This is another in the series of fictionalized accounts inspired by people and situations I encountered during my stay in the hospital.

Maureen’s Story

As I was becoming acquainted with the members of the community on the ward, I saw Maureen.  To be honest, I thought that she was a tech the first time I saw her.  She was sitting in the activity room reading, and each time Eva or Gwen had a question or problem, they looked to her for help, and she responded in a calm and comforting voice.  When she got up, she carried herself with the confidence of a professional, and when Eddy need a translator, she stepped in and told the nurse what he was saying.  But, at the same time, there was something about her…

The next morning we met again in community meeting, and she volunteered to go first in listing her goals for the day.  Her goals were reasonable and attainable, unlike some of the ones mentioned by the others.  The only thing that gave a clue to her illness was her last goal:  that when her husband left after visiting her in the evening, she would like to say goodbye without breaking down.  So she was there for some sort of psychological condition that made it difficult to maintain emotional control.  I could certainly understand that, in light of my own problems!  And the more meetings we both participated in, the more I felt like I knew her.

The second afternoon I felt comfortable enough to speak to her.  We were sitting alone in the activity room when I asked her if she would mind if I asked some questions, since she seemed to know what was going on.  She told me to go ahead.

So I asked her about ECT.  Ever since I had arrived on the ward, the nurses and techs seemed to be urging me to ask my doctor about some therapy that “worked wonders” to restore stability in depressive patients; but I didn’t know anything about the treatment or even what the letters ECT stood for.  I asked her to tell me what it was and how it worked.

Electroconvulsive therapy was a shock therapy, she told me.  The doctors hooked electrodes to the forehead and gave a little electrical current to reset the mind to an earlier, healthier state.  She showed me where they would put the electrodes, and explained how it was different for left-handed people.  She knew what she was talking about, and explained the technical medical procedure to me in terms that I could understand.  Even so, I was surprised by it all.  Her description called to mind something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and I wasn’t aware that anything like that was still being used.  It certainly didn’t sound like something I wanted to do.

I thanked Maureen and complimented her on her knowledge and ability to explain things.  She told me that she had been a nurse—a hospice nurse until she couldn’t handle it any more, and then an in-home caregiver.  She told me how she would get discouraged at work—so disturbed by her discouragement that on two occasions she had driven her car off the road on the way home.  Another time, more recently, the mere thought of having to go to work made her so anxious that she had backed her car into a tree in their front yard.  That event had landed her on the psych ward and in the ECT program.  She spoke about her experience in a matter-of–fact way, and I felt free to ask more; with Maureen it was more like talking to a family member than to a stranger.

Why do the nurses and techs promote ECT so much?

The doctors who work on this ward specialize in it.

Is it considered experimental?

She didn’t think so—her insurance covered it.

How did it work?

The science wasn’t definitive on that, but apparently when the appropriate parts of the brain go into convulsions, some harmful neural connections were disrupted.

Is it a one-time thing, or do patients need more that one treatment?

It varied, but always several sessions were needed, and sometimes many were necessary.  She herself had received more than twenty treatments, and was scheduled for another the next day.

She was so calm—so matter-of-fact that her statement took me by surprise.  Here was this young lady who appeared healthy in every way, telling me that she had a severe mental illness requiring drastic treatment measures!  It was more information than I could process right then; so I thanked her once more and excused myself.  I went to my room and tried to take a nap, but I couldn’t get Maureen or our conversation out of my head.  It was like I felt an emotional connection with her—not a romantic one, but something else I couldn’t explain.  Finally I got up and asked the nurse to give me something for anxiety.

After dinner, it all became clear to me.  Maureen had company, and they were sitting in the music room.  As I passed by, I looked in and did a double take.  I knew Maureen’s family—better than I wanted to.  And then I knew Maureen.

She had been married to my cousin a few years back, and the break-up had been very unpleasant, with both families more involved than we should have been.  The last birthday party where relatives on both sides attended had been broken up when the neighbors called the police. 

Whether it was the passing years or my mental state, I had not recognized Maureen until I saw her with her new husband.  Once I realized who she was, I began to think about the awkwardness of our situation.  Could we be in the same emotionally-charged group meetings without some family friction coming out?  I thought that I could handle it; after all, I wasn’t the one who had called her those things (that was my brother).  But I wasn’t sure how she, especially in light of her fragile mental state, would handle it.  I asked to speak to the nurse privately, and described the situation.  She agreed that it might be a problem.  She told me that she would speak to Maureen’s therapist, and one of us might need to be moved to a different ward.

The next morning I was informed of the decision:  it would not be a problem for Maureen to be in sessions with me as long as I was all right with it.  My presence wouldn’t bother her at all.

After all, she didn’t remember me.

She didn’t remember my cousin.

In fact, she didn’t remember ever having been married before.

The treatments had wiped out the memories.  Maureen was blissfully unaware of that tragic chapter of her past.

I wondered if maybe I should look into getting the treatments myself.