Surviving the system: “I obeyed all instructions in swallowing drug after drug”


In his poem The Forge, the Irish Nobel Prizewinner Seamus Heaney wrote:

 “All I know is a door into the dark”

 And it was into the dark, literally and metaphorically, that I was heading, on a stormy January night in 1976, as I was driven along winding country roads and through the gates of St. Stephen’s psychiatric hospital, 10 miles north of Cork city, Ireland.

Just two days previously I had given birth to our daughter Claire, our first child.  She had been left behind in the maternity hospital but I was accompanied by my husband Jim.  I was in a distressed emotional state and following the speed of events, he too was in a confused state as papers were presented for his signature and we entered the world of psychiatry, a world of which, up until then, we both knew very little.

The very next morning I was electroshocked.  Three days later I was electroshocked again and again and again over the course of the next few weeks.  I was also administered heavy doses of different neuroleptics and other psychiatric drugs, the net result leaving me a dazed, confused and broken woman with no memory of Claire’s birth.  I was 28 years old. 

In the twinkle of an eye, we found ourselves up to our necks in medical model psychiatry.  I was labelled with ‘puerperal psychosis’, a condition it is said can affect 1 to 2 per 1000 women after childbirth.  Knowing no better, Jim put his trust in the ‘experts’ and he and I became totally compliant. He accepted their recommendation for more sessions of electroshock.  I obeyed all instructions in swallowing drug after drug as they experimented in their efforts to make me ‘well’ and correct what I was told was a chemical brain imbalance. After three months and still heavily drugged, I was discharged. I had many drug adverse effects.  The most horrendous one was Akathisia. I was not able to concentrate, felt incredibly restless and always wanted to be on the move. Time was an eternity, a living hell. It had emerged that an uncle of mine, one of 14 children, had been electroshocked years earlier.  Despite the remaining 13 offspring including my father having no psychiatric experience, this was taken as proof of a bogus genetic link. Now the die was cast. I too was now a marked woman with a psychiatric history, branded if I were to accept it, for life. And we did accept it, believing that by being ‘public’ about the so-called ‘diagnosis’ we were in some way being helpful. All this time I was separated from my daughter Claire. We were finally united as a family and about 6 months later I was drug-free. I had 5 good, productive years afterwards.

Six years later I was psychiatrised again with a ‘diagnosis’ of ‘hypomania’ because I had an adverse drug reaction to an antibiotic called Flagyl.  I received more sessions of electroshock and more heavy doses of drugs. The following year I was incarcerated once more, being discharged this time with the label of ‘manic-depressive’. Again I was told I had a chemical imbalance which needed to be fixed with electroshock and drugs.   For the next 18 years, I lived in a twilight zone of a heavily drugged, increasingly overweight woman believing my consultant psychiatrist who told me on my quarterly visits that I was ‘well’, that I was not in hospital and that he was my saviour. The reality was that being so drugged, I could not get out of bed until after mid-day. I felt emotionally numb. I began to lose my hair and suffer stomach cramps and nausea. I found it difficult to drive a car, use an ATM or follow the plot of a film. I became super sensitive to sunlight and worst of all began to experience random hallucinatory episodes at night, all of which were played down by my psychiatrist on the grounds of me getting over them and most importantly, staying out of the hospital.  But following a rapid series of such episodes, he finally took me off Surmontil while still leaving me on Camcolit and Largactil. Only some years later when the hallucinatory episodes had stopped, did we make the connection and realise that all the adverse effects were being caused by the drugs. Up to that point, we believed that I was what I was because I was a “manic depressive”, later renamed “bipolar”. Again, we accepted the label. Daily, I took my 750 mg of lithium for which I had to have regular blood tests. We both were totally immersed in medical model psychiatry but in effect, I had become a piece of psychiatric flotsam.

And then, sometime in the late 90’s Helena, my friend gave me a copy of ‘Toxic Psychiatry’ by the American psychiatrist Dr Peter Breggin. Still unable to completely comprehend its contents, nevertheless, a seed was sown. Being also diagnosed with a prolapsed womb because of my drug-induced weight problem – I was now 13 stone, well up from my original 7 stone – I was encouraged to exercise more which I did through walking.  The beneficial effects gradually manifested themselves. ‘Toxic Psychiatry’ was making more and more sense. The drugs were my problem. Because the cessation of the hallucinatory episodes coincided with the cessation of the Surmontil, I, in time, came to realise that it had caused the hallucinations! It was the beginning of my long ascent out of my psychiatric nightmare of the previous 18 years.

Not that it was going to be easy.  Such was its fear-induced grip on me, it was going to require a supreme effort on my part and also the love and support of my family and others. The simultaneous publication of another book ‘Beyond Prozac’ by Irish GP Terry Lynch further educated me on the adverse drug effects I had experienced and which, I had been led to believe, were part and parcel of the ‘ “bipolar” diagnosis’.  Jim travelled the road of discovery with me as I decided to reduce my daily intake. Over the next two years, I gradually weaned myself off the Largactil, feeling increasingly better in myself as I did so.

Though my original psychiatrist had died by then, psychiatry wasn’t going to easily lose its grip on me.  I still possessed a booklet entitled ‘Lithium: A Practical Guide’ which warned that anyone stopping their lithium would have a 70% chance of a major depressive or manic episode within the first six months.  But now aware of the dangers of toxicity and the potential for liver damage over prolonged use I decided, despite the 70% statistic, that I was going to give it a go. I was also fortunate in securing the blessing of another psychiatrist and a promise from Jim that no matter what, he would not allow me to be sent back to ‘hospital’.  Weaning myself off the daily dose of 750mgs of lithium over the ensuing year was an ordeal marked by bouts of nausea, feelings of physical weakness and that my body was somehow drifting away from me, all of which unfortunately coincided with me going through the menopause and its severe hot flushes. But I persisted and finally reached the day in 2000 that I took the last portion of Camcolit, free at last after a long tortuous, chemical lobotomy.  Over all those years many ‘doctors’ had caused my problems because they seriously harmed me in body, mind and spirit. As I write this today, a grandmother of 72, thankfully able to be myself, composing and playing music, I am proud to say that I have never taken a psychiatric or any other prescription drug since.

As a former nun for 7 years in my late teens and early twenties, I was always imbued with a strong social conscience.  Now, after my harrowing experience of psychiatry, I felt I had a new purpose in life, namely to tell my story, to inform the public and to further educate myself with knowledge from others worldwide who had had a similar experience to mine.  I discovered MindFreedom International and its inspirational leader David Oaks. My eyes were opened to the extensive network of people in America who, unbeknownst to me, had long been voicing their concerns with mainstream psychiatry and its pseudo-scientific practices.  Through the internet, I was introduced to a worldwide network of survivors all saying the same thing and from whom I gained moral encouragement and inspiration to be part of their campaign. 

In 2003 we established MindFreedom Ireland with the specific aim of challenging forced psychiatry and forced electroshock which we considered to be a gross human rights violation.  On a visit to San Francisco in 2004, we first met and heard the story of Ted Chabasinski who had received electroshock at the age of 6. At a joint World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry (WNUSP) and European Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry (ENUSP) conference in Vejle, Denmark the same year, we encountered inspirational activists like Tina Minkowitz, Judi Chamberlain, Peter Lehmann and Karl Bach Jensen. It was like a crash course in survivor solidarity and activism. It felt great to be part of a movement that was on the march. I value my name badge from Vejle as I would a campaign medal.

Back home I spoke out on radio and tv programmes on the issue of coercion and electroshock.  With a media pretty much subservient to the voice of orthodox psychiatry and which always gave the last word to those ‘expert’ voices, it was an uphill task to have my survivor’s voice heard.  That imbalance was further demonstrated at the WPA conference on the theme of coercion in Dresden in 2006 to which I had been invited by German survivor and author Peter Lehmann who in turn had been invited to represent the survivor voice in what was essentially a window-dressing exercise by the WPA.  Despite outside protests from other activists, I was glad to be part of a group which spoke our truth to power, particularly the address by Judi Chamberlain which still stands today as one of the greatest testimonies on the subject of coercion, side by side with the testimony of the late Dorothy Buck on her treatment by psychiatry in Nazi Germany.

 In Ireland, we joined forces with the late Dr Michael Corry, Dr Pat Bracken and the late John McCarthy who had initiated a political campaign in the form of a Senate private members bill to amend Section 59b of the Irish Mental Health Act, 2001 which allowed electroshock to be given to a person ‘unwilling or unable’ to consent, on the say-so of two psychiatrists.  It was an intense campaign in which MindFreedom Ireland contributed to a long-running debate in the influential letters page of the Irish Times, led a public protest outside the gates of the Irish Parliament and was present in the public gallery of the Senate while the issue was being debated. The word ‘unwilling’ was eventually removed but by leaving ‘unable’, psychiatrists could still, in effect, shock a person without their consent.  Dr Corry had also organised a major conference in Dublin where the keynote speaker was Dr Peter Breggin, the renowned opponent of electroshock. I was glad to have taken part in ‘Soul Interrupted’, a specially commissioned film on coercive psychiatry which was screened to reinforce Dr Breggin’s message.

Our activism continued with the publication in 2006 of our book  ‘Soul Survivor – A Personal Encounter with Psychiatry’. I had earlier made contact with Terence McLoughlin of Asylum magazine at an International Network towards Alternatives and Recovery (INTAR) conference in Killarney where I had also encountered and learned from many other activists such as Peter Stasny, Jim Gottstein and Judy Mosher, wife of the late Leon Mosher, a prominent American dissident psychiatrist.  By this stage, I had also connected with Anna de Jonge of the New Zealand Patient’s Rights movement.  Anna sent me pictures of women shock survivors and personal accounts of their experiences which we displayed at many of our protests. I also made contact with Don Wietz of CAPA (Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault in Toronto). I had become acquainted with Leonard Roy Frank and his Shock Quotationary. Again, it was very sustaining to feel part of such an activist collective, something which was even further reinforced by our participation in MindFreedom’s Wisdom House conference in Connecticut in 2007.

The same year we held what was the first-ever electroshock protest in Ireland.  With the support of John McCarthy who was running in the general election on the slogan of ‘A Voice for the Voiceless’ and the presence of Kathy Sinnott, a member of the European Parliament and Dan Boyle of the Green Party, our small but dignified protest in lashing rain in Daunt Square, Cork highlighted the fact that twice as many women than men, many elderly, were the recipients.  Our protests are still held every year in May and we have linked up with CAPA and other groups around the world in their campaign of ‘Stop Shocking our Mothers and Grandmothers’. At this stage, I had been invited to join the board of MindFreedom International and I also connected with electroshock survivor Sue Clarke. Sue was very damaged by her electroshock experience and devoted her life to enlightening others about its adverse effects. She passed away in her early 60s long before her time. In 2011, Jim and I presented a workshop at a ‘PsychOut’ conference in Toronto. There we encountered many more inspirational psychiatric survivors and met tireless, brave campaigner and author Bonnie Burstow for the first time. Linda Andre had just published her comprehensive and devastating book on electroshock  ‘ Doctors of Deception’. She gave me a copy and I gave her our book ‘Soul Survivor’. I learned that another Canadian psychiatric survivor Wendy Funk had written her own book with a similar title. It was CAPA that inspired us to take to the streets in Cork as they had held big protests in both Toronto and Montreal before us.  Like Denmark in 2004, it was a great feeling to be with them and many other shock survivors and their allies. I was proud to march and be invited to add my voice. I spoke with all my heart about the dangers of electroshock at their protest in front of the legislative building in Toronto.

 My activism continued.  I wrote articles for MindFreedom news. I was deeply involved with Phil Verden and Cheryl Prax of SOAP (Speak Out Against Psychiatry) and Asylum Magazine’s special edition completely devoted to the subject of electroshock and contributed an article on my experiences.  As a musician, I was delighted to write songs of protest and compose music to be sung at our shock protests after so many years of having had my creativity suppressed while in the clutches of coercive, fraudulent psychiatry. In 2012, I was interviewed by Dr Peter Breggin on his radio show and the following year was invited to speak at his Empathic Therapy Conference in Syracuse, New York.  He presented me with a collection of his books including his early book on electroshock. Electroshock survivor Deborah Schwartzkopf has worked closely with him in exposing the fact that electroshock machines have never been tested to be safe or effective to this very day. Nearer to home I supported sister shock survivor and member of MindFreedom Ireland Colette Ni Dhuinneacha when she courageously debated head to head on national television with shock promoter Dr Anne Jeffers of the Irish College of Psychiatry on the issue of electroshock.

Though MindFreedom Ireland operates on a shoestring budget we get by with occasional funding events.  Our greatest resource is our small but committed group of true activists. We were able to organise a conference in 2011 where shock survivors spoke including Ted Chabsinski as well as Dr Terry Lynch and Robert Whitaker of Mad in America. For our 10th anniversary, we organised another conference in Cork where one of the keynote speakers was Dr Bob Johnston, dissident psychiatrist and author of ‘ Unsafe At Any Dose’. Bob is an adamant opponent of electroshock. Our international networking continued.  We linked up with CEPUK (Council for Evidence-Based Psychiatry UK) in the production of their series of recovery films which included my story ‘Mary: A Survivor of ECT and Decades of Psychiatric Drugging’.  We also connected with Dr John Read who is Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of East London’s School of Psychology. In 2010, Dr.Read and Richard Bentall co-authored a literature review on “The effectiveness of electroconvulsive therapy”. It examined placebo-controlled studies and concluded ‘ECT’ had minimal benefits for people with ‘depression’ and ‘schizophrenia’. In 2009  Lydia Sapouna and Harry Gibjels of UCC (University College Cork) organised the first of what has become a two-day conference under the umbrella of the CVNI (Critical Voices Network Ireland). MindFreedom Ireland has presented workshops each year zoning in on the issues of forced drugging and electroshock.

 So -with all of our activism and campaigning over the last 20 years  – has anything changed?  While the 2001 Mental Health Act unfortunately still allows for coercive psychiatry, specifically the controversial issue of electroshock has become one of public focus.  The most frequent question we hear at our protests is ” Do they still do that?”. For years electroshock was an unaccountable practice with shoddy record-keeping if any and with scant attention in the annual reports of The Inspector of Mental Health.  While still being used, we like to think that MindFreedom Ireland played some part in having psychiatry answerable for what it is doing and getting them to publicly acknowledge that it is an issue of high controversy that even many psychiatrists themselves don’t carry out. Today, the Inspector’s Report says that electroshock is no longer used in many hospitals in Ireland.  In practice, it has been centralised in a few bigger private hospitals where the figures are increasing. Its enthusiastic proponents produce figures from the Scottish ECT Accreditation Network and ‘new’ research from Trinity College, Dublin to support their claims. We see ourselves as still having a role in countering such propaganda.

Mostly what we have achieved is by way of public education, letting people know the facts surrounding coercive psychiatry.  Then at least they don’t go into it with their eyes closed if, in fact, they chose to go into it at all and instead, seek alternative routes out of their emotional distress.  In pursuit of this, we have established our own website – MindFreedom – and also linked up with the website of MindFreedom International. We have propagated the knowledge and message of people like Leonard Roy Frank, Sue Clarke, Helen Duboise, Deborah Schwartzkopf and Don Weitz and CAPA in Canada.  We have stood in solidarity with worldwide electroshock protests. We have established our ‘Stand By Me’ mutual support group. We have become staunch allies of Dr Peter Breggin and do all that we can to further spread his opposition to electroshock. We have supported the campaign in the US which resulted in shock machines being declared neither ‘safe nor effective’  thereby greatly assisting those taking law cases in their search for redress. Small ripples of education and knowledge continue to spread out. This article strengthens our links with Drop the Disorder and the team of Jo Watson, Jacqui Dillon, Nollaig McSweeney and Lucy Johnson. Lucy’s book ‘Users and Abusers of Psychiatry’ played a huge role in my early enlightenment before I swapped it with a fellow survivor for another ground-breaking book, ‘Insanity’ by Thomas Szasz.

 MindFreedom stands for a peaceful revolution in how emotional distress is handled.  Our values are based on respect for the human rights and dignity of every individual woman, man and child.  Mainstream bio-psychiatry is dominant. So too was apartheid in South Africa and totalitarianism in the old Soviet Union.  All the more reason to continue campaigning.

‘First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’