Sinéad Gleeson: ‘I have a mortality complex. I think I’m going to run out of time’
Constellations author speaks about bereavement, illness and how that affects her writing
Sinéad Gleeson: ‘If your life is untroubled by surgery or pain you don’t know you’re born’. Photograph: Bríd O’Donovan
Sinéad Gleeson is a broadcaster, editor and the author of Constellations, a new book of moving, insightful, beautiful essays about health, art, gender, parenthood, bereavement, the body and her own struggles with “wonky hips” and leukaemia. Sinéad is also my friend.
There are few people in Irish writing she hasn’t helped in some way. She is deeply interested in people in general and in writers in particular. She has edited their work in books like Silver Threads of Hope, The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore. She champions them on programmes like RTÉ One’s The Book Show, which she presented for several years, in newspapers like this one and on Twitter. She is the person who shines the limelight. She hasn’t really been in it herself that much until now.
Which is weird, because she’s been in the publishing business a long time. “I set up my own magazine when I was about 11,” she says. “It was called Alone because I gave all the money from it to Alone, the charity set up by Willie Bermingham. I coloured in the letters in different colours . . . My dad would photocopy it on the photocopier in work. My brother Colin helped but one week he didn’t and I wrote, ‘This week it was only edited by me’ and I took his name off the masthead like a total little Murdochian boss.”
I always felt like I was an object of pity and I really hated that
“There was a wordsearch. And I had a book called Every Girl’s Handbook and I’d take stuff out of that and get stuff out of encyclopaedias. I did an article on different leaves.” She laughs. “It was all handwritten. ‘What do you do if you go camping? Don’t camp under a tree in case you’re struck by lightning. Have a chocolate bar in case you run out of food’ And there were horoscopes and knitting and crochet diagrams.
“And there was always a recipe. I baked loads as a kid. I charged 10 or 20p. I met Willie Bermingham and gave all the money to him.”
It was shortly after this that, as she describes in her essay Blue Hills and Chalk Bones, “the synovial fluid in my left hip began to evaporate like rain. The bones ground together, literally turning to dust.” She had a condition called monoarticular arthritis. She went from being an active girl to one in a lot of pain. She spent her secondary school years on crutches and in and out of hospital.
“It was really frightening. I didn’t know what was wrong with me . . . It was really isolating . . . by the time I came back everyone had made new pals. And I stuck out because I was on crutches and people felt sorry for me.
Object of pity
“I always felt like I was an object of pity. I really hated that and I’m not very tolerant of moaners and whiners because I don’t want people to notice that stuff. And they noticed it for years.”
She has another essay in her book called A Wound Gives off Its Own Light about artists who create work that explores their physical disabilities. She recalls reading Lucy Grealy’s memoir Autobiography of A Face about cancer and disfigurement and wishing she could have read it at as a teenager. “She was writing about the isolation of the patient . . . People are afraid to talk to you . . . You’re treated like a sick person rather than as a teenager. And I just wanted to be treated as a teenager.’”
As a child in Kimmage, Sinéad wanted to be a pilot but she knew that was not a good fit for someone who had “wonky hips”. By her teens she was a voracious reader, “because I was immobile and bored”, who spent all her money on 12-inch records. “Music and writing and art make life a bit more bearable,” she says. So after studying English and History in UCD, it makes sense that she followed her enthusiasms and began working in media as a researcher and archivist at RTÉ (including an extended stretch working on the panel show Don’t Feed the Gondolas) and then as an arts journalist.
In her late twenties, six months after getting married, she was diagnosed with Acute Promyelocytic Leukaemia. She spent six months of chemotherapy in near complete isolation followed by two years of maintenance treatment. She would remain cancer-free to this day, but she didn’t know that at the time.
“I remember around the September of that year I absolutely had this massive crash which was the whole thing catching up on me,” she says. “Part of it is survivor syndrome. You didn’t die. Your brain and body spent all its energy getting physically better and once you look like you’ve recovered and are not going to die, you think, ‘What just happened? Do you want to think about what happened over the last six months?’ It did catch up to me and it was really upsetting and I wasn’t myself at all . . . I was very low, very down.”
These days she gets a flashback every time she has to go to hospital for any reason. “I’m an anti-hypochondriac. I run the other way. I’ve done my time. I’ve been sick. I’m done. Get someone else. I filled my sick book. Anytime I go back and think there might be an issue I always have a moment going, ‘Not again.’”
Unsurprisingly she thinks and writes a lot about the body and the politics of healthcare. “There was a nun who’d come around and give you really brutal facials throwing lavender oil in your eye. She was really nice, but this was the pastoral care. We’re going to send a nun in to give you a really brutal facial when all you want is someone to ask are you okay.
“I think for a long, long time, patients were treated like children. You are like a child. You’re sick in bed. All your power is gone. You’re not standing upright. You’re in your dressing gown. You have no power, control or agency.
“People talk across you and over you but not to you. And in Ireland it’s very specifically tied to the church. All our hospitals are named after saints. The church and the medical world have been heavily bound together right up to the abortion stuff, two very patriarchal institutions that are very controlling and are used to telling people what to do.”
If I was to sum up the book, I’d say it was a book on mortality
She recalls one doctor telling her shortly before a hip replacement nine years ago that the terrible pains in her hip were actually a symptom of post-natal depression. “He assumed this because I was a woman and was complaining about something and had a baby. He was an orthopaedic surgeon. He would have seen what was wrong with me if he’d taken the time to look. But Irish women have found their voices. They’ve said ‘You’re not going to condescend to me or tell me to shut up or go home and make my husband’s dinner or give me some Valium. Or all those old school things the doctors used to do to women.’”
How have these experiences of ill health affected her? It’s made her conscious of other people’s pain, she says. If she sees people upset in public she asks if they’re okay (She does. I’ve seen her). She has no time for complaining, ensuring there wasn’t even a hint of it in her book, even though she still feels pain every day. “If your life is untroubled by surgery or pain you don’t know you’re born.”
It’s also made her a workaholic, she thinks. “I don’t like admitting that because there’s a real industry around the busy narrative and I don’t think it’s necessarily something to be proud of . . . But I think one of the reasons I’m always busy and doing things and getting on with things is because terrible things have happened to me and I was lucky that they didn’t go the other way . . . I think I have a mortality complex. I think I’m going to run out of time.”
And so she went on to become a tireless champion of writing, women’s writing in particular, on TV and radio, in this paper and on stages at literary events around this country.
She was trying to write herself, she says. She wrote fiction that she never really showed to anyone (she’s currently writing a novel). Then one day, eight years ago, she found herself driving her daughter to creche behind a hearse with two coffins. “Not one, two. I was really struck by it . . . It was January 5th which was the anniversary of my diagnosis. It was one of those mortality things staring you in the face. So I went home and bashed out this tiny little blog post, put it up and loads of people started talking about it and interacting and chatting about it and a publisher contacted me . . . and they said, ‘Why don’t you write more of this stuff?’”
She wrote five or six chapters. “It started pouring out of me.” But she realised that she didn’t want to write a straightforward memoir and certainly didn’t want to write a book all about illness and death. So she put it aside. A few more years passed and through her work she learned more about writing and began to see all the possibilities of the essay form. “Essays are a good way of describing what’s happening,” she says. “They’re not straightforward linear chunks of prose. Some [of my essays] look like poems. I wasn’t interested in writing 14 pieces that all look the same.”
She talks about how her husband, the music producer Stephen Shannon, supported her and helped her find the time she needed to write (he also recorded her reading the audiobook). She recalls learning how one of her essays, Hair, would be published in the literary journal Banshee just after having a potentially hip-damaging fall and another stint in hospital. She wasn’t entirely sure, she says, if her emotional state was brought on by the drugs or the fact she was going to be published. Her next essay Blue Hills and Chalk Bones was published in Granta and detailed her ongoing struggle with her hip and a trip to Lourdes. It proved to be hugely popular because, well, her writing is beautiful and moving and it makes sense of things.
The easiest piece to write, she says, was A Non-Letter to my Daughter, which was born out of parental love and a fruitless desire to protect her child from a cruelly sexist world. The hardest, she says, was Our Mutual Friend which tells the dual story of meeting her husband and losing a much-loved friend, Rob, to a terrible accident. Another essay Second Mother, about her late aunt Terry, the woman who encouraged her to read and to be herself, is about dementia and love and what it means to live a good life.
“If I was to sum up the book, I’d say it was a book on mortality,” she says. “We’re all only here for one life and you have to make of it what you will, which is why I’ve worked so hard and written this book. Terry didn’t get these opportunities because she was a working-class woman and Rob didn’t get them because he died. It’s a miracle that anyone gets to live to 80 . . . Everything is so fragile.”
There are a number of Irish essayists producing powerful books at the moment, from this paper’s own Rosita Boland to Emilie Pine. Why does Sinéad think the essay form is so important now? “We’ve lived in a very closed, contained, admonished, put-upon society,” she says. “People other than us were in control, whether that was the church, the medical world or the government. People were always told in Ireland, ‘keep your problems secret, don’t talk about anything’ – look at the culture of abuse. I think personal testimonies and the essay are a way of negotiating that and engaging with that.”
In one of her essays, 60,000 Miles of Blood, Sinéad’s mother recalls her saying, on the night she was diagnosed with leukaemia, “I’m not going to die, I’m going to write a book.” Sinéad doesn’t remember saying it. “But I got two versions of the book in the post yesterday and I signed one for my parents and I wrote, ‘I’m glad I came good on the not dying thing.’”
Sinead Gleeson will be discussing Constellations with Maeve Higgins at the Mountains to Sea DLR Book Festival on Sunday, 31st March 8.30pm with music by Maria Doyle Kennedy. mountainstosea.ie