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My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin

by Norah Vincent

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-670-01971-7
Publisher: Viking

As part of her ongoing work as an “immersion journalist” (Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man, 2006, etc.), Vincent checked into three different mental institutions; she found the experience both numbing and life-changing.

Having battled periods of depression throughout her life, and being well-acquainted with the use of medications such as Lamictal and Prozac, the author had no trouble getting admitted for an average two-week stay as a patient in the three institutions: Meriwether, a public Bedlam in the Northeast; St. Luke’s, a small Catholic hospital “in the middle of the plains”; and a private rehab facility called Mobius, specializing in “process therapy.” She rates and compares them, admitting from the start that she is deeply suspicious of the way the medical profession handles mental illness, the causes and mechanisms of which remain little understood. Treatments ranged from comforting and stabilizing to abusive and perfunctory. The aggressiveness with which doctors pushed drugs on their addled patients, especially at Meriwether, shocked Vincent. She resolved not to take hers and observed that in comparison to her heavily doped ward-mates, she “enjoyed a comparatively stunning range of motion and mental agility.” Her account is replete with compassionate descriptions of fellow inmates. Some were more hardened than others, but all craved the merest glimmer of recognition of their humanity. Healing, the author realized after her stay at Mobius, cannot be achieved at any institution without the active participation of the patient, and even at the fancy rehab clinic the patients were rarely receptive; thus containment and medication remained the norm. Vincent is a sharp observer and an intelligent analyst, but she doesn’t provide any context to help readers understand the larger issues involved. She utterly ignores the vast literature on mental illness, from Freud and Foucault to Mary Jane Ward and Kay Redfield Jamison, and doesn’t include a bibliography.

Forthright and well-written, but essentially superficial.