At the end of a grueling day at work, have you ever longed to go to bed and stay there? Well, in the 19th century bedrest was a big thing, known as ‘the rest cure’. However, this wasn’t always a good thing and some women had it forced upon them to the detriment of their mental and physical well-being. So why was this and how did the practice come about?
Bedrest as a treatment was the brainchild of an American physician, Silas Weir Mitchell (1829–1914). His legacy is to be know as the ‘father of modern neurology’, but given the treatments he devised, this is a chilling accolade. His contemporaneous nickname was “Dr Diet and Dr Quiet” which reflected his methods, and by the standards of the day he was considering a genius (again, somewhat chilling). Working in the 1870s with soldiers injured in the Civil War, suffering from PTSD, he developed a therapy that involved a fat-rich diet, massage, muscle stimulation with electric shocks, and rest. Indeed, he was not immune to mental distress himself, went on to have nervous breakdown, using his own methods to aid recovery.
But Weir also supported the widely held beliefs of the male-dominated medical profession that women’s brains were different from men’s and that intellectual pursuits overstimulated their minds, predisposing females to nervous hysteria. Whereas men were prone to exhaustion from overwork, women were prone to nervous hysteria when they over-exerted their brains or bodies. A woman’s biological destiny was to bear children, and any activity which diverted her from this; from intellectual study to riding fast, could cause her ovaries to shrivel, masculinization of her body, and the brain to shrink. So in 1873, Weir adapted his therapy to create the Rest Cure for women.
Unfortunately, Weir also believed that physical symptoms were a manifestation of attention-seeking behavior or ‘nervous hysteria’. The more severe the symptoms, the more necessary forced rest and a special diet were considered, and the treatment took as long as it took (a couple of months, but often longer depending on how long it took to break the patient’s spirit.) There are records of women forced to stay in bed, not even allowed to use their hands to feed themselves, for periods of up to a year. Some were so physically weak at the end of that time, they required crutches to walk; and yet their therapy was hailed as a success.
The Rest Cure was used to treat conditions such as melancholia and post-natal depression. At the time it was immensely popular and a widely accepted therapy. But the treatment could be so severe that reading, sewing, knitting, or any other diversion was not permitted. It was no wonder that women were eventually ‘cured’, that is agreed that reading was bad for them since the consequences (the Rest Cure) were so dire and the treatment being worse than the disease. One patient, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, described the crippling boredom :
“I was perilously close to losing my mind…the mental agony grew so unbearable that I would sit blankly moving my head from side to side to get from under…the mental torment.”
Indeed that same patient then went on to write a story, The Yellow Wallpaper, that warned of the dangers of the rest cure as a cautionary tale to other women. She records that her healing came later from “the joy and growth and service of writing.” Indeed, the latter chimes with a more modern understanding that the treatment of mental illness is often assisted by creativity and using the mind, rather than insulting the patient from all forms of stimulation.
So if you’ve had a bad day at work, put your feet up by all means. But be careful what you wish for because staying in bed for a long time isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.