So Much To Fight For
In 1887, 143 years ago, a very brave investigative journalist named Nellie Bly tricked the system into having herself admitted to an insane asylum in New York. She spent ten days there, observing and taking notes, and then wrote a piece that changed the world.
Back then, the conditions of asylums were absolutely horrific. The food was cold, often rotten, and even had a spider in it one day. The asylum was absolutely freezing because they had a rule about when they could turn the heat on, and many women got sick. Women who were perfectly sane were admitted by their husbands or family members, were labeled hopeless cases, and had to spend the rest of their lives there, despite the fact that they were lucid and could plead their own case.
The staff was abusive, ripping out people’s hair, slapping them, holding their heads under cold water, and so much more. Instead of learning coping skills all day, they were forced to work in difficult jobs, or just sit on a bench for hours on end. They had occasional walks, but those considered violent or suicidal cases were attached to a rope and given even less freedom than everyone else.
The doors to the rooms were all locked from the outside, so if a fire broke out, they all would have died. When the staff thought a patient hadn’t slept enough or was causing trouble, they were given shots of morphine to put them to sleep. People were told that they could not expect the treatment to be any better because they were being funded by the state and did not deserve good treatment.
Psychiatric medications were not discovered until 1948…61 years later.
It could have been me.
I can’t even imagine what I would be like without medication and coping skills.
I could have been locked in an institution for the rest of my life, with no hope, with no relief.
We have come a LONG way since that time, which is amazing. Now instead of asylums we have hospitals, and most patients are there for relatively short stays, not for their entire lives. There are medications and coping skills that help people maintain their dignity and hope.
But at the same time, in some ways, we are not much further along than you would expect. I have stayed at places with cold showers, inedible food, staff that was not exactly abusive, but certainly neglectful and unkind. I have been told that I don’t deserve good treatment, that a hospitalization is a free vacation and I should be grateful because it was government funded. Now we don’t inject people with morphine, but Haldol. It is used more sparingly, but it is still at the discretion of a staff member. I had the experience of having the shot once, and I am pretty much as compliant and kind of a patient as you can find.
We have come a long way, but there is still more work to do.
Nelly Bly was amazing. She testified in front of a grand jury that everything she wrote was true, and because of her, significant changes were made at the asylum, and ONE MILLION DOLLARS were added to the budget to support the needs of these suffering men and women. Can you imagine how much money that was back then? Just to give you a frame of reference, she had to buy a dinner at one point and it cost less than thirty cents.
ONE MILLION DOLLARS.
Nelly Bly is my hero. She set out to improve the mental health system, and she did so in ways that no one could have even imagined. Some days I doubt my ability to make change. I think, how can a person with a significant disability do anything this big? I think, why would anyone listen to me? How could I possibly be considered an expert in the field without significant education? With just life experience? But Nelly Bly was not an expert in the field. She was a woman who set out to do the right thing, which is exactly my goal. If I can be even half as brave and committed as Nellie Bly, it will be a life well lived.
There is still so much more to do, and I will not give up until it is done. I will fight, like Nellie Bly, and I WILL make a difference. I know it in my heart, and I think my friends and family know it, too.
Thank you, Nellie Bly, I know I will make you proud. Just watch me!