Chapter 2: My first disagreement with Psychiatry

MAY 02nd, 2013

My first “disagreement” with Psychiatry was 40 years ago, in the spring of 1973, when I was still an intern at the Department of Psychiatry.

As I recall it, events unfold as follows: a 12 years old kid was brought to the office by his parents. The problem was that the kid had been sad for two weeks, he didn’t sleep well, his school performance was poor, he barely got out with his friends anymore, and he spent the days home alone, often crying.

The first interview with the child psychiatrist and the only one I had the chance to witness was as follow:

- ‘What is your problem?’

- ‘I’m very sad because outside the village there are excavators opening a trench for the new road,’ answered the kid.

- ‘And why is that making you feel sad?’, she asked.

- ‘Don’t you realize?’, said the kid, reproachfully, ‘that will kill thousands of animals living in the woods!’

- ‘And this is why you are sad?’, asked again the doctor.

- ‘Of course!’, answered him sharply.

- ‘The lives of these animals are important to you?’

- ‘But, can’t you understand it? It’s summer and there are thousands of birds nesting… thousands of mammals breeding in their burrows right now…’

The kid got excited while elaborating upon all different species of invertebrates, birds and mammals living in the woods near his village. But right after that he started crying again, complaining about all the lives that were going to be wiped out.

We were all –the psychiatrist, resident doctors and interns– listening to his story and we were puzzled because we couldn’t understand why was the kid crying for and why was he so distressed.

We must bear in mind that this happened at the end of Franco dictatorship, in a time when sensitivity towards animals wasn’t as usual as today and when many people even brag about animal abuse.

After this first interview I didn’t follow the case because it was from the Department of Child Psychiatry and I wasn’t appointed to that department.

 

Second part (3-05-13):

 

Next time I saw him I was holding his left leg while four colleagues of mine were holding his right leg, both his arms and head. The kid was lying in a stretcher and was about to receive electroshock.

At that time it wasn’t called electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and they didn’t give any anesthetic or muscle relaxant. Therefore, to avoid the risk of bone fracture due to the violent muscle convulsions triggered by the brain electrical discharge it was essential to hold the child’s body tight.

I will never forget the look on his eyes; it seemed to say: ‘How can you do this to me?’ In the meantime, the psychiatrist in charge of the ECT placed a rubber mouth guard in his mouth, asking him to hold it with his teeth to prevent biting his tongue with the first tonic contraction.

I will never forget that scene. I will never forget that kid. I have thought about him hundreds, thousands of times in my life. What happened to him? Was it really a psychosis, as it was diagnosed then, or maybe it was a simple anxiety-depressive disorder that he could have overcome by himself with no consequences?

I know it seems unbelievable that just for being sensitive to animal suffering the kid was diagnosed with psychosis and received ECT. There might have been other symptoms to justify such a diagnosis and treatment, other symptoms that my memory, distorted over time, will probably have buried into oblivion.

Yes, it is possible that my memories of that event are biased. But 40 years have passed and I still recall that look, a mixture of request, fear and reproach.

All this doesn’t mean I am contrary to the use of ECT. My position is clearly stated in the Corpus section of NEWPSYCHIATRY.

What I’ve been regretting over the last 40 years is, and that is why I wanted to share this story, that I couldn’t find the courage to raise my voice and tell them: ‘Are you mad? Shouldn’t we start with some other treatment, something less traumatic, less… aggressive?’