Listen: Historical Flash Fiction by cam
“Building 50” of the Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane
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.
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.