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.

RSE In Irish Schools

 

For the past few weeks, I’ve been aware that my social media was peppered with reminders to read, and comment on, the proposals for the next version of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in Irish schools. The NCCA (National Council for Curriculum and Assessments) offered ‘stake holders’ and members of the public – in other words everyone – a chance to make suggestions and submissions on the draft report.

 

Like a good citizen who has an interest – personally and professionally – with how sex and relationships are taught in schools, I cast a cold eye over the document. It’s neither a long, nor a difficult, read; the meat and potatoes of it is just 80 pages, and the language is very accessible. At the outset, the document informs us that  the Minister for Education and Skills asked that the following be considered:

RSE

So far, so good. For too long, our non-heteronormative populations have been ignored in the arena of sex and relationship learning and teaching in Ireland. All the issues listed in the document are ones which must be addressed and I’m delighted to see them getting the attention they deserve.

 

I’m troubled, though, by so much of what is not mentioned – and I’m not the only one. The other day, I was chatting with Dr Clíona Saidléar, Executive Director of the RCNI, and it turned out we had the same concerns. There were issues we both felt should have been mentioned in the report that weren’t. Unsurprisingly, our lists were similar. Between us, we came up with the following list of what we feel should have been included, but wasn’t:

 

  • Victim blaming
  • Misogyny
  • Sexual abuse
  • Rape
  • Reporting – how to deal with a report, mandatory reporting etc.
  • Incest

 

It’s all very well to say we need to talk about consent, but consent is about so much more than consent around sexual touch, or even non-sexual touch. Consent is about how we speak to each other. Asking permission before entering another’s space – whether that’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual – should be first nature to us. It should be as much a part of our accepted manners as saying ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘excuse me’.

With regard to developments in contraceptives, I am still shocked and bewildered by the fact that spermicidal jelly isn’t sold in Ireland. It makes me wonder why – is it because every sperm is sacred?! Nor is the Caya diaphragm available here. Again, I had to wonder why. Is it because they are one-size fits all and users can fit them themselves? I know many survivors of sexual assault would much prefer a non-hormonal contraceptive that they can fit and use without the interference of anyone else.

Healthy positive sexual expression and relationships are wonderful aims, but talking about them, and telling school-aged children that they’re a good idea isn’t going to be productive. They need to be modelled. Who is doing – or who might do – that for the kids?

 

Of course, safe use of the Internet, and social media are sensible, logical, necessary, and important matters to address. The problem in many households is that the adults are unaware of what their young people are accessing, how to protect their children from what – and who – they might encounter online, and how to have open, honest conversations about the Internet. Organisations like Zeeko – which offer talks in schools – can help with awareness, and navigation, of the http://www.  Many of the responses to the ‘Internet Question’ are pornography-focused but there is so much more than porn on the internet, and there’s a lot of good there (here!), too.

 

Our non-hetero folks deserve to be recognised – but not fetishized, and I remain hopeful that the Department will engage suitably qualified members of these communities to inform and advise on curricula content.

As I mentioned earlier, though, my biggest concern is not what’s included in, but what’s been omitted from, the discussion.  We can’t have a fully-informed, useful, educative, progressive conversation about relationships and sex if we don’t address the things that will be relevant to everyone: victim blaming, and misogyny – and things that will be relevant to more than one in four of our student population; sexual abuse, rape and incest. Teachers (and, indeed, other staff members) will need to be aware of how to handle disclosure. They will also need to know their obligations under mandatory reporting legislation. There also needs to be an awareness that at least one in four of our teachers will, themselves, have histories of abuse – and may, therefore, find discussions of same, and disclosure, very difficult.

 

I get the feeling that this invitation to discuss the RSE curriculum is very performative: That it’s an exercise in being seen to be doing the right thing rather than actually figuring out what the right thing is. We’re not taking a long, hard, look at what’s wrong with our current curriculum; at what crucial needs should be addressed, but aren’t. Saying ‘we need to talk about consent’ sounds good, but unless we talk about consent in all areas of our interactions with others – unless we talk about boundaries and feelings – we aren’t really looking at the issue properly. Saying we need to have a ‘national conversation’ about pornography sounds modern and edgy, but it’s meaningless without starting from a place of respect for women – which we don’t have, and which we can’t have in a society as patriarchal and as misogynistic as the one we currently live in.

 

It’s all very well to talk about ‘having conversations’ and ‘improving curricula’ but if all those conversations and curricula are going to do is enforce the current culture, then they are just exercises in breath- and money-wasting. In order for any improvements we might consider making to actually be made, we first need to change our culture. We need to change our attitudes to victims; we need to acknowledge that most sexual abuse happens within the home. We need to discuss how we treat people – how bullying, manipulation, and coercion aren’t acceptable behaviours. That’s only going to happen if we adults change how we treat others – including (especially) children and model the behaviour we want and expect.  Sex is part of life. Sexual relationships are part of life. If we want our young people to have healthier attitudes towards sex, and their sexual relationships, we need to show them what we mean, not lecture them about what we want them to do.

 

 

Things I Am Learning From Recovery

3D model hospital recovery room VR / AR / low-poly FBX MA ...
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.

A Surge of Pain

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I’ve written before about language, birth, and women survivors of child sexual abuse. I’ve mentioned how words matter, and certain words are very upsetting for those of us with a history of child sexual abuse.

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of sitting with a pregnant woman and her husband. As a survivor herself of child sexual abuse and multiple rapes in her teens (sadly, revictimisation is a phenomenon that is not uncommon), she’s doing all she can to prepare herself for her impending birth. Part of that preparation included having a chat with me. We spoke about language and how words matter in labour. She used the word ‘surges’ and I had a reaction to it that I didn’t quite understand. Until now.

 

‘Surges’ is a word that is used to describe uterine contractions in labour. It was popularised by Ina May Gaskin and adopted by many in the birth community in the past few decades. It is deemed more ‘positive’ than using ‘contractions’, and sold as a reframing of the pain of labour, and it’s never sat comfortably with me. Here’s why:

As abused women, we had our experiences – our lived, physical, experiences – ‘reframed’ by our abusers. They would touch us and say things like ‘That’s nice, isn’t it?’, ‘You like that, don’t you?’, ‘I would never hurt you,’ etc.  Their words were incongruent with our experiences and that – in and of itself – is damaging and needs work to undo. Telling abused women that calling contractions by another name will make them a more positive experience isn’t helpful. For the vast majority of women, labour hurts. That’s the bald truth of it. The extent to which it hurts, and how we deal with the pain, is individual. Personally, viewing labour pain as ‘pain with a purpose’ helped me. It wasn’t like a migraine (migraines are more painful), where pain doesn’t produce anything except more pain for at least 24 hours.

I think that midwives and doulas working with women who have a history of abuse might want to discuss the merit of using ‘surges’ instead of ‘contractions’ with their clients. Then, the women themselves should use the word that suits them best;that they are most comfortable with.

Labour hurts, and it doesn’t do women who have experienced abuse any good to tell them otherwise. What is helpful is talking about how to get through the pain, how to be present for it, and how the best thing about labour is that it ends. And that it ends with a baby in your arms. The wonderful woman I met with earlier this week also made the point that there is a difference between ‘pain’ and ‘harm’. As abuse survivors, we associate pain in our bodies with (often long-term) harm, yet the pain of contractions is not harmful, and reminding ourselves of that can be hugely helpful in getting through it while still remaining present, grounded, and participative in our own labours.

Silence is Fools’ Gold

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I’m still thinking about the Safe World Summit that I attended last week. More than thinking, I’m processing. The two days were definitely more than the sum of their parts.

After my last post a number of people contacted me to ask why I hadn’t told Nigel’s wife and Cormac’s wife that they were married to rapists. The truth is, that I did. The truth is, that they know. The truth is, that they don’t care. The truth is, that (cliché of clichés!) my brothers married their mother: They married women who would be compliant, who would put their husbands ahead of all others including their own children. They married women who would be more concerned about what the neighbours would say than with providing protection to their children. They married women who would keep their secrets.

Back in 2010, I told Cormac’s wife, Orna, that Nigel had sexually abused me. I was building up to full disclosure, telling her about her brother-in-law before telling her about her husband (whose abuse was more sadistic, and went on for longer). She had no difficulty in believing me. She even went as far as to say that it ‘made sense’. When, however, she found out that Cormac – her own husband – had also raped me for years, and that I was suing both of them, she sided with the abusers, instead of the abused.

The truth is, that while they have no difficulty with the fact that they have married misogynistic rapists, they have a difficulty with the rest of the world knowing. As long as the information was kept within the family – as long as I observed that peculiar Irish form of omerta – they were happy enough. When I started to speak out publicly, however, when I started legal civil proceedings against the brothers who had raped me, their tune changed. Bear in mind, that Anita and Orna had not spoken to each other since December of 2004.  Yet, when I started talking more and more publicly, about the abuse I had suffered at their husbands’ hands, these women rekindled their relationship and united to fight the truth.

 

Think about that for a second: Two women, married to two men, each of whom has had two children for these men, bonded over the fact that their husbands had raped the same child.  Two women who would rather live with two men who have no remorse for their abusive behaviour, than leave them. You’d have to ask yourself why.  Both men are wealthy. Both women signed pre-nuptial agreements. I don’t think that’s the only reason, though, I think there’s more to it than that.

 

I’ve written this post on foot of a challenge issued by Insia Dariwala at the Safe World Summit last week. She told us that each of us – by being silent – is complicit in the continued sexual abuse of children. This statement made me very uneasy. What was I doing to maintain the silence? What was I doing to contribute to allowing other children to be abused in the ways I had been abused? Insia Dariwala’s challenge, then, was to break our silence.

 

I have risen to that challenge. I will continue to do so.

Breastfeeding After CSA

Breastfeeding Awareness Month 2018

The first week of August was World Breastfeeding Awareness Month, but in the US, the United States Breastfeeding Committee has declared the whole month of August Breastfeeding Awareness Month. In honour of that (not in the least because I didn’t blog about the issue during the first seven days of August!), I wanted to share a few thoughts on breastfeeding after child sexual abuse (CSA).

While so many of us want to breastfeed, and spend our pregnancies imagining doing just that – and, indeed, preparing for it, it’s not always that easy. Aside, altogether, from the issues and difficulties that many women without a history of CSA encounter, there are additional difficulties that may manifest if the new mum such a history.  I’ve enumerated a few of them here:

  • If our breasts were a focal point of our abuse, we may be reluctant to offer, or share them, with anyone else – even our own babies. The physical contact may be just too much.
  • Dissociation is something I’ve discussed on this blog before – it’s often a huge part of our experiences when we are being abused. Dissociation, sadly, can also be part of our experiences when we’re breastfeeding – which can effect the mother-child bonding that is a much-mentioned positive element of breastfeeding. This, in turn, can lead to further shame and guilt around our bodies.
  • There are three kinds of touch that can be difficult for a woman with a history of CSA: self-touch, touch of another, and medical touch. Breastfeeding is, often, comprised of all three: The touch of the mother’s own hand on her breast – before, during, and after, a feed; the touch of the baby on the mother’s breasts; the manipulation of the mother’s breasts in order to assist with a latch etc.
  • Bodily fluids – even her own breastmilk – may be disgusting to the new mother who associates such fluids with abuse.
  • The shame that CSA visits on a woman, on her body, on her sense of self, can be mirrored in the shame that attaches to ‘bodies on display’ in many parts of the world. Then, there is the fact that  many societies visit shame on women who breastfeed in public, so this adds to the difficulty.
  • The mouth of her child on her breast can be triggering for the new mother with a history of CSA. It may remind her too much of her abuser/s slobbering all over her breasts.
  • If her birth didn’t go how she planned, the new mother may well have the old tape of ‘I can’t do anything right’ playing in her head. This may mean that she is convinced she can’t breastfeed her baby, either – so she may not even try.
  • If breastfeeding is difficult – or impossible – for the survivor of CSA, it can add to her feelings of guilt, and of the fact that her body is ‘failing’ her.

It’s not all bad, though. For many women with a history of CSA, managing to breastfeed successfully can be an hugely healing experience for women. It is a(nother) example of her body ‘behaving’ properly; of her body doing what it’s supposed to do.

If you are supporting a new mother who has a history of CSA, there are things you can do to help:

  • Reassure her that her choices are valid.
  • Reassure her that she is not being judged.
  • Reassure her that there are myriad other ways to love her baby.
  • If she really wants to breastfeed, discuss using a pump and expressing milk for her baby to exclusively feed breastmilk to her child.
  • Help her to see her milk as a ‘good’ / ‘useful’ fluid.
  • Remind her that she birthed beautifully, and that she can breastfeed beautifully, too – with help and support.
  • Encourage her to attend La Leche League, or Cuidiú meetings while she’s still pregnant.

The transition to motherhood is a monumental one for every woman, but it can be harder for those of us with a history of CSA. Ditto breastfeeding. Being sensitive to the possibilities can make the experience so much easier, and empowering, for these women.