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Ten Days in a Mad House – An Historic Expose

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly

There have been times I have consider the treatment and care I’ve received in psychiatric inpatient units to be practically medieval; sleeping under blankets so thin I could see through them, eating portions too small to warrant any condiments, and witnessing both incompetent doctors and vicious nurses. Granted, not all of these places have been created equally, and while some psychiatric hospitals or wards have been brought up to date, others remain wanting.

With those feelings in mind, I began a journey listening to the account of a 19 year old woman living in the 1880’s who purposefully had herself committed to the local asylum in a journalistic effort to report on the conditions therein.

I believe I was directed toward Ten Days in a Madhouse by Nellie Bly by an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff You Missed In History Class. I secured an audiobook version of Nellie Bly’s account through my local library (I’m not sure I would recommend it, the accents done by the recording artists have little bering on the actual places the people in the account are from) but you can also find the entire written version (initially published as several articles and then as a compilation in 1887) for free here.

While the inpatient system these days can still seem somewhat barbaric (especially if you aren’t there voluntarily), Nellie Bly’s account of the Blackwell’s Island Asylum in New York shows how far things really have come. I must warn you, there are some accounts of violence that can be shocking (though not incredibly graphic), and the lack of human decency is completely deplorable. On top of that, if you aren’t familiar with historic language at all (or the fact that anyone suspected of having mental health problems was simply considered “insane”) you might find the language jarring, but I think it is important to realize that the lack in any tasteful language around mental health in the 1880’s came from a real misunderstanding of the issues themselves at the time.

One thing that really stood out to me in this account (aside from the terrible treatment of some 1600 women living confined to an island asylum) was the actions of the citizens, the police, and the doctors. Nellie (who has never seen anyone “insane” before) must convince people she is unwell enough to warrant a trip to the asylum. She pieces together several symptoms concocting a performance including forced insomnia, paranoia/nervousness, and amnesia (with no violence or aggression, primarily just confusion) and within 48 hours citizens have had her brought to the police and a judge has sent her to the Bellevue Hospital staging area before taking the ferry to the asylum.

The “tests” the doctors perform to determine each patient’s level of mental health are laughable, and while one doctor perceives Nellie’s case to be the result of being given drugs, the next doctor concludes,

An Insanity Expert At Work

“Positively demented,” he said. “I consider it a hopeless case.”

In this account there seems to be no knowledge of any of the aspects one might consider “mental health” today. Unfortunately, being sent to the asylum was practically a hit or miss situation, and part of the problem was that even when perfectly rational people ended up there by mistake (being a foreigner and having no translator, or being requested to go to the poor house and accidentally being sent to the asylum) they often became irrational very quickly because of the very harsh, very poor conditions.

In one of my favorite passages, Nellie accounts;

“If the confinement was but for a few days one might question the necessity [of a translator]. But here was a woman taken without her own consent from the free world to an asylum and there given no chance to prove her sanity. Confined most probably for life behind asylum bars, without even being told in her language the why and wherefore. Compare this with a criminal, who is given every chance to prove his innocence. Who would not rather be a murderer and take the chance for life than be declared insane, without hope of escape?”

At this time in history, being declared “insane” (whether you were or not) was pretty much a death sentence unless you had family or friends willing to take care of you.

Even after trying to speak rationally to the doctors in the asylum, Nellie is not given a second chance to prove she is rational, and her claims of not belonging are considered further proof of her insanity.

As I mentioned, her account goes on to describe several vicious and brutal actions by nurses, the inedibility of the food, and how each cell needed to be opened with a key individually; proposing that if there were a fire, all 1600 women would likely burn to death (the nurses would not be willing to risk their lives to try to save any of them). Her description of bathing time is equally as distressing, and the women were likely to only be allowed to change their scant clothing once a month.

After Nellie’s friends come to bail her out (with a tongue in cheek promise to the staff to take care of her) the subsequent articles published by Nellie created a huge outcry from the public and produced an investigation of the Blackwell’s Island Asylum by the grand jury. Nellie’s ten days in a madhouse and her expose of her experiences ultimately resulted in a one million dollar increase in the budget “for the benefit of the insane”.

Though her written account of most patients who did exhibit symptoms of mental illness was one primarily of fear and pity, I must personally consider Nellie Bly to be a true hero of mine. Not only did she singlehandedly plunge herself into an extraordinarily terrifying situation in an attempt to benefit others, she also did go on to help raise the standards in asylums in our country.

If the history of mental health in America is a subject you are interested in exploring, I would call Ten Days in a Madhouse a great reference. The book itself isn’t very long, however if you aren’t used to reading historic writing it can be tedious at times. Some of the violent accounts once inside the asylum -though not extremely graphic, may be triggering, but overall I would say I learned a great deal from this piece of work.

“Mixed” Up

Things have taken a bad turn via a rough mixed episode. I am unable to write very clearly, but wanted to note that if things don’t improve soon, hospitalization may be imminent and posting through next week may not be possible. I would really appreciate some good vibes… thanks for your support, hopefully things will bounce back soon.

The Heart of July 4th

Propaganda of the American Colonies

Propaganda of the American Colonies

I would never refer to myself as an ardent patriot, but I do (on occasion) have the opportunity to spend time researching history and then living in a manner that our forefathers (and mothers) were accustomed to. The time of the American Revolutionary War is one that is of particular interest to me.

What is it about the period leading up to the war and the transition into a unified country I find so fascinating? Well, while others are roasting their hot dogs today and lighting off fireworks, I’m thinking about why July 4th is a holiday in the first place.

It is a story of a group of people being taken advantage of; an example of a true tale of the underdogs fighting for the rights they believe they deserve until they have achieved them.

This is an important story, and though it is one that comes up again and again in US history focusing on many different groups of people, this is a story that is still in its early stages when it comes to our story.

The American Revolution itself faced difficulty in reaching unity within the colonies. It provided a period of thought and contemplation about what basic rights should be afforded to all people, and (what people usually remember) also included a brutal struggle through the physical act of fighting.

You might be surprised to hear it, but I see a lot of similarities between the fight for American independence and the fight for fair, competent mental health services in our country and the need to bring people together on this issue. I don’t expect our journey to involve a navy or muskets, but I’m sure that is for the better!

The snake, for example, in the propaganda banner above is broken down into pieces representing each of the colonies that needed to come together to create a unified force. I think we face similar issues when attempting to unify people behind the cause of mental health because many of us have different viewpoints, different backgrounds, different disorders, different symptoms! Still, if we can find a way to work together we will find we are a force to be reckoned with; a snake you’d better not step on again!

Guerilla Warfare

Guerilla Warfare

During the American Revolution the British soldiers greatly outnumbered the colonist militia, so the militia changed the rules of war; hiding in wooded areas in an attempt to shield themselves while making an attack.

Most of us with mental illness have felt like we have needed to hide in order to keep ourselves safe, and being smart about when we share our experiences or staying calm and choosing our battles is a strategy that has already began to show some improvement in our nation’s social dialogue.

I know that while I feel comfortable coming forward and being open with everyone in my life about my experiences, I understand there are others in situations (like in a questionable workplace, family, or school environment) who have to be very careful about the battles they choose to fight and when they can fight them. I know these situations can be distressing, but I don’t consider this to be a drawback because when a hidden warrior chooses to finally make themselves seen there is a big impact.

Community

Community

One of the things I’ve found is that the act of hiding makes discovering a sense of community ten times more rewarding. This is part of what makes us strong; we truly appreciate much of what each other has to offer. Though I know there is still a little work that needs to go into unification for our cause, our community is constantly growing.

I expect that this 4th that there will be picnics and a sense of community and giddy children lighting off fireworks in the streets, but I hope that today you will also think about the reason behind it all.

No, it isn’t our right to bear arms, nor our hatred of paying taxes. It isn’t about guys in powdered wigs or military prowess. July 4th is about being someone who has struggled, someone who has been walked on, and demanding a better life.

If nothing else, that thought inspires me because I see myself in itIf that is what it truly means to be an American, maybe I’ve been a patriot all along?

Grass

Jagged little pill: has the recovery narrative gone too far?

Sarah:

There has been a post floating around right now that sheds a little light on something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Since I couldn’t have said it better myself, I’m pleased to pass this one on. Thanks!

Originally posted on purplepersuasion:

I feel that in writing this post, which has been brewing for a long time, I am saying something that some might see as controversial. So let me start by making something clear. This post is not intended to criticise the work of the big charities – I am a proud member of Mind and Rethink Mental Illness and have undertaken both paid and voluntary work for both organisations. I have also volunteered for Time to Change and made a TTC pledge at last year’s Mind Media Awards. A huge amount of good work is being done on a daily basis to challenge public perceptions of mental health and to normalise discussions of the topic. Time to Change is entirely right to highlight just how peculiar it is that mental health stigma continues to loom so large given that a quarter of the population is thought experience some form of…

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((Pause))

Yesterday meant the second ER visit in two months. Apparently the problem I have been having is with rupturing ovarian cysts. Not the most pleasant situation(s), but preferable to anything that might require surgery. Between the pain and narcotics I am not exactly on the ball, so consider this a brief pause on posting and comment replies until I can do more than lay around on Vicodin. Cheers!

The Onion Mocks Therapy, We’re Not Happy About It

Sarah:

Normally I’m a big fan of the onion, but this was a tad upsetting. When does joking about mental health go too far?

Originally posted on Girls Can't Resist:

In an article titled “Supposed Adult Pays Man To Sit In Room And Listen To Him Talk About His Feelings,” the Onion mocks therapy and in doing so makes mental illness seem like a joke.

Here’s the piece in full:

BRIDGEPORT, CT—Reportedly going twice a week to his special safe place where he’s told he doesn’t have to be afraid, local accountant and supposedly grown adult Carl Rowley confirmed Wednesday that he pays a man to sit right next to him in a room and listen to him talk all about his feelings. “It’s really helpful to talk through my issues out loud with someone who has an objective viewpoint,” said the feeble approximation of a mature self-respecting grownup, describing the hour-long sessions in which he nestles himself on a big comfy couch with a soft pillow and tells the nice man how he’s sad and lonely and…

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How to create a self-harm safety box…

Sarah:

An extremely insightful post about one method to avoid self harm, I love this idea!

Originally posted on All that I am, all that I ever was...:

Once upon a time, when I was much a much younger (and sexier) man than I am today, I used to own a box. On a purely aesthetic level, there was nothing special about this box. It was just a run-of-the-mill shoebox decorated with Doctor Who stickers, newspaper cuttings and images of the great Australian actress, Toni Pearen.

What was special about this box was on the inside, for I’d filled it with colouring pencils, rubber bands, bath salts, candy, a mini-colouring book, a couple of novels, a DVD and some (slightly more) risqué images of the great Australian actress, Toni Pearen.

For this box was my safety box; a box I could turn to when my self-harm urges grew so intense that I needed some serious distraction to stop me from injuring myself.

Over the years I owned this box I lost track of how many times it prevented…

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