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Justin M. Stoddard

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The Quiet Room
January 21, 2007 — 7:12 pm

If you only read one book about mental illness, make it The Quiet Room by Lori Shiller. It’s an autobiographical portrait of a young woman suffering from severe schizophrenia in the 80’s and early 90’s (until the advent of clozapine).

Now, of all the mental diseases, schizophrenia probably still has the most social stigma attached to it. That’s now, in 2007. In the 80’s the disease was completely misunderstood, probably due in part by horrific, sensational exposés in the media. (Charles Manson comes to mind). Even today, many people still confuse schizophrenia with Dissociative Identity Disorder, formally known as Multiple Personality Disorder.

It’s easy to understand why, as the very word “schizophrenia” means “splitting of the mind”. Schizophrenia, however, has nothing to do with multiple personalities. In reality, schizophrenics suffer from hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and severe social isolation. Schizophrenia also often has a high co morbidity with severe depression.

Along with bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia is thought to be one of the very worst mental illnesses. And yet, it is constantly used as a comedic foil in our culture. People make light of the condition (out of ignorance rather than meanness, I’m sure), without fully understanding just how offensive they are being.

Books like The Quiet Room do a good job of “conscience raising” when it comes to mental illness. I highly recommend it.

The following passage about the practice of “cold wet packing” as a form of restraint stuck with me:

In order to be cold-wet-packed, a doctor’s order had to be signed. As the buzzer was sounding, the staff was paging an M.D. to come to the unit to write the order as quickly as possible. I was so violent that the packing was usually well underway by the time the psychiatrist arrived.

When the big men got there, they restrained me while I was being packed. The shot of sodium amythal hadn’t taken effect yet. The big burly attendants looked to me just like the horrid rapists of my Voices’ hell. My terror flared. My adrenaline shot up. My strength and power intensified. I could fight off a whole Quiet Room-ful of men. They weren’t going to touch me. That I knew fro sure. I kicked. I flailed. I bit. Even against a roomful of big men, for a moment it seemed like I was winning.

And then they were back in control. It was just as the Voices had shown me. It was just like the rapes in hell. Big strong men held me down while unseen hands stripped off my clothing. Off came my high-tops. Off came my favorite blue sweatshirt with the green frog on it. Off came my only pair of jeans that fit. Off came my socks one after another. How was I going to cause any problems by keeping my little socks on my little feet? And then finally came my bra. My undies were all that stood between me and the rape my imagination fabricated. I was truly terrified.

And then came the real horror. They hoisted me onto the elevated bed that had been set up for me in the kitchen, or in a special room off the short hallway, or in the hall itself, or wherever they could get set up fast before I totaled the place or hurt someone or myself. With strong hands holding me flat, others began wrapping me securely in sheets that had been soaking in ice water.

They wrapped me tight as a mummy, arms and hands at my side. All that was left uncovered were my feet and my neck and head. And there thy left me, with a single attendant by my now helpless side.

I was laughing hysterically. But there was nothing funny about it. It was cold, freezing cold. My teeth began chattering frantically as if they were the Voices speaking. I was going to die a shivery Arctic death and the Voices were going to have the last cold icy laugh. My whole body was frozen.

The entire book does a wonderful job of giving us just a tiny peek into madness. But more than that, it is a book of hope. I am simply amazed at the strength it must have taken just to live. At at the end of it all… clozapine. When people ask me why I love science so, this will be my answer: “Clozapine”.

— Justin M. StoddardComments (0)

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