Committed at 16: Memories of a State Hospital

Michael Sturman
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3044

“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”

-John 8:32.

“Put ’em Away!”

If you follow the news you know terrible things happen every day. You might say, “Oh, that’s so far away…” until it happens to you. Here is my story.

I’d always been nervous and shy, and never very good at any sport or making friends. Kids at school picked on me endlessly and my father yelled at me and put me down. About the only things going well in my life were that I had good grades and a close relationship with my mother. Then, when I was thirteen, she had an operation, and they found a tumor in her intestine. That meant the worst possible thing to me — cancer! I started having stomach pains myself and thought I might have it, too.

Our family doctor didn’t find anything wrong with my stomach. The pain got worse and worse, but he still couldn’t find anything wrong. All my other problems were getting worse, too, and you’d probably think my stomach problem had to be nerves. Why didn’t he prescribe something or send me to a mental health therapist? I know I even asked him myself at least several times for something to take or to see a counselor. And though my mother had graduated from college and my father earned a nice living, they didn’t do anything, either. It was totally frustrating!

By summer of 1959, when I turned sixteen, my stomach was hurting so much I was sure I was dying. I’d already experimented with cutting my arm near the vein, and I thought I’d have to kill myself if somebody didn’t come to my rescue soon. I was so depressed my movements and my speech had slowed down. I thought people sneered at me everywhere I went. And I couldn’t get my mind off how awful and ugly I was and that nobody liked me. I was so lost in misery I didn’t even pay much attention to what was going on around me.

When I returned to school that September, the vice principal told me that he was suspending me until I got help. I’m sure he called my mother, too, and maybe he said something about Child Protective Services. I know I’d talked to him before about my problems in getting help from my parents and doctor. Anyhow, my first appointment with a psychiatrist came soon after that. I’d hoped he could help me, but he said it was too late and I needed to be in a hospital.

A Cruel Hoax

The very next day I was admitted to the psychiatric floor at a big general hospital in a city near where I lived. I was the only one there under eighteen at the time. I’d talk with their psychiatrist in the mornings and took the Thorazine they prescribed, which kept me on the verge of falling asleep. The nurses handed out the medication but had little else to do with me. They did have one male nurse in the evenings who played board games and talked with us patients. Once or twice he spent time with me, but after that was too busy. I didn’t even have a television or radio in my room. Most of the day, I’d walk the halls, stare out the windows, or just sleep.

After several months, I wasn’t getting much better, and I couldn’t stand being locked up much longer. The psychiatrist then let me go live with my aunt and uncle and come back to see him once a week. A few weeks on, though, he told me I had to go to the state hospital, and he was going to call the police if I refused. The very next day my mother took me up there, left me, and didn’t come back for about three months. She never came to see me at the other hospital, either. I couldn’t have been more upset by the whole thing!

The state hospital was very old, the largest part built almost a century prior, and not in good condition. It was January when I came in, and the bedrooms had little heat and smelled awful. They had just a bare concrete floor, bare walls, a single window with bars over it, and old-fashioned metal-frame beds. I had to have permission to use the bathroom, half the toilets were clogged up, and the doors on the stalls were missing.

Most of the day, I had to sit on a hard wooden chair in a large room with maybe twenty or more others. The chairs were lined up beneath windows on three sides of the room. It had more heat than the bedrooms, but it was cold next to the windows. On the fourth side, brown tiles went halfway up the wall and the rest was plastered over and painted brown. There were no pictures or decorations, only a small AM radio on a high shelf. It blared rock, country music, and religion, always with a lot of static, sometimes all day. Whatever it was to anyone else, it was noise to me.

The residents were all men and no women, and none were even close to my age. The state hospital did have a children’s program for residents up through age sixteen. The children’s program had its own school, activities, and group meetings. I would have liked to be there a lot more than sitting in a room with men who mumbled, stared into space, rocked, gestured, and made funny noises. However, they said there wasn’t enough time to work with me before I turned seventeen.

The staff who oversaw us from day to day handed out medications, lined us up to go to the dining room, and decided who could go to the bathroom. Otherwise, they didn’t have much to do with us. Say something to them, and you might not like what you got back. I once mentioned to one that I wanted to go to college. “Who, you? You go to college?” he replied sarcastically. A couple of times I heard them say behind my back, “He’s no good, ain’t he?” But there was hardly ever a compliment, and if you really went against the rules, they could be brutal — as I later found out. Without hesitation, I’d give the staff/patient relationships of the staff at the two hospitals I was at failing grades!

The food ranged from unappetizing to plain unhealthy. There was too much pulp in the orange juice for me, and a lot of time the fruit looked just plain rotten. For dinner they might have a fatty piece of meat in a gooey sauce. Maybe there’d be a part I could eat, but the rest had too much fat for me to chew. By the time I went home, I’d lost considerable weight and had big holes in my gums. My dentist told me I had a vitamin C deficiency, and I would lose my teeth if it wasn’t treated. I also was buying a lot of candy and ice cream at their canteen with money my mother sent, which led to no end of cavities. A lot of times, it was eat that or go hungry.

Coming from a middle-class home, most everything about the state hospital was a total shock to me! Before long, I was hearing the “voices” of people who weren’t there. I may have heard them before, but not nearly as much as now. They’d say things like, “Your whole family hates you,” “You’re so ugly, nobody wants you. Why don’t you just kill yourself?” And I have no doubt I would have done so if I’d found a way!

Some Things I Will Never Forgive or Forget

Soon after I came in, the state hospital psychiatrist put me on a heavy dose of Thorazine. Like at the other hospital, it kept me on the edge of drifting off to sleep. What else Thorazine did for me, I’ll never know. Later, they had me on a smaller dose of another tranquilizer that didn’t make me as sleepy, and I felt it worked better.

It wasn’t long before I also was getting forced shock treatments. I had to lie down on a stretcher, and then the doctor would wrap a tourniquet around my arm and have me make a fist. Then he injected me with something and released the tourniquet. In seconds, I couldn’t breathe. It was so terrifying and painful it goes beyond words to describe! I had shock treatments four days a week for two to three months, all of them from the same doctor given in the same way. All were bilateral (i.e. the electrodes were placed on both sides of my head), which is thought to cause the most damage to the brain.

Later, I found out the doctor must have injected me with a muscle relaxant (e.g., succinylcholine chloride, known as Quelicin or Anectine) without putting me to sleep first. A muscle relaxant is used to paralyze muscles, including those that pump the lungs. Putting a strong electrical current through someone’s head causes a convulsion of the entire body, and without the muscle relaxant could break bones.

I was so scared after what happened that I pleaded with my mother and my family to get me out of the state hospital. But none of them would listen! After I was home for good, it was the same story. It seems once someone knows that you’ve been there, they won’t believe a word you say!

Long after I’d given up trying to convince anyone about the abuses of the state hospital and shock treatment, I ran across Dr. Peter Breggin’s book, Electro-Shock: Its Brain-Disabling Effect (1979). “A particularly terrifying ECT technique,” he wrote on p.167, “is the administration of modified ECT without prior sedation to render the patient unconscious…”

A Kick in the Head for a Lifetime

When my shock treatments were done, my stomach didn’t hurt as much, and I wasn’t as slow in my movement or speech. Nothing probably had been physically wrong with me, and my stomach problems were likely due to a high level of anxiety and depression. But now, I had other very serious and long-lasting problems that wouldn’t go away very easily.

Every single day of the time I had left at the state hospital, the terror from my shock treatments haunted me, and for a long time after I was back home. While most of the sting is gone, even now — almost sixty years on — I can’t get through a single day without thinking about shock treatment and the state hospital. Years after I’ve rebuilt my life, I regularly have dreams or nightmares about being lost in a strange place and someone making me feel like dirt.

What’s more, after I got out of the state hospital, I still often had to struggle to find the words to say simple things. What came out wasn’t always what I wanted, but something that rhymed or was similar in some way. Likewise, I had a hard time finding words when I was working on school papers, and a lot of trouble with spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

With some effort I’d been an “A” and “B” student at my high school before I was placed in the state hospital, but after I eventually returned I had to struggle to get “Bs” and “Cs.” A big chunk of my past learning was lost, and it was much harder to learn new things. I was always tired from having to stay up late studying. And my head was so full of bad memories of the state hospital, too many times I lost track of what was going on around me, especially right after I came home.

Imagine how hard it is to come to grips with what you’ve lost after a stroke or other serious brain injury. That’s how it was for me. Plus, I’d been severely abused, and my perpetrators had gotten away with it! Not even my family was willing to believe me and try to do something about it. People I’d known would ask where I’d been. But it seemed soon after I told them, whatever friends I’d had would be gone.

Even if it is too late for me, now things are looking up! In 2018 a bill was introduced in the New Jersey Senate to ban electroshock in persons under eighteen. NJ S2672(1)(f) states: “Medical researchers have raised significant concerns about the potential adverse effects of ECT [electroconvulsive treatment] when administered to children and adolescents, whose brains are still developing … These concerns have resulted in California, Colorado, Tennessee, and Texas banning the use of ECT on children and adolescents…” Also, Oregon bans electroshock on anyone in their state mental health facilities (under ORS 426.072 (2)(c)).

The Rocky Road Back Home

The state hospital didn’t have much to offer me except medication and shock treatment. After I came in, I was in Occupational and Recreational therapy for a few hours a week, but I stopped when about three months into my stay I was moved out to an old house on the grounds. A short time before, I had started seeing a social worker and going to Psychodrama. This, again, was only for a few hours a week. I now also had a grounds card. I could walk the hospital grounds and the main floor of the hospital and buy stuff at the canteen.

More than anything, I wanted out! I thought my big break came when I was able to leave the hospital grounds for a few hours and take a class at the local high school. If I could do that — or so I thought — I’d prove I was ready to go home.

Despite problems with recalling what I read and writing papers, I got a “B” in the class. But then, the state hospital wouldn’t release me. I was so mad that I refused to make my bed or do clean-ups. The staff at the old house lost patience. They beat me, put wood splinters under my fingernails, and sent me to a ward for low-functioning patients!

My mother died not long after that, compounding my misery. I felt all hope had been lost when one day my aunt came to see me. She’d arranged for me to spend several days a week at home to meet with a tutor from my high school and to do homework. It all went well, but again the state hospital wouldn’t permanently release me. Now I was desperate. I contacted the psychiatrist I’d seen before being hospitalized and explained the situation, and he was good enough to arrange for my release.

I was able to graduate high school a half-year late by going to summer school and then went on to university. But it still took extra hours of study to learn the material, and I had to drop out of my first-choice program and take easier courses. My memory and academic skills slowly improved, but my speech problems didn’t go away. I practiced by reading aloud into a tape recorder, but had to make over 1,000 cassettes and redo them any number of times before I could pronounce things properly again. I also had to have years of psychotherapy. In the end, I obtained two degrees in psychology and worked for over thirty years in the mental health professions.

Afterthoughts

Why did it take so long for me to get help in the first place? Why couldn’t I have gotten out of the state hospital sooner? Why did the doctor at the state hospital do what he did to me? Why wouldn’t the state hospital give me more help? Over the years, these questions and others swirled in my mind. The people involved are long gone, and now I can only guess.

At the time it happened, most of the “seriously mentally ill” (including me) were labelled “schizophrenic” and thought to be largely “incurable.” A dark stigma hung over them, similar to how persons with HIV/AIDS were viewed by the public not too long ago and may still be today. It could reach the extreme of “Why bother? Why waste good money on them?” If times were tough or the family member were too much trouble, the state hospital would take them and hold them. No one gave a thought to the long history of abuse at the state hospitals, who they hired, or what went on there. True, the then-new tranquilizers, with or without shock treatments, offered hope (at least to the psychiatric profession). But the old myths of schizophrenia died hard, especially among those who believed most strongly in genetics.

Back then, few asked if all “schizophrenics” were incurable. What about if some weren’t schizophrenic after all? Was there another diagnosis that fit them better or were they perhaps not sick in the first place?  Isn’t there anything that works better than somatic treatment and months or years doing almost nothing at the state hospital?

Fortunately, today much of the old thinking has faded away, and we know that much more can be done! Many states have sharply curtailed state hospital admissions, and some have placed limits on electroshock. Not only have the mental health professions moved ahead, the voices of electroshock and state hospital victims are being heard in state legislatures and the courts.  For instance, not too long ago a group of patients injured by ECT brought a lawsuit against a manufacturer of electroshock devices. Evidence was presented that the manufacturer had failed to warn treating physicians of the risks of brain damage from the devices. A settlement was reached in favor of the plaintiffs.

To learn more about electroshock and become an advocate for change, I strongly recommend the ECT Justice website. No one should ever again have to endure what I did.

20 COMMENTS

  1. “Fortunately, today much of the old thinking has faded away, and we know that much more can be done! ”

    Unfortunately not where I live Mr Sturman. Our new Mental Health Act has resulted in an increase of 192% in the administration of ECTs. And it is my belief that much of this increase was in administration to teenagers (check the last article by Niall McLaren on this site for exact details). The increase is I believe a result of two factors, the first being a clarification by the State as to whom can be subjected to ECTs (and thus allowing teenagers to consent at 14 without parents being involved has opened this up) and the amount of money that can be scammed from our Medicare system as a result of this “highly effective treatment that is saving lives”. I’ve no doubt that this is the line being offered to our indigenous population whose children are killing themselves at alarming rates. In one town they realised that more than 90% of the school aged children had at some point been sexually abused. Not that this is realted to the genetic disease they have of course. And with such effective treatments available????

    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/roebourne-western-australia-paedophile-epidemic-child-sex-abuse-simon-mcgurk-a7951946.html

    I do hope that you may be able to bring some attention to this disgrace we call ‘health care’.

  2. Hi Stuart,
    I am sorry this happened. I will try to control my rage reading your story.

    I must say, it is, was convenient for those who treated you this way to go and die before they could be sued.

    I will never ever fall for excuses of that they did not know better. Unless a person enjoys hurting people, treatments such as these OR drugs that hurt brains would never happen.
    All Psych diagnosis and treatments are a UN issue, this should not even be questioned anymore.
    Every decade it does not get better, it gets worse. They do their best to always come short of shooting clients outright, so it is done through spirit and drugs.
    They make sure their ‘treatments’ just squeeze by for being okay.
    It is sad that psychiatry continues to exist, a completely delusioned set of neurons practicing deceit.

  3. The question is: does “schizophrenia” exist?

    Weird thoughts and hallucinations exist. But there are no known bio-markers to distinguish a “schizophrenic” brain–except for those caused by iatrogenic damage.

    I read about how William Glasser “cured” people diagnosed as SMI. He called what they experienced “creative symptoms” since they’re creative mind games to cope with pain.

    • Schizophrenia exists, people can experience its symptoms by smoking marijuana through a vaporizer.
      Its main indicator, for example, when a person thinks that he or his relatives were abducted by psychiatrists. This usually occurs while person “taking” antipsychotics. The patient begins to behave aggressively, breaking the doors.. This is where the term chronic psychosis or early dementia comes from.
      I believe that the symptoms of real untreated schizophrenia are not as strong as acute psychosis.
      Its a serious sleep disorder, first of all. (but no more than that)
      In childhood, schizophrenia can be detected by such symptoms as sleep paralysis (sleepwalking) and food selectivity (synesthesia).
      But it also can be just age-related phenomenon.
      Also people can experience its heavy symptoms under severe stress or with various diseases.

      • Schizophrenia symptoms can also be created with the schizophrenia treatments. The antipsychotics/neuroleptics can create the negative symptoms of schizophrenia, via neuroleptic induced deficit syndrome. And the antipsychotics can also create the positive symptoms of schizophrenia, via anticholinergic toxidrome.

        The problem is, when the symptoms of a “disease” are created with drugs, but the doctors have delusions the “illness” is a genetic illness, rather than understanding it’s likely primarily an iatrogenic illness.

        There’s a lack of truth about the etiology of an illness. Thus, there’s also a lack of credibility regarding the validity, or even existence, of the so called illness, too. Especially in an illness like schizophrenia, where there are zero medical tests to medically prove that the disease even exists.

        But no one here is saying the symptoms of schizophrenia don’t exist.

        • I’m sure that tests for schizophrenia are being actively done, the problem is that the border of the disease is very blurred at an early stage, at early age. And at a late stage we are often dealing with a variety of related disorders and with the effects of antipsychotic poisoning (which, as you correctly noted, initiate positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia, but not psychosis of course). What do such tests give? They give a certain result, reveal a certain mechanism, useful for medicine (as well as tests on dying people). Finally, we know how to create some kind of schizophrenia, and how to cure it.

          • The problem is, nobody has a clue what to test for. What’s SUPPOSED to happen is that a cause is postulated, and things that would be present when that cause exists would be extrapolated, and then we develop a test for those events/conditions. We haven’t even gotten to first base (identifying a cause), mostly because “schizophrenia,” like pretty much all the DSM “diagnoses,” is a very vague concept that could not possibly represent one specific malady, and may not represent any malady at all. So how to you test for something that is defined socially instead of physiologically?

  4. This is heart breaking. As one that too I was hospitalized against my will, I can intuitively quantify thre amount of suffering you experienced. It was much much higher than mine.

    I disagree thought that the today situation is good. It’s still a monstrosity in US, from what I can learn online (as I I live and lived only in Romania). These dehumanized & dehumanizing monsters called psychiatrists must be stopped before they destroy or harm more people. Their insanity is a reflection of general insanity among masses. We live in a society of zombies, people whose’ minds do not function proper, most are desensitized, manifest mimetic thinking etc.

    These zombified masses are dangerous because of their lack of connection with reality. We must find a way of defending ourselves against them. Treating them as they would be normal will expose us to their power.

  5. Thank you Michael,

    Reading your article I was impressed by how absolutely terrible it must have been for you as a young person, all those years ago.

    And then you overcame “Schizophrenia” got back to college, got a BA and then an MA, became a Psychologist, and provided services to others, that weren’t available, for you yourself.

    Your story is really amazing.

    Do you remember the film “The Promise” with James Garner and James Woods? It could have been a bad dream!

  6. Thank you for sharing your story, Michael. I don’t blame you for living in Oregon, sound wise to me. I’m so sorry you were so appallingly abused at such a young age. Psychiatry’s ongoing crimes against humanity are just staggering, especially their crimes against children.

  7. Dear Michael, Thank you for sharing your story. You’re lucky you got out of it alive. It sounds more than awful. It reads like another horror movie yet for once, the ending is atypical. It takes courage to face such hardships, if not then, for the rest of your life. Thanks again for sharing some of that darkness. If only the psych system could end.

  8. I was 18. It was 1977. Lucky for me, the big, black Southern Deputy Sheriff who drove me to the State Mental Hospital wanted to talk with me, so he had me ride in the front seat with him, not handcuffed and shackled. (Later, in 1986, I *WAS* handcuffed, shackled, and hogtied. Literally.) He had friends who were smoking weed, and wanted him to try it. But he was worried about the “scare stories”, so he wanted to ask me about weed, thinking I could help him. It was bizarre.
    The State Mental Hospital was a true “snake pit”. Many there had it much worse than I did. The quack shrink pill-pushers and some sadists ran the place like the prison it really was.
    No, things have changed very little in 2020….
    My friend is regularly the VICTIM of LIES, told by staff of the local “Community Mental Health Center”, which are told to justify driving her to the State Mental Hospital in handcuffs and shackles. She is sometimes sent home 3 days later in a taxi cab….
    Of course, the local County Sheriff who supports this GENOCIDE is a big former-mayor Butterbar Pete Buttigieg supporter.
    The Military-Industrial-Prison-Complex has many long tentacles….
    (Author’s note: “Butterbar” is WW2-era military slang. It’s not sexual. Google it. Mayor Pete IS a butterbar.)

      • ….”newly minted, fresh out of OCS/ROTC/West Point, and judged “not yet fully qualified” by older, more experienced soldiers of lower rank”….
        Yes, sorta, any Butterbar would also likely be a toadie or boot-licker….
        “Butterbar” is not just any 2ndLt., it’s one who isn’t really all that qualified(yet).
        That’s former mayor Pete. His campaign workers have literally called the cops on me twice, for nothing! A candidate sets the tone for the whole campaign heirarchy, from the top down….Bernie supporters are equally nasty, in my experience….An angry old man leading angry young men….Sad. Rachel finds archaic military slang more remarkable that an on-going genocide….

  9. Wow. I can see I really need to come back to this when I have rested.

    I just got off 2 admissions, one 6-week admission to the Brattleboro Retreat, one an 8-day admission to Parkland. One stressed me out but kept me well fed while some guy stalked me. My clothes were stolen, there was nicotine in the nicotine gum. Parkland had lots of nicotine, lots of great activities, but I like to walk.

    I lost about 30 pounds while locked up, pacing the hallways all day and all night.

    Good luck!

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