World Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Day

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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.

An Onion Day

Organic Red Onion, One Large: Amazon.com: Grocery & Gourmet Food

CW: Sexual Abuse

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.

Today is not a good day. But today is a win.

Starting Over

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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.

The relief!

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.

 

Adulting

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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.’

He’s right.

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.

Power

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It’s that time of the year again – I need to choose my word. Now, I like to think that I generally choose my words wisely. I understand the power of words, and I try hard to select words that reflect, and convey, my meaning.

Since January, 2016, I have eschewed New Year’s Resolutions in favour of a single word to guide my intentions and my actions for the coming years. A few hours ago, I was on the phone to my friend Katie and I told her that this year was going to be defined by ‘Attack’. I explained that I was a bit fed up of being a ‘soft’ feminist. I was a bit fed up of being ‘gentle’ in my engagements with men. I’m learning to get a bit more obstreperous, but finding I’m not consistent with my obstreperousness. The conditioning runs deep.

So, I explained to Katie that, when I was using the word ‘attack’, I meant ‘dive in with enthusiasm’ rather than ‘aggressively assail’ or to deliberately injure. She understood. I admitted to having been influenced by Mona Eltahawy and her entreaty to stop being ‘nice’.

‘Attack’ I decided, was a good word to guide me through 2020. But. It didn’t really sit right. It sat ‘okay’, but not ‘perfectly’. I was happy enough to go with it. When I sat down to write this post, however, ‘Attack’ was no longer good enough. ‘Power’ sprang to mind.

So I’m running with it. I don’t want to be empowered in 2020 – I have power, I want to use it. My intention for 2020 is to prevent other people from blocking my power. My intention for 2020 is to ensure that I use my power fearlessly. My intention for 2020 is to use my power ferociously. My intention for 2020 is to use my power to attack.

16 Days Of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (Day 10)

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Content warning: Coercive Control, Intimate Partner Abuse

It’s Day 10 of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence and I’m reminded of the SAFE Ireland Conference I attended last year: That conference brought home to me how the violence and abuse I endured when I was married had affected me more than I’d realised. It was listening to other women and their stories that finally brought home to me how much damage had been inflicted on me by my exes.

I’d been single since the second week of August, 2003 (two days after I found out I was expecting my second child). For the most part, I’ve been very happy to be single. I live a full life, enjoy my children, have wonderful friends and am always busy.  Every now and again, though, I think it might be quite nice to have someone who regularly accompanies me to events, who can hold a conversation, who is blessed with intelligence, and who might be a contender for romantic partner. When I get into one of these moods, I end up on one or other of the (frankly, horrendous) dating apps. I rarely stay very long, but the last time I peeked over that particular parapet, I was pleasantly surprised.

At this juncture, I want to tell you that I thought long and hard about publishing this post: I felt that, having been through what I’ve been through, and knowing what I know, I am the last person who would end up in yet another abusive relationship. My reluctance to share this was multifaceted:

I’m ashamed.

I’m ashamed that – given how much I research, speak, and write about, abuse – I didn’t see it until it was too late. I’m ashamed that I managed to ignore the signs – or that I didn’t see the signs in the first place. I’m ashamed that I acted in exactly the same way as so many other women in abusive situations do. Not because I think I’m in any way better than they are – either in the superior, or the recovered sense – but because I thought I’d learnt that lesson already. I thought I’d figured out how to stand up for myself in situations where there was even a whiff of nastiness. I was wrong.

As well as that, my pride is squirming slightly. I am writing in full knowledge that there are those who will read this and gloat. I know there are those who will read this and bloat with puffed-up delight that I have fallen foul of yet another man. There are those who will gleefully share this post and rejoice at the fact that I have been involved (again) with a man who has scant respect for me (or, come to think of it, women in general).

I’m also feeling a bit dim. I didn’t spot the coercive control that Saradhi subjected meto for what it was. I could kick myself. My marriages had been so dreadful – my life had been in danger on more than one occasion – that I thought anything less than the overt abuse (verbal, psychological, financial, physical, sexual and others) I’d been subjected to in those relationships wasn’t really abuse. I was wrong.

More than these, however, I am aware that every time I write, or speak, about my own experiences, I speak directly to other women who have experienced similar. I speak directly to women who felt their own shame; experienced their own bruised pride; questioned their own intelligence; blamed themselves for their own abuse. I reminded myself that every time I open up – other women open up to me. And that is why I do this – because abuse thrives on secrecy and abuse thrives on keeping the victim shamed, and abuse thrives on the silence of the abused. Knowledge is power, and the sharing of knowledge empowers those with whom it lands.

To give a very specific example of what I mean when I write ‘coercive control’:

Saradhi said he was very pleased that I was pursuing my PhD. He said he was very proud that I was working on such an important project. He said he was aware that I needed the time and space to work. He said that he understood it was the most valuable thing – apart from parenting my girls – that I was doing.

That’s what he said. 

I know enough, though, to know that what a man says is not nearly as important as what he does. What he did was interfere with my study time as much as he could – and he always presented his demands, expectations, and manipulations as perfectly reasonable, in some cases as downright loving, so it was hard to argue with him.

I am quite the night owl, and I enjoy reading and writing late at night. He, however, was not a night owl – especially not during the working week. That was fine with me – I was quite happy for him to go to bed before me.
‘But I can’t sleep without you,’ he would whine.
‘You slept perfectly well without me for nearly 40 years,’ I reasoned.
‘Yes, but now I know you’re there, so I don’t want to have to go to sleep without you. I’d miss you too much. I couldn’t sleep if you weren’t there.’

I thought about this, and decided I could manage a compromise – I’d go to bed at the same time as him, and just read in bed. But he was having none of that.
‘I can’t sleep if there’s any light in the room,’ he explained. ‘That’s why I have blackout curtains.’
‘Can you wear a sleepmask?’ I asked.
‘No. That wouldn’t work. They’re never dark enough.’
‘They are if you get a decent one. I’ll get you a proper one.’
‘No.’

Proffering my next solution, I agreed to go to bed at the same time as him, I agreed not to read while he was in bed, but said I’d get up early in the morning and get a few hours’ work done then. That, however, wasn’t acceptable to him, either.
‘I can’t sleep at all if you’re not there. If you get up, I won’t be able to sleep on.’
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to suggest that he didn’t necessarily deserve more sleep than I did.

When I was home and trying to work, he would constantly interrupt me – and then berate me if I displayed irritation. I explained that my research involves getting into a particular ‘zone’ and working there. I need to engage my brain in order to make sense of what I’m reading, to make connections across literatures, disciplines, my own research, and my own lived experience. Then, I need to figure out how to make sense of all of those resources, and write that down in a comprehensive manner. He had no understanding of this –
‘That’s just too far beyond what I’ve studied,’ he told me. ‘I’ve never done anything like that.’
As if, because he hadn’t done it, it wasn’t valid. I was less and less able to do what I needed to do with him around.

On a few occasions, I stated that I had a particular, specific piece of work to do and needed a specific period of time in which to get it done. After agreeing that I would have the time – uninterrupted – to do what I needed to do, he broke that agreement every single time. He was doing something to keep himself out of my hair – but would suddenly need my help. Even if I explained that I was busy, he would assert that what he was doing was for my benefit (or for our benefit), and I needed to muck in.
‘It’ll only take ten minutes,’ he said to me one time, when he knew I was up against a hard deadline.
Two and a half hours later, the job was finally finished, and I was released from my obligation.

So – I had to go to bed at the same as he, and I wasn’t allowed to read or write in bed. I wasn’t allowed to get up early. I wasn’t allowed to carve out time for myself at all if he was in the same physical space as I was. If we were in the same building, he demanded every drop of my time, my energy, and my attention. I literally couldn’t expect to go to the bathroom on my own. Expectations of such privacy were called out by him as indicative of my inability or unwillingness to ‘share myself’ and ‘to be intimate’. I shouldn’t, he told me, ‘be so shy as to want to hide anything from him’. (This was also why he used to seek out my old journals, correspondence, and even notes from my kids to read and pass judgement on – in spite of my repeatedly telling him that unless something was addressed to him, or given to him, he was not allowed to read it.)

To deny any part of myself that he wanted would, he told me, be ‘just selfish’. And we all know that women are trained – from birth – not to be selfish. We are trained to be selfless, giving, accommodating, generous, self-sacrificing. It is expected of us. I should have remembered that. I should have remembered that the first time I felt uncomfortable. But, here’s the thing, I couldn’t quite articulate why I felt uncomfortable. What I’ve realised since, however, is that that doesn’t matter. Why I felt uncomfortable was not nearly as important as the fact that I did. I didn’t need to qualify, or quantify, my levels of discomfort. As someone once said to me ‘If it feels wrong, it is wrong’.

While I didn’t remember it in my most recent relationship, I will remind myself that ‘I don’t feel comfortable’ is enough. ‘That makes me uncomfortable’ is enough. If someone wants more details it is enough to say ‘I’m not sure. All I know is I don’t like it.’ Anyone who presses for more, can just jog on.

I have been silenced and censored before and, falling prey to the strictures of the societies I have lived in, I have even silenced and censored myself.  On occasion when I knew I couldn’t explain, or articulate what I needed to say, I have said nothing – feeling that unless I could produce hundreds of words arguing my position, or unpacking my feelings, they weren’t valid, and didn’t deserve to have life breathed into them.

What I didn’t quite realise when I was living through it was that this jealous demand for every ounce of me, and this intrusion on my precious time was a form of coercive control. I had come across coercive control before, but it was in conjunction with other types of abuse – so I didn’t recognise it this time. I’ll recognise it for what it is the next time, though! (Even as I fervently hope that there isn’t a next time).

 

Teaching Empathy

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I’m hearing a lot these days about how we need to start ‘teaching empathy’ in our schools. How, if only people learned how to be empathetic, our society would be a better place to live. I agree. What I don’t agree with, however, is the notion that empathy can be taught in school as a distinct, and designated, part of the curriculum. What we really need is a change in our culture.

We don’t have to start teaching empathy – we have to stop teaching indifference and disdain. That lesson cannot be taught just by teachers in formal educational settings. It needs to be taught to children by everyone around them from the day they are born. We need a cultural shift that understand, demands, expects, and rewards, kindness. I don’t believe it can be taught merely as a set of classroom lessons – though, for sure, it can be reinforced through fun exercises, role-plays etc. – I believe it needs to be modeled by showing children what empathy looks like.

Part of empathy is good manners, and children learn this best by having it modeled for them. To teach my children how to be be polite, I modeled it for them. Rather than the performative ‘Say thank you!’ (which I believe parents and carers say to show other adults how good they are at ‘teaching manners’), I said ‘thank you’ at the appropriate times when my children were little. Like all children, mine were eager to emulate the behaviour modeled for them. So they quickly learned – without having to told – when to say ‘thank you’ as well as ‘please’, ‘may I?’, ‘sorry’ etc. and how to behave in a way that was considerate towards others.

We need to realise that most people are empathetic – some more than others, of course – and we have to nurture and nourish that. We have to model it. At the moment, we don’t: We model bullying, disrespect, unkindness, and disdain. These traits and practices are what we reward – and that is why our levels of bullying, sexual assault, and harassment are epidemic. It’s why our populations are suffering mental ill-health in such large numbers, and why we have so many people self-harming, attempting, and dying by, suicide. It’s why conversations about consent and male entitlement are suddenly ‘fashionable’ in media at the moment.

I would argue that unkindness and lack of empathy is what we’re teaching our children – because our default is to be empathetic. We are born that way – it’s our instinctive, default position because it’s part of how we connect with other people, and as human beings, we crave, and seek, nothing more than connection with others. It’s not what we need to learn, it’s what we need to unlearn, that we should focus on.