No wonder Sinéad O’Connor had mental health issues.
Up until July 26, 2023, I wasn’t familiar with Sinéad O’Connor.
Other female stars from the 80s like Courtney Love, Chrissie Hynde, Annie Lennox, Joan Jet—yes. But not Sinéad.
Never heard her music. Unaware of the controversy surrounding her with the pope and the Catholic Church. Oblivious to her being “cancelled” before cancelled was even a thing. News of her death at age fifty-six and allusions to her “toxic” life put her on my radar.
My friend Glori Meldrum shared an interesting comment about Sinéad on Facebook. When I want to see the story behind a story I turn to Glori. If there is a history of childhood sexual abuse in the past of a survivor or perpetrator, Glori knows. When Sinéad died suddenly, Glori posted, “No wonder she had mental health issues.”
What I learned about Sinéad’s life experience informs my perspective on several issues.
Less than 20 minutes of digging identified her as the most famous Irish singer of all time. As well as perhaps one of the most reviled.
Her career appeared to crater as quickly as it soared. She shaved her head when that wasn’t cool for a female rock star. Protesting sexual abuse in the church when hers was a solo voice. Ripping up a picture of the pope on SNL Outspoken about racism, women’s rights, organized religion, and human rights. Booed off the stage at performances. Converting to Islam.
Sent to a juvenile detention centre as a teen. Being emotionally and physically tortured by her mother. Allegedly, as the periodicals like to say. Allegedly a personal witness to sexual abuse by Catholic priests during her time in a Magdalene asylum.
She agonized, “I have never—and probably will never—experience such panic and terror and agony over anything.” Diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Her seventeen-year-old son died by suicide in 2022.
Being An Artist
Sinéad O’Connor wanted people to ask, “Why would an Irish Catholic woman who survived child abuse want to rip up the pope’s picture?”
“Many people did not understand the protest,” she lamented eight years later. She wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post, “I knew my action would cause trouble, but I wanted to force a conversation where there was a need for one; that is part of being an artist. All I regretted was that people assumed I didn’t believe in God. That’s not the case at all. I’m Catholic by birth and culture and would be the first at the church door if the Vatican offered sincere reconciliation.”
“These problems that we see in the world, they are spiritual problems. Trying to fix them with politics is like throwing a rock to a drowning man.”
In Rememberings, she writes: “A lot of people say or think that tearing up the pope’s photo derailed my career. That’s not how I feel about it. I feel that having a number-one record derailed my career and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track.”
Here’s the deal.
Sinéad wasn’t worried about whether she said the wrong thing. She was worried about what happens if you don’t try to say something.
A day after her SNL debacle she was interviewed by Tony Lindo on Viddyms. A long statement she reads on this show begins simply: “My name is Sinéad O’Connor and I’m an Irish woman and I’m an abused child.” She says that although people may be booing now, when they understand, they’ll be cheering.
When they understand they’ll be cheering. And she was right.
Practice Being Lonely
Of all that I read about Sinéad it was Hilary Plum’s perspective that caught my attention. Hilary is an author and a professor. A year before the singer’s death, Hilary wrote about Sinéad. Her writing was a sit-up-and-take-notice moment.
“To revisit the past from a comfortable distance, this time with a clear moral map—it’s reassuring. It feels good. We practice imagining ourselves on the right side of history. But then we’re practicing being on a side, when we need to practice being lonely.”
“We knew how to watch the spectacle, but not how to listen.”
“You have to practice letting yourself be challenged, be discomfited, be changed. Art helps you practice living in that difficult, lonely, listening, receptive space… do the slow work of listening, receiving, interpreting, responding, dreaming, playing, being in conversation and changing together.”
First One Through The Wall
What’s lonely is speaking, like Sinéad, ahead of your time. The Marines have a saying, “The first one through the wall gets bloodied.” In leadership we talk about “three steps ahead you’re a leader. Eight steps ahead, you’re a martyr.”
Sinéad became a martyr.
Her career died because she spoke up.
The support and resources in battling mental illness and grief died.
Her death gives me pause.
Who is speaking up now ahead of their time?
Who is being cancelled?
Beth Moore comes to mind.
So do a lot of other people of faith who are questioning the values of churches and denominations.
Deconstruction is the wide brush applied to anyone that seeks to explore a different way of faith.
Glori is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She is also a witness to battling mental health issues. Yet, she formed a healthy marriage and family, built a wildly successful business, established an organization to address abuse, and built a one-of-a-kind, world class treatment centre to help survivors.
She is a Warrior.
And she understands what it is to be lonely. To be a voice that leads to isolation trying to be understood. Of listening to herself and others like her.
The least we can do is listen to hear someone about their life experience, especially when it is not our experience. Be slow to speak. Quick listen.
In 1992, Kris Kristofferson wrote a poem to Sinéad after she was booed off a stage they shared together.
“I’m singing this song for my sister Sinéad
Concerning the god awful mess that she made
When she told them her truth just as hard as she could
Her message profoundly was misunderstood
There’s humans entrusted with guarding our gold
And humans in charge of the saving of souls
And humans responded all over the world
Condemning that bald headed brave little girl
And maybe she’s crazy and maybe she ain’t
But so was Picasso and so were the saints
And she’s never been partial to shackles or chains
She’s too old for breaking and too young to tame
It’s askin’ for trouble to stick out your neck
In terms of a target a big silhouette
But some candles flicker and some candles fade
And some burn as true as my sister Sinead.”
What are your thoughts? Are you listening? Who in your world is practising being lonely? Please join the conversation, post a comment below, and share the post on your social platforms. Thank you.
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