Chris Andrew on an old Asylum

CARE OUT OF THE COMMUNITY

A VIEW OF THE PAST

by Chris Andrew


I was interested in your article on Central Hospital – how cosy it all sounds. I can assure you the reality was very different.

I was admitted to Central Hospital as a teenager in 1966, and remained there for most of the next five years. I was initially diagnosed as having a psychosis “possibly due to hormonal imbalance”, then (within months) as being manic-depressive (now known as bipolar disorder) and eventually as having chronic schizophrenia – being given this later diagnosis most probably because, at that time, they didn’t know how to treat the first two.

Within days of my first admission (to Louise Raynes ward – a special unit for young people) I was given E.C.T. – electro-convulsive therapy. To those who are not familiar with this term, this consists of passing an electrical current through the patient’s temples until an epileptiform fit takes place. This was routine treatment for the vast majority of new admissions in those days, regardless of diagnosis.

I was taken aside by a nice kind nurse, who told me gently that “doctor wants you to have treatment” – she omitted to use either the words “electric” or “convulsive”. She handed me a sheet of paper, folded in half so that only the bottom part was showing and, in this way, I signed my “consent”.

The following morning I experienced my first “E.C.T.”. I was taken into the ward and told to lie down on a bed. There were two doctors and four nursing staff present. I was completely alert because I had not been given any pre-medication, and I was not anaesthetised at the time. Naturally I was interested in what was going on around me – and, despite the fact that a nurse was standing at the foot or the bed calling my name in order to distract me, I looked up and saw the apparatus being placed on my head (and above it the grinning face of the doctor) then NOTHING. I came to some time later with an appalling headache and in a state of utter confusion.

After this first experience of E.C.T. I begged not to be given any more -but I was told that I had “signed” for a course of eight. Accordingly, I suffered this again seven more times – I cannot describe each one in detail, but I can only say that I have never known anything as frightening as being in a waiting-room for E.C.T. I am sure other patients will back me up in this.

I can only describe E.C.T. as being akin to being told, “Stand over there, I’m going to shoot you in the back of the head, you won’t know anything.” Probably not, but it would be a pretty terrifying experience none the less.

I suffered twenty-nine E.C.T.s in total – notice that I do not say “about thirty”. I can remember every one of them, although later ones were given with the benefit of pre-medication and then anaesthesia. Doctors at Central Hospital were loath to use anaesthesia, as they believed that the treatment was more effective when delivered without.

The treatment, in my case, had no positive effects whatever – so they gave me more! I ended up severely and chronically brain-damaged as a result – but have been unable to receive compensation for this because I can’t prove this to be the case, and because the law says that I had to claim within four years of the event.

What few brain cells were not destroyed by E.C.T. were then hammered by insulin-shock treatment. This took place in an upstairs unit (or suite of rooms) in Leigh House. The course of treatment lasted for three months and I was given two courses. Presumably on the basis mentioned earlier, that if the treatment didn’t work – then repeat it!

We were dragged from our beds early in the morning and, without food, drink, or even a shower, we made our way across the landing to the “insulin unit”. We were then instructed to lie on our tummies and injected in the backside. The inevitable result was unconsciousness, and when we came to it was lunchtime. We were then fed vast amounts of carbohydrate, mainly in the form of mashed potato – so that we didn’t spontaneously “conk out” later in the day.

We were than accompanied everywhere we went for the rest of the day by a nurse with the inevitable bottle of “glucose” – a sickly sweet orange squash concoction, with which we were plied if we showed any signs or slipping into a “hypo”.

By this time, my dose of Largactil and other drugs – some given to combat the side-effects of E.C.T. – had been steadily increasing, to the point where I was knocking back thirty-four tablets a day. It was then the custom for the psychiatrist to see relatives once a month – on a Sunday afternoon – and I do remember my mother querying the amount of medication that I was taking. The shrink replied – “Oh, don’t worry, we can give her fewer pills of a larger dosage. Sorry we can’t, she’s already taking the large ones.”

Despite the massive over-dosage of tranquillisers my body rebelled and I went into a really good manic attack (justifying at least one of my previous diagnoses). During this time I was transferred to Queen Elizabeth Ward, known as Auschwitz to staff and patients alike.

“Q.E.” housed mainly acute female patients at this time, and it was the normal routine when the ward had to be left unstaffed (yes, honestly!) to lock up in “side-rooms” – which were no more than unpadded cells – those of us deemed most likely to be a nuisance whilst staff were away. I do remember that, on one particular occasion, the staff were called to a neighbouring ward shortly after lunch. (I say “called”, but, in fact, this was pretty routine – they went to the next-door female psycho-geriatric ward (Alzheimer’s patients to you or me) in order to do necessary tasks such as changing wet bedding, etc. There were only two staff on duty at the time to cover both wards, a female trainee, and a male staff nurse.

We were accordingly “banged-up” after lunch. I could hear a friend of mine, Joanne, who was across the corridor from me, becoming very distressed at this treatment. She was crying and screaming uncontrollably. (Remember, these were unlit windowless rooms.) A little later, the doors were unlocked and we were let out again – except for Joanne, who we were told would be allowed out when she had calmed down.

Eventually the noise from her cell stopped, but she was not released until about twenty minutes later. Strangely enough she didn’t emerge from the room, but the staff nurse went tearing up the ward yelling, “Nurse, oxygen!” Joanne had vomited her lunch, inhaled and choked. She was dead. Her body was removed later and I understand that her family were informed that she had committed suicide.

The following day I was to experience yet another form of shock treatment – by intravenous injection of Cardiazole. This was a desperately unpleasant form of treatment – as the breath was sucked out of one, and one’s lungs became paralysed before losing consciousness. Myself and two patients underwent this treatment – we were the only three patients on the ward who had witnessed Joanne’s death. I remain convinced that there was no therapeutic value or intention in this treatment – it was given in an attempt to block our memories. It was little more effective than any of the other treatments given – although for several years I suffered “flash-backs” and mild epileptic fits before it finally cleared in a ‘grand~mal” attack.

Following Joanne’s death I sat on my bed and prayed to God that if He would let me get out of that place, then I would never feel sorry for myself again. A month later I did manage to escape – I caught a bus into town, found a bedsit, and went to ground.

Not being wholly bad (or mad), I phoned the ward a week later to let them know that I was in fact, alright. I was met with the response, “Christine, you can’t do that”. Funny, I thought, I think I have.

Despite all their dire diagnoses and prognoses, I managed to wean myself off the medication and gradually fought my way back to a “normal” life.

About five years later, I went back to the hospital to visit a friend of mine. I encountered three members of staff that afternoon who remembered me. I said to each of them individually, “Do you remember me?” Strangely enough each one of them replied individually with exactly the same words, “Yes, I do. Oh, my God!”

I have survived the past thirty years on the “bank vault door principle” shutting these memories firmly away and living only in the present. However, with the passage of time, I can now bear to face some of them: and I feel that, in the interests of historical accuracy, it is now time to let some of them out.


This article has also been published in the Leamington Spa Courier (link url required)