I admit I was naïve. I've always thought that madness was interesting. My early heroines had been Sylvia Plath and her Bell Jar, Virginia Woolf before The Hours, and Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted. Their breakdowns were a rite of passage for the posh, liberal and bohemian. These were my poster-girls (and they were mostly women not men) of madness, but there were others throughout literature (the Brontës, Emily Dickinson, Zelda Fitzgerald).
When I slummed it with People magazine and the trashy pages of pop culture the mental breakdowns of the famous were page-turningly absorbing and a now expected component of contemporary celebrity. Most recently, Catherine Zeta Jones checked back into a clinic for bipolar disorder, yet another of the famously disturbed, Britney and Gazza, Ruby Wax and Lenny Henry, Katie Price and Frank Bruno (A, B and C-status alike). With their public distress came private retreats in Utah, stays at The Priory, and, later, memoirs and talk shows.
But then came the day I admitted my own mum into a psychiatric ward – my mother, a no-nonsense northern housewife whose greatest joy was Waitrose moving into town, who asked for tuna cooked "proper", and never missed an episode of Corrie. This was two years after a painful descent into madness; and three years before the moment I'm writing this. My mum still paces in public, talks to herself – angry and vituperative – shouts to no one in the street, holds her head with her hands to stop it falling off.
More Bolton than Bloomsbury, my mum has been, and become, the person that is madness caricatured, and misunderstood. She struggles to be in the world and to be in herself. Now that I am more exposed to real life than its stories, I find that insanity – or rather depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and manic depression, four of the most common diagnoses for the mentally ill – is messy, raw, painful and poisonous. These five years of mum's fifty-something life have not been a momentary blip; they have been wasteful, prolonged, heartbreaking.
Madness is more common than you would like to think. It commutes next to you, works with you and lives beside you. Madness affects everybody and steals away anybody. But people are ashamed of it. Those suffering and those affected, the family, friends and loved ones of the mentally-ill, hide it away, confused and unsupported. We find ways to keep it at arm's length. We talk it down or away and our society and our health system, colludes with our distaste and distress. Our heroines are intact, memorialised in film or magazines, just don't allow them to sit next to you on the bus.
I remember my mum as a size 16, bouncy, naturally blonde and boisterous. Before she got ill, I invited her to London to spend a day with me. I picked her up at Euston determined to show her a glamorous capital life, but as we sipped cocktails and ate dim sum in Yauatcha, I realized a Bridget Jones matinee would be enough. So we sat in an empty cinema, and were happy, just the two of us.
A few years ago she went with my dad on a mini-break to Devon. Mum went to bed in their Sawday B&B and woke up the next day with ringing in her ears. Tinnitus. The world around her – a new grandson, my father, my two brothers and I – slipped away, replaced by an engine, a noise. That noise became not just a sound but a fear, a screaming, desperate, heart-wrenching horror within her own head.
When the noise disappeared, we all thought we'd get her back. Instead, a new fear — "I can't hear anything. How can I live when I can't hear anything?" This when she listened to every word, every phone ring, every slam of the door. Her watery blue eyes seeped away and turned black, closed to the world. Her breathing became shallow, cyclical, stretching until she lost enough air to faint, dead for a few minutes before she woke again, like a commercial break that only interrupts but doesn't stop the drama. She came into each day in distress, alternating between the anger that now consumed much of her energy, or the sadness that wore down what was left. She wouldn't get dressed. The water in the shower scared her. She stopped driving. She couldn't function in the office, no longer able to focus on the accounts for the food company she managed with my dad. She stopped going to the supermarket, stopped warming up food, stopped vacuuming, ironing and cleaning. Stopped.
The TV was turned off – she couldn't watch anyone who didn't have what she had. The photos in the house came down – they were images of her past and reminders of when she had last been herself. She talked about herself in the third person.
I have been asked many times what her diagnosis is; it's a simple question and a way of containing the chaos that is mental illness. We believe now that she has a severe anxiety disorder and depression, and, at periods, some signs of psychosis. For a while, we framed it as an extreme case of empty-nest syndrome. My brothers and I all got married within five months. We thought Mum saw this as testament that we didn't need her anymore. She had always defined herself in terms of the family that she'd nurtured. The space we left, she filled with fear. Has this always been there? Has she always had this in her? Dad thinks she hasn't and this proves she doesn't have a mental illness, but I'm not so sure. As a child, I remember the panic attacks; she carried a brown paper bag with her at all times.
She always feared the future; worried about what would happen a few hours, days, weeks from now. In September she worried about Christmas, she packed weeks before we were due to travel. From a personality quirk, this is now a cornerstone of her illness – she's terrified she won't get to sleep, worried she won't make it into the car, scared she can't make it through the day. She tries to live a moment before it happens, but it's not a good moment she imagines. I see that tendency in myself and worry for my future, too.
Can madness be so ordinary? Can it serve no purpose – no creative spark, no romantic explosion, no production of great works of art? Can it degrade, and destroy, by degrees, those who live an ostensibly normal life. And if it does, are we interested?
Alastair Campbell, who has suffered his own periods of depression, wrote in response to Zeta-Jones' diagnosis that this focus on famous people and mental illness in the news maintains the stereotype that it affects "creative, achieving people". Memoirs of madness are often Vanity Faired. But they are not my mother. Their language is not hers, though their illness is. In spite of the Sylvia Plaths and Emily Dickinsons, whose cases inflect mental illness as the exception, and the exemplary, the stark reality is that it affects one in four (that statistic again). It manifests through all sectors of society, even in the middle-classes, in suburbia, in my childhood home, with my mum, whose story she can't or won't tell. So I will, and can. And courageously, she's letting me.
And in my eyes, my mum, a quite ordinary northern housewife, becomes extraordinary not just for standing up in such a public way, but for continuing to battle, to strive and to exist, day to day, in the normal world that doesn't understand her and her condition.
A Brit now living in California, Claire Hodgson is a writer, curator and founder of Joe's Daughter joesdaughter.orgReuse content