The first month or so of each stint in the psych ward was punctuated by daily material and immaterial requests, as well as the usual messages from On High. Clarins Doux Peel. LoUis Armstrng Wat a wunderful World. You are a Duality!… composed of two parts!… what you ‘are’ cannot be diminished!… and nothing could make up for what you’re ‘not’! The material requests were for comfort—to make my grandmother’s bed in her basement ward feel like a home. The immaterial requests were songs that God would’ve sung to her that day or the night before. Phil would want to know all the lyrics, the better to steep herself in his love through the voices of Petula Clarke, John McCormack, Etta James, Rihanna or Luke Kelly. The remaining messages were streams of consciousness flowing from him to her and on through the spiritual magic of unlimited data to my mother and me. Playing the songs for her on Youtube while she lay in her bed reacting was love in action. It was unorthodox love but what Phil marvelled at I did, too, in my own way. She marvelled at God. He loved her. She told me they were like eighteen-year-old lovers. She giggled at the ceiling of her ward when He said intimate things. She couldn’t get over how intelligent He was. He would say really smart things, she said. She would repeat them. They were smart.
Julia Kristeva says that it is possible to overcome or ‘curb’ mourning in a way that gives one ‘a subliminatory hold over the lost Thing.’ She explores this possibility through the idea of prosody: ‘The language beyond language that inserts into the sign the rhythm and alliterations of semiotic processes.’
In her intonation and lilt, when singing and also speaking, Phil stresses and rhythmically implies power and loss, mourning and epiphany, all at once. The heights and depths of ethereal meaning for her drag and surge her vocal chords, sharing with me through sound a taste of the pain and beauty she feels. She has been consistently manic and high for some time now but the framework of a single song seems to act as a microcosm of what bipolar disorder has been for her over the years. In just a couple of minutes, pure elation drops to despair.
Lying back in her hospital bed her eyes light up, ecstatic, and she sings, ‘Enchanted by her beauty rare I gazed in pure delight [Her eyes are glinting. She is giddy.] till round an angle of the road she vanished from my sight [She waves her hot, swollen hand.] but ever since I sighing say as I that scene recall, the grace of God about you and your auld plaid shawl. I’ll seek her all through Galway and I’ll seek her all through Clare—this is the bit He’s after singing to me now—I will seek her all through Galway and seek her—[She pauses. Her lip drops and her face seems heavy with a confused sadness. She wrinkles her nose up and whispers through tears to God.] Wait, I’m not ready—seek her all through Clare [She sings nervously now. She seems uncomfortable—her voice disappears with crying as she mouths the words.] I’ll search for tale or tiding of my traveller everywhere. [She’s crying heavily now.] For peace of mind I’ll never find [Rubbing her tummy and crying.] until my own I call [Pauses, mouth bunched, then moves quickly through the next bit in tears.] that little Irish cailín in her auld plaid shawl. [Sniffles, takes a deep breath and continues crying quietly.] Stop. [She whispers to herself or to Him—I’m not sure.] Stop! [Holding both hands together tight, rubbing each other.] So He’s got me now.’
There’s a dizziness to the whole thing. It is other-worldly. She comes back to the room. ‘So He’s got me now,’ she says, looking at me with the saddest eyes. She has the weight of different worlds on her shoulders. It is real for her and she is trying to exist in two spaces. To migrate from one universe to another measuring their relative loneliness and judging where best to set up camp. It looks agonising.
Alongside the physical pain of Phil’s recurring kidney infections—then her frequent falls; then her breast cancer and mastectomy—is a lucidity that is new. I often wonder if the physical pain of her mid-eighties is a disc pressing on the nerve of her lucidity, releasing the part of her brain that will engage with the truth of her reality. I feel guilty even saying that. Truth of her reality. I have been complicit in layering fiction over truth for her, veiling reality. To be a patient in a psychiatric ward is like dying. You are stripped of autonomy while any sense of self is bleached and sterilised—you begin to question what your ‘autonomy’ even is, or what you would want if you had it. Would you want to leave? Why would you leave everything you know? Patterns you have been forcibly bent to fit into. There is nothing out there that you know. You have either forgotten all of the amazing foods you used to cook, or you don’t see yourself as the same person who used to cook them. Days drag into a blind repetition of habits and compliances. You will be rewarded at meal times for engaging. Rewards will vary from a smile to a verbal congratulations but even in the dopiest throes of lithium-induced stupor you will know in your slurred response that these rewards are not sincere. These people are not sincere. Individually, some are. But they are feeding into a system that is designed to control and subjugate you. You are an inmate. You know this. Your family who visit know this but they distract themselves and you from that truth by bringing you fresh fruit and dressing gowns and chocolates and you feed again into their self-absorbed need to feel helpful, to feel righteous. You thank them for the things they bring and the time they give. They don’t go home feeling better. There is no lack of sincerity there but now as you lie in a ward in Tallaght Hospital having ‘possibly’—they say—fallen out of your bed in the lockdown psychiatric unit in which you live there is nothing sincere about family having visited you there and brought things you like to eat and to wear.
Phil is eighty-five. She has been dying for forty years. She has been revived at times, spending stints in her own home and has even been well enough to take me out for drives in her red Mini. When I was a young child, we mostly went swimming together. I would stand beside her, no taller than her bare hip bone, and watch her put on two tight swimming hats to protect her hair from the chlorine. She looked like a model. Sometimes she also swam with a snorkel and paid no attention to me, mortified and bobbing in the far corner of the pool. Afterwards she would feed me cheese sandwiches on homemade brown bread that was so stodgy it stuck to the roof of my mouth. I once caught a glimpse of myself in the glass cabinet that had the expensive swimming togs and hats in it as I tried to tease the bread down with my tongue and the vein-laced rib on the bottom of my tongue matched my bloodshot eyes.
For the most part, though, she was dying. Slowly. In truth, she was never really in her house in the last few years and, any time she was there, food just stacked up in the kitchen and rotted while she posted sticky notes all around the house for God. And for Satan, sometimes, who for a spell took the form of her neighbours’ two-year-old boy. Despite this, she was happy.
Phil doesn’t like physical affection. She doesn’t love you because you don’t exist. You are a projection of something. She doesn’t care if you’re sick because she doesn’t believe in cancer. She doesn’t care if you have something important coming up. A busy week, a daunting appointment, a divorce, because she believes the world is going to end in the morning. Every morning. Unwavering belief. She won’t associate with you as family. She doesn’t really believe she is anything to anyone bar having acted the part for a higher purpose which she is now fulfilling. You can now be disposed of. She doesn’t tell you she loves you. Nobody knows love like her and God. It is just them. She can’t be sure that you will be saved. All she knows is that her and God are the Celestial Realm. I might burn tomorrow morning in the fires of hell, she tells me, as I bring her two oranges from the bag of oranges I have in the car because she won’t let me bring her in a full bag of oranges because she won’t need that many because the world is ending in the morning.
‘Okay,’ I say, as I peel an orange. Something instinctively maternal and also naïve in my mother takes offence to this.
‘Well, why, Phil? Why won’t she be saved?’ My mother is in no way religious, but she seems to have been sucked into the narrative.
I frown over at her. ‘It’s grand.’
‘No, it’s not. Why are my daughters going to burn in the fires of hell, Phil?’
‘I’m not saying they will, Deirdre, I’m just saying they might. It’s nothing to do with me.’
‘It is. They’re your granddaughters’
‘Haha, no they’re not.’ I find myself almost laughing with Phil.
‘Mam, it’s grand. Thank you though.’
‘C’mon, Molly. I need to go. I have to get out of here. We’re going, come on.’
That would happen regularly. Phil would unintentionally wind my mam up and she would be wound tight.
A few months ago, she began touching her forehead against ours as we were leaving at the end of visits. I couldn’t remember the last time she touched me before that. My mam and I both welled up a little the first time, waiting in the corridor that one nurse locked us into before a nurse at the other end of the corridor could let us out. This emotional vacuum. If we brought that emotion out into the car and onto the M50 and into my mam’s new apartment it would ruin everything. It would ruin that evening. It would make it impossible for me to go home the next morning and leave her there, alone. I had a sickly shiver and a damp, now cooling feeling under my armpits. It was stress sweat. Particularly sour. Period sweat is pretty disgusting and pungent and sex sweat is quite nice and musky but stress sweat is just bitter. That’s the one that will ruin your clothes. I had no appetite and felt a bit dizzy but suggested we get fish and chips on the way home.
‘Oh yeah, lovely, what time is it? I think there’s two Emmerdales on tonight.’
‘Aw deadly.’ I wasn’t being sarcastic but there was a pause.
We both know I don’t watch soaps anymore and I think that carries some layered meaning for my mother. It creates some heavy distance between us which might sound trivial but feels sad. It was all I wanted to do that evening though.
‘That’ll be nice,’ I follow up.
It’s still a bit lacklustre. I ask about a character I remember, a child when I last saw the show. She is now pregnant and runs a business. I don’t know if I’m more sad that it has been that long since I’ve spent some quality time with my mother, or that the measure of it is a fictional soap character growing up.
I was born on Saint Brigid’s Day and people always ask why I wasn’t called Brigid. I always liked that my birthday was February 1st for this reason and also because it was the start of spring. I still like it for these reasons. But as a child or even teenager these things didn’t mean much. They were just conversation pieces. Saint Brigid wasn’t really celebrated enough for me to find much meaning in sharing my birthday with her day, and a new season went unnoticed when I was just shipped back and forth in the same school buses and cars to the same places year round. I knew it was dark when I went to school and dark again when I came out for a few months but I didn’t actually care. The warm entrapment of childhood numbed me to the elements since the house I came home to already had the lights on. And, if it didn’t, a taller person was with me and was able to reach for the switch. It never really felt like I came into a dark room as a child.
The psychiatric unit is like that too. All hospitals are, I suppose. Always on. Lights always switched on, heating always going. People always there. Never officially closed. Phil is cooped up in this seasonless, sterile, fluorescent house. The setting sun doesn’t poke through the closed blinds in her kitchen, beaming a line across dancing dust particles. Or, rather, it does, but she isn’t there to see it. I visit her in the winter and she says I should probably get on the road soon, it must be so late. It is only around five, late afternoon, getting dark. She has no concept of time really, or rather she has an institutionalised concept but not a natural one—it is punctuated and marked by meals she is brought. She has lost her concept of time and light and seasons. So we don’t talk about winter or summer or longer or shorter evenings. And so we don’t talk about spring being a turning point for that, and it being my birthday, and it being Saint Brigid’s Day. And so, somehow, we have never spoken either about the fact that her mother, known as Sissy, was actually called Brigid.
Sissy died in Grangegorman Mental Hospital. Generally, people were committed if they didn’t conform or contribute—economically or practically—to society. A society that was still reeling from the effects of the Famine, trying to pack away any loose ends and hide what looked unseemly. A doddery uncle, a pregnant single woman, post-natal depression, anything. Modelling ourselves on the oppressor—put the outcasts in there, and give the rest of us a job cleaning or building it.
In his work, Irish Insanity 1800-2000, Damien Brennan discusses the secondary functions of asylums in Ireland. ‘These institutions were often the largest provider of local employment within communities,’ he says. ‘This employment included roles directly related to the care of the insane, such as keeper and nurse but also included roles related to the physical and administrative structure of the asylum such as builders, plumbers, store keepers, book keepers and gardeners.’
My grandmother was twelve when her mam died, her little sister was two. Sissy lived in one of the most notorious asylums in the history of this small country. We had the global lead on psychiatric incarcerations per capita, beating the former Soviet Union even as we were being drained of population after the Famine. ‘The population of Ireland almost halved between 1841 and 1911, decreasing from 8,175,124 to 4,390,319,’ writes Brennan. ‘This is the same period that saw the institutional residency of the ‘insane’ increase more than seven times, from 3,498 to 24,655.’
The figures are so staggering they say the only reasonable answer would be an epidemic of mental illness. Rather, the epidemic was of mental conformity to the strict and narrow rules defining what was accepted, what was normal. The line was so narrow and unforgiving it wound back upon itself—it became the sickness. People were incarcerated for all types of reasons—sane people who were committed if they were the black sheep of the family; if they had moral standards, financial disagreements, personal views on arranged marriage. All reasonable, sound, and independent thoughts. Sissy had children, was married, fit the aesthetic. However the full range of emotions from anger to love to jealousy were also ripe for manipulation in the process of incarceration so essentially any person experiencing any feeling in any perceived sense of the extreme was fair game. Brennan again: ‘Insanity was a vague, changing and all encapsulating concept which could be applied to most social difficulties so as to facilitate and rationalise the admission of a family member to an asylum.’
I don’t have much detail about Sissy. She died in a hospital whose records are difficult to attain. Archival work is being done to preserve the rooms full of patients’ personal belongings—their handbags make it seem as if they were plucked from the street and committed. This is important work but just speaks to the sheer volume of incarceration and the ease of follow-through upon accusation. Sissy’s belongings might be amongst them. There might be something in her bag to soothe a teething baby she thought she was going home to, lipstick, a key to a house she thought she would sleep in that night, or at the very least lie awake in with restless children.
Sissy is a figment of my imagination. I know she existed and she is the reason I am here imagining her, but still, that’s all I can do. There’s nothing left of her; only the history of her context and us, now. Becoming acquainted with her through a reading of the psychiatric history of Ireland is jarring. Her history and our present moment, clashing in theory but meshing in reality. Her baby is being hurt in the same rooms now. Female lineage in Ireland feels like a wet, mucky, bloody rag to cling to. It is steadfast, durable. It is tangible, the evidence exists, the stains of suffering are there, but there is no information. Whose blood is where?
I have Sissy’s long form death certificate. I can run my fingers along the ink of the writing that says she died at Grangegorman Mental Hospital. I can think of the fact that it was written in the building where she died. I can tell from the dated signature that it was written the day after she died. That she died on the 6th of October. The signature, qualification and residence of the informant: Katheryn O’Donnell, inmate, Grangegorman Mental Hospital. Inmate. Incarcerated.
The language of mental healthcare in the late 1800s through to the 1940s was designed to ‘quieten the patient’. Procedures as unthinkable as lobotomies and insulin-induced comas were forms of treatment; the desired outcome was silence. The year Sissy died in Grangegorman was the year, according to the Irish Medical Times, that lobotomy was introduced there. We talk about silencing Irish women and it is almost always metaphoric, or rather representative of a particular type of non-hearing. We talk about the female Irish writers whose voices we haven’t heard, whose books we haven’t read, studied or situated appropriately within the canon. We talk about women who were politically active but not remembered justly. Let’s also talk about the women’s voices that were physically silenced. The women whose ability to communicate was severed by drilling into the skull. Men too, of course. Minorities and vulnerable people who were deemed idiots, lunatics and retards.
The intersection between these barbaric forms of ‘treatment’ and the Irish habit of incarcerating sane and healthy people into asylums is a monumental historic travesty. Much like the very nature of the procedure, a ‘desired outcome of silence’ has persisted around this particular nadir in Irish history. Brennan details the various causes and recorded numbers for incarceration as noted in the 1837 Inspectors of Lunatic Asylums Report with 1,639 people incarcerated for moral causes, 2,006 for physical causes, 1,898 for hereditary causes and 4,577 for unknown causes.
There are blocks and pacifiers all around to quieten the voices that try to shed light on historical injustices. Often, we don’t even know what the problems are, and so we cannot begin to address them. This is no accident. But we are the offspring of these injustices, and dissociation is one of the most common things Irish people do. ‘They’ ran the Magdalene laundries, ‘they’ performed lobotomies, ‘they’ killed or left people braindead after insulin-induced comas. In Ireland we can say ‘they’ and ‘we’ because ‘they’ are almost always the Church or the colonial oppressor. This social habit of repeated, and sometimes justified, blaming has become a tool in keeping this part of our history submerged. But it is not always someone else’s fault. ‘They’ aren’t only the Church or the oppressor when it comes to the asylum system in Ireland; institutionalisation persisted after respective colonial and religious holds began to loosen. ‘Rather than reforming and closing these institutions as symbols of an oppressive colonial legacy,’ Brennan writes, ‘asylums were expanded within the Irish Republic to the extent that Ireland had the highest rate of mental hospital usage internationally.’
We talk about the relationship between state and church in Ireland. We talk about war and oppression and famine; events that changed the fabric of our country, events that trampled the system we had, forcing us to start again. Everything has been broken and has begun again, except our asylum system. It lurks. Cold, towering buildings sleeping over towns and villages where we do driving tests and get X-rays and collect children from school and donate to Dogs Trust. These institutions blend into the skyline of Ireland, and have withstood every national catastrophe we have faced.
Phil’s condition has deteriorated markedly in recent months. When I visit, I feel guilty about where I am coming from or leaving for. My guilt is tied into how broad my frames of context are and how narrow are hers. She cannot move much in bed or stand up by herself. She cannot answer the door to see it is me, so my visiting borders on intrusion. She might not want to see me just then. Dignity is compromised; wounded in the crossfire between my wide, roaming existence and her walled one, in the crossfire between unsolicited visits and a policing of personal decisions.
A nurse who doesn’t work on Phil’s ward but who is passing through the corridor offers to buzz me in as I wait at the door. Displaying due diligence, she comes with me to alert a duty nurse that I am on the ward. I see why that is necessary, but she is nonetheless a little rushed and loud. She is speaking at a high volume in the hopes that a nurse will appear from the TV room or nurses’ station or someone’s ward. She is bordering on shouting—‘Phyllis’s granddaughter has come to visit. Phyllis’s granddaughter is here.’ Having my visit announced like it is a rarity makes me feel painfully distant from Phil. A nurse from the ward does arrive; she nods, and everyone disbands. I am left to my own devices.
The door into Phil’s room is held open by a chair. I walk in to find her fast asleep, lying on her right side with both hands tucked under her right cheek and just her bare toes being covered by the blanket which is pushed back to the bottom of the bed. She is in a deep sleep and the position of her hands and pillow are squishing her lips to create a resting pucker face. The soft lines that her lips fold into with the pressure of flesh and pillow trick me into thinking she is content. It looks like a peaceful sleep and I let myself believe that. It also stops me from waking her. It would feel unkind. Also, she would only really be coming around when I have to leave, which is cruel. I sit on the chair beside her bed, indecisive. A nurse walks by and I ask him if she slept last night. He says she did, which tempts me to wake her after all. I text my boyfriend to consult. ‘Definitely wake her. She’ll be annoyed if she misses you!’ Sitting on the edge of her bed, I try gently to rouse her. She wakes enough to see it is me and then closes her eyes again. They have given her something to ease her anxiety so she is drowsy. She has had a rough week. She is in and out of sleep and I’m happy she knows I’m there. I rub her back and the warm glow of sun on the back of her navy cardigan is comforting. I rub in concentric circles for maybe six or seven minutes and I feel friction and dizziness in each cell of my hand. I pause to let the tingle subside. Her hair has fallen to the side of her face. The strands lie hardened and dry on her cheek in front of her ear. I slowly warm them and ease them back behind her ear, tucking them into the crevice at her lobe; the crevice that feels soft and comforted by a gentle touch but if poked accidentally releases some kind of sour sensation in the glands of your neck. I am careful.
I stroke through the hair elsewhere on her head that is a little greasier and smoother. The smell of hair and scalp is the most naturally comforting. It is the smell I associate with the aftermath of heavy crying. It is the first thing your senses notice when they finally come round. When the sun shines warm on the pillow and heats the natural oils in your scalp they smell comforting the way the soil turned over in flower beds smells comforting. I breathe deep and keep stroking her hair. Her skin looks grey and she is sad. Sadder than I have ever seen her.
‘I am having a lot of trouble at the moment, Molly,’ she says while I look down at the side of her cheek rubbing her back again.
‘I know.’ I don’t prompt in any direction but I expect her to continue. She closes her eyes again.
I know she has been asking my mam to save her during recent visits and crying as my mam leaves. I am prepared for that, or so I believe. More truthfully, I am anticipating it but I know I could never be prepared.
‘Sorry, I’m so tired. I just keep sleeping. Just need to sleep again.’
‘Do sleep,’ I say. ‘I’ll sit here a while longer and then I won’t wake you when I leave.’
‘They gave me something to calm me down. It feels nice.’
‘Good, that’s good. Just go with that relaxing feeling while it’s here.’ She lulls back into a deep sleep, her soft body heaving with deep breathing. A few minutes pass.
She wakes again and needs the toilet. I take her into the bathroom and she wants me to stay. It is a new context for us both. Our identities and their relation to one another are already formed and solid, but they stretch into new territory in this space. I lift her from her wheelchair and sit her onto the toilet bowl. She seems calm and dignified and I feel close to her.
I use her soap which reminds me of her house, and of me as a child. It is masking another smell in her bathroom that suggests diarrhoea and my immediate reaction is concern. I don’t know much but I’ve always had a sense that these small fluctuations in bodily functions can mean more in old age, can be more grave. In recent months smells of bodily fluids have become increasingly associated with care for me and I wonder somewhere in the back of my mind what that means. There is something about this newfound prioritising of the safety and cleanliness of the bodies around me that makes me think I am ready to have a baby. Also the fact that the name Mabel has been sitting at the front of my mind for a full week and even gave me a surge of excitement the other evening at the prospect of calling a little blank face that and telling other people that that was her face’s name. It all feels like a slow, inevitable acceptance that I don’t want to put language on yet. In conversation at least. The timeframe of it all seems pressured but slow-moving. Like wisdom teeth coming through.
I don’t think Phil cares that she won’t meet a baby I might have in the future and I don’t think of that potential as a life right now anyway. I do find it difficult that I might love someone else as much as her someday. Someone who she won’t have met. Someday when she is no longer here for me to love, not as much as I do now. In loving Phil and learning about her mother I feel like the next round of life and death in my family will be the change I resist most. I once asked Phil what it was like to give birth. She answered dismissively: ‘It was all water and legs.’