Sadly, Ellen found herself in a situation where the goal was to keep patients quiet and out of trouble. Ellen was awakened the morning after her first electroconvulsive treatment for an ice bath. Like all the other patients, she was restrained before being immersed, or she would have fought her way out. Attendants, hardened to the misery they were inflicting, periodically poured in more ice. One particularly cruel attendant pleasured himself by holding the heads of screaming patients underwater. Ellen was held under repeatedly.
Upon removal from their bath, patients were placed in heat cabinets for malarial treatment to raise their temperature, the theory being that the shock of going from ice to heat would jolt them into sanity. Indeed, they did respond to the comfort of the heat, until they endured it long enough to get their body temperature over one hundred degrees, when they’d become stuporous. That certainly calmed them, which counted as a cure.
The routine Ellen came to know was barbaric, though her husband paid a princely sum for it. One Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, she had electroconvulsive treatment in the mornings. Tuesdays and Thursdays she was subjected to ice baths and malarial treatment.
Three afternoons a week, Ellen along with the other unfortunate patients were scheduled for insulin shock therapy. There was no differentiation among diagnoses. Manic-depressives, as patients with bipolar disease were known then, schizophrenics, and depressives were all scheduled. Unruly women or inconvenient wives were often committed should their menfolk have influential friends.
Ellen was routinely strapped to a stretcher and administered between one hundred and one hundred fifty units of insulin, shock being the goal. Soon, she be convulsing. Revived with either intravenous or oral dextrose, she would be returned to the ward, dazed and confused. The cruelest aspect was the wait in line watching other patient’s therapy in progress. Weight gain was an unfortunate result. In three months, Ellen gained sixty pounds, a fact that would devastate her.
Under the care of this system, Ellen went from being functional prior to the birth of her last baby, to postpartum psychosis, a condition that might have resolved with time and a return to normal hormones, to battered, dazed, and confused.
Having trusted her to the care of his colleague, Charles had not been allowed to visit. When she’d been in care for four months, her doctor called with news that she was much calmer and ready for release. Dr. Jones explained, “You’ll find your wife much calmer, but somewhat changed. She may need some help at home for a while, but she will get back to herself in a few months, don’t you worry. She shouldn’t have any more babies, so you might consider a hysterectomy for her, or there could be a recurrence of her illness. She should do well once she’s back home. Good luck to you.”
When Charles anxiously arrived for his wife, he didn’t recognize the portly woman in a shapeless, institutional gown awaiting him in the solarium of the facility. Her short, straight hair fanned out in an arc as she sat humming and staring off in the distance. He thought he’d been shown to the wrong patient, but was assured by the attendant, “This is Mrs. Evans. She’s just put on a little weight and we had to cut her hair.”
Charles was devastated. He loved his wife dearly and had delivered her into care, thinking their lives would resume when she was pronounced “cured.” This woman bore little resemblance to the spirited beauty who’d always charmed him, despite her demands. In truth, her spirit was what won him to her. He felt like “his Ellen” had died.
He went to her. “Oh Ellen, I’ve missed you.” He embraced her, but didn’t kiss her. “Are you ready to go home?”
She looked blank for a bit, as though searching for an answer. “Home? Yes,take me home.”