Driving through France last week, my children were watching Despicable Me on my laptop in the back of the car. At one point the anti-hero is trying to steal the moon and still make it back in time for his adopted daughters’ dance recital. I know this because I was listening from the driver’s seat, having to imagine what the scenes looked like. He is cutting it very fine and he is desperately holding on to the moon as it gets bigger and bigger. Suddenly, my son, who was very involved and keen that this character make it to the recital, shouted; ‘He’s got to let go of the moon!’
I started crying.
Yesterday I did a ward round in a locked psychiatric unit at a big hospital. It’s part of a course I’m doing and I was there as an observer, basically. The psychiatrist told me that this was a place people could disintegrate and gradually put themselves back together again. The disintegrated came into the room one by one, their pain almost tangible. One thought he was Jesus, another was part of a Masonic conspiracy, many were just desperately lonely, miserable, confused and slightly delusional. There was a particularly ill man, the extent of whose contact with reality was essentially that he didn’t bump into the furniture. Much.
What, I wondered, was the goal with such broken people. The pinnacle of achievement seems to be that someone who has been neglected, abused and desperate for a lifetime will take their drugs willingly enough that they can be housed by the council and live by themselves with no job, no education, no routine and very likely no friends. The sanest person in the world (my friend Danny) would go mad in that situation. No wonder they are referred to as ‘service users’, the word ‘user’ unintentionally describing an addiction to the infinitely welcome infantalisation of being on a psychiatric ward.
For, if you have grown up in care, rejected education, become addicted to drugs and become unable to cope, there is comfort in believing you are Jesus, that you are not of absolutely no importance to anybody but quite the opposite. You are Lord. Giving up that belief is acutely agonising, a bereavement, and yet perhaps the only way that a functional future is possible. In order to be in contact with real people, with life, with the truth, they have to let go of the moon.
And, of course, that is just the extreme end of what we are all battling with. Freudian theory would probably have the first milky moon be our mothers. Separation is the only way forward and yet it is unspeakably painful. Truly unspeakable, since the first glimpse of her separateness happens before we can speak. But there are other moons to be relinquished.
When I got married a friend of mine said to me; ‘Wow. That’s a big admission. You are never going to marry Brad Pitt.’ Not that I wanted to, that he might have me, that it was under serious consideration, just that I was acknowledging that I never would. Entering into real intimacy means giving up a lifetime of fantasy relationships with idealised men (let’s face it, probably father-like types) and a lifetime of fantasy selves, women in white fox fur wraps and pearls, with bedroom eyes and unfailing seduction techniques. Actually, it turned out to my horror, that I’m just some woman from North London with a a small flat a big education and a bigger arse.
And then, of course, children. To be a mother, to make a life that might be tolerable for other people and to maintain it day in day out for at least 18 years – that involves an incredible loss of self that makes existing in one’s own right seem like an insurmountable task. And, driving through Italy, France and Switzerland last week, I could see that if you don’t let go of the moon (in my case represented by working, say, in the Obama administration like an ex-boyfriend who just got the second best job in the whole White House, or living on Park Avenue and skating every winter day at the Rockefeller Plaza) then you will end up floating through space on your own with no oxygen. My dad, I think, couldn’t let go, kept clinging on to it as it got bigger and bigger and carried him off, ever further away from people he might have been closer to.
So the moon stays up there, and I’m down here cleaning the kitchen floor, worrying about my son’s school life, my marriage, my dog, my job and realising that to a greater or lesser extent what we are all trying to do is let go of the moon and actually live.