The Yellow Ward
“It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw–not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.” – The Yellow Wallpaper
“Is there a reason you’ve chosen to paint this ward in this shade of yellow?” I was specifically thinking of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which I assumed was an obvious cultural reference (it isn’t). However they didn’t get it and just started telling me about using whatever paint gets donated. How can people working in a psych institution not get the Gilman reference? It’s like not being insulted when I call them Nurse Rached.
Briefly, The Yellow Wallpaper charts a woman’s descent into madness while using the yellow wallpaper of the room she’s imprisoned in as a focal point for obsessive ruminations. It’s written by a psych survivor in the pre-med era.
In her own words:
“For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia–and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live as domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again” as long as I lived. This was in 1887.
“I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.
“Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again–work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite–ultimately recovering some measure of power.
“Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.”
The irony of psychiatry is that time and time again the survivors who finally leave it altogether (or as much as is legally possible) go on to do great amazing and wonderous things, sometimes specifically to spite their doctors. It is clear that psychiatrists are not psychics and can’t truly say someone will be dependent on medication and be insane for the rest of their lives. But they do. And once someone sets up THOSE kinds of expectations in someone, it’s hard to see and move beyond it unless you have some really supportive people. Currently mental illnesses are theories, we know people have clusters of specific symptoms, but we really don’t totally know WHY. There isn’t a test one can do and underlying issues are never investigated. The most likely causes of mental illness symptomology involve trauma or abuse of one kind or another. Social factors like racism, homophobia, and poverty have far more impact on mental health than mere genes. Even beyond that, mental illness is more often a judgement call. I can easily say someone is crazy because they act or think in ways different from myself, but psychiatrists have the legal and medical pull to make that person’s life a living hell. And the cures are often worse than the initial issues.
How would reducing someones life to rote domestic duties cure their depression? It doesn’t, it made Gilman crazier, and the only way she got out was to buck doctors orders and have an intellectual life again. The only way I started feeling more human and in control was to kick Olanzapine. I am beginning to suspect that psychiatry is designed to create mental distress in patients rather than allieviate it. So many alternatives have been shown to be superior to the current medical model (the Quakers had it going on!), and yet we’re still using the psychiatric model born out of Nazism (the heavy neuroleptics have their basis in Nazi experimentation) which we already know compounds mental health issues.
Either way, I am still researching the way out of the system. It’s tricky. I’m just sick of the Yellow Ward and the Yellow Wallpaper and all the Yellow Pills.