Clifford Whittingham Beers.

A Mind That Found Itself An Autobiography online

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from the moment my mind, if not my full reason, found itself, they
stood out vividly. Not only so, but other impressions registered during
earlier years became clearer. Since that August 30th, which I regard as
my second birthday (my first was on the 30th of another month), my mind
has exhibited qualities which, prior to that time, were so latent as to
be scarcely distinguishable. As a result, I find myself able to do
desirable things I never before dreamed of doing - the writing of this
book is one of them.

Yet had I failed to convince myself on August 30th, when my brother
came to see me, that he was no spy, I am almost sure that I should have
compassed my own destruction within the following ten days, for the
next month, I believed, was the fatal one of opening courts. You will
recall that it was death by drowning that impended. I liken my
salvation itself to a prolonged process of drowning. Thousands of
minutes of the seven hundred and ninety-eight days - and there were over
one million of them, during which I had been borne down by intolerably
burdensome delusions - were, I imagine, much like the last minutes of
consciousness experienced by persons who drown. Many who have narrowly
escaped that fate can testify to the vividness with which good and bad
impressions of their entire life rush through their confused minds, and
hold them in a grip of terror until a kind unconsciousness envelops
them. Such had been many of my moments. But the only unconsciousness
which had deadened my sensibilities during these two despondent years
was that of sleep itself. Though I slept fairly well most of the time,
mine was seldom a dreamless sleep. Many of my dreams were, if anything,
harder to bear than my delusions of the day, for what little reason I
had was absolutely suspended in sleep. Almost every night my brain was
at battledore and shuttlecock with weird thoughts. And if not all my
dreams were terrifying, this fact seemed to be only because a perverted
and perverse Reason, in order that its possessor might not lose the
capacity for suffering, knew how to keep Hope alive with visions which
supplied the contrast necessary for keen appreciation.

No man can be born again, but I believe I came as near it as ever a man
did. To leave behind what was in reality a hell, and immediately have
this good green earth revealed in more glory than most men ever see it,
was one of the compensating privileges which make me feel that my
suffering was worth while.

I have already described the peculiar sensation which assailed me when,
in June, 1900, I lost my reason. At that time my brain felt as though
pricked by a million needles at white heat. On this August 30th, 1902,
shortly after largely regaining my reason, I had another most distinct
sensation in the brain. It started under my brow and gradually spread
until the entire surface was affected. The throes of a dying Reason had
been torture. The sensations felt as my dead Reason was reborn were
delightful. It seemed as though the refreshing breath of some kind
Goddess of Wisdom were being gently blown against the surface of my
brain. It was a sensation not unlike that produced by a menthol pencil
rubbed ever so gently over a fevered brow. So delicate, so crisp and
exhilarating was it that words fail me in my attempt to describe it.
Few, if any, experiences can be more delightful. If the exaltation
produced by some drugs is anything like it, I can easily understand how
and why certain pernicious habits enslave those who contract them. For
me, however, this experience was liberation, not enslavement.


After two years of silence I found it no easy matter to carry on with
my brother a sustained conversation. So weak were my vocal cords from
lack of use that every few minutes I must either rest or whisper. And
upon pursing my lips I found myself unable to whistle, notwithstanding
the popular belief, drawn from vague memories of small-boyhood, that
this art is instinctive. Those who all their lives have talked at will
cannot possibly appreciate the enjoyment I found in using my regained
power of speech. Reluctantly I returned to the ward; but not until my
brother had left for home, laden with so much of my conversation that
it took most of his leisure for the next two days to tell the family
what I had said in two hours.

During the first few hours I seemed virtually normal. I had none of the
delusions which had previously oppressed me; nor had I yet developed
any of the expansive ideas, or delusions of grandeur, which soon began
to crowd in upon me. So normal did I appear while talking to my brother
that he thought I should be able to return home in a few weeks; and,
needless to say, I agreed with him. But the pendulum, as it were, had
swung too far. The human brain is too complex a mechanism to admit of
any such complete readjustment in an instant. It is said to be composed
of several million cells; and, that fact granted, it seems safe to say
that every day, perhaps every hour, hundreds of thousands of the cells
of my brain were now being brought into a state of renewed activity.
Comparatively sane and able to recognize the important truths of life,
I was yet insane as to many of its practical details. Judgment being
King of the Realm of Thought, it was not surprising that my judgment
failed often to decide correctly the many questions presented to it by
its abnormally communicative subjects. At first I seemed to live a
second childhood. I did with delight many things which I had first
learned to do as a child - the more so as it had been necessary for me
to learn again to eat and walk, and now to talk. I had much lost time
to make up; and for a while my sole ambition seemed to be to utter as
many thousand words a day as possible. My fellow-patients who for
fourteen months had seen me walk about in silence - a silence so
profound and inexorable that I would seldom heed their friendly
salutations - were naturally surprised to see me in my new mood of
unrestrained loquacity and irrepressible good humor. In short, I had
come into that abnormal condition which is known to psychiatrists as

For several weeks I believe I did not sleep more than two or three
hours a night. Such was my state of elation, however, that all signs of
fatigue were entirely absent and the sustained and abnormal mental and
physical activity in which I then indulged has left on my memory no
other than a series of very pleasant impressions. Though based on
fancy, the delights of some forms of mental disorder are real. Few, if
any, sane persons would care to test the matter at so great a price;
but those familiar with the "Letters of Charles Lamb" must know that
Lamb, himself, underwent treatment for mental disease. In a letter to
Coleridge, dated June 10th, 1796, he says: "At some future time I will
amuse you with an account, as full as my memory will permit, of the
strange turns my frenzy took. I look back upon it at times with a
gloomy kind of envy; for, while it lasted, I had many, many hours of
pure happiness. Dream not, Coleridge, of having tasted all the grandeur
and wildness of Fancy till you have gone mad! All now seems to me
vapid, comparatively so!"

As for me, the very first night vast but vague humanitarian projects
began joyously to shape themselves in my mind. My garden of thoughts
seemed filled with flowers which might properly be likened to the
quick-blowing night-blooming cereus - that Delusion of Grandeur of all
flowering plants that thinks itself prodigal enough if it but unmask
its beauty to the moon! Few of my bold fancies, however, were of so
fugitive and chaste a splendor.

The religious instinct is found in primitive man. It is not strange,
therefore, that at this time the religious side of my nature was the
first to display compelling activity. Whether or not this was due to my
rescue from a living death, and my immediate appreciation of God's
goodness, both to me and to those faithful relatives who had done all
the praying during the preceding two years - this I cannot say. But the
fact stands out, that, whereas I had, while depressed, attached a
sinister significance to everything done or said in my presence, I now
interpreted the most trifling incidents as messages from God. The day
after this transition I attended church. It was the first service in
over two years which I had not attended against my will. The reading of
a psalm - the 45th - made a lasting impression upon me, and the
interpretation which I placed upon it furnishes the key to my attitude
during the first weeks of elation. It seemed to me a direct message
from Heaven.

The minister began: "My heart is inditing a good matter: I speak of the
things which I have made touching the king: my tongue is the pen of a
ready writer." - Whose heart but mine? And the things indited - what were
they but the humanitarian projects which had blossomed in my garden of
thoughts over night? When, a few days later, I found myself writing
very long letters with unwonted facility, I became convinced that my
tongue was to prove itself "the pen of a ready writer." Indeed, to
these prophetic words I trace the inception of an irresistible desire,
of which this book is the first fruit.

"Thou art fairer than the children of men; grace is poured into thy
lips:" was the verse next read (by myself and the congregation), to
which the minister responded, "Therefore God hath blessed thee for
ever." - "Surely, I have been selected as the instrument wherewith great
reforms shall be effected," was my thought. (All is grist that comes to
the mill of a mind in elation - then even divine encomiums seem not

"Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most mighty, with thy glory and thy
majesty" - a command to fight. "And in thy majesty ride prosperously
because of truth and meekness and righteousness;" replied the minister.
"And thy right hand shall teach thee terrible things," - was another
response. That I could speak the truth, I knew. "Meekness" I could not
associate with myself, except that during the preceding two years I had
suffered many indignities without open resentment. That my right hand
with a pen should teach me terrible things - how to fight for reform - I
firmly believed.

"Thine arrows are sharp in the heart of the King's enemies, whereby the
people fall under thee," quoth the minister. Yes, my tongue could be as
sharp as an arrow, and I should be able to stand up against those who
should stand in the way of reform. Again: "Thou lovest righteousness,
and hatest wickedness. Therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with
the oil of gladness above thy fellows." The first sentence I did not
apply to myself; but being then, as I supposed, a man restored to
himself, it was easy to feel that I had been anointed with the oil of
gladness above my fellows. "Oil of gladness" is, in truth, an apt
phrase wherewith to describe elation.

The last two verses of the psalm corroborated the messages found in the
preceding verses: "I will make thy name to be remembered in all
generations:" - thus the minister. "Therefore shall the people praise
thee for ever and ever," was the response I read. That spelled immortal
fame for me, but only on condition that I should carry to a successful
conclusion the mission of reform - an obligation placed upon me by God
when He restored my reason.

When I set out upon a career of reform, I was impelled to do so by
motives in part like those which seem to have possessed Don Quixote
when he set forth, as Cervantes says, with the intention "of righting
every kind of wrong, and exposing himself to peril and danger, from
which in the issue he would obtain eternal renown and fame." In
likening myself to Cervantes' mad hero my purpose is quite other than
to push myself within the charmed circle of the chivalrous. What I wish
to do is to make plain that a man abnormally elated may be swayed
irresistably by his best instincts, and that while under the spell of
an exaltation, idealistic in degree, he may not only be willing, but
eager to assume risks and endure hardships which under normal
conditions he would assume reluctantly, if at all. In justice to
myself, however, I may remark that my plans for reform have never
assumed quixotic, and therefore, impracticable proportions. At no time
have I gone a-tilting at windmills. A pen rather than a lance has been
my weapon of offence and defence; for with its point I have felt sure
that I should one day prick the civic conscience into a compassionate
activity, and thus bring into a neglected field earnest men and women
who should act as champions for those afflicted thousands least able to
fight for themselves.


After being without relatives and friends for over two years I
naturally lost no time in trying again to get in touch with them;
though I did heed my conservator's request that I first give him two or
three days in which to acquaint intimates with the new turn my affairs
had taken.

During the latter part of that first week I wrote many letters, so
many, indeed, that I soon exhausted a liberal supply of stationery.
This had been placed at my disposal at the suggestion of my
conservator, who had wisely arranged that I should have whatever I
wanted, if expedient. It was now at my own suggestion that the
supervisor gave me large sheets of manila wrapping paper. These I
proceeded to cut into strips a foot wide. One such strip, four feet
long, would suffice for a mere _billet-doux_; but a real letter usually
required several such strips pasted together. More than once letters
twenty or thirty feet long were written; and on one occasion the
accumulation of two or three days of excessive productivity, when
spread upon the floor, reached from one end of the corridor to the
other - a distance of about one hundred feet. My hourly output was
something like twelve feet, with an average of one hundred and fifty
words to the foot. Under the pressure of elation one takes pride in
doing everything in record time. Despite my speed my letters were not
incoherent. They were simply digressive, which was to be expected, as
elation befogs one's "goal idea." Though these epistolary monstrosities
were launched, few reached those to whom they were addressed; for my
conservator had wisely ordered that my literary output be sent in bulk
to him. His action was exasperating, but later I realized that he had
done me a great favor when he interposed his judgment between my
red-hot mentality and the cool minds of the workaday world. Yet this
interference with what I deemed my rights proved to be the first step
in the general overruling of them by tactless attendants and, in
particular, by a certain assistant physician.

I had always shown a strong inclination to superintend. In consequence,
in my elated condition it was but natural that I should have an excess
of executive impulses. In order to decrease this executive pressure I
proceeded to assume entire charge of that portion of the hospital in
which I happened at the moment to be confined. What I eventually issued
as imperative orders were often presented at first as polite
suggestions. But, if my suggestions were not accorded a respectful
hearing, and my demands acted upon at once, I invariably supplemented
them with vituperative ultimatums. These were double-edged, and
involved me in trouble quite as often as they gained the ends I sought.

The assistant physician in charge of my case, realizing that he could
not grant all of my requests, unwisely decided to deny most of them.
Had he been tactful, he could have taken the same stand without
arousing my animosity. As it was, he treated me with a contemptuous
sort of indifference which finally developed into spite, and led to
much trouble for us both. During the two wild months that followed, the
superintendent and the steward could induce me to do almost anything by
simply requesting it. If two men out of three could control me easily
during such a period of mental excitement, is it not reasonable to
suppose that the third man, the assistant physician, could likewise
have controlled me had he treated me with consideration? It was his
undisguised superciliousness that gave birth to my contempt for him. In
a letter written during my second week of elation, I expressed the
opinion that he and I should get along well together. But that was
before I had become troublesome enough to try the man's patience.
Nevertheless, it indicates that he could have saved himself hours of
time and subsequent worry, had he met my friendly advances in the
proper spirit, for it is the quality of heart quite as much as the
quantity of mind that cures or makes happy the insane.

The literary impulse took such a hold on me that, when I first sat down
to compose a letter, I bluntly refused to stop writing and go to bed
when the attendant ordered me to do so. For over one year this man had
seen me mute and meek, and the sudden and startling change from passive
obedience to uncompromising independence naturally puzzled him. He
threatened to drag me to my room, but strangely enough decided not to
do so. After half an hour's futile coaxing, during which time an
unwonted supply of blood was drawn to his brain, that surprised organ
proved its gratitude by giving birth to a timely and sensible idea.
With an unaccustomed resourcefulness, by cutting off the supply of
light at the electric switch, he put the entire ward in darkness.
Secretly I admired the stratagem, but my words on that occasion
probably conveyed no idea of the approbation that lurked within me.

I then went to bed, but not to sleep. The ecstasy of elation made each
conscious hour one of rapturous happiness, and my memory knows no day
of brighter sunlight than those nights. The floodgates of thought wide
open. So jealous of each other were the thoughts that they seemed to
stumble over one another in their mad rush to present themselves to my
re-enthroned ego.

I naturally craved companionship, but there were not many patients whom
I cared to talk with. I did, however, greatly desire to engage the
assistant physician in conversation, as he was a man of some education
and familiar with the history of my case. But this man, who had tried
to induce me to speak when delusions had tied my tongue, now, when I
was at last willing talk, would scarcely condescend to listen; and what
seemed to me his studied and ill-disguised avoidance only served to
whet my desire to detain him whenever possible.

It was about the second week that my reformative turn of mind became
acute. The ward in which I was confined was well furnished and as
homelike as such a place could be, though in justice to my own home I
must observe that the resemblance was not great. About the so-called
violent ward I had far less favorable ideas. Though I had not been
subjected to physical abuse during the first fourteen months of my stay
here, I had seen unnecessary and often brutal force used by the
attendants in managing several so-called violent patients, who, upon
their arrival, had been placed in the ward where I was. I had also
heard convincing rumors of rough treatment of irresponsible patients in
the violent ward.

At once I determined to conduct a thorough investigation of the
institution. In order that I might have proof that my intended action
was deliberate, my first move was to tell one or two fellow-patients
that I should soon transgress some rule in such a way as to necessitate
my removal to the violent ward. At first I thought of breaking a few
panes of glass; but my purpose was accomplished in another way - and,
indeed, sooner than I had anticipated. My conservator, in my presence,
had told the assistant physician that the doctors could permit me to
telephone him whenever they should see fit. It was rather with the wish
to test the unfriendly physician than to satisfy any desire to speak
with my conservator that one morning I asked permission to call up the
latter. That very morning I had received a letter from him. This the
doctor knew, for I showed him the letter - but not its contents. It was
on the letter that I based my demand, though in it my brother did not
even intimate that he wished to speak to me. The doctor, however, had
no way of knowing that my statement was not true. To deny my request
was simply one of his ill-advised whims, and his refusal was given with
customary curtness and contempt. I met his refusal in kind, and
presented him with a trenchant critique of his character.

He said, "Unless you stop talking in that way I shall have you
transferred to the Fourth Ward." (This was the violent ward.)

"Put me where you please," was my reply. "I'll put you in the gutter
before I get through with you."

With that the doctor made good his threat, and the attendant escorted
me to the violent ward - a willing, in fact, eager prisoner.

The ward in which I was now placed (September 13th, 1902) was furnished
in the plainest manner. The floors were of hard wood and the walls were
bare. Except when at meals or out of doors taking their accustomed
exercise, the patients usually lounged about in one large room, in
which heavy benches were used, it being thought that in the hands of
violent patients, chairs might become a menace to others. In the dining
room, however, there were chairs of a substantial type, for patients
seldom run amuck at meal time. Nevertheless, one of these dining-room
chairs soon acquired a history.

As my banishment had come on short notice, I had failed to provide
myself with many things I now desired. My first request was that I be
supplied with stationery. The attendants, acting no doubt on the
doctor's orders, refused to grant my request; nor would they give me a
lead pencil - which, luckily, I did not need, for I happened to have
one. Despite their refusal I managed to get some scraps of paper, on
which I was soon busily engaged in writing notes to those in authority.
Some of these (as I learned later) were delivered, but no attention was
paid to them. No doctor came near me until evening, when the one who
had banished me made his regular round of inspection. When he appeared,
the interrupted conversation of the morning was resumed - that is, by
me - and in a similar vein. I again asked leave to telephone my
conservator. The doctor again refused, and, of course, again I told him
what I thought of him.

My imprisonment pleased me. I was where I most wished to be, and I
busied myself investigating conditions and making mental notes. As the
assistant physician could grant favors to the attendants, and had
authority to discharge them, they did his bidding and continued to
refuse most of my requests. In spite of their unfriendly attitude,
however, I did manage to persuade the supervisor, a kindly man, well
along in years, to deliver a note to the steward. In it I asked him to
come at once, as I wished to talk with him. The steward, whom I looked
upon as a friend, returned no answer and made no visit. I supposed he,
too, had purposely ignored me. As I learned afterwards, both he and the
superintendent were absent, else perhaps I should have been treated in
a less high-handed manner by the assistant physician, who was not

The next morning, after a renewal of my request and a repeated refusal,
I asked the doctor to send me the "Book of Psalms" which I had left in
my former room. With this request he complied, believing, perhaps, that
some religion would at least do me no harm. I probably read my favorite
psalm, the 45th; but most of my time I spent writing, on the flyleaves,
psalms of my own. And if the value of a psalm is to be measured by the
intensity of feeling portrayed, my compositions of that day rightly
belonged beside the writings of David. My psalms were indited to those
in authority at the hospital, and later in the day the supervisor - who
proved himself a friend on many occasions - took the book to

The assistant physician, who had mistaken my malevolent tongue for a
violent mind, had placed me in an exile which precluded my attending
the service which was held in the chapel that Sunday afternoon. Time
which might better have been spent in church I therefore spent in
perfecting a somewhat ingenious scheme for getting in touch with the
steward. That evening, when the doctor again appeared, I approached him
in a friendly way and politely repeated my request. He again refused to
grant it. With an air of resignation I said, "Well, as it seems useless
to argue the point with you and as the notes sent to others have thus
far been ignored, I should like, with your kind permission, to kick a

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Online LibraryClifford Whittingham BeersA Mind That Found Itself An Autobiography → online text (page 6 of 15)