Yes he was two years old when my mom became a psychiatric counselor at Lancaster Moor Hospital. Opened in 1816 as the first “crazy asylum” in Lancashire, it was a forbidden place, towering over the M6 like a giant villa with haunted ghosts. It had neo-Gothic towers and echoing hallways and always felt abandoned, even though there were still a thousand patients when Mom started working there.
At its peak, 3,200 people lived within its blackened walls, many in locked compartments. Some have moved from Lancaster Castle, a downtown jail where Pendle witches were tried. The hospital complex was like a village: there were two churches, one Anglican and one Catholic, and it had a farm, a bowling alley, and its own generator.
One of my mother’s patients had been in Moore for 60 years when she arrived. He remembers three ladies from Rochdale who were 153 years old between them. Alan Bennett’s mother received electroshock therapy there, but that was before Mom’s time – not to tell me if she was treating a known patient. It wasn’t until decades later that I realized that the reason many people greeted her when we went shopping in town was because they were in her counseling room. She never let herself know them.
I always knew he was a doctor, but I didn’t know what kind. Children are extremely unusual towards their parents. I knew she walked into her study after tea and inspected large sheets of paper covered with wiggly lines that she called EEG reports, and on which we were not allowed to draw. But I had no idea that EEG means electroencephalogram and that it is a test used to find problems related to the electrical activity of the brain.
The first time I remember going to the hospital with her was on Christmas afternoon, when I was only about five years old. My older sister, Karen, and my father were also there. I didn’t really want to be there, knowing I hadn’t opened all the presents at home yet. But when you’re five, you have no choice. Anyway, Mom gave me and Karen one big tub of Quality Street each, which they told us to share across the psychogeriatric ward.
Our household was the kind where treats were strictly controlled: one packet of chips a week, pop only on Saturdays. So trusting a huge box of chocolates was really exciting to me. I cuddled around the ward, running a “one for you, one for me” policy as I walked from bed to bed, wondering why no one I was talking to made sense.
When you are little, there is so much new and strange life that you quickly accept even the strangest things as completely normal. But I remember thinking it was weird that so many of these very old women were holding strollers and stuffed animals, and also that they were covered in jewelry. Most of them did not have a family, did not receive visitors and could not go out to the store, so the charity would send them beads and brooches, which they would wear on their night nights.
On the way home, feeling a little nauseous after all the chocolate, I asked my mom why old ladies have dolls and why they talked such nonsense. I can’t remember her exact explanation, but for the first time I learned that people can be bad without carrying a cast or a sick bowl next to the bed.
That Christmas taught me not to be afraid of people with mental illness. I didn’t even mind if she knew how to put me in a wheelchair in the hallway in front of her office if I felt bad outside of school and if I couldn’t cancel class (something she insists happened now only in childcare emergencies).
When I was 18, the Moor closed forever, with care transferred to the community. The hospital has now been converted into luxury apartments. But every time I drive the M6 north, I look to the left and think about my Christmas in the psychogeriatric ward.