Desmond

This is the story of my discovery of a secret schizophrenic uncle, at the age of 15.

Just as you learn that yellow and blue make green, I knew when I was growing up that my mother was an only child.

She said the same whenever siblings were discussed and often referred wistfully to her late teens as sole provider for her widowed mother.

So never any reason to smell a rat.

Aside from two incidents (to assume rodent-odour retrospectively).

The first was the naming of my new stuffed donkey, aged 6.

A king amongst toys, he had crinkly material in his ears and velvet hooves: Holy Mary Mother of God would have broken the eighth commandment for a ride.

The sun pinged off the gleaming teeth of Family Price, as its youngest member frolicked with the new Cuddly. And there was joy and laughter and orange juice for breakfast.

Until, unaccountably, I introduced the new beloved as ‘Dezzie’.

Ma took to the news as to a cup of cold, mulish sick; much as if I’d called him Fuckface, a cloud hung in the air whenever I called for the animal (he never came).

For some unfathomable reason, I had made a donkey-naming misdemeanour.

The second came a few years later when I told Mum a joke (punchline, ‘I’m a schizophrenic’, ‘So am I’).

Far from clutching her ribs, Mum hit the roof, proclaiming it an anger-inducing travesty.

Thus for unfathomable reason number two (though ‘Stand-up’ was now placed after ‘Astronaut’) schizophrenia jokes were off-menu.

Clock forward to my 15th year and half term, which, in the absence of my parents, I was spending with my big sister.

Idly snooping around, I stumbled across a package marked ‘D.Moore’. Strange, thought I (wearing the quizzical face of someone on the verge of a Plot-Revealer),  Moore is Mum’s maiden name but her parents are dead.

When confronted, sis wore the Plot-Revealed face and sat me down seriously in the tidy part of the living room to tell me The News.

The package was a birthday present for Mum’s brother, Desmond, a man in his fifties, who had been living since he was a youth in Sussex County Lunatic Asylum.

A seismic revelation was this, begging numerous questions: the kind concerned with Mum and her family and how they all coped?

Or the more solipsistic reaction of a teenager already convinced of her own exclusion from family matters?: Why wasn’t I told? How long have you known? Would anyone have told me if I hadn’t found out?

Ashamedly, the latter: it seemed to me the concrete proof that I was always the last to know about anything and I felt betrayed.

But I was not the star of this unglamorous show.

Happy as a boy in Australia, on moving to England at 14 Dez showed signs of unusual behaviour.

He would disappear for long stretches after school or forget things- the episodes growing in number and severity until his 18th year when my tiny French grandmother (also dealing with her husband’s Japanese prisoner-of-war post-traumatic stress) could no longer cope.

After an unsuccessful spell in a private home he was reluctantly placed in St Francis’ psychiatric hospital, where he still resided.

I made Mum party to my edification with a drumroll but she denied me the drama I felt owed; in those ‘children shouldn’t see or hear’ days, a bonkers relative didn’t feel like appropriate fodder and I was simply still more child than my sisters.

Not long after we went to visit.

It’s funny, because there’s a Facebook page dedicated to the place (now luxurious apartments), where staff are trading glorious memories of their working years.

To me it was the stuff of nightmares.

Opened in 1859, it was built to a corridor design, with the wards flanking out from an administrative central block. This allowed for the segregation of the sexes and aided in the ease of communication throughout the asylum.

In reality, it felt like prison.

At an all-girl boarding school, I thought I knew institutions. But this was something other.

A Victorian enshrinement of society’s embarrassments, it was predicated on the ironing out of its inmates’ wild individualisms, in order to create more manageable flattened units: breakfast at 7, lunch at 12, tea at 3, every day, every day, no deviation.

Desmond had been on heavy medication for years so that it was hard to tell where his illness ended and the legacy of his pill-popping began.

He was a crumpled, question-mark-of-a-man with a Monty-Python walk- legs first, arms folded behind his back. He had thinning hair, mental brown polyester clothes and teeth and spectacles held together with plasters; in facial features, a male version of Mum.

Mild-mannered and softly spoken, he annunciated every word of his old-fashioned lexicon beautifully, lending a sad nobleness to his activities: ‘There was a craft-making afternoon with the ladies from the adjacent wing.’ ‘They were kind enough to allow us fifty pence pieces on our excursion to Haywards Heath.’

He would pause before and after each recollection, often making eye contact with a pained expression, through his smudged lenses.

Mum laughed and made jolly- through his tales of stolen cigarettes (which he would smoke right down to the very butt, inhaling with deep purpose, burning his lips); his vexations over the non-visits of his (deceased) mother; his requests to visit our family home.

For much of the visit he would stare into his lap, as a person who cannot quite comprehend his situation but the moment the clock struck for tea, rise Pavlovian to his feet, a distracted farewell waved over the shoulder.

On the whole, he seemed well cared for but with an immeasurable intensity of loneliness- a man outlined by the cosmic inexplicability of chasing his sister around a Eucalyptus tree one day, pacing the tiled hallways of confinement for all the rest.

It raised a wry smile to think my appearance, aged 15, would seem to him another hole in his intellect when, of course, this was not the case.

His male co-habitees missed their slot on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: bewildered, demented, head-banging. Or playing cards wearing pearls and a twinset. Funny ha-ha. Funny peculiar. Utterly disturbing.

The journey home was quiet: the leaving behind, the strong taste of a life wasted. And yet, what?, home to the usefulness of working, shopping? Our lives more worthwhile? Less pathetic?

Dez spent his last two years in a private home, when, in 1995, St. Francis’ closed its doors for the final time.

Though the result was good, it was a period of fear and confusion for him, which my mother and medically-qualified sister guided him through as gently as they could.

Desmond spent over 40 lost years at the hospital.

My father spent 30 of them driving my mother to see him without ever once going in himself- a reflection more of his strength than his weakness because he knows what he’s good at and what he ‘aint.

This post is for you, Uncle Dezzie, a gentleman.

You are remembered.

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9 Comments

Filed under Mumbo Life, Uncategorized

9 responses to “Desmond

  1. I nursed Dezzie for some of his 40 years. The asylums were of their time just as overcrowded roads and too close houses are of ours. Dezzie or Desmond , as the staff called him, was a gentle man who was often put upon by others. I often defended him against others. He was an obsessional drinker of water – we’d be hard put to it to keep him away from the sinks – psychological techniques not always forthcoming for those who needed them and who suffered enduring mental health problems like Desmond. He was a very intelligent man. I liked him a lot. Those days of overcrowded wards, lack of privacy, low staffing levels, inadequate funding, permanently old fashioned accommodation give an insight as to how and why the Victorian asylums could be such forbidding places. St Francis was, historically though, amongst the best nationally – see my DVD history ‘ Where there is despair – let me sowhope’ by Joe Hughes available from http://www.Amazon.co.uk and thanks for the family perspective on mental illness.

    • mumbo

      Hello Joe, I am very touched by your response and so interested to hear about Dezzie- we didn’t know about his passion for water. I re-read my post imagining it from your point of view and felt my representation must have seemed harsh, for which I apologise; as you quite rightly say, the asylums were of their time. I would very much like to obtain a copy of your DVD if you are able to direct me to where I could buy one, as Amazon seems to be out of them. Thank you for looking after Des. Sophie x

      • Hello Sophie,
        Lovely to see your post. I think, as a group of caring staff, we had to do the best with what we had. I was the trade union branch secretary also for many years and I have always spoken out for this group of patients who were put upon by our greedy, acquisitive society. Funding for mental health is still inadequate and is not on a par with physical illness. Shame on successive governments of whatever colour. The care of the mentally ill and the elderly is a certain barometer of our standing as a society. Often, we fail.
        I’d hate for any of my relatives to have been subjected to the rigours of the Victorian asylums.
        Desmond was loved and liked by many of us. We often protected him from being bullied by fellow patients. He had many joyful times in his life too. I remember him with fondness.
        My DVD can be accessed via http://www.amazon.co.uk – ‘Where there is despair – let me sow hope.’
        With best wishes and thanks,
        Joe Hughes and at joehughes.org.uk

  2. mumbo

    Hello there again, Joe. I hope that if I were to write about this now I’d bring more understanding to the challenges inherent in mental health care, and the kindness of the staff working in unwelcoming environments. Thank you so much for taking care of Des. I have bought your DVD and look forward to watching it. Very best to you, Sophie x

    • Hello Sophie, I hope you enjoyed my DVD. Of interest to you, given your connection with St. Francis Hospital, might be my recently published history and personal memoir ‘ My Asylum’. This is available from Amazon.co.uk and given Desmond’s growing up and growing older there – with all of us young men and women nurses might I add – you might enjoy the read and the different perspectives offered apart from the pure mental illness issues which popular journalism never tired of portraying often in a deprecating manner. There were very many sides to life at these hospitals for both the nurses and the nursed. Regards, Joe Hughes

      • mumbo

        Thank you very much, Joe. Good for you, making a balanced record of your experience. Very best wishes. Sophie

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