Friday 9 December 2016

Review: Circles Around The Sun (In Search of a Lost Brother) by Molly McCloskey

Penguin Paperback €19.80

Anne Marie Scanlon

Published 04/09/2011 | 05:00

LOVE AND LOSS: Molly McCloskey gives great insight into anxiety, guilt and depression
LOVE AND LOSS: Molly McCloskey gives great insight into anxiety, guilt and depression

As the title suggests, Molly McCloskey's memoir Circles Around the Sun (In Search of a Lost Brother) is about finding out who her eldest sibling Mike was before he was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 23 in 1973.

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McCloskey, the youngest of five, was only nine at the time and didn't really know who her already adult brother was; likewise his ongoing condition (he has resided in an 'assisted-living' facility since 1978) means that it is very difficult for her, or indeed anyone, to know who he is now, and the book is an attempt to answer both questions.

As an adult, McCloskey moved to Ireland from the United States where her early life, and Mike's, was Norman Rockwell's 'American Dream' (in fact her parents, Jack and Nita, a glamorous attractive couple, were so archetypically 'Apple Pie' that they featured in the September 1953 Ladies Home Journal cover story 'How Young America Lives'). Mike himself was the all-American boy -- good-looking, athletic, academically gifted, popular with his peers and with no shortage of girlfriends. In 1968, at the age of 18, Mike entered the prestigious Duke university -- the future looked bright.

At Duke, Mike began a transformation; he became politically radicalised, embraced hippy culture, grew his hair and experimented widely with drugs. While he was no different from many of his peers, unfortunately for Mike the changes didn't stop there and his behaviour became increasingly erratic, leading to the diagnosis of severe mental illness. Mike, whose future had seemed so bright and so certain, divided his time aimlessly wandering across the country and camping out in his parents' house. Unsurprisingly McCloskey's parents' marriage fell apart under the pressure, and McCloskey had to deal with some very unpleasant feelings about her eldest sibling. "As a teenager, my abiding wish was that my brother would quietly, miraculously, and without causing pain to anyone, as though he were ascending into heaven, disappear."

In adulthood, McCloskey began suffering from panic attacks, anxiety, depression, problem drinking and the constant worry that she too would develop schizophrenia. Her worries were not entirely unfounded as statistically, siblings of a schizophrenic have a 7-9 per cent chance of developing the condition -- a huge increase from the normal one per cent chance of the general population with no family history of the condition. While McCloskey worries, she also feels guilty for feeling "relief -- at having escaped a fate that seemed, to some unknown degree, stitched into our genes". And with the relief came yet more guilt and it's no wonder that McCloskey began experiencing mental difficulties of her own.

McCloskey experienced her first panic attack while on honeymoon. "The first years of marriage were, for me, like the honeymoon writ large. Too much drinking, a twitching anxiety, excessive self-consciousness with no resulting insight."

Throughout the rest of the book McCloskey reveals plenty of really wonderful insights into depression, anxiety and alcoholism and does so in a very accessible way. "Anxiety might start with tangible concerns -- money, work . . . but at a certain point the worry detaches itself from its real-world causes and becomes an indistinct and enveloping dread that takes all the nourishment it needs from itself, so that the very act of thinking feels like a kind of poison." Great insights aside, she is also quite brilliant at taking complex and complicated ideas and jargon and rendering them accessible to the ordinary reader. Sadly, despite McCloskey's efforts to get to know Mike, who still resides in an assisted-living facility, he cut off all contact with his family in 2009.

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