I fled Dublin in 2004, in a paranoid and manic frenzy

That time remains only as memory in a mind now well and able to remember it without fear

The photograph is lost forever, and I know where it was lost: a hostel for the homeless in London, where I stayed while in the throes of a manic high caused by my bipolar disorder, in the winter of 2004.

I can still recall it clearly after all these years: a black and white photograph, printed on thick glossy stock, with a white border around it, folded horizontally so that a gash bisects it. The image is almost certainly of Co Kerry in the mid to late 1970s – 1977 at a guess. It is autumn, or possibly winter. The sky is grey, oppressive and there is little light left in this day. In the background is a muddy country lane, receding into the distance. Two deeply rutted channels have been worn away on the lane by car tyres, and between these channels grass is roughly growing. There is a low dry stone wall running along the length of the laneway also, on its left-hand side.

I wear a thick woollen duffel coat, a knitted ribbed hat that covers my ears, and black rubber wellington boots. I am a smiling boy in this image

Further in the distance is a car, a dark, squat, Morris Minor, parked slightly askew on the verge that runs to the left hand side of the lane. Beside this car stands an old woman in a long dark gabardine coat: my grandmother. She stares off over the wall to the unseen fields beyond; what she stares at is unknowable. But there must be fields, for this is a flat, level place, a place of fields, and this lane and dry stone wall run through them.

In the foreground of the image, meanwhile, dominating it, is another figure, a boy, aged about eight. This is me.


I wear a thick woollen duffel coat, a knitted ribbed hat that covers my ears, and black rubber wellington boots. There is a suggestion that I have just been in motion, have been running, that I am out of breath.

I am a smiling boy in this image, full of joy, hope and breathless excitement.

I do not recall who took the photograph, but it was pasted into a family album, and I became more and more fascinated by it over the years. At first, it was just a memento of a day. But as I got older and suffered increasingly from loneliness and depression, it came to represent something more profound, a reminder of a happy self. This, no doubt, is why I took it out of the album and brought it with me to London when I fled Dublin in the winter of 2004, when I was 35. It was a reminder of who I really was, or could be, and a talisman, a lucky charm to ward off evil.

Full of memories

Although I grew up in Ireland, London figured significantly in my life. I was born there, and returned there many times over the subsequent years, for many reasons. I would visit Tate Britain, and later Tate Modern, with its dimmed room of Mark Rothko paintings; the National Gallery, which held Piero della Francesca's The Baptism of Christ; the National Portrait Gallery; the South Bank Centre; and the theatres: the Almeida, the Royal Court, the Old Vic, the Bush, the Duke of York's, the Lyric, the Barbican, the National.

I became particularly familiar with the area between Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square, between Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly Circus; the West End, with its concentration of theatres, as well as museums and galleries. Also familiar was the walk from Embankment across the river to the South Bank Centre.

When I worked in London during the summer after I graduated from college, I ended up working in the café in the crypt of St-Martin-in-the-Fields church on Trafalgar Square, and in John Adrian’s Antiquarian Bookstore on Cecil Court, a small lane of shops selling books and prints that ran between St Martin’s Lane and Charing Cross Road.

It was not strange, then, that when I decided to flee Dublin in a paranoid and manic frenzy, the place I thought of was London. The city was full of memories and evocations for me, a palimpsest of associations.

I had become convinced that I was the star of a movie that was being made about my life, and this role-playing made me act out, erratically

My paranoia and confusion at that time were extreme: I had become convinced that I was the star of a movie that was being made about my life, and this role-playing made me act out, erratically. More urgently, I was certain that a violent conflagration was about to befall Dublin and that I would be caught up in the maelstrom; that armed sentinels stood vigilant on building-tops ready to fire and that I was in mortal danger.

Better then, I reasoned, in my no longer reasonable mind, to get out of Dublin, to flee.

Within days of arriving in London, I had been relieved of my wallet, and so, penniless and confused, I found myself dependent upon homeless services to survive, presenting myself at hostels for rough sleepers for a place to stay at night. There was one such hostel beside St-Martin-in-the-Fields church, where I had once worked, to which I quickly gravitated.

When I first presented myself at this hostel I was still clutching my one remaining possession: a plastic folder of precious documents and other items, including the photograph, that had miraculously survived all that I had been through on the streets of London so far. Once admitted, I asked the man working at the desk to hold on to it for me in the back office for safe-keeping. He took it, grudgingly, and then I went on inside where I washed and attempted to sleep on one of the armchairs dotted around the main communal room, as all the beds had been claimed. It was a shadowy, gloomy, over-crowded place, and I lay vigilantly awake throughout the night, expecting my shoes to be robbed, or worse.

During the days that followed, I lived the life of a rough sleeper, while at the same time experiencing the mental and emotional turbulence of mania. I sat, restless and agitated, on the steps of St-Martin-in-the-Fields church and watched the passersby and begged for change and cigarettes off them. When the cold of winter got too much, or I decided I’d gathered enough change, I crossed the road to disappear into the warmth of the National Gallery a while. There, I felt some sense of normality once more, reconnected to my real self, the one who had visited in normal circumstances. For the same reason, I went to the South Bank Centre and wandered around its large public indoor spaces, enjoying what was to be seen there while trying to stay warm.

One night, I got myself barred from the hostel in St-Martin-in-the-Fields. I was too intrusive, too volatile, too agitated for that confined space, and the hostel door was slammed in my face before I could retrieve my folder. Then the other rough sleepers attacked me and drove me away, and I became too afraid to return to the hostel to ask for my folder back. So the photograph remained there, lost, but remembered.

Does the child captured in that image I remember contain the seeds of the madness that would afflict him in later life? Or the reserves of strength that would help him recover from that madness and survive its worst effects? He gazes out of the photo, that child, and smiles, and reveals only his innocence and joy.

Overwhelming despair

There was a park in a suburb of London, a picture-perfect park with a bandstand, chairs scattered across its gentle slopes, neatly tended shrubs, flower beds, pristine trees that could have been out of a child’s colouring book. The sky above was blue, the whole scene lit by a bright benevolent sun on that crisp winter day. In the park was a tearoom dotted with customers – young couples, mothers with prams, older people, all sitting drinking tea and eating cake in its quaint surrounds; but a dreadful, sickening silence had fallen amongst them. The silence was punctuated by a sound that had caused them all to become still and awkward: the sound of sobbing. They sat, frozen, embarrassed by the source of this sobbing: it was I, sobbing wretchedly and uncontrollably in the corner of the tearoom, for the pretty perfection of the park had triggered an overwhelming despair and desperation in me. For it was all so lovely and cheerful, and welcoming – except to me. I did not fit in, did not belong, was not welcome. I had nowhere to go that night or any other night, I could not simply enjoy the park then for dread of what was to come later, when I attempted to sleep on the streets once more.

Further: was this not the very park my mother brought me to while I was a baby, during my first year when my family lived in London? Impossible to recall this, and yet I was convinced it was true and that I was retracing the very routes of my infancy.

Finally, someone called the emergency services and the police arrived. Stiffly I rose and was escorted out by two officers, still sobbing, the others sitting awkwardly, avoiding my gaze, until I passed them and was gone.

‘A drive’

In the lost photograph, now an image etched in memory only, there is no sense of what the future holds. But gazing back, into the eyes of that remembered child, I see the past, can guess the context in which the photo was taken.

“A drive”, we were going for “a drive”. Perhaps my father, a keen amateur archaeologist, wanted to view a megalithic tomb or some other ancient site in Kerry, a fort, or earthworks, or passage grave, or beehive hut. There was plenty to see, to be made a destination of.

The photograph captures a happy moment, and a happy family. But that was all to be lost

So we would have all piled into the Morris Minor, mother, sister, grandfather, grandmother and I, presumably placed on someone’s lap in that tiny car. Or, conceivably, it was a two-car expedition, two groups. My father, I am sure, was not the photographer, he preferred a sketchbook to the camera. I suspect the photographer was a friend of my father’s: two cars then, a small convoy into the countryside.

We would have started in Tralee, where my grandparents lived, destined for the Dingle Peninsula or North Kerry. The historic site that served as the locus of the journey is not visible in the photograph. It sits, probably, in that field beyond the dry stone wall, into which my grandmother is staring so intently, no doubt at my father.

The photograph captures a happy moment, and a happy family. But that was all to be lost. My mother died when I was a teenager, and a complicated grief rendered me severely depressed. My relationship with my father, which had been close when the photograph was taken, deteriorated over time and worsened further when I became ill. And because of that illness, I became estranged from my extended family. My grandmother, standing vigilant in the photo, represents that division. But still, in the image, in the lost photograph, the happy child remains, oblivious of the losses to come: of connection, of sound mind, of joy.

The image remains

Several years after the breakdown that had rendered me a rough sleeper there, I went back to London, having returned to Dublin and got on the road to recovery in the interim.

I was in London to work on a screenplay I’d written, meeting a script editor for consultations. Having some spare time, but with a feeling of deep unease, I went back to St-Martin-in-the-Fields to seek out the hostel I had frequented when homeless. But the bunker was in the process of being demolished, and the site was inaccessible behind tall wooden hoardings, behind which construction work was being carried out.

There had been some administrative offices associated with those who ran the hostel, located on a nearby laneway. I hoped to go to that office, explain my situation, discover that the contents of the hostel had been transferred there, and so be reunited with my belongings, and with my photograph.

But I could not remember the precise doorway, and although I went to one that I thought I knew, its white door and glass portico and brass nameplate seeming familiar, I was unsure if it really was the destination I sought, and in any case was hesitant to enter, too ashamed of having to own up to my reason for being there. Unsure of how to proceed, I went away empty-handed.

So the photograph is gone but the image remains; and it pierces me with a reminder of what is lost, while also reminding me of what was there all along, the capacity for joy and optimism. For I have recovered, and become well, since that time in London. That time now remains only as memory in a mind now restored to wellness and able to remember it without sadness or fear, but with a sense of awe at having survived it.

Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery, by Arnold Thomas Fanning, is published by Penguin Ireland, €17