Paulo Coelho

Stories & Reflections

5 MIN READING: “Daddy, I am going to talk about my experience in an asylum”

Author: Paulo Coelho

‘I entered a tiled cubicle. There was a bed covered with a rubber sheet and beside the bed some sort of apparatus with a handle.

“So you’re going to give me electric shock treatment,” I said to Dr Benjamim Gaspar Gomes.

“Don’t worry. It’s far more traumatic watching someone being treated than actually having the treatment yourself. It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I lay down and the male nurse put a kind of tube in my mouth so that my tongue wouldn’t roll back. Then, on either temple, he placed two electrodes, rather like the earpieces of a telephone.

I was looking up at the peeling paint on the ceiling when I heard the handle being turned. The next moment, a curtain seemed to fall over my eyes; my vision quickly reduced down to a single point, and then everything went dark.

The doctor was right; it didn’t hurt at all.’


The scene I have just described is not taken from my book, “Veronika Decides to Die”. It comes from the diary I wrote during my second stay in a mental hospital. That was in 1966, the beginning of the blackest period of Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1989), and, as if by some natural reflex of the social mechanism, that external repression was gradually becoming internalised (not unlike what is happening in the United States today, where a man doesn’t even dare look at a woman without having a lawyer by his side). So much so that good middle-class families found it simply unacceptable that their children or grandchildren should want to be ‘artists’. In Brazil at the time, the word ‘artist’ was synonymous with homosexual, communist, drug addict and layabout.


When I was 18, I believed that my world and that of my parents could coexist peacefully. I did my best to get good marks at the Jesuit school where I was studying, I worked every afternoon, but at night, I wanted to live out my dream of being an artist. Not knowing quite where to begin, I became involved in an amateur theatre group. Although I had no desire to act professionally, at least I was amongst people with whom I felt some affinity.


Unfortunately, my parents did not share my belief in the peaceful coexistence of two such diametrically opposed worlds. One night, I came home drunk, and the following morning, I was woken by two burly male nurses.

‘You’re coming with us,’ one of them said.

My mother was crying, and my father was doing his best to hide any feelings he might have.

‘It’s for your own good,’ he said. ‘We’re just going to have some tests done.’


And thus began my journey through various psychiatric hospitals. I was admitted, I was given all kinds of different treatments, and I ran away at the first opportunity, travelling around for as long as I could bear it, then going back to my parents’ house. We enjoyed a kind of honeymoon period, but, after a while, I again started to get into what my family called ‘bad company’, and the nurses reappeared.


There are some battles in life that have only two possible outcomes: they either destroy us or they make us strong. The psychiatric hospital was one such battle.


One night, talking to another patient, I said:

‘You know, I think nearly everyone, at some point in his life, has dreamed of being President of the Republic. But neither you nor I can ever aspire to that, because our medical record won’t let us.’

‘Then we’ve got nothing to lose,’ said the other man. ‘We can just do whatever we want to do.’


It seemed to me he was right. The situation I found myself in was so strange, so extreme, that it brought with it something unprecedented: total freedom. All my family’s efforts to make me the same as everyone else had exactly the opposite result: I was now completely different from all the other young men of my own age.


That same night, I considered my future. One option was to become a writer; the other, which seemed more viable, was to go properly mad. I would be supported by the State, I would never have to work or take on any responsibility. I would, of course, have to spend a great deal of time in mental institutions, but I knew from my own experience that patients there do not behave like the mad people you see in Hollywood films. Apart from a few pathological cases of catatonia or schizophrenia, all the other patients were perfectly capable of talking about life and had their own highly original ideas on the subject. Every now and then, they would suffer panic attacks, bouts of depression or aggression, but these did not last.


The greatest risk I ran in hospital was not of losing all hope of ever becoming President of the Republic, nor of feeling marginalised or unfairly treated by my family – because in my heart I knew that having me admitted to hospital was a desperate act of love and over-protectiveness on their part. The greatest risk I ran was of coming to think of that situation as normal.

When I came out of hospital for the third time – after the usual cycle of escaping from hospital/travelling around/going back home/enjoying a honeymoon period with my family/getting into bad company again/being readmitted into hospital – I was nearly twenty and had become accustomed to that rhythm of events. This time, however, something had changed.


Although I again got into ‘bad company’, my parents were growing reluctant to have me readmitted to a mental hospital. Unbeknown to me, they were by then convinced that I was a hopeless case, and preferred to keep me with them and to support me for the rest of my life.


My behaviour went from bad to worse, I became more aggressive, but still there was no mention of hospital. I experienced a period of great joy as I tried to exercise my so-called freedom, in order, finally, to live the ‘artist’s life’. I left the new job my parents had found for me, I stopped studying, and I dedicated myself exclusively to the theatre and to frequenting the bars favoured by intellectuals. For one long year, I did exactly as I pleased; but then the theatre group was broken up by the political police, the bars became infiltrated by spies, my stories were rejected by every publisher I sent them to, and none of the girls I knew wanted to go out with me – because I was a young man without a future, with no real career, and who had never even been to university.


So, one day, I decided to trash my bedroom. It was a way of saying, without words: ‘You see, I can’t live in the real world. I can’t get a job, I can’t realise my dream. I think you’re absolutely right: I am mad, and I want to go back to the mental hospital!’


Fate can be so ironic* When I had finished wrecking my room, I was relieved to see that my parents were phoning the psychiatric hospital. However, the doctor who usually dealt with me was on holiday. The nurses arrived with a junior doctor in tow. He saw me sitting there surrounded by torn-up books, broken records, ripped curtains, and asked my family and the nurses to leave the room.

‘What’s going on?’ he asked.

I didn’t reply. A madman should always behave like someone not of this world.

‘Stop playing around,’ he said. ‘I’ve been reading your case history. You’re not mad at all, and I won’t admit you to the hospital.’

He left the room, wrote a prescription for some tranquillisers and (so I found out later) told my parents that I was suffering from ‘admission syndrome’. Normal people who, at some point, find themselves in an abnormal situation – such as depression, panic, etc. – occasionally use illness as an alternative to life. That is, they choose to be ill, because being ‘normal’ is too much like hard work. My parents listened to his advice and never again had me admitted into a mental institution.


From then on, I could no longer seek comfort in madness. I had to lick my wounds alone, I had to lose some battles and win others, I often had to abandon my impossible dream and work in offices instead, until, one day, I gave it all up for the nth time and I went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. There I realised that I could not keep refusing to face up to my fate of ‘being an artist’, which, in my case, meant being a writer. So, at 38, I decided to write my first book and to risk entering into a battle which I had always subconsciously feared: the battle for a dream.


I found a publisher and that first book (The Pilgrimage – about my experience on the Road to Santiago) led me to The Alchemist, which led me to others, which led to translations, which led to lectures and conferences all over the world. Although I had kept postponing my dream, I realised that I could do so no longer, and that the Universe always favours those who fight for what they want.


In 1997, after an exhausting promotional tour across three continents, I began to notice a very odd phenomenon: what I had wanted on that day when I trashed my bedroom seemed to be something a lot of other people wanted too. People preferred to live in a huge asylum, religiously following rules written by who knows who, rather than fighting for the right to be different. On a flight to Tokyo, I read the following in a newspaper:


According to Statistics Canada: 40% of people between 15 and 34, 33% of people between 35 and 54, and 20% of people between 55 and 64 have already had some kind of mental illness. It is thought that one in every five individuals suffers from some form of psychiatric disorder.


I thought: Canada has never had a military dictatorship, it’s considered to have the best quality of life in the world, why then are there so many mad people there? Why aren’t they in mental hospitals?


That question led me on to another: what exactly is madness?

I found the answers to both those questions. First, people aren’t in mental institutions because they continue to be socially productive. If you are capable of getting in to work at 9.00 a.m. and staying until 5.00 p.m., then society does not consider you incapacitated. It doesn’t matter if, from 5.01 p.m. until 8.59 a.m. you sit in a catatonic state in front of the television, indulge in the most perverted sexual fantasies on the Internet, stare at the wall, blaming the world for everything and feeling generally put upon, feel afraid to go out into the street, are obsessed with cleanliness or a lack of cleanliness, suffer from bouts of depression and compulsive crying. As long as you can turn up for work and do your bit for society, you don’t represent a threat. You’re only a threat when the cup finally overflows and you go out into the street with a machine gun in your hand, like a character in a child’s cartoon, and kill fifteen children in order to alert the world to the pernicious effects of Tom and Jerry. Until you do that, you are deemed to be normal.


And madness? Madness is the inability to communicate.


Between normality and madness, which are basically the same thing, there exists an intermediary stage: it is called ‘being different’. And people were becoming more and more afraid of ‘being different’. In Japan, after giving much thought to the statistical information I had just read, I decided to write a book based on my own experiences. I wrote Veronika Decides to Die, in the third person and using my feminine ego, because I knew that the important subject to be addressed was not what I personally had experienced in mental institutions, but, rather, the risks we run by being different and yet our horror of being the same.

When I had finished, I went and talked to my father. Once the difficult time of adolescence and early youth was over, my parents never forgave themselves for what they did to me. I always told them that it really hadn’t been that bad and that prison (for I was imprisoned three times for political reasons) had left far deeper scars, but my parents refused to believe me and spent the rest of their lives blaming themselves.


‘I’ve written a book about a mental institution,’ I said to my 85-year-old father. ‘It’s a fictional work, but there are a couple of pages where I speak as myself. It means going public about the time I spent in mental hospitals.’

My father looked me in the eye and said:

‘Are you sure it won’t harm you in any way?’

‘Yes, I’m sure.’

‘Then go ahead. I’m tired of secrets.’


Veronika Decides to Die came out in Brazil in August 1998. By September, I had received more than 1,200 e-mails and letters relating similar experiences. In October, some of the themes touched on in the book – depression, panic attacks, suicide – were discussed in a seminar that had national repercussions. On 22 January 1999, Senator Eduardo Suplicy, read out passages from my book to the other senators, and managed to get approval for a law which they had been trying to get through the Brazilian Congress for the last ten years, a law forbidding arbitrary admissions into mental institutions.


                    Paulo Coelho

                    Translated by Margaret Jull Costa


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