22 years old.
He comes into the room. I hear him, but I can’t move. I can’t wake up. I sense his presence with my whole body. He speaks to me, but my mouth cannot formulate an answer. My brain is there, but it has no connection to its body. He pulls my cover. I can hear him. He hands me a thermometer, telling me to check my own temperature. My arms and hands flail a bit, with no direction it seems. I am hardly able to move.
He gets impatient with me. My brain is trying to choose what to do. It gives orders to the body. But it doesn’t help. We are helpless in there, with no way of communicating what goes on for us.
I hear his voice. He begs me, he orders me, he scolds me, he threatens me, he coaxes me. It. Doesn’t. Help. Because we can’t do anything. We can’t move.
Finally, he pulls the whole cover off me. He pulls my hospital nightgown up, pulls down my underwear, turns me around and inserts the thermometer into my butt. All I can do is lie there, while he measures the time and then pulls the thermometer out again.
Then he leaves.
He comes back half an hour later and drags me out of bed. I can by then cooperate a bit and put some clothes on. Luckily it is summer, I don’t need that many clothes. He stands there, looking at me while I struggle with clothing myself. What do I read in his face? Pity. Disgust. Impatience. Superiority. A tinge of compassion?
He takes me by my arm and leads me out into the hallway. I am ordered to sit down on a chair. I more or less fall down into it. I know the procedure; one more man is needed. I am not allowed to walk outside with less than two guards. Most of the people working here are male. So, we leave the ward, I in the middle, two big guys on either side of me; one younger, one a bit older. If it hadn’t been for the situation I was in, I would have enjoyed this gorgeous beginning of a day. The sun is shining. We are walking through a park, there are trees, flowers, bird song, and the shimmering light you only see in mornings. I pick this up despite being so drugged I can hardly remain on my feet but keep on losing my balance and the tonus in my muscles. I am like a rag doll, or a mollusk. The two men on each side of me give me a frame — I focus on walking in between them without bumping into them. I do not succeed, and they reach out and grab me to steady me.
We are not walking very far; a couple of hundred meters between two buildings. We take the elevator. We get off and are directed into a vacant treatment room. A small room with a bed and some machinery. I am ordered to lay down. Now I am going to be put to sleep again. First I am ordered to open my mouth, and I have a rubber plate put into it. Then I am given the shot, and there I go again. Out. Gone.
I wake up about 15 minutes later, I do not know that then, but I can figure it out once I am awake enough to notice the time on the clock. I am told to get up, and then we are off again, back to the ward.
It is called ECT, short for Electro-Convulsive Therapy. I do not voluntarily go to these treatments. But I am sectioned, so I cannot make my own decisions on what treatment I am to receive. In total I get 12 ECT treatments. The doctor who has ordered them thinks I am improving by them because I self-harm less. The truth is I am self-harming less because I have realized they are going to keep me here forever if I do not manage to keep myself from self-harming.
The doctor thinks the ECT treatments and the massive amount of medication I am on is what is helping me — that, and the military-like life on the ward. You need to do as you are told. If you don’t, there are immediate consequences.
On this ward for especially care-demanding patients, there is me, along with an extremely obese and aggressive woman in her thirties (I am told she is schizophrenic) and a young man with epilepsy from too many unsuccessful suicides (he kills himself shortly after I leave). The rest of the “patients” are an assorted bunch of convicted criminals who are deemed to be too mentally unstable to be in jail; most of them violent, most of them convicted for violent crimes, all of them males. I stay in this ward as an inpatient for nine months. And for an additional four months, I need to go and spend one night a week there, so they can monitor my “progress.” And then I need to go for shots for an additional six months, every second week. If I don’t, I will be hospitalized again. The shot I get is called Cisordinol Depot (Zuclopenthixol Decanoate) — a heavy neuroleptic that has severe side effects.
In the years before I am put on Cisordinol Depot injections I have been given so many different neuroleptics (Hibernal, Haldol, Mallorol) and other medications (also antidepressants), enough to sedate a bull, but none of them seem to “cure” me, or even help me. I end up losing my natural gait and walk and move like a person with Parkinson’s. My blood is affected. I get funguses. A severe feeling of internal itch, like pins and needles moving around in my legs. A dry mouth and vision disturbances. And of course, a very foggy and detached mind (but my anxieties are unaffected). My hormones go haywire, and I am put on Gestapuran. My heart also gets affected and I get arrhythmias. I need to take medication for the side effects (Akineton, potassium). I am also prescribed calming medication (Theralene, Sobril etc) and sleep medication (Propavan, Imovane), heavy dosages of both.
I barely exist. Yet — all the time I do fight the “treatment” I receive, which only ends up prolonging it. In a couple of weak moments, I fall back into self-harm and starvation that make the head psychiatrist have me return full time to the ward, but they do keep on letting me go. After almost 1½ years I am let out of the grip of these doctors. In total, including inpatient and outpatient care I spend almost 10 years being a patient in psychiatry, adding a lot of trauma to an already overfull bag of trauma.
I guess their decision to give me ECT came from how “treatment resistant” I was. I can’t even begin to explain how triggering and re-traumatizing those “treatments” were. I was lucky they did not rob me of my memory or give me other side effects. They did not improve anything for me either. I think my levels of anxiety were so high that when I felt threatened, I made myself stay hypervigilant. Part of my childhood trauma involved getting drugged and sexually molested — I was probably not very willing to be sedated and fought all effects of medication, but ECT and the anesthetization I could not fight, which made those situations terrifying.
I leave the psychiatric hospital much worse off than I entered it. The day I am released from being sectioned, I cold-turkey quit all medication. They warn me that I will be back in the hospital in no time — severely sick, they tell me. I have never taken any psychiatric medication after that day, and if I did go through any withdrawal symptoms, I was too excited about my freedom to notice. What I felt did happen was that my body step by step went back to functioning (I started to walk properly again, my vision got better, I could read again, I could find words, my muscles relaxed a bit, etc) and — my mind cleared! I had not gotten “rid” of any of the symptoms I once came to ask for help with, and I was not any wiser about what was “wrong” with me, but I functioned again, on some level.
Through those years I had gotten all kinds of diagnoses. But I felt that none of them really fit. I went to the university library and read through the whole section of psychology and psychiatry. All I could conclude was that I was not in those books. I still made no sense to myself. And it did not look like I was going to make sense to anyone else either. I seemed to be an anomaly. I did have a lot of issues, but I could think, I wasn’t delusional. How could one be so non-functional from fear and anxiety and yet so functional at the same time?
I lived with severe flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, dissociation, and switching, not having those names for what I experienced or any knowledge about what they were, or even that they existed as trauma consequences and coping strategies. Somehow I did not connect that how I experienced the world, with all my fears, was coming from my trauma. I simply thought I was weak, not fit to live. I felt deeply ashamed of my inadequacies and inability to pull myself together and just get on with life.
I did tell my therapist that I had been neglected growing up and sexually abused as a child and teenager, but he never helped me connect that neglect and abuse with my distress or my struggles with fear, distrust, social difficulties and so on. He called me an enigma and told me I was an odd and strange patient (I was his client for 11 years). Though he did believe me on the sexual abuse, he made it clear that one abuser he could hear about, the rest would be my fantasies. He also worked hard on me acknowledging my own desire to have a sexual relationship with him. My adult me felt zero attraction to him; some smaller parts of me saw him as a father figure and then would of course want his love. I do not think he could make those distinctions; dissociation wasn’t a “thing” back then. He did put in my records that he at some points suspected a multiple personality disorder, but he never brought it up with me, and there are no further mentions of it in his records on me. I was diagnosed with MPD in the summer of 1997 by a psychiatrist who first told me I was psychotic, then changed his mind.
By then I did not have it in me to listen to them anymore, to trust them and stay in the mental health care system and try anything more. Especially since the first thing they wanted to do after diagnosing me with this new disorder was to put me on medication again. I simply refused to go down that path again. I know that was the right choice for me — medication made my dissociation much worse. And to me that makes sense. If fading away and hiding from myself (and everything else) is my defense, then medication that makes me fade away and hide even more would be contraindicated. I did dissociate a lot and I also often became very anxious, but I’d rather live with that than be the walking dead. By now, I have learned many grounding strategies to help me stay present, but also to help me to not go into a tailspin of anxiousness.
When I left the mental health care system in 1997, I was still a mystery to myself. And I had very little faith in anyone ever being able to help me. Therefore, I put everything I had been through, the abuse and neglect growing up, the social welfare systems (foster care), the mental health care systems, all of it, into a black box. I locked the box and threw away the key. It wasn’t until my stepfather’s death in 2012 that I even acknowledged the existence of that black box, and when I did, I knew I both needed and wanted to reopen it. And I did. I also found out there was still very little sensible and sustainable support available to help me understand myself. At least in my country.
Despite that, I have been finding what I need, on my own. I have slowly rebuilt my life from the ground up. I had to find solid stepping-stones IN me to build the foundation OF me. I have had to find what I needed on my own, but I did also accept help from others. I could not, cannot rebuild myself on my own. It takes a village to look away and let neglect and child sexual abuse and exploitation happen. It also takes a village to help someone enter society as a more whole person again. I don’t think anyone can mend themselves in isolation.
So here I am, keeping on keeping on and building on myself and my life. I am doing good today. And I feel proud of how far I have come. At times I dream about meeting those doctors, and telling them how wrong they were when they told me I would always be a very sick person, needing medication my whole life. That I would probably never be able to hold down a job, study, have a family or even live on my own. But I’m also glad I am not meeting them; they destroyed a lot for me. Made it much harder for me to find myself than it ever should have been. Do psychiatrists not also need to swear by the medical oath of “firstly, do no harm”? I can’t help but get angry at the arrogance I was treated with. How could they be so sure they knew what they were doing? How could they not for one moment stop and consider that they were harming me?
I can only hope they acted in good faith and intended to help me. But the arrogance… when we know so little about how the human brain functions. And when it is so easy to see how someone who has suffered trauma and neglect without getting any support will be fearful and anxious; how they will seemingly overreact to situations that trigger trauma, and do all they can to not have to relive their traumas 24/7, therefore also developing a lot of coping strategies to manage what they live with. I know this was taking place during the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s — the time of my psychiatric “journey” — but I am not sure much has changed since then? I had a couple of brief encounters with psychiatry a few years ago, trying to find some trauma treatment, and what I found seemed very similar to what I had experienced before. And the first suggestion I got was to go on medication… and when I google the medications I got back then, many of them seem to still be in use today.
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.