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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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Even for a "violent ward" my entrance was spectacular -- if not dramatic. The three attendants regularly in charge naturally jumped at the conclusion that, in me, a troublesome patient had been foisted upon them. They noted my arrival with an unpleasant curiosity, which in turn aroused my curiosity, for it took but a glance to convince me that my burly keepers were typical attendants of the brute-force type. Acting on the order of the doctor in charge, one of these attendants stripped me of my outer garments, and, clad in nothing but underclothes, I was thrust into a cell. Few, if any, state prisons in this country contain worse holes than this cell proved to be. It was one of five, situated in a short corridor adjoining the main ward. It was about six feet wide by ten feet long and of a good height. A heavily screened and barred window admitted light and a negligible quantity of air -- for the ventilation scarcely deserved the name. The walls and floor were bare, and there was no furniture. A patient confined here must lie on the floor with no substitute for a bed but one or two felt druggets. Sleeping under such conditions becomes tolerable after a time, but not until one has become accustomed to lying on a surface nearly as hard as stone. Here (as well, indeed, as in other parts of the ward) for a period of three weeks I was permitted, yes, forced -- to breathe and re-breathe air so vitiated that even when I occupied a larger room, doctors and attendants seldom entered without remarking its quality;- this, too, at a time when the restoration of my physical and mental health especially demanded pure air and plenty of it. My first meal increased my distaste for my semi-sociological experiment. For over a month I was kept in a half-starved condition. At each meal, to be sure, I was given the usual portion of food served to the other patients, but an average portion of such food is not sufficient to repair the prodigal waste of brain and bodily tissue which is symptomatic of elation.


Worst of all, it was winter, and these, my first quarters, were without heat. As one's olfactory nerves soon become uncommunicative, the breathing of foul air is not a conscious hardship. To be famished the greater part of the time, on the other hand, is a very conscious hardship. But to be half-frozen, day in and day out for a long period, is exquisite torture. Of all the suffering I endured, that occasioned by confinement in cold cells seems to have made the most lasting impression. Hunger is a local disturbance, but when one is cold every nerve in the body registers its call for help. Long before reading a certain passage of De Quincey's I had decided that cold could cause greater suffering than hunger; consequently, it was with great satisfaction that I read the following sentences from his "Confessions": "O ancient women, daughters of toil and suffering, among all the hardships and bitter inheritances of flesh that ye are called upon to face, not one -- not even hunger -- seems in my eyes comparable to that of nightly cold. ... A more killing curse there does not exist for man or woman than the bitter combat between the weariness that prompts sleep and the keen, searching cold that forces you from that first access of sleep to start up horror-stricken, and to seek warmth vainly in renewed exercise, though long since fainting under fatigue."


The hardness of the bed and the coldness of the room were not all that interfered with sleep. The short corridor in which I was placed was known as the "Bull Pen" -- a phrase eschewed by the doctors. (8) It is so called, I suppose, because it is usually in an uproar -- especially during the dark hours of the early morning. Patients in a state of excitement may sleep during the first hours of the night, but seldom all night, and even should one have the capacity to do so, his companions in durance would wake him up with a shout, or a song, or a curse, or the kicking of a door. A noisy and chaotic medley frequently continues without interruption for hours at a time. Noise, unearthly noise, is the poetic license allowed the occupants of these cells. I spent several days and nights in one or another of the cells of the "Bull Pen" and I question whether I averaged more than two or three hours' sleep a night during that time. Seldom do the regular attendants pay any attention to the noise, though even they must at times be disturbed by it. In fact the only person likely to attempt to stop it is the night-watch, who, when he does enter a cell for that purpose, invariably kicks or chokes the noisy patient into a state of temporary quiet. I noted this and scented trouble.

(8) The term "Bull Pen" has many meanings. It is perhaps, more commonly applied to walled-in or fenced-in enclosures where insane patients may be herded together, and, at a minimum of effort on the part of those in authority, be given deceptive and anything but beneficial tastes of such restricted liberty as must, of necessity, fall to the lot of the insane. The more efficient superintendents of our hospitals for the insane condemn the use of "Bull Pens," and are able to do without them simply by turning the patients loose within a given and generous area and placing attendants on guard to preserve order and prevent escapes.

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