With the Mental Health Act 2001 under review, Joe Jackson explains why patients receiving ECT should be listened to
‘IHATE the bastard doctors who prescribed ECT for my father. It’s tearing him, me, and my whole family to shreds. May those doctors rot in hell.”
That’s what I wrote in my diary on October 10, 1972. Not exactly the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, is it? Nevertheless, nearly 40 years later, even though I now am disinclined to damn nameless doctors and know that electro-convulsive therapy can help some people, it still is something I despise. (Independent) >
These days I hate it more than ever. Why? Because my mother, who is 85, hospitalised, and recovering from a stroke, sometimes looks back over her life and says, sadly, “The day your daddy had his first session of ECT is the day we began to fall apart.”
Treatment turned my father into someone who could behave monstrously, but to illustrate that fairly, I must tell you what he was like before treatment.
One night in May 1972, I read in the Radio Times that a TV show to be broadcast that evening, which was called That Monday Morning Feeling, was about, “men who work on an assembly line and perform a vital job which nonetheless can be dull, mindless, and soul destroying”. The latter was precisely how I saw my job at the time, as an apprentice sheet metalworker, which I’d become, in part, to please my father, even though I’d always wanted to be a journalist. I hoped we’d talk about this after the show ended. We did.
“I’m looking at the height of your forehead and if one can judge anything from that, you have greater potential than I had at your age,” he said, initiating the conversation. “But you can see, from that TV show, that whatever you go on to do in life, your task is set out for you. It’s going to take unceasing effort. It’s going to take fighting on when you are sick and tired of the whole lot.
“It’s going to take what Kipling there [Dad pointed to his bookshelf, to a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If] says is the strength to, ‘Force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve their turn long after they are gone/And so hold on when there is nothing in you/Except the will which says to them: Hold on.’
“So,” I asked him, “what happened in terms of you and your dreams?”
“I didn’t make it because I didn’t put enough effort into it. But having read all of Behan’s plays, Joyce, Shaw, Shakespeare, I have always cherished the secret dream, which I know now will never be realised, of being a — I won’t say author because that implies your primary goal is getting published — literary creator. But I would like to see you taking up journalism, if that is your thing.”
This conversation went on for a long time and I recorded most of it — well I had been recording the programme and I just let the tape run. That night I wrote in my diary, “It breaks my heart to hear Dad say he is giving up on his dreams.” But it made me resolve that I would not.
Tragically, my father and I never had another conversation quite like that.
Four months later he had his first session of ECT. Not that I was informed what was happening. All I knew was that at tea time one day he suddenly seemed unable to complete a sentence, and kept asking over and over again the same kind of fragmented question, such as, “Joseph, that shirt, hanging, is that, on the door, yours?” even though Mom kept reminding him he’d bought it that day. Then, my father flicked open my 8mm movie camera, as if he’d forgotten that exposure to light would damage the film. Worse still, when I asked him what he was doing, he looked at me as if he couldn’t understand what I was saying, and didn’t know who I was.
I followed Mom to the scullery and asked what was going on. She told me that doctors wanted Dad to go away for a while, to St John of God’s — an institution for the mentally disturbed — but he didn’t want this social stigma on his family so he chose, instead, to have some kind of treatment to cure depression. She didn’t know what the treatment was.
“Will you leave out my togs and a few sandwiches; I’ll probably go for a dip when I get back,” he told Mom when he was setting off. But a few hours later Mom got a phone call from a nurse who gave out to her for letting Dad come to the hospital on his own and demanding that somebody come and collect him.
Mom told me later: “I went up, and Joseph, Jesus help me, I will never forget, until the day I die, the state your daddy was in.”
I wrote in my diary at the time: “Dad’s cure for depression has left him more depressed than ever. Once he told me that a son should never see his father cry; now he’s crying all the time, especially on his own late at night, listening to Sinatra LPs like No One Cares. And he accuses Mom and me of talking about him, even when we aren’t. He can’t even spell simple words anymore. It’s horrible, like seeing your father slip into senility even though he is only 44. And I can’t help him in any way because he’s not talking to me. It’s even getting dangerous for us to be in the same room. His mood changes so quickly into a sudden rage, usually directed at me.”
Near midnight on October 10, 1972, I walked into our living room. And we had another conversation, but this could not have been more different from the gentle, encouraging exchange previously. He said: “Sit down or I’ll knock you down… no, stay standing until I tell you to go to bed.” Three hours later he was still talking, and he said: “If I had to look back over my life and see you as its end product, I’d have to say, frankly, that my life had been a waste of time!”
The moment those words sliced into my skull, I heard a child scream deep inside me. Before I knew what I was doing, I punched my fist through a glass frame on Dad’s shelf. When he saw the blood on my knuckles he smiled, and said: “Now you can go to bed.”
You get the picture. It’s not a pretty one. But this is what happened in 1972, thanks to that “cure” for depression, ECT. Two years later, I finally decided I had to leave home.
Three years after that, my mother made the same decision. We loved the man but couldn’t take his behaviour anymore. That’s why there was no one in the family home to save my father’s life when he fell down the stairs one night in 1978. It was only afterwards, while reading his diaries, I discovered that apart from being introduced to the delights of ECT in 1972, he also was prescribed, as part of his “cure” for depression, the uppers and downers that, to a great degree, led to his death. So, now you know why I still despise ECT.