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The good that comes from sharing my father’s shock-therapy story

5 14 5
14.06.2018

“I have tears in my eyes as I write this to you.”

That was typical of many of the hundreds of messages I received in response to my May 26 Vancouver Sun column about my father’s shock-therapy treatments at Riverview Hospital in the 1950s and later.

It leaves me reflecting on what good might come from sharing the suffering of Harold Todd and his family in light of his many violent lithium- and electro-shock treatments, which may have caused him permanent brain damage, rendering him permanently withdrawn.

I have been overwhelmed by the avalanche of harrowing stories. Many letters make painfully clear my father was not alone in receiving disastrous treatment. Many wrote about how themselves or loved ones were not only subjected to dubious shock therapies, but to lobotomies.

I heard the condensed life histories of people who either themselves struggle with schizophrenia or other forms of mental illness — or who have experienced their troubled mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters receiving futile treatments and succumbing to despondency and, often, suicide.

To be honest, I have not been able to read all the lengthy, often-eloquent letters. But I will.

In the meantime, I’ll share some of them. I’ll also discuss two of the possibly positive things that can come from airing such an intimate story, which included speculation about popular mental-health treatments today that in the future we, as a society, may deeply regret.

First, there is something to say for how witnessing to the story of my father appears to have validated the traumatic experiences of many.

I can’t do justice to all the letters, many of which included descriptions of tragic, even brutal personal experiences. But here is a tiny sample.

One woman wrote: “I cried when I read your article about your father. My father also underwent shock therapy … and he subsequently committed suicide when I was only a few weeks old. So I never knew him. I didn’t find this out until I was in my 50s because I guess, with the stigma, my mother had begged other family members not to tell me.”

Another eerily described parallels between my father and her brother, who was also an ambulance driver in the Second World War. “As with your father, and following some time after demobilization, he developed the symptoms of schizophrenia, which led him to electric shock treatments. Early in the treatments he suffered a back injury as a result of the convulsions caused by the shocks. He refused further treatments. … For some periods he lived in an old car.”

A patient at a U.S. mental hospital undergoes electro-convulsive therapy, whereby an electric current is passed through the head, circa 1955. Developed in the 1930’s, this controversial method is used in the treatment of severe depression in adults. Carl Purcell / Three Lions/Getty Images

A woman remembers horrifying visits to see her brother in New Westminster’s Hollywood Hospital, where some patients were handcuffed to the walls. Another described her Vancouver aunt’s early lobotomy, “which reduced her to a state that was so horrible I still have memories of her way of talking and unkempt way of life.”

Many readers sought advice on tracking down the mental-health records of their late loved one. But I could not be of much help, since I obtained my father’s Riverview ward notes while he was alive and could give consent. I’m interested in what others find out.

Provincial Mental Health Services ward notes about Doug Todd’s father, Harold Todd. Submitted / PNG

In a different vein, my cousin, Brenda Giovinazzo, wrote to say she realized my mother, Mary, had been “even stronger” than she had already thought. Like many readers, my cousin said, “I have no love for Dr. Parkinson!” the Riverview psychiatrist who called my dad “lazy” and confined him to a locked ward as punishment.

It was a delight to hear from Roland Derksen, who kindly volunteered to drive Vancouver patients on bus trips in the 1990s, one of which was my father. He had viewed my dad as “another lonely, poor individual” until he read his history. I was pleased to inform Derksen his bus tours were the highlight of my dad’s week.

It is the aim of most world views, whether Christianity, Buddhism or existentialism, to try to make sense of suffering. For those who don’t want to live in denial, which the letter writers do not, there is something in us that wants to deeply mine such stories, to not quite let them go, wishing for personal liberation or even some kind of redemption.

To heal we often need to face up to past pains. Vancouver psychologist Chuck Jung said, “I know first hand that the poignant story of your father’s and family will give strength to many to seek out help.” High-school psychology teacher Suman Prem Kumar said he would share the article with his students.

In determining the possibly second good thing that might emerge from the story of my father, I take succour in existentialist Soren Kierkegaard’s aphorism, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

I appreciate the many who offered thanks for taking on the increasingly worrying subject of over-medication — since it is not only individuals, but society, that needs to find better approaches to mental-health difficulties.

We must “live forwards” by making sure we don’t repeat past mistakes, like lithium shock therapy, in different forms, which may be what’s happening in regards to pushing drugs too hard on too many people. Canadian governments provide patients almost no public access to evidence-based talk therapies.

Harold Todd in 1954. Submitted / PNG

It’s clear that medications can help some people, especially in extreme situations, and that health professionals are under the gun when faced with troubled patients. But readers,........

© Vancouver Sun