Friern Hospital.

 The Italianate yellow brick and stone dressed building looms on the horizon, dominating the community as it has for a hundred and seventy years. The direct successor of Bethlehem Hospital, (Bedlam). At one thousand eight hundred and eighty-one feet long, it has the longest hallway in Europe; the central block is topped with an octagonal dome, flanked by two towers and long wings.

The former Colney Hatch pauper’s lunatic asylum changed its name every half-century or so in an effort to shake off the shame, even the train station was renamed five times before settling on New Southgate. Refurbished and rebranded more recently as Princess Manor Park. A citadel of bling. Home to pop stars and city boys and rich kids. As I walk past nowadays, I wonder of the horrors that their fancy apartments might have seen.

My father took us there with him once, to visit my grandmother, Andriani.

Our workaholic mother was often the main breadwinner, she always prioritised her career. They had switched roles not long after I was born. Dad sold his catering business to set up an adjoining ladies salon and barber shop for her, and he worked flexi hours as a chauffeur for Greek shipping magnates. I was five or six years old. Why would he have taken us with him? We were often cared for by him, maybe there wasn’t alternate childcare available. Perhaps he chose to expose us to the reality, he wasn’t ashamed of his mother’s illness, accepting that’s life sometimes. He was an empathetic, gentleman with a lifetime’s experience of familial mental illness.

We pull into the carriage driveway. Before us the decaying towers and turrets ingrained with a century of soot, imposing and oppressive. People come and go, some shuffle along in what I now know to be the walk of the heavily medicated.

“Lock the doors and wait here for me while I go and see your Yiayia, I won’t be long.” He instructs us.

We wait, listening to The Shangri-La’s, Leader Of The Pack/Walking In The Sand —double A side, on Helens 70’s space age, seven-inch single, front slot portable record player, that went everywhere with us.

A solitary figure breaks off from the throng of shufflers and appears to be approaching the car, matte cascading silver hair undulating to below the shoulder. Her wild grin and dancing eyes furtively scanning the horizon, settling on us.

Helen looks at me, her eyebrows doing a dance of confusion. We make panicked faces and “Oooooer” noises at each other and dive for the footwell, not prostrate, nor foetal, a collection of limbs on the floor. “Stay down.” She protectively urges. Five years my senior, she’s always had a maternal disposition towards me by dint of our often-absent mother.

We’re giggling hysterically, a game of protection. Two heads slowly rise to peep through the window. The figure, abandoned and all alone, steps closer. “Is that Yiayia?” It is not.  Instinctively we dive again, child submariners heading for the floor. I don’t know how many times we repeat this farce before my father reappears.

Yiayia is not a well woman. It is not much discussed. We piece together bits of overheard adult conversation. “She’s mad. Like her father, it runs in the family.” As an adult I learned that her father had never surfaced from the depression that hit him when he lost two of his children, her siblings, in the 1918 pandemic.

“They found her in the street burning her clothes.”  Which I took to be a vision of her burning her brassieres, and imagined her quite the feminist. “The fireworks startled her; she thinks we are at war.” A jigsaw of patchwork anecdotes that will never fit together to form a coherent picture. Some of the pieces are missing, others have been fashioned together forming a retrospective second-hand wonderland. Questions are often met with a stony wall of silence.

 

Another day another asylum.

With a feeling of Déjà vu, I’m approaching Hill end Hospital, another crumbling Victorian asylum. I’m now twice the age of my last brush with the brushed aside.

I’m old enough to visit, technically.

My father has been in the Hospital for twenty-four hours now and is calm enough to see us.

It creeps up on you. Things seem a little bit off colour and you can’t quite put your finger on what’s happening until some pivotal moment illuminates that the world is tilting on its axis.

They had started arguing a lot, it seemed to be centred around my dad spending money on antiques and objet d’art. Mother the queen of glass and chrome did not take kindly to this development. “I built this house, so I’ll just knock it down then.” He runs to the garage for a sledgehammer and starts whacking the dining room door to little effect, he’s used the finest quality mahogany hardwood. She stands in front of the door to stop him. He sprints frantically out of the front door, grabbing the car keys to the mini. Jumping into the driver’s seat, and without closing the door, drives the car straight into the bay window. The chrome bumper sounds a metallic scrape against brick, and the sickening crunch of metal and glass reverberates. He slams the gears into reverse and drives at it again, and again. “I built this house, and I will knock it down.”

Panicked, I call my uncle Jack, who lives up the road. Helpful as ever he tells me in his eloquent Gringlish “Bloody stupid fool, eh, your bloody stupid Father is bloody stupid.” My uncle says it’s just my father’s shameful weakness, he doesn’t believe in mental illness. I call the police, who thankfully, do. By the time they arrive my father is storming off down the road in his underpants. The Doctor is called, and he is taken away by the men in white coats.

He’d had a nightmare. Waking us all in the middle of the night, demanding that we repeat back to him, “It’s a dream”. He had dreamed that his life was falling apart and then he conjured that fear into reality.

“He’s gone mad like his mother; it runs in the family.” Overheard whispers again, picking up the pieces of the people in a puzzle. “He was going to kill them all, so they took him away.”

We watched from the side-lines as friends and family inched away and our party house fell silent as the sanity line weakened. We joined the ranks of the ostracised, having broken the taboo. Dad had a breakdown roughly once a decade for the rest of his life.

 

 Here comes the rain again.

Fast forward twenty-five years, and I journey through the looking glass. There must have been some genetic fears lurking in my mind as over the years I would joke with Helen, “You’re next, boy-girl-boy-girl.”

Tony Blair is up for re-election and we’re all waiting for the Pope to die and for that plume of smoke to announce it. I have just walked out on my job and have decided that a ten-day retreat is just the panacea that I need. I’ve been smoking far too much weed and am what you might call yoga-rexic, so extremely healthy, so evangelically vegan. Hyper-spiritual, studying, Buddhism, Judaism and Kabbalah, Sufism and the Enneagram, Gnostic Christianity, Jung, Freud. Desperate for meaning, meditating for hours on end. I haven’t slept for a week and I’m starting to lose my grip on reality. In the eye of the storm, I am blissfully unaware of this.

Oblivious to how bad things are, like the proverbial frog slowly coming to boil, psychosis creeps in, after the fashion of a thief in the night. Delusion is your new normal, you are the last to know.

Having lost my wallet on an outing to Selfridges for ethical vegan clothes for my retreat, I withdraw all of my cash from the bank and get a car to take me to the airport.

My mother calls me on my work mobile. I speak for a minute, long enough to learn that the men in white coats are now waiting for me at home. I jettison the phone out of the car window. Moments later my personal phone rings. Instantly furious that some Judas has given the number to her, I throw that one, unanswered, out of the window too.

At Heathrow I pay for the ticket that I’ve reserved and set off to find my flight to Florida.  I’m refused boarding and sent away. My family to this day denies that they tipped off security to stop me travelling. “Sorry sir, you’re not well enough to travel.” I am stick-thin from weeks of hypomania and though I don’t know it he may as well have said “Pardon me sir, but your mental illness is showing.” Thwarted, I get in a black cab and head for home, but I can’t go home. The feeling of being trapped in heavy traffic is making my skin crawl, as if the walls are closing in, so I get dropped off in Chiswick, but everything is too bright, the colours hurt.

I walk to the park for some shade, stopping to chat and give a hundred quid from my envelope of fifties to a homeless girl. I offer her a hug and she flinches, I instantly realise my mistake, she may well have been mistreated in the past. An indigent looking young man seeing this interaction approaches me aggressively, I think he’s misunderstood the interaction with the young woman and is acting protectively. Either way, I’m frightened of him, and I throw a handful of notes into the air, he takes the bait, chasing the flying notes down the road. While he’s distracted, I duck into a side street and head for the park.

Once there, I toss down my bag of clothes, sit on the grass to rest a while. I think that something about me must be off energetically. I take off my shoes, disdainfully casting them aside. They are Nike, and therefore must be evil. I rip up my (useless) passport, and start walking away from my previous life, my shredded identity, clothing and cash left behind in a shoulder bag, under a tree in an anonymous park. Taking confident barefoot strides, connected to the earth now, I follow the trees; I don’t know where I’m heading.

Some instinct or muscle memory must kick in from when I used to take Sandra’s kids to school. I pass through Notting hill, with its Battenberg houses and leafy streets, on the long walk to Kensal rise. Soon I’m at Sandra’s door. She takes me in and persuades me to have a shower to cool off. They loan me a pair of Tony’s flip flops and he drives me to my therapist’s office.

Distrustful of almost everyone, it’s the only place I will agree to going.  I have somehow dispensed with six thousand pounds in cash on this grand adventure.

I pass through the gate in a Hampstead hedge. Five or ten minutes into my session with the therapist there’s a knock at the door. I’m halfway out of the back window as the police enter.

Therapy mum coaxes me back inside to talk. She persuades the police to send away the ambulance and the men in white coats. “He’s not a danger to anyone, and you’re frightening him.” They nod solemnly. “Could you drive him to the hospital to be assessed?”

I feel very small in the backseat of the car, the two policemen occasionally looking over their shoulders to check on me. The radio crackles into life, “Papa, Romeo, Sierra, Something, Something.” I ask about the Phonetic communications alphabet, and the passenger side policeman asks if I can get through it. I try, with a few mistakes, and they teach me the ones I don’t know. It lightens the mood and passes the time, feeling strangely like a car game or a singalong on those long family drives to the seaside as a child.

I was on the inside looking out now, a centre stage 360 view of what had previously been a spectator sport for an audience of three.

The gothic asylums are all closed, refashioned into luxury apartments with health clubs and modern townhouses built in their former rolling parklands.

I am taken to Edgware community hospital, a red brick Lego tower of lunacy. A place where the heating is on full heat twenty-four hours a day during the hottest of heatwaves, and here they audaciously question my sanity?

After a very discombobulating interview I am sectioned under the mental health act for being dangerously underweight and unable to take care of myself. I do remember thinking “They’re all jealous of me because I’m thinner than them.”

Once again, come the speculations. “He’s mad, like his father, it runs in the family.”

“He ran away to join the circus.”

“He’s dying of AIDS.”

These are a few of the greatest hits of rumours that I heard about myself soon after this episode.

 

Fast forward fifteen years.

When dad was diagnosed as terminally ill at eighty years old, he was more frightened that it would trigger a breakdown than he was of his impending death. I’m nearly fifty, and now he wants to talk. We have three months to get through all of those unanswered questions, ones I’ve never dared to ask about. And talk we do, he’s liberated in facing death, finally able to zoom out and take a broader view. He takes us all aside in turn, individually, his children and grandchildren, to say goodbye. He remembers the good times and apologises for the bad times. A proper goodbye is the greatest gift for a gentler grief.

 

Way back when.

My grandmother was 18 years old when she became pregnant by her sisters’ husband, Anastasis in 1934. The brothers, on hearing the news, had taken her out into the street and beaten her grievously, kicking her in the stomach in the hope of aborting my father. They failed in that, but succeeded in triggering her first breakdown.

I had only ever known her as an indeterminate, unwanted presence.  When I asked why she was so unwelcomed, had they never seen eye to eye? Mother recounted the following.

Dad lived with his mother in Cantelowes Road in Camden. Newlywed, and newly pregnant with Helen, mum moved in with them. Getting ready for work one morning, Andriani put two cups of black coffee on the dressing table for them.

Dad picked up a cup to drink from. Andriani became flustered, said “Don’t drink that, that’s her cup.” He said, “Well they’re the same.”

She insisted, “No, no.” Snatching both cups up and pouring the drinks into the sink, to my parent’s alarm.  Dad got angry with her, questioning her. Andriani confessed that she put a poison in it because she thought that when the unborn child arrived, they would abandon her because they wouldn’t want her around anymore.

Dad, furious, began shouting at his mother, so much so that mum feared he would hit her.

Mum thought this was out of character, too strange and convoluted a scenario for my grandmother to have invented herself. Questioned further, she revealed that it was because Gina, her workmate, had convinced her of this outcome and coached her to do so, possibly procuring the potion/poison. Whether hex or toxin, the desired intent being miscarriage.

Yiayia thereby created the situation she most feared by driving a wedge between herself and my mother. She was side-lined ever after.

The last time Yiayia was allowed to spend the night at our house she’d left the bath running and caused a flood, much to the annoyance of my house-proud mother.  Henceforth she would not stay overnight on Christmas or birthday visits, and dad would only take us to see her when mum was working, a lifetime of avoidance.

As an adult, I wonder what she might have been like with her spirit unbroken. Like many women of her time, she was punished for daring to have a child out of wedlock.

It had been such an unmentionable history that I had always wondered if she had been somewhat taken advantage of by her brother-in-law.

Emboldened by my father’s impending death. I asked him about the possibility he was the product of coercion.  With last chance saloon feelings, I wanted to know the facts. He believed himself conceived by friendship, as his mother said they got on very well when they worked the fields. He spoke of mutual respect and admiration, perhaps even love, albeit clandestine.

Years later, In my late twenties, I bumped into a man in Wood Green High street who recognised me and asked, “How is my Auntie Andriani?” Sadly, “My grandmother has been dead for some years.” He told me how she would recite poetry from memory at the Greek community centre. He spoke warmly of her eloquence, what a kind spirit she was and how she shone as an orator. I’m saddened that I never knew this multifaceted woman, truthfully, I am ashamed that I never looked for her humanity or saw her in anything other than two dimensions. My mind had always equated her to that stranger in the car park, shuffling past us as we hid in the car. I saw her as a bit of a joke and wasn’t kind toward her. Whether that was childish attention seeking or a product of learned prejudice, I’m not sure. She definitely favoured Helen, so it may have been a good old-fashioned case of the green-eyed monster.

 

 Rose is a rose is a rose.

We have a large extended family and names are often recycled to honour the elders; many go by names other than their given one. I’m aware that should I develop this into a larger family history, my reader is going to need a marvellous memory.

Two years after my father’s death, Helen was looking through old family albums with a cousin and a visiting relative, who points to a yellowing black and white family portrait photograph

“That’s my yiayia, standing next to Margarou.”

“Who is Margarou?” Asks Helen.

Uncle Crysanthos calls out across the room, “That’s what we called Margarita.”

Confused, Helen says,” But that’s my Yiayia, Andriani.”

Crysanthos responds, “Oh yes, she took the name Andriani when she made the pilgrimage to Apostolos Andreas monastery, to cure her depressive episode.”

I was fifty-two when I found out yiaya Margarou’s name, having always believed it to be Andriani.

There will soon come a day when Dad’s generation is gone and the secrets and lies will be lost forever. I’m collecting the snippets and putting together the pieces of the puzzle of her life and one day I hope to piece it together and tell her story. Who is Margarou?

 

Sometimes I wonder about my lineage and inheritance.

Are we more prone to breaking because we carry the weight of generations of trauma?

Are we sensitive souls, from a long line of mystics that see the world with more clarity than others and thus feel the pain of the world more deeply?

Or am I just mad, like my father, and his mother before him and her father before that.

This burden, this stigma we have carried for centuries.

 

Who am I?

What will my legacy be?

Perhaps that’s why I commit my own words to the page.

 

“Pain travels through families until someone is ready to feel it.” Stephi Wagner

 

I throw off the weight of this shame and delight in this madness, this freedom to be myself.

Let me be mad, if mad is what I need.

Care for my soul; care for my happiness. Care not for my sanity.

Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light. Groucho Marx

 

Edited by Ennis Welbourne

 

L0011787 Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, Southgate, Middlesex: panoramic

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.ukhttp://wellcomeimages.org Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, Southgate, Middlesex: panoramic view. Engraving. Published: –

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/