“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”
“Put ’em Away!”
If you follow the news you know terrible things happen every day. You might say, “Oh, that’s so far away…” until it happens to you. Here is my story.
I’d always been nervous and shy, and never very good at any sport or making friends. Kids at school picked on me endlessly and my father yelled at me and put me down. About the only things going well in my life were that I had good grades and a close relationship with my mother. Then, when I was thirteen, she had an operation, and they found a tumor in her intestine. That meant the worst possible thing to me — cancer! I started having stomach pains myself and thought I might have it, too.
Our family doctor didn’t find anything wrong with my stomach. The pain got worse and worse, but he still couldn’t find anything wrong. All my other problems were getting worse, too, and you’d probably think my stomach problem had to be nerves. Why didn’t he prescribe something or send me to a mental health therapist? I know I even asked him myself at least several times for something to take or to see a counselor. And though my mother had graduated from college and my father earned a nice living, they didn’t do anything, either. It was totally frustrating!
By summer of 1959, when I turned sixteen, my stomach was hurting so much I was sure I was dying. I’d already experimented with cutting my arm near the vein, and I thought I’d have to kill myself if somebody didn’t come to my rescue soon. I was so depressed my movements and my speech had slowed down. I thought people sneered at me everywhere I went. And I couldn’t get my mind off how awful and ugly I was and that nobody liked me. I was so lost in misery I didn’t even pay much attention to what was going on around me.
When I returned to school that September, the vice principal told me that he was suspending me until I got help. I’m sure he called my mother, too, and maybe he said something about Child Protective Services. I know I’d talked to him before about my problems in getting help from my parents and doctor. Anyhow, my first appointment with a psychiatrist came soon after that. I’d hoped he could help me, but he said it was too late and I needed to be in a hospital.
A Cruel Hoax
The very next day I was admitted to the psychiatric floor at a big general hospital in a city near where I lived. I was the only one there under eighteen at the time. I’d talk with their psychiatrist in the mornings and took the Thorazine they prescribed, which kept me on the verge of falling asleep. The nurses handed out the medication but had little else to do with me. They did have one male nurse in the evenings who played board games and talked with us patients. Once or twice he spent time with me, but after that was too busy. I didn’t even have a television or radio in my room. Most of the day, I’d walk the halls, stare out the windows, or just sleep.
After several months, I wasn’t getting much better, and I couldn’t stand being locked up much longer. The psychiatrist then let me go live with my aunt and uncle and come back to see him once a week. A few weeks on, though, he told me I had to go to the state hospital, and he was going to call the police if I refused. The very next day my mother took me up there, left me, and didn’t come back for about three months. She never came to see me at the other hospital, either. I couldn’t have been more upset by the whole thing!
The state hospital was very old, the largest part built almost a century prior, and not in good condition. It was January when I came in, and the bedrooms had little heat and smelled awful. They had just a bare concrete floor, bare walls, a single window with bars over it, and old-fashioned metal-frame beds. I had to have permission to use the bathroom, half the toilets were clogged up, and the doors on the stalls were missing.
Most of the day, I had to sit on a hard wooden chair in a large room with maybe twenty or more others. The chairs were lined up beneath windows on three sides of the room. It had more heat than the bedrooms, but it was cold next to the windows. On the fourth side, brown tiles went halfway up the wall and the rest was plastered over and painted brown. There were no pictures or decorations, only a small AM radio on a high shelf. It blared rock, country music, and religion, always with a lot of static, sometimes all day. Whatever it was to anyone else, it was noise to me.
The residents were all men and no women, and none were even close to my age. The state hospital did have a children’s program for residents up through age sixteen. The children’s program had its own school, activities, and group meetings. I would have liked to be there a lot more than sitting in a room with men who mumbled, stared into space, rocked, gestured, and made funny noises. However, they said there wasn’t enough time to work with me before I turned seventeen.
The staff who oversaw us from day to day handed out medications, lined us up to go to the dining room, and decided who could go to the bathroom. Otherwise, they didn’t have much to do with us. Say something to them, and you might not like what you got back. I once mentioned to one that I wanted to go to college. “Who, you? You go to college?” he replied sarcastically. A couple of times I heard them say behind my back, “He’s no good, ain’t he?” But there was hardly ever a compliment, and if you really went against the rules, they could be brutal — as I later found out. Without hesitation, I’d give the staff/patient relationships of the staff at the two hospitals I was at failing grades!
The food ranged from unappetizing to plain unhealthy. There was too much pulp in the orange juice for me, and a lot of time the fruit looked just plain rotten. For dinner they might have a fatty piece of meat in a gooey sauce. Maybe there’d be a part I could eat, but the rest had too much fat for me to chew. By the time I went home, I’d lost considerable weight and had big holes in my gums. My dentist told me I had a vitamin C deficiency, and I would lose my teeth if it wasn’t treated. I also was buying a lot of candy and ice cream at their canteen with money my mother sent, which led to no end of cavities. A lot of times, it was eat that or go hungry.
Coming from a middle-class home, most everything about the state hospital was a total shock to me! Before long, I was hearing the “voices” of people who weren’t there. I may have heard them before, but not nearly as much as now. They’d say things like, “Your whole family hates you,” “You’re so ugly, nobody wants you. Why don’t you just kill yourself?” And I have no doubt I would have done so if I’d found a way!
Some Things I Will Never Forgive or Forget
Soon after I came in, the state hospital psychiatrist put me on a heavy dose of Thorazine. Like at the other hospital, it kept me on the edge of drifting off to sleep. What else Thorazine did for me, I’ll never know. Later, they had me on a smaller dose of another tranquilizer that didn’t make me as sleepy, and I felt it worked better.
It wasn’t long before I also was getting forced shock treatments. I had to lie down on a stretcher, and then the doctor would wrap a tourniquet around my arm and have me make a fist. Then he injected me with something and released the tourniquet. In seconds, I couldn’t breathe. It was so terrifying and painful it goes beyond words to describe! I had shock treatments four days a week for two to three months, all of them from the same doctor given in the same way. All were bilateral (i.e. the electrodes were placed on both sides of my head), which is thought to cause the most damage to the brain.
Later, I found out the doctor must have injected me with a muscle relaxant (e.g., succinylcholine chloride, known as Quelicin or Anectine) without putting me to sleep first. A muscle relaxant is used to paralyze muscles, including those that pump the lungs. Putting a strong electrical current through someone’s head causes a convulsion of the entire body, and without the muscle relaxant could break bones.
I was so scared after what happened that I pleaded with my mother and my family to get me out of the state hospital. But none of them would listen! After I was home for good, it was the same story. It seems once someone knows that you’ve been there, they won’t believe a word you say!
Long after I’d given up trying to convince anyone about the abuses of the state hospital and shock treatment, I ran across Dr. Peter Breggin’s book, Electro-Shock: Its Brain-Disabling Effect (1979). “A particularly terrifying ECT technique,” he wrote on p.167, “is the administration of modified ECT without prior sedation to render the patient unconscious…”
A Kick in the Head for a Lifetime
When my shock treatments were done, my stomach didn’t hurt as much, and I wasn’t as slow in my movement or speech. Nothing probably had been physically wrong with me, and my stomach problems were likely due to a high level of anxiety and depression. But now, I had other very serious and long-lasting problems that wouldn’t go away very easily.
Every single day of the time I had left at the state hospital, the terror from my shock treatments haunted me, and for a long time after I was back home. While most of the sting is gone, even now — almost sixty years on — I can’t get through a single day without thinking about shock treatment and the state hospital. Years after I’ve rebuilt my life, I regularly have dreams or nightmares about being lost in a strange place and someone making me feel like dirt.
What’s more, after I got out of the state hospital, I still often had to struggle to find the words to say simple things. What came out wasn’t always what I wanted, but something that rhymed or was similar in some way. Likewise, I had a hard time finding words when I was working on school papers, and a lot of trouble with spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
With some effort I’d been an “A” and “B” student at my high school before I was placed in the state hospital, but after I eventually returned I had to struggle to get “Bs” and “Cs.” A big chunk of my past learning was lost, and it was much harder to learn new things. I was always tired from having to stay up late studying. And my head was so full of bad memories of the state hospital, too many times I lost track of what was going on around me, especially right after I came home.
Imagine how hard it is to come to grips with what you’ve lost after a stroke or other serious brain injury. That’s how it was for me. Plus, I’d been severely abused, and my perpetrators had gotten away with it! Not even my family was willing to believe me and try to do something about it. People I’d known would ask where I’d been. But it seemed soon after I told them, whatever friends I’d had would be gone.
Even if it is too late for me, now things are looking up! In 2018 a bill was introduced in the New Jersey Senate to ban electroshock in persons under eighteen. NJ S2672(1)(f) states: “Medical researchers have raised significant concerns about the potential adverse effects of ECT [electroconvulsive treatment] when administered to children and adolescents, whose brains are still developing … These concerns have resulted in California, Colorado, Tennessee, and Texas banning the use of ECT on children and adolescents…” Also, Oregon bans electroshock on anyone in their state mental health facilities (under ORS 426.072 (2)(c)).
The Rocky Road Back Home
The state hospital didn’t have much to offer me except medication and shock treatment. After I came in, I was in Occupational and Recreational therapy for a few hours a week, but I stopped when about three months into my stay I was moved out to an old house on the grounds. A short time before, I had started seeing a social worker and going to Psychodrama. This, again, was only for a few hours a week. I now also had a grounds card. I could walk the hospital grounds and the main floor of the hospital and buy stuff at the canteen.
More than anything, I wanted out! I thought my big break came when I was able to leave the hospital grounds for a few hours and take a class at the local high school. If I could do that — or so I thought — I’d prove I was ready to go home.
Despite problems with recalling what I read and writing papers, I got a “B” in the class. But then, the state hospital wouldn’t release me. I was so mad that I refused to make my bed or do clean-ups. The staff at the old house lost patience. They beat me, put wood splinters under my fingernails, and sent me to a ward for low-functioning patients!
My mother died not long after that, compounding my misery. I felt all hope had been lost when one day my aunt came to see me. She’d arranged for me to spend several days a week at home to meet with a tutor from my high school and to do homework. It all went well, but again the state hospital wouldn’t permanently release me. Now I was desperate. I contacted the psychiatrist I’d seen before being hospitalized and explained the situation, and he was good enough to arrange for my release.
I was able to graduate high school a half-year late by going to summer school and then went on to university. But it still took extra hours of study to learn the material, and I had to drop out of my first-choice program and take easier courses. My memory and academic skills slowly improved, but my speech problems didn’t go away. I practiced by reading aloud into a tape recorder, but had to make over 1,000 cassettes and redo them any number of times before I could pronounce things properly again. I also had to have years of psychotherapy. In the end, I obtained two degrees in psychology and worked for over thirty years in the mental health professions.
Why did it take so long for me to get help in the first place? Why couldn’t I have gotten out of the state hospital sooner? Why did the doctor at the state hospital do what he did to me? Why wouldn’t the state hospital give me more help? Over the years, these questions and others swirled in my mind. The people involved are long gone, and now I can only guess.
At the time it happened, most of the “seriously mentally ill” (including me) were labelled “schizophrenic” and thought to be largely “incurable.” A dark stigma hung over them, similar to how persons with HIV/AIDS were viewed by the public not too long ago and may still be today. It could reach the extreme of “Why bother? Why waste good money on them?” If times were tough or the family member were too much trouble, the state hospital would take them and hold them. No one gave a thought to the long history of abuse at the state hospitals, who they hired, or what went on there. True, the then-new tranquilizers, with or without shock treatments, offered hope (at least to the psychiatric profession). But the old myths of schizophrenia died hard, especially among those who believed most strongly in genetics.
Back then, few asked if all “schizophrenics” were incurable. What about if some weren’t schizophrenic after all? Was there another diagnosis that fit them better or were they perhaps not sick in the first place? Isn’t there anything that works better than somatic treatment and months or years doing almost nothing at the state hospital?
Fortunately, today much of the old thinking has faded away, and we know that much more can be done! Many states have sharply curtailed state hospital admissions, and some have placed limits on electroshock. Not only have the mental health professions moved ahead, the voices of electroshock and state hospital victims are being heard in state legislatures and the courts. For instance, not too long ago a group of patients injured by ECT brought a lawsuit against a manufacturer of electroshock devices. Evidence was presented that the manufacturer had failed to warn treating physicians of the risks of brain damage from the devices. A settlement was reached in favor of the plaintiffs.
To learn more about electroshock and become an advocate for change, I strongly recommend the ECT Justice website. No one should ever again have to endure what I did.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.