Autumn 1968—Spring 1969, Age 17
The world turned softly gray and overcast. In the intermittent drizzle, the caravan sagged like a deflating balloon, sullen and brooding in its garden of nettles and thistles, bedecked with leak-proof silver ribbons. I was back in Dungarvan, living with Mother. Cork was no more than a glimpse of freedom, a dream of escape fading into a prison nightmare. How could it all have slipped away?
I couldn’t really blame Mother; it wasn’t all her fault. I’d agreed to everything—every choice, every change of direction, but like a labyrinth, whenever I turned a corner, there was another dead-end. I couldn’t find a way out and now I was trapped, doing the same dreary things day after day. I had to believe there was a point; I had to hope there was an exit.
Returning to Dungarvan was a result of the Plan. Mother wanted me to get ahead; I wanted to get away and get a life. I was smart and semi-educated—why was I working as a hotel porter, the most menial job? I should be a hotel manager like Mr. O’Connell—running the show, not groveling on the lowest rung of the ladder. Mother came up with the Plan: get experience at a better class of hotel and then apply to Shannon College of Hotel Management for training as a hotel manager. It made perfect sense—soon I would be living in Shannon far away from Dungarvan.
I applied for and got accepted for a live-in job at the Vienna Woods Hotel on the outskirts of Cork. Set in its own spacious grounds, this small, exclusive hotel had a reputation for elegant accommodation and unique Viennese food. The owner, a friendly older woman, informed me I would have the opportunity to learn every aspects of hotel work from receptionist to chef—it seemed perfect.
Things did not go well. At first glance, the hotel appeared refined, but when you looked more closely, it was tired and run down. The chef had quit, the staffing was thin and my job was to fill in all the gaps. Late each night, I fell asleep exhausted in my tiny room—woke up the next morning and started all over again. Tired and isolated, I failed to recognize how much I missed Seamus at the Moore’s Hotel and the easy banter of the boys. Suddenly, I felt desperately lonely and extremely miserable.
The application to the College of Hotel Management was accepted and I caught the bus to Shannon for the interview. They offered me a place for the fall term. There was only one snag: I had to complete two A-Level exams. This was Ireland not the UK, so no A-Level classes were available locally. Undaunted, Mother found an English correspondence course that sent lessons through the mail. The Plan had got a little convoluted.
Now I had a little over seven months to prepare for the exams—much more efficient than the two years it normally took in school. However, with only a few months to learn the material, I’d have to study full time and give up my job.
Desperate to escape the misery of the Vienna Woods, I’d have settled for any alternative. So here I was, back in Dungarvan, waiting for the first lessons from the A-Level correspondence course, looking forward to beginning the hotel management training in just under a year. The Plan had distorted but I’d kept adapting and agreeing.
There was just one last overwhelming problem: I was out of work, so we had no income. How were we going to live?
Mother and money—that was a weird one! I still didn’t know where she got money for her booze and cigarettes. She sent Dad long rambling vitriolic letters and maybe he sent her random amounts of cash. Then there were the Trusts, mysterious funds established by dead relatives.
Mother was cagy about the Trusts. At least one had been set up by my grandmother to benefit us children—but we never saw a penny. On many a drunken evening, she wrote page after page in her looping handwriting to “that slimy solicitor, Mr. Fish-me-face, who won’t be reasonable!” I gathered the trustee, Fish-me-face was clinging to the last few pounds in my grandmother’s trust fund.
Dad was not responding, Mr. Fish-me-Face had dug his heels in and I had no chance of getting a job in Dungarvan. We were destitute—so Mother gave the Plan another twist.
“I talked to Mr. Good yesterday. You know the Goods—their house is just across the alley. He says you can claim unemployment. I’ve got the forms.” Mother handed me a sheaf of official-looking papers. I looked at them blankly.
“Get on with it! You need to hand them into the office on Mary Street tomorrow. If they get processed this week, you can collect the dole next Tuesday.”
My heart sank—more humiliation. I’d have to stand in line with the shabby, unshaven men outside the Social Security office. I’d served some of them when I worked in the Ormond Hotel public bar. They’d know I got sacked.
“I’ve also talked to the people on the strand—you must have seen them.”
“Yes. What about it?” I could feel a prickle of dread.
“They make good money picking winkles. It’s not that hard once you get used to it.”
Out on the mud flats at low tide, I’d noticed dark figures silhouetted against the sky: an elderly woman, dressed in rags stooped over; a young fellow moving erratically along the sea wall; a dark man in flapping coat, striding purposefully in the distance. I imagined they were foraging in the mire for lost valuables—the poorest of the poor.
Not so, according to Mother. They were actually collecting winkles, small black sea snails that live in the Atlantic coastal waters. The snails were sold to a wholesaler who shipped them to France, to be consumed as gourmet cuisine. Mother had decided we should join this small band of winkle-pickers. I could not imagine anything more degrading.
Mother and I learned to pick winkles at low tide. As the seawater receded, we pulled on black gumboots, donned waterproof macs and carrying white plastic buckets, trudged out onto the muddy gray tidal flats. After parking a burlap sack on a convenient rock, we began looking for the round-shelled snails.
Winkling was back-aching work: moving slowly forward bent double, lifting clumps of seaweed, turning over rocks, looking for the small mollusks that clung to anything solid. The seawater was cold and the mud slimy-soft, sticking to hands and bucket, sucking at my gumboots with every step. Eventually, I found a rhythm. Take a couple of steps, flick a few winkles into the bucket—take a few more steps, lift a rock and flick a few more winkles into the bucket; when the bucket was half full, I emptied it into the burlap sack. I noticed Mother in the distance working at a slower pace, in obvious discomfort from the constant bending.
The bucket and sack filled slowly, especially when the clusters of winkles were small. Looking up after a few hours, I saw the seawater flowing across the mud toward us. Mother called out that it was time to leave and I slung the wet sack over my shoulder. With seawater dripping down into my gumboots, we plodded wearily back to the caravan.
Within a couple of weeks, I discovered the best places to look for our quarry. Winkles tended to congregate around individual rocks, in crevices and on gravel shoals. After a big tide, they might be numerous in under the quay walls. Other times, we had to search further out around the wide bay, sometimes tramping half a mile out and back across mud and sand.
The snail collection system was surprisingly well organized. Every Friday a green van driven by a small, cheerful man, went round the area collecting the burlap sacks. He weighed the bags and paid one pound ten shillings for half a hundredweight (56 pounds) of snails. The winkles were taken to Cork and exported. Somewhere in France, people were eating the rubbery curled bodies of snails with no idea where they came from.
The A-Level correspondence course arrived by mail and my life split in two. When the tide was on the ebb and the mud flats exposed, I picked winkles. When the tide was flowing or full, I studied English Literature and Pure Maths from thin booklets in an empty classroom at the Augustinian Friary, the school John had been expelled from. With no room in the caravan, Mother had persuaded the headmaster to allow me to use one of their unused annexes.
The open muddy strand contrasted strangely with the square-edged rigidity of the classroom—raw untamed nature on one side, drab institutional order on the other. When the tide came in and the winkle-picking day was done, my world turned over. I entered the rear of the Augustinian Friary a few streets away and found the schoolroom annex.
There was never another boy in sight, though they must have been around somewhere. Sitting alone on a hard chair at a school desk, I struggled with my resistance and forced myself to read, memorize and write answers in the study guides. Once each booklet was completed, I sent it to an anonymous tutor across the sea in England.
Maths was the worst. The syllabus for the Cambridge International A-Level exams was mind-boggling: pre-calculus, exponential functions, vectors, complex numbers, permutations and combinations. I thought I knew algebra and trigonometry, but the thicket of new terms and mathematical notation was impenetrable.
English Literature was a little better. At least I recognized a few names: Chaucer, Yeats, Johnson, Shakespeare—but the list of authors went on and on covering collections of prose, poetry and plays. I could never read all those books in six months, but fortunately I didn’t have to. The course picked out a few major texts for me to study in depths and the rest were optional.
Every day, doubt and determination battled inside me. This was a test of my intelligence, my will power and perseverance—but I secretly knew it would take a miracle to pull it off. I remembered how I’d lost heart with the O-Levels. Would it happen again? Could I keep my nose to the grindstone and push through? My inner world was on a seesaw, swaying back and forth—hope and despair in the balance.
Life settled into a jerky rhythm. Low tides came every twelve and a half hours, so winkle picking gradually moved around the clock, a little later each day. Between strand and schoolroom, I did the dreaded chores. Occasionally on Saturday evenings, I went to a local dance, swaying awkwardly with alien girls to discordant Irish band music. I fancied one bright-haired girl for a while, but the odor wafting from her armpits was overwhelming. Anyway, I had little time or energy for dating.
Tuesdays, I shuffled forward with the other men in the line at the dole office. When I got to the front, behind the counter was the smooth bespectacled face of Mr. Robert Good. He smiled, said a friendly hello and placed a few measly pounds into my hand. I tried to be pleasant in return, but his presence made me acutely uncomfortable.
The Goods were our nearest neighbors; their house backed onto our alley, a little ways up from the caravan. Knowing how hard it was for Mother to carry water, Robert Good and his wife had invited us to fill our buckets from the tap in their tiny walled yard. It was far better than the convent—but I had to creep through the door into their private space and fill the buckets right under their kitchen window. I felt like an intruder.
Mr. Good must have known I picked winkles, must have seen me down on the quay with my bucket and sack. He knew I had an alternative source of income, so I wasn’t officially eligible for assistance. On dole day, I had to meet his eye knowing I’d put him into an awkward position: help us out or comply with Social Security rules. The least I could do was skulk down the lane so he wouldn’t see me on my way to and from the winkle fields.
After a wintry month, Mother found the cold and constant bending too hard. She complained of a dragging sensation and dull pain in her lower belly, caused—so she said—by a prolapsed womb from having too many babies. Whatever the reason, I breathed a sigh of relief. Now I could be alone with my thoughts with no one to bother me.
Then a companion appeared: a sturdy shorthaired buff-colored dog stood waiting for me on the quay. I didn’t particularly like dogs. They brought to mind Granny’s spoilt poodle, Puck, and Aunty Peggy’s horde of yapping little shitters. But this dog was not a doggy dog: no fawning, barking or begging. All he required was an occasional thrown stick and an affectionate pat. We developed a kind of masculine alliance, a mutual respect that was soothing and easy. I never knew where he came from or what his real name was—so I called him Dog.
Travelling to and from the shore was a walk of shame. It was impossible to be inconspicuous with a white bucket in hand or a heavy wet sack on my back—but out on the flats that feeling disappeared. The wide-open expanse offered instant anonymity. I was just a dark figure with a dog far out in the distance; I might be anyone. Away from Mother and people’s judgments, there was space to relax and reflect. The rhythm of picking soothed me and with nothing else to do, I became interested in my own mind.
Ordinarily, my thoughts rattled in a disjointed random way: daydreams, fantasies of escape and acclaim, fragments of memories, disjointed bits of information, worries about the exams. Now, when I focused my attention, I found I could follow a train of thought and even reach a conclusion. For once, I was not completely at the mercy of my own mind and it was liberating. As long as I felt settled, my mind became a kind of plaything, an interesting companion—not just an intrusive pain.
The expanse of gray mud formed a backdrop to my inner drama. Soothed by the smell of salt air and rotting seaweed and the click, click of winkles hitting the bottom of my bucket, I mentally explored ideas that intrigued me: Does my life have a purpose? Is there more going on than I understand? Is there a God, or is He just a juvenile fantasy?
On bleak days, when Mother was demanding or when I realized how useless my education had been, fury gripped me, filling my mind with violent images. I imagined attacking incompetent teachers and corrupt politicians, not to mention the hordes of ignorant hypocrites who populated the world. My monologues were eloquent, puncturing balloons of misguided thinking and warped beliefs. Dog was an attentive listener: he never interrupted or contradicted but patiently waited for the next stick to be thrown.
Winter arrived, overcast skies cleared and early mornings turned crisp and frosty. Winds were bitter and my hands stiffened in the icy water—but the dawns were glorious. Bands of pink and purple-gray clouds hovered over the glistening sea as the silver and golden orb of the sun rose slowly over the horizon. Dog at my side, I stood still, silently waiting and watching the glory unfold.
In those moments of stillness, I sensed an opaque film clouding my vision, obscuring a realm hidden beneath the extravagant splendor. I tried to capture the beauty with fresh eyes, but my cluttered mind would only let in a splinter of wonder—a tiny keyhole into the unknown. Looking up from the mud to stretch my back, a commonplace object would take me by surprise: a distant tree, a cloud formation, a piece of driftwood—each infused with otherness. Actuality forced itself upon me and just as quickly was gone, and the dull veneer of the ordinary re-imposed itself on the world. Something was toying with me, playing hide and seek.
As if to drag me back down to earth, the correspondence course led me through the process of cramming just enough Maths and English to pass the exams. As I completed each Maths and English module, it was mailed to an address in England. About ten days later, I received graded papers with comments and corrections.
Almost against my will, I found English Literature fascinating. The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce—disjointed, overwrought and evocative—spoke of my own experience as an outsider. Rasselas, The Tempest and The Canterbury Tales showed me that brilliant minds had engaged with the most profound questions. The great works of literature churned my soul—but Maths clogged my brains.
Staring at the inscrutable symbols, straining to grasp the slippery concepts and answer another imponderable question, I knew I was lost. I needed someone to explain it all—but no one was there.
The months crawled by—March, April, May—and gradually I lost motivation and fell behind. An exhausted feeling of failure enveloped me in a shroud of hopelessness. Instead of staring blank-eyed at the booklets in the bleak schoolroom, I brooded over cold coffee in the café and took jittery walks around town. The last days before the exams were ghastly—not a coherent thought in my head, only a blank numbness.
The exam day arrived and I took the early bus to Cork. The city was full of strangers and I did not think to contact past friends. In an echoing auditorium, I joined a dozen other students, each tied to a miniature world—a desk, writing implements, lined paper, the A-Level sheets and dread. English Literature was not unbearable; I filled sheets of paper with incoherent ramblings. Maths was a disaster, an avalanche of alien ciphers: I attempted half the questions and finished early.
I knew I’d failed; all those months of study wasted. I had nothing to look forward to—no hotel training college, no escape from Dungarvan. Mother hardly noticed my deflated mood; she was occupied in medicating her stomach pain with drink and drugs.
Despair gripped me. Each day a dreary repetition: winkling, chores and useless reading. Out on the flats, ruminating endlessly, I came to a bleak conclusion: My life is meaningless. The next question seemed obvious: Should I end it all, commit suicide?
Turning that question over and over in my mind, something inside me rebelled: No, I will not kill myself! Suicide was pitiful and pointless. I remembered the bloody mess Mother made when she slashed her wrists. Furthermore, how could I know it would be better after I died?
I don’t want to live and I don’t want to kill myself—what can I do? Maybe I could let myself die by accident or negligence: I’d heard there were patches of quicksand across the bay. But death was final. I knew moods took me to dark irrational places; I might be deluding myself in the present and want to change my mind in the future—but there wouldn’t be a future.
Back in the caravan, late that night, I wrote on a small piece of paper: DEATH IS WELCOME. I folded the paper and tucked it under a corner of my thin red mattress. The words felt true and having them close comforted me.
I decided to wait a few weeks and look at the paper again. That way I could tell if I still felt the same: hopeless and dejected. In the meantime, I had to get on with life, even if it was mind-numbing drudgery.
Teenagers suffer horribly; they get depressed and they often kill themselves. Suicide is the second-most common cause of teen deaths. At age 17, I came close to ending it—but thankfully not too close.
We all get miserable and despondent, but the hopelessness and despair of adolescence is different—more intense, more dangerous. Because the ego is unformed, because the brain is still integrating, because the body is awash with unfamiliar hormones, the depressed teenager is lost and alone in a vast ocean of misery, not knowing how to find the shore.
Adults rarely understand or empathize with teen angst; they’ve forgotten their own adolescent pain, have stuffed it down into a forgotten basement and do not want to deal with all those chaotic feelings. Like most 17-year-olds, I was not inclined to share anything with a mother; she was locked in her own cheerless world and totally oblivious of mine. Sadly, parents often fail to notice their child’s ultimate despair until it is too late.
In the West, misery is a defining characteristic of the teenage years. The demand to grow up and conform is overwhelming: get good grades, be social and popular, don’t cause trouble, be athletic, don’t answer back, respond to texts instantly, have or don’t have sex, and on and on. Adolescents are trapped in a sticky web of parental and peer-group demands—and there is no escape. Feeling powerlessness, filled with self-doubt, it’s easy to slide down a slippery slope into the bottomless pit of hopelessness. Ask any self-aware teenager and she will tell you exactly why her life sucks, why she is subjected to dark moods. She might even confess to contemplating suicide.
One client described depression graphically: a sodden overcoat dragging you down, making every step a supreme effort and every activity pointless. When depressed we get trapped in distorted thinking about our selves, the world and the future: we despise who we are, hate everything around us and most significantly, stop believing anything will change in the future. Negative thoughts turn the key in depression’s prison lock. With suffering in the present, no hope for change and no prospect of a positive future, death becomes a reasonable option. Why not close up shop and end it all?
That brings up a big question: is there a purpose and point to suffering? The Buddha tells us suffering is intrinsic to being alive. There is no avoiding disappointment, discontent and dissatisfaction. We are all subjected to pains and ills; people we rely on let us down; life seems to be one hassle after another; ultimately we die. If life is suffering, what is the point?
Much of our experience is painful and disappointing. Yet we find joy, meaning and satisfaction in the most unexpected places. The difference depends on our attitude and the kind of attention we bring to each moment. We cannot avoid pain and strife but how we engage with difficulties determines the quality of our experience. Pain is inevitable; much of suffering is avoidable.
One of my own therapists helped me understand: There are different kinds of suffering—some useful and some useless. She went on to say: Accept the useful suffering but don’t do the useless stuff!
Useful suffering is suffering on purpose: we give each painful event meaning, learn its lessons, let it change us and enrich us as a person. Like the hurt of removing a splinter, we know it is necessary and we become more whole as a result. Purposeful suffering burnishes the heart, rendering it more bright, supple and open. Can we learn to love without a broken heart? Can we feel for others if we know not sadness? Can we appreciate life without a brush with death? Embracing our inner turmoil—our sadness, anger, and fear—imbues it with meaning and purpose and thus we become more fully human.
The seven months of being stuck in the mud, of struggling and failing, of facing suicide, was probably the most formative period of my life. Much as I hated those times, I am enormously grateful for everything—the anguish, inner torment, doubts and uncertainties. Without them, I would not be the person I am today and could not do the work I do. Mostly, I am grateful I made an implicit decision not to admit defeat or suffer uselessly.
Useless suffering does nothing—pain without a point, misery for its own sake, wallowing in self-pity, making a career of whining and complaining. Mother was totally invested in her agony, blaming everyone and everything for her situation. She worshipped at the altar of victimhood and refused to recognize the needless suffering she caused herself and others.
When it comes to suffering, obviously we have to embrace the useful kind. It is easier to blame our pain on the situation and other people—the weather, our parents, crooked politicians, the economy and our partners. Whatever the truth, that attitude leads to helplessness, anxiety, endless rumination and behaviors that go nowhere and do nothing. The hard path is to elbow our grumbling ego aside and look misery straight in the face. We ask ourselves: What is this troubling experience? What is it for? What is my part in it and what can I do? Only then will suffering offer up its exalted gifts.
I never was meant to be a hotel manager—that’s obvious. At that time, I firmly believed that selecting an occupation was happenstance; you fell into a job and made the best of it. Whether by chance, choice or necessity, many work at jobs that do not suit them—their lives are unfulfilled, not replete with satisfaction. A job or career that is out of tune with our inner natures never makes us happy.
So how are we to choose the right work? Certainly we need to use our heads and be practical—but most importantly, we have to look for an activity that resonates with our inner nature. My own career journey was long and convoluted. After working in hotels, laboring on a construction site, pushing papers in an office, milking cows on a farm and constructing kitchens as a carpenter, in my twenties I felt guided to complete my education and train as a psychologist. That guidance came out of the ether but it was based on a determination to listen to my inner Self rather than the demands of society.
Societal pressure to make money, settle into a job and become a ‘successful’ member of society is intense. Education is the key that unlocks occupational freedom, but the US makes it practically and financially difficult for lower-income strata of society, severely limiting choices, forcing many into tedious unsuitable labor. Even for the privileged, material and social forces drive individuals to compromise their values and aspirations. We are not taught to value our inherent gifts or listen to our inner promptings; instead we are encouraged to settle for material security. In the US, money is the Prime Mover. Talents and life purpose gets lost in the scrabble for financial success.
What do I mean by inner talent? We are each born with a particular nature: you might call it our genetic, temperamental and spiritual hardwiring. Every parent knows that every offspring is unique; she/he comes into the world as an individual with particular predispositions, partialities and tendencies. In a perfect world, each of us would discover activities and occupations that precisely suit and develop those innate tendencies. Our natures would expand, blossom and grow and we would discover those things we are intended for, the unique differences we bring to this world—in short, our life purpose.
Unfortunately, life is not straightforward. Our talents—those inherent potentials—get obscured, distorted and forgotten. By adolescence, parental and social pressures screen our inner nature: we do not know who we are or know what we are meant to do. So we flounder around looking for direction from the world and other people—while all the time guidance is there available in our inner being. Because we do not listen to our selves, events capture us; instead of choosing freely, we are driven by circumstance.
I had to fail the A Levels; it simplified the situation, restricted my options and saved me from an unsatisfying career. I might have made a success in the hotel business, but it would have been at the expense of my Self. Without doubt, my naïve hypnotic experiments with Danny were an expression of my inner talents and future career path—I was meant to be a therapist not a manager!
To recognize our talents and discover our life purpose is not easy. It takes courage and perseverance to find an occupation that fits our nature. The hints and clues to our talents are hidden in plain sight. They are the things that come easily, the innate abilities we take for granted, the activities that appear of little value but bring intense satisfaction. Because they are potentials rather than certainties, they seem formless and hard to grasp; we struggle to formulate what is natural in us or know how our passions can be usefully employed in the world. Like a round peg, we may have to try many a square hole before we find a suitable fit.
Even when we know what we are meant for, the path is far from straightforward. We listen to quiet intimations that act like a compass needle, swinging back and forth, providing only a general sense of where to go next. Most often, we make painful compromises, settling for education or work that is unsuitable but which leads us in the right direction.
To become a psychologist, I had to do an equivalent of high school graduation at age 24—it was tedious but there was no other option. In undergraduate college, I found most academic psychology mind-numbing and irrelevant. To keep going, I kept my eye fixed on a vision of being a real psychologist, though I had little idea of what that meant. When we hear an inner calling, there is little to do except follow its echo and put one foot in front of the other: trust, patience and perseverance.
Read the next chapter: 16 Sickness and Magic
 GCE A-Level exams are equivalent to AP exams in the US.