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A Piece of My Mind
June 1, 2011

A House Built Out of Madness

JAMA. 2011;305(21):2153-2154. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.701

“I live” in a “madhouse.” It is filled with moody, psychotic, anxious, and drug-addicted people. Some of them are rapists, murderers, arsonists, and stalkers. At first I was afraid of these people, but over time, their presence has opened my mind, fostered my curiosity, and enhanced my capacity to understand people on a deeper level.

The idea that “crazy” people existed in the world first came to me during a visit to the hospital where my mother worked in Ireland. The institution had an imposing neo-Gothic facade that sprawled over a dozen acres and loomed high above the River Lee in County Cork. My mother worked there as part of Ireland's mental health board in the 1970s. I was 9 when I first visited the place locals had once dubbed “the madhouse” and “the lunatic asylum.” At first I was terrified to embark on this expedition. Images of toothless, feral, screaming, wild-eyed creatures filled my head. I anxiously yet with a morbid fascination anticipated seeing the “shock therapy” room, where I had convinced myself that people were strapped down and electrocuted with frayed wires in some horrifying and barbaric manner. Instead, I saw the place where my mother had tenderly and diligently cared for people who were suicidal, manic, and psychotic. Rather than witnessing people flinging themselves into the river, or jumping out of the windows, as my child's imagination had it, I simply saw people. They seemed content working in the hospital gardens, greeting staff, and serving dinner to their friends. I did not find this visit at all terrifying. My mother taught me about how medicine and talking had helped people who were sick, and I felt happy being there among them.