Grace in a Locked Ward

The frayed memory of teenage depression in 1958.

Many years ago, when I was 13, I began to have disturbing and fearful thoughts. I couldn’t sleep at night for fear that I would die and most certainly go to Hell. I remember crouching in my closet in the dead of night foolishly thinking that hiding there would somehow protect me. Oddly, I seemed quite normal all day long; the fears gripped me only in the dark.

My parents became aware of my behavior and were understandably frightened by it. They tried to encourage me by telling me that I was God’s beloved child. But nothing they said or did could ward off my dread.

Finally, I think on the advice of our pastor, they took me to Pine Rest Christian Psychiatric Hospital in Grand Rapids to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Mulder. I remember he seemed very old. I only talked with him for a few minutes, of which I don’t remember anything. Then my parents talked with him for much longer while I waited outside.

When they came out, they looked sad and troubled. They surprised and confused me by tearfully saying goodbye. Finally, they walked through the door, and a man in a white uniform locked it behind them. That moment of locking the door was, in some ways, one of the most significant moments in my life. I don’t remember anyone explaining to me what was going on.

Lonely together
The next thing I knew I was in a three-bed room with two old men. One of them had a look of panic in his eyes and was probably suffering with dementia. The other man, George Smith, was lying flat in bed. He couldn’t speak or move. No one told me what happened to George, but I now assume he had some kind of traumatic brain injury.

I was afraid of both of them and spent as little time in the room as possible. I really don’t remember what I did all day long. George had a pack of cigarettes on his bedside table, and I noticed that once in a while an attendant would light one up for him and place it in his mouth. One night as I lay awake, I heard him groaning. I hesitantly went to him. He seemed to move his eyes to the cigarettes, so I took one and lit it. We sat there in silence as I took a puff and then carefully put it in his mouth. Sharing a cigarette was somehow comforting for me and I hope to him.

One night, as we smoked together, I noticed that there were tears running down George’s face. I felt something of his overwhelming sadness, but I also felt important. I could be there for this bereft human being, and I had a companion in my own pain and loneliness.

1950s ‘treatment’
The only therapy I remember was a weekly visit with old Dr. Mulder in which I didn’t say much and I don’t remember anything he said. And then the “treatment” began. I was taken downstairs and told to wait in a hallway with other men. One by one, they were taken into a small room. I saw them emerge a few minutes later being wheeled away on a stretcher. This was not comforting.

The treatment, of course, was Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT). This was the 1950’s, and it was a widely used treatment for a variety of mental illnesses. (Think: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.) In those days the amount of electrical current administered was much higher than today. When my turn came, I was terrified as they tied me down to the gurney with leather straps.

They put something that looked like an earphone on my two temples and administered an injection to put me out. The next thing I knew I woke up in my bed. A few times they gave me the jolt before the medication took full effect, and I felt the convulsion surge through my body. I learned later that I had 18 ECT treatments.

One of the major side effects of ETC is memory loss. So I don’t remember much of what happened after the treatments began. At some point I was released from lockdown and allowed to roam the grounds. At that time Pine Rest had quite a large campus in Cutlerville, which included a farm and even its own sewage treatment facility. Mr. Apol was a supervisor for the buildings and grounds, and he kindly took me under his wing. We worked together on the farm picking asparagus, and he even taught me how to test beakers of water for contamination after sewage treatment. I started feeling like a real person.

At sunset
One vivid and lasting memory is being out in the fenced yard behind my building, so I assume it happened rather early in my stay. It was a fine summer evening, near sunset, and the air was warm and soft. I was looking at the clouds in the west as they began to gather colour from the setting sun. The sadness and loneliness washed over me, but I also had the distinct feeling that I was not alone, and that a divine presence surrounded me. I felt hope and peace for the first time in months.

I stayed at Pine Rest for three months, the whole summer of my 14th year. I did get better; the pervasive fears left me. Perhaps it was the ECT, I don’t know. But still, it seems a barbaric treatment plan for an adolescent boy and would probably be thought abusive today. That fall I returned home and entered ninth grade quite easily. My nighttime fears were gone. Years later I went to Pine Rest to look at my medical records. I didn’t learn much except that I was diagnosed with “adolescent depression.” I have never had a major depressive episode since.

I did become a rather rebellious adolescent from that experience. I think I was determined that I would never again be in that place of vulnerability, so I decided to be the one who acted rather than be acted upon. I was heedless of my parents and ended up doing a lot of drinking and general mayhem in high school and early college. It took a girl, later to be my first wife Judy, to help me discover an identity deep inside that was capable of more than meaningless rebellion.

Sacramental assurance
Two events stand out for me from that summer. One, of course, is the moment when the door locked as my parents left. Years later, a spiritual director suggested to me that the little boy behind that locked door was still there, deep inside. It didn’t take much persuading for me to acknowledge that as a likely factor in my long-time fear of vulnerability, and the need to have control.

The other is that moment in the fenced yard at sunset. It has left me with the vivid, almost sacramental assurance that there will be light even in the darkest moments of my life. To me, this came to represent God’s loving and faithful presence despite my fears and failures. Perhaps it’s one reason for my life-long theological interest in the physical, sacramental ways by which God reaches out to us with his grace.

Read a respone to this article from a current mental healthcare professional.

  • Len is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church and former Interim Editor of the Banner.

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