Entwined in the thick, decadent audacity of Valley of the Dolls, is The Sleep Cure, a seductive nightmare to treat both nerves and weight loss. In the novel Jennifer North, an amalgam of all troubled blonde Hollywood ingenues, signs into a Swiss clinic to sleep off 10 pounds, which honestly, sounds like a dream way to do it. There are times when we’d like to sleep through a few weeks anyway. Why not lose some body fat in the process?
The Sleep Cure has all the allure of the “magic pill” mixed with fairytale lore. In real life, if we want to lose weight, we have to work at it: we have to exercise, and endure hunger pangs and the skip food we crave. If we go for treatment for emotional pain, we have to work on ourselves, talk it through with professionals, and make changes in our lives. If we want to change anything about ourselves a bit of effort is required, a degree of both bodily and psychological movement is the prescription. The Sleep Cure promises feels quick even if they’re not.
The Cure evokes the dark charm of Sleeping Beauty, a tempting fix wrapped in a curse. Sleeping Beauty is scary, and rife with the anxieties of a predetermined fate (something we all relate to as we stalk around our lives trying to avoid danger and trouble,) but I always envied Sleeping Beauty and her court for their chance to sleep their way into another century. There would be so much lost, but it conjures up an intoxicating illusion that we could just rest up enough to conquer the seemingly overwhelming pressure coming in at from all sides. Oh, the life we could live, if we just had a chance to catch our breath!
The Sleep Cure takes this Sleeping Beauty fantasy a step further into the realm of the possible. There are no fairies needed, only doctors and nurses with their own kind of fairy dust and magic IV needle wands. TSC is the ultimate promise of late-night TV schemes and harbors the warm, deceptive glow of change without that noxious experience of time.
As far as I can tell, early psychiatric treatments included things like putting people in a bath of water with a tarp draped over them so they couldn’t escape (something that happened to Neely,) but there is no evidence of anything quite like The Sleep Cure. Although it seems plausible, the
There was something called the “The Rest Cure,” a widely used 19th century treatment developed by neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell. The specialty of The Rest Cure was to treat female neurasthenics, who he defined as “nervous women, who, as a rule, are thin and lack blood.” What doesn’t seem to be widely known by those familiar with the rest cure is that Mitchell himself received the rest cure after self-diagnosing himself with “neurasthenia with grave insomnia.” Neurasthenia was a popular diagnosis in the late 1800s for a mix of anxiety, depression, insomnia, indigestion, fatigue, and headaches (while this particular term has sauntered off into obscurity, the condition is certainly thriving in the modern world and has splintered off into a vast array of diagnoses.)
Unlike fictitious The Sleep Cure, which the patient would be mercifully unconscious for, The Rest Cure required a terrifying lack of distraction. Removed from their home for six weeks to several months, the patient would be monitored 24/7 by a nurse, and not allowed visitors. They were also not allowed to read, write, sew, or even talk during the cure, which Mitchell explained were partly punitive restrictions.
“The rest I like for [female invalids] is not at all their notion of rest. To lie abed half the day, and sew a little and read a little, and be interesting and excite sympathy, is all very well, but when they are bidden to stay in bed a month, and neither to read, write, nor sew, and to have one nurse, – who is not a relative – then rest becomes for some women a rather bitter medicine, and they are glad enough to accept the order to rise and go about.”
Another reason for the restriction of any activity that required mental activity was to try to wean women off of intellectual pursuits. “The woman’s desire to be on a level of competition with man and to assume his duties is, I am sure, making mischief,” he wrote in Doctor and Patient. “She is physiologically other than the man.”
Because they were not allowed to move around, patients were given frequent massages and electrotherapy to keep their muscles from atrophying. They were also fed an great deal of food that consisted mostly of milk, bread and butter, and a pound of raw meat made into a soup. Many of the women who received the cure were “thin,” so this combination of lack of activity and lots of protein and fat-rich food was supposed to fatten them up in order to ready them for reproduction, another huge distinction between this and The Sleep Cure.
Although Mitchell prescribed the treatment for himself and other men (he actually developed a more active cure for most men, called The West Cure that involved rehabilitation via ranch activities,) he still maintained throughout his work that women and men where psychologically and physically so different that they had different requirements for total health. (You can click here to determine my thoughts on that.) From his perspective, a female’s sole measurement of health, including emotional health, was her ability to get pregnant, carry a pregnancy to term, and take up the standard tasks of domesticity.
Writer and women’s activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who suffered from depression all her life, famously received The Rest Cure from Mitchell after experiencing postpartum depression. Her experiences inspired her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about a woman going mad while receiving this cure. She later explained that she had not experienced hallucinations like the woman in the story, but that she did almost lose her mind by following the prescription Mitchell sent her home with. “I was put to bed, and kept there. I was fed, bathed, rubbed, and responded with the vigorous body of twenty-six,” she wrote in her autobiography. “As far as he could see there was nothing the matter with me, so after a month of this agreeable treatment he sent me home with this prescription:
Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. . . . Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.”
Virginia Woolf received different versions of the rest cure many times throughout her life, and had one of her characters in Mrs. Dalloway, veteran Septimus Warren Smith, commit suicide after being faced with the prospect of receiving treatment that sounded a lot like the rest cure.
The treatment was widely used into the 20th century, but began to fade around the 1940s when its methods were questioned, and psychoanalysis became more widely accepted. A very odd thing about the rest cure is that it discouraged talking or analyzing one’s thoughts. Instead of mining the depths of the mind to find buried reasons for pain, and/or to find and alter faulty reasoning patterns like the versions of the “talk cure” that are still used today, the rest cure called for a lack of insight by the patient. While there are lots of negative reports about it, there were some women and men who received the rest cure, and loved the results.
The shadowy depths of the a person’s internal world were to be ignored and untapped. “Brain work having ceased, mental expenditure is reduced to a slight play of emotions and an easy drifting of thought,” Mitchell wrote of the ideal state of mind after weeks in bed. In that way, The Rest Cure and The Sleep Cure are not so different after all.
As extreme and tortuous as it seems to be, there are times when not thinking and not doing, taking a rest, can be therapeutic. However, mounting evidence supports the notion that movement and exercise, continues to be some of the best treatment around for depression and anxiety, which makes The West Cure, enjoyed by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Walt Whitman, seem far better suited to render positive results. So, no dream of a perfect sleep for me, send me to the ranch.