me I was two years old when my mother became a consulting psychiatrist at Lancaster Moor Hospital. Opened in 1816 as Lancashire’s first ‘lunatic asylum’, it was an imposing place that loomed over the M6 like a gigantic haunted mansion. It had neo-gothic towers and echoing hallways and it always felt deserted, even though there were still a thousand patients when Mom started working there.
At its peak, there were 3,200 people living within its blackened walls, many in gated communities. Some had moved from Lancaster Castle, a prison in the center of town where the 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 Mom’s patients had been on the Moor for 60 years when she arrived. It recalls a trio of Rochdale women who had spent 153 years with each other. Alan Bennett’s mother received electroshock therapy there, but that was before Mom’s time, not that she told me if she had treated a famous patient. Only decades later did I realize that the reason so many people greeted her when we went shopping in town was that they had been to her office. He never said how he knew them.
I always knew he was a doctor, but I didn’t know what kind. Children are not curious about their parents. I knew that I used to come into her study after tea and look at large sheets of paper covered with wavy lines that she called EEG reports, on which we couldn’t draw. But I had no idea that EEG stood for electroencephalogram and was 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 she was only five years old. My older sister, Karen, was there too, and my dad. I really didn’t want to be there, knowing that I hadn’t opened all my presents at home yet. But when you are five, you have no other choice. Anyway, Mom gave Karen and I a big tub of Quality Street each, which they told us to distribute around the psychogeriatric ward.
Our house was the kind where treats were strictly controlled: a packet of chips a week, only on Saturdays. So the fact that they entrusted him with a huge box of chocolates was really exciting. I paced the room, enforcing a “one for you, one for me” policy as I went from bed to bed, wondering why no one I spoke to made sense.
When you’re little, so much of life is new and strange that you quickly accept even the strangest things as perfectly normal. But I remember thinking it was strange that so many of these old ladies had dolls and stuffed animals, and also that they were wrapped in jewelry. Most of them had no family, had no visitors, and were unable to go out to a store, so a charity sent them beads and brooches, which they wore over their nightgowns.
On the way home, feeling a little queasy after all the chocolate, I asked Mom why the old ladies had dolls and why they had said such nonsense. I don’t remember his exact explanation, but it was the first time I knew that people could be unwell without having a cast or a sick bowl by their beds.
That Christmas taught me not to be afraid of people with mental illness. It didn’t even bother me when she used to put me in the cart in the hallway outside her office if I wasn’t okay from school and she couldn’t cancel a round of the room (something she insists now happened only in childcare emergencies).
When he was 18 years old, El Moro closed permanently, with the care transferred to the community. The hospital has now been converted into luxury apartments. But every time I drive north on the M6 I look left and think of my Christmas in the psychogeriatric ward.
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