Wednesday, June 30, 2010

This old house. Wednesday, June 30, 2010.

“Grace thou thy House, and let not that grace thee.” – Benjamin Franklin

Today I met a woman who purchased a huge, 120-year-old Victorian house with plans to turn it into a non-profit nursing home. She wants some elderly people to have a elegant place to live during the twilight of their lives.

I toured the house – which is similar to the one I’ve posted here – and I had so many questions. The builder of the house had obviously been wealthy. Had he been a good man and shared his wealth? Or had he hoarded his riches? The woman told me that he and his wife and had had 10 children – not unheard of during that era. Had he been a loving father? Had he treated his wife well? Had they been happy?

I thought about life at the Turn of the Century. We romanticize it, but in reality it was incredibly hard. And it was even worse for the mentally ill. During Victorian times, the mentally ill were no longer kept in cages and whipped as they had been before, but the number of “insane asylums” ballooned. In 1904, more than 150,000 Americans were locked in these asylums, which became a dumping ground for the homeless and elderly. Restraints and ice water baths were used. And the introduction of the first psychiatric medications was years away.

But the use of psychotropic drugs was rampant. Cocaine, heroin, opium, and even hallucinogens were ubiquitous. Because they were ingredients in the “health tonics” that were so popular, many historians believe that drugs were a much bigger problem then than they are now. No doubt depressed and anxious people self-medicated then as they do today.

What if I had lived when that house was being built? As someone with bipolar, what would have happened to me? Could I have worked, supported a family? Would I have been hooked on cocaine and opium to deal with highs and lows? Would I be restrained in an asylum, and unfastened for my weekly ice bath? The thought makes me shiver.

It’s never a good time to have a mental illness. But if I had to choose a time, I’d choose now.

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