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A Mind That Found Itself: An Autobiography

Creator: Clifford Whittingham Beers (author)
Date: 1910
Publisher: Longmans, Green, and Co., New York
Source: Available at selected libraries

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But my mode of living was not without its distressing incidents. Whenever the attendants were wanted at the office, an electric bell was rung. During the fourteen months that I remained in this hospital in a depressed condition, the bell in my ward rang several hundred times. Never did it fail to send through me a mild shock of terror, for I imagined that at last the hour had struck for my transportation to the scene of trial. Relatives and friends would be brought to the ward -- heralded, of course, by a warning bell -- and short interviews would be held in my room, during which the visitors had to do all the talking. My eldest brother, whom I shall refer to hereafter as my conservator, called often. He seldom failed to use one phrase which annoyed and disturbed me.


"You are looking better and getting stronger," he would say. "We shall straighten you out yet."


To be "straightened out," was a phrase which had a certain sinister ambiguity. It might refer to the end of the hangman's rope, or to a fatal electric shock. It would of course be difficult to avoid all ambiguity of speech in talking to one afflicted with delusions of persecution, but such care as can be exercised would contribute to the patient's peace of mind.


I preferred to be let alone and the assistant physician in charge of my case, after several ineffectual attempts to engage me in conversation, humored my persistent taciturnity. For over a year nothing passed between us further than an occasional conventional salutation. Subsequent events have led me to doubt the wisdom of this policy, and to infer that had my timid confidence once been gained some of my delusions might have been undermined, if not talked to death. As I finally seduced my Unreason into at least a semblance of sanity, by supplying myself with desired proofs as to the genuineness of relatives and friends, is it not reasonable to oppose that similar proofs, cleverly offered by others, might have produced the same result earlier? Among psychiatrists I find the opinion that it is only at an advanced stage of recuperation that such an expedient would have any chance of success; and that even in the event of success, the time so saved would scarcely be worth considering. Nevertheless, instead of assuming that delusions must correct themselves -- if they are ever to be corrected -- physicians (more scrupulously, I think, than they do) might give the patient the benefit of every doubt, and exercise their skill from time to time to ascertain, if nothing more, whether or not he exhibits signs of returning sanity. Of course, I will not presume to combat the question pathologically. I am only submitting for the consideration of psychiatrists an impression gained from the inside.


For one year no further attention was paid to me than to see that I had three meals a day, the requisite number of baths, and a sufficient amount of exercise. I was, however, occasionally urged by an attendant to write a letter to some relative, but that, of course, I refused to do. As I shall have many hard things to say about attendants in general, I take pleasure in testifying that, so long as I remained in a passive condition, those at this institution were kind, and at times even thoughtful. But so soon as I regained, in a large measure, my reason, and began to talk, diplomatic relations with doctors and attendants became so strained that war promptly ensued.


It was no doubt upon the gradual but sure improvement in my physical condition that the doctors were relying for my eventual salvation. They were not without some warrant for this. In a way I had become less suspicious, but my increased confidence was due as much to an increasing indifference to my fate as to an improvement in health. And there were other signs of improved mental vigor. I was still watchful, however, for a chance to end my life and had I not largely regained my reason as soon as I did, I do not doubt that my choice of evils would have found tragic expression in an overt act.


Having convinced myself that most of my associates were really insane, and therefore (as I believed) disqualified as competent witnesses in a court of law, I would occasionally engage in conversation with a few whose evident incompetency seemed to make them safe confidants. One, a man who during his life had suffered several nervous breakdowns, more like acute nervous prostration than insanity, took a very evident interest in me and persisted in talking to me, often much against my will. His persistent inquisitive-ness seemed to support his own statement that he had formerly been a successful life-insurance solicitor. He finally gained my confidence to such a degree that months before I finally began to talk to others I permitted myself to converse frequently with him -- but only when we were so situated as to escape observation. I would talk to him on almost any subject except myself. At length, however, his admirable persistence overcame my reticence. During a conversation held in June, 1902, he abruptly said, "Why you are kept here I cannot understand. Apparently you are as sane as any one. You have never made any but sensible remarks to me." Now for weeks I had been waiting for a chance to tell this man my very thoughts. I had come to believe him a true friend who would not betray me.

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