What I didn’t know until I was 39 is that I was brought up in a family affected by sexual abuse, both my parents had suffered childhood rape, and being the youngest I bore the brunt of sibling bullying, a ‘juvenile delinquent’ survivor of psychiatry from 1961 getting the usual Freudian ‘you’re jealous of your father and want to have sex with your mother’ plus told that I had strong homosexual tendencies, and fancied my first psychiatrist – I was 12 at the time – a classic case of transference – all of which made me uncooperative with psychiatrists – a big mistake!!
In 1971 I was in a grieving process and exhausted from running a summer play scheme, so they sectioned me, diagnosed catatonic depression, filled me up to the eyeballs with drugs, and when I didn’t ‘get better’ quick enough, without any choice or mention of the after-effects, they gave me ECT – I don’t know how many shocks, or whether, as is common practice, the equipment was obsolete, the staff untrained, the voltage totally arbitrary, because, it seems, when I started to make noises about suing, they conveniently lost my medical records.
Soon after ECT, I was visited in hospital by someone whose face and name I didn’t know, although, I learnt in conversation we’d shared a communal flat, eating drinking, talking together almost every day of the previous year, and when I was despatched back with no after-care to the family home where problems had arisen, I discovered my current address book, and frantically phoned some strange names in it, hoping their voices would bring back glimmers of recognition.
Soon after ECT I realised I could [not] remember all of the alphabet, nor my times table although I’d As in maths GCE O and A level, and I often stayed at home, irrationally fearing I’d be asked to recite them – for weeks I didn’t know first names of my parents, older siblings – at the first opportunity I moved to a town where almost no-one knew me, to avoid the embarrassment of social situations, and I still have cold sweats in large groups when I might be called upon to introduce people I’d known for years, but can’t remember their names – every day I need to muster the courage to venture forth so as not to be trapped in lonely isolation.
For 6 or so years after my finals, sat just before ECT, I thought I’d failed, until writing about something else, with a vague ps, I was sent my degree certificate, which was useful, no longer having to explain away 4 years of my life – I’ve got 13 GCEs, 4 top grade, but no professional qualifications – since ECT I’ve sat only 1 exam, and despite it being 70% project work and continual assessment, I struggled to just pass, well bottom of the class – my memory and impaired concentration can’t cope.
Some years after ECT, I was approached by a Social Security inspector, who asked if I knew a woman, and was surprised when I didn’t, but insisted she was the mother of my daughter – having no memory of her, I was easily persuaded by my now ex-wife to deny paternity – years later again, I met old friends, who said I’d had an affair, and she’d just had her womb scraped – but by then I’d thrown away all the papers, and am told I can’t now trace her, and she’s unlikely to want to trace me, who forgot being her father.
I can spend all afternoon in deep, personal conversation with one other person, then, the very next day in the street cut her or him dead, walk away from the smile of, to me, a total stranger, which has lost me untold friends (I didn’t know I did that until a kind person told me), and I’ve long since given up on my life aim of writing a novel – my mind can only extend to brief, disciplined sections (like this is written) – even though at college my published articles got a special mention in an award-winning Observer Mace student magazine.
For 29 years I’ve lived a moment to moment existence, every day coping with an emotional yo-yo – I’m liable to cry in company for no apparent reason, leaving my flat is a major expedition, and I rarely go beyond a round of known people and places, partly because explaining to those who don’t know me why I reacted in a particular way is just too complicated, and for a long time my sleep was rare – like those twitching frog’s legs, I suffer from muscular spasms that jerk me awake when I lie down and try to relax.
Like many ECT survivors, I suffer from fear of doctors and hospitals, and a few years ago I had uveitis, but kept putting off seeing my doctor, until two friends almost dragged me there, and then to hospital, where I was told, another week and there’d have been permanent damage and blindness – I’ve had at least three ‘mystery’ illnesses, and perhaps like others a brain scan would show the same results as a stroke or epileptic fit caused by ECT – but they are serious medical conditions, whilst ECT is supposed to be a treatment.
I’m told ECT is given to cure suicidal tendencies, which I find very peculiar, because before ECT I was never suicidal, and when a friend killed himself, I was horrified by the waste of life and talent – but 3 years after ECT I almost did it, countless crushed up pills and my wrists still bear the scars, and every week, almost every day, my thoughts turn to suicide, my urge to live is weak, dormant – and it’s odd that if ECT is such a life-saver, why is the death rate for those who’ve had it so much higher than the national average?
Childhood family holidays were all over Europe, I did a year’s VSO abroad, then hitchhiked across South Africa, and when at college in 1968 from Rome to Copenhagen and home, but since ECT I haven’t ventured outside the UK, I’m not sure I could manage – after ECT and the suicide attempt it helped induce, I spent a year in a halfway house, but then, realising I couldn’t cope alone, I was easy meat for recruitment to a group I fooled myself into believing was honourable, learning 19 years later it was a cult with a guru motivated by greed – where had gone the independent free spirit I once was?
ECT is given by professionals who admit they don’t know what it does, except to say it’s localised brain treatment, yet the human body is 70% or more water, an excellent conductor, so how can they guarantee it’s just local – in a recent survey of ECT survivors, over a third said it had damage them, so every day doctors are breaking their Hippocratic Oath ‘do no harm’ – to me ECT equals Every Cell Traumatised, I’ve been tortured in civilised fashion, and all the time have to struggle against the victim mentality it’s helped produce in me.
At a recent kinesiology session, I was taken through the experience of having ECT, to help heal it, and whilst she gently held my hand, it was as if I was ejected into the air, and I was left with the feeling of pure, unadulterated TERROR – I don’t own a TV, it affects me too much, and go to the cinema about once a year – Schindler’s List left me shattered for about a month, and Jurassic Park gave me nightmares and daymares for weeks, as if ECT had punched a hole in my aura, destroyed protection from outside influences.
But I’ve been lucky, unlike the hundreds who die during treatment, written off as ‘heart attack’, or are paralysed, or have given up, their minds destroyed, or are forced to agree to yet more shocks under threat of denial of psychiatric drugs they’ve been made addicts of – an American philosopher once wrote ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, and I’ve spent weeks vainly trying to recall lost months, but can’t fill the gaps – I often feel I’m going round in circles, and about all that keeps me going is anger at what was done to me.
Written 28th October 2000 – slightly edited September 2015
AND LATER …
Since writing and sharing my ECT survivors story, I got lots of support from others who’d been damaged by the mental health system, got out some of my anger manning a picket outside an ECT clinic (my picture was in the local newspaper!), had loads of counselling – about my dysfunctional family affected by sexual abuse, leaving the cult, near alcoholism and being an ex-offender, as well as psychiatric and ECT abuse. And, in the course of year, I tried 20 different forms of alternative therapy – using barter for those I couldn’t afford, and even found a sympathetic doctor who actually listened.
I still live moment-to-moment and have memory problems – but people pay big bucks to learn to live in now, when I can’t do anything else (!), and I’ve pieced together much of my life story, important names and dates, which is always nearby in case of panic attacks.
My anti-ECT stance helped me regain some of the campaigning zeal of my youth, and I’ve broadened out, been involved in anti-war and anti-fracking protests, as well as for a time joining a left/green choir, and writing two songs: ‘Bees are buzzing’ https://youtu.be/TwHZkY4UbfI and ‘Global warming’ http://youtu.be/s9g_Ucr4twQ both of which have been retweeted by hundreds of people to more than a million followers.
I still have problems in social situations, but I’ve two very good friends, have served on a committee or two, and even had the confidence to get back onto the dating scene, chatting away to others seeking friendship.
What I’m trying to get across is that it’s not easy, but it isn’t all bad news, there can be life after ECT, moments of joy as well as sorrow, and with my sights and expectations of myself set nice and low, the chance to have real self-respect knowing I tried, I did something I feel good about almost every day.
Best wishes,Oliver, 14th September 2015