‘I’m myself again and I cherish it daily’
Mary Maddock, a survivor of ECT, is now campaigning for its abolition
By Andrea Byrne
Sunday April 27 2008
The saddest part for former psychiatric patient Mary Maddock is that she doesn’t remember the birth of her eldest child Claire in 1976, nor does she recall holding her in her arms for the first time, or breastfeeding her.
“It’s like it never happened, which is terrible because it’s something that’s very important to every mother,” says Mary, a Cork-based music teacher, who received approximately 16 sessions of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and was on prescribed medication for more than 20 years. “I’m a survivor of the psychiatric system, a system that I now consider to be a very corrupt one, having experienced and trusted it for over 20 years.”
A former nun, Mary had never experienced any form of psychiatric illness, and even came through the difficult process of leaving the convent, at a time when joining a religious order was considered to be the highest vocation for a young woman. She subsequently married her husband Jim, and had her first child, Claire.
Her ordeal began when she had an adverse reaction to the nitrous oxide gas that was given to her as pain relief during the birth, and was moved to a psychiatric hospital. Diagnosed with what was termed a psychosis, she was given drugs and ECT to bring her down from her “high” state.
“The psychiatric world I experienced saw me as a mental case with a chemical brain imbalance,” she says, “yet it was their drugs that gave me the imbalance in the first place. This was confirmed when I later had the same extreme reaction to the gas in the dentist’s, when I was given it for a tooth extraction.”
ECT works by giving electric shocks of up to 400 volts to the brain, which artificially induces seizures in the patient. Those who endorse it as a final solution contend that the seizure triggers a surge of “well-being” neurotransmitters, and hormones, which soothes the symptoms of the psychological distress being targeted, such as depression, schizophrenia, mania, obsessive convulsive disorders and anorexia.
Having had two spells of eight sessions herself, Mary completely opposes ECT as a psychiatric tool, and can’t even bring herself to term it a treatment. She is part of a growing number of campaigners, led here by Dr Michael Corry, consultant psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychosocial Medicine, who believe that the psychiatric profession confuses the memory loss and temporary mild euphoria that follow shock treatment with an actual improvement in the patient’s psychological condition. They also believe that these treatments are barbaric, and cause long-term mental and physical damage.
“ECT erases memory, and all of this time that this was going on, I wasn’t aware of what was happening to me at all,” she says. “I was in complete zombie-land. Imagine that I don’t even remember anything about having the ECT treatments, or being in hospital at that time, even though I was there for weeks.”
“The doctors were the experts, so I followed their advice to the letter, and took my prescribed “medication” every day. If I didn’t, I was told I would have to spend a lot of time in hospital, not far removed from a concentration camp, away from my loving family. They put the fear of God in me, and faced with such a choice, I was prepared to do anything.”
Mary and Jim adopted their second daughter, Sheena, and Mary says that it was very important to her to be conscious of what was going on, after the experiences around Claire’s birth. She spent two decades on a cocktail of prescribed medication, including neuroleptics, uppers, downers, and anti-depressants, all of which she feels rendered her completely out of touch with her feelings, and brought about what she terms a “chemical lobotomy” of the brain. “The hospitals I knew were based on fear and punishment,” she says, “so how can these be therapeutic environments where people can be healed? It’s bad enough to have to go to these places, but afterwards you have to deal with the stigma, and are so drugged that you can’t even think or feel.”
What made it easier for Mary to ultimately break free was that her psychiatrist passed away, which coincided with her growing belief that the cocktail of drugs she was on, and one drug in particular, was toxic to her system. She made the decision to become drug-free, taking it slowly and carefully, and has been completely free from psychiatry since 2000. “I’m myself again, which is something I cherish every day of my life, especially every morning, as I could never rise before noon when drugged by the world of psychiatry,” she says. “Most people who find themselves unlucky enough to be in a mental hospital have emotional problems, and all they need is love, kindness and support. If they need to retreat from the world, they should have a caring environment with no labels, with loving and caring people helping them. We all thrive when we are loved.”
Mary believes that drugs should be replaced with counselling, music, art and exercise, and laments that there is very little room in psychiatry today for psychologists, psychotherapists, music therapists, art therapists, and aromatherapists, all of whom would bring positive benefits.
“Music is the food of the soul, whereas drugs only suppress the spirit and don’t allow it to function,” she says. “Lack of money is always the excuse for bad regimes but music costs much less than electric shocks, and good therapists are cheaper than psychiatrists. Money is not the driving motive of people who care, only of those who don’t.”
Mary is heavily involved in MindFreedom Ireland, an affiliate of MindFreedom International, which leads a non-violent revolution of freedom, equality, human rights and truth that unites people affected by the mental health system. She is on the board of Mindfreedom International, and also works on European issues.
Although she is justifiably angry at what happened to her, she refuses to become bitter about it, preferring to work at encouraging others to find their own voices instead. “It’s modern-day slavery, and for slaves to be freed, we have to speak out and let others know what is going on,” she says. “The real discovery for me was that drugs were destroying me, and when I became drug-free, my spirit came back, better than ever.”
And in her personal life, she is still happily married to Jim, a teacher, with whom she has written the book, Soul Survivor. “The most amazing thing is that Jim and I stayed together through it all, but my whole family have come all of the way with me,” she says. “My eldest daughter, Claire is expecting her first child in June, and we’re all very excited about that. I’ll really be able to appreciate this baby, because I’m completely myself now.”
– Andrea Byrne