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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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Though I had all along intended to effect reforms in existing methods of treatment, my intense and reckless desire to investigate "violent wards" did not possess me until I myself had experienced the torture of continued confinement in such a ward. It was simple to deduce that if one could suffer as I had while a patient in a private institution, brutality must exist in a state hospital. So it was that I entered the State Hospital with a firm resolve to inspect personally every type of ward, good and bad. But I was in no hurry to begin. My recent experience had exhausted me, and I wished to regain strength before subjecting myself to another such ordeal. This desire to recuperate controlled my conduct for a while, but its influence gradually diminished as life became more and more monotonous. I soon found the good ward entirely too polite. I craved excitement -- action. And I determined to get it regardless of consequences; though I am free to confess I should not have had the courage to execute my plan had I known what was in store for me.


About this time my conservator called to see me. Of course I told him all about my cruel experiences at the private institution. My account surprised and distressed him. I also told him that I knew for a fact that similar conditions existed at the State Hospital, as I had heard convincing rumors to that effect. He urged me to behave myself and remain in the ward where I was, which ward, as I admitted, was all that one could desire -- provided one had schooled himself to desire that sort of thing. During our talk I told my conservator that I wished to spend Thanksgiving Day at home. He said that that was out of the question, as I was in too excited a condition. His objection was absolutely fair, but I could not at that time see the justice of it. With intense feeling and the forcefulness of right words I informed him that nothing should prevent my going to New Haven the following week.


The fact that I was under lock and key and behind what were virtually prison bars in no way gave me a sense of helplessness. I firmly believed that I should find it easy to effect my escape and reach home for the Thanksgiving Day celebration. And, furthermore, I knew that, should I reach home, I should not be denied my portion of the good things to eat before being returned to the hospital. (After a famine, love of food is likely to be as strong as love of home.) Being under the spell of an intense desire to investigate the "violent ward," I concluded that the time for action had come. I reasoned, too, that it would be easier and safer to escape from that ward -- which was on a level with the ground -- than from a ward three stories above it. The next thing I did was to inform the attendants and several of the patients that within a day or two I should do something to cause my removal thither. They of course did not believe that I had any idea of deliberately inviting such a transfer, for the violent ward to an inmate of a hospital for the insane is what a prison is to a sane and free man. My very frankness disarmed the attendants.


On the evening of November21st I went from room to room collecting all sorts of odds and ends belonging to other patients. These I secreted in my room. I also collected a small library of books, magazines, and newspapers. After securing all the booty I dared, I mingled with the other patients until the time came for going to bed. The attendants soon locked me in my junk shop and I spent the rest of the night setting it in disorder. My original plan had been to barricade the door during the night, and thus hold the doctors and attendants at bay until those in authority had accepted my ultimatum, which was to include a Thanksgiving visit at home. But before morning I had slightly altered my plan. My sleepless night of activity had made me ravenously hungry, and I decided that it would be wiser not only to fill my stomach but to lay by other supplies of food before submitting to a siege. Accordingly I set things to rights and went about my business the next morning as usual. At breakfast I ate enough for two men, and put in my pockets bread enough to last for twenty-four hours at least. Then I returned to my room and at once barricaded the door. My barricade consisted of a wardrobe, several drawers which I had removed from the bureau, and a number of books, -- among them "Paradise Lost" and the Bible, which books I placed in position, with conscious satisfaction, as a key-stone. Thus the space between the door and the opposite wall of the room was completely filled. My room-mate, a young fellow in the speechless condition in which I had been during my period of depression, was in the room with me. This was accidental. It was no part of my plan to hold him as a hostage, though I might finally have used him as a pawn in the negotiations had my barricade resisted the impending attack longer than it did. It is a common trick for insane patients to barricade their doors, and such situations when they arise are rightly regarded as serious. The conduct of the patient who has thus isolated himself is, to those in authority, entirely a matter of conjecture. Though certain types of patients may safely be left in their elected seclusion, one as excited as I was on this occasion, of course, had to be brought to bay. It was not long before the attendants realized that something was wrong. They came to my door and asked me to open it. I refused, and told them that to argue the point would be a waste of time. They tried to force an entrance. Failing in that, they reported to the assistant physician. At first he parleyed with me. I good-naturedly, but emphatically, told him that I could not be talked out of the position I had taken; nor could I be taken out of it until I was ready to surrender, for my barricade was one that would surely hold. I also announced that I had carefully planned my line of action and knew what I was about. I complimented him on his hitherto tactful treatment of me, and grandiloquently -- yet sincerely -- I thanked him for his many courtesies. I also expressed entire satisfaction with the past conduct of the attendants. In fact, on that part of the institution in which I was then confined I put the stamp of my capricious approval. "But," said I, "I know that there are wards in this hospital where helpless patients are brutally treated; and I intend to put a stop to these abuses at once. Not until the Governor of the State, the judge who committed me, and my conservator come to this door will I open it. When they arrive we'll see whether or not patients are to be robbed of their rights and abused."

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