A New Zealand woman has opened up about her harrowing experiences of abuse in hopes of helping others.
Joan Bellingham is one of many survivors sharing their stories as part of the ongoing Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry, a royal commission established in 2018 by the New Zealand government to investigate abuses by health care officials in state and faith-based hospitals between 1950 and 1999.
During a filmed testimony, published by the New Zealand Herald on behalf of the royal commission, Bellingham said she was placed in and out of a hospital over the course of 12 years, and was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) over 200 times during this time simply because she was a lesbian.
"I have been gay for as long as I can remember. I never thought of it as something I needed to hide away,” said Bellingham. It all began at 18 years old, when she was being picked on by her colleagues while training to be a nurse at Burwood Hospital in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1970. The biggest bully was her head nurse, who once told her, "If you think you're going to be a nurse, you're wrong."
Despite the toxic homophobia permeating in the world during that time, Bellingham said she was never afraid to speak openly about her sexuality. As a result, she became a target of abuse and false claims from fellow nurses — including accusations that she was stealing drugs.
Things took a dark turn when she was told that she needed treatment. She was taken to The Princess Margaret Hospital, a public hospital in Christchurch run by the Canterbury District Health Board.
She would eventually go in and out of the hospital for the next 15 years against her will.
"I didn't have my clothes with me or anything. I had no choice in the matter,” she said of the day she was first taken. Bellingham’s said her parents were concerned but they never questioned the doctor’s authority because “they were like gods.”
No one would listen when she pleaded with staff that they'd made a mistake, and argued against claims that she was suffering from "neurotic personality disorder." Instead, they force-fed drugs to sedate her with no explanation of what she was taking.
These antipsychotic drugs “blurred time,” according to the Otago Daily Times, and eventually Bellingham became suicidal. Medical notes obtained by the paper showed that she was given “over three times” the normal amount of these drugs.
"The worst part is that I never felt like I was given a genuine choice, or that the doctor was listening to me," she said.
Furthermore, Bellingham was subjected to ECT over 200 times during these years. At times, they were so intense that she would go temporarily blind.
"There was no regular pattern. Sometimes it would happen twice a day,” she explained. "It felt like razor blades going through my body. I would vomit and cry and beg them not to do it again."
At one point, doctors placed her in confinement without a toilet when she was heavily sedated. Nurses punished her when she urinated on the floor. "I was like a walking zombie,” she said. “I felt so humiliated. I felt like I had no reason to live. I hated myself."
Through it all, her male doctor would continuously asked questions about her sexuality. “He would ask me questions like, 'How many times a week do you have sex with your partner?’ and 'What is it like?’ I would become very scared and not want to be left alone in a room with him."
Bellingham’s last visit to the hospital was in 1982, but the emotional, physical, and mental damage had already been done. As a result of the ECTs, Bellingham doesn’t remember key events in her life in her 20s. She was also diagnosed with hepatitis C, which she thinks came from the ECT rods.
"The uncertainty with seeking redress was almost as bad as the abuse," she added. "My hope is that no one has to go through what I went through."
Bellingham had previously received $10,000 in 1999 when she filed a claim over the ECT burns to her scalp. She also received $1,500 for her chronic headaches.
Over the years, she has tried desperately to make her story known but the only acknowledgment she received was in 2012, when the hospital apologized and paid her over $8,000 as a “wellness” payment and aid toward her legal fees, which she claims didn’t account for nearly enough.