My name is Julie Greene and I was a recipient of Electroshock “Therapy” in 1995, 1996, and also briefly in 2000. All of these “treatments” were done in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at medical facilities that the general public would consider noteworthy places to bring one’s family members for treatment of various ailments. I am focusing my writing here only on the “treatments” that I received at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts in 1996. Before I delve further, allow me to briefly provide background information.
I am a Caucasian female born in 1958. I was the oldest of three healthy children. My roots are Ashkenazi Jew on both sides. My father was a scientist and my mother, a dancer and journalist. We were a family that loved the outdoors. We enjoyed skiing and mountaineering in the wilderness, while other families spent weekends watching television. I learned to love adventure, learning, reading, music, and climbing the crabapple tree in front of our big house. I emulated Massachusetts natives Emerson and Thoreau. I especially enjoyed the concepts of individualism and self-reliance. My parents discouraged the three of us kids from following the latest style just for the sake of “fitting in.” My mother told me that sometimes a kid like me needed to follow “a different drummer,” especially artists, dancers like herself, and inventors of wonderful new things. However, I decided that as a composer of music, I’d write my own drum beat, and follow that instead.
My parents saw no reason to put me into kindergarten, since I could read at a young age, so they started me in elementary school early. No one was certain how far I would go, nor knew how hard to push me, since I was clearly a prodigy. Yet there were days I only wanted to play all day, or stare at the sky or do nothing at all.
Like other Jewish children, I attended Hebrew school at our synagogue. There, I and the other children learned that not long ago, many Jews like ourselves had been imprisoned in terrible places called “camps,” forced to endure hard labor and fed only broth. Later, I learned that some of my own relatives were Holocaust survivors. I learned the sacredness of history and memory. I began to keep diaries of my own, just like Anne Frank. Over and over, I heard the phrase, “Lest we not forget.”
As I got older one of my favorite activities was to doodle in secret with a large blank music notebook and pencil. I’d put on one of my many music LP records. While the record played, I wrote down every note I heard, in as full a score as possible, in piano four hands form, or piano two hands, whichever suited me. When I was finished with high school, I had many such notebooks filled. I never told anyone I had the ability to notate music spontaneously from dictation. Only in college did I learn that this was a rare gift. Nowadays, this skill has been entirely replaced by computers, and is considered more of an idiot savant activity, similar to the memorization of the digits of Pi.
A brief trauma
Although I was involved in an abusive relationship with a non-family member as a teen, I believe I bounced back afterward sufficiently to continue with my life. However, at age 21 I was involved in a religious cult commonly called the Moonies. I was ashamed afterward. I wanted to talk to someone about what had occurred, since I found the experience daunting, but no one understood such matters nor cared to discuss it with me. As is common among cult survivors, I gained a small amount of weight after leaving, the equivalent of what a young person my age might think of as the “freshman ten.” Normally, this would not bother me. However, I was now horrified. I began my first diet and lost far more than what I had gained. Now starving and underweight, I then experienced my first binge. I tried to vomit it up, but was unable to do so, feeling panicked, sick, and alone. I remained underweight, starving myself out of desperation, always terrified of the next binge and feeling like I couldn’t admit my terrible secret to anyone. This continued over the period of the next year. I was either weak and starving, or so dreadfully sick from too much food. I continued to compose beautiful music and achieve academically, and but keeping up with my studies became increasingly difficult. I had never heard of eating disorders.
I went to therapy during the summer break of 1981. I found that my first therapist, though she was a nice person, didn’t know anything about my specific eating problem. With no answers, I dropped out of school and entered the mental health system, which had no answers for me, though it certainly promised plenty. Decades later, I found that the therapists and doctors and even specialists still didn’t know about eating disorders. During my first decade of treatment, in truth, the only reason I had been a “good candidate for treatment” was the doctors’ realization of the ease at which they could access my parents’ money, and later, my Medicaid or Medicare money, which can be milked endlessly in the name of “it’s for your own good.“
I ended up with multiple diagnoses, but no answers to my eating problems. In fact, within a short time my eating disorder was completely ignored and forgotten by everyone except me. I suffered in silence for decades and felt hopeless.
In 1983, my doctors tried to get me onto Social Security Disability, since my parents were complaining about the bills. However, no one, including the doctor providing a second opinion, felt I was sufficiently depressed to warrant permanent disability payments. I found myself at a facility called Gould Farm in 1984. Dr. Charles Capers, the doctor there, didn’t know what to do with me, so he filled out my disability papers claiming I had “Schizophrenia.” There was no evidence for this either, and all the Gould Farm staff were aware that I showed no signs of psychosis, but as Social Security never demanded that I obtain a second opinion, the diagnosis stood for many years. Capers was later defrauded as practicing without a valid medical license. Gould Farm fired him, but swept it all under the rug as there had already been at least two recent wrongful deaths at Gould Farm.
I relocated, and later saw Dr. John Merrifield, beginning in 1986, who had a private practice in Lexington, Massachusetts and was director of the psychiatric unit at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts. He determined I had “Bipolar, rapid cycling.” I was well aware that this change was done to keep my parents happy due to their financial involvement. By then, my parents were active in the National Alliance for Mental Illness, or NAMI. My father served as state board president for a term. He was instrumental in getting Metropolitan State Hospital closed down, where myself had been hospitalized. My dad knew “the Met” was nothing but a prison. Meanwhile, my bipolar diagnosis stayed with me and was the one still assigned to me when I was given ECT in the 1990’s.
Approaching End of Medicare 190 Lifetime Days of Inpatient Psych: Time for ECT
I cannot cite statistics here, but it’s my guess that ECT is often recommended as a course or action at around Day 130 to Day 150 of one’s Lifetime Medicare Days. I came to McLean for convenience. I had been seeing a very kind private therapist but had to stop seeing her when she relocated. I also had to stop seeing my PCP for insurance reasons. I transferred all my care to McLean. I spent many days inpatient there, without giving much thought to what would happen when my coverage ran out. I was impressed with the care at that hospital, thinking these doctors were the “experts.” I was told I the chances of using up my 190 Lifetime Days were next to nil. Why should I have had reason to worry? If these were experts, wouldn’t they cure me for good?
When ECT was first recommended to me in 1995 I was no more “depressed” than any other time, certainly. Given that I had already been deemed “rapid cycling,” didn’t anyone realize it would be a matter of days before my mood would improve? I was not outwardly more depressed nor, if asked, not on the inside, either. However, I was measurably more of a nuisance to the McLean Corporation, since the end of the 190 days was approaching. What would they do with me then? Pronounced cured? Transferred to a community hospital, with McLean’s tail between its legs, embarrassed since they couldn’t cure another patient? Was I really that difficult a case? I was not suicidal, nor threatening suicide, nor was I on suicide watch at all, nor perceived as such. I was not on “one to one” monitoring or singled out nor seen in any way as “danger to self.” What, then, was the problem? I had been there too long and they hadn’t seemed to have done much for me. They had failed to listen even when I spelled it out for them. “I have an eating disorder.” Instead, like the others before them, they treated me for anything and everything else.
Other facilities and individual caregivers often fell back on my parents to provide answers when otherwise, the doctors were clueless. For instance, when my doctors in Vermont were at a complete loss and had run out of ideas, my parents, who had just joined NAMI, used every resource they could find including word of mouth to find answers for me on their own. McLean, too, tried to turn to my parents but found that my mother and father were now engrossed in my father’s cancer care. This was when ECT was suggested to me.
Given the facts I have presented, it is quite clear that in my own case there was not one shred of evidence of immediate nor pressing need for rapid results nor severity of condition. The need was in only in level of nuisance and embarrassment I was to McLean. The only urgency was number of insurance days I had left.
ECT, single-shock blunder, 1996
I refused the initial ECT when it was first suggested in 1995, but was coerced into it. After one shock I “felt good.” I told my doctor I didn’t want any more, but the staff told me I needed more to get them to “stick.” I had three more. I was released from the hospital. After a week or two I felt depressed again, the same as I had been before. In 1996 I asked for shock again, hoping for a good outcome. What I really wanted was that as extra bonus it would help me with my eating disorder, but I was too ashamed to tell anyone how I really felt.
The attending doctor, Montgomery Brower, MD, didn’t want to give me shock, but he finally agreed to it. Meanwhile he had pared down my pills, taking me off many I’d been on for years, including lithium. He left me with Tegretol, Risperdal, and Synthroid. I was happy to be off the benzos, as I felt I had never needed them. We were still in the process of getting off all the extraneous ones when I had my first of the second round of shock. These were administered by ECT specialist Dr. Michael Henry, who was then newly hired at McLean. I was happy because Brower, as part of his psychiatry residency, was planning to witness my shock treatment. I was his prize guinea pig.
That never happened. The treatment was mis-scheduled and postponed over an hour. They finally brought me in. I looked around frantically, realizing Brower wasn’t there as they instructed me to lay on the table. The anesthesiologist, who seemed to be the same old geezer doctor each time, always said the same thing to me, “Pick a nice dream.” The odd thing was that I never dreamed during ECT. Does anyone?
Upon awaking, something was horribly amiss. I wondered what had happened. Was I dead? Was someone else dead? Maybe they couldn’t find my eyeglasses or had broken them. It wasn’t any of those things, but still, the nurse’s face was deathly gray, as if she herself were frightened. She looked at me with that ghost-like look as if she were telling me a very close relative had just died, and was saying, “We regret to inform you….”
I would have grabbed her but it would have been rude to do so. “What happened?” I demanded. “What?” She continued to shake her head, almost tearfully. Oh no. What was wrong?
I remember she and the regular nurse, Kate, who always reeked of cigarettes, approached me rather gently and explained that they had turned on the shock machine but I had failed to have a seizure. Prior to ECT, I had not been taken off my anticonvulsant medication in a timely manner. So Brower, or someone, screwed up. I was supposed to forgive and not even think about the thousands of Medicare tax dollars that had gone to waste on this, never mind the fraud and stupidity, and a few more of my 190 Lifetime Medicare days wasted as well.
Today, I want to dig deeper into this one event. What about my brain? While I was anesthetized, they zapped electricity into my brain which failed to produce a seizure. Then what? Did they apply a second and higher voltage zap of electricity? Was there a third attempt or fourth until they realized they might cause extremely serious damage or even kill me if they tried harder? Brower had not witnessed this as previously planned. I was unconscious and am left to speculate. Even obtaining my medical records from McLean may not provide accurate answers, since we know records are often fudged.
Continuance of ECT despite detrimental effects and concerns raised by my family
I don’t have an exact count of the number of ECT “treatments” I endured, nor the exact date of when I was switched to bilateral ECT. Somewhere in my own personal meticulously written records I kept on paper (which are now not conveniently accessible to me) I have written these things down. Most likely my own written records are more accurate than anything written in McLean’s medical records. I was let out of inpatient and these ECT “treatments” were begun on outpatient basis. These were not done by legal force, that is, I was not dragged in by police nor was I tied down nor ordered by the courts. This was not necessary. By then, I was not able to say “I do not think this is a logical nor medically sound thing to be doing.” I was not capable of objecting due to memory deficit and other cognitive problems amounting to what might be thought of as “mental confusion.”
Some of these ECT treatments were done while it was not medically sound to be putting me under anesthesia due to my low body weight. I know that I was given ECT when my weight was under 85 pounds. I know that my depression was not so severe that ECT was so urgently needed that it was worth the medical risk, in anyone’s view, at that low weight. In retrospect I ask myself why this risk was taken. Did my life not matter anymore? Or was I just another “case”?
By all means, they continued the ECT far too long. My late boyfriend, Joe Casey, summed it up to Dr. Henry over the phone brilliantly one day. I no longer had the capacity to speak to Dr. Henry. Joe said, “Julie is becoming more and more confused, not more and more depressed.” I could hear Dr. Henry through my landline telling Joe that my confused state was an indication of increased depression. He told Joe to bring me in for yet one more shock treatment. Joe became as angry as I had ever seen him. He said, “Doc, you are wrong.” But there was nothing either of us could do. Dr. Henry was the doctor, an authority figure, and we weren’t supposed to argue. Joe told me months later that each time he brought me to the “treatments” he felt heartbroken to have to be “designated driver.” He felt like he was driving me to my doom.
From Unilateral to Bilateral: No Informed Consent
I recall the day I was switched from unilateral to bilateral. I don’t know why the decision was made. I assume the decision was arbitrary by the way my permission was obtained. I arrived at the ECT clinic as usual. I waited my turn in the posh waiting room with all the magazines and the colorful rug. When my turn came, I lay on the table. The usual anesthesiologist stood right there with the needle. I was all ready for the usual command to pick a nice dream. But Dr. Henry, as he was preparing all the wires and tubing and goo for my head, asked me, “Do you mind if we do bilateral?”
He might as well have asked me, “Do you want fries with your burger?” or, “Do you mind if I have a smoke?” I only wanted the “treatment” over with at that point. As usual, the clinic was running behind and I was thirsty for the drink of water I’d get afterward. It’s not easy to go all night without fluids in the summer. In response, I nodded. I did not say yes nor no.
Dr. Henry said, “Is that a yes or a no? Can we do bilateral?”
My response was to say the word “Yes” out loud. Within half a minute they put me under. I did not sign any papers nor was informed of the consequences.
Treatment after ECT: McLean covers up ECT damages by claiming confusion as symptom of yet one more psychiatric diagnosis
The confusion I was experiencing involved obvious short-term memory problems and damage to various other cognitive processes. This lasted far longer than the expected week or two, in fact, after several months, there was no improvement at all. Because I am a writer and in fact I remember those times well, I am able to reproduce now in words what I was experiencing at that time. The FDA may, if it wishes, access my chapter in my published memoir, This Hunger Is Secret, called “Walking the Line” (split into several sections within the later part of the book). The entire chapter, in its various segments, describes my experience post-ECT. However, my experience is that literary writings, though perfectly valid, are often discredited in courts of law, or not accessed because it is time and labor-consuming to read these quality writings.
That, in fact, was exactly what my doctors said to me, again and again. They wanted that one-sentence summary without any metaphorical nor abstract references. They wanted a whole-digit number rating my depression on a scale of one to ten, which told them, essentially, nothing.
My boyfriend, Joe, tried to help any way he could. He tried to distract me by taking me out for a drive, pointing out landmarks I could no longer identify, or helping me recognize various streets I once knew by heart. Often, he brought me to the conservation land not far from McLean Hospital where we saw many migrating ducks. Joe handed me a loaf of Wonder Bread. “See this?” he said. “They’ll love it. You can do it. Go ahead.”
I stepped out near a rushing stream, at first afraid to walk anywhere without Joe near me. The self-reliant and independent woman I once had been was reduced to a needy and dependent child-like state due to confusion from ECT. Joe encouraged me to try to walk further, right up to the hungry, quacking ducks. As soon as I opened the bag of bread, the ducks came waddling up to me, grabbing each piece faster than I could toss it for them. I took such delight in this. These simple creatures wanted me. Someone cherished me. I tried to dry my tears before returning to Joe’s van.
One evening, I finally telephoned my father and broke down sobbing. He repeated back what he heard. “Scrambled dots.”
“No, Dad,” I said. “I said that wrong. I’m sorry. I meant to say, ‘Scrambled thoughts’. Thoughts, Dad. Thoughts.”
My father always wanted to be clear and make sure we had an understanding between us. “What happens?” he asked.
“They get mixed up.” I told him. “Words come out wrong. And I forget things.”
My mother got on the other line. “Julie, all these years, you have never been like this before. Alan, do you think…” She left off, unable to finish her sentence. My father told me he wanted to see me. He assured me we would somehow get to the bottom of it all.
I recalled a family meeting assembled with many doctors and a doctor who was said to be one of the top dogs at McLean, Dr. Baldesserini. Brower had assured me Baldesserini was “very nice.” I wondered if niceness mattered. This meeting was large, and I wondered why so many needed to be there. What important things were to be determined there, if anything, or was it all for show? Both my parents attended. It was clear that my father was quite ill with the cancer at that time. These haughty doctors were poking fun at my Ashkenazi Jewish family. It was almost as if they were saying, “So look at your all-important NAMI father now….” Within a year, my father would be dead. Did these doctors have not one respectful bone in their bodies?
As my mother painstakingly guided my sick father to his seat, I felt rather humbled. Who was I to claim I was sick at all, when these two people, my own wise parents who had raised me, were now surely fighting a battle far greater against this cancer thing? My own battles seemed trivial and stupid. My mere moderate depression had been nothing and McLean had shocked me for no real reason except that the institution knew they had to get me out of inpatient. We were all well aware of the facts, and my father’s frail state made what McLean had done to me all ever the more stark and horrible.
What was worse, I had requested the ECT myself. I had wanted this. To admit this now, even to myself, would mean facing the notion that I had willingly and deliberately agreed to the destruction of my own brain. If it was that hard for me, how can the American public bear to know that hundreds of thousands more will be shocked each year?
The fake family session with these stuffy doctors began. What is Julie’s problem, anyway? No one could pinpoint it after all these years. Finally, my mother, never one to spare anyone anything, spoke. “It was the shock treatments that ruined her, wasn’t it?”
With a sweeping dismissive gesture, Dr. Baldesserini said, “Oh no, Mrs. Greene, that’s not possible.” The other important doctors, including shock doc Dr. Michael Henry, nodded in agreement. Not even possible. In a flash, it was over.
Not guilty. There was no crime, no wrongdoing, no malpractice, no treatment-induced damage. It’s all in the patient’s head. The Holocaust didn’t happen, either. Maybe it was her Ashkinazi Jewish upbringing after all.
I was brought to Dr. John Gunderson. I learned years later that this man was a notorious overdiagnoser, that anyone brought to him was guaranteed to receive a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. This was convenient for McLean, since they needed an easy way to re-diagnose the aftereffects of shock to cover up gross malpractice. So this new, entirely false diagnosis was given to me, without my knowledge. From that point on, I was told that the confusion I was complaining about was “dissociating,” a common symptom of Borderline. However, as I continued to research this diagnosis, it didn’t seem to fit at all. How could I suddenly develop this at age 39? I knew I was not dissociating. Each time I asked “What is wrong with my brain?” I was told I had “coping problems” and that I was “anxious” and “thought about myself too much.” I was told after a while that I was “faking it for attention.” I was even told that I was “faking my eating disorder for attention.” Many of the staff began to treat me rather dismissively, as if I no longer mattered. Often, I would ask a question or make a request, and the staff would simply walk away.
After a year, the aftereffects of ECT, namely mental confusion, wasn’t improved at all. I was mostly staying at a budget residence at McLean funded by Medicare, called Hall-Mercer. I was still having trouble thinking clearly, putting a sentence together and forgetting simple things. I was not having “coping and anxiety problems” as they claimed, and they continued to refuse to acknowledge that I was suffering any cognitive difficulties at all. They threatened to transfer me to the state hospital. This, I was told, was my only choice now. I decided that suicide was a viable option. I began to make plans.
Somehow, in all this, my father slipped away. My brother married and moved out of state. Life for everyone else went on somehow. I was still stuck at McLean and my life would be over if something wasn’t done very soon. What was wrong with my brain? Why wouldn’t they tell me the truth?
Leaving McLean and ECT damages behind
When my suicide threat was serious enough, the McLean Corporation realized they’d better get rid of me before they lost me and risked a lawsuit, or at least the embarrassment of anther dead body on its campus grounds. As quietly as they could, they transferred me to Newton-Wellesley Hospital. I spent three weeks there and then I was transferred to a respite program in Waltham. This program was in transition and had very few clients, at most five. In contrast to the McLean personnel, this staff seemed human to me, sharing with me their lives and their real feelings. They saw me as human, too. I was allowed to sit in the office along with them if I wanted to, and was never seen as a lesser being nor subhuman. I was never forced to do anything, only suggested. I was moved by this situation, a rarity in mental health these days. One of my favorite things to do was to walk out on the footpath by the Charles River, and toss an entire loaf of Wonder Bread to the ducks.
Many years later, while writing my memoir, I went back to Waltham and walked along that same Charles River path. Were these the same ducks that I had seen at McLean, so many years ago? I walked along the entire Charles River path, remembering the days of ECT aftereffects and complete hopelessness. I was so happy those days had ended.
Many who undergo ECT “treatments” never recover full brain capacity. No one knows why some brains recover and many do not. I am one of the few who eventually did, however, I was severely handicapped for about 18 months. On my 40th birthday, in January, I found that the confusion was suddenly gone and my head was cleared once more. That was the day nightmare of ECT aftereffects was over. To this day, I consider myself fortunate indeed. I would never recommend this risky procedure to anyone.
Why I continue to write my story
I am a person who once created my own music. I performed for large audiences at places such as Avery Fischer Hall in New York City. After ECT, the doctors claimed I was so incapable that I could not even sit in a roomful of people. They said I would require extensive mental health treatment and depend on programs, hospitals, and medications for the rest of my life. I was determined to prove those doctors wrong.
I wrote my first novel in 1998. I finished my bachelor’s degree summa cum laude at Emerson College in 2003. I also completed my MFA in Creative Writing in 2009 at Goddard College. I have published two books, wrote many more, published many articles in online and print journals, have given countless live and online readings of my own writings, and now have kept my blog for over ten years and have over 3,000 entries. I am employed for pay, and am doing all this without psychiatric pills and without therapy. Not only that, but I moved outside of the USA and am still doing fine.
If anyone reading this is ever told by a doctor that depression is permanent and that only a barbaric procedure such as ECT will cure it, please, do not believe such lies. Wait a few days, or a few weeks, and you will see things differently.
I am relieved that the ECT did not destroy my memory permanently. As a writer of memoir, I rely on my ability to reproduce what I recall from memory and translate these images onto the page in words. When I recall the events in my life such as ECT, I recall beyond what happened and what was said, and explain to my readers precisely how it all made me feel inside. You will not find any of this in my medical records at McLean, nor in any patient’s medical records, which is why stories such as mine are vital and should never be lost.
Lest we not forget.