My Shocking Memories


Sauntering thoughtfully down memory lane,

in the shade of a double row of ancient trees

planted by the hands of long dead minor royalty,

I find myself once more beneath the gates

of the Lunatic Asylum where once I was a nurse.

A crumbling red-brick Victorian ediface

looming out of a pharmacological fog.

O Must I remember?

Bah! Be Wretched Muse to me then Wolston Park,

and I will worry my memories

like a dog gnaws a bone.

I will gnaw thy rancid marrow and spit thee out.

Of course there were the minor, every-day horrors

that you’d expect.

Like cleaning out the red and gaping socket

of the one-eyed old woman with Alzeimers.

Her dry, cracked tongue like a parrot’s

kept bobbing in and out of her mouth, a nervous affliction

but disconcerting;

or cleaning the bedsores of the bedridden,

but these things were easy, there were

vaguer all pervading horrors harder to fight.

An atmosphere of dismal malaise hung over the place

like a damp, grey shroud. An awful Inertia pervaded

every soul. Here there were no futures,

this was the Place where Dead Roads meet.

Playing Bingo with the old men in the geriatric ward

on Christmas Eve beneath the feeble yellow lights,

I felt a Great Sadness sweep my soul.

Sometimes I think the sadness never went away.

There were other Horrors in between the two extremes. More mundane horrors, they’d been thoroughly institutionalised, became part of the furniture in fact.

Routine does that. Even in Buchenwald there would have been times when an unreal feeling of Normality would reign. The sun would be shining. The birds singing. The chimneys smoking. Just another Spring morning.

At the Asylum it was Electro Shock Day, a grand old Institution in its own right.

Usually they did all the ECT (electro convulsive therapy) jobs on Friday. By this time

(the late seventies/early eighties) electro shock had already acquired growing public odium. But though it had fallen out of fashion with the fickle public, here at the Asylum they held to the old ways yet, and quietly and methodically

electrocuted a dozen patients a week.

We didn’t strap the patients down, they were given a short acting anaesthetic that knocked them out for forty minutes or so and were zapped while they slept. Even so, four nurses would hold down each of the patients when they were being shocked,

pinning their limbs firmly so they wouldn’t flail and convulse, breaking bones and tearing muscles as every fibre in their body contracted from the electric surge.

Reminded me of when they hooked up some wires to a dead toad in Biology class back in school so we could watch the legs kick spastically when an electric current was turned on. Well, electricity had a similar effect on the hapless patients. I seemed to recall they had some sort of mouth guard in place too so they wouldn’t bite off their tongue.

Anyhoo, afterwards we’d casually check their pulse and breathing, and keep an eye on them till they came around. Then after a cup of tea and a biscuit they’d be led, dazed and confused, back to the wards to recover.

As a junior nurse I often used to draw shock duty, escorting the unprotesting patients like lambs to the slaughter, and leading them back to lie down. It always felt sneaky, zapping them while they were knocked out and defenceless. Like mugging someone in their sleep. Still, better than being awake while they electrify your brain I suppose. Now that really WAS torture.

They called it Electro Shock THERAPY,

but as far as I could see it was only ever used punitively.

They basically used it a method of Control,

pull patients who were “acting up” back into line.

Of course the written records

paid lying lip-service to the therapeutic notion:

“The patient is more co-operative

and better integrated into the life of the ward.”

Weasel words of a dead bureaucratic hand

heavy on the Controls..They used

the same language in the Moscow clinics

for the “politically insane”.

Yes, see what happens if a patient interferes

with the smooth running

of the Institution.

That’s the problem with being a psychiatric patient, you see,

every discontent is read

as part of your disease.

Arguing with the Head Nurse?

Surely a sign of an aggressive schizophrenic tendency!

Time to cure them with electricity!

A patient wants to be left alone?

They must be Withdrawing!

An unhealthy Schizoid Symptom!

Better snap them out of it

with a dose of ECT!

And so it goes.

There were a couple of old patients there

been shocked hundreds of times over the years,

they used to be “difficult” but now

just see how quiet and co-operative they are,

hat pulled low hiding the eyes,

they only need an occasional shock now

to remind them to behave.

I wonder if they’re still shocking them there now

behind the red-brick walls?

They say the old place has been broken up,

it’s changed now, modern and more humane,

they don’t do that sort of thing anymore, but then,

that’s what people used to tell me before I worked there,

and they were wrong.


I never saw anyone cured.

The only thing that sticks in my mind now,

when someone mentions Electro Shock,

is that dead toad’s legs,

spasmodically kicking the air.



The Reverend Hellfire is a practising performance poet and an ordained minister of the Church of Spiritual Humanism AND the Church of the Universe.

He feels your pain. Reluctantly.



~ by reverendhellfire on October 23, 2011.

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