Shock Treatment (ECT) in 2004

(Edited in 3/2012 . Note that all names have been changed back to their originals except for names of the people involved. Although in Divided Minds, we were forced by the publishers to disguise everyone, including the hospitals, here descriptions of people once  changed to “protect them” have been undisguised. I write nothing but the truth as I remember it — I wrote a fair amount in my journals at the time and I referred back to my notes there in writing this — and I intend no libel in any event. In fact, I want to be as fair as possible and to bend over backwards in giving as much credit where it is due as possible.

Note, because many may have read this before, I want to

I hope this will be a chapter in BLACKLIGHT, my second memoir and a possible sequel as it were to DIVIDED MINDS.

The Ogre Has ECT: 2004

I am delivered like a piece of mail to the Hospital of St Raphael’s, on a stretcher, bound up in brown wool blankets like a padded envelope. It’s the only way the ambulance will transfer me between Norwalk Hospital and this one. The attendants disgorge me into a single room where de-cocooned, I climb down and sit on the bed. All my bags have been left at the nurses’ station for searching; this is standard procedure but I hope they don’t confiscate too much. An aide follows me in to take my BP and pulse, and bustles out, telling me someone will be back shortly. I sit quietly for a half an hour, listening to the constant complaint of the voices, which never leave me, sometimes entertaining me, most of the time ranting and carping and demanding. A thin, 30-something woman with curly blonde hair, residual acne scars that give her a kind of “I’ve suffered too” look of understanding, and rimless glasses knocks on the door-frame..

“May I come in?” she asks politely.

“I can’t stop you.” My usual. Don’t want to seem too obliging or cooperative at first.

“Well, I do need to take a history, but I can come back when you’re feeling more disposed…”

“Nah, might as well get it over with.” Then, nicer, I explain, “I was just being ornery on principle.”

“What principle is that?”

“If you’re ornery they won’t see you sweat.”

“Aah…”

“And they won’t expect you to be medication-compliant right off the bat.” I shrug my shoulders but grin, I want to think, devilishly.

“I see you have a sense of humor.”

“You should see me…”

“I’m sure we all will. A sense of humor is very healthy. But it worries me that you already plan not to take your meds.”

“I’ll only refuse the antipsychotic. Look at the blimp it’s turned me into.” I haul my extra-large tee-shirt away from my chest to demonstrate. Fatso, Lardass! Someone snipes. She doesn’t know it but you really believe you’re thin. Ha ha, you’re a house! Look at yourself! LOOK at yourself! Ha ha ha ha! The voices are telling the truth: I know the number of pounds I weigh is high, outrageously high for me, having been thin all my life, but I haven’t lost my self-image as a skinny shrimp, so I can’t get used to being what others see. The voices love to remind me how fat I really am. Only the mirror, or better, a photograph, reminds me of the honest to god truth, and I avoid those. I avert my eyes, or search the concrete for fossils, when approaching a glass door. Anything not to be shocked by what I’ve become. Pig! Glutton! It seems they don’t want to stop tonight…

I realize suddenly that I’ve lost track of the conversation.

“I don’t think they’ll allow you to do that for long.”

“Do what?”

“Don’t you remember what we were talking about? Were your voices distracting you?”

“Just thoughts, you know, plus some added insults.”

“You’ll have to take all your meds eventually.”

“Then they’ll have to switch me to a different pill, even if it’s less effective.”

She sucks the top of her pen and looked down at her clipboard. “So,” she starts the formal intake. “What brings you here to St Raphael’s?”

The voices break in there, again, confusing me. When I can get my bearings I tell her what made me transfer from Norwalk Hospital and why I opted for shock treatments. She takes a closer look at the mark of Cain I’ve burned into my forehead, writes something, then corrects me.

“We like to refer to them as ECT here. ‘Shock treatments’ brings to mind  the terrible procedures of the past. These days you feel nothing, you just go to sleep and wake up gently. I know. I assist at the ECT clinic.

“Oh, I know, I know. I’ve had ECT before. I know what it’s like and it’s a snap. I asked for this transfer because I hope it will help again.”

We talk some more about why I’m here and what I’ve been through and the voices keep to a minimum so there’s not too much interference. She says she’s going to be my primary nurse and that she thinks we’ll work well together. I nod, thinking she’s pretty okay, for a nurse.

I’ve arrived after lunch, which is served at 11:30am so someone brings me a tray and I pick at it in my room. People come in and out of my room but only speak to me a second or two before they leave, a doctor does a cursory physical, someone takes me down the hall to weigh and measure me. I return to my room, too scared to do otherwise, constrained by the Rules of the voices. The first break in the afternoon is medications in the late afternoon, when someone tells me to line up in front of a little window near the nurse’s station. When it’s my turn, I look at the pills in my cup. Ugh, 20mg of Zyprexa, an increase, plus a host of other pills I can’t remember the names of. I hand the pill back to the med nurse. I’m not taking this, it makes me fat, I say. Give me Geodon. at least I don’t put on weight with Geodon.

“Sorry, Dr Corner has ordered this one. We can’t just go around changing doctor’s orders. You either take it or you refuse.”

I was in a quandary. I hadn’t even met the doctor and already I was fighting with her? Should I take it and argue with her later? But then I’ll eat my whole dinner tray and more. Better to start off with my principles intact, so she knows what I’ll take and what I won’t take. I hand the pill back. ”Sorry, I won’t take it.”

“If you decompensate further we will have to give you a shot, you know that, don’t you?”

“I’ll be fine.” I do a little dance step.

“Yeah, and look what you’ve done to your face. Come closer.”

Wondering what she wants, I lean in gingerly, fearing her touch, but she only takes a tongue depressor and smears some ointment on the big oozing sore.

“You’re done.Go eat some supper.”

At 4:30? That’s pretty early. I can’t cross the threshold of the dining room, the Rules the voices make forbid it. I cannot enter the milling crowd, suffering little electric shocks every time my body makes contact with another’s. Instead I retreat to my room. Sitting on the edge of my bed again, I wonder what to do. How can I get supper, or any meal, if the voices won’t let me go into the dining room?

Just then, the thin blonde nurse with the glasses, what’s her name, leans into my room. “Aren’t you hungry? There’s a tray for you waiting outside the dining room.”

“They made a rule I can’t eat with other people, and I can’t get in the dining room…So I can’t eat.” I read her name tag. “Prisca.”

She smiles and glances down at the tag on her chest.  ”Oh, just call me Prissy, everyone else does. I hate it, but what can you do? What are you talking about? There’s no such rule. For now, I guess I’ll let you eat in your room, but that  is against the rules and we’ll have to get you into the dining room eventually, whatever the voices tell you.

She brings in the tray: white bread with two slices of bologna and a slice of cheese tossed on top, a packet of mayonnaise, a small green salad in a separate bowl, with a plastic slip of French dressing, and a packaged Hostess brownie for dessert. I didn’t eat lunch, though they brought it in, so even this impoverished repast looks good to me and I eat everything, despite not having taking the hated Zyprexa. I curse myself for it, of course, and do some  leg lifts and crunches for exercise afterwards. Ever since I’ve been refusing the drug, I have lost weight. Now I am down to 155 lbs from 170 the last time I weighed myself and I intend to get much thinner, since I started at 95 before medications over the years slowly put weight on me.

After supper the voices start in again, louder and louder, telling me how fat I am, how disgusting and terrible I am. I notice the clock hanging on the wall, which ticks audibly punctuating each sentence. The voices were carping, now they are threatening, and demanding…Finally, their all too familiar sequence segues into telling me I’m the most evil thing, and they don’t say person, on the planet. I’m the Ogre that ate Manhattan, I’m Satan, I’m a mass murderer, I killed Kennedy and deserve to die, die, die!

I’m wearing a heavy pair of clogs with wooden soles and almost before I can think about it, I know what to do. I heave one up at the clock, hitting it dead center. It crashes to the floor. Scrambling to grab a shard of the clear plastic cover before the staff comes running in, I lunge towards where I saw the largest piece fall, one with a long jagged point. I have my hand closed around it when someone tackles me from behind. He’s not very big and I can feel him struggling to keep me pinned. I almost succeed in stabbing myself, but he manages to engulf my hand with his two and press them closed against the flat sides of the shard.

Other people  crowd into the room now and they pry the shard from me and grab my arms and legs so I’m completely immobilized. Then at a word murmured by one of the male aides who have materialized out of nowhere, they swing me up onto the bed, like pitching a sand bag onto a levee. I scream but they ignore me and strap my ankles and wrists into leather cuffs which have been rapidly attached to the bed frame: four point restraints.

I continue to scream and scream, but nobody pays attention. A nurse comes at me with a needle,  saying it is Haldol and Ativan and proceeds to inject me. Although I am still crying that I want to die, that I’m Satan, the Ogre that ate Manhattan, that I killed Kennedy, I’m the evil one, the room then empties, except for a heavy-set café-au-lait sitter, who hollers louder than I do that her name is Caledonia. She pulls up a chair in the doorway, pulls out a cosmetics bag and proceeds to do her nails in spite of me.

I am told by Prissy that I scream most of the evening and keep the whole unit awake until given a sleeping pill and another shot. All I remember is restless twilight sleep coming at last, broken when a short sandy-haired woman, dressed in a sweater set and skirt, comes in and takes my pulse. I’m groggy with medication but she speaks to me nonetheless.

“I’m , Dr Corner, your doctor. You’ve had a bad night I see. Well, perhaps tomorrow we’ll get a chance to talk.”

“Get me out of these things!” I mumble angrily. I can’t sleep like this!”

“”Not yet. You’re not ready. But try your best to sleep now. We’ll re-evaluate things in the morning.”

Then she turns and is gone.

As I get to know her, I will like Dr Corner for her kindness, toughness and honesty, but I will hate her too for opposite reasons and it will be a long time before I  know whether the liking or the hating or something else entirely wins out.

The first thing that makes me know ECT is going to be different at St Raphael’s than the to the ECT suite in wheelchairs, the way I’ve known since childhood all hospital patients must travel. We walk there, all of us, down interminable corridors, around several corners, through doors to more of the same. In short by the time we get there I have no idea where we are.  I said it was a snap when I had it before, but now I feel like a prisoner going to the hangman, a “dead man walking.” Something about our going there in a group, under our own steam, makes it feel like punishment, like having to cut your own switch, not a medical procedure at all. This sets my nerves on edge. Then, when we finally get to the rooms clearly marked “ECT Suite,” instead of the doctor being ready for us so there’s no time to anticipate or fear what is ahead, we have to wait and wait and wait: we’re told the outpatients have to be “finished up” first. My apprehension grows. I’m used to getting to the ECT rooms and immediately climbing up on the table and getting it over with. Waiting and having time to think about it brings me close to tears.

Finally four in-patients are to be taken. I think the nurse calling us in senses I am too anxious to wait any longer, for she makes sure I’m with the first group. I clamber up on the table, and see Dr Corner looking down at me, smiling. I notice how white her teeth are and the little gap in her shirt across her chest as she bends over me, strapping something over my forehead as Prissy puts a needle into the heplock already in my arm. I feel my arms and legs quickly cuffed down by others in the team, a mask clamps down over my face and I’m told to breathe, breathe in deeply and I breathe and breathe and a chasm in hell opens and the demons reach out and scream as I plummet past into a terrible inky blackness…

I wake up a second later and immediately vomit into a kidney basin hastily held out by a nurse. “Why didn’t you do it?” I cry out, confused. “Why didn’t you do it, why did you made me wait? I can’t go through this again!”

Strangely, Dr Corner has disappeared, and so have Prissy and the nurses that had surrounded me just an instant before. Instead a plump, baby-faced older nurse smiles as she takes away the kidney basin and says, kindly, “You’ve been sleeping  soundly for an hour. They did the treatment already and you’re waking up. How about trying to sit up now?” Slowly, I push myself to a sitting position and swing my legs over the edge of the table. No dizziness, no more nausea. I feel okay, except for a slight headache. So I slide off the table and ask where to go. Surely they won’t make me stay a long while this time. The nurse leads me to a wheelchair and asks an aide to take me back to the unit. Ah, a chair at last. At least I’m not expected to walk on my own after that ordeal.

ECT Takes place on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week and though I vomit many times upon waking up, that is the least of it. What I dread most is the anesthesia, how I plunge from perfect alertness into the dark pit and feel like I wake a second later, sick and confused. I grow more and more afraid until, at the end of a series of 8 sessions, I refuse to go on to a second, even though my symptoms are still severe and Caledonia comes to sit with me one to one more often than not. Dr Corner tries to persuade me, but I am adamant, No more ECT. Then she threatens to have the next series court-ordered  and to add insult to injury, she says she will force me to take Zyprexa as well, the drug I so hate. I explode.

“What! You f—ing can’t do that! I’m a free citizen, I’m not a danger to myself or anyone else.”

“In fact, I can do it, and I am going to do it, whether you like it or not. You need more ECT and unfortunately you refuse the only drug that is effective for you. Pam, look, how can you say you’re not a danger to yourself? Look at your forehead! That’s not the mark of  I  it’s just self-mutilation. Look at where you carved that mark into your hand when we weren’t watching you carefully enough. Isn’t that danger enough?”

“But I’m NOT going to kill myself. I don’t want to die. I just want to be disfigured so no one will want to be around me and they’ll stay safe and uncontaminated.”

Dr Corner’s eyes suddenly glitter and she has to blink a couple of times. “Well, I’m not going to let you continue to do what you want. Period.”

She was standing at the foot of my bed, one foot on a lower rung, casually holding a clipboard. But she moves closer to me, standing to one side, the clipboard clasped business-like across her chest. Gazing intently at me, she shakes her head in what appears to be sadness.  I’m not sad, I know what I have to do. I don’t understand why she feels this is so terrible, but I know enough to remain quiet. Finally, she turns and quietly slips out of the room.

This alarms me; it shocks me. I know she means what she says. Dr Corner never lies. Worst of all, Dr O’Hayley, my outpatient psychiatrist, has signed off on it well, agreeing  it is the only thing left to do, that already I’ve been in the hospital two months and little has changed, that the situation is desperate. The problem is that to get a court order I have to have a conservator who will agree to it. They appoint my twin sister and they discuss with her whether or not she’ll agree to forcing more ECT on me, in addition to Zyprexa. Despite fearing that I’ll hate her, she too is convinced there are no other options.

So Dr Corner wins and I endure eight more ECT sessions. Finally I’m discharged, much improved, so everyone says, a month later, promising, as a condition of my release, that I’ll continue to take Zyprexa. I do promise, even though my history clearly suggests that I will not.  I’m also supposed to return once every two weeks for maintenance ECT treatments and Dr Corner threatens me with a police escort if I don’t comply. But this time I thumb my nose at her. So, she’s going to get both the Hartford and the New Haven police involved? She thinks they are going to bother to arrest me just to drive me down to the hospital for ECT, something they themselves probably consider barbaric? J’en doute fort. I doubt that big time! In fact, after a call to the Legal Rights Project, I learn that any conservatorship was dissolved the moment I was discharged from St Raphaels and that the doctor has no power over me at all now, zilch. So I write Dr Corner a nice apologetic letter, but sorry, doc, no more ECT for me. Ever.

Several months later I pour lighter fluid over my left leg and set it on fire. So much for the restorative powers of electroshock treatments.

2 thoughts on “Shock Treatment (ECT) in 2004”

  1. Pam. Your writing is exquisite. My son has schizophrenia, and also hates the side effects of the medication he takes. I know – and I think he’s beginning to know – that for now they are the best option for continuing to live the life he currently enjoys (including a job he loves, and a developing network of friends after years of loneliness), but it is a difficult trade-off. I hope that memoirs like yours will open eyes to your lived experience so that no one ever judges you, mind or body. I wish I could make those voices kinder to you. I hope that by writing about your life you can find more inner peace, while educating us all.
    best,
    Randye Kaye

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