Like most parents I came to experiment with “babywearing” by necessity. An email from my landlord delivered the news that our apartment was to be sold at just about the moment my contractions kicked off with baby number three. My husband, the long-suffering Mr Frazer, would need to work tirelessly every weekend and late into the evenings for the next few months to secure us a mortgage. Meanwhile I would hold down the fort. I had accumulated enough parenting experience by then to be pretty terrified by the prospect of being home alone with two kids and a newborn. Things change as you progress on the parenting journey. In the immortal words of Fleetwood Mac “time makes you bolder”. Once upon a time I would have stopped the vacuum to remove every sucked up lego and treated every bump and bruise as a genuine emergency. Now I just sigh and shout “Is there blood?” before I’ll even look up from the dishes.
When my eldest was born thirteen years ago it seemed the whole world stopped just for her. Every time she batted a beautiful eyelid I dropped what I was doing and rushed to her side to nurse her for hours in a cloud of cushions. Absolutely everything else in my life could, and did, wait until her needs were satisfied. But this time there would be a four year old and an eight year old waiting too. They were also relying on me to be fed, clothed and brought to school on time. What would I do if the baby needed feeding during the school run? Or started a two-hour colic-bawl while the other two waited for dinner? Both our families lived too far away to help with the day-to-day stuff and I would be flying solo most nights until after bath and bedtime. So I turned to babywearing in search of a necessary second pair of hands.
I had dabbled with carriers before, but had never really gotten the hang of it. As soon as it felt even a little tiring or heavy I would sit down, unbuckle all my various straps, wriggle free, and then forget about it for a few weeks. But as with so many things in life (and parenting in particular) I was about to learn that the hard way is hard, but the easy way is even harder. Giving up on babywearing so quickly in the past was a mistake. By quitting before trying a variety of techniques and carriers or building up my stamina I had missed out on a truly transformative parenting tool. I all too often ended up holding a squirmy toddler with one arm while steering a heavy buggy down a busy street with the other. Ugh. But baby number three brought me a second chance with babywearing and I soon found that a little investment in time and effort to master this parenting skill paid off. I ended up wishing I could go back and learn how to wrap from the start.
In time I began to wonder why I had given up so easily the first time around. We humans often assume that tasks deemed “natural” should be easy, and come automatically. Many new mothers have this expectation around breastfeeding before the gruelling, nipple chafing, mind-bending real life experience pops that bubble. It is true that our evolution as a species has prepared us for breastfeeding and carrying our young. But it is equally true that it has prepared us biologically for hunting, foraging and building shelter. I would still want some practice before being air-dropped into a remote forest alone to survive on my skills. And babywearing will feel natural and easy eventually. Like baby’s first steps, what will feel effortless later will take a good deal of conscious attention to master at first. The very techniques that were hardest to learn and get used to at first (like wrapping) were also the most beneficial and convenient in time.
A life-changing source of help for me in learning how to wrap confidently was Hedwych Veeman’s fantastic youtube channel Wrapyouinlove. A certified babywearing educator, Hedwych offers clear, well-paced instructional videos on how to carry your babies and toddlers for everyone from nervous beginners to the more experienced and adventurous (with techniques like tandem wrapping). I talked to Hedwych in October 2022 to find out how her own journey in babywearing started and pick her brains on what barriers exist to making it more widespread.
I laughed when she told me that before her daughter was born she had definitely not identified herself with the herd of “goat wool sock Moms” she saw babywearing
I laughed when she told me that before her daughter was born she had definitely not identified herself with the herd of “goat wool sock Moms” she saw babywearing. Although I had never heard the phrase before it needed no explanation. I instantly recognised the hippie-dippy, tie-dyed mother stereotype, so relaxed she is virtually horizontal and too busy weaving homemade hemp baskets to realise she is depriving her kids of the discipline and routine they need to thrive in a challenging world. But the tide is turning on industrial era parenting ideals that are centred on schedules and discipline. Tie-dye is back. As Hedwych describes it, this fear that sparing the rod will spoil your child frames our children as little dictators seeking to manipulate us rather than little people with legitimate needs for comfort and closeness. “How would you like to be treated?”, she asks herself when trying to decide what is best for her babies. Whether your child’s current needs are more for comfort and closeness or more for predictability and routine, either way babywearing can help. Rather than an unnecessary indulgence, babywearing is a practical and useful tool for all busy parents. No particular diehard ideological stance on attachment parenting or goat wool socks needed. Whatever socks you have on will be fine.
Hedwych’s need was brought on by the stress of having to study for upcoming exams while also caring for a newborn. Anyone who cares for children regularly can identify with the dilemma of having only one pair of hands but several different jobs that need doing at any given moment. She advises us to view babywearing as a parenting tool rather than just a form of transport. Although as a form of transport it can be pretty useful too when you can avoid the queue for the lifts or squeeze yourself and your baby onto a crowded city bus. But caring for multiple children, especially when you include toddlers, is where babywearing really comes into its own. As Hedwych demonstrates, use of traditional wrap carriers especially can facilitate carrying much older and bigger children that we find in the average Babybjorn. Sceptics are often concerned that carrying toddlers and older children will discourage independent walking, but as Hedwych and I have both found, the opposite is often true. Packing a carrier with you on your trips encourages the family to attempt longer walks, knowing that if tiredness sets in for a toddler on the way home you have a plan B. And a carrier is a much handier and off-road friendly plan B than lugging a stroller with you on a hike. For city dwellers, carriers are also a much more public transport friendly option too.
Carrier time as a baby hasn’t stopped little Séamus loving hikes to Howth summit.Photograph by Mary Frazer.
And yet it seems there is still a lot of resistance to the idea that babywearing can be good for you and your family in Ireland. Some strange comments have cropped up more than once for me while out and about with my baby. “Isn’t he cold?” (pressed right up against his Mam’s body in June? Eh, no). “Isn’t that bad for your back?” (no, but sitting at a computer all day certainly was). “Aren’t you afraid he will suffocate?” (Yes! In cots, prams, cars and everywhere else all new Mam’s worry about this all the time! That’s why we follow the safety advice). Babywearing has also been criticised by some as a form of cultural appropriation, as many of the commercially successful carriers of recent years originate with time-honoured local traditions that are not acknowledged by marketers presenting these tools as new inventions. But as Aaminah Shakur points out here, every culture has traditional methods and customs around carrying their young, but so many cultures have unfortunately lost touch with those traditions. Curious as to how so many cultures could have gotten to a point where babywearing seems somehow abnormal, unsafe or culturally “other”, I googled “when was the pram invented” and came across the staggering claim on Encyclopedia.com that before the invention or the first perambulators circa 1800 “babies were seldom carried outside of the home”.
So, before modern technology came along with its industrial wheeled doo-dads for sale, mothers and babies throughout the ages just…stayed at home? It got me thinking about how much of today’s “essential” baby equipment is an expensive patch over a stolen or forgotten piece of cultural parenting heritage. Despite having been born and brought up in Ireland and interested in babywearing for some time, I was completely ignorant of Irish babywearing customs until I saw these fascinating pictures posted by @history_of_irish_babywearing on instagram. The celtic babywearing traditions of Ireland, Scotland and Wales were practised with blankets, with no special equipment needed at all, just a bit of know-how.
Parenting has changed dramatically in recent decades, and not always for the better. Vested interests have profited enormously from our move away from traditional skills towards reliance on increasingly expensive and complex tools. When we factor in the time spent working longer hours to afford these fancy parenting devices, the hours spent dealing with the concomitant clutter, and the fact that they have replaced cheaper more effective parenting skills, we may conclude that far from helping, they are actually making our lives harder.
I couldn’t help but think I had missed out on something crucial in my whole approach to parenting one day as I watched my then sixty-something mother in law deftly change a nappy. The bum in question belonged to one of her many grandchildren, casually balanced on her knee. No mats, stands or paraphernalia were needed beyond some baby wipes. She never missed a spot or a beat in the conversation as she worked, though she never looked down. I thought about all the changing tables and other devices I relied on over the years to complete this simple everyday job. I made up my mind to pay more attention in future when the grannies were granny-ing in my vicinity in case I could learn a trick or two, and I certainly did. I watched. I practised. Now, if you need a nappy change two miles into a forest hike, up a windy hillside, or just in a public toilet without a table, I’m your woman. Massive queues for parenting facilities hold no fear. This change in parenting perspective didn’t happen overnight, and I am still working on it.
If you are a newbie considering an adventure in babywearing then bravo! Be prepared that the learning phase is going to take time. Even if you are still expecting, you can start to practise tying your wraps with a doll in front of a mirror before your little “package” finally arrives. Sometimes you will make mistakes, sometimes you will be too tired, and sometimes things will take longer than you would like. There will be blood, sweat and poo, but just over the hill is freedom from all that baby junk.
Here are links to some more information and resources on babywearing, good luck!
For five days in July 2022 I swapped lives with my children. This is the record of our experience.
Last Day: Friday
The food has been delicious, but the housekeeping has been somewhere between minimal and non-existent. We are under pressure because we have a friend, Brian, coming over for dinner this evening. I stomp around pointedly muttering about monetary rewards and their direct relationship to performance levels. This doesn’t work and myself and John both begin shouting. Soon all five of us are shouting, vacuuming, dusting and sweeping piles of toys under rugs. Our dinner guest arrives just as we have finally pulled it all together. Mary has been simmering beef chilli in the hotpot all day and whipped up some rice and homemade guacamole to accompany it. Michael and Seamus have set the table on the terrace nicely and sit chatting to our guest and fetching us drinks while we wait for dinner. Five minutes after Mary serves up it starts to rain. No one can be bothered moving the whole shebang inside, so we take turns to huddle under our canopy and I notice with alarm bright orange and green rivulets pouring off the edges. So the paint wasn’t waterproof. Oops.
The final task of the week is to do the dishes, after which they are free to watch inane cartoons until they lose consciousness and reawaken into normal life in the morning. But instead they stick around. The rain eases off and we light a fire. Brian shows Michael how to use wax to keep a little stick-torch alight. We’ve been playing with fire all week, what’s a few more hours?
Aftermath: Back to Porridge
It took a day or two of slipping back into the comfortable bed of old habits to appreciate what had really changed during our adventure. I can’t say that I was surprised by how well my children could cook and clean. I knew they were capable of that. The biggest surprise was myself. I hadn’t realised until I stopped how relentlessly frustrating, stressful, exhausting and downright depressing it is to try so hard to manage another person’s life. To schedule a week. To organise a day. During our experiment there was a subtle shift in responsibility that had nothing to do with whose job it was to do the dishes. I didn’t see it until my books were stolen in the train station. I was so upset with myself for forgetting them, I sort of froze for a moment before I even started looking for them. It was Mary who organised the search party, assigning us each a section of the station. She took charge. Her brothers followed her lead in a symphony of perfect cooperation. In case you think my kids are just saints, or freaks of nature let me say with haste that this is usually not the case. We have suffered protracted bouts of sibling rivalry. Hours of teasing, arguing and fighting. I’ve also wasted hours on lectures advocating personal responsibility that were intended to engender the kind of initiative I saw that day, to no avail. I had expected this initiative and responsibility to show itself in clean bedrooms and walked dogs, all on cue and in fulfilment of clearly communicated expectations. And I had often been disappointed. So what was different now?
The most common and fundamental mistake we make in bringing about change is to focus first on changing other people’s behaviour instead of looking first to ourselves. The missing ingredient my kids needed to really practice responsibility was for me to let some of it go. Giving your children a job is easy. Backing off and letting them carry out in their own way is harder. Doing it badly. Doing it wrong. Doing it as quickly as possible and then watching cartoons for four hours. It’s all infinitely better than not doing it at all. This can be hard to swallow in a culture where both children and parents are constantly under surveillance and constantly being judged. But kids, please! Give the grown ups another chance. We can eventually learn to back off. We just need some practice.
For five days in July 2022 I swapped lives with my children. This is the record of our experience.
Day Four: Thursday
I am practically begging to leave the house. My usual strategy in summer is to spend as much time as possible outdoors, for several reasons. It’s healthy and wholesome. It means less tidying and cleaning up. It keeps everyone entertained. It keeps me entertained. The kids have been so happy to be left to their own devices and so busy working at cooking and laundry that they have barely left the house at all. Over a lovely brunch of potato waffles and Mary’s homemade Moroccan spiced beans I float the idea of a trip to town to tempt them outside. They agree to head off with me on the train to pick up a book I have ordered after they finish cleaning up. Yes! Freedom!
While they are doing the dishes I impulsively start to do something I’ve been thinking about for a while. We have a white tent-canopy over part of our balcony so we can air-dry our washing even when it is raining. I have long fantasised about decorating it with paint. Giving it a bit of colour and adding a Jackson Pollock vibe. I lay the canopy on the ground outside, get some of the kids’ acrylic paints and start to spatter. Before long the dishes are abandoned and everyone is getting involved. Once we’ve squirted some of every colour in the house Michael suggests adding footprints into the mix. I can’t resist, but accidentally go into automatic responsible-for-the-mess mode and bring a bucket of water outside to ensure everyone washes off their feet (and paws) before they hit the carpet. When we have finished there are multiple paint stains on the paving stones that look very much like they are never coming off. After a half-hearted rinsing attempt I abandon it and we head off to collect my book.
Once in town Séamus decides to have a tantrum in the first shop we enter because he doesn’t have enough pocket money to buy the toy he wants. He does something he hasn’t done for around two years- lies down on the floor in full brat mode. I am consumed with silent rage, but icily determined to get the book I have waited weeks for. I make an impulsive and unusual move. No bribes, not threats, no dire warnings about “consequences”. I wait for him to get bored on the floor and stand up and then I take them to the nicest coffee shop in town and get them hot chocolate. They are visibly confused. I explain that this week is a holiday for me too. Not just from the dishes and the laundry, but from being in charge and directing everyone’s behaviour. I tell them I really, really want to get my book (Fearlessby Catrina Davies) before we go home. We get to the bookshop and somehow have a lovely time browsing for ages. As well as my long awaited book I pick up another on David Hockney (John’s favourite artist) as a surprise. We make it to the station on time for our train without the usual huffing, puffing and rushing. We even have ten minutes to pop to the loo before the train comes!
Of course I leave my book bag hanging on a hook in the toilet stall. I realise I’ve done so five minutes before our train is due. We go back and search the toilet to no avail.
We ask a member of staff who tells us that a book bag was handed in. It’s my bag alright, but the expensive David Hockney book and Fearless are missing although some school books remain. The book thief has admirable literary and artistic taste. Of course we miss the train. The kids are surprisingly sympathetic as we wait for the next one. And patient. Strangely so in fact. Waiting an extra 30 minutes for a train after a long hot day with a four year old should be a nightmare, but he sits peacefully and quietly. It dawns on me that the usually constant background drone of sibling bickering has been absent all week.
I get home exhausted, but very thankful that I don’t have to make dinner because I want to hoist our paint splatter canopy back up before John gets home. He might find our little foray into modern art a bit more acceptable if it doesn’t involve any DIY work on his part.
For dinner we have vegetable curry with homemade naan bread. This proves to be the first culinary mishap of the week for Mary as the naan dough is too sticky to roll out. I show Mary how to add extra flour gradually to make it less sticky. It feels more like an exchange of know-how between equals than my usual lecture “On How to do Everything Correctly”. The line between helping kids and doing it for them has become increasingly blurred of late. The experiment has really helped me find that line again.
For five days in July 2022 I swapped lives with my children. This is the record of our experience.
Day Three: Wednesday
Although I only had a few beers last night and got to bed fairly early, I somehow wake up bitterly hungover. There is a patch of sand at the bottom of my shower tray that has been there since Monday. A toilet roll the dog ripped up has been strewn about the stairs for two days now. They left the wash in the machine yesterday. I suppose the cooking and laundry are running well because everyone likes to eat and have clean clothes, but it turns out no one else really cares about general messiness but me. But I can’t bottle it up any longer.
The dam has burst and I’m giving verbal prompts all over the place. I explain about washing left in the machine too long and the lingering smelliness that ensues. They decide to rewash it before hanging out. That will be a total of 2 washes complete in three days then. Not ideal. I do approximately two a day during term time. Without school uniforms the summer laundry schedule is a bit more forgiving, but not that forgiving.
Lunch is a joint effort with all three helping. They make tuna wraps. John pops in from his “office” in the garage for a bite and is obviously starving, having been hard at work all morning. He is trying to be a good sport and praise their efforts, but they don’t quite seem to grasp that as the tallest in the family by a foot and by far the most athletic he definitely needs more food than the rest of us. John, myself and everyone else even down to little Séamus are served the exact same portions. Luckily little Seamy can’t finish his and John jumps at the chance to wolf it down.
I think everyone is a little tired at this point, and at dinner time Mary forgos her usual gourmet adventures for a quick-and-easy chicken burger and chips. She serves up all our burgers pre-dressed with salad and sauces according to our individual tastes on one big wooden board and plonks down a ginormous bowl of chips. No plates or cutlery. Dishes are for chumps and those who never have to tidy up after themselves. We fall asleep in front of a movie apart from Michael who goes on a 4 hour lego binge constructing what amounts to an entire village in his room.
For five days in July 2022 I swapped lives with my children. This is the record of our experience.
Day Two: Tuesday
John is working all day. I’m home alone with three unusually self-sufficient children and no housework to do. I’m pervaded by a subtle but encompassing malaise. A sort of restlessness and unease. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is… until I suddenly recognise it. It’s boredom! It’s been so long I barely recognised my old teen-years nemesis. Time to pull out the mental list of “Things I Never Get Around To” and start wasting time with wild abandon. Who knows? Maybe some personal grooming is even on the cards. The sky’s the limit.
Lunch is Michael’s turn today. He places a bag of pre-washed salad, a pack of pre-sliced cheese and a tub of marinated olives on the table, throws a bunch of forks at us and claims he has “made” lunch. You can keep your corporate efficiency gurus. If you are really interested in cutting out wasted time and effort, just watch how a nine year old boy does it. You might learn a trick or two.
I’ve cycled depressingly quickly through my wish list of things I’ve always wanted to have time for in one morning. By late afternoon I find myself putting up a shelf and reorganising my kitchen. I’m making a mess while Mary is preparing dinner. I’m at it so long and so chaotically that I have to ask her “doesn’t it bother you that I’ve turned the kitchen into a dump while you are trying to cook?” “Not at all.” she replies. “It’s not my mess.” She is contentedly simmering a smoked sausage sauce to serve with pasta. It’s a Mary staple and a family favourite. When we finally eat, Michael says the sauce is “too good for the Gods”. This is a reference to the “good enough for Jehovah” line in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and I am bursting with pride as this is by far his cleverest and most sophisticated joke to date.
In the evening, after their laundry and dish work they all sit around watching as many cartoons as they want, leaving myself and John to drink beer and murder a few classics on the guitar. At 10pm all three are still awake, but drift one by one away from the TV and on to my bed where the singing turns to chatting until little Séamus nods off in my lap. The perfect evening.
For five days in July 2022 I swapped lives with my children. This is the record of our experience.
The Challenge Begins
Day One: Monday
I open my eyes and grope for my phone to check the time- 9AM! I can’t believe how long I’ve slept. My generalised diffuse compulsion to “get things done” usually has me first up in the morning. When I emerge from my room there is a lot of sitting around watching cartoons going on and breakfast seems to be every man for himself. This is smart. Why start messing up the kitchen when there are a further two meals to prepare and clean up for today? I ask why there are no piles of breakfast dishes and snort with a mix of admiration and dismay when Mary responds that they had toast and tea in the kitchen, leaning over the sink to cut down on dishes. Genius! They even rinsed out their cups instead of piling them in the dishwasher. It’s sterling work, but why didn’t the little darlings ever think of this when I was chipping congealed weetabix out of a stack of bowls every morning for years?
For lunch Mary serves up pastrami rolls with sundried tomato and spicy olives. She pays much more attention to presentation than I would and even a sandwich suddenly feels like a treat. For afternoon entertainment they suggest afternoon tea and biscuits with a nice quiet read, and of course I am happy to oblige. The promised screen time limits for me have not been mentioned. Nor has the threatened homework. It seems that as long as I am not hanging over their shoulders telling them to switch it off they are suddenly not too fussed about what I am doing. I find myself with an unprecedented amount of time to answer texts, follow links and even watch videos I have been sent. This normally has to wait until after about 10 at night when absolutely everything else is done and all the people who messaged me are in bed. I’m using my new-found bucket of free time in part to write up my diary of each day. Mary looks over my shoulder and asks what I am writing. When I explain that I’m blogging about what we are up to she shakes her head, dismissing it as “a bit too… American”.
For dinner they have planned to cook spicy prawn and pepper kebabs. After chopping garlic and preparing various seasonings for about 20 minutes Mary pulls out the wooden skewers to assemble the kebabs and realises that because they are made of wood and have been in the cupboard some time they have gone mouldy. I bite my tongue and resist the urge to jump in with suggested solutions. I’m assuming she will need to change the menu. Instead she asks me to visit the corner shop to buy more skewers. I can see in her eyes as she asks that she is aware that I am often hit with a stream of complaints when I ask her to pop to the shops for a forgotten ingredient while dinner is on. I acquiesce graciously to her request and immediately leave to get the needed item. She is grateful and a moment of understanding passes between us. We have a delicious dinner.
Having had their fill of ipad and cartoons in between their one laundry load and the cooking and cleaning of two meals they ask to go to the beach with the dog. When we return I put on a movie and no-one objects, except Michael who goes downstairs to watch the cartoon of his choice alone in his room. Not something I usually approve of, but hey, he’s the boss now. They stay up until 11pm and are too tired to object when I suggest they might want to switch off and go to sleep. It doesn’t matter too much that they are up late as there’s no unbearable woman to wake us all up in the morning early to make sure we have time to eat, dress, run, walk the dog and do yoga all before 10am, and as I drift off I feel immensely grateful for that.
For five days in July 2022 I swapped lives with my children. This is the record of our experience.
April 2022: The Proposal
I call the troops (Mary, 12, Michael, 9 and Seamus, 4) around the table for a family conference. I have been banging on relentlessly for years about the need to develop independence and practice self-care skills. I’m aware that the term self care is more often associated with duvet days, probiotics and mindfulness meditation these days. But you have to walk before you can run, so I’m focusing on staying alive stuff like cleaning, cooking and washing. I’d like to think that if I banged my head and lost consciousness they could keep it together to phone an ambulance and tidy the house for me before it arrives. So far this self-sufficiency training has met with very mixed success, but I’m about to put my money where my mouth is. I’m not at all sure how they will take it.
“What do you think about swapping lives for a while?” I ask. They look at me quizzically. “How would you guys like to be in charge for a week?” Now they look hunted. I’ve piqued their interest but they are almost sure it is a trap. “You three will be in charge of running the house: cooking, cleaning and laundry. Myself and Dad will do your jobs: running to the shop for milk and bread, walking the dog, clearing and setting the table.” Their first reaction was to ask if they can impose screen time limits on us. It immediately seems like a deal breaker. They don’t seem at all intimidated by the idea of running the house, but unless they get to throw their weight around dishing out orders they are not sure what is in it for them. I don’t see why not. I hate being chained to the computer all the time. I’m very happy to have a week off. Their Dad, John, is a very different story though. He is a self-employed artist who runs his own website. They are very resistant to the idea that Dad’s screen time is necessary as it puts a roof over our heads. Banning it would therefore make us homeless. I gallantly offer to make up for Dad’s selfish bread-winning-by-computer by saying that in addition to my strict screen time limits, they can give me homework.
May 2022: The Preparation
We agree some basic ground rules, and dangle a monetary incentive. The princely sum of 50 euros is up for grabs for a job well done. I fill them in on what it is I do all day when I am at home. Laundry must be washed, hung on the line to dry, then make its way to each person’s room neatly folded. Meals must be provided, meeting our usual standards of reasonable nutritional value (so no ordering take away for the week, or living on crisps). Dad and I will provide a stocked fridge and larder, and a small budget for items like milk and bread that need to be bought during the week. The dishes must be done and kitchen kept clear and clean enough to prepare food.
Cleaning of bathrooms and vacuuming should take place, with an obligation to keep the place tidy enough to get things done. Cook, clean, tidy… and that’s it. I will take on their usual burden of entertaining four year old Seamus and generally keeping him out of the way while they do the big jobs. Simple. What could possibly go wrong?
Early July 2022: The Final Countdown
As we get closer to doomsday Mary starts to ask questions and make lists. This is a dead giveaway that she has started to take things seriously, and to get genuinely interested in this project. She is a born list writer. Without any formal police training she has somehow intuited that pedantic notetaking can be much more intimidating than force. Food is her immediate concern. Recipes are consulted and shopping lists drawn up. Mary is a good cook and has been capable of making a family meal solo since age 11. She’s ambitious though, and I wonder how far into the week the salmon-en-croute-with-garlic-and-herb-butter mentality is going to go and whether I should stick some emergency fish fingers and beans on that list.
I had intended to leave the house in tip top condition the night before, with all the laundry baskets empty, but this has not happened. We decided to spend the day at the beach instead, so I’m scrambling frantically to clear the decks at 10.30pm before we go to bed. Earlier this evening we visited the local budget supermarket to finish off the shopping list for the week. Because we stayed at the beach so late we found ourselves pedalling off up a hill under grey skies, rushing to beat the rain in a caravan of bikes and scooters to get there before closing time. At the crest of the hill, just as the first raindrops began to splatter us, Michael shouted out “this is fun!” without a trace of irony. It’s not a sentiment he has ever expressed about a supermarket trip before, and though I’m getting really pretty nervous about the whole experiment by now I feel hopeful and even a little bit excited about it too.
I had a bit of a scare last summer. An uncomfortably close call. It started with an occasional pain in my right shoulder when I was running. Soon it was painful every time I ran. And then one morning in the shower I found a lump. I wasn’t too concerned at this point, but since a friend of a similar age had just narrowly survived cancer that year, I thought I should probably get it checked out. Just to be safe. I remember that my primary concern, as I cycled off to visit the doctor, was that she would feel nothing and send me home feeling like a stereotypically hysterical middle-aged woman. When she found not just one lump, but a second even larger one in my right breast then all the air seemed to rush out of my lungs at once. I’m mortified to admit I cried a little even though nothing had even actually gone wrong at this point. In retrospect what upset me was the thought of telling my husband. He had just buried both his mother and his best friend the year before. The idea of subjecting him to this kind of fear and worry, yet again, pushed me over the edge and way outside my comfort zone into a very public display of emotion.
Next stop mammogram.
If you’ve never had one, a mammogram is really not what you might expect. I had supposed it would be something along the lines of standing in front of a big light box, and then very briefly slipping down my hospital modesty gown to allow a discreet and rapid photo of my boobs. This is not the case. If you have one scheduled then you can expect to stand alone right in the middle of a white room that resembles the deck of a spaceship feeling acutely aware that your entire top half is very, very naked, while a heavy and noisy horizontal metal plate thrums into place just below your chest. You will then be asked by a radiographer to lift your boobs and place them on this plate, laying them out like St John’s head for Herod. Things get weirder still while your boobs are clamped by a second descending plate and squeezed in a vice. Still more clamping, buzzing and squeezing to follow as they take some side profiles as well. I won’t say I have never had less fun with my top off, but it’s close.
Next up was the ultrasound room, where I blinked half-blinded as I struggled to comprehend the news that there were now not just two but three “solid masses” that would require biopsies.
I swallowed hard, nodding mutely as a member of the hospital administration leaned over my still naked bosom to confirm, up-close-and-personal, that I could pay before any further testing took place. When it comes to life, death or birth, we must turn our trust towards complete strangers. Dignity is a small price to pay for a chance at salvation, so most of us hand it over without hesitation when we cross the threshold of a hospital. I waited a long and uncomfortable week for my results.
The most chilling aspect of the whole ordeal was to realise that somewhere in the cocktail of feelings (terror, shame, fatigue, self pity) was an unexpected guest. Something I never thought to find there. I am not proud to say it, but during that week of waiting there was a small part of me that felt… relieved. I was scared too. Especially for my husband and three children. I was angry that this could happen to me after I had eaten all those salads, done all that yoga, jogged all those miles! But still, there it was. Undeniable. An easing up, a letting go, a release. It took weeks of existential detective work to try to figure out where this feeling could be coming from. And this is what I came up with: it was existential relief.
Relief that I could take a break from trying so hard to make something of my life. Jean-Paul Sartre, capturing perfectly the post-religious, post-idealist disillusionment of the latter half of the 20th century, said “Man is condemned to be free”. Woman has increasingly joined him. The dizzying array of opportunity, choice and freedom available to many of my generation is a privilege. There are people all over the world who would love to have the time and resources to experience existential angst, but they are too busy surviving. But for those millions of us in the privileged position of choice, our angst is still real and our depression and anxiety is growing.
I lost my belief in any kind of afterlife or God after a very religious upbringing and a long, dark night of the soul trying to hang on to my faith. But a few bits and pieces stay with me, and these are often the ideas that have seeped out of Christiantity into broader culture for many people. A prime example is “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” (King James Version, Luke 12:48). I hadn’t realised until my fortieth year on the planet how deeply the responsibility to provide an existential return on my existence had been eating away at me. With a great education, material comforts unimaginable to most people in the world, and a supportive family behind me, the least I could do is be an attentive and loving mother, a dependable but fun wife, an inspiring teacher and a good daughter. I also felt obliged to repay society’s investment in my education by publishing meaningful research, not to mention being a good role model for my kids by staying fit and pursuing wholesome hobbies like art and music as opposed to bingeing exhaustedly on Netflix and Belgian beer. I’ve never been good at or even particularly interested in being houseproud, but I have become dimly aware of the increasing expectation that we all keep a home so clean and devoid of clutter it looks like no one lives there. Then there’s also the imperative to expand one’s horizons and take advantage of the opportunities our parents never had by learning to code, striving to thwart climate change and the increasing drive to justify the existence of hobbies by transforming them into economically productive “side-hustles”. You can’t just pour your heart out in a journal anymore, you need to drive followers to your blog. It’s a heck of a lot to get done in four thousand weeks. It’s beginning to dawn on me that I probably won’t manage it. I suppose on some level sickness could provide me with a reason or an excuse for not having achieved any of it.
When my results came back with nothing to worry about I was genuinely relieved and ecstatic but remained changed by the experience and keenly aware that it could have gone the other way. I’m not here to tell you that a brush with mortality has enlightened me about what is really important, or to advise you to live each day as if it were your last. If you are wrong you might end up with a colossal hangover. The problem with this approach is that the brevity of life on its own doesn’t do anything to clarify what is important in it. As Anne Lamott memorably puts it, we are still left wondering “Is life too short to be taking shit, or is life too short to be minding it?”
And now I’m left trying to answer the question: What do I want for my remaining two thousand weeks? More of the same, or something a little bit different?
This story is dedicated to the memory of my late mother in law Teresa Frazer. It is a work of fiction, but it is nevertheless still all true.
The news was handed down from branch to branch on the family tree from eldest sibling to youngest. We were to come on Friday for a Chinese takeaway and a drink. I was immediately nervous because I am one of life’s big crybabies. It doesn’t take much to set me off. Soppy films and ads or even the funerals of complete strangers can be enough. So the order that there was to be “no crying” at this get-together was very scary for me, and I dreaded going. All week I tried desperately not to think of it as her “Leaving Do”.
When Friday finally rolled around I felt strangely ok. I had a little bit of a lump in my throat pulling up to the back gate, but once I got into the house I was fine. It was warm and loud. Everyone was smiling. I felt relaxed and happy. Maybe it was because she seemed relaxed. Or partly because I so often felt that way in that room, in that house. Ma’s sitting room was low-set. You had to walk down a sloping garden path to get to it and it was crowded on all sides by her neighbours’ terraced houses. The sofa faced a big window that caught the sunbeams slanting down in a way that called to mind a cosy burrow.
When I came in the rest of the family were all already there. Grown-ups huddled together on sofas and armchairs around the walls while the kids took over the middle of the room. James had recently bought her a smart speaker. I thought that was daft when he suggested it, but you know what older brothers are like. I’m glad I didn’t try to talk him out of it, because it turns out she loved it and we all got a lot of fun out of it that night. The kids shouted for song after song and danced like wild animals. We were in stitches watching them getting down to the Beatles, Ritchie Valens, and Rick James.
She sat there in her nightgown squeezed in between all her children on the sofa. Whatever she had taken before we arrived had done the trick. She just sank softly into the couch. Spaced out, laughing, smiling, watching the kids dancing and singing “Ob-la-di-bla-da”. I had a glass of wine, and then another. I still wasn’t crying. So far it felt just like all our other family get-togethers.
We stampeded into the kitchen when the takeaway arrived. The kiddies hopped up on her old straw-bottomed chairs, and we hovered over their heads with our plates, swooping and diving into the grub. You didn’t want to be too polite about waiting your turn in our house, or you wouldn’t get fed. She always used to stand by the cooker after making a big meal and shout “I love feeding hungry children!” Just as well, since she was surrounded by so many of them. All the children and grandchildren who gathered around the old wooden table that somehow held us all every Christmas and Easter. It holds me up still though I now sit here alone.
The only nerve-wracking moment in the whole evening was when she unexpectedly walked into the kitchen while we were eating. Older kids jumped aside to let her through. She pulled a chair up to the table and said clearly and steadily “give me out my plate”. She’d eaten off the same plate for nearly thirty years. It had ‘mother’ written on it, followed by a sentimental verse extolling the maternal virtues in rhyme. It had been used at every meal since it had been bought for her by the then ten year old Sean, my twin brother and by mere seconds the “baby” of the family. I looked at my feet. After a moment’s silence the high cupboard was opened and the plate passed down from brother to sister and over to the table. In a firm voice she asked my older sister for some chips, fried rice, and curry. “Ma…” began James, but it was already on the plate. I hoped he wouldn’t continue, but he did. He told her he didn’t want to end up back in the emergency room. The emergency room? I wondered then if he really understood what was happening. He had done most of the talking with the nurses after all. Months of careful sips and bites of bland food had followed her operation, but now that there was nothing more to be done for her, what was the use? We had weighed and debated and agonised over whether to take her home or to the hospice for a whole week before her last discharge from hospital. The longest week of my life. Now here we were at home, hoping and praying that we could give her the comfort she needed and that we weren’t in over our heads. My thoughts were scrambling over each other, frantically trying to think of a way to end the conversation and put the cat back in the bag. I needn’t have worried. She looked James in the eye, cleared her throat briskly, then turned her attention to her plate and calmly started eating her chips in silence, ending the argument before it even began.
The night wore on. We drank, talked and called for more music until eventually it was time to get the younger ones home to bed. Even after the wine, I had held my composure and was surprised to look around and realise the party was over and that we had all done it. We had honoured her request not to cry and turn it into some sort of funeral. There would be time enough for that later.
The older three headed home with their kids and left myself and Sean to stay the first night in the spare room. We left the landing light on and the door ajar and listened to her breathing until we were sure she was asleep. We whispered about what would come next. Who would stay with her and when? What did we need from the hospital? What about the pain? Over the following weeks we tried to follow her lead, and just take each day as it came. But it was hard not to panic when late one night she began to moan, and then cry out. The medication had been working up until then, but all of a sudden it wasn’t enough. I lay in bed, stiffened with fear. Sean was already up, and I was afraid to move. Somehow I didn’t want her to know I was awake and hearing it too. Sean knew what to do. He went downstairs to sort through the folders and files and medical supplies and find the number for the nurses.
We had let our guard down a bit because she had been so strong. Things had been peaceful, almost dream-like for a while. But the torturous wait for the hospice nurses that night had shaken us all. The following morning there was talk of a hospital bed, in case it got to the point where we couldn’t move her. She dismissed it out of hand. She could move herself. We felt foolish for suggesting it to begin with when weeks later she was still getting herself out of bed to come downstairs and make a cup of tea. And singing. She sang as she pottered round the kitchen, just like she always had. We started to wonder if the doctors had gotten it wrong. Hadn’t they been wrong before?
But the singing eventually stopped. And the pottering. And then there was no more coming downstairs. We always stayed with her in pairs from then on. It was too scary to do it alone. Every decision about what comfort to give, and how, or when to call the nurses just weighed too heavily to lift it alone. Sean and I stuck together. Every time the shift changed and we returned to our own homes for a break we had to say goodbye again, knowing it might be the last time. But also that it might not be, meaning we would have to do it all again. I couldn’t manage anything for these daily farewells better than a whispered “bye-bye, we’ll be back soon” with a kiss on the forehead. All my energy was concentrated on holding back tears at these moments. She really caught me off guard and I almost let go the day when she said softly back “Thank you. For… everything.”
It took me a long time to get my head around her courage. She wasn’t what you might call a “brave” woman. She was scared of most animals and horrified by every type of creepy-crawly that walked the earth. She fearfully avoided dirt and germs. We had a good laugh one day when she hid behind her own grandson to escape the attention of a yipping dog. She could drum up a good cry at the drop of a hat. But still, when she found out that death was coming for her, she threw a party. She made tea for the wait. The still spring of fortitude running beneath all the sixty-nine years of her life came back up to the surface.
But death takes everything from us in the end. Even our courage. We were all with her when it happened, and I suppose that is something to be grateful for. But in the final hour she cried out in terror and agony instead of drifting peacefully to sleep as we had hoped. Sean, the baby, had carried us all through the past three months with composure and calmness. But he could not tolerate this last indignity. That she didn’t want to go. That, in that last moment, she was frightened.
She used to listen to Whitney Houston cds on Saturday mornings while she cleaned the house, singing her lungs out. In the final few days, after she had stopped talking, Sean sat by her bed with her hand in his listening to her favourite albums. Afterwards when we were calling up like dutiful children to put the customary death notice in the paper he said “I’ll put ‘at home, surrounded by her family’… but I’m not saying ‘peacefully’. I won’t say that.”
James wasn’t happy about that. It all kicked off the morning of the funeral. I meant only to defend Sean, but things quickly unraveled until we all stood shouting at each other over her dead body. Every time one of us had been late for a shift change, every time the fridge had been left without milk, every minor aggravation or annoyance that had somehow worsened the last month of hell came tumbling out. I told James he had let us all down and that we were all sick of him telling us what to do.
I was fifty miles away and halfway home when I pulled over to answer Sean’s call. I made it back just in time for the tail end of the mass. When the moment came to lower her into the ground, myself and Sean stood shoulder to shoulder, dry-eyed, and squeezed each other’s hands.
When I arrived at the funeral reception I headed straight to James’ table. I wanted to get it over and done with. I’d rehearsed what I would say to him on the drive back up. I’d tell him how much I wanted to believe that she had somehow had the last laugh and was at peace now. That I knew he was just trying to guide the family, now without mother or father left, as best he could. That without Ma’s house as an anchor pulling us back home together we needed to really try. Instead I said “Do you want a drink?”. He nodded and patted the seat next to him, saying “Sit down, kid.”
When I moved from a small, mixed-sex national school in Shannon to a big all-girls school in Belfast for the first time, it marked a seismic shift in my inner world. Aged ten-and-a-bit, introverted, awkward and usually oblivious to social cues, the move to a new city and school had brought some previously uninteresting things to my attention. I started to notice how other girls looked, and compare them to myself. Most of the girls who seemed happy, confident and at home in this school had certain features in common. They had perms. They had little rock-solid bumps of hair at the front, bound tightly with gallons of hair spray and slides, and colourful scrunchies at the back. They also had what I now know are called white “slouch socks”, but at the time just confused me. I knew their socks were better than mine, that their socks had a volume and a presence that mine somehow lacked, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why or how this was so.
To my amazement I managed to make friends with some of these girls to the extent that I was allowed to “call for” them after school. In case you are under thirty years of age, I’ll explain that “calling for” someone after school was where you walked to a friend’s house unannounced and rapped their door. They answered, flung a coat on, and shouted over their shoulder “I’m going out!” to whoever was in charge inside. And “out” was where we went. There was no real plan, and usually very little to do. There was a lot of talking, visiting the shop en masse, and linking arms. We linked arms while walking anywhere, usually shouting or singing at the tops of our voices.
The method by which I gained access to this important nexus of girls was accidental. Despite my having the wrong food at break time (fruit instead of crisps), the wrong coat (warm and padded instead of a paper thin Naff jacket) and the wrong hair (no perm, no hairspray, no bump) I circumvented the system by wowing them with my doodles in class. It just so happens that RTE was not widely available in Belfast at this time, so most of my classmates did not recognise the Don Conroy masterpieces I was cranking out day after day. They had never seen his how-to videos on the Den explaining that anyone could draw these things.
Although I had moved at a pretty vulnerable time in a girl’s life, I had never felt more at home. Some thirty years later, I still don’t feel like I belong anywhere like I belonged to that little group. The streets where my classmates lived, up past my school at the edge of the city, were our playground. When I watch hard hitting independent films about the reality of life on council estates… the low, crumbling brick walls, the overflowing bins, the broken glass, the paint chipped railings… it makes me a little bit homesick and lonely still.
I knew I was accepted by my new group of friends because they nick-named mePee-Wee (based on my stature) and begged me to stay out when it was home time. They couldn’t understand that home time was not a remotely fungible or flexible concept in my house. My parents were different. We didn’t watch the soaps, or anything else my Mother deemed to have the potential to be a bad influence. We went to mass every Sunday, without exception. We had non-negotiable boundaries on behaviour. I hated that the fun went on without me long after my early bedtime. And I really hated that most extra-curricular adventures the gang decided to take; up to the nearby forest to jump streams, throwing stones into the local pond (known as “half moon lake” and drenched in scary urban legend), taking a bus into town, kissing boys; were off-limits to me. My Mother had a sixth-sense for mischief and could usually sense right away when I returned home having broken the small circle of geographical and behavioural freedom afforded to me. She just knew.
Despite being the poor sap saddled with the stick-in-the-mud parents and all their rules, my friendships with the gang developed until I was spending every free minute I could with them. One of the tokens of acceptance that I valued most from them was an invitation “in”. Being taken into someone’s bedroom rather than waiting at the door was a sign the friendship was going to the next level. No longer just a peripheral member, but really part of the gang. That’s why when Deirdre* brought me in one day, I was determined to do and say the right things, and most of all not to betray my general cluelessness about life. Deirdre had an unbelievably bouncy perm and was allowed to wear low-neck bodysuits. She held a lot of sway with the gang, not least because she had a knack for attracting the attention of boys. So I tried not to show my surprise when I saw her bed was a beaten-looking mattress on the floor. She mumbled something about the state of the room being a temporary one as it was due to be “done up” very soon. That sounded reasonable to me. When she went to the bathroom for a wee, she took me in with her. As she unbuttoned and sat down right in front of me without asking me to turn around or showing even a hint of embarrassment or hesitation, I tried hard once again to seem at ease, as though I were used to company in the bathroom too. She continued the conversation as she urinated and wiped and I struggled to contain my own unease as I wondered whether I should turn, look away, or just try to look at her eyes as she spoke. How I wished I could be as confident and at home in my own skin as she was! She had boobs already, at only eleven. How I wished I had even the mildest swelling, promising boobs to come at that age. But I had nothing. I felt trapped in the body of a child, with parents who treated me as a child, whilst she was somehow almost a woman already.
As Deirdre brought me back downstairs to head out again, her mother heard the stairs creak and called us into the living room to chat. Her hair was white and yellow towards the ends and black at the roots, and she had black lines drawn around her eyes. She talked about going to a nightclub called The Arena. It was somewhere outside of Belfast. A bus had to be arranged. She told me how she would have a carry-out on the bus then take just half of an E once inside, because she wasn’t going to go mad or anything. Unsure of what to say, or why she was telling me, I just nodded silently. I could always find out what an “E” was later. My God! A bus trip to a nightclub! I’d heard of some older sisters, or friends of friends who were 16 or 17 getting into The Arena, but the idea that someone’s Mother would go absolutely floored me. Again, I hoped I looked cool, like all this was very normal and expected for me. Like my Mother’s social life didn’t centre round knitting circles and prayer groups.
I never managed to make it inside Deirdre’s house again. My Mother put her foot down in regards to my roaming up “around there” with “those girls”. I was heartbroken. I sat at home night after night, with my parents’ tv news droning on and on in the background, with nothing to do and no one to talk to. Why was she treating me like a child? How I envied Deirdre. Her looks, her friends, her freedoms. I turned inward. I turned to my books. When September came, my parents sent me off to a Grammar School outside the area, a bus ride away, where I knew no one. I made some friends there, but we never had the kind of freewheeling adventures and closeness I had before. We never really had a “gang”. And I never did figure out how to dress or do my hair to attract attention from boys or envy from other girls. I embraced grunge instead, and told myself I didn’t want to. In time I gained my freedom by signing up for University and moving out, far away from the old streets to new streets near the Botanical Gardens and the Museum.
One morning coming through town I bumped into one of the old gang. I asked about everyone I could remember. What became of so-and-so? Where are they now? What are they doing? I eventually asked about Deirdre. She seemed to think I knew part of the story already, because she said wasn’t it a real shame that Deirdre’s Mother took her Father back into the house after what he had done to Deirdre, her little girl. Of course Deirdre couldn’t just forgive him for what happened, she had no choice but to run away. The last she had heard was that a group of boys from the area had taken a car and gone to get her from the juvenile home. She jumped from a first floor window and left with them in a stolen car. No one had heard what became of her after that. I nodded silently, hoping I would seem worldly and unsurprised, like I had known what was going on in that house all along. I wished my friend well and said goodbye. I went off to catch a bus to a long day of statistics and research methods.
My long-suffering husband Mr Frazer has been listening non-stop to a Van Morrison song called TB Sheets. It is a fantastic bluesy number from 1967. It recounts the experience of a man longing to escape from the room of his dying lover as she begs him to stay. The lyrics are simple and sparse. It isn’t terribly explicit in terms of the physical horror of her illness or the finality of her death. What makes it so ghastly and simultaneously brilliant is the shocking realism. It just sounds so believable. This song stayed with me long after it stopped playing. It kept me thinking, tortured me even. It troubled me, like good art should. But with this unease came a second and even more pressing torture…the unbearable urge to google it. Then I could know if this woman was real and if Van himself or some other man really sought to abandon her. I wanted to know something, anything, about this story in the hopes that it would somehow diminish the existential terror of it.
And yet I didn’t want to know. I wanted to retain some mystery and let the art stand for itself. I lasted three days before giving in to google. This led me to observe that my tolerance for not knowing something is much lower than it used to be. I’m shocked by how accustomed I’ve grown to being able to access information immediately. I can have song lyrics, chords, band lore and even a singer’s life history on demand. Once upon a time when a cool friend let you hold an album sleeve on which lyrics were printed (reproduced in the band’s own handwriting no less) you knew you were in the presence of something special. Awe was in order. This cool-friend access isn’t necessary anymore, for the loan of the album, the lyrics, or any of the band trivia. Anyone interested can listen for free and read up about it on Wikipedia. It’s democratic, I suppose, but what’s democratic about cool-ness?
There is a beautiful scene in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young where two forty-somethings who can’t remember the name of an almond confection immediately pull out their phones to search for it. They are gently reprimanded by a pair of groovy twenty-somethings who tell them “let’s just not know”. It is sort of pretentious, and sort of inspiring at the same time. Could we go back to just not knowing, or is it too late? Would we even want to? I don’t imagine Aaron Swartz would. He risked jail time and ultimately ended up losing his life in the battle for open access to research papers.
The mythology around knowledge is that it always comes at a price. In the Judeo-Christian tradition Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden as punishment for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. In Norse Mythology Odin sacrificed an eye for the ability to see all that happens, as well as throwing himself on his spear and spending nine days in torture hanging from a tree. Perhaps like Swartz we are willing to pay the price for valuable information that democratises science or allows the overthrow of corrupt governments. But what have I sacrificed to know who BuzzFeed rate as the 19 sexiest philosophers in history, or what cat my personality most resembles, and was it worth it? There are obvious benefits to having so much information at our fingertips. But the gateway to almost boundless information in our pockets can also weigh us down. It’s not all helpful to know. Because this situation is still relatively new, I don’t think we as a species have developed a sufficient capacity to filter out what is worth knowing from what is sucking up our limited attention without clear benefit.
When I was in my youth, my search for information and truth came with a bitter, painfully earnest intensity. I needed to know things. If God exists. What my friends really thought about me. If love could ever really be true. Now, I can think of few things I would like to know less than what people really think about me. But I am disturbed by the fact that at times of emotional turmoil and existential angst when I am lost and have no idea what to do, I sometimes find myself unconsciously reaching for my phone, as though google could provide me with answers.
I don’t think there is ever really just one moment when you decide to marry the person you are with, but some moments are such obvious forks in the road that we look back on them as decisive.
I was in the living room at my parents house in Dundrum, Co Down when my brother arrived home for Christmas. He handed me a small, folded and pencil-marked white package. On closer inspection it was a used office envelope, which had been folded over to form an improvised wrapper. “It’s a Christmas present from John”, he said.
John was a friend of his that I had been seeing for about a month or so. It was such a new relationship that I had decided to cleverly avoid any awkward gift-giving uncertainty (and unnecessary expenditure) by suggesting in advance that we give each other a single book. Now this deal obviously had the potential to bring on some uncertainty and stress about the choice of book. Because I happened to be smugly secure in a lifelong identity as ‘the reader’ amongst my family and friends I felt sure I would come out of it looking ok anyway.
It took a beat or two to register that this dirty envelope was a gift, especially as someone else’s name had been written and crossed out on the front of it. I pulled a small, thin, volume out of the envelope and opened it. There was an inscription on the inside, but, alas, it was not to me. It was from one strange man to another, on the event of his birthday. Beside the inscription was the price inscribed in pencil- £2.00. The plot thinned. The inscription wasn’t for me because the book was second hand.
The book was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. It tells the story of a rich Prince who turns his back on luxury and privilege to seek spiritual enlightenment after witnessing the suffering of the masses outside the palace. After years of wandering and trying many different paths he finds pursuit of both enlightenment and flesh equally disappointing and settles down by a river. The sound of the river flowing calls to him to stop searching and start living.
I was twenty six at this time, and floundering in a sea of opportunity. I was unbalanced by unexpected acceptance into my dream PhD program the year before. At the same time, I was lost in a vacuum left by the disappearance of my religious faith. The book floored me. It was just what I needed to read. I had a strong gut feeling that John would be part of my life for a long time to come.
A few weeks later we were taking a walk together through a very quiet town centre. He had come to stay over with me as I was living an hour and a half away from him by train, in a peaceful seaside village in Northern Ireland. It was Sunday, so we were hung over. He told me what he thought about the book I had chosen for him. It was Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True. The story is about identical twins, one of whom has schizophrenia. It is long, detailed, and emotionally tense. John is an identical twin, and as psychology was one of the interests that had gotten us chatting in the first place, I thought this was a no-brainer. He hated it, and pulled no punches in telling me exactly why. He rubbished the plot, eviscerated the structure, and tore into the style. Ouch. I was incensed. Who was this idiot to think he could tell me what was and wasn’t an enjoyable book? Stupid gut feeling! I never wanted to speak to him again, and I never did, for about an hour.
I hadn’t yet become acquainted with John’s unique style of giving or speaking then. He’s gives it to you straight. Not because it’s Christmas, or a birthday, or there’s a social obligation. Not because it’s expected, or meets the budget, or it’s what you want to hear.
He had picked a book for me that he knew would resonate with my exact circumstances. That meant something to him. A book that at least attempted to stand at the edge of the void of our existence shouting back some ideas about why we are here and what we should do about it. He presented it without artifice, didn’t worry about looking cheap, and I don’t think he would have cared less if I’d left it in a train station, thrown it in a bin, or hated every word of it. I picked something diverting and superficially relevant, wrapped it well and hoped I wouldn’t look stupid in my choice.
We’ve been married for twelve years now. Books pass through our house like a river. They appear from friends and family who have read something they want to share. Once finished, John always knows who to pass it on to. Somewhere else that idea needs to go. Giving without thought of return.
The following is the first chapter of a book I’m working on with Bill Fitzgerald. This book is Bill’s account of the experience of being diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder, hosptialised involuntarily and the many years of work and dedication to recovery that have led him to a level of successful life and work that many thought would be impossible for him. The following are his words, edited and added to in places to help him get his story across.
I suffered useless pain for a long, long time. Indulgent and over- romanticized, my pain was useless to me and contagious to those around me. I continued in this way for nearly 20 years, with the thought, “If only they knew. If only they knew what was happening to me… they would find out and fix it!” This thought rolled like film in my head. Unfortunately, rather than being rescued, I fell deeper and deeper down the hole until I spent every day wishing I was dead for a period of months.
It started after a relationship breakdown. I was 22.
I had started going out with Alice* during my 2nd year at University College Cork (UCC). I had moved there from my small hometown of Thurles in Tipperary to study for a BSc in Food Technology. She was studying Arts. A friend introduced us. I genuinely couldn’t believe it when she more or less asked me out over lunch in the canteen. That night I gave her a key to my apartment in the students’ residence for her to come back to me after going out with friends. We just hit it off from the start. Our relationship lasted 4 years and covered many ups and downs, including periods of summer separation in other countries and even seeing other people. But, when we finally broke for good, I couldn’t handle it. I was used to getting my own way, I guess, and the thought of the relationship going pear-shaped never really occurred to me.
*some pseudonyms have been used
I still remember every song from that period. Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak my Heart” and No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak.” Every time I heard those songs I felt like I was in a video or a movie and people would understand. In my mind they would put two and two together and say, “Bill what’s wrong? Why are you like this?” and I would explain that I was heartbroken and by magic I would go back to being that person I was beforehand. This never happened. People get tired and sick of depressed people very quickly. It’s just the way it is and, under controlled circumstances, maybe it’s the way it should be.
I didn’t understand mood. Back then, to me, a mood was on\off like a light switch. It was either happy or sad and these usually revolved around going out, being with a girl or some extension of the two. I wasn’t ever ‘happy in myself’ as the saying goes. It would take me more than 20 years from my lowest ebb to really find this feeling. The feeling where you have an average day, make some food , watch some average TV and go to bed reading and studying on a Monday night and are happy. I never had this. I always associated it with boredom. No one told me any different.
After the breakup, I felt I had nothing underneath. I missed my ex so much and had to live in the same city as her. I had moved there to be with her. It was all so much… the thinking, the dreaming. My bed became more than a bed to me, it became my playground, my sanctuary, my heaven and I would use it earlier and earlier. From 8pm I would go to bed, to dream, to hide and remember better days. Days when I had everything I wanted and the glimmer of potential would shine out all around me. Days when everything worked out where I had my ex in the bed up by the students’ residence. Where I was able to talk about the future and I didn’t have to face it…
I would wake up at 2am to smoke, then sleep till 5am and smoke again. I was barely eating. Mam said that I would lose the use of my muscles. My parents are great people, particularly in a crisis. They have given me more than I can ever repay. But no one was able to grasp me by the neck and tell me what to do. That’s what I badly needed. I had to struggle through, in different jobs where I didn’t say a word, performed badly and hated every single day. People get sick of you when you’re depressed. I would be silent in the pub for hours. It wasn’t me. I would get down and cry at my baby picture and graduation picture at how much potential I had had and what I should be doing….I thought of suicide often, what my funeral would look like, the look on my family and friends’ faces…..It was all very self-indulgent….it was hopeless. I remember going to play football and getting a lift and thinking how easy it would be to take the steering wheel and drive us all into a wall. To get to a point where I no longer have those thoughts the process would have to be a painful one. Back then, September 1997, it took my Grandmother, Nanny Fitz, to pass away before I realised just how much I needed to change.
It was around the time that Lady Diana had died. When I was at the funeral several of her neighbours remarked how she was like Diana. When one of my Uncles collapsed at the funeral I realised that I was heading the same way. At the time my Uncle Tony had always been seen as vulnerable, yet it was my Uncle Willie (RIP) who collapsed, and something inside just grabbed me and said, “No more, Billy. Get your act together”.
Since graduating in 1996 I had spent the previous few months working in food companies. I did not enjoy working night shifts. It was depressing. It made me even more depressed. I was using my reputation to recover. By this I mean it was easier at home in Thurles than in some place I wasn’t known. People knew me as Billy Fitz, it just made it easier and more bearable when I wasn’t that version of myself right now. It allowed me the breathing space to think about it and, in so doing, the space to change. After this I started a strict diet and exercise regime. Unlike most changes, this change happens quickly and is never really picked up on by those who aren’t close to you.
Carlow, September 1997
It was all over the news. The Oakpark plot in Clonmel had been raided and most of the research sugarbeet had been destroyed. An unlikely Six One news headline story. I was due to go for an interview there soon. I had gotten over the great depression, or so it seemed. I did well in the interview but because my results were erratic at best in University, I still needed to be Pat Fitzgerald’s son in order to get work there. Dad had gone to UCD (University College Dublin) on scholarship and also to the University of California in Davis to do a Masters. He was high up in An Foras Taluntais (the Irish Institute for agricultural research), with a reputation as an influential scientist and sugar beet geneticist. He even contributed to EU legislation on sugar beet and also travelled widely in Europe between 1967 and 1968 visiting Sweden, Romania, France and Denmark, among other countries, which at the time wouldn’t have been too common. So his endorsement carried a lot of sway in sugar beet research.
This was 1997. Working in the sugar beet research laboratory at Oakpark was a big deal. There were two university graduates working there, myself and John. John had pull as well. He had worked on the previous 3 campaigns. Campaign? That type of thing meant nothing to me. But in Carlow it was to prove to be a big deal. It would take me a long while, illness or no illness, to get over my time there, not least for embarrassing my Dad in an arena in which he was highly known and well thought of.
The story of Carlow’s sugar factory began in 1925. The War of Independence was over and Ireland had just been established as the Free State. It was very important at this time to develop successful industries to support the young economy. If the Irish government could create enough jobs for its own people, it would prove that the country could survive as an independent state. It was decided that sugar beet was an ideal crop to grow on an industrial scale. Carlow was selected as the location for the sugar factory because it is situated in a rich tillage area and sugar beet was a crop well suited to the local growing conditions. Additionally the surrounding counties of Kilkenny, Wexford, Laois and Kildare were important agricultural centres. Carlow also had good rail and waterway connections, so its produce could be conveniently transported around the country.
Carlow by 1997 had the last of the sugar factories. Thurles had closed along with Tuam and Mallow. Carlow was effectively the last man standing. The raids which had made the Six-One news were to do with genetically modified sugar beet which had been trialled with Monsanto (within a few years it was clear that this would never take off, but at the time it was a big deal for Oakpark and for Irish Sugar as a whole). But this story isn’t about sugar beet.
When I heard that I had the job I was thrilled. It was a good place for the CV and while it wasn’t Dublin, Carlow was a big town. Much more lively than Thurles. As towns went it was decent. It would more than do for a couple of months. They had cool pubs and nightclubs like Tullys, Dinn Ri and the Foundry. I was going to be back in action here surely. Sensitive Bill from the Great Depression was gone. Ego Bill had arrived and that was pretty much how I played it.
I had a lift from Thurles to Carlow for the first few weeks. I found a house soon after. It was handier and made sense. The owner (always a bad sign I would remark on later) who I was living with seemed chilled and appeared to be laidback.
I started off at work with the rest of the guys. There was myself and John who both had university degrees but more importantly connections to get the work there. The majority of the guys had left school without their Leaving Certificate or had just always worked in the auxiliary services at Oakpark. They were very grateful to have the job. They were very respectful of everything and everyone. This didn’t sit too well with me if I am being honest. I found them a little too earnest for me. A little boring. Early 20s going on 50. The whole atmosphere there was really good, great food, it was a handy number. It’s still one of the nicest atmospheres I have ever worked in dotted amongst the multinationals and the tough environments I would later work in. I had graduated to team lead for weighing the sugar tare. I’ve a big smile on my face thinking of this as the work was located in a semi outdoor shed. It was monotonous as most labs invariably are. I could smoke during the job and generally try to put down the long day to see what was awaiting me at night in Carlow. The bright lights of Carlow beckoned.
My time in the first house lasted a few weeks. In hindsight (I had forgotten details as I never wanted to remember them) someone with a disordered mood, like I had then, will just about annoy the hell out of anyone who doesn’t. I was out on what I considered to be some “trumped up” charge, not locking the window around the back of the house. The housemate in question seemed to be similar to me in personality, or perhaps he was playing the part of a larger than life character. He was outgoing, positive , and worked as a sales rep, travelling all over Leinster. But he just couldn’t keep up with me and my chatting the whole time, and all my ideas on going out. After two weeks with me, he was a different man. He had completely gone into his shell. I guess he was made to feel a way that he didn’t want to feel, even though at the time I hadn’t fully blossomed into the fullness of the mood disorder spiral. It would be a few weeks away when I would taste mania for the first and last time.
Still, explaining to my parents that I was out of the house after a few weeks was a difficult one. I played mainly on the owner, he was at fault. I don’t think in hindsight that he was blameless either, but blaming him was just convenient for me at the time. In UCC I had lived with multiple sets of people in various student residences. I was good with new people. Looking back now with the cumulative nature of being depressed for 6 months it had taken its toll. I should have quit Carlow there and then and taken counselling for the issue. It’s a very hard thing to say in 2020, never mind 1997. I wouldn’t have agreed to do it then. Long term goals are often too far down the road to visualise or even feel. What do you do in situations like that? What is the solution?
I moved on within Carlow. Found new digs. A hostel for students. I was to last a few weeks there before being kicked out as well. Another ‘trumped up’ charge about leaving the oven on or something similar, which I didn’t accept at the time. I was out a few times a week. I had the smell of college times again. I no longer waited until Thursday night anymore. It was all about reliving college. I was good at the social things in college. It came easy to me. I’d had the brilliant idea of creating an account with a local taxi company to take me to work each day. It was only a mile to walk it. This was Carlow after all. One night I was getting ready to go out. It was a Thursday night, the biggest night out of the working week. I was getting on well with the hostel inhabitants at the time. It was pretty easy as I paid for beers when we were out. The night in question I booked 5 taxis to take the 23 of us from the hostel into Carlow town. It was my entourage. All in my own head. I must have thought I was quite the lad. It was all ego. One hundred percent ego and mania. I wasn’t a nice person at that time. I was arrogant, full of myself and had more than a few arguments with people at work. People at work who were kind and genuine and whom I just completely annoyed the fuck out of. That’s one thing I was very good at now. Annoying people.
During the end of the following week I developed urticaria (hives) all over my body. It happens when your body is under tremendous stress. I was out and about. Going to the gym every day. I had also asked a distant friend of my brother’s for a loan of 400 pounds. I hadn’t known him. He had recognised me out and we got chatting. With the urticaria I went home to convalesce but would never go back to Carlow. The taxi company would call in its debt when I was in hospital. It was pretty hefty, a few hundred. Everything was lost at that time. That was the worst thing. You can’t take the mood or the memories with you. It’s all forgotten. We only really remember people by how we meet them in that moment. I would be regretting a lot of those moments over the coming months and especially the coming years. They became a story for me to laugh about with no other advantage to them.
I had recovered from the urticaria back home in Thurles and had decided to go down to Cork for the weekend. I wasn’t meeting anyone in particular. I just wanted to go there, where I had attended college. Carlow wasn’t great for the craic. I wanted to head out somewhere where I always enjoyed myself. I didn’t know Dublin at all and had no real history of going out there bar a few 21sts and nights out here and there. Cork was where it was at. I got the train from Thurles to Cork that Friday evening and if memory serves me I may have met a friend down Washington Street at first, but after that I was on my own. It didn’t bother me. For a while it had been building to this. I was great craic, people were attracted to how I talked and looked (I was very fit at that point, less than 10% body fat which for me was savage). It all just clicked. I had annoyed the guys at work. If someone was with me all day they wouldn’t last. Tangents, miscellaneous energy coming towards them. It was impossible not to feel smothered by it. Smothered and frustrated. I knew everything. I had an answer for everything. I went out and bar hopped for a while until I met a girl from Douglas. We were having the craic, and then it kind of hit me. I had nowhere to stay…What the fuck was I thinking? A cool calm would echo inside me…“It’s all ok, you’ll be fine.”
Diary entries from as far back as 1991 give an insight into my complicated relationship with self-confidence.
“Must have supreme confidence in myself from now on… supreme”
“I’m always going to have confidence, always.”
The admonition to myself that I must be or that I am “the one and only” starts to recur regularly in the diaries in 1991, interspersed with admissions of insecurity and doubt around self-belief.
Whatever confidence is, this was it, it was confidence and assurance. I knew I could handle anything. I think if I was to look at myself then from the outside I would see the same thing. It was incredible. I had never taken ecstasy or any drugs like that. I had no idea but had seen its use in the mid to late 90s. It was called the drug of love. I had it naturally. The only thing I could compare it to was being given a sheet of answers, the exact answers, before a test. If you have seen Limitless this was it in action. I wasn’t learning to play the piano in an hour or learning Spanish in a day (I wish I could now) but it was the kind of confidence which makes charming the casual person whom you meet in a bar or a club very easy. It was so easy to meet people, not care what they think, and appear cool and grounded. It makes you very attractive. Desperation is gone completely. If someone’s not interested, fine, move on. I was looking fit, I had a good job, it was all going to work. No matter what I would find a way to make it work. This being hypomanic is so dangerous. You lose grip of reality, a reality that you will always have to go back to. In my case with my tail gripped firmly between my legs.
I had nowhere to stay after walking the girl to a cab. What was I gonna do? I remembered someone called Brendan from UCC and how I had met him previously with Gerry in Spain. It would have been a tenuous link, very tenuous, (tenuous enough to have me shake my head while typing this) but it was something. It was a link and that was enough for me. I had walked from Cork City Centre to Douglas, quite a walk, maybe 5-6 kilometres. I had either flagged down a Garda Car or else been stopped by one. I cannot remember for sure. I said I knew Brendan, he lived in Douglas and one of the Guards would take me to him. He had been off-duty himself that night. Here I was, going to ask someone who I barely knew if I could stay the night. But the way I was…it didn’t matter. I could and would do anything. Any sign of danger I would facilitate it, any sign of opportunity I would take it and maximise it to the best of my ability. I reached the house and I’m sure Brendan got a land when he saw me but I was welcomed in nonetheless. It was a little surreal, having a few beers till 5am. That’s all it was gonna be. I had no plan whatsoever for tomorrow…
The next morning one of Brendan’s colleagues came in, an older Garda, maybe early 30’sHe was looking for guys to play soccer in the Munster Senior League for the Garda team. In the house there were two guys with All Ireland minor medals for Cork, one of whom I had played against for Tipperary only 4 years earlier. I was gung ho, if it had been hurling I would have probably said I’d do it. Like most people who were still new to my life, the Garda was impressed. My confidence was complete. I was now going over at 11am to play for the Garda AUL side against a team from the north side of Cork City. I ‘d had very little sleep. It’s often that I wish I had the same kind of stamina I had then when I was participating in 10K runs over the years. It’s not an age thing. I was just immense. I would have gone through a brick wall and as it proved I would have to in order to survive the north side team we were going to play against that day.
When we arrived at the pitch, there were some handy players on our side, one of the guys for the Gardaí would later win an All Ireland senior title with Kerry. It was the highest standard I would play at, I was good regardless but it was a step or two ahead of the Tipperary Junior League. The pitch was bare, with houses all around it, and long uneven tufts of grass raking its way throughout the paint-lined surface. After 5 minutes it was obvious these guys were looking forward to playing the Gardaí. I took a really heavy tackle from behind after 5 minutes. I told the guy, “do that again and you’re fucking dead.” It’s not something I usually said but on that occasion it felt warranted. Earlier one of the other Gardaí was struck while the ball was 60 yards away. I had been told an assumed name to play under that was the last thing on my mind. I was thinking survival. Before the game was over 2 of their team would see red, both for assaulting their marker, in incidents that would have been considered gross bodily harm if they happened on the street. They were delighted with themselves. So was I. I had 3-4 cigarettes during half time. I was flying, my fitness was seriously good. My conditioning was the best it had ever been. We finished the match winners on a 3-2 scoreline. Everyone was happy. Me, I was supposed to meet this girl later and it so happened the Guards were going drinking in the same Douglas area in Cork. I met her and had some craic with the Gardaí. Thinking about it, I’m now a very private person in terms of who I drink with. I can be outgoing and sociable, but if the situation doesn’t serve me, I’m quickly out of it.
I cannot describe that weekend other than to say it feels like everyone is your best friend. Anything and everything is possible. I would go out and about over the next 2-3 nights. Get with different girls, go back to their place, and rob them of cds\dvds and go back to the UCC college bar and ask the barman to play them for the day, while I would have a few pints and chat up whatever was around. I won 60 euro one day there for a push up competition. It was pure stupid stuff but it was 20 euro off the three of them.
I would go to the old Doyle’s bar on Grand Parade, while a Miller promotion was going on. The DJ said “Next person up here will win 20 bottles of Miller.” I was up before the word person came out of his mouth. I would do anything. In this case it started off rather easily. Twenty pushups, after taking off my top and jeans- “grand, no problem” I thought. I was asked my favourite number and proceeded to do 14 pushups. My overactive hypomanic mind was thinking, Jeez this is a piece of piss Billy. I was then told my prize of 20 bottles of Miller was across the street at the Cineplex cinema. If you are not familiar with Cork, this area is in the centre of town. It’s very open, very busy, with plenty of traffic. To secure my prize I would need to do this wearing only my boxers. I think you would have to be hypomanic to do it, and they definitely saw me coming. I did it, got the booze, made some new friends, and went to some clubs getting kicked out and annoying bouncers. Hypomania is such a thing that writing this now it feels like a great story. It’s fake, it’s groundless, there is no foundation to it. I’m glad I’m outgoing, but what does it matter if behaviour leads to hospital? I will never forget how it felt. Especially later that evening when I got thrown into a paddy wagon for stripping off naked on Patrick’s Street outside Abrakebabra. In my defence the mood had already been set.
I mentioned the names of some Guards I knew and they let me off, telling me not to go back down Patrick’s Street that night. So I walked home the back way. When I say home, it’s a figure of speech. I had no real way to go, no home to go to. I called into a friend’s house but he wasn’t there. The girls in the house let me stay on the floor. I repaid them by robbing 10 CDs and a few DVDs the following day. I was hardly a master criminal but then I wasn’t myself either.
I went back to UCC and did it all over again the next day. I stayed out the whole night, hanging out by the Bus Station, which isn’t a great place to hang out. A woman there (who looked clearly mentally ill to me) said “You don’t look well. Are you ok? I think you’re ill.” At the time it meant nothing to me, but I guess in hindsight, she knew there was something wrong. After being up all night I would later call into an old employer on the way home to Thurles. When I worked there I hated it and felt depressed about it. I didn’t have one happy day there. They alerted my parents and my brothers Paud and Ken came to get me. That evening, unbeknownst to me, Mam gave me 2 sleeping tablets. I watched a 10 minute trailer for Romeo and Juliet with Claire Danes and Leonardo Di Caprio and cried my head off, then watched Ferris Bueller and laughed non stop. It’s funny, but probably not that funny. Mam was alarmed by me still being up. I made plans to go to Prague with my brother and friend in the morning, but instead I would go to see a doctor I had never seen before. The game was up. Hypomania would be gone never to return.
“But, I’m going to Prague…”- The First Hospital Admission
I wasn’t sure if the doctor could hear me through my tears. “I’m going to Prague, me and my brother and his friend, it’s all planned, I have my passport and everything.” My words trailed off as he assumed the statutory doctor position. He was in his mid 30s. When you’re 22 as I was, that’s a lifetime away. “No, my friend” he insisted. “You will just rest here for a few days that is all, you will be able to go with your brother and your friend then.” He had it all worked out. Me? I went outside and received some unwanted advice from a patient about fighting his decision and insisting upon all kinds of things of which I had no idea or clue about.
I couldn’t understand it, I felt the best I had ever felt in my life. I almost had a six pack. I looked great. I was with girls left right and centre only days earlier. And now here I was being what people call “sectioned”. I would be put up here and that was that, there was no point arguing. Only later when I realised that it was entirely down to my own family that I was sitting here arguing the odds with this doctor did I become angry. Being angry and sad was something I had a lot of experience with during that time, alongside the magical highs where I literally felt I could do anything. It was par for the course. In hindsight my moods were all over the place. At the time I had neither the skills nor awareness to realise this. I was in trouble and had no idea what was going to happen beyond that I would be “resting for a few days.”
Earlier that morning I had paid a visit to a GP whom I had never seen before. Mam was worried about me taking off to Cork for a weekend on my own and that I was so erratic and powerfully lucid. Again I never copped anything. We were off to Prague, that’s all I was thinking about. The beer. The women. I had spent 10 days there previously and in my own mind I knew the place backwards. Despite all that I knew I had the tools to enjoy myself there. We had left the GP there and now we were off to Clonmel Hospital, where apparently one of the lads coming was to meet a nurse he was seeing. Looking back now I never questioned it once. I think it was because I felt great and nothing could change that feeling. Nothing. I was to learn in the months ahead just how mortal we really are.
I would go off to rest. I was still aware of myself at this point, and I wasn’t out of control in any way. I had the presence of mind to say to the doctor that I’d be in bed beside guys whom I had been smoking with a half an hour earlier and whom I’d been telling of my trip to Prague. I let out a massive laugh at this. If I had known of what was to come it would have rung very hollow. There would be few laughs during my time in Clonmel. I honestly can barely remember them. They were lost like I was in a jumble and maze of thinking and surviving.
“Jim works in Clonmel… I always knew he would end up there someday”. Tom had finished his best man speech with a flourish. The room erupted. It was brilliant. I was 17 and it was the day of my brothers wedding, in Crawley, just a stone’s throw from London. My eldest brother Jim did indeed work in Clonmel. I had recently completed my Leaving Cert and was preparing for University life in Cork . I was surrounded by my brothers. Tom was back from the US. John was in Manchester. Paud was in Galway. Everyone was together. It was a fantastic day for our family. This was my personal stand by me moment. Clonmel is the principal town of Tipperary ( as I had learned years earlier in Primary School) approximately 25 miles south of Thurles. It is a much wealthier, bigger town with a lot more serious crime issues as I guess bigger towns are prone to have.
Clonmel town provided me with my first taste of being called a “culchie” when I was 15 years of age. I remember it vividly. We had stopped off for food after playing a game there and thought we were the golden boys, only to be called “muckers”. It was very disarming and it threw me. Indeed, having lived in Dublin for 15 years I never really faced the blasé attitude or vitriol that I experienced that day. To us mentioning Clonmel, as in the hospital, was to bring up the appearance of the bogeyman. It didn’t exist. We were all happy out and never paid it much notice or attention. Life was great and exciting. I doubt very much that Jim’s opening line would be included in a best man’s speech today. Awkward silence would replace whoops of laughter. In some ways that is good, mental health has made progress. Limited progress, but the landscape is changing.
I stayed in the ward, before getting my own private room, with people who sadly did not improve. Kids my own age who were constantly readmitted. Guys and girls with wrists and necks bandaged from self harm. I will always remember one particular girl. She was beautiful, really friendly and sound, with both wrists and upper arms bandaged. This girl could easily have been a model. She talked of loneliness, death, and self harm. I could never reach her as I could barely reach myself at that stage. I spent my time walking the corridors in a vain effort to get out and about and lose the weight I had gained. Between the psychotropic drugs and the hospital diet (what genius never told me to monitor eating etc or at least organise a proper nutritionist?) the care and treatment wasn’t joined up.
It was like everything in there was one big unruly mess. I had gained easily two and a half stone. I now had lost the super fit body I came in. The transformation was unreal. Later, after my release from hospital, people would ask what happened to me when they saw how much weight I had gained. Part of the problem was my drinkin. I didn’t know how to control these thoughts of everything so I drank. It was easier to imagine how I had been. I had always been fit. Sport came very easy to me. I played for Tipperary in rugby, soccer and gaelic football. I had been asked to go play rugby with Rockwell, a rugby school just outside Cashel. I was also asked to play for the better soccer teams in our division. Teams who regularly were in the top teams in Ireland at that time. The idea of me being overweight was anathema to me. What’s easier though? Ignore the problem, or work hard to fix it? Drinking let me ignore it completely and just concentrate on the glory days. Glory days… I was 22 but that’s how this whole process affects you. I needed skills to combat this which I just didn’t have. I needed awareness and confidence and I had no idea where to find them.
So in hospital I paced the corridors. Behind, me (if we were doing a track race he would have been well lapped) was a sensitive skinny auburn haired guy, possibly 2-3 years older than I was. He had been receiving electric shock treatment. He had finished college a few years but there was a realization that this was as good as he was going to get. We became friends and chatted. I met his father one day when he came to see him. I could see the weariness and pain in his fathers’ eyes. However I was doing better.I was getting stronger. The medication was working and I wasn’t going to need ECT. I was continually fighting my psychiatrist for passes home and received a pass home for Xmas. It was great to see everyone, but in hindsight I was still so weak. I tried manfully to do everything that all the lads did.
I went to the County Bar in Thurles. It was like the scene from Born on the 4th of July when Kovic (played by Tom Cruise) returns home paralysed to see everything his friends are doing and how though only a few months have passed, everything has completely changed. One of my closest friends (Jody) started crying when he saw me. Not exactly the best confidence booster, but I was a million miles away from these guys right now. More so when I was discharged from the hospital. I had to sign on for disability benefit when all wanted to do was get on with things and be like them. I was stuck at home with people wondering why. It was very humbling. I had ended up here through no fault of my own other than a chemical imbalance in my brain. I am very competitive and I can only thank that trait for pushing me forward. If someone tells me I can’t do it, I will do it. There is no other way. Otherwise you’re no use to yourself or those around you.
I was 22 when they first used Largactil to treat me. When you’re young you naturally think you will live forever. It’s just how it is. Like Robert Herricks’ famous opening line “Gather ye rosebuds as ye may…”, as quoted in Dead Poet’s Society, one of my very favourite films. Largactil changed all that for me. I knew after it that I would die one day that I wasn’t immortal. That might be hard to understand, of course I knew that I wasn’t immortal but after using that I felt the touch of mortality on me like sledgehammer. Largactil’s nickname is the chemical cosh and it just wiped me out like a tsunami. i could barely speak coherently for a week. I believe its use is no longer encouraged, but I experienced it twice. I also wondered if losing that feeling affected me. I try not to look through rose tinted glasses at what went before, but this first treatment with medication broke me down far worse than any mugging or relationship breakdown. Utter destruction.
“Cheer up to Fuck…..”
I had now been in St Michael’s unit for approximately a few weeks. I had settled into the routine. Early to bed (aided by sleeping tablets, so you never really felt you had slept you just woke up and that was pretty much that), early to rise, shower, breakfast. It’s given me a lifelong hatred of hospitals . Does anyone like them? This place wasn’t up to scratch. My parents had wrestled with the idea of sending me privately to St Patrick’s in Dublin or here. They had decided on Clonmel because it was closer for regular visits and I did get a private room after a month. Here they traveled to see me every day without fail. But with the condition I was in I was vulnerable. After the first few days, pretty much all the good stuff I had been given by friends\family had been stolen. Headphones, chocolate, even a copy of Playboy I’d been given, although at the time there was little I could do with it.
But there was an undercurrent of threat there. A lot of the guys might be in only for a week to rest up or for drink or some other drug related issue in between juvenile detention or prison. These guys were pretty much normal, they were stronger than me or anyone like me because of this. The drugs had broken me down, now I would have to wait while I became stronger. Perception is everything, time was something I didn’t have. I looked weak, and in trouble.
It wasn’t a fair fight. After Largactil, I could barely speak and a new guy came into the ward. He said he would do this and do that to me when the lights were out. He was a constant threat to me with verbal abuse and threats, I guess he saw a soft target. He saw me after drugs had broken me, before and after my rebuilding I would have no fear of people like him.
He was acting up every day for the few days he was in, and he seemed fine himself, by which I mean he was strong , and knew what he was doing, unlike 70% of people there. This was where the whole idea of lumping everyone in together in what is loosely called a ‘mental health unit’ did the likes of me no good. I was remembered enough to mention Paud, my bigger brother who could take care of himself, and who really would have scared this guy. I didn’t have to. The next day he was gone and I only saw him about 5 years later in a pub in Thurles one night. I was really tempted to scare him, to make him feel how I had felt in that ward in Clonmel that day but I never did. That wasn’t me. It took a lot to get me angry. Mostly I was angry within myself and that took up enough of my time to distract me from anything else.
The daily grind of the ward continued. Once breakfast was over they had arts classes. These were of no interest to me. I saw them as lazy therapy which involved plaudits and congratulations for mediocre at best or to put it bluntly crap work. Whether that is because I never did art, I don’t know. I can appreciate art enough that I’m happy not to bring any of my own into the world. Don’t get me wrong. I realize its standard for a lot of hospitals to have this. Why not have writing for therapy ? They had none of these, so I watched TV in a open common room. Daytime TV is bad enough when you’re healthy and well, it was hardly going to help me feel better in the state that I was in. Again, it was an easy and lazy way of containment and making it look as if people were being cared for.
The demographic of this room consisted of mainly middle aged men and women who really would find no respite there. For them the ward had turned into a nursing home. It’s sad to look back on now, but it seems to me that they were failed by the State. They were even worse than forgotten. All the pretences of care and treatment didn’t apply for them. Indeed the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) made this one of their key disclosures when they closed the unit in 2012. They were worse than zombies, they were ghosts. I saw them and I could never identify with them. I prayed every morning and night to be well. I had my own faith, we had a strong family full of people doing well. With some very strong achievers, I had to get better. I knew I was getting better. I was getting stronger. A week is a long time there when you’re seeing all this carry on in front of your eyes. It can be a lifetime. Corny but true.
There was a motley crew of characters that I spoke to up at the smoking area at the very top of the hall. I entered the hospital smoking a lot , perhaps 30-40 a day. Leaving it I had graduated to smoking a 100 John Player old style tips a day. It was my greatest achievement while in there. I met Joe , Larry and I can’t remember the other guy’s name, only that it surely wasn’t Moe. We would go and smoke all day. Joe was an abrasive farmer in his late 60s from West Tipperary. He was in for alcohol dependency. He had a no nonsense style about him which I liked and he knew my Dad “Big Pat” as he called him. He was funny. It took me a good few years to find my center to know who I was. This guy had that he knew who he was completely but he also liked to drink. He liked to drink a lot. The bulbous whiskey nose was a dead giveaway but so also was the colour of his skin, a hue between flesh tone and yellow.
He was only in for a few weeks. He caught me one day smoking on my own down at the usual spot. I was down and feeling very depressed. Looking back now I can see why. In its own right it’s a deeply melancholic place with no interaction, no positivity, no therapy of any kind. He picked up on this. He moved in towards me and shuffled in to give me a shoulder. “Cheer up to fuck will you” he said. I was shocked , I was so deep in my own thoughts it took a few seconds to sink in. A big smile creased upon my lips and brow and both of us swapped John Players and started laughing, bringing for one solitary moment bright light into the section of the ward. I told my parents and family and that linebecame well used in our household years after it happened that day in Clonmel. It was used over Christmas 2014. In the early years I didn’t like it ,but now I think it’s good the way dark humour is used in Ireland. It’s easier to use than to really explore the who, the what, the reason why. That line will always live on with me.
“It’s the same as a broken leg…”- First Hospital Release
I heard this from the staff psychiatrist in St Michaels at Clonmel within a few weeks of my departure to go home. I was thrilled. I was always at her to let me out , that I was fine. I felt fine. I wanted this to be an aberration, something that I could dream away. Something that never happened. I don’t believe mental illness is the same as a broken leg. It affects your whole body and how people perceive you. Years later I would cry for no reason, and think crappy terrible thoughts about myself. A broken leg is not the same as that.
I believe it’s a lazy explanation. There is probably no malice in it. When I heard it at first though, it did give me reassurance. It was a Trojan horse in hindsight. A vehicle designed to give me false confidence and tell me that everything would be ok.
The mental health charity Aware reports that 45,000 people in Ireland have a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder. Men and women are equally affected, and approximately one third of people with bipolar disorder in Ireland do not work. Period.Between 25-60% of people with bipolar will make an attempt on their own life. It was only on my own and a few years later that I looked into the statistics. My brother Tom sent literature and books from the States which I used to devour. I loved the way they looked at it. They often described most people with bipolar as being very smart, talented and charming. I used to wallow in that until I realised all of that was no good to me. It was make-believe. If I couldn’t use it to get better, what use was it to me? No point in saying “Johnny is a smart kid , but he can’t work or is in between residential care and his parents at the age of 35”. I wanted everything my friends had, everything my brothers had. It was only last year that I realised I had it. It wasn’t material , it was nothing to do with that. I had the same feeling they had. I didn’t get the massive mood slumps. I was normal, whatever normal is. I was that and it felt pretty darn amazing.
Paddys Day 1998….
It was pretty much nondescript. Days blended into days… I had been out of hospital for a few months now. I was in the Monks pub with the guys. It was Paddy’s Day, but nothing was really happening. I wasn’t experiencing the attention from girls that I was used to. It was Thurles on a Tuesday night, so I guess pickings of any kind were slim. It’s so awkward sometimes seeing someone from your past. Someone who you’re embarrassed to see. That evening I saw Brendan, the Brendan I had asked for months before in Cork, where he was a Guard, in my hypomanic state. He was a sound guy. He asked how I was. I nursed my Bulmers and wished I could escape, or at the very least be the person whom we were both connected to in our own different way. It was only 6 months previously but it was a lifetime away from where I was now. Where I was now related to sleeping in, dreaming of times when I was happy with my ex girlfriend. Lingering after my ex… It was a cycle I would only break in my 39th year as I would delve into my past and family history, to find out much more about myself and start to love myself for the first time.
You can let us know what you think of Bill’s Story so far by commenting here, or you can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org. We will continue with Bill’s Story with further chapters and are currently seeking a publisher for this.
A few years ago, when my son was about five years old, we were late to drop his older sister off at a birthday party. The party was in the beautiful Edwardian Herbert Park in Dublin. It was warm, and I was sweaty…and stressed. I was pushing an empty buggy with as much speed as I could possibly muster while an unnaturally hefty two-month-old lay strapped to my chest. All the while I was coaxing the other two kids along as fast as I could.
I decided that I’d had enough of my son’s rough-shamble appearance. It seemed that other parents could turn kids of a similar age out at parties clean, neat and well-dressed, so why couldn’t I? I put the effort in. I got the nice, neat, stiff clothes on. I put him in a headlock and managed to get the face actually clean. I won the argument about shoes, and off we went. We were a little late, but I was covered for this by the wide-reaching small baby excuse.
Out of puff, and now just about 5 minutes from arriving finally presentable, disaster struck. As we passed a mound of mulch and muck, about 10 feet high, my son broke ranks. He peeled off and reached the top of the mulch mountain in what felt like a second. Before I could process what was happening, he announced clearly, and with startling conviction to all around “I AM A GIANT DIRT-BAT!” before tumbling and rolling his way down to the muddy puddle below. He arrived at the party looking like he had stopped at Woodstock for a weekend of debauchery on the way. I was not pleased.
He’s still the dirtiest child I know. There are no knees in his uniform trousers. I have to force hair cuts on him by stealth, threat and bribe. And the hair cuts are necessary, because, try as I might, he resists any sort of brushing of his tangled birds-nest like he would an attempt on his life. I’m sure his teacher can see exactly what he has for breakfast every morning. I know when he’s lying about brushing his teeth, the evidence is all over his chin and jumper if he really has.
I’m sure this can’t last forever. I’m at the end of my tether, washing-wise, for one thing. I need him to cut me a break from the ruining two or three outfits a day.
One day he might be standing in front of me in a tie, with an immaculate white shirt, tucked in. There may even be product of some sort in his clean and styled hair. Maybe he’s going for a big interview, maybe he’s going on a big date, or maybe he’s even getting married. He’ll be looking sharp and clean, and I’ll be bursting with mortifying maternal pride. And at that point I’ll squeeze his hand and lean in close to whisper an important message. “Don’t forget, you are a giant dirt-bat.”
I’ve always been annoyingly intrigued by the past, from my 1990s teenage obsession with 1970s flares, to my 2000s throwback to vinyl, and my very misguided and short-lived 2010s fling with a real typewriter. I know, I know, it is very easy to romanticise the past and assume it was all so much better and simpler then, though this is unlikely to be the case. I admit it, the flared jeans trailed the ground and wicked up a good 6 inches of rain from the footpath. The vinyl got scratched. I never could find a ribbon to fit that typewriter, and waiting for one stopped me writing for a least 3 months.
I’m not a Luddite. I think it’s important to stay grateful and realisitc about the opportunities technological development has given us. Much as I do love Blur, I can’t concur that Modern Life is Rubbish.
I indulge my obsession with the past by making digitial images of vintage machines. These are mostly drawn in pencil on paper first, then coloured on iPad using an apple pencil and ProCreate. This is an amazing way to draw with an intuitive, traditional feel, but retain all the benefits of a digital image that can be copied and edited. Here is an example of my work.
CC BY-NC These works can be reproduced non-commercially,
but credit must be given to their creator, Patricia Frazer
This is my take on the Macintosh Plus, a very early version Mac computer. This model was introduced in 1986. It features a slot to insert a floppy disk at the front. I am fascinated with old technology, and although I can well remember using floppy disks like it was yesterday, I think these are now old enough for their designs to stir up some nostalgia in me.
In November 2020 the Financial Times published a story titled “Thanks for polluting the planet” in which they reported on British research claiming that the 64 million ‘unnecessary’ emails sent by Britons each day contribute significantly to climate change.
A BBC article also reporting on the issue (Climate change: Can sending fewer emails really save the planet?) questions the calculations of how much energy would really be saved, and whether such targeting of relatively small savings may detract from more worthy targets. But what goes unquestioned in this and many other reports on the story is the underlying assumption that saying thanks is somehow “useless”.
The research behind the claims was commissioned by Ovo Energy, a ‘Green’ British Energy Supplier with a published goal to become a zero carbon business by 2030.
The research was carried out by survey consultants Censuswide and identifies the following as the top 10 most “unnecessary” emails:
I have to say, as a psychologist I ROFLMAO when I read that thanks and sharing a laugh are deemed not just unimportant, but wholly ‘unnecessary’ communications.
No information is given on the Ovo website linking to a full version of the report, nor is any indication given that the research was published in full or in part in a peer reviewed academic publication. Of course, we don’t always need peer review to tell us whether to trust a piece of research as long as we have adequate information about how it was conducted and what measures were used. What we are told about the research is that the information comes from a representative survey of 3,000 British people aged 16+, surveyed between the 14th and 17th of November 2019. We are also shown detailed working out for the carbon calculations and extrapolations, but we are given no information whatsoever on how the uselessness, pointlessness or otherwise uncessesariness of our communications is judged. What is the measure of uselessness in workplace communications? The short emails of thanks and well wishes are described as ‘unactionable’. Is this the same as pointless? I’m not convinced. Findings from positive psychology research suggest that saying thanks is important, for those both expressing and receiving it, as it strengthens interpersonal bonds, leads to increased productivity at work, and brings all sorts of benefits in terms of increased well being.
Even if this evidence for the importance of saying thanks to personal relationships, well being and productivity were unavailable, it would still be a gross error to deem these ‘unactionable’ emails useless. Not knowing the point of something is not equivalent to knowing that it has no point. To assume so is to commit the logical error of confusing absence of proof for proof of absence. We should not assume something is unimportant or irrelevant simply because we lack evidence or understanding of why and how it is important or relevant. This is especially true when we are considering extremely complex systems. A recent example would be the discovery of one or two unknown genes of life-altering significance, lying hidden in what had previously been considered to be all junk dna.
Stopping large swathes of the email-using public from saying ‘thanks’, or ‘lol’, would be social engineering at a grand scale. This story is a good example of how researchers can over extrapolate beyond slim, questionable evidence, to give life-altering advice way beyond their competencies.
I’m Trish, and I’m a quantophile. The potential of quantitative research to answer seemingly unanswerable questions about our innermost experiences is what first attracted me to psychology. And over a decade later, I’m still in love. But the rose tint is definitely starting to wear off as I see more and more examples of balanced judgement replaced with mindless quantification.
If you have had any formal training in research methods you will have learned that all measurements should be both reliable and valid. Reliability involves types of consistency. If Doctor 1 and Doctor 2 both administer a structured interview to assess your mental health they should agree on whether you are clinically depressed, and at what level of severity. You can even use some statistical wizardry to put a number on how ‘reliable’ your measurement is. Your friends and classmates will gasp in wonder as numbers pour satisfyingly into your output file!
Even if we do manage to measure our constructs of interest accurately, there are still many pitfalls to beware of in their analysis and interpretation. For example the hallowed ‘p’ value. You probably remember that a p value is the chance that your results were a ‘fluke’. It isn’t though. Nor does it tell you how important your results are or anything about your effect size. The p value is so widely misunderstood that Haller and Kraus in 2002 administered a quiz testing 6 frequent misunderstandings of the p value and found that not only did 100% of students sampled make at least one mistake, but so did 80% of instructors.
Pain is a subjective, complex and mysterious experience, but one that we nonetheless must strive to measure in some objective way for research to take place. We use tools like visual analog scales that allow us to rate pain numerically, by placing a mark on a line, or with smiley faces. These all tap into to relative and continuous nature of pain by asking us to relate our current pain to an absolute absence of pain or “the worst pain imaginable”. This makes intuitive sense. Since pain does not correlate perfectly with tissue damage or any other objectively observable physical signal the research attempting to assess the validity of these pain scales usually relies on reliability assessments (people rate previous pain experiences similarly over time, vulnerable to all the biases in recall), and the level to which they are affected by pain relief. Since the pain assessment tools are often developed in order to reliably test pain relief strategies there is a certain circular logic at play that I find very irritating while being asked repeatedly to rate my labour contractions on a scale of 1- 10 to establish that my epidural has not been effective.
It is unrealistic to think we can get by currently without rating scales in psychology or medicine, but we should be aware that a tool that might help with research or provide a useful aggregate with which to compare groups may not be the most useful tool to connect with and understand the person in front of us.
Sense about science are publishing a Data Science Guide to help the public critically evaluate the sea of seemingly meaningful numbers we are bombarded with on a daily basis. Their advice, when looking at claims based on data analysis of any kind, is to always ask yourself:
Where does it come from?
What is being assumed?
Can it bear the weight being put on it?
Sound advice. So, how does psychology as a discipline measure up in applying this advice? A systematic review of 433 scales reports that around 50% of them cited no evidence to support validity whatsoever (see para 8). Like the lego pain scale, it seems we are relying on face validity. I would love to hear your thoughts- is this a problem for psychology?
Baby Frazer, by the numbersBirthweight: 4.33 kg Overdue by: approximately 252 unusually long hours Pain caused: 8-9 on the ‘lego’ scale
If you have taken more than a passing interest in psychology, at any level, you have almost certainly come across the Rosenhan Experiment in which 8 pseudopatients claiming to hear a voice were admitted to psychiatric hospitals and diagnosed rapidly and fixedly with various psychotic conditions. Even if some other aspects of your course (like hand calculation of correlation coefficients for example) left you cold, I’m willing to bet this piqued your interest. As a lecturer in mental health I speak about this study to students at least 3-4 times each year, and I have yet to tire of it. If anything, my fascination deepens.
Although most students are familiar with the main thrust of the study and its outcome, it is so familiar that most don’t go and read the original paper in full, which is a pity. They miss some juicy details, like the ways in which the patients’ every behaviour was interpreted as pathological in the medical and nursing notes. “Patient engages in writing behavior” illustrates neatly how context is all important in our perception and interpretation of behaviours as symptoms. The “oral-acquisitive nature of the syndrome” of schizophrenia was the supposed cause of patients loitering outside the canteen before meal times on a ward where there was quite simply nothing else to do.
My favourite detail is that the great Rosenhan makes an error in describing an everyday statistical concept in this paper! There is hope for us all (I will post a lollipop to anyone who can find it).
Although the paper is largely descriptive, there are some interesting numbers in there too. For example, the mean number of minutes per day that the hospitalised patients had contact with psychologists, psychiatrists or physicians was 6.8. This figure includes the admissions and discharge interviews as well as group and individual psychotherapy sessions. The 8 patients collectively were administered 2,100 pills. Despite all but one of the pseudopatients striving to be released after the first day the length of hospitalisation ranged from 7 to 52 days and many retained a diagnosis of “schizophrenia in remission” on discharge.
David Rosenhan passed away in 2012 after a long and successful career, finishing at Stanford. The pseudopatients (“three psychologists, a pediatrician, a psychiatrist, a painter, and a housewife”) have to my knowledge never been identified or come forward. I would love to hear from them, or their friends or relatives in the case that some of them have passed away. There was also a ninth patient who violated the ground rules by giving false information outside the claim to hear a voice in his admission interview.
So is the infamous Rosenhan Experiment a damning indictment of psychiatric diagnostic systems that still exist today, a merely historical embarrassment that serves to demonstrate how far we have come, or a gimmicky but unscientific reminder that doctors are human too, and can be fooled like the rest of us?
What do you think?
Update to this article: In November 2019 Susannah Cahalan published a must-read book (The Great Pretender) for anyone interested in this topic, suggesting aspects of the study were fraudulent. Thanks to the commenter who mentioned this book.
In the early weeks and months after my first child was born, sleep deprived though I was, I felt a lot of certainty in the parenting theories and strategies I would use. Sure, the job was difficult, but I knew how to do it. Sleep, routines, attachment, feeding, child care, I knew where I stood on all these issues. But the more experienced I become at parenting the less sure I become. And the more I practice at parenting, the less time I have for what should work in theory.
We have never been more overwhelmed than we are today with information and advice on every aspect of our parenting. In any moment of uncertainty a slew of confusing and often contradictory advice is only a click away. For example, we are advised that to ensure successful breastfeeding we should respond immediately to subtle signs of hunger, picking up babies even before they cry. But we also need to allow them to self-soothe and get into a predictable routine. Then there are the sleep training wars. We are assured that letting a baby cry it out causes lasting damage, but so does the sleep deprivation, for both them and us. By co-sleeping we are either providing an essential primordial bonding experience that will lead to emotional stability, or promoting poor sleep habits and risking sids. Possibly both simultaneously. We are constantly reminded that what we feed our children, especially for the first five years, will affect their health and well being for the rest of their lives. So we should try to keep in mind and follow all 20+ pages of advice in most weaning guidelines, but also not forget to relax and make food fun! Or else meal times will become a battle ground with lasting negative associations. Keep your kids active everyday, but don’t over schedule them with sporting activities. You will need to limit that screen time to promote their physical and emotional well being, but best to foster a love of computers whilst you do or your child may not have a job. It’s not always a Catch 22 as a parent, however. You can follow recommendations to protect your skin from the sun AND the recommendations to get adequate vitamin D at the same time as these researchers suggest by exposing your kids to a carefully timed 30 minute dose of sunlight each day. In between school, work, music lessons, homework, all important free-play time and this amazing well-balanced, home-made, tasty and nutritious masterpiece you are no doubt about to whip up for dinner this shouldn’t be too difficult, should it?
Not to say that the dissemination of knowledge and information on safe and effective parenting has not been completely unhelpful. I don’t want to appear ungrateful. For example, we have lower than ever infant and child mortality, and despite concerns around cyber bullying and sedentary lifestyles, worldwide more of our children enjoy a higher quality of life than ever before on concrete measures like mortality and poverty. A great example of the success of an informational campaign aimed at parents is the ‘back to sleep’ campaign which significantly reduced SIDS. But if a little information is a good thing, it does not necessarily follow than a lot of information is even better. Perhaps there is a balance to be struck between being informed enough to avoid behaviours that confer high risk to our children, and not having our lives taken over by the desire to achieve optimal development with complete avoidance of risk.
As someone with a PhD in behavioural analysis and many years of training in interpreting conflicting or unclear research evidence I find myself completely out of my depth at managing, assimilating and constructively using the available information on how to be a good parent. There is just too much of it. Trying to interpret it all and assess its scientific credibility would be a full time job, and I already have one of those (or two, if you count parenting). My accumulated learning and experience boils down to this: try something, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. As regards making use of all the useful advice out there in internet land, I turn to Oscar Wilde “I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself”
What led Denis Diderot, 18th century philosopher, critic of the arts and defender of the enlightenment to become a “slave” to his dressing gown? Diderot edited the influential Encyclopédie as well as many controversial philosophical works challenging religious orthodoxy and championing rationalism. He also left his stamp on the field of marketing with a charming essay called Regrets for My Old Dressing Gown. In it he describes how replacing his old threadbare robe with a new scarlet one leads him to spiraling consumption in the pursuit of a lifestyle as elegant as his new look. Afraid any longer to wipe up ink spills with his sleeve he surveys the change in his once scruffy writer’s residence with sadness, concluding that while he had been “master” of his old robe, he has become “a slave to the new”.
When one purchase leads on to many others (like buying a new phone case to complement the latest phone) this is called the Diderot Effect. Few of us feel the need to don elaborate robes anymore, but we don’t have to look too far for good examples of where we still fall foul of the Diderot Effect and become slaves to the new. Last summer I innocently purchased a second hand typewriter with the vague intention that it would help me avoid online distraction and thus write more. When I got it home I realised that it needed a cosy desk upon which to sit, the right chair for the desk, space in a small apartment for a chair and desk… to cut a long story short not a word was written until the typewriter was unceremoniously dumped at the recycling centre.
Impulse buying a typewriter may be a fairly unusual example. A more common experience of this effect may be nestled in your hand right now as you read. When many of us bought our first mobile phones we got more than we bargained for. We had little idea that we would soon experience similar spiralling change in how we communicate, live and work, and how many more devices we might purchase as a result.
How do we address this upset to our work life balance? Should we throw away our smartphones en masse and dig out the old Nokia 3310, or, better yet, the quill? Ignore the siren song of the new scarlet robe in favour of the old threadbare one? Perhaps. But if answering a few sporadic emails from my phone allows me to pick the kids up from school on Friday instead of staying in the office then throwing away my phone won’t buy me the freedom and balance I desire. I have turned to the existentialists for help on this one. Sartre emphasizes the role of choice in defining us. We are what we do, and though our choices are influenced by pressures we are in some sense free to walk away from our jobs, our responsibilities, our families and our dependence on technology if we really think life would be better without them. This excerpt from his essay concerning freedom and responsibility might have been written expressly to describe our troubled relation to after hours work communications had it not predated the invention of email by several decades. “For lack of getting out of it, I have chosen it. This can be due to inertia, to cowardice in the face of public opinion, or because I prefer certain other values to the value of the refusal to join in…” .
I choose to continue to use my smartphone for work, but I don’t have to feel trapped by it. Viewing it as a choice rather than a necessity makes me feel more in control of this aspect of my life. And when Facebook makes me feel more insecure than connected I can choose to delete the app. Is moderation possible in our smartphone use, or, like addicts, will we always succumb to a Diderot Effect, downloading one app after another? Is the existence of apps to help us cut down on phone usage evidence we can regain control, or that we are enslaved already?