I’ve had the honor lately of getting to know a wonderful activist and leader in the civil and human rights movement for people with psychiatric labels.The internet is a wonderful thing and allows us to know that we are not alone when we might otherwise feel that we are.
This is the what brought Ted to where he is today. It’s a tragic and disturbing story. The happy ending is that Ted has led a wonderful and productive life once he escaped from his captors.
Psychiatrists and social workers had already decided before I was born that I was going to be a mental patient. My natural mother had been locked up just before she gave birth to me and was locked up again soon after. The social worker from the Foundling Hospital told my foster parents, as they put it, that my mother was “peculiar,” and Miss Callaghan soon had them looking for symptoms in me, too. Every month Miss Callaghan would come and discuss my “problems” with my foster parents. If I only wanted to stay in the back yard with my sister and make mud pies, this was a sign that I was too passive and withdrawn, and my mommy and daddy were supposed to encourage me to explore the neighborhood more. When I started to wander around the neighborhood, I went to a neighbor’s garden and picked some flowers. The neighbor complained, and Miss Callaghan held a long session with my parents about curbing my hostile impulses.
I knew that my foster parents were afraid of the Foundling Hospital Lady. But I didn’t understand why. Because it was only me she could take back to the hospital. “If you’re not a good boy, we’ll take you back to the hospital where we got you,” my mommy and daddy said. But sometimes they would make the hospital sound nice, the place where they picked me out from all the other little boys and girls, though they never explained why they picked me. Three years old, I tried to remember or imagine how it must have been. I was in a crib in the middle of an ocean, thousands of babies like me, all screaming and crying for mothers they didn’t have. My mommy and daddy pointed to me and the nurse brought me out, wrapped in a blanket. And they took me home to the Bronx.
When Miss Callaghan had discovered enough symptoms, I was sent to the Bellevue children’s psychiatric ward, to be officially diagnosed and to be made an experimental animal for Doctor Bender. I was one of the first children to be “treated” with electric shock. I was six years old.
I gave up that little boy for dead thirty years ago, but now he’s come back to life, kicking and struggling. I won’t go to the shock treatment, I won’t! It took three attendants to hold me. At first Doctor Bender herself threw the switch, but later when I was no longer an interesting case, my tormentor was different each time.
I wanted to die but I didn’t really know what death was. I knew that it was something terrible. Maybe I’ll be so tired after the next shock treatment I won’t get up, I won’t ever get up, and I’ll be dead. But I always got up. Something in me beyond my wishes made me put myself together again.
I memorized my name, I taught myself to say my name. Teddy, Teddy, I’m Teddy…I’m here, I’m here, in this room, in the hospital. And my mommy’s gone…I would cry and realize how dizzy I was. The world was spinning around and coming back to it hurt too much. I want to go down, I want to go where the shock treatment is sending me, I want to stop fighting and die…and something made me live, and to go on living I had to remember never to let anyone near me again.
I spent my seventh birthday this way, and my eighth and ninth birthdays locked in a seclusion room at Rockland State Hospital. I had learned that the best way to endure this was to sleep as much as possible, and sleeping was all I could do anyway. I was in a constant state of exhaustion, and I began to have colds that lasted all year because the more sadistic attendants would turn off the radiator and open the window, even in December. Doctor Sobel said it was a sign of my sickness that I didn’t like fresh air.
Sometimes the attendants would leave the door to my room unlocked while the rest of the kids went to the dining room. I would roam the hall looking for something to read, something to look at, to play with, anything that would make the time pass, anything I could use to keep myself distracted. I would save part of my food and think for hours of when I would eat it. Sometimes mice would run through the room, along the walls, and I would watch them carefully and try not to scare them. I wished that I were small enough to run under the door like they could. Sometimes there was nothing in the room, nothing at all, and I would lie on the mattress and cry. I would try to fall asleep, but I couldn’t sleep twenty-four hours a day, and I couldn’t stand the dreams.
I would curl into a ball, clutching my knees, and rock back and forth on the mattress, trying to comfort myself. And I cried and cried, hoping someone would come. I’ll be good, I said. And the attendant would stare at me unexpectedly through the little window with wires in it so I couldn’t break the glass and kill myself. Every few days, Doctor Clardy would come in surrounded by attendants and tell me that I had to learn how to “adjust.” “Well adjusted” was a phrase that Doctor Clardy used often. By the age of ten, I had adjusted well to being in solitary confinement.
And so I spent my childhood waking from nightmare to nightmare in locked rooms with scraps of torn comic books and crusts of bread and my friends the mice, with no one to tell me who I was. And when I was seventeen and the shrinks thought they had destroyed me, they set me free.
I was free.
Ted Chabasinski has been active in the psychiatric survivors liberation movement since 1971. He was the main organizer of the 1982 campaign that persuaded voters in Berkeley, California to ban shock treatment in that city. Ted now practices law in Berkeley.