The first time I ever met with a team of doctors on a psychiatric unit, I was in deep schizophrenic psychosis. Rather than believing they were there to help me, I thought they were in league with others who were performing an experiment upon me. I felt more like a test subject than a patient. To my disturbed mind they came across as smug and ironic — condescending — rather than well-meaning, hardworking professionals. These are psychotic recollections, but they reside in my mind as the truth of my first interaction with psychiatric medical personnel.
I was in the throes of my first encounter with systemized institutionalization and it felt horrible to me. Yet later I would learn that whatever privations I experienced — imaginary or real — paled in comparison to the sad story of treatment procedures from the past. The outset of the fifteenth century, for example, saw the mentally ill beaten by monks in England and burned alive by the Inquisition in Spain. A century later England’s first mental institution, Bethlem — or “Bedlam,” as it popularly came to be known — began to allow the general public to view its inmates, make artistic renderings of them, and even encourage them to perform heinous acts. In the 1920s the eugenics movement in the United States, including the part of Virginia where I reside, sought to sterilize patients so that they would not infect the rest of the population. Later, Swiss psychiatrists attempted to treat schizophrenia by inducing sleep for long periods of time, often resulting in pneumonia and death. Still others tried to waylay the disease with carbon dioxide gas and artificially-induced comas. Perhaps the worst treatment was the lobotomy, a brain “operation” often performed with an icepick and little anesthesia.
Despite the discomfort of my first experience on a psych ward, I learned through my reading about the history of treatment methods that I was comparatively lucky to exist in the place and time where I found myself. At present an average of five thousand scientific articles on schizophrenia are published every year and promising breakthroughs are occurring around the world. Yet given difficulties surrounding the disease, I can see why some schizophrenics have trouble shaking the feeling that they are being treated as test subjects rather than people. Although we have a long way to go, I am most thankful not to be stuck with my disease in an earlier time.