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Medicine stories: session summaries shared with permission, highlighting the ancestral origins of issues, and how family constellations can bring insight or resolution. All names have been changed.

Myself and Jane constellated items from her family archive, one being a diary from her mother. The diary contained repeated depiction of a lamppost nearby, the maintenance cover was broken exposing the inner wiring. Jane’s mother had written on many occasions to the council and others seeking its repair.

The diary revealed a seemingly obsessive worry repeated throughout its pages, that a dog would be electrocuted if it were to wee upon the broken lamppost. Reading it was a perplexing window into the mental health problems suffered by her.

At one point I psychically scanned the diary, to gain insight into the content. From the perspective of family constellations, thoughts that seem crazy are only ever out of context. I.e. the assumption is that there will be a person within the family tree, with whom the apparently “crazy” thoughts make sense.

Upon scanning the first thing I saw was an elderly lady (not the querent’s mother whom I would recognise) who said “that is mine, I will take it back please”. I am initially confused that someone else seems to think the diary is hers. Next I saw a triangular relationship between the Jane’s mother, maternal grandmother and the grandmothers brother.

This great uncle had severe mental health problems, and was committed to a psychiatric institution in the 1950’s. I intuitively realise that the Great Uncle is receiving electric shock therapy in that place, that his sister is aware of this and conceals her distress about it from her daughter.

Some further research reveals even more disturbing historical detail. In the early 1950’s electric shock therapy was prevalent in UK psychiatric units. It had grown massively in fact (20 fold) during this time, and it was administered “unmodified” – i.e. without muscle relaxant or anaesthesia, leading to convulsions strong enough to fracture bones.

It was openly used to control patients as much as intended for their benefit. In some institutions its use was by todays standards inhumanely profligate. Take St James Hospital, Portsmouth, for instance, where William Liddell Milligan gave neurotic patients ECT up to four times daily. His aim was “to reduce the patient to the infantile level, in which he is completely helpless and doubly incontinent”*

An interesting side note is that one of the main proponents and developers of ECT Ugo Cerletti, predominantly conducted his research into ECT for epilepsy by inducing seizures in dogs.

With this history it becomes easy to see the context in which the apparently “crazy” thoughts could make sense. Were the grandmother to be visiting her much loved younger brother, she would be aware of his treatment and would perhaps conceal distress about this from her daughter.

Systemic theory says things that are hidden will surface to be dealt with in future generations. The distressed diary entries and the repeated letters to the council, could be seen to express her mothers fears regarding the Great Uncle. Her anxiety says “this poor creature is being hurt by an electric shock, won’t someone in authority do something to stop his pain?” and yet falls on deaf ears.

I conclude from this, that the woman trying to take the diary back was the Grandmother. In systemic terms she was taking back what was hers, that the daughter had carried for her.

* Source Wikipedia History of electroconvulsive therapy in the United Kingdom

Image courtesy of Surrey Archive mental hospital records