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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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"That boy is all right after he gets started," said he. About twelve years later I did get started, and could that passer-by have seen me on any one of several occasions, he would have had the satisfaction of knowing that his was a prophetic eye.


In June, 1894, I received a High School diploma. Shortly afterwards I took my examinations for Yale, and the following September entered the Sheffield Scientific School.


The last week of June, 1894, was an important one in my life. An event then occurred which undoubtedly changed my career completely. It was the direct cause of my mental collapse six years later, and of the distressing and, in some instances, strange and delightful experiences on which this book is based. The event was the illness of an older brother, who, late in June, 1894, was stricken with what was thought to be epilepsy. Few diseases can so disorganize a household and distress its members. My brother had enjoyed perfect health up to the time he was stricken; and, as there had never been a suggestion of epilepsy, or any like disease, in either branch of the family, the affliction came as a bolt from a clear sky. Everything possible was done to effect a cure, but without avail. On July 4th, 1900, he died at the City Hospital, in Hartford, Connecticut, after a six years' illness, two years of which were spent at home, one year in a trip around the world in a sailing vessel, and most of the remainder on a farm near Hartford. The doctors decided that a tumor at the base of the brain had caused his malady and his death. That tumor was caused probably by a fall which he had suffered some years before, and to which no attention had been paid at the time.


As I was in college when my brother was first stricken I had more time at my disposal than the other members of the family, and for that reason spent much of it with him. Though his attacks during the first year occurred only at night, it was the fear that they might occur during the day, in public, which affected my nerves from the beginning.


Now, if a brother who had enjoyed perfect health all his life could be stricken with epilepsy, what was to prevent my being similarly afflicted? This was the thought that soon got possession of my mind. The more I considered it and him, the more nervous I became; and the more nervous, the more convinced that my own breakdown was only a question of time. Doomed to what I then considered a living death, I thought of epilepsy, I dreamed epilepsy, until thousands of times during the six years that this disquieting idea persisted, my overwrought imagination seemed to drag me to the very verge of an attack. Yet at no time during my life have these early fears been realized.


For the fourteen months succeeding the time my brother was first stricken, I was greatly harassed with fear; but not until later did my nerves really conquer me. I remember distinctly when the break came. It happened in November, 1895, during a recitation in German. That hour in the class-room was one of the most disagreeable I ever experienced. It seemed as if my nerves had snapped, like so many minute bands of rubber stretched beyond their elastic limit. At this time, and on many subsequent like occasions, the thought uppermost in my mind, though I gave no outward evidence of my great despair, was that my psychic convulsion would become physical. My imagination seemed to tear my body into shreds. Had I had the courage to leave the room, I should have done so; but I sat as if paralyzed until the class was dismissed.


That term I did not again attend recitations. Continuing my studies at home I passed satisfactory examinations which enabled me to resume my place in the class-room the following January. During the remainder of my college years I seldom entered a recitation-room with any other feeling than that of dread, though the absolute assurance that I should not be called upon to recite did mitigate the misery. The professors, who had been told about my state of health and the cause of it, invariably treated me with consideration; but, though I believe they never doubted the genuineness of my excuse, it was no easy matter to keep them convinced for almost two of the three years of my course. My inability to recite was not due usually to any lack of preparation. However well prepared I might be, the moment a professor called upon me to recite, a mingling of a thousand disconcerting sensations, and the distinct thought that at last the dread attack was at hand, would suddenly intervene and deprive me of all but the power to say, "Not prepared." Weeks would pass without any other record being placed opposite my name than a zero, or a blank indicating that I had not been called upon at all. Occasionally, however, a professor, in justice to himself and to the other students, would compel me to recite, and at such times I managed to make enough of a recitation to hold my place in the class.


When I entered Yale I had four definite ambitions: first, to secure an election to a certain secret society; second, to become one of the editors of the Yale Record, an illustrated humorous bi-weekly; third (granting that I should have succeeded in this latter ambition), to convince my colleagues that I should have the position of business-manager -- an office which I sought, not for the honor, but because I believed it would enable me to earn an amount of money at least equal to the cost of tuition for my three years at Yale; fourth (and this was my chief ambition), to win my diploma within the prescribed time. These four ambitions I fortunately achieved.

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