An offering in support of the CRPD campaign, an excerpt of my (as yet) unpublished non-fiction book about my ECT and forced drug experience and my work to recover a mental balance.
Shock survivor and anti-psychiatry activist
They wheel me into the white, tiled room and shunt me onto a table. “Oops-a-daisy. Slide over now, there’s a good girl.” Globs of cool slime smudge onto my temples, my chest, and the electrodes are lodged in those spots. The needle pierces my vein and fuzz creeps into my mind.
‘Wait! I can’t breathe.’ I can’t move or speak. My lungs are paralyzed. I try to tell them, try to scream for help, but a mask with a hose attached blocks my mouth and nose, and I know no more. Except I feel that I am dying.
How long after? Hours? Days? I have no idea how I got here. “Hush now, Connie, don’t make a fuss.” Am I making a fuss?
Perhaps my name brings me back to this world. I know nothing else. They show me how to hold a spoon and eat. That man – Bob — keeps fidgeting around saying, “Hush,” and that he is my husband. That shrieking noise is my baby, they say, held up to me by a leering old woman. I know nothing; care less.
Something bad has happened. I no longer exist. A shell is left in my place.
* * *
That was my first shock treatment and it was in a general hospital with anaesthetic and so-called relaxing drugs, a kind of chemical curare that stops all automatic movement –like breathing, like heartbeats. This method today is called the improved gentle ECT form by Max Fink, teacher of ECT. (Fink, 1999)
Like any sane person, given the disastrous reaction, I refused the next session. True to protocol, that is the signal I am clearly insane and cannot be trusted on the streets of Hamilton. I am institutionalized “on the mountain”, the crazy house the Ontario government runs with our tax dollars, for 20 more ordered against my will and without anaesthetic, so I can feel the full horror of destroying my mind.
If they knew the truth, I reasoned, of the permanent brain damage that was done by this seemingly barbaric operation, it would be outlawed, banned. There must be some major accident, something broken in the machine, which caused this horrendous aftershock for me.
But no: they already knew. This burning my brain away, this slump in my ability to learn was exactly what was planned. No, mine was a typical case handled in the socially accepted manner. Troublesome, opinionated, loudmouth rule-breaking new mother must be brought into line, or buried where nobody can hear her complaint. Shock will fix her.
And what did they wipe out? My acting/writing career, musical training, 8 to 15 years of memory, any trace of self-confidence, my IQ, EQ, every Q. All depleted or burned away with every session.
Where can I go to learn to be whole? Shrinks? Hell, no. To whom can I appeal when my every comment is deemed crazy? Neat trick, these bio-psychiatrists and their ilk concocted. This treatise is not about me: I am fine, perfectly fine, just fine, really fine; fine with my alternatives to achieve adequate balance but nowhere near what I was put into this lifetime to achieve. Yes, I am fine, but what of the millions over the past (2016 – 1939 which equals) 77 years who succumbed to this torture? Shock is ordered by an elitist group of mostly men upon women who make up two-thirds of the targeted victims fed electroshock purported to be a cure for depression, for sadness, for frustration, for reaction to reality that is unfair (Burstow, 2014, pg 195).
And what behaviour did I exhibit that was “a danger to myself and/or others”, the criteria for locking away recalcitrant members of society exhibiting egregious harm? I had a baby, got flu, and failed to wrest control of my baby’s care from my obsessed mother-in-law where I was parked while hubby wrote his final exams in another city. Shock was what I deserved, they judged. My adult history showed no crazy markers to convince authorities I was in need of their ‘help’. Before their infringement I had many successes.
What I Lost to Electroshock
We set out in two cars towing a trailer of our dismantled farm porch theatre set on a crisp winter day to drive 150 miles past Montreal to Lennoxville where Bishop University hosted the Inter Varsity Drama League Festival. Long trip. It was Ryerson’s first entry in five years. Fellow actor Robin Brewer and I sampled the whiskey bottle to keep warm until Donald Sutherland, our English teacher and chaperone, poured the remainder out onto the snow at our second stop. No more booze.
For our technical rehearsal, we re-constructed the set, designed and built by Bill Underwood, the only one not studying Radio and Television Arts. He later made his theatrical career at Stratford. The set was praised for simplicity and atmosphere by our adjudicator, Montreal producer Rupert Caplan. In the brief time allotted, we ran lights and cue-to-cue lines while director Ken MacKay roamed the gods checking that our projection was clear.
It would be surprising if we did not do well as Ryerson attracted talented young people. And we cleaned up with Tennessee Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, his one-acter that the controversial Hollywood movie Baby Doll was based on. We took Best Production, Best Director, Best Actress and Honourable Mention for the lead actor.
At the awards dinner, when Rupert Caplan announced, “The winner is Connie Neil” he looked at me in surprise, did not recognize me off-stage, the mark of a talent for disguise. As I rose and walked forward, he added, “and accepting for Connie Neil is . . .” I had to tell him, “Connie Neil”. He fumbled, “Is it you?” I nodded. For the part of simple-minded Baby Doll I was padded to a plump roundness so that my ripped costume after the rape only revealed blood and bruises, and not my usual sleek shape. He said, “Although this is not a great play, it is an example of how a good performance can make a play great because the audience believes in it. Connie achieved a great degree of believability. She is a promising young actress.” Two universities choose that play; only ours won awards.
At the Banff School of Fine Arts that summer I took both acting and playwriting to help decide where I best fit. At the auditions for their mountain dialect play, they moved me up to advanced acting, the Shakespearian studies, and gave me the lead of Barbara Allen in the 3-act play Dark of the Moon. In this challenging role I was wooed by a witch-boy, raped in church, gave birth on-stage, mob-killed and left dead and sprawled on a rock for the witch-boy to play with. Brought the house down. People hung around backstage to weep and tell me how strongly I affected them with my performance.
I also got high marks in playwriting.
For my final Ryerson year I took the lesbian role in Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit”, the play of three disreputable characters in a waiting room for the afterlife that for them is hell. I received Honourable Mention for acting: No mean feat in competition with eleven universities.
Aside from these honours I performed in musical and comic revues, dance shows, piano recitals, singing, radio and TV acting and wrote a number of plays.
All this stopped with electroshock. In reviewing old papers I came upon letters of congratulations; there had been national newspaper coverage. One was signed “Sharon”, and from the content we had been close. She named people I recognized, but she is lost in the area of my brain burnt out by thoughtless shock docs. What does it matter to them that a few lists or personnel are missing? It matters not at all.
Oh sure, my interests were still present, but all I was capable of was chorus work, minimally. Once I was helping choreograph Toronto City Hall Revue dance numbers. In the grand finale the lead dancer was to lift me, spin around and roll me out for the big finish. Because I had demonstrated both male and female roles, in performance I lifted him, spun him around and rolled him out for the final TA-DA. Did not even realize I had done it until we were in the wings and he asked, “What was that all about?” All I could do was laugh, and never tempt that brain shock mistake again on stage. Performing, even as an amateur, was over. That little brain glitch meant I was unreliable on-stage.
One reason I did well performing was my prodigious memory: All the script changes were imprinted on my mind. If an actor was in the wrong place or gave the wrong line, I could cover because I remembered every nuance of the rehearsal period. All gone now. No more connections. And what enrages me today is that psychiatry knew this destruction is the result of ECT, always the result, and in their arrogance, their greed, their lusting for the easy way around difficult personalities, they hide the truth they know; brain damage is always the result.
What Little They Disclose
Today there are legislated informed consent discussions as in the 2002 Andy Behrman memoir Electroboy. I notice the bio-psychiatrist and not the shock doc gives the information to him and his parents, outlining the different methods and expected results. It is now admitted the chief problem is memory loss, a condition even my nice psychiatrist suggested was brought on in me by my “mental illness”. They like to blame the victim: it is how they are trained. The classifications are: 1) neurotransmitter theory shows ECT is like antidepressant drugs and affects serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine; 2) anticonvulsant theory claims ECT seizures condition the brain to become seizure-resistant; 3) neuroendocrine theory says these convulsions cause the hypothalamus to release mood stabilizers; and 4) brain damage theory admits that the damage created gives the illusion of mental stability.
Note that these are theories, not proven scientific facts that explain how ECT treats depression or mania. The fact that ECT results are unproven does not stop psychiatrists from charging ahead, delivering their shocks and, when they fail to ‘work’, adding more series of shocks until you no longer complain. You learn what torture comes from objecting.
THREE DECADES LATER
Close to the end of this retreat with meditation teacher Cecilie Kwiat at the Dharma Centre of Canada I was able to report that I could see what was hidden behind that all-encompassing blob of anger that dogged my steps for the past five years. Every word of those complaining 560 pages in my crumpled discarded memoir was filtered through the veil of my unrelieved anger; and I thought all along that anger, rage, fury was all that there was.
Since I had loosened up throughout this year, attending four retreats and finishing the story of what ECT had done to my very long life, I volunteered as copywriter to publicize teachers. Research for this chore interested me in attending Body, Speech & Mind with Albertan Cecilie Kwiat. She was a close student of Venerable Namgyal Rinpoche and had produced that text book from her (and other’s) notes of his teachings on a sea journey to Peru. And I had studied that text with both Buddhist nun Karma Chime Wongmo and the Rinpoche. I thought I knew the subject. I thought it would be easy.
But just as Cecilie taught, every moment brings a brand new “I” with a possible fresh outlook and opportunity for insight.
She arrived in time for the Namgyal Memorial weekend, a gathering that brought many old students to the centre to pay tribute to our lama who passed to the higher realms ten years past.
When I turned in my seat during the temple rituals I caught her brilliant smile, her hearty laugh, and I realized I had met her once before during a longer retreat that she attended with a few of her students. Seated side-by-side in the Tea House I had heard her answer a student’s questions with such clarity that I had to comment, “That was perfect,” and she smiled, “Thank you.”
This could be a stellar retreat. The morning after her first day of teaching as I lay between dreamland and waking I saw my brain, full of holes, covered in scabrous dead areas. This, I heard, was my leaky boat that would not carry me far on this river journey to enlightenment. Then, with tears wetting my face I heard my dead guru say, “You need mentoring!” Not even sure what that meant, I approached Cecilie after class and reported that little scene, expecting perhaps a name and phone number on a slip of paper. Instead, she made me cry. I tried to make my plea clear to her with dry eyes, but she poked me in the back, saying, “You’re frozen. Cry!”
She reached and captured my wrist and pulled me to her, seating me in her lap. Oh no! I must not sit in teacher’s lap! I would break her. Then what would the class do for a teacher? In my research I learned she had been run over by a gravel truck – twice – in a motorcycle accident in her youth, and was told she would never walk, never have a baby. But she fooled the doctors, and did both.
I was very awkward on her lap, trying to hold my weight off her while she questioned me about my history that I blubbered out to her, and she told me about her difficult childhood being called a Nazi because of her father. I blurted out, “Was he?” But that was not the point she was making. Some students were still in the temple. What a show we were putting on! They drifted away. Still on her lap like a toddler, she had me write in my notebook: “Here I am right now. As I am, may I be well and happy. May I be free from enmity.” It is the translation of White Tara’s mantra, my yidam, my guardian, and I had forgotten her Loving Kindness practice. That forgetting of crucial information was what was still, fifty years after shock, the plague accompanying ECT that thwarted my need for spiritual wholeness. I am ever unsure of what I know, what is missing.
I carried on with classes and exercises, but it took days to settle this stormy episode. I passed her a note for a private talk on vanishing emotions, a failing of mine because ECT was ordered for people who cause trouble, disturb others, have uncontrolled emotions; and so was my great fear. I over-react and, not only bury my emotions, I forget I have done so.
I explained to Cecilie that an unfeeling state makes everyday life easy, tempting, that nothing bothers me in that state, but because I do not notice the trigger, I cannot climb out. I am worried that outlawing my anger will kill all the emotions.
She talks about my heart, but I know my heart is closed. She tells me that is not true, that she does not work with people who have no heart: She can see my heart. Again she makes me write; “I aspire to be free from anger. I will un-armour my heart (and may armour it up again).
Her next class is on awareness of feelings and I take in what I can. There are fifty (some say 52) skulls worn by the deity as a necklace. These transformed mind states are now seen to be his adornment, his conquered wisdom. We must describe these mind states in our own language. We are often mistaken in what is our mind state, a result of conditioning. Change is all that is constant.
This has been a very cold and rainy retreat. The storm blew out our power for a day. Snow and mud makes walking a study in problem-solving – from one dry-ish clump leap to somewhere safe. We are to move from one form of meditation to another – sit, do body scans, review, walk slowly with one foot on solid ground, one foot over the abyss. Sheer boredom of looking at 25 of the negative, dismal mind states pushes me with my umbrella out of the temple to walk the centre, to sit under the shelter with the huge peace Buddha statue the Sayadaw, Rinpoche’s teacher, built here and all across the world. And here I caught a glimmering of another mind state.
I often wondered what I did in a past life to be born into this family. Cecilie phrased it differently: Whoever made me may have put me in this family, through attraction, to learn an important lesson. Could the lesson be Loving Kindness? To armour and de-armour my heart? Forgiveness? I already know anger.
I report that anger hides a great wall of refused and unresolved forgiveness. I see the wall, name it unforgiving, examine it and its many instances in my life. I even refused under hypnosis – not just once – to forgive especially my father. No. I won’t. Even I know these denials expand to big trouble in river city. With that early decision, unforgiving moves to other beings until it is global: I am intransigent. I judge. But now I think about who needs forgiveness (me, duh) and what qualities he (Dad) had and who this reminds me of (guess).
When Cecilie declares Congratulations! I stipulate I have not forgiven, only seen the awful wall of it. She repeats congratulations, that having seen it, the wall will dissolve bit-by-bit, one-by-one. She can see I can be kind and I agree I can be kind. I am kind. I wonder what is behind that dissolving wall.
To close the retreat we celebrate Cecilie’s 74th birthday on November 1st with two great cakes, balloons, gifts, and a healthy meal.
She took a compartment for her train trip back to Alberta, got in her car at the station drove off and hit black ice, a major accident. Many surgeries, many crises later, by Christmas, she was working her way into wheelchair rides and therapy to help her briefly stand. When my heart clutched at the photos in casts, amid hospital paraphernalia, what I take heart in is her still-brilliant smile.
If she can do that, so can I. Nothing can break Cecilie Kwiat. But just in case, I send her Loving Kindness.
In a noisy hostel in St Maarten, I cannot sleep for the rowdy drunken crowd outside my dark window, so I practice Metta. They leave and later I see in my dorm a white-robed figure approach my lower bunk. She offers something in her right hand. Is it a blessing? I see a square of light before my open eyes. On it I see a quick sequence of hieroglyphics. There’s a dark horse’s head, but other images change so quickly I can hardly register them. Then it is over and I ponder these screened messages.
On February 15, Cecilie Kwiat passed on into communion with the enlightened who have no need of their corporeal body. I miss her. And thank her for that parting visit.
An Understanding Forgiveness
Our school reunion lunch was set for the hottest July day, so I left my car in Oshawa and sailed into Toronto on the commuter GO train – early.
Walking up from Union Station I was so early that I found the one shaded park bench on King Street and parked myself at the end where a man of a certain age invited I might sit and join him. He wore tan slacks and a woven beige golf shirt with new trainers on his feet and a neat pewter-coloured close-clipped hairstyle. His teeth were perfect.
“Can you tell me where the . . . uh . . . the . . .” He scowled and concentrated on the elusive words, then triumphant, “the Eaton Centre is?”
I could and did. It was within walking distance, but he stayed seated. That was not what he wanted. We spent an hour piecing together what he needed to say.
He tried again, this time searching for the French word for psychiatrist. “I was . . . sis . . . sis”
And I supplied, “Psychiatrist?”
“Yes, but . . . neuro . . . sus . . . sus . . “
“No, neuro . . . neuro sus . . .”
Lordy, I was sharing a bench with the enemy. In my mind, this was the guy who made the pills, who screwed up my brain, who pushed me to ‘gentle’ shock treatment. Does the neuroscience model of brain-based consciousness really hold up? Here was the scientist behind psychiatry. And just look at what he had become: a wreck, my victim.
We painstakingly translated his story. Six years previous he had a stroke, could not speak. But his wife helped him and they were just fine together. Every time his wife came up in what I loosely describe as conversation, he cried. I understood the stroke had taken away his emotional controls. Here waited the enemy, at my mercy.
He also could not recall the word for “tomorrow”, not surprising as he was captured in the ever-constant now. What he needed to tell me was that his wife had died two years back, was buried in Barrie, where he was headed, just resting and walking in between trains. He had come from Belleville and, just like me, had walked up from Union Station to this shaded bench.
He stopped trying to control his tears and the quavering in his voice: He must tell me his tale. The tears were just scrubbed away by his hand. It was difficult to piece together what disturbed him.
Neither he nor his wife realized that her stomach pains were serious: He particularly grieved that he did not understand in time. When finally she was settled into hospital, the medical staff and his wife dismissed him, saying to come back “Tomorrow”. But when tomorrow came, she was gone. And he was alone. “Alone,” he cried, “alone.”
Two years were not enough time for him to accept her death and his damaged condition. So, what to do with the rest of his life? How to go forward?
Because he emigrated from France, I asked if his words were easier available in French. But no, it made no difference. Did he have friends, support, family there? But no, and he loved Canada and his life here – before his calamities.
I spoke as a Buddhist of the essence of a person going on eternally. And this sparked an interest and further distress. She spoke in his head as she was dying and declared there was no more suffering, that she was happy now, that she was fine. And then he went to the hospital, pleased with her stated recovery, and found her dead. What he cannot set aside is that she died alone, and now he was alone, struck asunder. The only comment that brought him some lightening of mood was when I observed that, “with your close connection, you will see her again. She will wait for you. You will be together, not alone.”
“Yes. I know it.”
And with that, he stood, offered his hand to shake, to stroll back the way he had come. Done. I joined my fellows at our reunion lunch. Good lunch; but a better chance meeting that corrected my biased view of all psycho-workers.
No matter what we achieve in this life through education, fame, important works, in the end we carry the exact same personal conditions that are the core of our life. Previously I could not see the purpose of this exalted class of doctors that had threatened my safety, harrowed my career, and damaged my brain. But this archetype of soul examiner invited me onto his bench to reveal his crying heart. Such hurt revealed; I could not do other than extend my hand and grasp his.
I see with softer eyes.
Behrman, Andy (2002). Electroboy; A Memoir of Mania.
New York: Random House, Inc.
Burstow, B. & LeFrancois, B.A. & Diamond, S. (Eds.) (2014) Psychiatry Disrupted: Theorizing Resistance and Crafting the (R) Evolution
Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press
Fink, M. (1999). Electroshock: Restoring the Mind.
New York: Oxford University Press