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 I was subjected to 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’:

The man I was with said he was very pleased 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 him, 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.

In Favour of Intolerance

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Fourteen-year-old Ana Kriegal was sexually assaulted and murdered on the 14th of May last year. Two boys, aged thirteen at the time, were found guilty of the crimes against her.

Since the verdict was reached last week, there have been many column inches devoted to the case. There has been mention of how this is an ‘unusual’ case, how it shows the ‘dark side’ of Ireland. Such statements, however, are unhelpful and untrue. This is Ireland. This is the Ireland I grew up, this is the Ireland I now live in. I have seen people wonder how we ‘get boys like this’, but the truth is we create them.

Lack of education around pornography and sexual relationships has been cited as part of the problem – and I don’t discount these claims. The problem is, however, that it’s too easy to point to the obvious and suggest that it provides the complete picture. It doesn’t.

 

Irish society creates and condones the behaviour of these boys, and boys like them. Because – don’t kid yourself – these boys are not an aberration. Their attitudes towards, and treatment of, women and girls, is not unusual in Irish society. And it’s their attitudes that fuelled their behaviour. Yes, murder is still unusual in Ireland. Thirteen-year-olds murdering people is also still an unusual phenomenon, but thirteen-year-olds sexually assaulting girls is not nearly as unusual as you might like to think.

If Ana had ‘just’ been sexually assaulted and not murdered, think how the media and the public would have reacted. Without a doubt, she would have been unmercifully victim-blamed, in exactly the same way as every other victim of rape and sexual assault over the age of ten is blamed for their own victimisation. At this point, I would like to respectfully suggest that we need a cultural sea change so that the disgust we feel at crimes of sexual violence is directed towards the perpetrators of sexual violence, rather than their victims.

The problem is not with individual children or even individual families – the problem is with the whole wider society. I know this will not be a particularly popular statement, but – as my friend and colleague, Dr Jessica Eaton says – ‘our systems won’t change by protecting ourselves from our own shortcomings’.  And we have shortcomings galore in this society.

Bullying is endemic in Irish culture. We have learnt that Ana Kriegal was bullied online, and in person. People – adults – were aware that she was being bullied, and they chose to do nothing. Before she started secondary school, her resource teacher told Ana’s parents that she was worried for the child’s welfare. Ana was suicidal before she left primary school. She was bullied by children a few years older than she before she even started secondary school.

Nothing effective was done to stop the bullying because we tolerate bullying in Ireland. It flourishes in Irish schools, in Irish companies, in Irish businesses, in Irish institutions. It is a top-down phenomenon, and it thrives because our systems support it: Look at how we treat whistle-blowers, and how we treat victims of bullying.

We neither teach nor model empathy, kindness, and compassion. Such traits are seen as weaknesses. Instead, we tell ourselves and each other that ‘Boys will be boys’, that victims need to ‘toughen up’, be ‘less sensitive’, and learn to ‘cope’.  They are told that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’, even though every person with a pulse knows that simply isn’t true.

The word ‘resilience’ is also bandied about – as if resilience is a good thing, instead of another stick with which to beat victims. In case you’re confused, the word ‘resilience’ suggests that whatever circumstances exist to cause a person’s upset are established; and it is, therefore, incumbent upon an individual to look after themselves. As if the display of symptoms is synonymous with weakness. As if ‘vulnerability’ and ‘weakness’ are interchangeable.

Yes, Boy A and Boy B caused Ana Kriegal’s death, but we caused them. We – as a society – taught them how to behave.  We – as a society – support bullying, victim-blaming, victim-shaming, rape-culture, and male entitlement.

Entitlement is an unhealthy personality trait that can lead to greed, aggression, a lack of forgiveness, hostility, and deceit.  Specific to sexual assault, the lack of empathy and feelings of entitlement may lead individuals to believe that they deserve sex when they want it, without considering the wants and needs of the other person. Research informs us that when entitled individuals do not get what they want, they become hostile or violent.

We live in a society where we attempt to induce outrage and empathy by saying things like ‘Imagine if she were your daughter / sister / niece / cousin / friend’: By so doing, we rob the victim of her personhood. By insinuating that we can only see the victim as worthwhile or empathetic if we can, somehow, re-imagine her as someone like someone we may know speaks volumes about our inability to view a person as worthwhile simply because they exist. That, alone, should be enough without additional qualifiers – real, or imagined.

We need to create a society that is intolerant of bullying, misogyny, victim-blaming, victim-shaming, male entitlement, and rape myths. We can only do that by modelling such intolerance.