‘ Panic at­tack. Say­ing the words aloud takes the shame out of them, and a lit­tle of the fear’

The Irish Times Magazine - - NEWS - JENNIFER O’CON­NELL

Iam seven years old the first time my brain stum­bles. I am at my cousins’ house. We are play­ing some­thing loud and rau­cous when I feel my­self rise up out­side my body. I am in one those dreams where you re­alise you are dream­ing, only you can’t wake up. Ex­cept I know I am awake. I am 15. It is au­tumn. The colour is seep­ing out of the day. I am stand­ing at the sink by the win­dow of the art room, rins­ing a plate and watch­ing the bright rivulets of paint pool in the dirty sink. It bears down on me again, an over­whelm­ing feel­ing that I am ca­reen­ing through a dream.

I am 19. It is De­cem­ber. Snow is fall­ing onto the sil­very pave­ments of the Bastille, where I am liv­ing in a third- floor apart­ment. It is the day af­ter my first date with the man who will be­come my hus­band. I am in a taxi, try­ing to get home from work through a city grid­locked by strike. The me­ter climbs steadily, but the traf­fic is not mov­ing. I ac­tu­ally feel my brain stum­ble this time. Re­al­ity blurs. Edges bleed. Colours be­come over­sat­u­rated.

I can’t feel my left hand, the left side of my face. I can­not die in a taxi on a slushy side street in a non­de­script part of Paris. I grasp at the door han­dle. Vous êtes malade? the driver asks me. He lets me out. I find a phone in a café and force some coins into the slot with numb fin­gers. My flat­mate an­swers. I’ve had a stroke, I man­age. No you haven’t, he says. His mother is a doc­tor. Come home. You’re hav­ing a panic at­tack.

Panic at­tack. I try the words out my­self the next time I talk to the man who will be­come the hus­band. He looks at me with cool, kind eyes. Say­ing the words aloud takes the shame out of them, and a lit­tle of the fear.

I’m not dy­ing or ill or go­ing mad. I’m just a per­son who has oc­ca­sional brain stum­bles. Most of the time, I can talk my­self through them or around them. I now know the trig­gers. Be­ing gen­er­ally anx­ious. Be­ing hun­gover or very tired. Be­ing in a strange en­vi­ron­ment. When they do hit, it is with the force of a jug­ger­naut. Some­times there’s noth­ing to do but wait them out. I have one on a river­boat in Viet­nam. Af­ter my sec­ond child is born way too early and way too small, and has to stay in the spe­cial care unit while I’m at home de­vel­op­ing mas­ti­tis, I have a whop­per, my last big one.

In this coun­try, we have a deep- rooted fear of brain stum­bles – of panic at­tacks and de­pres­sion and men­tal health is­sues of any kind. It’s no won­der. There was a time when you could get locked up for much less. Un­til the 1950s, we were in­or­di­nately fond of our men­tal hos­pi­tals. We had 710 asy­lum beds per 100,000 of pop­u­la­tion – more than Soviet Rus­sia or the US, and al­most twice as many as Eng­land and Wales, ac­cord­ing to Dr Damien Brennan’s book, Ir­ish In­san­ity 1800- 2000. At the height of the sys­tem, 21,000 peo­ple were locked up in an Ir­ish men­tal hos­pi­tal. We can’t blame this one on the Catholic Church – these were State- run in­sti­tu­tions, op­er­ated with the com­plic­ity of the pub­lic. In 1879, there were four grounds for ad­mis­sion. One of them was “moral”, which in­cluded “poverty, re­verse of for­tune”, “grief, fear and anx­i­ety”, “re­li­gious ex­cite­ment”, “pride”, “anger” and even “love, jeal­ousy and se­duc­tion”. We locked peo­ple up when we didn’t know what else to do with them. You didn’t want to end up in one of those beds, in a place where “treat­ment” at dif­fer­ent times meant in­sulin co­mas or malaria ther­apy. And so we were ever alert to the signs in our­selves and in oth­ers. “She suf­fers from her nerves,” peo­ple would say. “He’s soft in the head.” It was short­hand for stay away, she might em­bar­rass you, she might em­bar­rass her­self, she might em­bar­rass us all. The in­sti­tu­tions are in de­cline, but the fear is not. The shad­ows cast by that time in our his­tory are long. In Amer­ica, there’s no em­bar­rass­ment about men­tal health is­sues – they’ll never dis­cuss money or re­li­gion but they’ll talk openly about their con­ver­sa­tions with their ther­a­pist. In Ire­land, we still live in ter­ror that some­one will find out we’re “see­ing some­one”. The pen­du­lum has gone so far in the other di­rec­tion that fam­i­lies and pa­tients can­not al­ways get the help they need. We’ll do bet­ter when we can be more open about this is­sue, when we ac­knowl­edge that all kinds of peo­ple suf­fer from all kinds of men­tal health is­sues. It is just a con­di­tion of be­ing alive. Ev­ery­one has a story. If some­one tells you their story, it might be be­cause they want help, be­cause they want to help some­one else, or be­cause they want to be able to men­tion it without wor­ry­ing about the alarmed glances or the stigma. Just like hearts get weak, or discs slip, or ap­pen­dices burst, brains some­times stum­ble. jo­con­nell@ irish­times. com

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