I was about 6 or 7 the first time my mother was rushed to hospital suffering from a nervous breakdown, so I don’t remember anything about it.
Her condition was referred to as a nervous breakdown for the convenience of everyone else. I was never one to question adults, and, at that age I was as likely question my father, or the other adults that promptly began to arrive at our house bearing casseroles, on the diagnosis, as I was likely to question them about the existence of God.
I thought that whatever adults told me was true, and as for what they didn’t tell me, I never thought of that at all.
When I was about 9 or 10, Mum was rushed to hospital again, with another nervous breakdown. For the adults around me, it must have been easy to believe in the convenience of a nervous breakdown, after all, by the time of the second one she had five children, with the nervous breakdowns occurring in both cases shortly after the births of numbers 4 and 5. She never had been a confident, capable person so it was easy to see a cause and effect.
Of course, you could question how I could know that my mother wasn’t very capable back then. I was not old enough to make that judgement. Even now, looking back, my store of memories from primary school days are a few unconnected scenes, that don’t reveal anything about my mother’s personality, abilities or confidence levels.
Memories from back then, with my mother in them: there’s Mum, breastfeeding a baby (my brother G), and me being told by a relative to leave the room. There’s Mum, swatting at a dragonfly that had got inside the house. I think Dad was away that night. There’s Mum, with a scarf tied over her curlers, having washed and set her hair as she did every Saturday afternoon, before baking scones.
An actor could play those scenes in many different ways – brimming with confidence and a sense of fun, filled with doubt and anxiety, or conveying listlessness and emotional removal. I cannot say how my mother played them.
All I can rely on is a pile of memories accumulated after these events, that, compiled, build up a sketchy picture of my mother’s personality and state of mind. Those memories are augmented by the way she describes herself when talking about the past. In any stories she tells us, she always describes herself, with some amusement, as hopeless and incompetent.
As I was so young, I remember little about my mother being hospitalised, just that we kids were shipped off to my mother’s sister. My aunt had about 7 kids then (she went on to have 9), so in taking us in, she had about 12 kids to look after. Unless this was during school holidays, (she was a teacher), she would have been working full time. Some of my cousins were a few years older than me, and in families like hers, kids know how to make dinner for 12 people by the time they are about 10 years old, so I guess we ate many dinners of 2- minute noodles. As far as we were concerned, we were just having an extended holiday while Mum was in hospital.
My only other memory of those events is that after one of my mother’s trips in an ambulance, a friend and I developed a new game to play at lunchtime at school. We ran around on the asphalt playground, holding a basketball between us, making a noise like an ambulance siren. In case you are wondering, we were an ambulance and the basketball represented my mother.
Nothing was ever explained to me or my siblings about this when we were young, and it was only as I got older, that I began to suspect that nervous breakdown had been code for something else. Mum took regular medication that was linked with the issue that was never spoken of, and I knew that every second Friday afternoon she saw a psychiatrist. It was hard for my parents to hide this, because when we were younger, we’d have to wait outside the psychiatrist’s office in the car with Dad, while she had her appointment. Mum didn’t drive.
When I became old enough to question it, my private diagnosis was Depression. (There was no internet in those days, so I couldn’t look up the symptoms of clinical Depression. This was just a teenager’s interpretation.)
Depression, as I imagined it, seemed to explain Mum having trouble getting up in the morning, usually not making it out of bed until after the older kids, myself included, had already left for the bus. It seemed to explain arriving home from school at 4.30pm to find the blinds drawn and Mum asleep in bed, my younger siblings watching TV in the lounge room. Or to explain the dinners that were frequently ruined, because after putting vegetables on to boil, Mum would go back to bed, and the dinner would boil dry on the stove.
Blinds were often kept down, and my mother slept a lot.
Mum was hospitalised one more time for a nervous breakdown, when I was in high school, but in my memory it seems that occasion was less dramatic. Perhaps it didn’t involve a sudden departure in an ambulance. Maybe we visited her in hospital on that occasion. I can’t recall any detail. It seemed to have less of a coat of shame and silence than the earlier incidents, although that doesn’t mean that any more information about it was shared with us.
In any case, that was the last time Mum was hospitalised for a nervous breakdown. After that final hospitalisation, and the treatment that followed, other strange behaviours that we, as a family had been resigned to, dissipated, and we were able to feel a little more normal as a family. Back in those days, there was a huge stigma around mental illness – even more than today – and although we kids knew nothing about what was going on, I imagine I wasn’t the only kid who internalised a deep sense of shame that there was something about my Mum that was so mortifying and unthinkable that we couldn’t talk about it.
Since that time, I’ve learned bits and pieces about what my mother’s condition was, and more bits and pieces about how she was treated for it, but I will leave that for another post, because all of this was actually inspired by a line from a poem that I haven’t even got to yet.
A little while ago I wrote a post that was partly about poetry, and since then I’ve meant to come back to that topic.
Recently I went to a gig in Melbourne that was a tribute to the poet W.B. Yeats. Various musicians did sets, performing songs that included lines from Yeats’ poems or were in some way inspired by them. I have never studied Yeats, so didn’t expect to be familiar with any of his poetry, but I liked the idea of a rock gig paying tribute to a poet, an Irish one at that. The decider, however, was that in the background of the ad for this gig, I could hear a song being sung by a musician I like, David Bridie, and it was the words that captured my attention: the centre cannot hold.
I must have heard this song before, having been a big fan of bands that Bridie was in years ago, but I’d forgotten about it. Hearing that simple fragment of a sentence this time, I was compelled to look up the poem. It’s called The Second Coming, and these are the first four lines:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
These lines are up there with the lines from Macbeth that make the hairs on my arms stand up. In those lines, Yeats successfully conveys a fatalistic sense similar to the one that Shakespeare conveys (earlier) in Macbeth – that the natural order of things has been broken, and Man (in Shakespeare’s case, Macbeth) has lost any sense of control. In Yeats’ poem, Nature has taken back the reigns and cannot be controlled by man – anarchy reigns. Yeats, and Bridie, use the line to refer to an inability to control elements of the external world – Bridie’s lyrics, and the clip for the song, are about war and its victims, countries being torn apart, and people being displaced from their homes.
When I read Yeats’ poem, or hear David Bridie sing those lyrics, the centre cannot hold conveys those meanings about the outside world, man, nature, and the struggle for power. But taken out of context, and heard, or read, on its own, the line holds another meaning for me. It’s not about the outside world, it’s about the internal world. It’s about how unstable our sense of self can be. Its about how for some people, it can be a struggle to contain that within them, that sense of who they are. It can be fragmented or lost, the boundaries between self and other unclear.
It reminds me that when the health of someone with a mental illness is deteriorating, they gradually lose, or are incapable of caring about, our usual sense of social boundaries, that sense of holding it all in for show. It makes me think of someone much like my mother.
clip from timcolesoundart