dumped by a boyfriend in a pretty spectacular fashion (at a party, I walked in on him trying to fuck another couple at a party; he picked up his stuff, ran down the street in his boxers and told me to fuck off, that he was sick of everyone else having more fun than he was). After the breakup, he absconded with a fledgling business that we had been working on. Then I had a string of demoralizing temp jobs, moved to a new city where I had no friends and developed a mystery illness that left me unable to urinate more than three drops at a time. It was too much for me to bounce back from, so I let my therapist put me on Lexapro. I took my first dose in February 2005.

It worked, at first. It kept me from bottoming out and wanting to kill myself; I was able to return to work, and my life, like something close to a normal human being. But then everything began to feel the same. I wasn’t getting the rock-bottom lows, but I never felt particularly good, either. Still, this seemed better than the alternative.

By the end of 2007, I was frustrated with the utter lack of a libido, and just generally feeling estranged to myself, so I quietly stopped taking the drug. Everything was fine -- not really fine at all, but at least I wasn’t slitting my wrists, and felt kind of normal again. Until September 2008, when I made the random discovery that my father had faked his own death and run out on me and my family.

This plunged me into the worst depression of my life. I dropped out of everything and tried my hardest not to exist. During a lucid moment, I started thinking about a therapy I hadn’t yet tried, one that a therapist had been telling me about for years.

It was called neurofeedback, and it involved “training your brain” so it wouldn’t get depressed. I didn’t know very much about it, other than every single practitioner I could find had some crap-ass ugly website that gave the enterprise a rather less-than-credible impression. And then there was the issue of the price. I knew my insurance wouldn’t cover it, and sessions ran anywhere from $90 to $200 a piece. My therapist told me it was a gradual process, and it was not unusual to require anywhere from 20 to 40 sessions.

But on the upside, I’d seen some high-profile press for neurofeedback’s success in treating autism and post-traumatic stress disorder. The medical community was still iffy about using it to treat depression, but the therapist I trusted more than anyone else in the entire world vouched for it. She referred me to one of the top practitioners in Southern California, and I went for my first appointment a week later. 

The first step was a qEEG, a scan that looked at the activity in my brain and compared it to normal, "control" brains. The cost of the scan was $1,000, and I was told it would be a few weeks before the results were ready.

Three weeks later, I went for evaluation/consultation (for $300). This was when I met my neurofeedback guru, Joy. After having neuroscientists analyze my brainscan results, she sat down with me and put their findings in something pretty close to English: certain parts of my brain made either too many or too few waves that were too fast or too slow; how it manifested itself in the world was as depressive behavior. Looking at my scans, Joy guessed that when I self-medicated, I used anything from caffeine to speed to cocaine; I had unusually long and painful periods; I was prone to clumsiness; and I suffered from insomnia. I was astounded by the accuracy of these insights; I felt like she might legitimately get it and that I was pursuing something that might actually work.

After grilling me about my depression for two intense hours, I was lead to the room where the magic happened. It was very unassuming, looking like hundreds of other small offices in Burbank: There was a generic brown wood desk, a battered office chair and an old PC tower hooked up to a big monitor. I sat down in a big brown Lazy-Boy recliner; she hoisted up the footrest to make me comfy, started strapping electrodes to my head, booted up a brainwave game on a TV monitor in front of me and I had my first neurofeedback session. 

You’d think for $90 a session, you would get some pretty kick-ass graphics and sound, but the game would even have been an embarrassment to the Pong era: it was a block of color that I was instructed to keep within a certain space. The color block appeared to move down a highway, and when I hit 500 points, a volcano in the background ejaculated confetti all over the landscape. 

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This low-budget looking Pac-Man style game is one example of the neurofeedback brain-training modules. (Screenshot courtesy of EEG Info)

The game chugged along for 40 minutes, and my irrepressibly happy therapist told me more about how it worked. Neurofeedback functions as a feedback loop: the electrodes on your scalp pick up your brain activity, and the game coaxes your brain into making the right frequency of waves in the right places. When your brain complies, it gets rewarded. I just looked on at the game. I didn’t feel like I was in control of anything. And after the end of the treatment, I didn’t feel much of anything. I’d prepaid for a bunch of sessions, and at that price, I knew I needed to do them, as prescribed, and give the treatment a chance.

Subsequent sessions were similar. While I “played” the games, Joy and I talked -- not in a “tell me about your childhood” therapy way, but more like a chatty, “We’re going to be spending a lot of time together, so let’s get to know one another,” amicable way. Which did include me talking anecdotally about my depression and my life. Joy herself is not a therapist -- she is a whiz with reading the numbers and interpreting what they mean in a human way, having done this for many years. There are therapists who offer neurofeedback to complement the therapy, but I was OK with this arrangement. 

But by the sixth session, I noticed that I felt appreciably less crappy. Less like crying for no reason, less like life was meaningless torture. I did not feel terrible! And considering the depth and tenacity of my depression, this was huge for me. 

Around session 12, I really could tell a difference, and by session 20, I felt good. Optimistic, capable of at least fleeting moments of brightness and joy, for the first time in a long time, engaged enough in my own life, and the world around me, to want to seek out concerts and trip -- extended moments of celebration and levity. For the first time in…maybe in my entire life, I felt things could get better. And unlike meds, there were no side effects: no weight gain, sleeplessness or non-existent sex drive. 

I wanted to stay “up,” so I purchased another 20 sessions. There was obviously a ceiling: Neurofeedback was not going to make me progressively happier and happier until I floated away; rather, like when you’re working with a muscle in physical therapy, you can’t just stop once the desired corrections have been attained. You have to keep training it to ensure it remembers what it’s supposed to do. 

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Do depressed people smile like this? And wear bedazzled vampire fangs? Me, very recently.

As I write this, it’s been three and a half years since my last session. I have had zero depression. That doesn't mean I don’t have days when I’m sad -- and since I’ve been dealing with a chronic back injury, there have been a lot of those days this past year. But I don’t want to wallow in the sadness, and it passes. Unlike either depression or meds, I feel a complete range of emotions: occasionally dejection, but often joy, and a million things in between. I talk to a shrink once in a while, but it’s more to help with problem-solving rather than out of necessity. I can honestly say neurofeedback was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. 

Posted in It Happened To Me