She was the tiniest, frailest person of my own generation I had ever met by the time I stood next to her in the rehab room where I was stationed to provide her care during night shifts as she recovered from an undisclosed procedure.
I suppose I could have found out more about her gory details if I’d tried, but her status as a celebrity made me want to protect her, even from my own prying mind.
Once I thought being famous would be everything I ever needed to make me happy. By that time, I definitely knew better. I wouldn’t wish fame on anyone, let alone on anyone with a predisposition to mental health and addiction issues, or a survivor of childhood trauma, both of which she qualified as.The thigh bone is connected to the leg bone. Neither bone does well under public scrutiny.
When I entered her room to sit watch, she was just a small bundle in the double bed against the wall. It was dim, with curtains drawn and all surfaces hushed by carpets, drapes, pillows, clothing, newspapers, towels. I don’t know what I had expected, but it wasn’t this. The punk icon of my youth laid low by who knows what instead of shredding pope photos on late night TV.
It dawned on me I hadn’t really heard much about her recently. I felt bad suddenly, as if I had forgotten to check on a dear friend. What shits we can be, consuming our heroes while they are fresh and vibrant, never giving two thoughts when they disappear from view, or we hear rumors they may be losing their edge.
I realized sitting in her room while she slept, I had no idea what her life was, or what being out there rocking the world on our behalf as a smart, political, outspoken, brave, Gen X woman had actually cost her.
I’d been called earlier that afternoon on an emergency basis, by the friend of a friend, to help provide round-the-clock support to a secret client. I had been working in recovery for a few years at that time, mostly as a provider of transportation and support counseling to in-patient rehab customers at private facilities in the Bay Area, sometimes as an art therapist.
I had been clean and sober myself for 20 years or more. I was a Gen X small town punk rock kid who had become a theater geek, folk musician, art weirdo and then married a Boomer trust fund hippie folk musician, had a baby, and ran screaming into sobriety for my dear life.
In my life as a band bitch, I had rubbed up against so many famous folk by this time, I was pretty immune to the sticker shock of A-List Players. But this was different. The world, rock and roll in general, and punk rock specifically being primarily a boys’ playing field, our roster of Gen X female punk rock role models was limited to begin with. Add spins of riot grrl feminism, addiction recovery, trauma recovery, mental health advocacy… the pool gets even shallower.
Sinead hit all the highlights. First, she had shrugged off the oppressive idealized projections of feminine beauty that we were all slogging through by shaving her head and telling everyone who said shit about it to, in essence, fuck off. Then, in 1992, nine years before anyone publicly acknowledged the institutionalized child abuse inside the Catholic church, when she performed Bob Marley’s “War” on SNL as a protest of sexual abuse of children by church officials, she entered legendary status.
The backlash she received from that point forward was painful to watch. I can only imagine what it felt like to be at ground zero: inside her life. But what it meant to me, and to lots of us I think, was everything. Because of her public actions, among others, when I encountered suppressed memories of childhood sexual abuse that emerged from the darkness between the years of 1992 and 1996, I was able to summon the courage to leave my abusive marriage, find support from a therapist, enter addiction recovery, break silence in my own family, and begin the journey of healing that began to unfold for me from that point.
For better or worse, whoever I became as a trauma survivor, woman, mother, and artist were in part because of Sinead. Now here I was, standing guard while she slept. She was so tiny and frail. This powerhouse. This icon. This leader.
I was humbled more deeply than I knew I could be. It occurred to me sitting in that room, no matter who you are, how powerful and mighty, life can crumble you. But there was a beauty to her that could not be erased by time and tragedy.
She came barely to my shoulder when she finally stood and walked with me. Hair greying, still shaved. Skin aging, tattoos blurring—like me.
Here’s how we do it. No nip and tuck, no stretched face shiny weirdness. No gloss, no glory. Thank gods for middle aged punk chicks. I learned a lot about her through those days. What she shared with me, I don’t share, and stays with me cherished as private conversation.
Each of us, in our vulnerable moments, deserves privacy and dignity. Being a successful artist doesn’t mean the world owns our insides. But much of what she spoke about with me was already out in the public record. I looked up her public interviews, visited her social media posts, caught up on what she was presenting to the world since I had last paid attention. Her life has been filled with so much difficulty, tragedy, struggle, and pain.
My heart went out to her. No amount of success in the world can guard us from what it costs to live in the world as ourselves.In the few days I had with her, I chose to quietly just be there, listening, helping her get back on her feet literally, talked to her like she was any other women in a vulnerable place, trying to get somewhere better.
I never told her what she meant to me. How much I admired her. How much I was rooting for her. It felt like an invasion of privacy to do so. I just tried to transmit my gratitude to her in my actions and leave the rest unspoken. Let her just be another person in need for a while. I don’t know if that was the right thing to do or not. Maybe it would have mattered to her to hear how she had made a difference in my life. How she had made a difference in the lives of so many women I knew of my generation and beyond. How so many of us were rooting for her. How we saw her as beautiful, and cherished, and vital, and irreplaceable.
Regardless, the moments I had with her on those days I cherish and carry with me. They inform how I am aging, how I treat myself, how I see other women at times. Life is going to crumble us all eventually. No matter how bad ass, how important, how amazing. The only thing we need to do in the meantime is keep getting up again, getting to our feet, speaking our truth, being ourselves, keep going on.
A few years after my time with Sinead, we all got to see her live performance from Berlin on world media. It was so glorious, I cried. Risen up from a tiny cocoon of blankets in the dark, that beautiful butterfly again. Never say never. It isn’t over ‘til it’s over.
Go easy, big soul. You blazed a trail for us. I’m here walking behind you, holding a little part of the light you carried maybe a little further down the path, hopefully handing pieces of it to those behind me too.
You changed us, you helped change the world, even if only a little. Change is ridiculously slow, but following your example, I’ll keep getting up, and keeping on.
Originally published at NOVEL atelier | Charissa Drengsen.