The world is becoming increasingly aware of narcissists as more and more countries – the US, the UK, and Ireland, to name but three – have fallen prey to narcissistic leaders. As with any disorder that gains prominence, every armchair psychologist thinks they are qualified to diagnose people they know and, indeed, people they have never met, with said disorder.
Narcissism is not a glib label to be applied to every person we come across who has a well-developed sense of self-esteem. Putting yourself first is not narcissism. Having a healthy sense of self is not narcissism. Being proud of your achievements is not narcissism. Being in a relationship with a narcissist is eroding, exhausting, and can even be dangerous.
While a narcissistic partner and / or a narcissistic co-parent can be frustrating and bewildering, the most damaging narcissist is the narcissistic parent. I’ve had experience of narcissistic parents, narcissistic ex-husbands, and knowing narcissists in a professional capacity. As a result, I can honestly say that, of these, the most damage is done by narcissistic parents.
This handy infographic details some of the traits of narcissistic parents:
If you can tick any of these off, you have my sympathy, and solidarity. If you’re a woman who has borne the brunt of an abusive mother, and the complications peculiar to that kind of relationship, please feel free to join my online support group.
Today is not a good day. And part of me is delighted.
I cried today, for the first time since…I can’t remember when. I have shed some tears, and welled-up in recent weeks: Reading of people’s hardships, and triumphs, and sharing their joys and their sorrows on the other side of my screen how could I not?
But today, I felt miserable. Overwhelmed. I felt bad. By that, I don’t mean I felt ‘off’. I mean I felt like I am a bad person. Inherently, intrinsically, indisputably bad at the core of me. This is not uncommon for people who have histories of child sexual abuse; we feel that, if someone had done something so dreadful to us, it must have been because they saw the badness in us, and addressed it. They knew they could abuse and rape us because it was all we deserved.
Today, through the tears and (for the first time in a long time, sobs), I was able to logically provide myself with reasons why:
1. Hours of reading and writing about child sexual abuse for my PhD work (enjoying the work, but acknowledging that I need to mind myself in the middle of it).
2. A ‘brother’ hopping on to Whatsapp for the first time in years to hurl abuse during the week (blocked and reported).
3. Being reminded several times before breakfast – by all the Mothers’ Day posts on social media – that most people have mothers who don’t set out to deliberately destroy them (mine’s a narcissist, so I have hundreds of stories about how she’s done this).
4. Not being on top of the housework (is any of us ever on top of the housework?!)
5. The voice in the back of my head that tells me I’m not good enough, that I’ll never be good enough, that I’m rubbish – the voice that’s silent more often than it whispers these days – getting louder.
My daughters noticed my tears:
‘Mum! What’s the matter?’
‘Mum! What’s wrong?’
They asked, alarmed, concerned, caring.
‘Onions,’ I responded. It was true. I had been chopping onions in preparation for cooking brunch. ‘I rubbed my eyes with onion-y hands,’ I expanded.
‘You silly goose!’ Ishthara used her favourite admonishment for me. ‘But at least it wasn’t chilli!’
I smiled and agreed with her.
Now, I must go back to my girls and tell them the rest of truth. I must tell them that I was having a bad day. I didn’t, earlier, because I didn’t want them to worry. But I wasn’t doing them any favours. By thinking I was protecting them from my sadness, I missed the opportunity to tell them that sometimes, everything tumbles in, and through, you; and you need the cathartic release of tears.
All of that said, I’m taking today as a win because I am able to feel, to know, to realise that today is just a day. This sad day is just one day. Unlike (not too many) years ago, when a sad day would mark the beginning of, or be an unremarkable part of, weeks – even months – of sadness and weeping, and fear. Proper Irish fear – eagla – equal parts terror, and paralysis, and foreboding, and regret.
Today is a win because it’s just a day, and I know that. I have no fear that tomorrow will be the same. I know it won’t. In fact, the rest of today won’t even be as bad as the earlier part was. I am measuring how far I have come. I am grateful for the relief of knowing – as opposed to hoping – that this, too, shall pass. I am not condemned to months of misery this time around.
We bought an eggplant on our last trip to the supermarket, and I was aware that it would need to be used up fairly quickly. It had been a while since I’d made moussaka, but it didn’t take me long to realise that I didn’t really have all the ingredients. I did one of those ‘make-it-up-as-you-go-along’ type of recipes. We all know these can go either way. Thankfully, this one went the right way, and there wasn’t a scrap left.
I used what I had to hand, so there’s plenty of room for substitutions here – I’d have loved to have had mushrooms, for example, and bell peppers, but I didn’t. Also, I used pomegranate molasses because I didn’t have maple syrup!
Anyway, here’s the recipe:
4 cups or so of chopped vegetables (I used a frozen stir-fry mix)
5 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon of coriander powder
2 teaspoons of cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon of sesame seeds
Tomato Sauce: 1 teaspoon of olive oil
3 cloves of minced garlic
400g canned tomatoes
3 teaspoons of mixed herbs
Juice of half a lemon
Salt & pepper to taste
3 tablespoons of plain Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon of tahini
1 teaspoon of pomegranate molasses (or maple syrup/honey/treacle/agave nectar)
Salt and pepper to taste.
Food grade rosebuds to granish.
Preheat the oven to 200.
Prepare a baking tray.
Slice the aubergine into discs and place them evenly on the tray.
Drizzle some olive oil over them, and pop them in the oven for about 20 minutes.
In the meantime, make the tomato sauce:
Heat a frying pan and add olive oil.
Sauté the garlic until it is golden.
Add the tomatoes, lemon juice, herbs, and spices.
Bring to a low boil, reduce the heat and cover.
Leave to simmer while you prepare the chopped vegetables:
Heat a dry frying pan and add the spices and sesame seeds.
Toast until the raw smell is gone.
Heat oil in a pan.
Sauté garlic for a minute or two, being careful not to burn.
Add the vegetables.
Add the toasted seeds and spices.
Stir, and cook for about 5 minutes.
In a casserole or deep baking dish, spread some of the tomato sauce.
Arrange the aubergine slices over the sauce.
Top with the sautéd vegetables.
(At this stage, you could sprinkle some grated cheese over the top – I would have, but we’re all out of hard cheese.)
Pop the whole lot back in the oven for 15 minutes.
While it’s baking, prepare the yogurt sauce:
Whisk together all the ingredients (I’d add some fresh mint if I had some).
Serve the vegetables with the yogurt sauce on the side.
Over on FB, Phil Kingston invited me to take part in the Poetry Exchange Initiative. I was, to be honest, very flattered to have been invited. I recorded the video and shared it on FB. A few people liked it, so I thought I’d share it here, too.
Let’s be honest here, this video lacks finesse. It lacks any sort of professional lustre. It is very clearly shot on my phone and uploaded to my laptop. The shelves behind me need a good tidy. Do you know what it is, though? It’s honest, and it’s raw, and it’s real, and it’s happy, and a celebration of love. Because, let’s face it, if there’s anything we need more of in this world, it’s love.
On Friday, September 13th last, I had surgery. It was gynae surgery – of the kind I’d already had a few times. I knew I wouldn’t bounce back, but I didn’t expect to nearly die afterwards, either.
On the following Monday, I decided it was time to get back to normal and I went upstairs to put laundry away. I’ve sometimes joked that housework will be the death of me, but I never thought I would be nearly right. I felt I needed to cough, but I couldn’t complete the it, and I had the weirdest pain in the centre of my chest. I didn’t know whether I needed to stand up, lie down, or curl into a ball to make it go away: I had no instinct on how to ‘cure’ it. I stamped on the floor of my bedroom, and my eldest daughter came running in. Ishthara’s great in a crisis, and had just finished a First Responder’s course, so she rang 999, and gave my history. In the middle of that phone call, she uttered a phrase which will forever live on in family lore:
‘I think you need to know this, but I’ve just realised my mum’s turning blue – and that’s not her normal colour.’
Within ten minutes, there was a First Responder at the house; doing his best to assess the situation and to take over the burden of responsibility from Ishthara – or at least share it with her. Within ten more minutes, there was an ambulance crew with equipment running tests, and within a further five, a doctor was sprinting up the stairs. There I was, five men in my bedroom before 11am on a Monday, and all I could do was worry about the fact that I hadn’t put the laundry away!
That was the rather dramatic start of a few months of health difficulties. I’d never been in an ambulance before September 16th, but I’ve got frequent flyer miles now! By December of last year, my reproductive organs, my lungs, my heart, my brain and my kidneys had all had little ‘episodes’. It’s like every major organ/system in my body just said ‘I’ve had enough’ and re-booted. I’ve been told by several doctors that they are amazed I’m still alive; and also that it’s incredible I’ve managed to come through all this without doing any lasting damage to any of said organs/systems.
I’m really lucky. Not just to be alive, but to be alive with the prospect of full recovery. I’m really lucky that my friends are incredible, and looked after me so well while I was ill. Most especially, I am indebted to my friend, Jane Travers who – as soon as she heard I was hospitalised – and why – hopped on a plane and came to Dublin until she was happy I was well enough to be left. (Ishthara explained Jane to her boyfriend like this ‘Jane is wonderful. She’s so lovely. But – once she gets an idea into her head just…..don’t bother arguing’). I’m really lucky that my girls are wonderful young women who cooked, cleaned, minded themselves, and the cats, and each other, and me, for months while I was unable to do any of those things myself.
The initial recovery plan would have seen me returning to ‘normal’ life in March, but then Covid-19 hit, followed shortly afterwards by the lockdown. I had been looking forward to two things; getting back to swimming, and visiting the hairdresser. I hadn’t sat in the salon chair since August, and it was time!
My hair was starting to annoy me mightily. I’d lopped a few inches off it in January, but it needed a skilled professional. During the week, I was marking assignments and just got to the point where I couldn’t put up with it any longer. If I don’t like something, I change it. So, I picked up the nearest scissors, and cut off as much as I could – not in a fit of pique, but rather because it just felt like time . Then I went upstairs, and finished the job off with a blade.
It’s not a statement. It’s not a Covid-19 Lockdown Haircut. It’s starting over. It’s a new beginning. Sometimes, modification isn’t enough. Sometimes, there is nothing to salvage. Sometimes, what you’d salvage would not really be worth saving. Sometimes, you need to just start all over again.
I am now the parent of an adult. And I don’t feel ready. I don’t feel worthy.
Ishthara Saoirse Larkin arrived into this world, ten weeks early, in a small town in India, 18 years ago. I’d like to say that I felt an overwhelming sense of adoration and love when I first held her. But I didn’t. I was shell-shocked. It was three days before I felt that powerful dam-burst of motherly love and – oh boy! – was it something else when it came. I’d always thought myself a pacifist but I was very shocked when I realised I would happily kill for this child.
Having spent so long waiting for her – and fighting with my own body over its refusal to get pregnant, I couldn’t quite believe it when I was, finally, holding my own child. When I was, finally, a mother! At last, nestled close to me was all I had ever wanted. For some reason I couldn’t quite understand, love didn’t flood through me the first time I held her. I was numb. It was almost as though I was in an altered state of consciousness. I couldn’t quite grasp that she was really mine, that I was really allowed to keep her. Years later, when studying psychology, I read Viktor Frankl, and the experience made sense.
In his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ Frankl details how he and others were liberated from a Nazi death camp. Instead of being joy-filled and jubilant, they found themselves mis-trusting their experience; not quite believing it. Frankl explains that they had spent so long dreaming of this very moment – and had their hopes and dreams dashed so many times – that now, they were not sure they could believe it. It took the men a few days to grasp the reality that their dream had come true, and was not about to be snatched from them. That’s what becoming a mother was like for me. It took a few days for me to realise that my dream was not going to be snatched away from me.
Ishthara has taught me so much since 2002. She has taught me what unconditional love feels like – both to give, and to receive. She has taught me that I can make mistakes, and still be worthy of love. She has taught me that I am good enough. She has taught me to forgive myself. She has taught me that, sometimes, my standards for myself are too high, and I need to ‘chill Mama’ just a bit. She has taught me that I am good enough.
During the week, Ishthara’s younger sister, Kashmira, asked me how it felt to have an adult ‘child’. I told her I didn’t feel ready. She asked me why. I told her that I didn’t feel wise enough, or accomplished enough, to be the parent of an adult. I feel like I should know more, be more, have more, have done more, in order to be worthy to call myself the parent of an adult. I don’t think I’ve changed enough since Ishthara was born to be the fully-formed parent of an adult.
Kashmira (being Kashmira!) probed that.
I had to think.
‘I suppose, when Ishthara was born, I wanted the same for her then, as I do now. The fact that I haven’t evolved makes me wonder if I’m any good at this.’ I told her, truthfully.
‘What did you want for her 18 years ago?’ Kashmira asked.
‘I wanted her to be happy. And I wanted her to reach her potential. And that’s still all I want for her. It’s all I want for both of you – but we’re talking about Ishthara right now, so…’
‘And do you think we don’t know that?’
‘I think it’s wrong that you’ve grown up in consistent poverty. I think it’s wrong that you have had no support – financial, emotional, physical, or any other type – from your dad. That you have no family apart from me, and each other*.’
‘But do you not see that that has given us a unique perspective on life? That we are compassionate because we understand rather than because we have an academic, or intellectual, understanding of other people’s lived experiences?’ (Yes, she really does talk like this!!)
‘When we say to the people we work with, when we’re older, “I understand”,’ she continued. ‘They’ll know we mean it, because we will. We’ll have been there.’
‘But….’ I started again, as my inadequacy raised its head.
‘No,’ Kashmira said. ‘Just listen. We have always known that you loved us. We have always known you’ve had our backs. Even on the really bad days, we’ve always known that you would manage, that it would be okay. Even last year – when you nearly died, THREE TIMES! in front of us – ‘nearly’ is the most important word in that sentence. We knew you wouldn’t leave us. That’s why you have an adult child.’
I was humbled into silence.
Earlier today, I spoke to my friend, Seán. Seán has known me since before I was 18, and his kids are all older than mine. I told him how I didn’t feel accomplished enough, to be the parent of an adult.
‘Don’t you get it?’ he asked. ‘The adult child is the accomplishment.’
Ishthara Saoirse Larkin is a wonderful young woman; she is compassionate beyond her years. She reads, and understands, people with an almost eerie awareness; she loves carefully, but completely; she radiates joy; she yearns to make the world a better place; she is intolerant of injustice; she is kind, thoughtful, generous and loving; she’s a great cook; she has a wonderful, droll sense of humour; and she saved my life (metaphorically – by being born into it – and literally – by performing first aid and calling an ambulance when I collapsed last September). I am pleased, proud, privileged, and grateful to be her mother.
Happy 18th birthday, my Darling Girl. The world is a better place because you’re in it.
* My father, Christy Talbot, and my brothers, Nigel Talbot, and Cormac Talbot, sexually abused, and raped me for 15+ years between them. My brothers, Barry Talbot and Ross Talbot, support them in their abuse of me, as do their wives / partners. My sister, Tracey Talbot, who was also raped by Cormac Talbot, is in such deep denial that she actually carried files into the Four Courts for him when I sued him and his brother for their years of abuse. My mother, Philomena (Johnson) Talbot is a narcissist who – to this day – condones the abuse I suffered at the hands of her husband and sons.
Yesterday, Sarah McInerney wrote a piece in The Times about my late friend, Shane Griffin, and how he was let down by a number of systems in Ireland: The Eastern Health Board, the HSE, TUSLA, and the judiciary, to name a few.
It was a lovely tribute to a lovely man and it mentioned how the abuse children suffer is compounded by the neglect they (we) are then subjected to by the very institutions that are supposed to mind them (us). The problem I have with the piece is not the piece itself, but the fact that it tells us nothing new, and it amounts to nothing more than a bit of hand-wringing, and an invitation (which was taken up by many on Twitter) to have a big, online, hand-wringing fest.
We have known for years that children who are sexually abused in Ireland have their abuse compounded by the further abuse and neglect of those who are supposed to help us. The Journal has been reporting on this for years – just have a look at this and this and this and this and this : All pieces giving details about children who were sexually abused, and how their suffering was compounded by government agencies, individual social workers, doctors, psychologists etc. who did nothing and who were promoted for their lack of action. Our government, our government agencies, and individual social workers, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and others who work for those agencies are complicit in the abuse, neglect and suicides of people in this country. No one is held accountable, and victims struggle to survive in a country that doesn’t support us.
For example, if (God forbid) your ten-year-old child were sexually assaulted and you went to get help for them. This is what would happen:
You would phone somewhere like CARI, St. Clare’s Unit, or St. Louise’s Unit, or your local social worker, begging for help.
You would not receive help.
The service / social worker you contacted would, in turn, contact TUSLA and report the information. (Note: If this isn’t done online – bearing in mind that only 20% of HSE workers have access to the Internet – the documents will be returned. Estimates vary on how long this will take.)
TUSLA would put your child on a waiting list to be assessed. This waiting list is currently years long.
A social worker from TUSLA would interview your child and decide whether or not they were lying about the abuse. They call this determining whether or not the allegations are ‘founded’ or ‘unfounded’. (More about this below).
If they decide that your child is not a liar, your child will be referred to CARI to be put on their waiting list for help.
If you wanted to access services through the HSE, you would have to involve the Gardaí, as well. St. Clare’s and St. Louise’s Units will not put you on their waiting lists unless you have done so.
Don’t forget that, for the years you’re waiting for help, you’ll have been dealing with a child whose mental health is suffering, you’ll have been grappling with your own pain and feelings of guilt, fear, and your mental health will also be suffering. Your child may be suicidal. Your child may be self-harming. Your other children, and your partner / spouse will also be suffering in a similar way.
If the abuse was perpetrated by a member of your family, the mental anguish will be compounded. There will be no help or support for your abused child, you, or your family members unless you know how to find a competent therapist and pay for therapy yourself. Good luck with that.
Founded / Unfounded
Whether or not your child gets help depends on whether or not a social worker in TUSLA says they’re allowed to access this help (such as it is). How do they do this? Well, the truth is that nobody knows. Social Workers in Ireland receive no training in how to determine the veracity of a claim of abuse. Nor or they trained in how to treat abuse victims or victims of trauma. (That is changing, however, as Dr Joe Mooney has just introduced a module in UCD for those studying there.)
Just today (January 13th, 2020), I got word from a friend – I’ll call her Anna, though that’s not her real name – who contacted TUSLA in 2010 to report abuse she had suffered when she was a child. Make no mistake, this is a brave thing to do. Anna was raped 3-4 times a week, from the age of 14 until she was 17. She is aware that she is not the only person this rapist raped. One other woman has had conversations with Anna about being raped by this man, too, but she’s afraid to go to the Gardaí. Of course, he’s an upstanding member of his local community in Wicklow, so when he was asked – more than eight years after the abuse was reported – if the allegations were untrue, he denied it.
And that was that.
Anna’s mental and physical health are suffering because of the damage this man did to her, which has been compounded by services which are supposed to put ‘Children First’. Anna no longer lives in Ireland because she can’t bear to live in a country that cares so little for raped children. I cannot say I blame her.
I’m not going to pretend to be objective. I’m not going to pretend this isn’t personal. Because it is personal. I am one of the children who was let down by the system. I have encountered nothing but obstacles from every institution, service and individual – with the notable exception of one social worker who alerted me to the fact that a file on me existed. This she did, almost as an aside at the end of a conversation in 2010. It took me two years of constant requests before I was given access to my (heavily redacted) files.
This letter refers to a case conference that took place in November 1988. I was, at this time, 15 years and two months old.
I think it’s worth noting that I never, ever met a single one of the people present at that ‘case conference’ – except for Imelda Ryan.
This is borne out, in part by this (heavily redacted) letter from Rosemary Cooke, who was at the meeting referred to in the correspondence above:
At the same time, she declares herself the key worker in my ‘case’.
And, as you can see from the top line, she asserts that there is ‘little social work intervention possible.’ This woman is still in practice, by the way, and has added the role of ‘Mediator’ to her suite of offerings.
It would actually be funny, if it weren’t so serious.
Let me draw your attention to lines 21, 22, 23, and 24 of the first document. Please bear in mind that everyone at that meeting knew I had been sexually abused by my elder brothers, and was being sexually abused by my father. It was further accepted that the younger children in the house were also at risk of being / were being abused.
But, as you can also see, my mammy didn’t want my daddy to leave the house. So no one interfered. Fifteen-year-old me is referred to as being ‘very disturbed’, ‘not liking my father’ and wanting him ‘out of the house’. It is absurd that this is even noteworthy – or that it is noteworthy, but no further explanation is required. ‘Dr’ Ryan suspects this is a plot on my part. Imagine being 15 and wanting a rapist out of your family home in order to protect yourself and the other children in the family! Clearly quite the little plotter. I was the only person prepared to do anything to address the situation. That should not have been my job. Please also note that I am vilified for disclosing that I was suicidal (line 24). Please also note that, even though the Gardaí were referred to – though I still have no idea how they were expected to ‘control the family’ – they were never contacted by anyone about this abuse until I knocked into my local station when I was 18.
But let me go back to the ‘psychiatrist’ involved – the woman who was supposed to have my welfare at heart. Bear in mind, I was between the ages of 14 and 16 when I was attending St Louise’s Unit. Bear in mind that it was confirmed I was being sexually abused (or, in today’s parlance, my allegations were ‘founded’) . Yet, here is a sample of things that she said about this very scared, very vulnerable teenager:
‘Hazel is “seeking attention”, and has on more than one occasion, cut her wrists’. (Letter dated (05.12.1989). Could you imagine the audacity of a suicidal teenager trying to kill herself. Clearly, still plotting!
Perhaps even more disturbing, however is this gem:
I’m particularly disturbed by the use of the term ‘sexual intercourse’. Even in the 1980s, ‘sexual intercourse’ with a child was called rape. I would expect a professional, in a letter to other professionals, to use correct terminology. Maybe I expect too much.
I have reams of documents recovered from the HSE and St. Louise’s Unit, but I won’t bore you by reproducing them all here – I think you get the gist.
Of course, I am the first to admit that I am no spring chicken and these documents date from the late 1980s and early 1990s. BUT the system is still the same – actually, you could even argue that it’s a bit worse because ‘self-referrals’ like mine was, are no longer accepted by these units. Imelda Ryan was the director of this unit until a few years ago (2016 if my memory serves me correctly) when she retired. The culture that she inculcated is still very much alive and well in the Unit. In fact, this disdain for victims is evident in almost every single service that is meant to care for us.
The problem is the system, and the culture that supports it. It would not be easy to overhaul the system: There would be huge resistance, and we’d have to change the culture in which we live and operate. But that’s not really the Irish way, is it? We’ll continue, instead, to wring our hands with bone-crunching intensity and cry at the funerals of our friends. Friends whose deaths were entirely preventable if only we had competent people in positions of power. Or even people who cared.