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.

Narcissistic Mothers

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Yesterday, I spoke with PJ Coogan, on Cork’s Opinion Line about what it’s like to be the daughter of a narcissistic mother. You can listen back (from 12.00) here.

Being the daughter of a narcissistic mother is hugely damaging; not least because our society tells us that a mother’s love is unconditional, all-encompassing, and never-ending. When your mother is a narcissist, however, you know that to be untrue, but you can’t articulate it because you feel strongly (and, usually, correctly) that you won’t be believed. You will be treated as though there is something wrong with you because your mother doesn’t love you – but the truth is that there’s nothing wrong with you but plenty wrong with her.

If any of this resonates with you, please feel free to get in touch.

Things I Am Learning From Recovery

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Those of you who follow me on social media will be aware that I have had a difficult month health-wise.

For those unaware, here’s the quick version:

On September 13th, I had fairly routine surgery. It was of a type I’ve had before, so there was nothing unexpected. (In fact, it was so routine for me that I even wrote a piece here for other women who might find themselves facing similar).

Three days later, I collapsed at home and started to turn blue. Thankfully, my eldest daughter doesn’t have college on Mondays, so she was there to call an ambulance. Once in hospital, I was diagnosed with blood clots in my lungs. A scan confirmed that there was a significant number of clots in each lung. It was stressed to me by no fewer than seven doctors how lucky I was to be alive – and how unusual it was for the experience not to have been fatal.

After being extremely well cared for in Connolly Memorial Hospital, I was discharged on Thursday, September 19th with medication and some Serious Medical Advice. I was told it would take six months until I’m back to (my version of) normal. I was warned that I need to take it easy; that I need to stay on bed rest until I feel able to do more. I was entreated to monitor myself, and that any change in symptoms, any bleeding, any falling over – anything that is out of the ordinary – necessitates seeking medical attention immediately. The earnestness with which a number of doctors gave me this information impressed on me the necessity to take it (and them) seriously.

Within 24 hours, however, I was transported (this time in the back of a squad car because an ambulance would have taken too long) back to hospital. Unfortunately, the  staff at the nearest hospital – Tallaght – wasn’t keen on even triaging me, so my friend Jane drove me back to Connolly Hospital in Blanchardstown. Twice that night, my friend and family were convinced that I had died in front of them. I know I came dangerously close.

Once back in ‘my’ hospital, the team sprang into action, and I received the care I needed for what turned out to have been a neurological episode.  Again, I was discharged after a few days, with even more medical advice; and previous advice emphasised.

I took the advice seriously, and took up residence on the couch in our living room. I slept and napped between sleeps, dozing between naps. Visitors were received with much delight, and I was grateful when they realised that an hour of being chatted to while upright was as much as I could manage before I’d have to lie down again, and possibly nap.

This Wednesday just past, October 16th, I was – again – in the back of an ambulance.  Breathing had been hard all day, and the Nurse on Call advised calling an ambulance to return to hospital. Reluctantly, I did so. Transported by very kind paramedics – Eoin and John – back to Blanchardstown, I was diagnosed with low haemoglobin, and the start of an infection.

I don’t think my physical health has ever taken such a knocking, and I’m really not used to being unwell (save for the migraines every 3-6 weeks) – never mind being so unwell for so long, and knowing that it will be months before I’m fully functioning again. I’m very grateful, though, that I have managed not to do any permanent damage to myself. I’m also very grateful for the fact that I will get better. For a lot of people, there is no moving out of the wheelchair (I have one of those now), there is no moving beyond the mobility scooter (I have one of those, too; it’s  on standby for when I ‘graduate’ out of the wheelchair); and there is pain – often constant pain. I am not in pain. I’m just exhausted, often breathless, and incapable of doing very much beyond resting.

Recovery is happening, though. Two weeks ago, I couldn’t shower without taking a rest and turning it into a Two-Act event, after which I’d need a nap of about an hour.  These past few days, however, showering has reverted to being a One-Act event, with a mere half hour lie-down afterwards.

Recovery is also teaching me. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far:

1. It’s really hard to do nothing.
2. The doctors were right. I am still seriously unwell. I have had to learn what that means.
3. People are incredibly kind.
4. My daughters are amazing human beings.
5. I am finding it very difficulty to accept how ill I am.
6. I’d better accept it, and quick, or I’ll set my recovery back.
7. Nobody expects as much of me as I do of my myself (my PhD supervisors have said this
    to me before, but I didn’t really understand it until now).
8. People are wonderfully kind.
9. Haemoglobin transports oxygen around the body.
10. There are pills you can take for all sorts of things, but there is no pill you can take to
       speed time up.
11. There is tremendous kindness in people.
12. Being unable to do much for oneself is incredibly humbling.
13. It’s still really hard to do nothing.

All Cut Up

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A month ago, I had surgery to remove ovarian cysts. I’ve been around this particular block a few times, and knew what to expect, as well as how to prepare. Around the same time I was going into hospital, a few other women I know were similarly heading into hospital for the removal of ovarian cysts. They asked if I had advice, and I had!

Here are a few things I wish someone had told me before I had my first surgery for ovarian cyst removal:

It’s keyhole surgery, yes, but it’s still surgery. The incisions are small, but the amount of internal surgery is still the same. You will have stitches inside, layers of skin and bruises etc. that will need to heal. Also, remember, that when you’re unconscious, no one thinks to be gentle with you – they are just focused on getting the job done, so will rummage around inside you with a bit more vigour than they would if you were having a procedure done under local anesthetic.

You will bleed more than you expect. Get big granny knickers – at least two sizes bigger than you normally wear, because you will swell – and maternity pads. In fact, get maternity pads and enough disposable maternity knickers for a day or two.

You will often have huge gas pain afterwards: This is because you’ll be pumped full of gas to facilitate the surgery, and it gets trapped. The gas can go right up into your shoulders and be very painful. Get the strongest Deflatine type of medicine you can.

Get Night shirts for bed rest so that there’s no danger of elastic on the scar / damaged tissue.

Move as soon as you can after you’ve been released from hospital. You need to avoid clots (believe me – clots nearly killed me after gynae surgery a month ago, and I won’t be right for another six). Keep the surgical stockings on for 24 hours.

Remember that a general anesthetic can take up to six weeks to leave your system. The after effects include tiredness, and weepiness, and sometimes – if you are prone to it – you can get a touch of depression.

Take pain relief as you need it, sleep as much as you can, and use arnica tablets to aid swift healing.

Don’t expect yourself to bounce back – no matter what your medical team tells you. I recover well and quickly, but I found that on some occasions I was expected to be running around quicker than was possible. That said, do as much as you can, physically, but don’t push yourself. As your energy returns, remember

Listen to your body, and if you have any concerns, seek medical advice sooner rather than later.