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Listen: Historical Flash Fiction by cam

Chris has written more than 300 flash fiction/short stories. Working Vacation was 21st out of 6,700 in the 2016 Writer's Digest competition.

“Building 50” of the Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane

Author’s Introduction

The heyday of electroconvulsive therapy was the period of the 1940s through the 1960s. Experts believed that causing a seizure would somehow cure certain kinds of mental illness. One common side effect of this treatment was the fracture or dislocation of the long bones of the arms and legs.

Sigmund Freud developed a treatment for mental illness commonly referred to as psychoanalysis or psychotherapy. Fundamentally, Freud believed that wellness could be achieved by conversation between the patient and doctor.

Psychotherapy was in its infancy during the period when electroconvulsive therapy was en vogue. Pyschotherapy entered its golden age after electric shock became unpopular with the general public following the release of the film, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.

For this reason, my story follows the same flow. It begins with the patient in electroconvulsive treatment and ends with his own conclusion about what constitutes effective therapy.

Electroconvulsive Therapy


From my front row seat in the asylum, I watched how the staff dealt with the mentally ill. Treatments, that's what they called them, were administered like a blindfolded man wielding a sword in a crowded room. Twice each week they dragged us to the gymnasium as we fought, screamed and cried or fell into an introverted lethargy.

We leaned against the walls of the room, staring at screens designed to block our view of what was already seared into our brains but did nothing to muffle the wailing of those receiving treatment. There was no more fight in me. I was a slowly disappearing shadow of my tattered remains from the previous day. The man who had gone before me lay convulsing on a gurney ten feet away. In a matter of minutes, that would be me.

I have never been to death row to watch a man die by electrocution. My guess is, the only difference between him and me is that I'll survive to endure the pain again and again.

It may have been a simple sunbeam shining through the barred window of my room in the asylum for the insane. Maybe a bird landed in that ray of light and sang to me a song of healing. Of one thing I am confident. The hope that flooded my tortured mind had nothing to do with treatments.

I began to dream, to sing and to write poetry of climbing a mountain in the shadow of which I had lived for so long no memory of anything that came before still graced the charred, smoke-filled corridors of my mind.

Hand over hand, foothold over foothold, I climbed toward a peak that hinted of some grandeur. I had no idea what to expect. Up from the underbelly of a society high on capitalism, patriotism, and militarism, I climbed until I reached the first plateau. I was set free. This all took place over many months. The clinical staff saw the improvement and were quick to take credit. When I say I was set free, I mean quite literally, the asylum discharged me as a shining example of the success of electroconvulsive therapy.

The administration made a big deal of it. The whole community came out to see the miracle of the mental health industry. I stood on the front steps of the asylum. The hospital administrators were salivating to hear my recitation of their prepared speech. The media were hoping for something more titillating. I bowed to the cameras and the people with pen and pad at the ready when I declared that within these walls, on a daily basis, people were being tortured in the name of medical experimentation and behavior control.

A scuffle erupted. The hospital authorities sent men in white suits to wrestle me into the building, but the police held them back, not certain which side to take. That's when I slipped away.


I wandered the streets, searching for my place in this wonderful world of birds, trees, sky, sunshine, Dylan, Baez, and the Beatles. I was digging in the garbage of a market when the owner stepped outside. At the end of our conversation, he told me I could bag groceries in his store, the second plateau of my climb.

I made friends. This was pure treatment according to my definition and the third level of my awakening. These new confidants didn't merely talk to me, they listened, and I learned to listen to them.

The final plateau came when I stood atop that mountain and focused, not so much on how much life I had missed, but on how much I had yet to live. The asylum had gotten it all wrong. Treatment is one person treating another as a human being. These doctors would most certainly see more genuine results if they simply sat down and listened.



Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on March 03, 2018:


Today, we understand a lot more of how the brain works, and what happens when a person has a seizure. That knowledge has helped us to 'tailor' the treatments a person might receive.

The story was a great story.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on March 03, 2018:

Lawrence, electroconvulsive therapy is still being used today with quite a bit of success. It is highly controlled and medications are given to avoid the effects and side effects of the treatment. But fifty, sixty and seventy years ago, it was a horrible failure and harmed many patients. Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on March 03, 2018:


Great story here, My wife has just started a graduate diploma in Psychology this year, so the story was interesting in hearing 'from the other side'.

The story reminded me of why the Movie 'Patch Adams' was so powerful, it showed Freud's way in a positive light.

Jo Miller from Tennessee on January 23, 2018:

I still find it so ironic that the mind, the thing we know with, is so little understood.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on January 16, 2018:

Linda, I had forgotten this little bit of trivia. Hemingway received electroconvulsive treatment for his depression.

Afterward, he felt that if the doctors were going to take his mind, which was his means of making a living, he may as well not live. It wasn’t long until he committed suicide. Such a loss.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on January 16, 2018:

Peg, the problem with this “treatment” was that in the mental hospitals in the 40s, 50s and 60s it was a very convenient way to maintain control over people who could be disruptive or even violent.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on January 16, 2018:

manatita, nice to see you. The difference between treatment for mental illness, scientific experimentation, and torture seems only to he perspective.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on January 16, 2018:

Louise, and any others who may read this comment, surprisingly, electroconvulsive therapy is alive and well in the world of mental illness treatments. It is said to be the last option for the most severely mentally ill people. Also, it is practiced with the use of muscle relaxants which prevent the situations where bones were broken and people were seriously hurt. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on January 15, 2018:

This is a dramatic story that contains some great descriptions, Chris. Its theme is very important

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on January 15, 2018:

Your story brought all the horrors of that movie to mind. I have to wonder if anyone was truly cured by that barbaric method of altering a person and stinging their mind. Thankfully, your story had a positive outcome.

manatita44 from london on January 15, 2018:

Cool. You pose questions like Nickelson did. What a colourful and at times painful world we live in. Peace.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on January 15, 2018:

Times have certainly changed, haven't they? Thank goodness they don't use the electroconvulstive treatment anymore. Mental Health awareness is such a good thing nowadays and I'm glad that people can get the right treatment for them.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on January 14, 2018:

Phyllis, Nice to see you here. I have friends who were employees at our asylum for the insane. The photo of Building 50 in the story is at that facility. There is a call for the mentally ill to be once again institutionalized. That may be called for in many instances, but these facilities would have to be monitored in a way they never were before.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on January 14, 2018:

Finn, Thanks for the feedback. Very appreciated. I’ll look over this again with your comments in mind.

Fin from Barstow on January 14, 2018:

Some magnificent descriptions of a horrible practice in the past. I see how you try to come to make some statements about your opinions of this "therapy". I would try more showing than telling to get your point across though and some of that narrative may be more effective in that manner. A difficult subject to deal with.

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on January 14, 2018:

Chris this is a fantastic story. It so well portrays the past misconceptions on how to treat mental illness. I am very proud of you for writing this and really enjoyed reading it. It is amazing that you and I both on the same day wrote a historical fiction about restrictions and restraints of the past that inhibited mental and spiritual growth. Great work Chris.

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