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ALTERNATING CURRENT by Max Reif
Odds are, reader, you’ve never had ECT, short for electroconvulsive treatment and colloquially known as shock treatment. If that’s so, you may believe it’s a form of torture only a step up from lobotomy and maybe a few steps up from the electric chair.
For me, having had a series, it isn’t quite that simple. First of all, for the sake of credibility, my credentials: I’m an upstanding member of my community, a teacher and a published
author. I haven't had an "episode" like the one in this story, for more than 30 years now.
There were a few years earlier in my life-odyssey, though, during a drawn-out adjustment to adulthood that lasted way into my thirties, when I kept losing the trail. I’d find it awhile and be
very tuned in, creative, productive—and then it would disappear again, and I was off the map, you might say. Getting to know a psychiatric ward, or several of them, is an occupational hazard of
being off the map. There simply are no other kinds of refuge in our society for people in certain kinds of distress.
These places aren’t so bad, actually, unless they insist on pumping you full of drugs. And back in the early ‘80s, the period I’m talking about, if you or your parents had “a policy”, you could
check in to your friendly nearby psych ward for a couple of weeks almost for nothing.
It’s surprisingly easy to lose your mental balance, if you’re fragile in the first place. We’re all like tops spinning with the centrifugal momentum of all our habits, plus the underpinning of
our values and everything that’s gone before in our lives. How easy it is for a top to be upended!
Here’s an example: one time I started to feel overwhelmed by emotional residue from childhood issues, making its way up from deep inside. These matters had been resolved for the most part, yet
remained somewhat raw. There must have been external circumstances throwing me into myself as well, but I don’t remember what those were.
All I recall is that as I felt myself starting to lose it, I was finishing up a little booklet of meditations I’d written, copying and collating them with cardstock bindings to send to Kitty Davy
at the Meher Spiritual Center. It was touch-and-go whether I’d get them in the mail before my distress became a breakdown. I realized this during one of several walks back from the copy shop two
blocks away from my parents’ where I was living.
I did finish the job, getting the package of a couple dozen booklets into the mailbox with the right postage. Kitty later wrote to thank me, saying she’d give them out to retreat pilgrims. It was
a bit ironic that one of my pert little writings contained the sentence, “There’s no place to fall but into the arms of God,” because let’s face it, God, Your Arms can be as soft as a Mother’s, a
bunny’s, or a room-temperature stick of butter—and at other times, such as the one about to begin, as hard as pavement or wrought iron!
Walking away from the mailbox, I knew I needed to phone the hospital. Mother and Dad were out working, and when the doctor told me to come in, the only thing I could do was to get in my car and
drive myself there, even though I’d regressed to almost a catatonic state. I’m still not sure how I did it, stopping at all the red lights and making all the other rational as well as automatic
decisions entailed by such a ten-mile trip across town.
Well, this story isn’t about that particular episode. I just mention it as instructive, for there’s a lot about “the inner world of mental illness” that you may not be aware of. I was astounded many times over the years at what I discovered really happened in the course of events—stuff you don’t hear about or imagine. That’s what makes me go to the trouble to tell you all this.
I had a new female friend who happened to hear me mention a song I’d written and asked if I’d play it for her some time. I went over to her place one afternoon and shared it, along with several
others. She was moved, and gave me a big smile, which was dangerous, because I already found her quite attractive. Afterwards, I sat there in her living room talking with her while she, a single
mom, worked in the adjoining kitchen making a salad for her kids’ dinner. I kept seeing that big smile in my mind. Something in me began to get carried away with it, like a stallion running away
from the calm corral of my usual thoughts.
By the time I thanked her and left, that something was way out in the hills and still galloping, although I didn’t say anything. The next day, though, I began leaving phone messages for her and writing notes, one of which I mailed. All of this was completely ungrounded, and within a day I received a reply—not from the object of my ruminations, but from the policeman husband of a mutual friend. At that point I realized that I was in orbit somewhere and could not get back. It was hospital time.
I checked myself into Jewish, a place which I learned over several stays during the next two years, had great— albeit greasy—French fried mushrooms in their cafeteria. This was my initial sojourn
there. I settled in after the rather humiliating intake interview in which you have to tell the admitting resident what “A stitch in time saves nine” means, and started to hang with the current
crop of inmates. Most of them were insurance patients like me, and it was unclear what problems had brought them there. There was very little acting out on the ward, mostly just card-playing,
scrabble, TV, movies, talk and OT. It was like we were all gathered at a friendly spa.
I still remember the rather distinctive clique that developed during that stay. A couple named Adrian and Sandy had somehow gotten admitted together and were the patients of a venerable female
dean of psychiatry whom I never even set eyes on. Adrian was an older fellow, a printer by trade. I can still feel his gentleness as I write this. Sandy was something of a fundamentalist. I
picture earnestly saying, “And I do believe these are the Last Days.”
Then there were Roger, a tall, slick-looking redhead with a face that resembled a wooden puppet’s, and his very attractive girl friend, Chantille. My impression is that they really were on a
lark, that with insurance the hospital was cheaper than a bed-and-breakfast would have been. And there was Clifford Robinson, an intelligent African-American fellow who had a lot of business
ideas and was always hitting the rest of us up for money. I also remember an American lady named Betty whose distinction was being the first Caucasian-American I’d ever met who had
converted to mainstream Islam, and Darcy, a young woman I kept crossing paths with in the system, those years.
After a few days during which I don’t remember any treatment, I received an order that I’d be receiving a series of ECT. It turned out they were not unusual in the least at Jewish. Both Betty and
Darcy were also getting them, they told me when I shared the news.
I had no idea what to expect. Was there a medieval torture dungeon in the hospital basement? I consented to the treatments because although I was capable of sitting and playing cards with my fellow patients, my mind was still whizzing away from me and there did not seem any other way to get it back.
Over the next few days I learned the ritual of ECT. Those of us scheduled for treatments on a given day were roused before the sun and led to a large, pastel-colored room with several adjustable
reclining chairs. We were each helped into a chair, covered with a blanket, and left to wait.
When it was my turn, a nurse came first and explained the procedure. She told me I’d be receiving an injection that would put me to sleep for the duration of the electricity-induced convulsion.
I’d experience no distress. When I woke up, it would be all over. She dabbed my skin with alcohol and attached the electrodes and then gave me a rubber mouth guard similar to the one
I’d worn as a high school football player.
A little later someone came by to give me the injection, and the next thing I was aware of, indeed, was waking up and a little while later being led back to my room. After a bit more
sleep there, I’d emerge for breakfast and whatever “the gang” was doing, in OT or wherever, unless I felt like reading or writing by myself. The treatments were scheduled for every other day, and
the series consisted of five or of them, I think.
So there was nothing whatsoever that was dramatic about the process. No one screamed. No one acted like a zombie. And in a few days, remarkably, I felt like my old self again—minus a few short-term memories, which I was told would return before long. The horse was back in the corral. My thoughts were calm—normal.
I used some of my remaining hospital time to contemplate what I had experienced. How could this supposedly barbarous practice actually be so benign?
For a number of years I’d been a student of Eastern mysticism. During certain periods I’d had unusual—in a positive way—experiences. One of these involved experiencing God as Light. Of
course, that is a mystical truism. God is spoken of as “brighter than millions of suns and moons”. I’d had only inklings of this, but even the inklings were very powerful.
However, I’d had another experience of God as Light once in which I felt I was being shown that this meant all light—not just “mystical” light coming directly from a divine or cosmic source within, but—and specifically in this context—the streetlights along the St. Louis riverfront during a walk I was taking before dawn on that particular morning, and the light in the lamp in a room I was renting, which derived its radiance from the flow of electrons coming out of the socket in the wall.
It stood to reason that if all light were divine, then the electric shocks which brought my mind back to its base line were themselves a form of “mystical experience”!
I felt extremely pleased and satisfied to have arrived at this conviction. It did away with any sense of unnaturalness, any of those “medieval torture” caricatures. I felt myself laughing about
the whole thing with a bunch of imagined—or perhaps merely disembodied—pot-bellied zen masters!
The side-effect that I’d been warned about, short-term memory-loss, did occur temporarily, but actually turned out to be fun! I mean, if the spiritual ideal is living in the Present, what is more conducive than not being able to remember the past?
I was returned to a childlike state of wonder. One morning I signed myself out of the hospital for a walk in the Central West End, the adjoining neighborhood that was home to many of St. Louis’
coffeehouses, pubs, art galleries and antique shops. I encountered every sight with fresh joy, free of any clouds of personal emotion.
A little later that same Sunday, my parents picked me up for lunch and a movie. We went to a restaurant in that same neighborhood, then to what may have been the worst movie I’ve ever seen, Robin
Williams and Shelley Duvall in “Popeye”. Ms. Duvall of course was a dead-ringer for Olive Oyl, and Williams was a perfect Popeye, but the movie was cartoonish enough to start with, and in my
state it was positively surreal!
Still, my state made me like a little child, and I absorbed like a sponge all the love my folks showered on me, without my usual resistance. The memory of that day remains dear to me.
It wasn’t until the treatments were finished and I was discharged that I discovered a more serious side-effect. Gradually, I began to realize that though ECT had slowed my mind, it had also closed my heart! Prior to the episode which had led to my checking into the hospital, I’d been living a life inspired by love— by an embodiment of Love named Meher Baba, who had lived a perfect life of Love on Earth between 1894 and 1969. Our age, I’d learned, at first intellectually and then experientially, was an “Avataric Age.” Spiritual opportunities abounded that under normal worldly conditions were far beyond the reach of all but a few. My heart had opened numerous times to joy, even bliss. My life had become an adventure that awed and humbled me. There seemed no limit to possibility.
I had also experienced several “falls from Grace”. Each was an indescribable agony. It could take months or a year to regain poise and joy that had been so effortless I had taken them practically
Now, back out of the hospital, I was ostensibly normal again. But as I went about my life, I came to realize that the spigot of Love—with a capital L—had been shut off. I really couldn’t feel
anything at all. I wasn’t obsessed with anyone or anything, just completely high and dry.
I had nowhere near the expertise in “the technology of the sacred” to know what to do, nor did the psychiatrists I knew. I’d had one doctor during these years to whom I would complain, “My heart
is dead!” or “My heart is closed!” He would look baffled each time and reply quizzically, “Your physical heart?”
As so often happened, I was thrown back on my own resources, which basically consisted of one thing: desperate, sincere prayer.
Several weeks after my discharge, I was trying to live a normal life in spite of the non-stop internal suffering. I can’t remember how I spent my days. Several periods during these years have gotten merged in my mind. I don’t think I had a steady job, but I may have been doing temp work here and there.
For a little diversion, I called my friend Ron one day and asked if he’d like to try the new little Greek diner that had opened up in the building that housed the Tivoli Theater in the Delmar
Loop. “I’m game,” he said, and we decided to meet there at 6.
Ron and I had a great deal in common. For one thing, we’d both been born on February 9, 1948, though I’d been in New York and he in St. Louis at the time. We’d gone all the way through the public
schools together, from kindergarten. In fact, I still remember the two of us in kindergarten, building skyscrapers out of blocks with a few raucous companions, then dropping little female dolls
down the center shaft and thinking it was very funny.
We’d both left the area after high school, had both taken a spiritual turn, and by coincidence were both back in our home town. He had studied meditation and travelled to India twice. His
spiritual “juice” had provided a boost that had helped me get going after a previous breakdown.
I can still recall the hot summer sun blazing at my back even that late in the day as I walked into the restaurant, and the immediate relief the air conditioning provided. Ron came in a moment
later. We sat down at a table toward the back of the small establishment and studied the menu, and a little later went up to the window to order.
On the way, we passed the rather extensive, army-green back, topped by a mop of dirty yellow, of the only other customer in the place. The green was “army jacket” green, and it was topped by a
mop of yellow. As I passed I noticed that a woman around my age was sitting there, with a HUGE vertical pile of books in front of her. Not wanting to stare, that was all I saw.
But when the bell rang ten minutes later and we returned to the window to pick up our orders of moussaka and souvlaki, and in my case a diet coke, the mustached and authentically Greek-looking
proprietor told me angrily under his breath as he nodding at her, “She sit 4 hours and only buy coffee!”
This time as I passed, I looked not at the slightly disheveled table, but at the pile of books. They were all poetry or spiritual books. I noticed Yeats’ A VISION, the mystical prose work he wrote about “gyres” and the phases of the moon. I’d once tried unsuccessfully to read it. She had poetry by Emily Dickenson, a book about astral travel, one by Krishnamurti. I was still only able to take in a few titles without seeming to gawk.
I went back and started eating with Ron, but for some reason my mind kept going back to the young woman and her books. I finally excused myself for a moment, telling Ron I’d be right
I walked around and approached her table from the front. (Always go in the front door with people, a wise friend had once told me.) The picture I saw was still a little strange. She was overweight, and she looked as if she may have been up for two days. The table was strewn with crushed napkins.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I couldn’t help noticing your books. I write poetry and have spiritual interests, myself. Are you a poet?”
“I try,” she said, looking at me and revealing a really bad set of teeth.
“I tried to read A VISION once, but it was too much for me. I like Yeats’ poems, though.”
“So do I.”
“Do you have a particular spiritual path you follow?”
“I’m in Eckankar,” she said.
“Astral travel? I’ve been taught to be a bit wary of that.”
“It’s not really just astral travel. We’re taught that we’re not the body. Astral travel is just one way of actually experiencing that.”
“I see,” I said. “Have you heard of Meher Baba?”
“Yes,” she said. “Our teacher has quoted him. Love is self-communicative…”
“Well, listen, my name is Martin,” I told her. “I don’t want to be rude to my friend over there, but maybe you and I could get together some time and talk more.”
“Sure,” she said. “You can show me your poetry. I’ll show you mine. Here’s my phone number.” She scribbled on a piece of paper and I picked it up. I said goodbye and started walking back toward
my own table, wondering what had possessed me to approach her—while at the same time feeling that I’d had no choice about it.
This story is not going the way I want. I’m having trouble giving you Gail, reader. I can’t find her voice. It was all a long time ago, but maybe I didn’t listen to her as well as I should have. Certain images of my time with Gail stand out in bold relief in my memory, and others have absconded. But the main thing, and this is maybe giving away what gives the story its suspense, the main thing is that being with this troubled, overweight woman with bad teeth, whom I think I knew for a mere two months, who came out of nowhere in the rather unusual way I just described, and then disappeared into the night just as abruptly, it very naturally did what medical science could not do, could not even understand—it re-opened my heart.
We would just hang out together. I was still living at my parents’. We would talk about poetry and we did share one another’s.
We weren’t exactly “a couple”. It’s hard to put a label on what we were—companions, for that brief period. We were sort of outside of Society. We’d never go out on a date or anything like that.
We had no friends who ever joined us. It was just the two of us—our own society, in a way. She would always be wearing the same olive drab army jacket, the same old clothes. But what can I say?
Her friendship handed my life back to me.
I guess some people saw us as a couple. Harold, the owner of Baton Music in the Loop, where we sometimes walked around, for example, would stand outside his shop sometimes when there were no
customers. When we’d walk by he’d flash a big smile and say, “Hi, Gail and Martin!” He knew me because I’d long bought guitar strings and songbooks there. I don’t know how he knew
I thought I could see his mind-set when he’d greet us like that. He had us neatly pigeonholed as two local losers, people who had been defeated by life and had become “outsiders”. There was a
certain grey-bearded fellow who’d once been a professor and his grey-haired sister, who lived in their car together and could be seen walking all over the city. I think he saw us as like them.
Well, they had their story, too, and the reasons they lived the way they did.
Gail and I didn’t have sex. I didn’t feel sexually attracted to her. But we did have “hugging sessions”, at least one of them and probably more. It was at one of these that I had an
unusual kind of revelation that may be a key to the little “Society” the two of us formed.
It happened one evening. We were in my parents’ living room. It was a beautiful, long room. My mother could have been a decorator. The room had gold wall-to-wall carpet and gold drapes. The
drapes were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
I don’t know why we were in that room, but at some point we began hugging while lying on the carpet. I gathered Gail up in my arms and just lay there with her, both of us feeling secure. I
remember looking each other’s eyes, and as we did so I began to feel an atmosphere that became so powerful I’d say that only very superficially were we really “in” my parents’ house
In every other sense, I felt we were somewhere and something that I can only surmise we had been in another lifetime—two lepers, living together in a dark, dark cave, with only our bodies for
warmth, only our two bodies clinging together. We had each other. That was all we had, our only relief from the immense loneliness of our lives as social outcasts, pariahs.
I took Gail to a Meher Baba meeting because I was sure that, her spiritual thirst evident in that tower of fifteen books at the Greek restaurant, she would soak up His Love like a dry sponge and be forever hooked, as I had been, to the really invisible and unlimited Lover at the other end of the line.
The St. Louis Baba group met in the suburbs at the home of a couple, a lovely home with a big painting of Baba in the living room, where there were sumptuous cushioned chairs and a sofa. I was
excited about bringing Gail. These gatherings and our little group truly fed me most of the time, and I believed the same would be true for someone who’d been drawn into my orbit.
The meeting proceeded informally as usual, with people reading Messages or poems, or talking about Baba in their lives, or someone would tell about a recent pilgrimage to the Myrtle Beach Center.
As the “resident musician”, I played and sang a song. I kept glancing over to see when Gail would “get it”. I assumed she would look at me and I’d see everything reflected in the knowing,
grateful smile on her face.
But it never happened. Midway through the meeting, she pulled out a book she’d brought and started reading. Everyone was tolerant, but it seemed a kind of an anti-social thing to do. She
was making a statement, “There’s nothing here for me, and I’m just going to slip into this parallel universe in this same space, while I have to be here.” I couldn’t understand it,
really, but I had no choice but to accept that I’d mis-judged something.
In the course of all this, my heart opened. When that happens, it’s the most natural thing. It’s almost like that openness, that love of life, is best known by its absence. And by the first days of “being myself again”.
God does indeed work mysteriously! First, the technological retrieval of a mind out of control, and then the opposite technique, a very humble human love connection, to bring the heart back into
play. I could never have imagined this would turn the key.
Toward the end of the summer, Gail called me one night and asked me to drive her to a psychiatric emergency room. I waited for hours with her. She was having some kind of hallucination, but she
wouldn’t tell me more.
They admitted her. When I went to visit her there a few days later, she told me she was being discharged in a day or two and was moving to live with her sister in Virginia.
And she was gone, without leaving me an address or a phone number. I walked around now with only the memory of her, of this unusual companion who had come into my life from out of nowhere like an
angel brought for a specific person, and disappeared just as mysteriously. Sometimes I wonder if she really was an angel, or one of God’s agents—if she really had a life on Earth. If she’s alive
I went on to leave town myself within a year, and to have more intensely joyful and intensely painful periods, adventures. My heart opened and closed again and again, before a certain greater
stability started to dawn in my life. But that time after the shock treatments, it was closed air tight. I was at a real dead end. No road before me—until I walked into a Greek restaurant one
evening and found a young woman with fifteen books piled up in a tower at her table.
All this was a good thirty five years ago now. As someone sang once, and is still singing on jukeboxes and YouTube, what a long, strange trip it’s been.