excerpt from “through the looking glass”, an article by Mary Cecil about her experience with psychosis and commitment

Mary Cecil voluntarily committed herself to an institution in the early 1950s. This account was published in its entirety in Encounter, in 1956. Again, the article is excerpted from the book “The Inner World of Mental Illness”.

(for other excerpts, see here, or here)

After a fortnight in a sort of reception ward in the mental hospital, I complained to the doctor that nothing was being done. They didn’t appear to appreciate the urgency of the position. There was I, helpless in the hands of a fiend from Hell and anything might happen any minute. (Ms. Cecil believes that a hallucinated voice is the Devil, sent to harass her.) The Hospital ambled through its days, sweeping us off to Occupational Therapy or out to grass, as the mood took it. One might be suddenly singled out and, eager with hope, be subjected to a blood test or some flippancy like that.

“Ah, but we’re doing so much for you,” the doctor said earnestly…”In fact,” the doctor continued fatly, “we’re going to give you some injections. You’ll be moved to another ward.”

I’d learned already that it was a waste of time asking questions. Psychiatrists thrive on their air of mystery. Anyway, the fact of strange surroundings was enough. In this ward there had been some outbursts from explosive patients. …I noticed that the more obstreperous patients were dragged off, protesting violently, to some outer dungeon spoken of in whispers as the Villa. I added that to my fears and redoubled my attempts to appear totally harmless.

She discusses insulin treatment she received after being transferred to the next ward- a treatment used commonly at that time.

After tea I saw a lady doctor who said I was to have some injections. I saw myself ablaze with vitamins in next to no time. At bedtime the men disappeared into one dormitory and we women into another, so that was all right. Just as I was getting into bed I noticed a sheet marked the Villa. There was a curious taste in my mouth, had I been tricked into the place? Heart thudding, I gazed out the window and saw a small building by itself. “That’s the Villa,” breathed the woman in the next bed.

The clinking of teacups awoke me in the morning, then the rasping sound of the night nurse’s light being pushed up to the ceiling, hurrying footsteps, teh soft slap of rubber sheets. The comfy sound lapped my sense. The patients, who had for the most part been talkative and jocular the previous evening, were silent. My neighbour asked, was I on insulin? I said warily I didn’t think so, though in this looking-glass establishment one might be on anythign without noticing.

“Treatment.” the girl clarified.

“Is that the same as injections?”

“Yes,” she nodded, “you’d better hop off and wash, then I’ll show you how to make up an insulin bed.”

…We stripped the sheets from our beds, replacing them with rubber sheets and blankets from the stock on the table. Somebody handed me an extraordinary nightgown, telling me to put mine in the locker. I pondered on this nightie. It seemed one had to make the difficult choice of exposing all one’s back or all one’s front. But then, one’s days were entirely made up of such baffling problems. Even my resident (the demonic voice she had been conversing with) would not be drawn into discussion. He was sulking, having failed to explain what these injections were about, though in his glib fashion he waved that away … So I continued examining the materials, tapes, and stitches on this joke nightie until I saw how others coped, then did the same.

A nurse was bustling up and down with a small tray containing a couple of hypodermics. She’d puncture two behinds and then dash off for more weapons. She left me till last. By then I was so keyed up that the second she stabbed me I burst into tears.

“We’ll have you floating out of the ward in no time!” the nurse laughed gaily, speeding away towards the door. I saw myself sailing horizontally after her and thought, really they do tell one the most peculiar things here.

The blinds were drawn and screens put round each bed. The lights were turned off. Surely we weren’t expected to sleep when we’d hardly woken up. But it was vital to do the correct thing so Iclosed my eyes resolutely…After half an hour of misery, there was a sudden hoarse cry from another bed. ..Through a gap in the screen I could see the lady doctor at the table reading a newspaper. A nurse went round taking pulses. I glimpsed a trolley laden with bowls, jugs, rubber tubes, syringes, swabs, glittering objects, malevolent instruments. Later on it was wheeled to each bedside and the patients redoubled their struggles and moans.

I lay in a cold sweat…

Every morning I grew slightly hotter, thirstier, and more uncomfortable during treatment. And then it happened. My mind started breaking up, crumbling like a stale cake. Thus was insanity. I clung to each nurse who came to take my pulse, but couldn’t speak. All control went, with such callous stealth, one fought every inch. Then, nothing.

The coming round was equally prolonged. I believe it took abotu half-an-hour. One seemed to be struggling for one’s life. Again and again some monstrous power pushed one under just as one clawed feebly at a speck of light. Gigantic nightmares attacked one like savage beasts. For endless minutes one was hurtled round at breakneck speed on a glaring platform, the round-shaped exit flashing past, always just out of reach. There was no sensation in my body, no power of movement. I felt alive within my own corpse. After a while my eyes blinked. I blinked and blinked, to reassure myself. Nurses revolved in slow motion past my screen, noises were magnififed to thunderous proportions.

Suddenly a finger moved. Then a whole foot. but I couldn’t speak. I tried to address a nurse who looked in, and to my horror heard only unintelligible sounds. The bedtable was pushed across, and my nightgown handed to me. I changed into it with clumsy movements. I handled the spoon like a baby, it kept going the opposite way on the plate and then missing my mouth. I wept with shame.

Insulin does not improve with use. One traverses the same pattern os grotesque emotions every time. The first coherent thought upon return is how many that leaves to go, although one cannot believe it has to be gone through again. The idea is plain fantastic. The minute the injection goes home, one thinks…nothing can stop it happening now.

She talks about how one of the ECT doctors gives her hope, and how this hope contributes to her recovery from the psychotic episode.

I got no inkling of hope, no hint of a solution, until, in the ward which dealt out shock treatment, I met a lady doctor. One time when she was questioning me and I’d been having a specially foreboding session with my (resident demon), I burst into tears. She laid a hand on my knee and said:

“You are going to get better, you know.”

Why hadn’t anyone told me this before? I’d been telling and telling them the awful fates in store for me, the impossibility of ever being so much as my old self again which was bad enough anyway, and they’d smiled, or not smiled, whichever kind they were. The lady doctor said:

“You must just be patient, that’s all. You’ve had a bad nervous breakdown.”

Another miracle tossed up my mind like a pancake and slapped it down on the other side. I had been hanging on the edge of a precipice all those months and all the time I was over it. The worst had happened. It was so wonderful I left the little room in a swirl of heady triumph.

Halfway through my course of shock treament the news fell like a bomb that the lady doctor was being replaced. I liked the new doctor because he had a limp.

He was about the only person I was still considerate to after a month of shock treatment. It tells on the temper- either that, or one becomes subject to fits of uncontrollable giggles.

Her “resident” has been silenced at this time, and she talks about the change this brings to her feelings about the hospital and her treatment.

I had never appreciated silence before.

I had myself to myself again all day, and I began to find my companions irritating. I saw the newcomers behaving exactly as I had done, phase by phase, and instead of sympathizing I was furious to see how sloppy I’d been. The daily fear of shock treatment, which at first had been a dazed, flat sort of fear, became sharper and more accentuated each time.

She is soon released, and speaks of returning to “regular life” as a difficult transition. She also speaks of how she feels  real shame at her position because others treat her in a different, assumptive way.

It is hard to decide the worst stage of a nervous breakdown: the subtle sliding into its fringe; the floundering in its inky depths, or the painful dragging up on to the other shore. When one leaves the organized community of the mental hospital to face life outside, the contrast between the two worlds is so sharp that one’s breakdown stands out like a silhouette. For some time one lives closeted with the appalling picture of oneself out of control, while relatives and friends try to pretend the thing never happened. The illness, colossal in its clarity, looms behind one like a gigantic pitch-black cavern waiting to swallow one back again. One felt let out on a string. A single false move, and all would be lost.

So as soona s one regains a shaky control one is let loose. The morass of matter pulled out of one’s mind for airing is left to the patient to put back as best she can. One’s sense of loneliness is acute. One has an urgent desire to understand one’s illness, to comb through every stage of the extraordinary miasma. Then one would feel safer. But there is nobody to help, so every spare moment is spent sorting out the chaos, trying to pat it into the sort of shape approved by the Experts. A constant spring-cleaning goes on, which is as wearing as any other constant spring-cleaning.

…it was like a guilty secret. After a few years it may feel like a criminal record where doctors of any kind are concerned. Once the average doctor knows one has had a breakdown, one gets very much less sympathy and consideration than one had fondly expected, and may even be dismissed as a hypochondriac into the bargain…after three such doctors, when we moved again I kept my Past very dark, and was gratified to receive normal medical care.

Mental hospitals no longer use these forms of treatment the way they are described here, but throughout the 40s-60s it was common to use insulin coma, and electroshock, for almost every mental illness.