A Family Affair: `I thought that I was being cremated alive'

Twenty-five years ago, Derek Wright Hutchinson had rare brain surgery after suffering from depression. The 52-year-old former engineer lives in Kirkstall, Leeds, with his wife Carol, 46, who is also his carer. They have seven children from previous marriages
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I was admitted to High Royds Hospital, near Leeds, in September 1973 with depression. It was the first time I'd been depressed. It felt like a firework had gone off in my head and I couldn't think properly. I was given eight shots of ECT, and put on psychotropic drugs. I can't remember whether or not they actually helped.

Three weeks later they suggested I should have a brain operation, called a hypothalamotomy. It had never been done before in Britain. They said it was to control aggression. I wasn't aggressive at that time. In the past I had got into lots of fights. I had been a joy-rider and was sent to borstal. About five years before the operation I had served six months for assault.

When you have ECT it completely trashes your mind. I didn't know what was going on. The operation was performed in two stages at Leeds General Infirmary the following February. First they pulled back the skin on my forehead, and drilled two holes into my skull. They then stuck a nylon ball into each hole.

Nine days later an electrode was pushed through a hole in each of the balls until it reached my hypothalamus, in the centre of my brain. It regulates certain functions of the body such as body temperature, appetite and sleep. It's also associated with rage and aggression.

I was given 10 shocks. It felt as though my arms and legs were being broken, and my body was being crushed. It was an all-consuming pain.

Each time, the surgeon asked me whether I felt any fear - he was trying to find where fear was located in my hypothalamus, because that was the part they said should be destroyed. He then put in a different electrode and I started feeling so hot I thought I was melting - he was coagulating part of my hypothalamus. He burnt me through both holes for 30 seconds. I thought that I was in a coffin being cremated alive. My heart stopped and they brought me around.

I was discharged a week later. The doctors said they were satisfied with the result, but I didn't know what they was talking about. I eventually went back to work, but up until two years ago, I was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. At times I became more violent. Two years after the operation I was convicted of aggravated burglary, and given a two-year suspended sentence.

In 1978 I left my first wife, Ruth, and our five children, because I thought there was a chance that I might hurt the bairns. Being apart from them caused me a lot of distress. Ruth divorced me in 1980. I met Carol a year later and we got married in 1982.

My mind was so confused I wasn't sure whether the operation had actually happened. It was so unbelievable. In 1993 I started getting my medical notes from the hospitals, but I didn't understand what they meant at the time because I was in and out of hospital with depression.

In 1996 I had a brain scan, which also proved that the operation had taken place. That's when I fully realised what had happened. It was so devastating - like being told I had cancer. The notes say that I would be ideal for surgery because I had ``no gross psychiatric abnormality''. I feel that they used me like an animal. Only three of us had the operation. The same year as the brain scan I was diagnosed with severe depressive illness and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Since the operation I've made seven suicide attempts. It's Carol who has kept me alive. She makes sure I get to hospital and my stomach is pumped. Over the years she has been a wife to me, a social worker, a care assistant, a nurse and a counsellor. Every day she came to hospital to see me. That meant everything to me. I would be dead by now if it wasn't for her - she's rescued me so many times.


I met in a pub. His chat-up line was: "I've got five children, my mother's away, and can you iron?" I thought "nutcase". He kept ringing and I decided to go out with him - he seemed a nice person. I fell for him because he was romantic and always made me laugh, and the following year we got married. He didn't say anything about his past.

The trouble started a year later when his friend was killed in an accident at work. saw it. He started withdrawing, and became very depressed. I then found him on the bathroom floor - he'd taken a bottle of pills. I was devastated to think that he could actually do it. It made me feel worthless. I thought I was doing my best to help him. I blamed myself - I must be doing something wrong or he wouldn't want to kill himself.

This has happened five or six times over the years. One time he slit his wrists. If he ever succeeded I would be devastated.

After two or three years of being married he started saying he had had a brain operation, but I didn't believe him - it sounded so incredible. When I saw his medical notes in 1993 I felt awful because I hadn't believed him all those years. What they did turns my stomach. I can't believe anyone would do anything like that.

He's totally the opposite from the man I married. He's changed from being a friendly person to someone who's very depressed and withdrawn. His humour is still there, on and off, but it's usually when someone else is around. Living with him is like being on a rollercoaster - I never know what he is going to be like when he gets out of bed. I have to be careful about what I say because he can suddenly snap. When he's depressed, which happens once every two to three weeks, he's like a zombie, and sits and stares into space. There have been times when I've had to wash and dress him.

Sometimes I wonder whether it's really worth staying and putting up with it. It's been 18 years of hell, on and off. If I had known about all the years of pain ahead of me, I would have had second thoughts about marrying him. But I've never regretted it, because I love him.