This, and the previous excerpt I posted, are small selections from the book “The Inner World of Mental Illness”, published by Harper & Row in 1964. It’s one of my favorite books, written by a variety of people in very different circumstances and with very different afflictions; all the stories have the same undertone of fear, grieving, and pragmatism.
I’ve read this book to shreds, literally.
Most of the chapters in it are excerpts from longer books written by the mentally ill, but some are merely short pieces, collected by doctors or nurses. I’ll post more of these if enough of you want more of them.
The book includes a variety of mental illnesses, so if you’d like an excerpt dealing with some other disorder, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best.
This excerpt is from “I am crazy wild this minute”, written by Lara Jefferson in the 40s. It was written on scrap paper and wrapping paper in a state hospital.
When her writing was discovered by staff, she was given a typewriter and encouraged to continue. Hospitals at that time were much more chaotic, and psychosis was not treated with as much compassion or medical understanding as it is today.
Had I been born in the age and time when the world dealt in a straightforward manner with misfits as could not meet the requirements of living, I would not have been much of a problem to my contemporaries. They would have said that I was “Possessed of the Devil” and promptly stoned me to death- or else disposed of me in some other equally effective manner.
I know I cannot think straight- but the conclusions I arrive at are very convincing to me and I still think the whole system is a regular Hades itself. …
I cannot conduct myself as the rules set forth because something has broken loose within me and I am insane- and differ from these others to the extent that I still have sense enough to know it; which is a mark of spectacular intelligence- so they tell me.
Here I sit- mad as the hatter- with nothing to do but either become madder and madder- or else recover enough of my sanity to be allowed to go back to the life which drove me mad.
If that is not a vicious circle, I hope I never encounter one. But today the circle has stopped chasing itself long enough to drop me somewhere along the unmarked line between stark lunacy and harmless eccentricity. The latter is as near to normal as I ever hope to get. I am not relying on my opinion in that matter. The doctor was through just now…
For all I know of what he said, he might have been swearing at me in Yiddish. But I did get this much out of his very learned discourse- …that unless I learn some new mental habits- and learn them in a hurry one of these days in the not far distant future I am going to find myself over on “Three Building”- and when you land in “Three Building” you have fallen to the very bottom, you are hopelessly and incurably insane.
Unless I learn to think differently, I shall shortly be incurably insane. There it is before me in words- small, black words, written with one hand and a stub of pencil- and on my ability to do what he admitted was one of the “impossibles” my fate is hanging.
She goes on to speak of how she was institutionalized:
It did overtake me in my twenty-ninth year. It caught me and swept me…I can recall with humor the odd sensation that a crazy woman had moved into my body. A crazy woman who had no sense at all, and who refused to be governed by reason- who acknowledged no law higher than her own whim- and who had no fear of anything.
…To others, I was only a maniac, howling, but who, by some odd quirk of nature had the canny foresight to ask for a straight-jacket before madness claimed me.
I was locked away in a cell, stark madness my only companion. Had I been the sole inhabitant of some distant star, I could not have been more alone. It was not a brass lock which taught me what the nakedness and loneliness of living means.
And speaks at length about her treatments, the medicine and “cures” administered to her and others on the ward.
I know now how rats and rabbits and guinea pigs feel when they are vivisected. Vivisection is painful- and let those who think it isn’t, get themselves pronounced insane…This is the Bug-house, the Bughouse- the Bug-house! It is also the Hydro! The place where Nuts are kept. Never mind our protests. All that is done for us is good for us. It is just our hard luck that we have no comprehension. Yes- this is the Hydro- where is given all that is given to correct our abnormalities. And let me state that it is “Treatment”- and let me state that it is “Given”.
The nurses are feeding one of the patients now. She would not eat. Did not want to eat. But they are pouring the food down her anyway. They have a wooden peg in her mouth and are crouched behind a sheet held up like a shield, because the woman tries to spew each mouthful upon them…she is tied down in a straight-jacket and can do nothing but spit and curse and howl.
…She is mad with her impotence and helplessness so she hates the nurses with fury unbelievable. Now they are finished and leaving her, and her rage is directed at the whole world in general and spouts out against the Hydro ceiling in a scalding geyser of fury.
She used to be a large woman, weighing more than two hundred pounds. Now she is shrunken to a fraction of that and her flesh hangs in loose folds around her tall frame. Her pelvic bones stick up like the rim of a bowl around her abdomen, which is a great mass of shrivelled wrinkles. She keeps it scratched and clawed and over-turned in great red welts and ridges.
She discusses the other patients, and the intensity of mental illness as well.
We cannot cope with life as we find it, nor can we escape it or adjust ourselves to it. So we are given the power to create some sort of world we can deal with. The worlds created are as varied as there are minds to create them. Each one is strictly private and cannot be shared with another. It is much more real than reality.
For nothing that happens to a sane mortal in the common-place world of ordinary living, can approach the startling intensity of things going on in a delusion. There is a sharpness, a shrillness, a piercing intensity that thrusts itself through …and is ever so much more convincing than the blunt edge of reason, that even if the two are conflicting there is no choice between them. Reason is beaten, dismissed and defeated at the very outset, it cannot content with the saber edge of delusion.
…The Skeleton- who is running back and forth down the aisle and past the windows as an animal paces its cage. Now she stands on tip-toe and the shrieks coming from her almost lift the ceiling. There is not enough muscle and tissue padding her bones to conceal their outline.
…The Camel, whose canvas straight-jacket is rising and falling like a huge bellows, from her heavy breathing in sleep, induced by paraldehyde. She is kept drugged most of the time- for she does love to rave- and is such a sociable soul she wants to share everything with another.
The Medicine-maker. I call her that because on the day I was brought to the Hydro she was sitting out in the day hall, with a heavy over-hanging black forelock brought down from her forehead and tied with a strip of towelling. She sprang out before me, holding the fantastic adornment in a dramatic and meaningful gesture- then flung her arms wide and bowed before me in welcome. She straightened, then folded her arms on her chest and looked at me. Her piercing black eyes behind the barricade of the barbarous symbol, glittered brightly with madness.
Those in power have kept her tied down for many weeks. She lies there in silence and hatred.
Then there is the Opera Singer- a small, pitiful figure of a woman whose life is an endless tragedy- and whose only escape from the pressure of pain is to slip out into madness and find relief in her delusion that she is a famous opera singer. She is like nothing in the world so much as a little brown field mouse. She it is who washes in the stools because she is afraid there is lye in the tap water…
Then the Pagan; as graceful a creature as ever stalked through the Hydro stark naked. The nurses tie something around her or shut her up in the stool-room about the time they expect the Doctor on his rounds.
Then- there is the Tragedy. She it is whom death has laid his hand on- yet will not pluck quickly lest there be a few more dregs undrained in the bottom of the grim cup of madness. She dies a death too horrible for thinking, nor does she know she is dying- but has livid knowledge only of the madness which burned her life to an ember.
Her mother went this way before her, in this same institution. This daughter, not yet twenty, cannot follow till she has paid with the last ounce of quivering life within her for her folly. The folly of choosing a syphilitic for a mother. Because the judgment of unborn babies is notoriously poor, some day the state will have the courage to say who shall appoint themselves to the office of parenthood.
The nurse are coming now to feed her- from the opposite end of the intestinal tract through which food is normally received. She does not know that they feed her, or that she is dying.
Those who are tied down are howling and shrieking, and those who are loose are racing and charging about and adding wild gesticulations to their howls and shrieks. They all seem like bare trees in a forest through which the wind of their madness is sweeping; bowing them, bending them, breaking them.
and she speaks directly to future readers, too.
Sometimes the break comes slowly, a pressure unmarked at the first, but slowly rising. A gnawing discontent; a childish fear that swings onward and outward in an ever widening orbit etching itself into the mysterious force called personality. Then Ruin follows. For Ruin it most surely is; as any know who have stood beside a fellow being strapped hand and foot to save himself and others from his fury. We call it Ruin; this collapse of faculties where reason is displaced by demonaic delusions; where staid and ordered thought gives way and the sense run riot. Ruin.
However, like all other happenings, the viewpoint modifies the scene. I who stand on the other side of this phenomenon called madness, would like to stretch a hand across to those who may some day go through it. Or stand by someone they love and watch the barrier risiing; see the gulf, more grim than death, across which there is no reaching. They learn what real loss is…
To those I would speak and say; “Remember, when a soul sails out on that unmarked sea they have gained release much greater than your loss- and more important…Salvation from a much greater pain than the stark pain of madness.”
…Once the madness in me found a voice, there was no stopping it.
It is not imagination- it is something much stronger.
After my break and confinement, the answer came to me in a flash of brilliancy. I was a mental misfit. Like an alcoholic who knows he cannot take even one drink or a diabetic who must forever forego any sugar, I knew I must pass up all depressive thinking, and delusions. It would be impossible to swear off forever, but I could live here hour by hour. Day by day I sat here and wrote about it- for there was nothing else in all the world to do.
Originally Published on: Jun 22, 2012 @ 4:57