There’s an old family story I grew up hearing on my mother’s side, that over the years became something of a joke — an anecdote told at parties and family functions.
“Your great-grandmother had six boys, and a nervous breakdown!” they’d say. Over and over and over again.
Part of me always wondered if it was even true. And an even deeper part of me feared that if it was, there was probably much more to the story that wasn’t very funny at all.
Experience tends to lend perspective, and when I became a mother of three boys myself, I would find my thoughts drifting to my great-grandmother. I would find myself coming to a point where I could understand hitting that wall that she must have found herself up against. In time, I became even more curious to know if the rumors were true. What had this so-called “nervous breakdown” really entailed?
After my third baby was born, I suffered from untreated postpartum depression, and for the first time in my life, I could relate to — and not just have empathy for — other women coping with mental health struggles.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 1 in 9 women will suffer from PPD. Of course, women today have resources at their disposal for treating depression. Some may be unaffordable or inadequate, but they are out there. Since my husband is a mental health nurse, I was more than aware of all the help that was out there during my struggle. That wasn’t my problem, though. My problem was that I didn’t want to admit I needed any help.
So where does that leave women 40 or 50 plus years ago? Were they even able to get the help that they so desperately needed?
One day, I asked my mother if she knew more about the story of Grandma’s infamous breakdown. She didn’t, but said she was going to ask her mother (my great-grandmother’s daughter-in-law). You see, it’s easy to forget just how “hush, hush” issues like depression were during that time. Today, people like me can choose to share their deepest, darkest experiences with the world online if they want to; mostly, so that others won’t feel alone. But back then, I’m willing to guess that everyone felt more or less alone when it came to these matters.
When my mother finally did come back to me with more details of the story, it chilled me to my core. My great-grandmother had apparently been sent away to an institution for a long period of time. At this institution, she endured electroconvulsive therapy — shock treatments.
While the therapy is still used today, it’s only to treat extremely severe cases of major depression, and it has come a very long way. Today, patients are put under general anesthesia and monitored in a controlled environment. But as I’ve since learned, this kind of therapy was often misused as a way to subdue and control patients patients in psychiatric hospitals.
To think of my grandmother — and so many women like her — being placed in one of these facilities and forced endure these treatments is … heartbreaking, to say the least. And while I don’t in fact know the true extent of my grandmother’s story, or if any of it was even against her will, it’s hard to ignore the many injustices that women like her faced at the time. Injustices that, for many years, have remained shrouded in secrecy.
If you look hard enough, though, the evidence is there. There is a good deal of documentation about women being committed to asylums as far back as the Victorian age — women who were labeled “insane” for suffering from anxiety, stress, and postpartum depression. They too were subjected to early forms of electroconvulsive therapies, though not much was known about the treatment then. But the harsh treatment of women within the medical world wasn’t just reserved for those with mental illness — in 1958, Ladies Home Journal published a story titled “Cruelty in Maternity Wards” that highlighted stories from women and nurses recounting inhumane treatment during childbirth. These tales are harrowing to read, and included incidents where women were being strapped down for hours in the lithotomy position.
I am grateful to live in a time of modern medicine with those who speak out against the stigma of mental illness, but I am also haunted by these injustices of the past. At the very least, I can respect my great-grandmother, and speak of her with only love and humility.
I only wish she were here today so I could turn to her for advice on raising my three sons; I think we would have been great friends.