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Beyond Blue

Patrick Tracey: Stalking Irish Madness–Searching for the Roots of My Family’s Schizophrenia

Patrick Tracey.jpg

I have something very special planned for the Feast of the Irish, I mean, St. Patrick’s Day! No other than the most famous Irish author writing today: Patrick Tracey, who penned an amazing book, “Stalking Irish Madness Searching for the Roots of My Family’s Schizophrenia,” for which he has won the Ken Book Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness for “outstanding literary contribution to the understanding of mental illness,” a Slate best book of 2008, and the prestigious PEN New England/L.L. Winship Award for Nonfiction. “Stalking Irish Madness” is a dynamite, compelling read. It’s intriguing, informative, poetic, and captivating. Here is the author to share some of it with us.


Thanks for joining us, Patrick! I so enjoyed your book.

1) Correct me if I’m wrong. You began this search because you have been so devastated by the emotional toll that schizophrenia has already had in your family, which includes two of your sisters, your uncle, your grandmother, your great-great-great grandmother who came over from Ireland. And also because you are afraid to pass the mental illness on to the next generation. I know you are close with your nephew, that he is like a son to you, but have you made a decision not to have children because of the risk of passing the illness on?

Patrick: Yes, I made a point of not having children. And then I kept meeting women who were mad to have them. Or women who were running out of eggs and desperately wanted children. Given my family history, I was not the man.


Not that I would have made a bad father – I think I could be great one – but because I lived with the burden of believing that our bloodline might produce more madness and I could not bear to see another loss. I was on the horn of the same dilemma my mother had been on. Because she saw her own mother and her brother go stark raving mad, and because they were told there was nothing that could be expected to be done about it, my mother decided against having children.

stalking irish madness 2.jpg


Instead Mom set her sights on a career in the law, inspired by Shakespeare’s cross-dressing Portia from The Merchant of Venice. She was on her way to a high-powered legal career, sans children, and then her head was turned by my father. Dad was set on having his own big Irish Catholic brood. They saw two doctors–a family doctor in Boston who said it ran in families and cautioned against it–and a second specialist in New York that my father found. I’m sure the fix was in, because Dad did roll that way. He knew how to get his way. He talked Mom into having us, and when not one but two daughters, including her baby, stepped into the empty elevator shaft–the change was that dramatic–it killed my mother. She could not handle it. Of course, few could.


They say that genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger. My own feeling is that my mother loaded the gun with her family’s errant gene bank, and my father pulled the trigger with the atmosphere of alcoholism he brought to the table.

Me, I didn’t fall far from the tree. I was behind the door when God was giving out the schizophrenic genes, but I was front and center for the alkie ones. I became a drunk and when I sobered up, finally, I found that the new ex-drunk me was determined to get answers. I was alcoholically clean but I had to get emotionally clean for my sanity.

My travels through Ireland validated many suspicions I had about the high levels of schizophrenia and alcoholism in the Irish and Irish-Americans. The British-fed famine promoted fetal malnourishment that can more than double rates in children. Also older fathers – because you were often 50 before you inherited the potato patch to become eligible – can also more than double rates. Late age of paternity was a direct consequence of the famine. But for me, personally, I could not take the chance because I am no spring chicken myself these days. The clear risk in children of older man was the final nail in the coffin for me. I must get snipped!


So fetal malnourishment and late age of paternity and alcohol abuse form the three legs of my three-legged stool of Irish madness. They didn’t cause it–the underlying susceptibility is there in all of us–but they inflamed it. I promise you.

2) You capture so well the guilt, the reservations, the desires of family members of the mentally ill. Toward the end of your book, you write “Like me, Elaine and Seanna (your two sisters who are not schizophrenic) have spent much time wondering why they got so buried in the storm instead of us. We have a survivor’s hard humor that masks our guilt.” And then a few pages later, you write: “In the end it’s easier just to love Austine (your youngest sister with schizophrenia) than to try to figure her out and get sidetracked into despair.” Again, powerful stuff. So many Beyond Blue readers have mentally-ill loved ones. The guilt and the despair … how do you get passed that?


Patrick: This is the core experience for us: guilt. And that makes us a good object lesson because guilt is always the last defect to get processed. I guarantee you that if you can swim past all the other head gremlins–the anger, the despair, the self pity, the low self worth, the dishonesty and all the other thousand forms of fear that we drink and use on–the last one is guilt. It is the final one that says, why do you even bother? Don’t even try to feel good, because you first have to pay for your worthlessness through some twisted, sacrificial, self-flagellating guilt trip.

Drinking was my own way of whipping my ass every night. I’d get as whipped as I could and then go one drink more. I’d get as out of my mind as I could, swinging hard for the fences, and then I’d put myself out of the park with that last shot at last call to fully inhabit the insanity that missed me but got my two sisters. This was my head space and I truly believe it all stemmed from the feeling that guilt was a useful force in my life. This was all wrong. I had it all backwards. Only a hateful God demands payment in guilt. A loving God asks nothing.


This is an insane voice, not God’s voice, because guilt tells us that love itself is cruel. Love is not. It never condemns, never inflicts, never attacks, never demands, never imposes, never intrudes on unwelcome ground.

Today I see how toxic guilt can be. Today I don’t let it imprison me, but I have to be vigilant. Because of my guilt, this book was the last thing I ever planned to write. But then this gene link was discovered in Ireland and I truly felt “called’ to write it. Still, throughout my journey, it was guilt that lashed me back, a demon voice telling me that I had no right to be looking into this, that I was only throwing my sisters under the bus, and that I should be ashamed of myself for tearing the covers off the family secrets. I am so glad I did not heed that negative voice, because my sisters truly love our story and are so happy that it has been told.


Plus the book has brought us all together, even long lost cousins. It’s afforded us a great re-union and now we want to reach out to the wider Irish family of people and loved ones afflicted with schizophrenia. Now that I’m sober, I am useful. And now that I know that mental wellness is essentially the same for us–a matter of managing the voices in our heads–I can deal. I can draw great strength in my family’s kinship of common suffering and healing.

For one of the most schizophrenic and alcoholic families you’ll ever find, we are a good example of recovery in all its gritty technicolor. We are actually a fun bunch, an absolute riot to be around sometimes. Our humor is our lifeboat, and when we laugh we are never closer to heaven. As the bard said, laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone.


There is no denying that the experience of seeing one person after another go mad was devastating for us. Because I did not see it coming, it was like getting hit by a meteor–the devastation felt total and the aftermath permanent and I dealt with the sorrow and the separation mainly by drinking. These days and everyday, I wake up in the morning and close my eyes again to hand it all over. I forgive the world and forgive myself and then go do the best I can do that day. Some days I’m flying high, on others my best prayer is a groan.

3) I love your description of schizophrenia in the beginning of the book: “Schizophrenia is not a case of snapping back and forth between different personalities–a common misconception. Schizophrenia is the hearing of voices, but the hallucinations can be seen, felt, and smelled as well as heard. It’s fright night for life for many, an all-consuming terror that never ends.” Wow. What a description. What do you think the most common misconceptions are about the illness?


Patrick: There’s only one misconception that must be cleared up, and it’s a massive one. There is widespread ignorance about the experience of hearing voices, having verbal or auditory hallucinations, and this is the most common experience of schizophrenia. If we could just start thinking of schizophrenia as hearing voices, then this would clear up a lot of confusion right off the bat. People would begin to understand the experience from the point of view of the person having it.

Unfortunately, our ignorance has been abetted by fear. For so long, the idea of engaging therapeutically with verbal hallucinations has been viewed with boneheaded suspicion. This needs to change. The evidence is in. This one shift in attitude could open the flood gates to healing and recovery.


The correction has been firmly planted in Europe, the first glimmer of hope coming twelve years ago with the beginning of the Hearing Voices Network in Maastricht. Their meetings have since flourished in Europe. For some reason this more opened-minded attitude has taken much longer to reach and root itself in the United States. It will though–it’s absolutely inevitable like all irrepressibly good ideas.

The technique, known as “dialoguing,” was deemed irresponsible, even dangerous, by mainstream psychiatry. Now the ground has shifted beneath psychiatry’s feet and all but the most hidebound are open to the technique of encouraging so-called schizophrenics to dialogue with their voices. This places the key to their recovery within their own hands.


It’s encouraging to see that more and more psychiatrists are open to this kind of treatment. It’s nice to see the big tent attitude replace the tiny teepee. I don’t mind drug therapy and continued research, but to believe that medication is the sole answer requires a desperate poverty of imagination.

At one time, if you came in to see a psychiatrist and complained of hearing voices, he’d say “it’s nothing, take these pills.” I know this to be true from my own family. With my sisters, my uncle and my grandmother – who all have lived in the throes of verbal hallucination – we were told “it’s nothing, take these pills.”

I think we can speak for most families in saying, we don’t mind the pills, if they work, but we do mind the blind indifference to auditory hallucinations. If somebody comes to you with a broken nail, the very last response should be “it’s nothing.”


It’s sad to think that so many lifetimes have been lived on the sharp end of “it’s nothing,” but at least we now live in enlightened times. Even if America has yet to accept the hearing voices movement as warmly as it has been received by our more progressive European cousins, it’s just taking a bit longer. The key thing here is that psychiatry on both sides of the water now see things differently.

Click here to visit Patrick’s website.

Click here to subscribe to Beyond Blue and click here to follow Therese on Twitter and click here to join Group Beyond Blue, a depression support group. Now stop clicking.

  • http://thanks kate

    You have *absolutely* made my day with this interview.
    I’m Irish enough to know that this is making so, so much scientific sense to me.
    I hope to be back w/some thoughts, questions on the relationship between the famine and, well, I am what, at 42, 4th generation I think. My great, great’s would have survived, and all of the greats grandparents were immigrants to NYC.
    Would love to pick this guy’s brain on how “this” effects adoption/foster research and situations as they were so common turn of the century for 1st generation immigrant families.
    What a lark that I did geneology to get through to St Pat’s last year.
    And this guys writing is so managable.
    Am passing this on to clinitians (sp?) and friends alike.
    “Up the Irish” my mom (from Millstreet Cork) would say. : )
    Thanks again Therese.

  • melzoom

    loved this entire set of articles, T. Thank you.
    (And thank you to Patrick for his candor about his insights on procreation…)

  • Harold A. Maio

    You capture so well the guilt, the reservations, the desires of family members of “the” mentally ill.
    Some, not all. Your “the” mentally ill is far too broad.
    We are about 20% of society and for the most part are indiscernible from others. We are collectively as productive and successful as others.
    Dear to us at present is “the” mentally ill, as were earlier, are yet, in other places other forms. Why they remain dear is less important than recognizing they are an indication of prejudice, for every group reduced to a “the” is far more varied, far more than caricature.
    Harold A. Maio

  • Your Name

    Somewhere in our genetics, motley though they are, is some Irish blood. We have the fair skin, great sense of humor and colorful personalities, the alcoholism and other less fun parts of being Irish.
    I’m 55. One brother disappeared and never returned. One brother drank himself to death alone in his apartment. My mother died of cancer at 62 and my dad is quietly waiting to die.
    I am the white sheep of the family, or so they thought. As far as I know there is no schizophrenia in our family but there is so much else screwed up inside of us that I’ve spent my entire life trying to get over the first 15 or so years spent with my family.
    I’ve struggled with addictions, depression, anxiety and one of the last mental health stigmas, Dissociative Identity Disorder. My mom’s family were into satanic/occult activities. For the last 14 years I’ve been trying to recover from DID while living with a spouse who says DID doesn’t exist. So, I live with my own form of insane living between the different mental states of my own reality and the crazy man I married who thinks I would choose having different personalities over boring life as a singleton if I were given a choice
    All survivor’s stories give me hope because I am a survivor on the way to hope, healing and recovery. There are so many more DID people among us than any would guess and only a few of us act like “Sybil” or “Three faces of Eve”. My first rule in living was to “pass for normal”. It was safer that way, I stayed alive by doing that. But, what kept me alive then is killing me now. So, I stay in counseling, use meds discretely and work toward the day when God helps me go free.
    Thanks for all the cool things you write and speak Therese. The words and You matter.

  • Bárabra


  • Randy

    This is to the lady that signed her reply ” Deb ” .
    In reply to your sentence ” So, I stay in counseling , use meds discretely and work toward the day God helps me go free . ”
    Your perception of God is incorrect . God helps those that helps themselves . Remember this .
    The ” work towards the day God helps me go free ” is your key in understanding . God has to do nothing , you set yourself free when you have total faith in him . That is how it works . You will feel it when you say to God I believe what you have told me in the bible and I trust in you completely and know there is nothing to worry about , I trust you God and know everything will be alright .
    Until you get to that will you be free of all your fears and doubt’s .
    Until you accept Jesus as God , the good Shepard and the fact that he is pure love and you have nothing to fear and following him in thought and prayer daily , will you know peace in your spirit .
    Ask yourself this question . Do I believe in God or not ? Then think about it . Look over all things said by God in the bible . Know what God said . Think about it .

  • Steve

    My wife has schizophrenia, but it was a late on-set. She was near 30 before she had her first encounter with the voices. Needless to say, I was not prepared for what has now been over 20 years of fear, anxiety, frustration, hurt, guilt, confusion, disappointment, pain, etc, etc, etc…. Since then, I have found out her grandmother, father, and cousins all have or had the illness. Fortunately we have not had children which to me have been a blessing and a disappointment. Of course I would not want anyone to have this “madness”, so it is a blessing we haven’t had children.
    I believe my wife must be an unusual case, she was a late bloomer to the illness, she has taken all the meds, which really just dull the senses. Of course she doesn’t think she has a problem, so now she doesn’t take anything. She’s spent time (multiple stays over the years) in the local psychiatric hospitals for her safety and mine and for “treatment”. Since her last stay, Sept of last year, she has changed. She still hears the voices, but she is acting more “normally” than she has in years. Another blessing. Only God’s grace has sustained me. I enjoyed Patrick’s frank and honest discussion about his family. I can’t image having more than one family member with this illness. God bless you Patrick!

  • Your Name

    I believe i suffer from schizophrenia. i am a 31 year old female and i started hearing voices off & on around the age of 21- i am now 31. it has gotten worse b/ i have sprained my wrist resulting in an injury due to a “freak ot” session during my sleep. it’s almost like a re-occuring dream but i think there is someone coming into my room and i jumped out of bed in my sleep and fell backwards. so… husband & i joke about it- but i freak out off & on from time to time. i don’t know if it’s stress or environmental that effects this condition more. but i would say its safe to say i suffer from this mentally…..and physically. any input on this? feeling lonely,embarrassed, mis-understood, and possibly in public denial but i know deep down what i truly believe!

  • Your Name

    You seem to see the disease in a different light. I wish my mother would work with me, she gets very upset and thinks sometimes I am against her. I am so exhausted but I love her and want to make things better for her. She refuses her heart medicine and doesn’t see there is a problem. She hasn’t mentioned hearing the voices lately but at the beginning she heard them one night all night long and we were up with her yelling “I know you hear the music and the people calling my cat” It really is so frustrating, I was told to say that I did hear them just to calm her. I so appreciate your imput on all of this and want to get a copy of your book.

  • Your Name

    I just read this blog, must be a re-run from last year.
    Therese, it is so good to read this artical by Patrick Tracey. It brings back memories that I can revisit without much pain. My Mother was a paranoid schizophrenic, probably all her life. She lived to be 89 but it was fine. My childhood was not too good, slightly damaging.
    I would accept what she believed to be happening so she would always talk to me about them. My sister and brother tried over and over again to get her to see that what she thought, WAS IMPOSSIBLE. They moved 2000 miles to get away from her. Really their loss. This experience made my adult children and myself more tolerant of mental illness.
    I have been a life long depressive. On meds many years and living a fairly good life with grandchildren and all.
    This I want to share with all of you. Later in life, my Mom needed assisted living. I took her to the geriatics, psychiatratic (sp) department of a teaching Medical University. They put her on the right meds. She would never have taken them, as she wouldn’t take them all those other years. Well, she lived 3 more years, and I told them they had given me a Mother I never had. She had always been mean-spirited and frankly, crazy. She was sweet and thoughtful. She loved her family and was able to maintain working and all that goes with living. I must give her credit for how well she did.
    I did have a stepmother I lived with (and Dad) for all my teenage years. She gave me the stability and nurturing that was missing in my young life. One of my sisters also lived with us, but died at age 31, because of mental illness. Mom visited my other sister and brother many times over the years. They NEVER COULD ACCEPT HER FOR WHO SHE WAS. And guess what: My sister can be mean-spirited, also.
    It was so good reading all the comments. I hope someone will see this later blog. If not, it’s okay because I read this story and wrote my story for myself. I have finally started a “Self Esteeme

  • Bev Y

    OOps, I did it again. Name on above comments was me. Bev Y

  • Nina

    I just wrote a post about the effects of schizophrenia on siblings at my new blog: My post was in response to a 20/20 episode last week profiling families who are living with this disease. It was a touching story. I have a link to it on my post, so check it out if you’re interested.

  • John A.

    I’m half irish and half scottish and i am, once again struggling with depression. my father, who was scottish, was an alcoholic and probably suffered from depression. my mother, on the other hand, was irish and
    raised six kids. I often read books like this one for inspiration in dealing with my illness and watch movies like a beautiful mind to know that I am not alone in this world. I too, decided that I did not want to pass on the gene to future generations but I often wonder if my recurring depressions would be less if I had a family of my own.

  • Your Name

    This article is on What exactly do you believe in?
    Schizophrenia is spiritual. So is depression. It is a spiritual
    attack on a person. Yes, you do see and hear with the physical.
    The drugs only effect the symptoms, like a band-aid, but does
    nothing to heal the actual source.
    That takes God.
    Gene therapy aside, been there, done that, and I know what
    I saw and heard and felt and there’s was only One who can
    honestly fix it.
    As far as the alcoholism is concerned, that is a choice and an
    escape, Not a gene. If you want Truth, want the whole Truth,
    and not some band-aid that will excuse your accountability
    and choices.
    The spiritual is passed on to the children so the process
    continues. Lies and bad habits and abuse are passed on.
    These too have to be dealt with, whether through therapy,i.e.
    making you realize truth, or God, who can heal it permanently.
    And, trying to do it on your own, why even bother having a
    belief? Why do you need God?
    IF you settle for the therapy, drugs and handling it on your
    own, you may learn to live with it, or patronize someone but
    where is the cure or Truth in that?
    No, you don’t talk to the voices! Never. For the love of God,
    learn about spiritual warfare and deal with it like believers.
    Or, live with it and call it what you want.
    It is what it is and it is spiritual.

  • CMD

    Wow!!! This is so real to me. I, also had severe family problems down the line, and suffered an unreal childhood. I watched members suffer while I was confused as to what I should do, and now, am 41 years old, still confuse, still going aroun and around all this BS!!! The best thing to do, I understand, is to write…write….write about my experiences. I am presently at a crossroads with my career, and know that if I could write this whole lifetime of experiences out in anorganized fashion, It’ll help not only me, but 1,ooo’ of people who need help. I never wanted to have children because they would suffer.Amazing. In 41 yrs., I finally read for the first time about another who has a heart.
    God Bless!!!

  • neng

    It’s always fascinate me on reading something that will help me understand other peoples behaviors… I think Schizophrenia is not only one to worry here but also an Alzheimer’s disease.. I used to volunteer in the nursing home with the elderly people who have Alzheimer’s diseases and some of the patients had developed depressions though to they were feeling hopeless that their illnesses have no cure and some of them were missing their loved ones badly… Some patients inside of the facilities didn’t get the visit from their families once they got admitted to the facilities and this deteriorate their health faster too… It’s sad to see that they have had to suffer this kind of diseases… It does truly break my heart seeing people who are suffering from any pains, feeling so hopeless, lonely, and are longing that they can be with their families and loved ones… By the way, I believe that alcoholism is a choice.. A person who has a right mind will avoid to become an alcoholic if he knows that this make him/her unhealthy… God give us life to live wisely not to abuse it… Some people when they have problems and can’t resolve it, they turn into an alcoholics or drug addicts.. And blaming God… But they’re not realizing that they’re the ones who are creating their own problems deeply…. Everyone struggles at some time in life to find meaning, but if they only accept that they have purpose living intentionally and take advantage of all the opportunities on this particular day has to offer, then they don’t have to drag themselves into this bad habit of alcoholism… Why they can’t learn how to drink in moderation?… As they said, ” life isn’t tied with a bow, but it’s still a gift.”



  • paul quinlan

    i read the book when it first came out. excellent, insightful, and makes clear much of what is the irish madness. why we are a bit different than others both good and erring. thank you.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment john ryan

    Pat i was looking in a library catalogue for Irish music and saw Irish mental illness mentioned. Perhaps you may remeber me from the 70’s Say hello to your sisters for me.

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