Kenora man takes to world stage -as 'psychiatric survivor'

By Jim Mosher
Kenora News Enterprise
March 21, 1999

Wayne Lax is feeling pretty good about himself these days. And that may come as a bit of a surprise.

Lax, 58, spent 25 years of his life, from 1967 to 1992, in and out of psychiatric hospitals in Winnipeg, Kenora, Thunder Bay and Toronto. In all, he figures he logged 108 visits. But lately he's enjoyed a lot of time in the limelight, as he's taken on the mantle of psychiatric survivor.

His story centres on what he believes to be the inappropriate use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or shock treatment. ECT is a recognized psychiatric tool, but it has come under increasing scrutiny as survivor after survivor has come forward to relate personal stories about its often profoundly damaging effect.

We profiled Lax in a series of stories almost two years ago (See Kenora Enterprise, Sun., July 20, 1997). Since those stories were published, Lax has been drawn into the world of anti-psychiatry. He's been interviewed twice by Dan Weitz, host of ShrinkWrap, a Toronto radio show that makes no bones about its contempt for psychiatry.

Lax is now firmly ensconced in this world of criticism. Some of the critics are sweeping in their claims, and urge a dismantling of the whole edifice of modern psychiatry. But psychiatric associations in Canada and the United States continue to support controversial therapies such as ECT, which is considered a valuable therapy for people suffering from extreme forms of depression, particularly people who are clinically suicidal.

Psychiatrists say removing ECT as a therapeutic tool throws the baby out with the bath water. They say it is just one of many tools - and, like most treatments, must be used Judiciously and only when its use meets defined criteria.

The professionals also generally acknowledge there were abuses; that shock treatment was often prescribed inappropriately and administered carelessly in the past.

A quiet-spoken, rotund man, Lax struggles with a loss of memory he directly attributes to the 80 shock treatments he received. He cites medical files from Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital. The files contain contradictory clinical diagnoses that appear to support Lax's contention that his depression was deeply misunderstood.

Lax's tragic story begins in 1966. There'd been a severe winter storm. A Kenora cab driver at the time, Lax was kept hopping during a hectic evening. He'd spoken with his brother early in the day. But there wasn't time to chat too long. There were stranded customers waiting for service.

Lax would later find his brother's car under drifts of snow near the Lax family home in Kenora. His brother was inside the car - dead. He'd been asphyxiated by carbon monoxide fumes, a coroner's Inquest would later conclude.

It was too much for the 25-year-old Lax. Depressed, he turned to alcohol. A doctor would later suggest medication to deal with crippling depression and alcoholism. Then there was the fateful trip to a Winnipeg hospital, where he received his first shock treatment. He would later be prescribed a virtual pharmacy of psychotropic medications, many of them addictive and mind-altering. The electroshock treatments would continue.

It wasn't until 1992 that Lax, then 48, would make a decision that changed his life. After a motor vehicle accident and a charge of impaired driving, he put the brakes on his personal madness. He decided to go cold turkey and stop using the drugs that had detached him from his world. No more electroshocks. No more 'medicine.' It wasn't pretty, he recalls now. He says it took more than a year to cleanse his body of years of chemical assault. He refused medications - even turned down the shock therapy he'd been convinced was his final hope.

The journey to recovery continues for Lax. What galls and pains him is that the electroshock treatment he received on 80 occasions, robbed him of much of his memory. He lost the critical years with his family. He lost that sublime sense of connection that can only come with the bonds that love and a history create.

Lax's long and emotionally-charged story has made him something of an international celebrity. His story of alleged psychiatric abuses was included in a rivetting series in the Toronto Star last fall. Award-winning broadcast journalist Scott Simmie penned the multi-part series. Simmie won the tenth annual Atkinson Fellowship, which gave him a year to study the dark underside of mental health in Ontario and across the country.

Lax notes that Simmie has corresponded with him. He provided an Enterprise reporter with a copy of Simmie's Out of Mind - An Investigation into Mental Health. Simmie's conclusions come as little surprise to people like Lax, who knows firsthand the inadequacies of the mental health system.

"I'm not knocking every psychiatrist," says Lax. "But I can't see shocking people who have addictions. The main thing is that I'm moving on. Some people have to share their experiences."

Lax hasn't hit the lecture circuit, but his story is making the rounds in North America and Europe.

Some former mental patients or psychiatric survivors, as many like to be called, are making use of modern technology to get their message out. There are dozens of web sites on the Internet devoted to psychiatric criticism.

Not unlike others who have lifted the veil, Lax has become caught up in the rhetoric. But he's less strident in his criticisms than some in the anti-psychiatry movement. He favours arguing for improvements to how psychiatry is practised, rather than its wholesale destruction.

Lax's journey along the road to recovery has meant - as it does for many - bringing close attention to his personal experience. This approach is favoured, in part, because it is therapeutic.

One might call Lax a reluctant spokesperson. He says others have survived modern psychiatry but they do not have a voice. He's taken his recent time in the limelight with a deep humility.

But, while this unassuming man is bitter about what he lost, he is balanced in his criticisms of modern psychiatry. He acknowledges that psychiatry is a valued profession; that there are many who benefit from the ministrations of psychiatrists. That said, Lax is adamant that the "barbaric" use of electroshock must stop.

He's now a member of a handful of psychiatric survivors groups. Members share a common negative experience with electroshock. They exchange their stories, but also lobby governments and psychiatric associations around the world to discontinue a practice they say damages people.