Several weeks ago, I posted about my reclusive grandmother, the inspiration for my WIP, All Her Days and Other Lies. (http://carolmalkin.com/the-recluse-in-our-family/)
If you read it, here’s what you know. That Betty was mentally ill, refused to bathe or change her clothes, and that I, as a teenager, wanted little to do with her.
Here’s what you don’t know. She was a warm and wonderful person. Despite a living hell with my grandfather and multiple hospitalizations over the course of her life, she managed to raise four productive, terrific children who went on to become supportive and caring parents themselves.
In her better days, she waitressed, was a willing babysitter for her grandchildren, a competent gardener, and an excellent and extremely resourceful cook. One memory shared was that she managed to feed a family of six on a meager budget of three dollars a week. And not because money was tight, just stuck in the fist of a control freak.
I’m told she had a fiery temper and that her first hospitalization was at the age of fourteen. I wonder about that. Having lost her mother at an early age, I imagine a lonely, angry, young girl lashing out at authority and paying the consequences.
The further I dig into her life, the more I come back to her illness stemming from the circumstances of her life inflamed by the treatments she was given. Hydrotherapy, which meant hours and days of immobility in a bathtub; insulin shock therapy, an unproven treatment intended to cause a seizure in the mistaken impression it would startle the symptoms away; and of course, the old stand-by, countless episodes of electroshock therapy.
I found a Superintendent’s report from the State Hospital in Norristown for the year ending May 1952. I know Betty had been a patient there many times, though I don’t know the years of her hospitalizations. Of particular interest to me were the statistics behind their clinical activities.
“Dr. A.A Barbanti continued the direction of the insulin unit in which 113 patient received this form of therapy. The total number of insulin treatments given was 6277. (That’s over 55 per patient!) Eight hundred and one patients treated with electric convulsive therapy received a total of 10,562 treatments. (Over 13 per patient). Forty patients received combined insulin and electroshock.
Forty-two patients received psychosurgery in the form of prefrontal lobotomy. In most cases the patient’s hospital life was made more comfortable by the operation and in a few instances the results were strikingly beneficial. “
Yes, this is old news. We knew it was a snake pit. But the numbers are still horrifying.
So when was it that Betty gave up? At what point was one more shock to the brain, or one more dose of mind-numbing medication enough? At what point did her spirit finally break? When a refusal to participate in life is one’s only source of control, who were we to take that away?
It seems easy to dismiss the psychiatric practices of the era as medicine finding its way. Mistakes will always be made along the path. Having read Robert Whitaker’s 2009 edition of Mad In America. Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill as part of the research for my book, I found that the psychiatric community still doesn’t believe these were mistakes. It continues to regard them as breakthroughs in treatment. I think a case can be made that ego and greed had much to do with it.
And while I call this old news, I am disturbed when I read articles like the following from the New York Times, December 2015. Psychiatric Drugs Are Being Prescribed to Infants. http://nyti.ms/21RUak9
I hope in fifty years we don’t look back and shake our heads about how wrong we were in treating mental illness in the enlightened decades of the 21st century.