It was Sunday, December 4, 1960. I had been sad and depressed and taken a small overdose of Aspirin in an attention-getting gesture for help. My parents took me to where they thought was the best place at the time: Massachusetts General Hospital emergency room. From there, my three-year hellish odyssey began. A psychiatrist sent me to Baldpate Hospital in Georgetown, MA. In those days, it was easy to be locked up and committed against your will and nearly impossible to get out. Many people never did.
I can still feel the cold, sticky linoleum beneath my bare feet as I shuffled my way to the bathroom on those freezing early mornings during the winter of 1961 at Baldpate Hospital in Georgetown, MA. The sensations and memories are as much a part of me now as they were then, perhaps even more vivid now as I realize the shocking brutality of my treatment as an adolescent girl locked into a mental institution for feeling sad and lonely and depressed.
We were lined up side by side in our beds on those mornings, four girls, huddled beneath our cold, white sheets; petrified and silent. I can see the nurse in her starched white uniform. I can smell the alcohol she rubbed on my bottom, and I can feel the sting of the sharp needle as she injected the insulin into me: combined insulin coma/electroshock therapy, five days a week for eight weeks.
After we were groggy from the insulin, but often not yet in a coma, the second treatment would begin. I can still see him walking through the door to our bare hospital-green room, his face grey-white in color, and his black suit and black shoes. He carried all his equipment in a small black suitcase in one hand, this man of death and destruction. He set up his machine behind our heads, one by one. Curled up beneath our sheets, heads covered, as though seeking womb-like protection, we were – as they peeled the sheets off of us, forcing us onto our backs – bare and open and vulnerable. I was second in the line-up.
Before being turned, I would often peek out from a small secret opening in my sheet to see what they were doing to Susan, the first to receive the treatment. I would force myself to watch as if it might prepare me in some way. And when she would shake violently all over, my eyes would close. I could no longer watch. I would shiver beneath my sheet in fear. And then they would come to me. I can still feel the sticky, cold jelly they put on my temples. My arms and legs were held down by mental health workers. There was no anesthesia at all. Each time, I expected I would die, and I woke up with a violent headache and nausea. My mind was blurred, and I permanently lost pieces of the eight months of memory for events preceding the shocks. I also lost my self-esteem. I had been beaten down as flat as a pancake.
But I was lucky. I was very, very lucky. On one of those cold winter mornings exactly fifty-two years ago they injected my friend, Susan, in the bed next to me with more insulin than her young body could tolerate. A few hours later, as the four of us were having our mandatory afternoon nap, still huddled beneath our sheets, my friend, Susan, went to sleep and never woke up. She had just turned seventeen. She was my fragile friend and fellow traveler on this dangerous journey, and when she died, she became a part of me… I am the witness.
On the afternoons after Susan died, I can remember my “mental health care” continued by my being taken into that same shock room, where we also slept at night, by a mental health worker. He would lock the door, push me up against the wall, and sexually abuse me. My head was foggy from the insulin, dazed from the Thorazine; I was petrified. I did not scream. I did not dare. I survived. And I did not tell anyone for many, many years.
After six months, I was transferred to another institution, The Menninger Clinic in Kansas. What I recall most vividly is the seclusion. The room was dark and hot and sticky. It was bare except for the roughly-covered striped mattress. There was no sheet. I could feel every thread in the fabric against my skin as if I were being cut into pieces with my every move. And inside, the pain was rushing through my head and in every vein. I could feel the Thorazine sting as they injected the needle into my skin, and I would then become a stranger to myself, dead and dying from the inside out. It went on for weeks and weeks and weeks. I was crying for Susan, for my shattered self, for my lost freedom. I was trying desperately to survive. The seclusion did not help. And the Thorazine nearly killed me. I shuffled. My tongue was swollen so much that I couldn’t talk.
One woman I shall always remember from that locked ward for her fearless rage. In her fifties, she wore her graying black hair pulled tightly back in a bun, and she always wore the same long, dark, straight dress and black shoes with thick high heels. Her fury was something to behold. The only times I saw this amazing woman were when she would emerge from her room, three times a day, tray in hand, and smash the entire tray with all the food spraying upside down across the floor outside her door, screaming that she did not want to be locked up and she would not eat the food until they let her go free. Her shrieks were piercing, sometimes even frightening; but I always held her in very high esteem because of her bravery and her ability to yell out the truth for and before all of us who were so much younger.
During the three years I spent in institutions, I saw and experienced a lot of abuse. Some of it was violent, some of it was more subtle, but it was almost always present in one form or another, like a polluted river running through our lives. I still see Technicolor images of the elderly women lined up and tied to their chairs from 6 am until 8 pm at Westborough State Hospital. They mumbled in the hall next to each other. Sometimes they wailed and pleaded to be let out. They wore diapers, and their urine often spilled out onto the floor. I tried to soothe them; they were inconsolable. They were the women who had been abused in their youth; many had been shocked, overmedicated, secluded for years. They were the women who never made it out, and they were a constant reminder of what could happen to all of us who were so much younger. They were the poor women of 50 years ago, now dead, many of whom had been locked up by their husbands for “bad” behavior. Most of them had probably simply been looking for love and affection. They now wore the scarlet letters of A for adultery plus S for Schizophrenia. I was educated at Westborough… I am a witness.
We all did the best we could to survive, and many of us did not. I have long felt that my anger and defiance were what ultimately saved me from dying there. We were all thought of as crazy; I was labeled as being schizophrenic. But, in fact, we were all desperately trying to find our individual ways of adapting to the atrocities of our “mental health care.” We were learning essential survival skills in this war, not only a war within ourselves, but also a war against the system that had put us there. And it was not a war we could ever win. We tried and tried and tried. It took vigilance and patience and acting skills, and it was exhausting.
It is important to realize that the worst atrocities happened to me in the prettiest places. Baldpate looked like a farmhouse from the front, with flowers and trees, but way back in the woods there was a small concrete unit where the the shocks were given. That is where they kept me. The other pretty hospital, The Menninger Clinic, looked like a college campus. Terrible abuses of restraint and seclusion and drugging and cold packs happened there. The large state hospitals were often out in the country surrounded by trees and grass, but at least no one pretended that they were pleasant. The inside of these hospitals looked horrible, and they were horrible, but the “pretty,” “private,” “nice” hospitals were an illusion where more drugging and sexual and physical abuse happened to me than anywhere else… I am a witness.
Finally, I was released through the help of a friend, and I soon met a kind and gentle doctor. With his sweet smile and a twinkle in his eye, this young man saved my soul and nursed me back to living, into college, and into a full life. He was a mother to me, telling me that nothing had ever been wrong with me, that I was expressing a natural response to my barbaric mistreatments. I have been absolutely fine ever since meeting him forty-nine years ago. Kindness and compassion are the sweetest, most powerful medicines of all.
Recently I was at the Massachusetts State House, hearing traumatic testimony from young people who had been grossly mistreated in the mental health system, pleading for change. I had done the same way back 35 years ago. There have been some small changes, but not nearly enough. Damaging drugs are widely prescribed to silence those (including many, many young children) expressing their natural life emotions in response to normal stressful life situations. Shock is still widely given to people without real consent. Mental pain is something which we all feel at some times in our lives. Some feel it more than others. It is certainly easier to isolate and silence those with intolerable pain, those who are different, for being around them is a constant reminder of our own vulnerability.
I feel an enormous bond with the young people of today, expressing again, and so articulately, poignantly, and with such dignity, my same concerns of 35 years ago: In the mental health system, where is the kindness? Where is the compassion for our fellow travelers?
We share a language and set of feelings similar to Holocaust survivors and veterans of combat battle units. This connection to people who have traveled the same rocky path through violent hospitalizations or years of brain-washing medications in their youth is strong and powerful and a fiery political force which is growing stronger around the world every single day. Our books and our films and our speeches and our written testimonies in the New York Times and other newspapers around the world are waking people up, lifting off their blinders as our experiences are resonating with their own. Meaningful, lasting revolution is sometimes slow, but the river of passion is flowing. The barricades are cracking and beginning to fall. It is time for all to pick up their banners and march forward with us to make this world a kinder and gentler place for all.