The Syd Barrett Moment

Syd Barrett in 1969

Syd Barrett in 1969 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We had one of our Syd Barrett moments this weekend. If you’re a “certain age” (like me), then probably the name Syd Barrett immediately conjures up slightly disturbing images in your head. The inspiration for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is a biographical note I think most of us would feel better not having. And yet, in the end, that was Syd’s greatest claim to fame. But why he inspired that dark masterpiece is what concerns us here today.

It’s because he was pretty much crazy. A physically beautiful young man and talented musician, Roger “Syd” Barrett got heavily into LSD and, as she is sometimes wont to do, the Acid Queen opened some doors for him that should never have been opened. Increasingly erratic, cast out of Pink Floyd, the band he’d help create, Syd recorded a couple of haunting solo albums, and then did serious time in mental institutions. It’s said that a visit to him when he was in one of those institutions reduced his bandmate Roger Waters to tears, and that Roger never went back. Some people think that sounds weak, but that’s only because they don’t have a Syd in their own lives.

We do.

Our Syd is a girl. We might want to call her Ophelia for the purposes of this story, since Ophelia, although fictional, is another fine representation of that scary moment when a sensitive, creative mind crosses some sort of line. Or opens the wrong door.

Ophelia was best friends with Dr. Sheldon Cooper throughout his time in middle school. They were both phenomenally talented musicians, members of the school theatre group and dangerously high-strung. She was also two years older than our young doctor and fashion model pretty. Except for the high-strung part, she seemed like a great kid. She reminded me entirely too much of myself as a teenager, and so I probably didn’t limit their time together to the degree I should have. Although, to be fair to myself, I remember thinking “loose cannon” the first time I ever saw her, and being convinced by the Man and other family friends that I was being a laughably overprotective mom. Besides, their time together consisted of going to movies with a group of mutual friends, participating in school activities, and talking on the phone. How dangerous could that be? A lot, as it turned out.

As time passed, we all began to realize that Ophelia was more than just dangerously high-strung. She was just plain dangerous. Her fondness for Dr. Sheldon Cooper turned into an obsession – a clingy, manipulative obsession that caused him to withdraw from us for many months before we fully realized what was happening. We thought his new silent, brooding personality had been triggered by some serious health challenges I was going through at the time, and no doubt that contributed. But the main problem was that his friend was going crazy before his very eyes and he had no vocabulary for it. Finally, the depth of Ophelia’s obsession made itself known when she attempted suicide while talking to Dr. Cooper on the phone one night. He was thirteen years old when this happened, and he’s still pretty stand-offish with girls as a result.

At the end of that year, we moved Dr. Cooper to a new all-boy school. He tried half-heartedly to keep in touch with Ophelia and his old group of friends. She was in an intensive treatment program and seemed to be improving. He joined her and the group for a nostalgic trip to the movies last summer. When I dropped him off at the theatre, I took one look at her and knew she was in another downward spiral. There’s a look that someone with a truly serious mental illness gets. I remembered it then from the schizophrenic friend I’d had in college. It’s a look that seems to be coming from a planet about ten light-years away. A look that says, “the voices in my head are more real than you are.” Because for that person, at that moment, they are. That kind of illness is different from being anxious or depressed, serious emotional problems that I’m familiar with from the inside-out. That kind of illness is the kind that leaves its victim detached from everyone around him or her. They become unreachable. In the end, all you can do is have a good cry and walk away.

A few months after the movie get-together, I heard that Ophelia had “taken another bad turn” and was in a local residential treatment center. Then she was back out and started calling again. Dr. Cooper became brooding and anxious. We blocked her number on all the phones but one – mine. Because I just had to know how she was doing. Is it because I’m nosey? Maybe a little. Mostly it’s because I remember being very close to opening that door when I was in my late teens, and again when I was in my early twenties. The first time, I walked away from it all on my own and went to England instead of trying to kill myself. The second time, a very spiritual friend (who I barely knew at the time) called me out of the blue and asked me to spend the summer with her in Arizona. I did, and her little gesture helped me be able to face the world again. But in the end, I think I was just lucky – or blessed. I never heard those voices that Ophelia hears or that Syd Barrett heard too.

We hadn’t heard from Ophelia since last summer, although we’d heard about her from mutual acquaintances. We were under the impression she was getting better and knew that she was supposed to start college this past January. We were busy with jobs, and school activities and new friends. Honestly, I don’t think Dr. Cooper had even thought of her in months.

Then this weekend came the call – the Syd Barrett moment. She said she was in a “boarding school,” which was weird since she’d already graduated from high school last year. Further talk made it clear she’s in another residential treatment center and that she’s had a “hard time adjusting” lately. She thinks in the fall she might get out and be able to go to a community college. Her parents always expected her to play in a symphony orchestra, but she tells me all she really wants to do now is knit and sew. Maybe be a tailor. She doesn’t want to be a musical genius, she just wants to sew a pretty dress someday. I wish her luck and tell her to keep in touch. Dr. Cooper refuses to come to the phone. I tell Ophelia he’s out at the library, studying for exams. She’s a little let down, but I get the feeling she’s not surprised he “can’t” talk to her anymore. At some point, he had a cry and he walked away, and he’s done now. They say insanity isn’t catching, but for some emotionally fragile people, it sure feels like it could be. Sometimes, walking away is about self-preservation.

I don’t know why some people never come back from that dark place on the other side of the door. Syd Barrett eventually closed the door and went home to live with his mom in Cambridge. The brilliantly innovative guitarist remained on the other side of the door, in the dark place. He went back to being just plain Roger Barrett and it’s said he found a measure of peace and contentment painting abstract canvases and tending the family garden. I hope that’s true. And may it be true of Ophelia too, and all who suffer as she does.

Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.

John Everett Millais - Ophelia - WGA15685



  1. Very well written and very tragic.

  2. Good post. Very poignant.

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