Following excerpts adapted from the author’s most recent book, Your Consent Is Not Required, published by BenBella Books, Inc.
Upon retiring to the sunny Okanagan Valley in British Columbia in 1997, my father underwent prostate cancer surgery. His tumor was successfully removed, but the operation rendered him permanently impotent and incontinent. I was visiting my parents and decided to stay longer.
My father was private at all times, and a distant brooder when things weren’t going well. The emotional and practical challenges of navigating sexual dysfunction and a lack of bladder control at sixty-five, on the cusp of his golden years, daunted him. The retired life he’d been envisioning after his career as a college professor of computer engineering crumbled, and his feelings of vulnerability took on vast dimensions. Through restless nights, the ineffectiveness of over-the-counter sleep medications increased his anxiety.
In his reticent way, he sometimes opened up to me or my mother. He was worrying about his finances, age, fragility, failures in life, and mortality. He didn’t want to eat or get out of bed, and at times actively resisted physical efforts to pull him to his feet. He said he felt like the ceiling of the house was caving in on him and that the furnace was about to blow up. Not unlike the stern father I knew, upon meeting resistance from others, he stubbornly dug in: The ceiling is caving in. Call the gas company right away. Never prone to physical violence, suddenly he was saying that he wanted to kill himself, my mother, me.
Considering the circumstances, I didn’t find what was happening altogether surprising. I’d been inspired by my father’s library of literary classics, and studied philosophy, science and science fiction, theater, yoga, meditation and ancient spiritual practices, and research into unusual states of consciousness. I’d grown a network of similarly reflective, artistic, exploratory friends, among whom it was normal at times to experience emotionally charged or psychologically devastating periods that could last hours, days, weeks, or months. So, when my father’s voice trembled with hints of suicide and homicide, I reminded him of his appreciation for Fyodor Dostoevsky’s tale of murderous obsession, Crime and Punishment.
“Dostoevsky must have spent a lot of time in dark places inside himself,” I said, “to portray that character’s desperation and violence so well.”
“Mm,” my father responded. Interested, but wary.
“You’re going through a big transition, Dad. These are understandable feelings.”
“I don’t want to kill you,” he said. “I love you, Son.”
We weren’t able to stay there long, though.
After I returned to work in Victoria, my mother more frequently spoke with my brother, Kevin. She was becoming increasingly distraught, and Kevin flew in for a few days. Eventually, they all agreed to go to the hospital. Dad was admitted, committed under mental health law as a risk to his “own safety or the safety of others,” and diagnosed with “major depression with psychotic features.”
Kevin and my mother were immediately dismayed, seeing a huge security guard escort Dad to the ward, and then watching as Dad was instantly stripped of all the accoutrements of his life including his comfortable home with lake view, privacy, and independence, and ordered to share a small, barren room with a much younger patient.
Over the ensuing weeks and months in and out of the psychiatric ward of Kelowna General Hospital, the treating psychiatrists changed often and they gave my father many psychiatric medications in various combinations. He didn’t become happier. He became more self-obsessed and less engaged with others, and so clouded, numb, and exhausted from the chemical overload that he could sometimes barely stand.
On phone calls or trips back to the Okanagan, I asked the staff questions that probably revealed my alarm at what the treatments seemed to be doing. One nurse said, “Your father is very, very ill,” with a mixture of fear and admonishment, as if she could see him more clearly than I could. A psychiatrist said my father had a biochemical imbalance, like diabetes or a broken leg but in his brain. There were no lab tests to confirm this, though. “That’s why it can be difficult to find the optimal combination of medications,” the psychiatrist said.
My mother was a real-life version of the all-purpose, cooking, cleaning, working woman on 1950s television shows who held family households together with enthusiastic warmth and martyr-like love. I’d never seen her have a depressed day. “We trust the doctors, Rob,” she said. “That’s just the way your father and I grew up.”
My brother and I both researched the prescriptions. According to its official label, one drug was a sedative recommended for occasional emergency interventions only, because it was highly addictive. The second was primarily for tranquilizing people experiencing hallucinations, and its toxicity could victimize nearly every organ, nerve, and metabolic process, and cause permanent movement disorders. The third medication came with a warning that it increased the likelihood of suicide. My brother expressed concern when the fourth medication suddenly replaced the third, because the drug’s manufacturer had issued warnings that the two were potentially lethal if prescribed too soon after one another. The psychiatrist said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.”
We started wondering if Dad might be better off with no drugs at all. Could he just remain safe in the hospital while working through his feelings? “Hospitals are for treating illnesses,” his latest psychiatrist said. He proposed ECT—electroconvulsive therapy—electrical shocks directed into the brain that induced grand mal epileptic seizures. The psychiatrist said it was very effective for “treatment-resistant” depression, and that it had merely gotten a bad reputation due to misrepresentations in sensationalist movies.
“ECT is like a heart defibrillator,” the psychiatrist said. “It jolts the depressed brain back to life.” The hospital pamphlet explained that ECT was safe and effective, and that it was a “myth” that it caused brain damage or permanent memory loss.
“I don’t want it,” my father said to me, his voice barely audible over the telephone.
“Well, Dad, tell them, and get out of bed. Eat more, so they don’t worry about you not eating. If you don’t want the electroshock, get up.” I filled my helplessness with a commanding tone.
“I don’t want it,” Dad said, more feebly.
The psychiatrists scheduled the ECT. I was stunned. Could they do that? I knew my father as intelligent, responsible, a dedicated teacher, a fisherman, a lover of the outdoors, and basically a stable, ordinary person. Could he so easily be branded and treated as a certifiably insane mental patient?
I contacted a civil rights attorney. “Yes, psychiatrists have that power,” she said. “But I’d think they’d be reluctant to do something as drastic as ECT without family support.”
The psychiatrists swayed Kevin and my mother. They gave my father nine rounds of electroconvulsive therapy over three weeks.
At home shortly after the electroshocks, Dad mowed the lawn, chatted with neighbors, and ate ravenously. “I don’t know why I was feeling so down!” he said.
Two weeks later, he remembered. A social worker was regularly dropping by, and Dad admitted he still felt suicidal. The police took him back to the hospital. Dad told me that, though the police were polite, being handcuffed and escorted into the police car was one of the most humiliating experiences of his life. The police returned later and confiscated his souvenir gun from his early years in the air force.
The treating psychiatrist proposed more electroshocks. “We normally do twelve rounds at a time,” he said.
The nurse explained, “It’s like we’re trying to fill a gas tank, and nine rounds didn’t quite fill the tank.”
Everyone in our family became more vociferous with our concerns. The ECT had worked, in a way, but only for two weeks. Didn’t the risks increase with more shocks? It was becoming unnerving to hear medical staff compare the ninety-billion-cell living computer of the human brain to a four-valve pump and an empty gas can.
We again lobbied the psychiatrists to let Dad stay in the hospital without any treatment. The psychiatrists reacted like we were bothersome bugs flitting around a surgical room. Hospital staff stopped responding to our calls. They discouraged my mother’s daily visits, suggesting that she represented “old mental patterns” fueling Dad’s depression. Then, they moved Dad to Riverview Hospital in Vancouver—a four-hour drive from my mother. “Riverview is more appropriate for long-term stays,” a psychiatrist said.
Riverview Hospital was an asylum from the 1920s and ’30s that used to house thousands of psychiatric patients. By the 1990s, many of the buildings were shut down. This lack of a future inhabited the building where Dad was held: walls bare, rooms dank and rank with West Coast rains, floors worn down into curves, decades-old plastic-covered furniture. I wondered how any mental health professional could imagine that a depressed person could possibly become better in such a place.
In preparation for more rounds of forced ECT, the Riverview psychiatrists took my father off the antidepressants he’d been taking since the previous rounds. I was hopeful this might clear his head; however, he plunged into a state that looked near-comatose.
“Could that be some kind of drug withdrawal effect?” I asked.
“Antidepressants don’t cause withdrawal,” the psychiatrist claimed. “That’s his underlying mental illness manifesting more strongly.”
They gave Dad twelve more rounds of ECT. Not long afterwards, my father struggled to recall his name. I wasn’t sure if he recognized me or was just acting like he did. He spoke only in slow, brief, barely audible slurs and mumbles. He had no idea why he was in a hospital. I tested his ability to count to ten and he got lost between four and five.
He did docilely get out of bed, eat, and take medications when staff told him to. “Your father is doing much better,” a psychiatrist said. This man had never seen my father in anything close to a normal state—portaging a canoe over his head with sleeping bags and gear packed into both ends, training computer programmers for the country’s biggest companies, or shouting passionately about smaller government and individual freedoms.
“He’ll recover his memories within a year or two,” the psychiatrist said, as if I should find this completely reassuring.
Our family was devastated. Any threads of confidence we’d held in the mental health system had unraveled. Finally, nine months after he first got detained, and seemingly because he simply wasn’t functionally capable anymore of posing any kind of risk, the psychiatrists let my father go home.
During this period, Dad slid out of bed, shuffled around, and muttered comprehensibly when pushed to it. My mother, fortunately also retired, devoted herself to doing whatever it took to keep Dad home, safe, and alive. I told her that research showed most people could recover from depression on their own with time and support. She cuddled Dad in bed, reminded him of memories, and encouraged friends and relatives to connect in whatever ways they could. In equal measures, she told him she loved him and she prodded him.
“I’ve made sunny-side up eggs,” she’d say. “I’m not bringing them in here, so you’d better not waste your favorite kind of eggs by staying in bed.”
“The shower is already running,” she’d say. “I know there’s no point in being clean. But just get dressed and pretend there is a point. For me.”
Over the following months and years, my father rebounded. He got up of his own accord, ate, did chores, and talked with people more regularly. He adjusted to his incontinence and found ways to gain some independence again. He weaned himself off the remaining sedating medication that he’d been prescribed. He practiced memory recall with crossword puzzles. Eventually, he was fishing, talking literature and current events, and heading out with my mother on international travel adventures again. My father did recover a lot of his long-term memories—though at times everyone who knew him was startled by gaps.
Yet my father would never remember virtually anything from the year surrounding the ECT treatments. That is, nearly everything of what I just described on these pages was for my father utterly gone.
If someone’s retelling wove together a few of the scattered images that his own memory still retained, the resulting story terrified him. He became angry. He confessed to me much later that one day he went back to confront one of the doctors, saying, “I’m not going to sue you. But why in hell did you do that?”
In response, the doctor said that “depression is a serious, chronic illness” and recommended that my father start getting weekly “maintenance” ECT treatments.
Everyone in our family retained scars. Perhaps as part of my own healing, I had questions I wanted answered: Was that normal? Was everything that happened with my father a case of psychiatric malpractice, or was he one of an unknown number of similar, isolated sufferers? Were law-abiding, intelligent people normally getting incarcerated and treated against their will by mental health practitioners? Was modern involuntary psychiatric treatment frequently so aggressive, invasive, ineffective, and harmful? If so, then why was involuntary treatment still practiced? And if the line between voluntary client and involuntary patient was so thin, shouldn’t we be more careful about advising people in vulnerable emotional states to “seek help”?
As I investigated, everything that happened with my father took on whole new dimensions of significance.
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copyright © 2023 by Rob Wipond