Saturday 7 December 2019

So whenever word of a death came through, sometimes once or several times a week at particular times of the year, he would give me a pound note and a mass card and send me down to the priest to have it signed. And because he was invariably working while the funeral was happening, I began to take on the responsibility of going along to the funeral mass as well, placing the signed card in the wooden box at the foot of the coffin in front of the altar, lining up with all the other locals and sympathising with the bereaved family members.

What I did not write in that book was that I had, many years later, revisited these experiences with the help of Ivor Browne, a psychiatrist who used to organise group therapies in a disused church in the grounds of Grangegorman mental hospital, in Dublin, in which people could undergo a therapy based on holotropic breathing in order to 're-experience' any traumatic experiences that lurked in their pasts. The therapy involves deep abdominal breathing and loud music of varying styles spliced together to create different moods, each mood being allowed to assert itself briefly and then be broken suddenly to deflect the patient into a different level of consciousness. Ivor, who had been a friend of mine for some years, invited me to come along and take part in one of his occasional weekends devoted to helping people to get in touch with their 'inexperienced experiences'. I was curious but sceptical about the capacity of any such therapy to take me to any part of my mind I wasn't already familiar with. Moreover, I was suspicious of the concept of recovered memory, having read about innumerable cases in Britain in which the memories thus excavated had turned out to be unreliable, some resulting in false charges of sexual abuse. But Ivor was persuasive, so one Friday afternoon in November 1994 I turned up at the church in Grangegorman along with about 30 other seekers after whatever it was we were seeking.

The weekend started with a little dancing, and then some exercises in free association. As we were dancing around, I was reminded of the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, my all-time favourite movie, in which Jack Nicholson plays McMurphy, a small-time criminal who ends up in a psychiatric hospital and causes mayhem among the long-stay inmates. Late on Friday afternoon, Ivor asked us to pair off for the therapy, the idea being that, while one of us was undergoing it, the other partner would keep a watch.

I was paired with a man from Cork, who had done the therapy before. He wasn't hugely forthcoming about his experience, but I gathered that he had encountered some kind of block that had caused him to stop responding at a certain point. I was to be his guardian angel during the first session, and we would swap positions for the second session later in the evening.

I was, as I say, sceptical. I did not find the idea reasonable, in the sense that its logic was beyond my experience. That you could induce regression in yourself by the simple expedient of breathing faster seemed to me to be insane. I was pretty convinced that I was among a bunch of neurotic narcissists who had nothing better to do than fantasise about the possible reasons why life had sometimes given them a rough ride.

My scepticism was jolted somewhat when the therapy started. In less than a minute the whole place was bedlam. The people undergoing the therapy were lying on mattresses on the floor, and some of them began to writhe and scream and cry, while others jumped up and had to be restrained by the nurses who were supervising. My partner immediately launched into the repetition of a mantra, with which he persisted for the duration of the therapy: "I'm a stone, I'm a stone, I'm a stone, I'm a stone . . ."

It was wondrous and frightening, but I remained unconvinced that it had anything much to tell me. I suspected that most of those present were probably recidivist fantasists who indulged in regression therapies in the way other people played golf. At the same time, I was becoming more curious and intrigued.

Beforehand, I had tried to elicit from Professor Browne, with little success, some sense of how the process of 'remembering' might register. Would I suddenly re-enter a past time and find myself aware of a three-dimensional reality that I recognised? Would the memories come flooding back, as though a reservoir of repressed memories had burst its walls?

Would I see the faces of people from my childhood, as in a movie, and would they look as they had looked then, rather than the way they looked now?

None of these things happened. I lay on the mattress, listened to the music build up, and followed the taped instructions issuing over a tannoy system. I began to breathe rapidly from my abdomen. In truth I remained sceptical, thinking that, at the very least, Ivor was going to be disappointed with this particular patient. This prospect worried me somewhat also, because I was anxious to please and did not want to be the odd man out. Nothing seemed to be happening.

Then, suddenly, I felt cold. I asked my partner to get me an extra blanket and hoped that Ivor would come along soon because my teeth were beginning to chatter. This would keep Ivor happy, I reflected. I then noticed that something appeared to be happening to my legs, which had gone numb and appeared to be tensed as though comprising single unjointed limbs.

At that moment, Ivor did come along and asked, "So what's going on here?" as if he was certain, in spite of all my reservations, that something would be going on. Delighted to be able to make a contribution to things, I said, "I can't feel my feet." He bent down, grabbed my two feet and slid them up towards my body. It was as if he had thrown a switch. Instantly I began to cry, not a sobbing or a weeping but a full-blown wailing that drowned out all the other noises in the church. I had no idea what I was crying about, but I appeared to be experiencing a grief greater than I had ever imagined. I remained conscious of the space around me, of my partner The Stone, now himself sobbing inconsolably while kneeling by my mattress. I cried for perhaps two hours, until I was weary of crying as I had never been weary of anything. But still no memory came, no movie, no faces from the past.

Ivor was delighted. "I knew you fellas from the West always have dark secrets stored away," he declared. "We're going to have to get you out of that blackness." This, I knew, was a code for ketamine, an hallucinogenic drug he sometimes used to speed up the therapy.

Some of my fellow patients had already succumbed to the promise of the needle, wielded by a nurse known as Ketamine Carmel. One guy, when the nurse pulled down his shorts to administer the injection, was observed to have adorned his backside with the inscription, "Hi Carmel!"

I was adamant that I would not take the drug. I had given up alcohol four years previously and was nervous about the possibility of discovering a new outlet for my infinite desires. When, in the wake of my wailing session, Ivor again broached the idea of taking the drug, I determinedly declined.

The next day we did it all over again. My partner had reverted to stoniness and his session was uneventful. When mine began, I once more found myself sliding into a sea of grief, this time almost immediately. Ivor came along. "We'll have to put a stop to this," he said. Once more I refused to take the ketamine. The crying went on. But this time something happened. There was no movie, no flashback as such, but suddenly there was a slight change of awareness, like stumbling across a memory in the course of a daydream. It came to me in the form of a moving image, but not in any insistent way, not as an irruption of something unknown, but merely as the sudden encroachment of a fleeting and at first unexceptional thought. I pulled it back and looked at it. I remembered what it was. I could recall a coffin being carried aloft on the shoulders of several men, up the steps of a church, which I took to be my local church at home. It was the colour of the coffin that struck me. It was almost yellow, much brighter than the usual coffin or casket, a light coat of varnish on a box of white deal, the cheapest timber you could buy. I knew immediately that it was a 'County Council coffin', the kind you used to get if your family could not afford to bury you and had to ask the local authority for assistance.

I knew, too, that the coffin contained the remains of a man called Jack McLoughlin, who used to sometimes come to our house to 'throw in' the turf or tidy up the garden. To me he had always been elderly. I used to help him 'throw in' the turf and he would enthral me with stories of his life going back to the War of Independence.

Many years after his death, I had now registered, for the first time since the event, that this noble and beautiful man had been buried in a County Council coffin.

But this was not the whole of my grief. Within moments, by whatever process of the mind's appetite for connections, I found myself revisiting the scenes of a hundred funerals, including my granny's 30 years before. I had never cried at a funeral, except at my maternal grandmother's, when I was nine years old, and someone had immediately asked me, "What's wrong with you, young fella, did someone hurt ya?"

All the sadness I had never expressed at encountering the griefs of all these neighbours suddenly came to the surface. For several years in my childhood I had zoomed in close to this sorrow but had never allowed myself to share in it. I had watched from a distance as wives sobbed over the coffins of husbands taken suddenly by heart attacks, and mothers having to be lifted out of the graves of their children whom they did not want to leave behind in the cold earth. I had watched it all unblinkingly. I had not shed a single tear.

Now I was shedding them all at once, in a way that seemed to defy all understandings of the body's capacity to retain water. Then, weakened from crying and longing to stop, I almost pulled the arm off Ivor when he came along and suggested again that I take a shot of ketamine to jolt me out of this dark place. We agreed on half the normal dose, but it was enough.

Immediately I began to shiver again. I thought I was about to re-enter the grief with a renewed vigour, but the opposite happened. I started to laugh. I laughed as long and as loud as I had cried. The mood of the church seemed transformed. I was able to hear the voices of people whispering at the far end of the church and soon began to engage in conversations with them. I started to repeat lines I remembered from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "Give me my fucking cigarettes, Nurse Ratched. I want my fucking cigarettes." Afterwards, I learned that this caused a woman whose abusive father had made her go out to the shops to buy his fags, to jump up and make to throttle me. At the time I noticed a flurry of peripheral activity but hadn't really registered what it was about.

The ketamine experience reminded me of being on the piss, of drinking to escape, and drinking, as I had done, as if to jump out of my skin. The connection between this and the grief seemed inescapable. Ivor told me later that there appeared to be an extraordinary degree of separation between the dark and light sides of my personality, like a corridor in which all the light was at one end, though I didn't really need him to tell me this. I also became aware, without his prompting, that this separation had been somewhere close to the root of my problematic drinking, that I had used drink to achieve something of the effect achieved by Ketamine Carmel and her needle full of hope.

I had never given a moment's conscious thought to the fact that I had been to so many funerals at such a young age, and that this might not be the most natural thing in the world for a child to be doing. It was a curiosity, a light-hearted anecdote to tell in the pub, but no more than that. Looking back, it seemed clear that what I had done was shut myself off from the sorrow of others, and then to mimic their sadness as a way of conveying sympathy, striking the right note and fitting in. I had, literally, dissociated myself from their grief, but had drawn it to myself also, in a horrified and yet fascinated kind of way.

We know about death, and sometimes get to observe it up close, but our sense of things is that it is something that happens to other people. And when it does happen to other people, we tend to look at it less than squarely, for fear of allowing into our vision the prospect that it will one day happen to each of us.

Nearly 20 years ago, a friend of mine, Derek Dunne, a fellow journalist then in his 30s, died painfully of cancer of the pancreas. Everyone knew he was dying, including himself. And yet neither he nor any of his friends could find words to talk with him about this. I visited him right up to the night before he died. Each time, we talked about nothing but the future, the books we might write, the mischief we would cause, the many things we had yet to experience of life's glorious possibilities. At the end of each of these encounters, we found ourselves doing something we had never done before, in all our years of friendship. When parting, we would shake hands, with a nonchalant, "See you tomorrow." As Derek grew weaker, I noticed that, each evening, his handshake grew stronger until one evening his grip was so strong that I thought he would break my hand. "See you tomorrow," he said. He died a few hours later.

Human societies have always had a fear of death, but what we call 'traditional' societies had ways of dealing with this. Mostly, such mechanisms came in the guise of religion, a communal consciousness of mankind's relationship to the infinite mysteries of the universe and creation, which deals with the fundamentals of human life in ways that we have disastrously come to regard as optional extras of human culture.

In a country town, the death of a local is followed by an intensely ritualised few days, during which each member of the community becomes, to a greater or lesser extent, bound up in the emotion of the event. From the spreading of the news to the filling of the grave, and even beyond, there is a time-honoured process by which the death is absorbed and accommodated by the community.

To facilitate the engagement of the community with the loss of one of its members, the remains of the dead person will be laid out either at home or (a relatively recent development) in a local funeral home. The removal to the local church, usually at evening time, will be attended by the vast majority of local people, who will stand in line to sympathise with the bereaved, a process sometimes lasting four or five hours. Next day, the mass and burial will attract even more people, and afterwards it is common for everyone to be invited to a local hotel for lunch or refreshments. At the end of what is usually a three-day period, the ritual will have made on the consciousness of the community an impression that, while reminding every member of his or her mortality, also functions to dissipate some of the natural dread that the idea of death strikes in the unprotected human heart.

When I left my home town to go and live in Dublin, one of the things I welcomed was the liberation from these almost weekly rituals. But then, gradually, I became aware that this freedom came at a price. Going home for weekends, and reading in the local paper of the deaths of people I had casually known, I became aware of a feeling in myself of what I will call stagnant sorrow. The deaths were affecting me in the way they had always done, but, without the opportunity to participate in the extended rituals of quasi-official mourning, I was left with unresolved feelings of loss and sadness that my reason and sense of reality had not led me to anticipate.

A similar feeling would overcome me sometimes in Dublin, when occasionally, driving along, I would be obliged to pull in to allow a funeral to go by. I would sit there and bless myself, glancing into the back seat of the limousine following behind the hearse. There would be nothing new in any of it, but still it never failed to unsettle me, and afterwards I would note in myself a feeling of gnawing desolation which might sometimes last for a day or more. I have no doubt that it was this avoided, postponed grief, this stagnant sorrow, that became unleashed on that mattress in Grangegorman.

My tears, in a sense, had been a measure of the loss of something unacknowledged in myself: one of the taken-for-granted benefits of an essentially religious society. Nowadays we tend to reduce religion to the idea of an enforced system of controls on our happiness, allegedly in preparation for the perfection of the hereafter, and many of us have long since jettisoned this idea of curtailing the pleasures of this life in favour of an uncertain reward in the next.

Oblivious of the deeper consequences, we have chosen what we think of as freedom and rejected this enforcement of what we had come to see as an imposed system of fear-driven control.

One of the collateral consequences of this shift has been the destruction of those elements in our culture which previously dealt deftly with death. Once the ritual brought the community to a moment of hope, and anticipation of the place where every tear would be wiped away. Now, implicitly, when we look to the end, we see not choirs of angels clustered around pearly gates, but a yawning abyss of nothingness from which we look rapidly away. To put it succinctly, we have condemned ourselves to years of terror because of a reluctance to bend the knee to an authoritarian God.

And this means that, at certain moments which await each of us, we have no words to say to one another. We cannot even look one another evenly in the eye. We must speak in code, in lame jokes, in patronising lies and embarrassed circumlocutions. We have lost the codes by which we communicated about one of the most fundamental aspects of our humanity.

We all know we are going to die. Well, actually we don't, not really. We understand, in a general kind of way, that humans are mortal, and that other people seem to die all the time; but our culture is constructed to remove from each of us, for much of our lives, the awareness that mortality is part of the condition that defines us. What was most arresting about Nuala O'Faolain's interview with Marian Finucane shortly before her death was that it provoked a moment in which this denial was not sustainable. But afterwards we returned to the denial, perhaps because the kind of society we have created gives us no other option. We have, surely, a responsibility to confront this, if only for our own selfish purposes.

I have noticed some odd phenomena in myself since I turned 50. One is that, for the first time, I have become aware, to a degree that transcends the abstract, that I will die one day. When I find myself in or near a graveyard, I find myself reflecting that, one day, what is left of my earthly self will end up in a place like this. For many years, thanks to the denial mechanism of the prevailing culture, I did not feel this.

I don't think I am unusual in the way I have thought, or have declined to think, about death. For most of my life, death has been a concept associated with other people. I have watched people die, have heard about people dying, have talked about death to people much like myself. But until I reached 50 I never thought about death as something that might happen to myself. Of course, I knew in some abstract way that I would die one day, but I didn't think about the idea of my own death as something that came to bear on my existence, which comprised the present and the immediate future, a future so imaginatively elongated as to be all but infinite.

Even when close friends died, sometimes friends who were younger than me, I didn't think of death as a risk to myself. These people, I seemed to tell myself, had contracted diseases, had been unlucky, had smoked too much. It wasn't that I thought myself particularly lucky in this regard or necessarily immune to the conditions that struck others down, but that I had some deep sense of a narrative thread to my own life that could be satisfied or resolved only in a very long, perhaps an infinitely long, life. Then, almost literally one day, all this changed. I don't suggest it changed abruptly on my 50th birthday, but a process seems to have started on that day that has continued and grown stronger since then. I still think but rarely of death in a morbid, fearful way, but I certainly think of it a great deal more frequently than I used to. Perhaps it is still a little abstract. Sometimes my thoughts will turn to death when I am ill, which so far has been with something unserious, perhaps some flu or virus that drives me to bed in spite of myself. There, weakened and at a loose end, my thoughts will float morbidly towards the idea that, sooner or perhaps later, I may lie like this in a terminal condition. Such moments are merely depressing in a minor and somewhat abstract sort of way, and can usually be banished by the simple expedient of thinking about something else.

But my most vivid feelings about death, once I started to have them, happened not in episodes of downheartedness but as an aftertaste of some moment of pure joy arising from an engagement with the reality of life in the world. I would be walking along a country path in sunlight, the birds raising Cain all around me, a bee stuck in some obsessive clinch with a buttercup and buzzing as though trying to drown out the birdsong, when suddenly I would be struck by a feeling of inconsolable regret about the inevitable, permanent loss of such moments. No promise of eternity could hope to comfort me.

Such epiphanies seem to strike with increasing frequency as I grow older. Walking through the countryside, I come across a derelict cottage with most of the slates gone and the windows broken and the door off its hinges. I sneak inside and look around.

The place is a mess into which nobody has entered for some time. The floor is strewn with old newspapers, boxes of books, crockery, bottles, a crumbling settee. But there is something more here than merely things -- there is a feeling here that at first eludes any attempt to name it. I go from room to room and encounter the same feeling.

There are bits and pieces of furniture about the rooms, an old iron bed with a rotting mattress, a wardrobe with a couple of old shirts still hanging there. A chest of drawers with a jumble of decaying rags of garments, and underneath some trinkets, an old watch and perhaps a bundle of what might be love letters. There is a smell of damp and must, but also of something else. Then it comes to me what the feeling is: terror. A terror of this place. A terror of the lives that were lived here and have left their traces. A terror of the meaning, the emotions, the joys and sorrows still attached to the objects around. A terror associated with the smell. The smell of decomposition. It comes at last: a terror of death, of the lives that were lived here but are now, what, extinct? I leave, no, I run away.

I seek out noise, bustle and cleanliness. I go to a coffee shop or a shopping mall, where there is shouting and spilling of drink. I go where there is life.

Extracted from 'Beyond Consolation' published tomorrow by The Continuum International Publishing Group and copyright 2009 John Waters

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