The discussion on racism is now looking at history (never herstory, but that’s another blog post). As a result, monuments and place names are being reviewed in terms of their usefulness, and whether or not they should be allowed to remain when they are references to slavers. In Ireland, we have many places named after our own colonial ‘masters’. For the most part, we don’t really think about them, do we? In Dublin, we walk down Wellington Road, Holles Street, Rutland Row, Cavendish Row etc. etc. etc. – all named after our British overlords, and don’t challenge them. We have plenty of people – even women! – after whom we could (re)name our streets, but we don’t. Why is that ? Laziness? Lack of interest? Lack of awareness? A desire to remember our history of colonialism at (literally) every turn?
But more than street names, there is one institution whose name makes me react with physical revulsion every time I hear / read it: The Sims Clinic , which operates in Dublin, Cork, and Carlow. Named after J. Marion Sims, a man who performed barbaric gynaecological experiments on slave women in the US. It’s similar to starting a fertility clinic and calling it ‘The Mengele Clinic’. Yes, you really did read that, and, yes, I really did write that.
In the interests of full disclosure, I attended the Sims Clinic when I was in my 20s. I had no idea who it was named after, in fact I didn’t realise it was named after anyone. About two years after I’d had my surgery, however, that I found out who it was named after.
I’m horrified by the glorification of a man who ‘perfected his techniques’ on Black, enslaved women (without using pain relief) who could not refuse; before operating on white women (using anaesthetic). If you are, too, you might consider writing to the Sims Clinic and asking them to consider changing the name of the centre to one that isn’t racist.
We need to tackle these microaggressions everywhere we see them. We need to listen to what our BIPOC brothers and sisters are telling us. We need to listen more than we speak. We need to drop our defences. We need to stop saying ‘Yes, but…’ and just say ‘yes’. We need to acknowledge that we can’t know what it’s like to have generations of hate and ridicule and trauma heaped upon your shoulders. We need to acknowledge that we all have prejudices. We need to confront our inherent biases, challenge institutional violence. We need to be vocal and visible in our rejection of policies, practices, and procedures that discriminate against people purely because they are not white. We need to confront the myth we’ve been peddling ourselves for generations that we’re not racist. Because we are.
We bought an eggplant on our last trip to the supermarket, and I was aware that it would need to be used up fairly quickly. It had been a while since I’d made moussaka, but it didn’t take me long to realise that I didn’t really have all the ingredients. I did one of those ‘make-it-up-as-you-go-along’ type of recipes. We all know these can go either way. Thankfully, this one went the right way, and there wasn’t a scrap left.
I used what I had to hand, so there’s plenty of room for substitutions here – I’d have loved to have had mushrooms, for example, and bell peppers, but I didn’t. Also, I used pomegranate molasses because I didn’t have maple syrup!
Anyway, here’s the recipe:
4 cups or so of chopped vegetables (I used a frozen stir-fry mix)
5 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon of coriander powder
2 teaspoons of cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon of sesame seeds
Tomato Sauce: 1 teaspoon of olive oil
3 cloves of minced garlic
400g canned tomatoes
3 teaspoons of mixed herbs
Juice of half a lemon
Salt & pepper to taste
3 tablespoons of plain Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon of tahini
1 teaspoon of pomegranate molasses (or maple syrup/honey/treacle/agave nectar)
Salt and pepper to taste.
Food grade rosebuds to granish.
Preheat the oven to 200.
Prepare a baking tray.
Slice the aubergine into discs and place them evenly on the tray.
Drizzle some olive oil over them, and pop them in the oven for about 20 minutes.
In the meantime, make the tomato sauce:
Heat a frying pan and add olive oil.
Sauté the garlic until it is golden.
Add the tomatoes, lemon juice, herbs, and spices.
Bring to a low boil, reduce the heat and cover.
Leave to simmer while you prepare the chopped vegetables:
Heat a dry frying pan and add the spices and sesame seeds.
Toast until the raw smell is gone.
Heat oil in a pan.
Sauté garlic for a minute or two, being careful not to burn.
Add the vegetables.
Add the toasted seeds and spices.
Stir, and cook for about 5 minutes.
In a casserole or deep baking dish, spread some of the tomato sauce.
Arrange the aubergine slices over the sauce.
Top with the sautéd vegetables.
(At this stage, you could sprinkle some grated cheese over the top – I would have, but we’re all out of hard cheese.)
Pop the whole lot back in the oven for 15 minutes.
While it’s baking, prepare the yogurt sauce:
Whisk together all the ingredients (I’d add some fresh mint if I had some).
Serve the vegetables with the yogurt sauce on the side.
On Friday, September 13th last, I had surgery. It was gynae surgery – of the kind I’d already had a few times. I knew I wouldn’t bounce back, but I didn’t expect to nearly die afterwards, either.
On the following Monday, I decided it was time to get back to normal and I went upstairs to put laundry away. I’ve sometimes joked that housework will be the death of me, but I never thought I would be nearly right. I felt I needed to cough, but I couldn’t complete the it, and I had the weirdest pain in the centre of my chest. I didn’t know whether I needed to stand up, lie down, or curl into a ball to make it go away: I had no instinct on how to ‘cure’ it. I stamped on the floor of my bedroom, and my eldest daughter came running in. Ishthara’s great in a crisis, and had just finished a First Responder’s course, so she rang 999, and gave my history. In the middle of that phone call, she uttered a phrase which will forever live on in family lore:
‘I think you need to know this, but I’ve just realised my mum’s turning blue – and that’s not her normal colour.’
Within ten minutes, there was a First Responder at the house; doing his best to assess the situation and to take over the burden of responsibility from Ishthara – or at least share it with her. Within ten more minutes, there was an ambulance crew with equipment running tests, and within a further five, a doctor was sprinting up the stairs. There I was, five men in my bedroom before 11am on a Monday, and all I could do was worry about the fact that I hadn’t put the laundry away!
That was the rather dramatic start of a few months of health difficulties. I’d never been in an ambulance before September 16th, but I’ve got frequent flyer miles now! By December of last year, my reproductive organs, my lungs, my heart, my brain and my kidneys had all had little ‘episodes’. It’s like every major organ/system in my body just said ‘I’ve had enough’ and re-booted. I’ve been told by several doctors that they are amazed I’m still alive; and also that it’s incredible I’ve managed to come through all this without doing any lasting damage to any of said organs/systems.
I’m really lucky. Not just to be alive, but to be alive with the prospect of full recovery. I’m really lucky that my friends are incredible, and looked after me so well while I was ill. Most especially, I am indebted to my friend, Jane Travers who – as soon as she heard I was hospitalised – and why – hopped on a plane and came to Dublin until she was happy I was well enough to be left. (Ishthara explained Jane to her boyfriend like this ‘Jane is wonderful. She’s so lovely. But – once she gets an idea into her head just…..don’t bother arguing’). I’m really lucky that my girls are wonderful young women who cooked, cleaned, minded themselves, and the cats, and each other, and me, for months while I was unable to do any of those things myself.
The initial recovery plan would have seen me returning to ‘normal’ life in March, but then Covid-19 hit, followed shortly afterwards by the lockdown. I had been looking forward to two things; getting back to swimming, and visiting the hairdresser. I hadn’t sat in the salon chair since August, and it was time!
My hair was starting to annoy me mightily. I’d lopped a few inches off it in January, but it needed a skilled professional. During the week, I was marking assignments and just got to the point where I couldn’t put up with it any longer. If I don’t like something, I change it. So, I picked up the nearest scissors, and cut off as much as I could – not in a fit of pique, but rather because it just felt like time . Then I went upstairs, and finished the job off with a blade.
It’s not a statement. It’s not a Covid-19 Lockdown Haircut. It’s starting over. It’s a new beginning. Sometimes, modification isn’t enough. Sometimes, there is nothing to salvage. Sometimes, what you’d salvage would not really be worth saving. Sometimes, you need to just start all over again.
Yesterday, Sarah McInerney wrote a piece in The Times about my late friend, Shane Griffin, and how he was let down by a number of systems in Ireland: The Eastern Health Board, the HSE, TUSLA, and the judiciary, to name a few.
It was a lovely tribute to a lovely man and it mentioned how the abuse children suffer is compounded by the neglect they (we) are then subjected to by the very institutions that are supposed to mind them (us). The problem I have with the piece is not the piece itself, but the fact that it tells us nothing new, and it amounts to nothing more than a bit of hand-wringing, and an invitation (which was taken up by many on Twitter) to have a big, online, hand-wringing fest.
We have known for years that children who are sexually abused in Ireland have their abuse compounded by the further abuse and neglect of those who are supposed to help us. The Journal has been reporting on this for years – just have a look at this and this and this and this and this : All pieces giving details about children who were sexually abused, and how their suffering was compounded by government agencies, individual social workers, doctors, psychologists etc. who did nothing and who were promoted for their lack of action. Our government, our government agencies, and individual social workers, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and others who work for those agencies are complicit in the abuse, neglect and suicides of people in this country. No one is held accountable, and victims struggle to survive in a country that doesn’t support us.
For example, if (God forbid) your ten-year-old child were sexually assaulted and you went to get help for them. This is what would happen:
You would phone somewhere like CARI, St. Clare’s Unit, or St. Louise’s Unit, or your local social worker, begging for help.
You would not receive help.
The service / social worker you contacted would, in turn, contact TUSLA and report the information. (Note: If this isn’t done online – bearing in mind that only 20% of HSE workers have access to the Internet – the documents will be returned. Estimates vary on how long this will take.)
TUSLA would put your child on a waiting list to be assessed. This waiting list is currently years long.
A social worker from TUSLA would interview your child and decide whether or not they were lying about the abuse. They call this determining whether or not the allegations are ‘founded’ or ‘unfounded’. (More about this below).
If they decide that your child is not a liar, your child will be referred to CARI to be put on their waiting list for help.
If you wanted to access services through the HSE, you would have to involve the Gardaí, as well. St. Clare’s and St. Louise’s Units will not put you on their waiting lists unless you have done so.
Don’t forget that, for the years you’re waiting for help, you’ll have been dealing with a child whose mental health is suffering, you’ll have been grappling with your own pain and feelings of guilt, fear, and your mental health will also be suffering. Your child may be suicidal. Your child may be self-harming. Your other children, and your partner / spouse will also be suffering in a similar way.
If the abuse was perpetrated by a member of your family, the mental anguish will be compounded. There will be no help or support for your abused child, you, or your family members unless you know how to find a competent therapist and pay for therapy yourself. Good luck with that.
Founded / Unfounded
Whether or not your child gets help depends on whether or not a social worker in TUSLA says they’re allowed to access this help (such as it is). How do they do this? Well, the truth is that nobody knows. Social Workers in Ireland receive no training in how to determine the veracity of a claim of abuse. Nor or they trained in how to treat abuse victims or victims of trauma. (That is changing, however, as Dr Joe Mooney has just introduced a module in UCD for those studying there.)
Just today (January 13th, 2020), I got word from a friend – I’ll call her Anna, though that’s not her real name – who contacted TUSLA in 2010 to report abuse she had suffered when she was a child. Make no mistake, this is a brave thing to do. Anna was raped 3-4 times a week, from the age of 14 until she was 17. She is aware that she is not the only person this rapist raped. One other woman has had conversations with Anna about being raped by this man, too, but she’s afraid to go to the Gardaí. Of course, he’s an upstanding member of his local community in Wicklow, so when he was asked – more than eight years after the abuse was reported – if the allegations were untrue, he denied it.
And that was that.
Anna’s mental and physical health are suffering because of the damage this man did to her, which has been compounded by services which are supposed to put ‘Children First’. Anna no longer lives in Ireland because she can’t bear to live in a country that cares so little for raped children. I cannot say I blame her.
I’m not going to pretend to be objective. I’m not going to pretend this isn’t personal. Because it is personal. I am one of the children who was let down by the system. I have encountered nothing but obstacles from every institution, service and individual – with the notable exception of one social worker who alerted me to the fact that a file on me existed. This she did, almost as an aside at the end of a conversation in 2010. It took me two years of constant requests before I was given access to my (heavily redacted) files.
This letter refers to a case conference that took place in November 1988. I was, at this time, 15 years and two months old.
I think it’s worth noting that I never, ever met a single one of the people present at that ‘case conference’ – except for Imelda Ryan.
This is borne out, in part by this (heavily redacted) letter from Rosemary Cooke, who was at the meeting referred to in the correspondence above:
At the same time, she declares herself the key worker in my ‘case’.
And, as you can see from the top line, she asserts that there is ‘little social work intervention possible.’ This woman is still in practice, by the way, and has added the role of ‘Mediator’ to her suite of offerings.
It would actually be funny, if it weren’t so serious.
Let me draw your attention to lines 21, 22, 23, and 24 of the first document. Please bear in mind that everyone at that meeting knew I had been sexually abused by my elder brothers, and was being sexually abused by my father. It was further accepted that the younger children in the house were also at risk of being / were being abused.
But, as you can also see, my mammy didn’t want my daddy to leave the house. So no one interfered. Fifteen-year-old me is referred to as being ‘very disturbed’, ‘not liking my father’ and wanting him ‘out of the house’. It is absurd that this is even noteworthy – or that it is noteworthy, but no further explanation is required. ‘Dr’ Ryan suspects this is a plot on my part. Imagine being 15 and wanting a rapist out of your family home in order to protect yourself and the other children in the family! Clearly quite the little plotter. I was the only person prepared to do anything to address the situation. That should not have been my job. Please also note that I am vilified for disclosing that I was suicidal (line 24). Please also note that, even though the Gardaí were referred to – though I still have no idea how they were expected to ‘control the family’ – they were never contacted by anyone about this abuse until I knocked into my local station when I was 18.
But let me go back to the ‘psychiatrist’ involved – the woman who was supposed to have my welfare at heart. Bear in mind, I was between the ages of 14 and 16 when I was attending St Louise’s Unit. Bear in mind that it was confirmed I was being sexually abused (or, in today’s parlance, my allegations were ‘founded’) . Yet, here is a sample of things that she said about this very scared, very vulnerable teenager:
‘Hazel is “seeking attention”, and has on more than one occasion, cut her wrists’. (Letter dated (05.12.1989). Could you imagine the audacity of a suicidal teenager trying to kill herself. Clearly, still plotting!
Perhaps even more disturbing, however is this gem:
I’m particularly disturbed by the use of the term ‘sexual intercourse’. Even in the 1980s, ‘sexual intercourse’ with a child was called rape. I would expect a professional, in a letter to other professionals, to use correct terminology. Maybe I expect too much.
I have reams of documents recovered from the HSE and St. Louise’s Unit, but I won’t bore you by reproducing them all here – I think you get the gist.
Of course, I am the first to admit that I am no spring chicken and these documents date from the late 1980s and early 1990s. BUT the system is still the same – actually, you could even argue that it’s a bit worse because ‘self-referrals’ like mine was, are no longer accepted by these units. Imelda Ryan was the director of this unit until a few years ago (2016 if my memory serves me correctly) when she retired. The culture that she inculcated is still very much alive and well in the Unit. In fact, this disdain for victims is evident in almost every single service that is meant to care for us.
The problem is the system, and the culture that supports it. It would not be easy to overhaul the system: There would be huge resistance, and we’d have to change the culture in which we live and operate. But that’s not really the Irish way, is it? We’ll continue, instead, to wring our hands with bone-crunching intensity and cry at the funerals of our friends. Friends whose deaths were entirely preventable if only we had competent people in positions of power. Or even people who cared.
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.
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:
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:
Reporting – how to deal with a report, mandatory reporting etc.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am delighted to report that Headstuff has published a piece I wrote about Narcissistic Mothers. You can read it here.
On foot of recognising the terrible damage my own narcissistic mother is responsible for, I set up a support group for daughters of narcissistic mothers. It’s a secret group on FB (so no one knows you’re there, except you and the other members).
Being the daughter of a narcissistic mother can be a very lonely place; Society would like us to be very quiet about the fact that our mothers don’t love us. Even people who didn’t have ideal childhoods, even people who were abused by their mothers, find it difficult to believe that there exist mothers who simply refuse to love their daughters. Those of us who have suffered – and those of us who continue to suffer – the terrible impact of narcissistic mothers, however ‘get it’.
In part, that’s why the FB group is such a wonderful place to hang out – it’s populated by wonderful women who completely understand how it feels to have a mother who doesn’t care about you; who pits your siblings against you; who lies about you; who refuses to celebrate your wins; who puts you down at every turn; who is jealous of your every success and attempts to take the good out of it; who cannot bear the idea that you might be happier than she; who is filled with rage at the idea that your standard of living might be better than hers etc. etc. Having somewhere to bring this hurt, where you will be understood, and not judged, is a huge relief.
If you’d like to join, this group, please contact me via this page, DM me on Twitter, or send me a few words on Messenger .
Privately, a friend who works in an economically-deprived area in Dublin, told me that in the past year, three lone mothers have died by suicide in that area.
Mothers who parent alone get the shitty end of the stick in this country. Lone parent families have the highest rates of consistent poverty in Ireland, according to the most recent SILC report (which you can read here). The vast majority of lone parent families are headed by women. There are barriers to education and paid employment – and the work women do in the home is completely discounted; it’s expected that we will
*make appointments for the children
*take the children to those appointments
*do the laundry
*do the garden (if we’re lucky enough to have one)
*organise the handyman (if we can’t do the DIY ourselves)
*top up the leap cards
*keep the car on the road (if we’re lucky enough to have one)
*organise drop-offs and pick-ups
*do drop-offs and pick-ups
*pay attention to every sign and symptom of our babies, children, teens so we’re on top of their mental health and physical health
*provide healthy, nutritious meals for our children
*clothe our children
*provide appropriate shelter for our children
*ensure that they are doing well at school
*fight for everything they require if they have any sort of additional need
*pay all the bills
*organise birthday parties
*find the money for cards and gifts for our children’s friends’ birthdays
*make time to spend with each of our children on their own
*read to our children
*take care of their cultural, sporting, and academic requirements
*make sure they take their medication
*keep an eye on who they’re friends with
*get to know their friends
*forget that third drink on a weekend night, in case one of the kids gets sick and you need to take them to the doctor / hospital
*turn down invitations because you don’t have / can’t afford childcare
*monitor the kids’ internet usage
This list is not exhaustive. In fact, it barely touches the tip of the iceberg of the things that mothers parenting on their own are expected to do – and judged and vilified for if they don’t, or don’t do it to someone else’s ridiculously high standards.
Is it any wonder an increasing amount of us are suicidal?
* If you are affected by any of the issues raised, you can contact: Pieta House at 1800-247247, or Samaritans by telephoning 116123 for free, texting 087-2609090 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or Aware: aware.ie; Tel: 1800-804848; Email: email@example.com
Let me tell you about anxiety. Or, rather, let me tell you about my experience of anxiety. I’ve had anxiety for years, but didn’t know what it was until about two years ago. Then, I had the diagnosis, but didn’t realise the plethora of symptoms that could be attributed to it until the medication eased them. That’s right – I’m on medication for my anxiety, and have been for about a year. I don’t think I’ve ever admitted that before, because of the amount of stigma associated with being on medication. Still, in 2018. But I refuse to allow that to hold me back from speaking my truth. If I had asthma and needed an inhaler every day, would I be ’embarrassed’ or ‘ashamed’ or ‘shamed’ because of it? Probably not.
(As a brief aside, I love my medication. It doesn’t make me happy – it doesn’t make my life any better, it merely enables me to meet the life that comes at me without falling to pieces. It makes me functional. It restores me to myself. )
Anyway, even with medication, I still have anxiety, and even with the medication, it sometimes gets bad. Now, we all get a bit anxious. I accept that. But clinical anxiety is to ‘being a bit anxious’ as clinical depression is to ‘being a bit sad’. Here’s what it’s like for me:
I wake up in the morning and it feels like I have something heavy – like a cannon ball – sitting in my solar plexus: It feels like it’s pinning me to the bed. I am paralysed by it. I lie there, trying to identify the source of the fear. The following sentences literally form themselves in my brain:
‘What have I failed at?’
‘What do I have to do today that’s terrifying me?’
‘What is today bringing me that I won’t be able to do?’
I know that I generally feel a bit better if I’m upright. It can take me up to two hours to cajole myself out of bed, though. So I get the added delight of telling myself:
‘This is you, doing nothing.’
‘This is you, failing. Right here, right now, this is exactly what you’re doing. Failing.’
‘You’re useless. You’re doing nothing. You’ll never get anything done.’
‘Just give it up. Give up everything you’re trying to do because you’re not doing it! Just STOP! Stop everything because you are nothing.’
I’m getting better at ignoring that voice, though, or of dismissing it when it speaks to me.
In addition to the shit I tell myself, I find breathing difficult when my anxiety is bad. I can go a minute or so without breathing, and not notice. Clearly, this is not a good thing. Especially when I realise I’ve been holding my breath, and then I bring my attention to it, and run the risk of inducing a panic attack! Really not a good look. (Panic attacks are evil.) So, I’ve got better at just breathing Like A Normal Person (for those who aren’t familiar, Normal People are people who aren’t me!).
Then there’s the wasps in my head. Not actual wasps, you understand, but that’s what it feels like, sometimes; that there is a whole swarm of angry wasps inside my skull, and I just can’t stop them buzzing, flying, stinging, the inside of my head.
Sometimes, for the sake of variety, my thoughts will try to emulate barbed wire on the inside of my head, rather than wasps. They’d hate me to get bored. They are hard to deal with, I’ll admit it. But I’m working on catching them and dismissing them before they multiply. I’m not always successful – but, then, they’re not always that bad. A soothing distraction can be good – taking up my knitting, or doing a bit of colouring (as I mentioned before, I use kids’ colouring books because ‘mindful’ ones crank my anxiety levels up), or sticking. I also love devotional music – I prefer Hindu mantras – but devotional music comes (I feel) from a very special place, so devotional music of any persuasion touches me. Get on to You Tube, and see what works for you.
Recently, I have found that it really works for me if I forget about compiling a list of things to do – and give myself just one, achievable task to get through in a day. Some days (like today), it might take me all day to get it done. Funny thing is, that once I have that ticked off, I often feel like doing something else. So I’ll do something else, and that feeds a sense of achievement I hadn’t expected.
I’m learning to be gentle with myself. ‘Speak Love to yourself,’ my friend Kuxi wrote to me today. (When I’m bad, I can’t speak. I know, I know, it should be a national holiday, but it just feels like it’s too hard – so I send emails, or text messages. I know it’s important not to isolate myself too much.)
Also today, for the first time ever, I caught myself thinking
‘It’s going to be okay. You’ve lived through this before. You’ve lived through worse. You’ll bounce back – you always do.’
And the relief was amazing. I was able to recognise that I’m more unwell than I had previously admitted to myself, and reach out to a variety of people who can help – friends, my supervisor at uni, my doctor.
But the most important reaching out I did was to myself. I was kinder, gentler, more understanding of myself this time around than ever before. I’m hoping it’ll ease up soon, and the next time it’s bad, I’ll be more aware and reach out even sooner. If you have anxiety, what works for you?
A week ago, Katherine Zappone announced baby boxes would be given to all new parents in an attempt to increase the birth rate in Ireland.
Baby boxes were first introduced in Finland in 1938, when infant mortality stood at 65 per 1,000. The boxes contained clothes, nappies, a mattress, picture books and a teething toy. With the mattress in the bottom, the box doubled as a bed. They were introduced as part of a drive to bring down Finland’s infant mortality rate.
In Ireland, in 2018, however, they’re, at best, cute, and at worst, a waste of money. This government would be better serving their remit if they poured support into children who are already here. Here is an incomplete list of thing the government could better do with money to help the children who are already here:
Lone parents need better supports, and clearer pathways back to employment / education that won’t penalise them.
We need better supports for adults who were abused as children, so that they can parent better.
We need more midwives, so pregnant people can have continuity of care.
We need better mental health care for children.
Our education system needs a complete overhaul (including better sex and relationship education).
We need to provide permanent homes for the 3,000+ homeless children in Ireland at the moment.
We need to value the children we already have before we start spouting off about how to look like we’re making life better for children who aren’t even here yet. It is true that raising children is expensive. People are putting off having children, or having more children, if they are unsure that they will be able to mange to keep those children safe, healthy, housed, fed, and educated. A few nappies, and a couple of babygros in the bottom of a cardboard box are not going to encourage people to have more babies – but here are a few things that might:
Affordable housing and I don’t (necessarily) mean state-subsidised housing, but houses where mortgages are easy to pay on one salary.
Education that is aligned with the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that the education of the child ‘shall be directed to the development of the child’s personality, talents, and mental and physical abilities, to their fullest potential. Currently, such education is not available in Ireland.
An improved maternity system, with women at the centre of care. I have spoken with many women who – having been traumatised in Irish hospitals – are too afraid to have another child.
Valuing the caring work that parents do: Currently, parents on social welfare are receiving €31 per week per child. If those same children were in foster care, the government would happily hand over between €325 and €352 per child per week to the foster parents.
Fix the leaky roof, and crumbling walls, of the house you live in before you start planning a fancy garden shed.
A few days ago, I started a secret group, on Facebook, for daughters of narcissistic mothers. One of the last remaining social taboos is challenging the myth of the ‘perfect mother’. While it is perfectly acceptable to snark about other mothers online, revealing that your own mother was abusive is still frowned upon. The fact that mothers are still revered makes it difficult to discuss the failings of your own with others. But the only way to heal from anything is to acknowledge it – and acknowledgement starts with naming. Giving a name to our mothers’ behaviour is the beginning of dealing with, and accepting what we went through.
I am, of course, using ‘narcissistic’ in a clinical sense, rather than to just mean ‘self-centred’.
Characteristics of Mothers With Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
1.Everything she does is deniable.
2. She violates your boundaries.
3. She displays no respect for you.
4. She refuses to accept that you are a woman separate from her; entitled to your own life, and experiences.
5. She plays favourites with her children.
6. She undermines you – your dreams, ideas, and successes.
7. She is jealous of you.
8. She demeans, criticises, and denigrates you.
9. If you don’t behave exactly how she would like / expects you to, she will treat you as though you are crazy.
10. She lies – by omission, and commission.
11. She reinvents the past to make herself look good – or least better.
12. She has to be the centre of attention all the time.
13. She manipulates your emotions in order to feed on your pain.
14. She’s selfish and wilful.
15. She’s self-absorbed.
16. She’s unable to accept criticism, and gets extremely defensive in the face of it.
17. She’s infantile and petty.
18. She’s aggressive / passive-aggressive.
19. She ‘parentifies’.
19. She’s manipulative.
20. She’s exploitative.
21. She projects.
22. She can never accept that she is wrong about anything.
23. She cannot accept that others have different ways of doing things.
24. She blames others for her mistakes.
25. She actively works to destroy your relationships.
Not every aspect on this list may apply to your mother; but it’s safe to say that if she presents with at least 15 of the 25, she’s a narcissist, and you’re having to deal with the effects of her personality disorder.
For me, one of the worst parts of growing up with a narcissistic mother was her total denial of my right to an emotional life. She never recognised my emotions, needs, or desires. She expected, and demanded that I share details of every experience I had outside the home with her. Depending on what it was, she would
(1) ignore me/it,
(2) counter it with a story of her own,
(3) use that particular need or desire against me, or
(4) using her passive-aggressive skills or outright manipulation to guilt trip me for having needs, desires, etc. that were separate, and different from, her own.
This continued right throughout my childhood and into my adulthood, until I found the strength to escape from the toxic, abusive family I grew up.
One of the saddest things, for me, about the FB group*, is the fact that so many of the members have disclosed a history of child sexual abuse. It’s terribly sad that so many of us have both those things in common. Having grown up with a narcissistic mother can also impact on our own mothering. A mother who didn’t love you makes loving your own children something you worry about: How can anyone possibly be expected to emulate a behaviour that has never been modelled for them? (Dealing with narcissistic mothers, and their effect on pregnant women will be discussed at this workshop in May.)
Of course, I accept that my own mother had adversity in her own life. There is sexual abuse in her own background; she married young (as she says herself, to ‘spite’ her own mother); and her husband was abusive. She suffers with a food addiction, and was a secret eater throughout my childhood. She’s deeply unhappy, and feels the need to inflict that unhappiness on her own daughter. While I can have compassion for the fact that her life didn’t exactly go to plan, I can still hold her accountable for her behaviour – something she’s completely incapable of doing herself.
(*If you’d like to join the group, DM me on Twitter, or email me firstname.lastname@example.org)
Consent is, thankfully, back in the news these days. Sober Paddy wrote a great piece on how not to be a rapist. That post focuses on how important consent is when seeking to have sexual contact with someone else.
The Minister for Education and Skills has issued a statement committing to bringing the issue of consent into the new sex ed curricula. Until the proposed curricula have been published, it is impossible to comment on their content – obviously! – but I would hope that ‘consent’ would cover everything from hugging right up to, and including, penetrative sex.
Schools are not the only place where people can, and should, receive education, information, and training, however. Sports clubs, professional bodies and organisations, have a duty of care to ensure that their members are aware of what consent is, how to obtain it, and how to respond when consent is refused / revoked. I would argue that workplaces would also do well to consider educating their employees on issues of consent. After all, mental health and other elements of self-care are being introduced by employers across the country, so why not consent workshops, too?
Seeking, and obtaining, consent is an element of challenging the entitlement with which most men in our society are raised. Even men who identify as ‘one of the good guys’ (who doesn’t?!); and think they are kind, considerate, and emotionally intelligent can – due to their own sense of entitlement – over-step boundaries, causing upset and distress.
As the person on the receiving end of such behaviour recently, I’m going to tell you a little story about consent and unsolicited dick pics.
It’s no secret that I’ve dabbled in the world of online dating – with mixed results. There have been a few first dates, fewer second dates, and a scant handful of third (or subsequent) dates, but for the most part, it’s been fun.
About a fortnight ago I connected with a man who seemed like A Decent Bloke. I enjoyed chatting with him; he ticked a lot of boxes, and I was looking forward to meeting him. From our first conversation, I had flagged my dislike of dick pics – photographs of men’s penises sent to my phone, and / or email – and he had assured me that he wouldn’t send any.
It got to the stage where the (non) sending of dick pics was a source of mirth. In nearly every conversation we had, the fact that I didn’t like them, and he, therefore, wouldn’t send them was mentioned. I was clear, not just about my aversion to dick pics, but also about why I really didn’t want them sent to me. He understood. ‘I’m one of the good guys,’ he assured me. Hmmmmm.
Last week, we were chatting away, and it was all a bit flirty and harmless and comfortable. Then, he whips out his penis, snaps a pic, and sends it to me on Whatsapp.
I was more upset than I thought I’d be: I’m in my mid-forties, I’ve seen penises before; and I’ve been violated in worse ways (and by family members, too), but upset I was. I immediately shut down the conversation on Whatsapp, and sent a ‘regular’ text message. This is the exchange that followed:
I didn’t reply. I have no desire to communicate with someone who thinks this is an adequate response. Look at what he says:
‘I got carried away’ – in other words ‘It wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t control myself.’
How many times have women heard this as a way for men to shift the blame for their actions away from them to …well, who or what, exactly? The woman? Their penis as a third party and separate entity? I’m not sure, but if you have any thoughts, please enlighten me.
In his final missive, he says:
‘I really thought we had reached a point where you would be ok with that.’
He thought I’d be okay with him sending me an unsolicited dick pic even though I’d told him I really didn’t want one. He thought that; so it must be right, right? He thought that; so there was no need to check with me, right? He thought that; so there was no need to seek consent, right? And he could have, so easily….if he was sitting there, all horny and dying to show me what that looked like (!), couldn’t he just have asked? How difficult would it have been for him to say something like:
‘I know you don’t want unsolicited dick pics – but to you fancy soliciting one? 😊’ or
‘I’m horny as fuck – wanna see?!’ or
‘I think I have the most amazing mickey in the world, and I want you to agree.’
Whatever! Anything other than this clear display of white, male, middle-class, entitlement. I’m sick of it.
Sending an unsolicited picture of your genitals to another person is an act of aggression. Sent as a message (rather than an attachment), means that it confronts the person when they open the relevant application. It’s violating. It’s upsetting. Particularly when the person on the receiving end has been clear and explicit about why they do not wish to receive such a photograph (and, should I really have to disclose details of my abuse in order to hope that I’ll be spared an unsolicited dick pic? Or tell men that my children have access to my phone, so I don’t want their penises all over it?!)
Exposing children to pornographic images is classed as sexual abuse. Exposing adults to pornographic images should, at the very least, require consent.
Last month, I wrote the first part of this ‘series’ in Forgiveness. If you’re interested, you can read that entry here.
I wrote about what I think forgiveness isn’t. I ended the piece talking about peace – and how those of use who have been hurt (and are generally called upon to forgive) need, and deserve peace.
Here’s what I have learnt about forgiveness in recent months, though – bearing in mind that I have researched this from an academic point of view, as well as engaging with people who work in law enforcement, and others who are dedicated to reform, here and abroad.
My ‘aha’ moment around forgiveness, though, came when I was talking to a financial coach, Karen McAllister. Funny how the answers you’re looking for don’t necessarily come from the source you might expect them to. Anyway, talking to Karen about forgiveness, I realised that my version of forgiveness was not about exonerating the transgressor, but about reclaiming the power that I was settling on them.
Let me unpack that, and explain what I mean. At this juncture, I’m going to go backwards for a little bit, and look at the etymology of the word ‘forgive’. To forgive means to grant a pardon, and a pardon is to ‘pass over an offence without punishment’. ‘Pardon’ has its roots in two Latin words: ‘Per’ (which means ‘forward’ or ‘hence’) and ‘Donare’ (which means ‘give as a gift’). To forgive, then, is ‘the granting of the gift of, henceforth, not punishing an offence’. Forgiving, then, in the traditional sense, the way I wrote about it last month, essentially gives the forgiven a free pass, while not doing an awful lot for the forgivee. To me, that reinforces something else I mentioned last month; that the only person we need to forgive, in that sense, is ourselves.
To come back, now, to the idea of forgiveness as a reclamation of power, I think that is the manifestation of forgiveness of the self. The person who has damaged you, who has trespassed against you, is not given a free pass, but you reclaim the power that they have stolen from you.
Perhaps the easiest way to do that is to use a real-life example. My eldest brother, Nigel Talbot, sexually abused me for most of my childhood. He is not remorseful, and though he has said ‘sorry’ in person, he has continued to abuse me in other ways, and he has also continued to abuse other women – sexually, emotionally, and financially. My forgiveness took the form of a letter to him. Initially, I was going to send it to him, but – thinking about it – I realised that, to do so, would still be giving him power. I would still be expressing a desire for him to do something / to be something that he could choose not to be. What I need to do, for myself, is to call back that energy that he holds while I don’t forgive. The forgiveness is about me, not about him.
In any event, I know that if I did send a letter to him, his wife would keep it from him.
If you would like to read that letter, you can do so here.
This was the first of many such letters I’m writing, and with the penning of every one, I am feeling stronger, and more self-reclaimed. It’s definitely something I’d recommend, and if you do it, too, I’d love to know if it works for you.
This year, European Cervical Cancer Awareness Week falls from January 28th. As a result, the past few days have seen my Twitter feed full of reminders that smear tests save lives; that cervical cancer is an awful way to go; that it is preventable; that a few minutes’ of (unnecessary) embarrassment and (minimal) discomfort are worth it if they save your life; that you really don’t want to be one of the 70 women in Ireland who dies as a result of cervical cancer this year.
I chose to believe this piece of research that instructed me that there is a statistically significant number of false positive results. I decided to nod in agreement with pieces like this from The Guardian. Never mind that it’s nearly 15 years old. I liked what I read. I also had a look at the academic journals and read the ones that would confirm my existing bias. As a full-time researcher in the social sciences, I know better; but I decided to suspend my natural and professional critical interrogative proclivities in order to tell myself I was making an informed decision. Hey! I wasn’t going to be publishing my findings, and I wasn’t going to be harming anyone (except, maybe, myself) if I was wrong. I also had a quick look at this website and decided I didn’t tick enough boxes to be anything other than ‘low risk’.
So, for the 16th year running, I won’t be having a smear test. Head-in-the-sand? Definitely. I wouldn’t normally be so reckless about screening (I had my first mammogram at 27 – before I’d even had kids), but a smear test is a slightly different screening exam to most, and the reason for my aversion is – sorry to say – rooted in my experiences of child sexual abuse, and subsequent sexual assaults as an adult. I want to feel empowered as much as, and as often as, possible. Smear tests aren’t really empowering.
All of that said, however, I think there might be a solution. I am not the only woman in Ireland with a history of sexual assault. There are thousands of us in the ‘smear test age bracket’ who have been sexually abused, and I think it might be a good idea if we were facilitated with a bit of compassion / understanding.
I’m reminded, very much, of the last time a health professional went faffing around at my nether regions. It was four years ago last week, and I was losing a pregnancy. This had not been an easy pregnancy to achieve, and I’d used donor sperm for a variety of reasons (that’s a whole ‘nother blog post). Anyway.
Losing this baby* was devastating. Not least because I didn’t have a partner to hug me and tell me it would all be all right, but because accessing healthcare was difficult for me. I decided to do what I could to take ownership of my own care, and empower myself as best I could. The first thing I did was drive an hour out of Dublin (passing, literally, by two maternity hospitals on my way) to Mullingar. I’m a doula, and although I rarely practice any more, I am still in contact with many members of the birth community; and I hear things, and I know things. One of the things I had heard was that I could expect to find more compassion in Mullingar than in the Dublin hospitals (for a variety of reasons).
In Mullingar, I was treated with kindness and compassion by the young male doctor in A&E who drew blood and tried to be as reassuring as possible. I was invited (and I choose the word deliberately) to return for further blood tests and a scan at the Early Pregnancy Unit. I thought about it. I wasn’t keen, but I steeled myself and showed up. When I was registering that morning, I noticed that the nurse (Deborah) wore a name-tag which indicated that she was attached to the SATU (sexual assault treatment unit) in the hospital. Ten minutes after sitting down, waiting to be called, I decided to take my treatment in my own hands, ignored the voice that said I was ‘being dramatic’ and ‘attention seeking’ (my abusers used to toss this at me any time I got upset about how I was being treated) and I approached this nurse. I disclosed that I had a history of sexual abuse and explained that I found trans-vaginal ultrasounds immensely difficult.
The amount of compassion and understanding I bumped up against was instantly reassuring. Deborah asked what I needed, how she could help, offered me choices (I didn’t need to have a trans-vaginal ultrasound if I didn’t want one, and could opt for the ‘old-fashioned’ way of drinking litres of water and having an abdominal scan instead). She literally held my hand throughout the procedure and did her absolute best to make sure that I felt empowered, comfortable and heard at all times.
I can honestly say that hearing the dreaded words ‘I’m really sorry – there’s no heartbeat’ was made that bit easier by the way I had been treated with compassion and dignity every step of the way.
Now, I know that having a miscarriage and having a smear test are different – but in many ways, they’re not that different. So what I’m wondering is if might be possible to have some additional consideration for women who have a history of sexual assault? Is there any chance, for example, that we could have our smears done in one of the SATUs around the country? Or – given that I know how over-stretched the SATUs are – could we have HCPs undergo additional training to make them more aware of the issues faced by abuse survivors? Is there any possibility that we might have trauma-informed care around smear testing? Honestly, if I were to re-consider my position, that is the one thing that would make me do so; and I don’t think I’m the only one.
This is one of those times when I’m going to say ‘do as I say, not as I do’ and encourage you – if you live in Ireland and own a cervix – to check here to see if you’re due a smear test. And if you are, to go and have one.
*Lookit, I know it wasn’t really a baby, but it was in my head, because I desperately wanted it to become one.
So, I read this afternoon, that some GPs are in favour of reducing child benefit by half in cases where parents don’t have those children vaccinated.
I think this is an appalling idea. Child benefit is a monthly, non-means-tested payment made, by the Irish State, to ease the financial costs associated with raising children in Ireland. Many households here rely on Child Benefit to help pay recurring monthly bills; gas, electricity, insurance, mortgage etc. You can’t argue that children don’t benefit from those bills being paid; or that they aren’t necessary for the child’s well-being. In other households (like mine), that €140 per child, is ear-marked for educational purposes. Other people use it for shoes or clothes. A few, a very lucky few, save or invest in order to have a lump sum for that child on their 18th birthday, or to help with costs associated with third-level education. Whatever the money is spent on, the clue really is in the title – the money is for each child in the country to help defray costs associated with raising that child. Cutting the benefit will not punish the parents, it will punish the children.
To suggest that a financial payment for a child should be cut if that child is not vaccinated against childhood diseases is a display of angry, lazy thinking at its worst. If the desire is to increase the uptake of vaccinations, then surely a better approach is to educate parents, to address their fears and concerns around vaccinations? Then – and I know this might appear radical – how about allowing parents to, you know, parent? By that I mean provide them with information and then encourage them to decide for themselves what is right for their particular child, and their particular family, at that time.
The idea that child benefit should be halved for children whose parents don’t act in the way that a certain group of people think they should act is patronising, paternalistic, and arrogant. It indicates that the group calling for this diminishing of the benefit believes they are absolutely right. In this instance, a group of doctors think that they should be able to wield a financial stick at parents who don’t agree with them. Missing the point entirely, of course, that such action would impact more on the children than on their parents. It also further encourages the myth that child benefit is a boon to parents – that it can (and should) be rescinded for non-compliance with a particular directive. What next? A slashing of child benefit if they don’t go to school? A further cut if they’re not breastfed? Another if they’re obese?
I would point out to this group of GPs that to punish a child for the lack of action on the part of their parents – which you view as negligent in the first place – is, by your own logic, punishing the child twice. Don’t do that. Don’t suggest that your frustrations be taken out on an already vulnerable group.
As if running the Department of Poverty wasn’t a big enough job for Leo Varadkar, he’s decided to elect himself Minister for Mansplaining, and give himself cabinet responsibility for correct terminology as well.
Leo has decided that for every person, everywhere, who is ever pregnant, the correct word to use to describe the contents of their womb is ‘baby’.
‘Foetus’ Leo mansplains to all of us who have ever, will ever, or might ever, be pregnant, is not a word that we should use. Nor is it a word that should be used in reference to our pregnancies by mere mortals without a medical degree. ‘Foetus’, according to Dr V, is a medical word. The implication being that those of us who don’t hold medical degrees should not use medical words. We should not refer to our fingers as ‘digits’, either, he cautions. Presumably in case we lose the run of ourselves entirely, and start having a go at performing craniotomies during our lunch-breaks.
I only wish Dr V had been around 13 or 14 years ago, when I started telling my daughter that her vulva was her vulva, rather than her ‘fanny’ or her ‘front bum’ or her ‘butterfly’. I hope she doesn’t get notions above her station as a result. Idly, I wonder if Leo referred to his penis as his ‘passion pencil’ until he was a fully qualified medical doctor. Or if he’d be chagrined if he heard me talking about a migraine, and explaining to my GP that it had started occipitally? Would he chastise me, do you think, and tell me I should talk about the back of my head, instead? Except, referring to the back of my head is not as precise as referring to my occipital bone; and sometimes it is necessary and useful to be precise.
Does Leo not understand that women are allowed to refer to the contents of their wombs however they please? If a woman wants to refer to the product of conception inside her as ‘foetus’, ‘baby’, ‘peanut’, ‘sprog’, ‘alien’ or any other word she likes (the last time I was pregnant, my daughters referred to the contents of my womb as ‘The Minion’), it is not my place to tell her that she is using the wrong word. I would respectfully suggest that Dr V adopt the same attitude.
I find his diktat that all women should refer to their foetuses as babies – and that their friends and families should, too – to be more than vaguely unsettling. If women aren’t even allowed, by Leo, to use the language which feels most appropriate for them, at a given time, what else does he think they really shouldn’t have a choice about? Or that they should only have limited choice about?
There is an element of nuance involved in this naming business. For a lot of women, when a pregnancy is wanted, they talk about their ‘baby’ even though they know it is not, actually, a baby. Every woman who wants to be a mother, wants to have a baby; but knows that first, she will have a blastocyst, then a zygote, then an embryo, then a foetus, then – if she’s lucky – a baby. We project our hopes onto our wanted pregnancies. We imagine what we’ll have at the end. We invest in them.
Every woman who doesn’t want to be a mother, doesn’t want to have a baby. She knows that she is well within her rights – even if not well within the law in Ireland – to decide what happens to her body. She will refer to it as an embryo or a foetus when discussing it because she is using the correct terminology, whether Leo likes it or not.
Leo also mentioned asking his pregnant friend if she knew what sex her baby was going to be (thank God he used correct terminology and didn’t ask her what gender) and I’m a bit horrified by this, to be honest. It’s none of his business. If his friend wanted to tell him, he should have left it up to her to disclose, and not gone prying. Is it just me, or does this interrogation assume a level of entitlement that he doesn’t deserve?
I also find it interesting that Leo decided to speak for his friend and his sisters by telling the world that if he had used the word ‘foetus’ when referring to their pregnancies, they would have been offended. Why? Because he thinks it’s a ‘medical’ word. I find this deeply disturbing; that a man would assume a woman would take offence because he thinks their thoughts and feelings should match his own? Is this more evidence of entitlement? Or am I over-thinking this?
When I speak to friends who are pregnant, I never say ‘How’s the foetus?’ (I reserve that for when I’m gently joshing friends who are in May-December relationships). Equally, though, I never say ‘How’s the baby?’ Instead, I ask ‘How are you?’ The person I’m addressing is free to choose whether or not to interpret that as second person singular or second person plural (do you think Leo will object to my using such technical language?), and answer accordingly. I don’t decide for her what word should be used in this context. It’s not my place.
Maybe I’m over-sensitive. Or maybe I just don’t like being mansplained at by a privileged male with an over-developed sense of entitlement.
On Monday and Tuesday of this week, Safe Ireland held a seminar with distinguished speakers from around the world. They discussed things I know a lot about – abuse, violence, trauma and the effects of same. I wasn’t at the conference, because (frankly) it was out of my price range, but I am very grateful to those who live-tweeted the event using the hashtag #safeirelandsummit
One of the things that struck me was the fact that John Lonergan (former governor of Mountjoy Jail) was reported as asking ‘How do we prevent? That is the challenge’
I can only assume he was asking how we might prevent domestic violence. Part of me is shocked that someone would even need to ask, but I’ll get over that and focus instead on the fact that, if you’re asking, it means you’re interested. So, here, are ten things that you can do to work on the prevention and elimination of domestic violence.
Stop calling it ‘domestic’ violence. It’s family violence. It’s intimate partner abuse, it’s family abuse. ‘Domestic’ makes it sound less serious than it actually is. Calling abusing your partner ‘a domestic’ makes it sound innocuous, and makes it less likely that anyone will intervene.
Start respecting women. All women. Not just the ones you’re related to – and not just because you’re related to them. Women deserve respect because they are alive, not because of their relationship to you or someone you know. Personally, I’m sick of hearing / reading ‘Imagine if it was your wife / girlfriend / sister / mother / daughter’. Woman are valid regardless of their kinship.
Don’t tolerate sexist language. If a colleague makes an anti-woman ‘joke’ or statement, call them on it. Remember when it was okay to tell anti-Irish jokes? Why is it not okay to do that any more? Because people stopped accepting that casual racism as ‘humour’. Do the same with sexist jokes.
Don’t tell your sons not to hit girls. Tell them not to hit anyone. Telling boys not to hit girls implies that girls can’t take care of themselves, and are easier targets than other boys. It also reinforces the notion that hitting females is an easy way to control them. We don’t want violence in our lives, no matter who it’s directed at.
Teach the males in your lives that it’s not okay to talk over women, or interrupt them. To do so is disrespectful. Respecting women is key to not abusing them.
Don’t take up more space than you have to: For example, ‘manspreading’ on public transport, and expecting a woman to move out of your way when you’re walking down the street. It’s aggressive and disrespectful. By taking up more space than you need, you’re forcing us to take up less than we need. You’re treating us as if we’re invisible. Invisible women don’t feel safe.
Recognise that abuse is more than physical. Often, it’s the bruises that can’t be seen that cause most pain. Emotional, financial, psychological and sexual abuse cause (at least) as much damage. The threat of being hit, of knowing that the man you’re with, may strike out at you at any stage, is hugely damaging. Gaslighting is highly abusive.
Make sure there is information about where help can be found prominently displayed in your office. Often, women who are gaslighted and otherwise abused, have no idea that what is happening to them is wrong. Often, they don’t see themselves as abused. Sometimes because a part of them believes they deserve the treatment they’re getting. Informing them otherwise may empower them to get help.
Many women who are victims of their intimate partners are re-victimised. They have already been traumatised. They have grown up seeing their (step)fathers abuse their mothers; they have been sexually assaulted, they have been conditioned to expect nothing else. Be kind. Kindness – given freely, and without expectation of ‘payment’ – is the opposite of abuse.
Finally, we will stop men hurting women when we stop accepting and excusing it. Stop saying ‘But he’s a pillar of the community’, stop saying ‘But he’s a great GAA man’, stop saying ‘But he’s a good provider’, stop saying ‘But he’s very good to his mother’. Stop insinuating that because he has done one good thing, he is incapable of hurting the woman he lives with – and their children.
Break the cycle. Don’t accept, excuse, or refuse to see, intimate partner abuse.
Yesterday was World Prematurity Day: A day to celebrate the babies born around the world well in advance of their ‘due’ dates. Technically, that means a baby born before 37 weeks’ gestation. The further out from 37 weeks a baby is, the slimmer their chance of survival. Things are not as grim for these ‘early-borns’ as they were 20 or even 15 years ago.
My own early born came into this world 10 weeks early, and so many of the stories I read yesterday resonated with me. I’m not, however, going to reproduce a blow-by-blow account of her early hours and days. Instead, I’d like to offer hope to parents struggling with tiny babies. I was told my little girl wouldn’t last the night. I was told my little girl would have severe learning and developmental delays. I was told my little girl would never ‘look right’. I was told my little girl would always be small for her age.
Now, at thirteen and eight months old, Ishthara has defied the odds. She is narrow and fine-boned (like her sister) and she will always be petite. But she’s not tiny. Not any more.
Ishthara is a bright, confident, sweet young lady. She is kind and thoughtful and good to her sister. (She’s good to her mum, as well!). She is responsible and polite and loves her friends. She loves to cook and loves make-up and crime shows on Netflix. She is a normal thirteen year old girl. Because miracles do happen. They happen every day – and they happen every day in the lives of early-born babies and their families.
I’m fed up. No, really. Here we are again, with the 8th Amendment making life a misery for a family: Denying her parents the possibility to bury their daughter; denying her children the right to grieve their mother; denying her partner the right to say goodbye to the woman he loved. The sickening details of the case currently making headlines in Ireland are here.
We all know that if this woman had not been pregnant at the time she died, she would have been afforded dignity at the time of her passing. But this is Ireland. So forget that. This woman’s personhood is gone, but her person is being used as a vessel to maintain a foetus. How is that acceptable in a so-called ‘modern’ country in 2014? How? It’s beyond macabre. It smacks of something Josef Mengele would have dreamt up and visited upon poor unfortunates in Auschwitz.
In the last years of the last century, I sought help to conceive. My doctor spoke of IVF as being a last resort. He also mentioned the stigma attached to being ‘a test tube baby’. If there was stigma in Ireland attached to being a test tube baby, can you imagine the stigma that would attach to being a cadaver baby? Except, of course, this foetus is not expected to survive until viability. So what, exactly, is the point? Well, the point is that doctors at the hospital (understandably) don’t want to be seen to be acting in contravention to the constitution. So to avoid situations like this – and this is really simple – repeal the fucking amendment that allows women to be treated like this. Seriously.
It’s stories like this that remind me why Ireland is such an awful place to live: We treat our most vulnerable citizens with such little respect. We have a history of cruelty to those who cannot help themselves. As a society, we tolerate the intolerable being meted out to others.
Actually, forget our history. Look at how we are – today, in 2014 – treating our most vulnerable. Here’s a list to get you going:
And, of course, the thousands of women in Ireland who find themselves pregnant, vulnerable and in need of abortions. I use the word ‘need’ very deliberately: I have never met a woman who wanted an abortion; but I have met many who needed them, because of the circumstances surrounding the conception, or the circumstances they were in shortly thereafter, or because their foetus had a condition that was incompatible with life. Women denied safe, legal abortions in Ireland.
Now, add to that list women who have the misfortune to die with a foetus inside them. What message is this sending to our women and young girls? That are not worth as much as their male counteparts; that they cannot expected to be treated with as much dignity as their male counterparts and that the state has an interest in the contents of their wombs.
I have a ten year old daughter and, after the last time we went to a demonstration begging our government to hold a referendum to repeal the 8th, she thought for a bit and said ‘I think Ireland is only a good place if you’re rich and white and a man.’
Yesterday, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs was delighted to announce the publication of the Children First Bill.
There was much self-congratulation as Minister Frances Fitzgerald and her department tried to tell us how this would make life so much easier for children in Ireland.
Well…..I’m calling bullshit.
The new act is a toothless instrument of the law. It’s all very well to say that reporting is mandatory; but if there are no sanctions against those who choose not to report, then what good is such a mandate?
I would suggest that a change in the culture is what’s needed before we can hope for a law that actually makes a difference. Naively, you might question what kind of person would choose not to report a crime of abuse against a child? Surely, if a person- particularly a person in authority – knows (or even suspects) that a child is being abused, that person would report it? Even without a law dictating that they should? You might think that, but I recently got sight of documents which blow that theory right out of the water.
I do think those involved should be named and shamed – but have been advised against so doing for the time being. (Patience was never my strong point. This is a hard lesson for me).
Without naming names, then, let me give you the broadstrokes:
In the early 1990s, a woman (let’s call her Deirdre, because that’s not her name) was in her mid-teens. She was being treated at a centre for the effects of sexual abuse. During this time, the psychiatrist under whose care she was (lets call her Dr C), asked Deirdre if she was still being sexually abused. Deirdre revealed that her father was still sexually abusing her.
What did this doctor do? Did she call the Gardai? No. What? Not even anonymously? No. What she did was seek a meeting with the paedophile in question. At this meeting (documented by the doctor herself), she confronted him with the information she had regarding the allegations Deirdre had made. Did he deny abusing her? No. Sure why would he? What he did, instead, was tell Dr C that ‘there (was) nothing sexual’ about his sexual abuse of this child. Instead, he averred, he was doing it ‘to comfort’ her because he was aware she had been sexually abused by other people as well. Doctor C’s response? She told him to ‘be more sensitive’.
I mean, seriously, what does that amount to? Isn’t that the same as saying ‘Rape her more gently’?!
Of course, you can say that this is a case of historic abuse, and no one would behave in such a way in this day and age. If you did say that, I would like to agree with you. Unfortunately, I couldn’t. When these documents surfaced (as the result of an FOI request Deirdre made), Deirdre met with a representative of the centre where she had been ‘treated’ (Dr C was on holiday – though she still works in the centre). Dr C’s colleague confirmed that, were the same set of circumstances to arrive in front of Dr C today, she would act in precisely the same way because that is the policy of the centre. To do otherwise would be a ‘breach of confidentiality’.
What does this tell you? It tells me what I already know: Children don’t come first in this country. We do not have a culture (yet) that puts children at the top of the pile. We do not have a society that cherishes, protects and loves its children. Every time I say that, people (women, usually) respond indignantly telling me how much they love their children. Sure, individuals among us may cherish our own personal children – but what about the snotty child at the end of the road, whose parents are drug addicts? Do you love that child? Really? Would you step in to help that child if he or she were being hurt? Would you? Would you really?
We, in Ireland, do not have a culture that views children as precious. We really don’t.
No law will make any difference if there are no sanctions against those who do not obey it. It is ludicrous to suggest otherwise. And, unfortunately, no law will make any difference if the cultural attitudes of the nation enacting it are not in-step with the letter and the spirit of that law.
Today is World Mental Health (awareness) Day and I was honoured to appear on TV3’s Midday programme (you can see it here – from 13 minutes in), talking to Sybil Mulcahy about my own experiences. It was a short interview (about 3 minutes) so I didn’t say a lot!! I was also interviewed for The Five-Thirty – news round up on the same station.
Tonight, I’m taking my girls to see ‘Box of Frogs’ in the hope that it helps normalise the discussion of mental health. And also, to be completely honest, because I know and love the actors in the play.
Earlier this week, I was privileged to meet with the Chair of the Expert Group to discuss new capacity and mental health legislation. This was the final element in the body of work I worked on with Amnesty International. So, it’s been a good, and busy week from the mental health point of view.
Today is a good day. I feel useful – and for me, that’s key to my own sense of well-being. My girls are well and happy and nothing nasty has arrived in the post, by phone or by email. I have lovely plans for tonight. I’m on an even keel. I know that it would take very little to tip the scales in the wrong direction. I know that it wouldn’t take much to knock the wind out of me completely – but I’m not dwelling on that possibility. I am, instead, dwelling on the fact that today, all is well. Today has brought me nothing I can’t handle. Today is filled with love and friends and brightness and coziness and good food and laughter and happy children.
Those of us who have mental health issues aren’t defined by them – any more than a person with asthma is defined by their asthma. Like asthma, mental health issues can be controlled and they don’t affect you every day. Our mental health difficulties don’t manifest every day – there are good days as well as bad days. There are fantastic days as well as terrible days. There are days filled with love and joy and peace, as well as days filled with fear and pain and despair.
People with asthma are advised to be aware of their triggers; to avoid them whenever possible; to take action as soon as a trigger becomes apparent and to give themselves enough time to recover after an episode. In the same way, those of us with mental health issues (and I believe that’s everyone) would do well to be aware of our triggers, to avoid them whenever possible, to take action as soon as a trigger becomes apparent and to give ourselves enough time to recover after an episode.
This morning, The Irish Examiner broke the story that The Children’s Rights Alliance is renewing its call on the Irish government to ban the smacking of children.Here’s the thing; such pressure should not be necessary. There should be no reason for the Children’s Rights Alliance – or anyone else – to write to the Minister for Children asking her to ban violence against our youngest citizens.
Ireland signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992. I wrote about what that means – or should mean to us – here.
Remember the Children Referendum last November? Remember how I took the unpopular position of opposing it because it didn’t go far enough? Remember the points I made about Article 19?
Here’s a reminder:
Article 19 of the UNCRC says:
“States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.”
Maybe I’m just a bleeding-heart liberal (I don’t think so), but isn’t smacking a form of physical abuse? I think so. I very much think so. If you smacked another adult – you would deemed to have committed assault. So, why is it acceptable in Ireland today to hit a child? It was outlawed in schools before I even started primary school – so if it’s not okay for teachers to hit children, why is it okay for parents to?
The bottom-beater of choice of many Irish parents
If we signed up to the UNCRC 21 years ago, why have we done so little to change our laws to bring them in line with the Articles of the Convention? Why, in 2013, are we still debating whether or not it’s okay for big people to hit little people?
For those of you who only pop by here for the Austerity Bites series, I am delighted to tell you that Austerity Bites has a new home.
While I initially thought I’d only blog about food and cooking for six days, I found I enjoy it so much, I really want to continue. From now on, my recipes and musings on food can be found at http://www.austeritybitesblog.wordpress.com
Women in Ireland are, finally, realising that they have – for the longest time – been sold a pup when it comes to how they are treated with regard to maternity care in this country.
For as long as I can remember, I have had an interest in mothering, maternity, babies and birth. Before I’d even turned 18, I was sure I would not give birth in a hospital. By the time I was 20 and trying to conceive a baby with my first husband, I was doing more and more research on the subject and learning more and more about ‘normal’, ‘natural’ and what they should look like.
Years later, after the birth of my second daughter, I became a doula and my outrage at the lies women were told increased to the point that I needed to watch my blood pressure.
I operate from a belief that birth and pregnancy are normal, everyday occurrences. In more than 80% of cases, there is no need for intervention and women can safely birth their babies without interference from outside forces. The problem is that birth has become medicalised.
Doctors are wonderful people. They do tough jobs in difficult circumstances. The problem with doctors being involved in birth, though, is that they are trained in the abnormal. They come to your bedside believing that there is something wrong with you – and then they set about finding that problem. If there is no problem, they need to invent one.
Hospitals are designed around the medical model. They are set up to save the health and lives of people whose health and lives need saving. They are not set up to watch and wait – which is what normal birth requires. And normal birth is what most women will experience if they and their bodies are trusted.
In order to coerce women to submit to unnecessary medical intervention, they are routinely lied to. Here is a selection of those lies:
1. Your baby is too big to be born vaginally. (Women grow babies big enough for their own pelvises. A small woman can birth a big baby no problem).
2. Your baby is breech, so you must have a C-section. (Breech is just a variation of normal – there is no reason why you can’t have a vaginal birth).
3. Your waters have broken. You must give birth within 48 hours, or you will have a dry birth and that’s more painful & dangerous for you and the baby. (Amniotic fluid, like saliva, does not just ‘dry up’).
4. We have to ‘check’ you – i.e. perform (often painful) vaginal examinations – to see how you’re progressing. (A VE is not necessary and does not indicate how dilated a woman’s cervix is. The cervix – like the anus – is a sphincter muscle. It will contract involuntarily when touched.)
5. Once you go ‘over’, we’ll have to induce you. (Babies come when they’re ready. The ‘rule’ about pregnancy lasting 40 weeks is a load of nonsense. Women have different cycles and pregnancy length is affected by a number of variables. A normal pregnancy can last anywhere from 37-44 weeks if dated from the last menstrual period).
6. Normal progression is one centimetre an hour. You have 12 hours to produce this baby, or we’ll have to induce you. (Women are different. Babies are different. Many things affect the rate at which labour progresses. This 1cm per hour rule – known as the ‘Dublin Rule’ because it was invented in Holles Street – is a load of nonsense and does more harm than good).
7. If you don’t submit to X your baby will die! (women are routinely told that their babies will die if they are ‘careless’ enough to ignore doctors’ wishes.)
8. Your last baby was born by Caesarean section. Therefore, it is too dangerous for you to have a homebirth. (A previous c-section does not automatically preclude a homebirth or vaginal birth of any sort.)
9. Push when we tell you. (This practice – known as ‘purple pushing’ – is actually bad for you and your baby. It increases the likelihood of you bursting blood vessels in various parts of your body – including your eyes. It also affects oxygen getting to your baby and works against your body.)
10. You are lucky I did a Caesarean section. The cord was around the baby’s neck and it would have died if you’d tried to have it vaginally. (About 50% of babies – my own included – are born with their cords wrapped once or twice around their necks. This is not dangerous because an umbilical cord is not like a rope, but soft and squidgy like a full garden hose).
There are many, many more lies that women are told. Please feel free to add yours in the comments section below.
Our collective outrage is being collated under the hashtag #maternityire on Twitter and you can join in the conversation.
We descended upon our local Asian shop the day before yesterday and stocked up on some of the things we needed. Fortunately, there was a bit more in the coffers than usual, so I went a bit mad.
Actually, that’s not strictly true. I just decided to buy food rather than pay my phone bill.
Anyway, the main point is that stocks were replenished. I picked up 12 tins of tomatoes for €3.99 and paid €4.99 for a dozen cans of chickpeas. Chillies were €5.99 per kilo – I got about 30 of them for €0.24 – way cheaper than even the cheapest supermarket. Economies of scale, I think it’s called.
In the middle of all this cheapie-cheap stuff, I got us a treat: Jackfruit. If you have been to South East Asia, chances are you’ve come across durian. This is a large fruit (about the size of a basketball) that very prickly on the outside and, when cut, smells similar to cat’s pee. In colour and texture, it is similar to custard and it’s an acquired taste. A taste, I hasten to add, I never acquired.
The reason I mention durian is because jackfruit is its Indian first-cousin. Less cat-pee, less prickly and less custard-y, though – I love jackfruit. It’s in season at the moment and we picked up 1.5kg for €5.
After we’d had our fill of the fresh, raw fruit, I suddenly remembered that when I’d been pregnant with Kashmira (ten years ago!) our nanny used to make me a jackfruit curry. Normally, if you’re using a fruit in a curry, you use it when it’s slightly under-ripe. Jackfruit is an exception, though – you can use the under-ripe or the ripe fruit.
To the best of my recollection, this is the recipe Nishanthi used to cook for us:
150g Ripe Jackfruit
1/2 Teaspoon of Chilli Powder
1/2 Teaspoon of Turmeric
Salt to Taste
100mls of Water
20g grated coconut (I use dried because I can’t get it fresh)
2 Fresh Green Chillies
1/2 Teaspoon of Cumin Seeds
1/2 Teaspoon of Mustard Seeds
1 Red Chilli
3-4 Curry Leaves
2 Teaspoons of Coconut Oil
Cut the jackfruit into bite-sized pieces.
Put jackfruit, salt, turmeric, chilli powder and water into a medium-sized saucepan.
Bring to the boil and then simmer for about ten minutes.
While the jackfruit is cooking, make a paste using the grated coconut, chillies and cumin seeds (grind with a blender, adding a little water as necessary).
When the jackfruit is done – it will be tender but not mushy and still holding its shape – add the paste to the fruit and bring the lot back to the boil.
Heat the coconut oil in a small pan, and add the chillies, curry leaves and mustard seeds. When the seeds begin to sputter, remove from the heat and pour over the curry.
Cooking the fruit changes the texture completely.
The raw fruit is quite sweetly pungent – though not unpleasant – it hits the back of your throat rather than the tip of the tongue. It has a thick texture – similar to that of raw mushrooms. Cooked, it’s more like stewed apple before it gets pulpy.
If you can get your hands on a bit of jackfruit, it’s an interesting addition to the dinner table.
I posted my recipes this past week pretty much as I cook them, so I thought I’d add a few words here about things that go on in my kitchen that I didn’t address properly/at all in the recipes I posted.
First, a word on… salt: At the moment, I’m using Pink Himalayan Salt – because it’s pretty (!) and because it’s inexpensive – but otherwise I use Maldron Sea Salt. That table salt stuff I buy to use for cleaning and for salting certain ‘squashy’ vegetables – courgettes, aubergines etc.
We need salt. We don’t need lots. The pink salt I use is very ‘salty’, so a pinch is enough. Otherwise, the average adult needs about 1.5g of sodium per day, and we all need more in the heat (when we’re perspiring more than usual).
Himalayan Pink Salt
A word on…..portions: I’m a big fan of cooking once to eat twice. The recipes I used last week allowed us to do just that – and even have some left for sharing/freezing. Few things were finished. The exception being the masoor (red) lentil dish on Day 6. You could easily halve the ingredients I listed and feed an adult and 2 kids with moderate appetites.
A word on…..utensils: We don’t use non-stick utensils in our house. For years, we kept pet birds. Teflon is not kind to little birds (in fact, it kills them) and Kashmira reasoned that if it’s not good for them, it can’t be much good for us, either. In order to ensure things don’t stick, I don’t increase the amount of fat I use – I just cook a little more slowly, and add a bit of water if I need to.
A word on…..chilli: I don’t use buckets of chilli. I think that the purpose of chilli – and other spices – is to add flavour to dishes, not mask the flavours of the food you’re cooking. Being able to eat really hot food is not a sign that you are ‘hard’, ‘tough’, or ‘cool’. It means you need to find a new hobby. And possibly that you’re lacking in zinc.
A mixture of dried and fresh chillies.
Finally, a word on…..spices: Spices are wonderful to add something special to your food. Don’t be too heavy-handed, though. While a little is good, more is not necessarily better. Again, you want the taste of the spices to enhance the taste of your cooking, not overwhelm it.
When it comes to buying spices, don’t forget that they are far more expensive in supermarkets than in Asian stores. In Asian stores, however, they can often come in larger quantities than you’d like. If you don’t use spices a lot in your cooking, why don’t you consider buying with a friend or two (or three)? For about a fiver each, you could buy a bag of each of the basics and divide them up between you. That way, you can each get ‘starter’ packs of all the basics for way less than you’d get them in a shop with a well-recognised name.
Six Days of Austerity was a wonderful experience. I really enjoyed sharing my recipes with you – and I was delighted by all the support you gave me in my endeavours.
The first post in the series felt like the bravest post I’d ever published. Braver than talking honestly and openly about my own mental health issues; braver than talking about sexual abuse, spousal abuse or other family issues. Braver than taking an unpopular stance on political or parenting issues. Braver than anything else I ever wrote about because, in that first Austerity Bites post, I admitted to being financially insecure. I have always felt that Ireland is a land of inveterate snobs, where people are judged by material possessions and looked down on when they are in financial difficulties. I’ve always felt that, in Ireland, there was nothing worse than being poor. So to come out and admit that I was trying to raise two kids on next-to-nothing felt like the bravest thing I’d ever written.
The kind, supportive reactions of people who read and commented on this blog turned that from ‘brave’ to ‘liberating’. So thank you all for your kindness and support.
Of course, after the social welfare cheque hit and I’d paid (a bit) off (some of) the bills, I realised there’s not much more this week than there was last week. The thing about this past week – which was particularly punishing – is that I used up much of my reserves. I went in to the six days knowning that there were still certain staples (lentils and tins of tomatoes, for example). They have been used up now. The cupboards are bare. Before heading into the next week, I have to sit down and think how on earth I will manage to replenish the stocks somewhat in order to provide nourishment for my girls.
Given all that, I have a feeling there will be more Austerity Bites posts and recipes in the near future. Stay tuned! 🙂
There will be reflections on the recipes to follow.
Well, we made it! Six days of budget meals has seen us all still in one piece and nary a hunger pang between us.
For breakfast on this final day of Austerity Bites, I used up our one remaining egg to make pancakes. As we had no cow’s milk, I used coconut milk instead. My one can had been in the freezer for a few days (I’d intended using it for ice-cream or something, then changed my mind) and spent another fortnight in the fridge, so it was still quite solid. This meant I had to use a bit of water to make my batter better.
Now, a word about coconut milk – the stuff found in cans in German supermarkets is every bit as good as the stuff in premium British supermarkets – and only half the price. It’s cheaper again in Asian supermarkets where you also have the option of dried coconut milk that you then reconstitute with water. Even though it works out a bit pricier to buy the canned rather than the dried, it is worth the extra few cents. Reconstituted coconut milk has a more mucous-y consistency and lacks a little of the flavour. Finally, don’t use coconut cream instead of coconut milk because they’re not the same thing.
These pancakes are more substantial than crepes and are very filling (the girls had them with sugar and the last of our lemons, while I had mine plain). There’s enough batter left for tomorrow’s breakfast as well. 🙂
I must confess, I didn’t cook lunch – Ishthara (my 11 year-old) did. She used up the last of our 500g bag of pasta (bought last week) and cooked it to perfection before adding in our last jar of olives (again bought last week) and the second of the two Mozzarella balls we bought last week as well as the second bag of rocket I bought a few days ago. The final dribble of olive oil in the bottle finished the dish off.
Dinner was one of my favourite comfort foods; a lovely, easy way to cook red dhal (raw red dhal pictured below).
It takes very little to turn that to this:
We had the dhal with rice and the 200g of frozen broccoli that I was holding on to for just this purpose.
I don’t have a proper bamboo steamer anymore – so I ‘steamed’ the broccoli by putting enough water to come half-way up the vegetables in the pot and brought it to the boil. I then simmered it for 6 minutes and took it off the heat and drained it.
The drained water I added to the remaining carrot & orange soup the girls weren’t fond of on Day 2. This will be watered down a little bit more with other ‘extra’ water from vegetables over the next few days. I will then add an onion, boil the whole lot up and call it ‘stock’. Then, I’ll freeze it in an ice-cube tray and have stock cubes for the next while. 🙂
A grating of nutmeg and a grinding of salt and pepper rendered this broccoli delicious. Also (would you believe it?) there was enough of the spiced molasses cake left for a slice each after dinner.
Ishthara and Kashmira managed to have fruit today as well – there was about 100g of frozen berries left in the end of the bag we bought last week and they polished the lot off (leaving it in a covered dish in the sun for about twenty minutes first so it defrosted). Also, in the middle of the afternoon, my friend and neighbour Susie dropped in a bunch of radishes – which the girls demolished as a snack.
Peel the garlic (this is the only time I’m not heavy-handed with garlic; because it’s not cooked, the flavour really can overpower the dip).
Juice the lemon.
Pop all the ingredients into a bowl (again, I find 1kg yogurt pots excellent for this purpose) and blend with a stick blender, adding the water as needed until you have a smooth – but not runny – mixture.
Paprika is generally used in hummus, but I substituted ras-el-hanout because I happen to like it. A dash of chilli pepper will give a slightly spicier hummus if that’s your thing.
400g Tin of Tomatoes
60g Dessicated Coconut (unsweetened)
2 Teaspoons of Garlic-Ginger Paste
8 Whole Cloves
8 Whole Peppercorns
6 Dry Red Chillies
1 Teaspoon of Poppy Seeds
1 Teaspoon of Fennel Seeds
4 Tablespoons of Oil
1/2 Turmeric Powder
Salt to Taste
If you’re using eggs, hard boil one for each diner. Maybe you know this already, but a few years ago, I realised that boiling eggs works best if you start with cold water. (Even if you don’t keep your eggs in the fridge, boiling water can shock them into cracking. Using cold water means the water and the eggs rise in temperature at the same time) When the water comes to the boil, turn the heat down to a simmer and leave them for ten minutes. When they are done, take them off the heat and drain them. When they are cool (covering them in more cold water can speed the process up), peel and halve them.
While the recipe calls for 2 onions, I only used one because I only have two left, and I want the other for tomorrow’s dhal.
With regard to the oil, we are down to a dribble, so I used 3 tablespoons of mustard oil instead. It gave a lovely sharp taste to the mixture.
I had two green bell peppers, so I added them to the pot as well.
Drain and rinse the kidney beans.
Heat the oil in a wok or frying pan and add the cloves, peppercorns, chillies, poppy seeds and fennel seeds. Sauté the mixture until the spices yield their fragrance.
Add the onion until it’s softening then turn the heat down and add the ginger-garlic paste. Fry until the vegetables are browned, but not burnt. Garlic burns really easily, so you’ll need to stir the mixture continuously.
Add the coconut and continue frying until it browns.
Add the tomatoes and continue frying for about five minutes.
Grind this mixture to a paste – adding in a little water if you need to.
Prepare the peppers – top and tail, then quarter and cut out the white membrane – and cut into chunks. Sear them in the wok/frying pan and then leave them to one side.
Transfer the paste back into the pan and add the salt and turmeric and a splash of water (if needed) to make your desired consistency.
Bring to the boil, then simmer for 5 minutes and add the peppers, after another 5 mintues, add the kidney beans.
Well, we’re nearly there. Today is the second-last day of rationing in Larkin Lodge – well, until the next time, that is. 🙂
Today, we finished off our one sliced loaf of bread for breakfast – toast and cheese, supplemented with dry cereal. There’s still coffee in the pot for me, so all is well on that front.
I’m drinking tea during the day when I would otherwise have coffee. But when this is what you’re making tea with, it’s a greater pleasure:
My tea set is a beautiful hand made set brought back from Korea by my lovely friend and former neighbour, Howard. It goes perfectly with the Oolong tea that he brought me back from China.
Lunch was hummus, carrot batons, olives and some of the lovely fresh rocket I bought last night, and some more chapatis.
Later, when I was cleaning under the stairs (in times of plenty, I store extra tins, bottle of water and spices in the cupboard under the stairs) and I found a tin of tomatoes and two bottles of water. Result!
For dinner, I made an Indian dish that is typically associated with the state of Maharashtra – where my eldest daughter was born – and which always makes me nostalgic for Pune whenever I cook it. The dish is usually served with boiled eggs, but my girls don’t like boiled eggs – which is just as well because we only have one egg….. So I substituted a tin of kidney beans (bought with 21 cents from the €2 I found in my jeans). We had two green bell peppers in the fridge from about two weeks ago, which were still in good shape, so I added them, too.
Fruit bowls were harder to assemble today. There was a nectarine and 20 cherries left (I thought they’d polished the lot off yesterday, but I was mistaken) and they had another orange each. I’d have preferred to have given them more, but it wasn’t there.
I’m hoping that their fruit bowls, carrots, olives, tomatoes, onion and chickpeas will all combine to make up their five-a-day.
Tomorrow will mark the end of our six days of “Austerity Bites”. I can’t say I’ll be sorry.
Vegetable for shallow frying (I’ve little oil left, so used ghee)
1 large aubergine
4 green cardamom pods, bruised
1/2 tsp fennel powder
1/2 tsp tumeric powder
1/2 tsp dried ginger powder
Pinch of asafoetida (hing)
300g natural yoghurt
I salt aubergine before I use it (unless I’m roasting it). This is seen by some as ‘old-fashioned’, but I find that it removes excess moisture and ensures that the vegetable crisps up nicely when fried, and doesn’t go ‘spongy’ when you cook it any other way. Often, people who don’t like aubergine find the texture objectionable, not the taste. Anyway – to salt the aubergine, top and tail it, cut it into discs and pop the disks into put it in a plastic sieve or colander (metal, salt and water not being the best combination). Shake a generous amount of salt over the eggplant (you can use cheap salt like Saxa for this job!). Leave it to drain over a bowl or in the sink for about half an hour. Then (and I know this seems counter-intuitive) rinse the salt off under running water and gently squeeze the discs against the sides of the sieve to get all the water out. If you like, you can pat the discs dry in kitchen paper or a tea towel.
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan until it is very hot.
Fry the aubergine on both sides until it’s golden brown in colour.
Drain on kitchen paper and keep to one side.
Discard all but 1 tablespoon of oil.
Drop the cardamoms, spice powders and asafoetida into the oil.
Add the yoghurt immediately.
Season with salt and heat through, stirring constantly, until the gravy is heated through.
Add the fried aubergine and serve immediately. If you have coriander, it’s nice to garnish the dish – I’ve none the moment, but we survived. 🙂
There are two types of urid dhal. One is whole urid – which is black – and the other is split urid – which is white. For this recipe, I used the split urid, which doesn’t need much soaking.
1.2 Litres of Water
150g Urid Dhal
1 Teaspoon of Ginger
2 Green Chillies
1 Teaspoon of Cumin Seeds
2 Bay Leaves
1/2 Teaspoon of Turmeric Powder
Pinch of Garam Masala
Squeze of lemon juice (I’ve loads of lemons – they were on special 2 weeks ago!)
1/2 Tin of Tomatoes (I still had half a tin in the fridge from Day 2)
Wash the urid dhal – put it in a sieve and run cold water over it until the water runs clear.
Put the lentils in a pot with enough water to cover them and soak for about 15 minutes.
Change the water on the lentils and bring to the boil.
Simmer the lentils until they are soft, but not mushy – 30-40 minutes.
While the lentils are cooking, prepare the masala.
Peel and chop the onion.
Cut the chillies into small pieces (I use a scissors).
Bash the ginger with a pestle in a mortar. If you don’t have those, bashing it on a chopping board with a rolling pin or wooden spoon works just fine.
When the dhal is nearly cooked, start the masala.
Heat the oil in a pan and add the cloves, bay leaves and cumin seeds.
When they start to splutter, add the onion and ginger and green chillies.
Fry for a few minutes then add the dhal, lemon juice and tomatoes. Stir gently over a medium heat for about 3 minutes.
Add in the garam masala and serve immediately.
I’m not sure I should post this seeing as I didn’t get it right, but I will anyway! 🙂
300g Plain Flour
1/2 Teaspoon of Baking Soda
1/2 Teaspoon of Salt
1/2 Teaspoon of Baking Powder
150 mls Hot Milk
120 mls Hot Water
2 Teaspoons of Nigella (Onion) Seeds
Take the racks out of your oven and cover them with tin foil.
Turn the oven on to maximum.
Sift the flour, baking soda and salt together in a bowl.
Mix the baking powder into the hot milk and leave it for about a minute. When a few bubbles pop up on the surface of the milk, add it to the flour and mix well.
Knead the mixture, adding the water to make a soft dough. Keep kneading until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. Keep it covered, in a warm place, for 3-4 hours, until it rises.
Divide the dough into 6-8 balls. Shape them into oblongs and pop them in the oven for about 15 minutes. The bread is done when it rises slightly and brown spots appear.
Add the carrots, orange juice and water (or stock) and bring to the boil.
Simmer for ten minutes, until the carrots are al dente.
Blend the whole thing and serve. We had it with rice because there isn’t much bread left and because we tend to eat soup with rice.
3 Medium-sized tomatoes (I used canned because we have no fresh)
2 Green Chillies
5 Cloves of Garlic
1.5 Tablespoons oil (I used ghee – stop laughing down the back!)
1 Teaspoon Coriander Powder
1 Teaspoon Cumin Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Chilli Powder
Pinch Turmeric Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Garam Masala
250g Mushrooms (I used chestnut mushrooms)
Salt to taste
3 Tablespoons of Natural or Greek Yogurt
Halve (or quarter, depending on size) the mushrooms.
Peel and quarter the onion and blend it with the tomatoes, chillies, ginger and garlic.
Heat the oil over a medium heat and add the blended mixture and spice powders.
Stir – being careful not to let the masala stick or burn – until the oil begins to separate from the rest of the mixture.
Add the mushrooms and stir gently.
Season with salt and add a splash of warm water.
Cook for about ten minutes until the fungi are soft but not pulpy.
Take off the heat and stir in the yogurt.
450g Atta Flour (plain flour is fine)
2 Teaspoons of Melted Ghee (or oil)
We love chapatis and they are quick and easy to make. I have friends in India who pride themselves on how perfectly round their chapatis are. I don’t get it – I think they taste the same no matter what shape they are. 🙂
Mix the ghee (or oil) into the flour and slowly add enough warm water to make a soft dough. (The amount of water you’ll need depends on the type of flour you’re using and how hard or soft your water is – so apologies for being vague!)
Now comes the fun bit – knead the dough for about 10 minutes. I know this sounds like a long time, but I normally only knead it for about 5 minutes. Last night, however, I lost the run of myself and kneaded it for at least 10 (could have been 15). The result? The best chapatis I’ve ever made.
You need a flat pan to cook these on. I’m lucky – I have a purpose-built tawa that I got in India which does the job perfectly.
Separate your dough into between 12 and 15 lime-sized balls. Dust them with flour and then roll them out until they’re quite flat.
Dry fry these on your flat pan.
When they bubble/puff up, turn them over and use a clean tea-towel to gently press them down. Each one only takes about 3 minutes to cook.
Keep the chapatis warm in tinfoil and serve straight away. If you’re keeping them for later, re-heat quickly on the stove or in the microwave if you have one.
There are many ways to cook lentils. This recipe is for a Red Lentil Curry
200g Red Lentils
2 Teaspoons of Oil
3 Teaspoons of Curry Paste
2 Teaspoons of Curry Powder*
1 Teaspoon of Ground Turmeric
1 Teaspoon of Ground Cumin
1 Teaspoon of Chilli Powder
Pinch of salt
3 Teaspoons of Ginger Garlic Paste**
200g Tomato Paste
Tip the lentils into a sieve and rinse them under cold running water, until the water runs clear, otherwise the lentils will get scummy).
Put the lentils in a saucepan and cover them with cold water. Bring to the boil over a high temperature.
Turn the heat down and simmer the lentils until they are soft but not mushy – about 40 minutes.
Combine the curry paste, all the spice powders (including the curry powder) and salt in a bowl.
While the lentils are cooking, caramelise the onions.
Add the spice paste and poweders to the onions and cook over a high heat for about 2 minutes.
Stir in the tomato paste and reduce the heat. Allow the curry base to simmer away while the lentils finish cooking.
There should be little or no water left on the dhal when it’s finished cooking. If they are very watery, drain (most of) the water off – you don’t want the curry to be sloppy.
Tip the lentils into the curry sauce and mix well.
Serve with chopped coriander, if you have any.
*I make my own curry powder. It’s easy and cheap if you already have the spice powders
3 Tablespoons of Coriander
2 Tablespoon of Turmeric
1 Tablespoon of Ground Cumin
1 Tablespoon of Chilli Powder
1 TAblespoon of Fenugreek
2 Teaspoons of Amchoor (mango powder)
2 Teaspoons of Ground Cinnamon
1 Teaspoon of Ground Cloves
1 Teaspoon of Ground Ginger
1 Teaspoon of Ground Cardamom
Mix all the above together and store in an airtight container.
** Ginger garlic paste can be bought in any Asian shop, and in some supermarkets, but it’s easy to make your own. Just take equal amounts of ginger and garlic and pound them together in a mortar and pestle.
This morning, Kashmira made the smoothies for breakfast. She added ground almonds to the mix we used yesterday. I think she enjoyed it:
I decided to make soup for lunch. We had a bag of carrots and plenty of oranges so it seemed obvious that I should make carrot and orange soup. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I was serving it up that I remembered the last time I’d made carrot and orange soup, the girls hadn’t really liked it. Still, they were hungry, so it was eaten. But no one went back for seconds.
Fruit in the afternoon was melon and pear with a good grinding of nutmeg.
Dinner was dhal (lentils) with rogani kumbh (mushrooms in tomato & onion gravy) and chapatis.
During the day, there was chocolate and a slice of the molasses cake made on Day 1.
At this stage, no one is going to bed hungry, but I am a bit worried that there hasn’t been a green leafy vegetable eaten all week. I’m also aware that we don’t have nuts in the cupboard and “eating a rainbow” on a daily basis is beyond our capabilities this week.
We’re also rationing – I want to make naan for Day 4, so I had to measure out milk from the one carton we could afford this week, and caution Ishthara that there’s not much left for her cereal.
Ishthara had wanted us to make pancakes later this week, and was disappointed we mightn’t have enough milk. But we have coconut milk so that will do beautifully. Also, we have one egg (again, not enough money to buy more this week), so we’re trying to figure out the best way to use it! I had wanted to make an orange cake yesterday – but the recipe I use needs eggs. I can’t experiment because our resources are too scarce to flirt with the possibility of wasting ingredients.
We have precious little yogurt left, either. We go through about one and a half kilos of yogurt (natural or Greek) every week. Then I remembered how I used to make my own when we lived in Asia. So I made the decision to use a few drops of our remaining milk to revive that tradition.
I’m also a bit concerned that even with rationing, I’ll run out of coffee. I have a terrible coffee addiction and suffer awful withdrawal headaches (akin to migraines) if I don’t get my ‘fix’. I know that green tea contains enough caffeine to sort me out if I get desperate, but I love the taste of coffee and I’d like not to get desperate.
Day two of Austerity Bites started with a breakfast of smoothies – made with frozen berries, Greek yogurt and honey – for Kashmira and I, while Ishthara had a bowl of cereal with a splash of milk.
Lunch saw us polishing off the left-overs from the night before (apart from the roasted tomatoes, there was a bit of everything) and supplementing that with toasted cheese sandwiches.
Even after we’d gorged on them twice, there was still plenty of the patatas bravas left. I dropped the remainder into my friend to supplement supper for herself, her partner and their two kids. Only fair, really, considering she gave me half a bottle of olive oil yesterday, when I ran out.
My girls had a chocolate bar each mid-morning, and in the afternoon, their fruit bowls contained a sliced fresh nectarine and 125g of cherries each (both on special offer in Aldi this week).
Dinner was puy lentils with feta and olives, served with pasta. Apart from the pasta and the olives, everything else I needed for dinner was already in our cupboards.
Before bed, Ishthara had another bowl of cereal with milk. I managed to survive on just three mugs of coffee. I had several cups of Minty Moroccan tea, and one of peppermint to keep my mouth happy throughout the day.
Here are today’s recipes:
9 Tablespoons of Greek Yogurt
200g Frozen Fruits of the Forest/Berries
3 Tablespoons milled linseed
1 Tablespoon Clear Honey
Put all ingredients in a bowl (I find the pot from a kilo of yogurt works well) and whizz with a stick blender. If you use the berries while they’re still frozen or semi-frozen, the whole thing ends up being deliciously chilled.
Puy Lentils With Olives and Feta (Serves 3)
125g Puy Lentils
1 Large, Dried, Chilli (optional)
For The Dressing:
1 1/2 Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/2 Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
1 Teaspoon of Dijon Mustard
1/2 Teaspoon brown sugar
Salt & Pepper to season
Put the lentils in a pot with cold water and bring to the boil. Let them boil for a minute and whip them off the heat. Drain the lentils (I just pour them into a sieve and let the water run off). Put them back in the pot with the dried chilli and add just enough cold water to cover them.
Put the lentils back on the cooker and bring them to the boil.
Turn the heat down so the lentils are very gently simmering. Simmer for 30 minutes until soft but not mushy.
Meantime, make the dressing. Take all the ingredients and combine them in a screw-top jar. Shake well.
When the lentils are cooked, take them off the heat and drain if necessary. Tip them into a bowl.
Halve the olives and add them to the lentils.
Crumble the feta over the olives and lentils.
Pour the dressing over the dish. I used a spatula to make sure I got every last drop out of the jar!
Yesterday, I made mention of panch phoran and one of you queried what that might be. It’s a mixture of five spices (panch is five in Hindi) that are used to give flavour to many Indian dishes. You can buy it in Asian shops – or easily make your own by taking equal parts of cumin seeds, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, nigella seeds and fenugreek seeds, mixing them together and storing in an airtight container.
Holding your hand over a bowl to catch all the juice, peel the grapefruit and pop the segments out of the pith.
Peel the avocado and cut it in strips off the stone.
Chop in the spring onions and chilli.
Add the ginger, sprinkle salt and pepper over the fruit and drizzle the oil over the salad.
Honey & Garlic Roasted Tomatoes *
500g Cherry Tomatoes
5 Cloves of Garlic
1 Tablespoon of Honey
3 Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper
Preheat the oven to 180.
Cut the tomatoes and put them in an ovenproof dish, cut side up. They should be slightly squished in the dish, with little or no space between them.
Pound the garlic before adding the salt and pepper. Beat in the honey and olive oil. Spoon this lovely, icky-sticky mixture over the tomatoes. Don’t panic if you think there’s not going to be enough – there will be just enough to cover the fruit. Roast them for about 30 minutes until they are soft and juicy. When you’ve finished eating the tomatoes, the oil and juices will be perfect for mopping up with bread.
Courgette & Mozzarella in Garlic Lemon Oil *
5 Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3 Garlic Cloves, slivered
Grated Zest of 1 Lemon
1 Ball of Mozzarella
Salt & Pepper
Trim the courgettes. Then, using a vegetable peeler, slice them thinly. Put the slices in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Mix them up with your implement of choice (I used my hands) to ensure the strips are all oiled.
Heat a large frying-pan over a fairly high heat and sear the courgette (you may need to do this in batches). Transfer to a dish and take the pan off the heat.
Add the rest of the oil, the garlic and lemon zest to the pan. Heat gently for a few minutes. Pour the infused oil over the courgettes and season. Add a squeeze of lemon juice, the Mozzarella and a few fresh mint leaves if you have them.
Toss together and leave to stand, at room temperature, for about an hour before serving.
Dry Roasted Chickpeas With Lemon Juice & Panch Phoran
1 Can of Chickpeas
Juice of half a lemon
2 Teaspoons of Panch Phoran
Drain and rinse the can of chickpeas.
Pop them in an ovenproof dish and sprinkle the lemon juice and panch phoran over them.
Stick them in the oven (which is already pre-heated to 180 for the tomatoes) and roast them for about half an hour.
Patatas Bravas *
1kg New Potatoes
5 Tablespoons of Oil
For the Tomato Sauce:
2 Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
5 Garlic Cloves
400g Tin of Tomatoes
2 Teaspoons of Ras El Hanout or paprika
1 Teaspoon Jaggery or Brown Sugar
Sea Salt & Pepper to Taste
Make the sauce first. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a saucepan over a medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook for about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and chilli. Cook, stirring, for a minute
Add the tin of tomatoes, ras el hanout, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally and breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon.
Put the spuds in a large pot, cover with cold water, add salt and bring to the boil. When the potatoes are nearly done, but before they start to fall apart, drain them and tip them onto a clean tea-towel to absorb excess moisture before frying them.
I melted 5 teaspoons of coconut oil in a large frying pan, and sautéd them for about 15 minutes, until they were lovely and crispy on the outside, and fluffy on the inside.
Drain the potatoes on some kitchen paper and tip them into a bowl. Pour the sauce over them and serve warm.
Spiced Molasses Cake
The oven was on for the tomatoes and the chickpeas, so I thought I’d make a cake. The molasses in this cake ups the nutritional value, so it nearly counts as healthy.
2 Tablespoons of Butter (Softened)
50g Dark Brown Sugar
150g Plain Flour
1 Teaspoon of Baking Soda
1/2 Teaspoon of Ground Ginger
1/4 Teaspoon Cinnamon
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cloves
120mls Hot Water
Grease a loaf tin or 9″ cake pan.
Beat the butter and the sugar.
Add in the egg.
Stir in the molasses.
Sift the flour, baking soda and spices into a large bowl.
Add the egg and molsses mix and the water.
Stir the whole mixture together and pour the batter into the greased tin.
Put it in the oven (pre-heated for the tomatoes!) for about half an hour, or until a skewer comes out clean.
* These recipes were adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg every day!
I went grocery shopping shortly after I’d published my last post. Before leaving the house, though, I warned my daughters that there probably wouldn’t be any chocolate this week. My eldest ran upstairs and returned with the contents of her purse for me.
“I don’t want to take your money!” I told her.
“I don’t need it for anything right now,” she replied. “And now you can get some chocolate. And maybe some ice-cream?”
The forecast was for weather in the mid-twenties for the next few days. Definitely ice-cream weather.
As I added her money to mine, I discovered another €2.70 in my own wallet, bringing the grand total at my disposal to €37.96.
Putting my mental maths to the test, I went to the first supermarket and spent €19.72. In the second, I spent another €14.89 before stopping in the last place for chickpeas and ice-cream; a total spend of €37.84.
For breakfast, I had coffee and the girls had cereal. Lunch was pasta and fresh pesto (which was already in the fridge).
At 4pm, the girls had a bowl of ice-cream and some frozen berries each. I tried to soothe my coffee-craving with various types of teas and infusions.
Dinner was a mezze of sorts: I made a grapefruit and avacado salad, honey and garlic roasted cherry tomatoes, courgette & mozarella in garlic lemon oil, dry-roasted chickpeas with lemon & panch phoran and patatas bravas. Pudding was spiced molasses cake.
I’ll post up the recipes next in case you want to recreate the veggie-fest.
So, this morning I found myself with the grand total of E23.66 to live on until Thursday of next week. That’s twenty-three euros and sixty-six cents with which to provide 18 meals for myself and my two daughters. Time was, I’d have spent more on a round of sandwiches.
Most weeks, I do have more money to spend on food, but this week one of my daughters needed a medical procedure that Crumlin hospital expected her to wait a few years for. I made the informed decision to have the procedure done privately and don’t regret it. But our gas bill and the house insurance went out today, resulting in the afore-mentioned scant few bob left in the bank.
I’m not daunted, though, we’re vegetarian and I love to cook – plus, we do have a few staples (lentils and spices mainly!) in the cupboard.
I’ve decided to blog our meals this week and let you know how we get on. Will we end up eating the furniture by Tuesday? Or will we eat like kings? Will our foray into austerity eating see us missing out on vital nutrients? Or will I be even more aware of our nutritional needs now there is so little to play with?
Tomorrow, the Irish state exams – the Junior Certificate (JC) and Leaving Certificate (LC) – will begin. For much of the month of June, those aged 14-15 and 17-18 will be chewing their pencils and worrying about how these tests will affect the rest of their lives.
Today, the media was all afire with older people (by that, I mean people in their 30s and older – we’re ancient as far as those teenagers are concerned) being very serious as they went on about how these exams aren’t the be all and end all.
“The results of your Leaving Cert won’t define you,” one Elder Lemon commented.
Psychologists, therapists, teachers and those in many different professions felt it necessary to state categorically that teenagers are more than the sum of their points. Several parents weighed in as well – some more maudlin than others.
Now, before you think I disagree with these people, let me quickly disabuse you of that notion. I agree. The Junior and Leaving Certificates don’t define who a person is. The results of the Leaving Certificate do, however, determine if a person can continue to college or university. The points achieved in the LC also determine whether or not one gets to study one’s first choice. These exams do have an immediate impact on the lives of the young people sitting them and there’s no getting away from that, though. Even if it’s only the few weeks of mortification after the results come out and you have to admit that you failed everything.
My difficulty – my irritation – with this wave of ‘the exams don’t really matter’, is that, for many of these teens, they have spent the past few years hearing the exact opposite. They have been told that unless they ace their exams they will amount to nothing. Oh! Those may not be the exact words, but that is the message. Believe me, these kids don’t invent the pressure out of thin air!
Of course, I’m not saying that the people who are giving advice today are speaking out of both sides of their mouths, just that…..well, it’s a bit late to be giving that message now. Can we try and be consistent and give the same message to our young people throughout their academic career. Perhaps a modicum of moderation. How about we decide that all we – and by “we” I mean teachers, parents and media professionals – tell our teens is:
“You’re fabulous. These exams are unfair and out-dated, but at the moment, they’re all we have. Sorry about that. Please do yourself justice by trying your best; but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get the results you wanted/needed for the course you wanted/needed. You’re still fabulous.”
In Ireland, we’re still talking about the Prime Time Special Investigative Report into child care and that’s a good thing. Childcare is an issue that needs examining. The sad thing is that it’s taken a crisis like this for the Irish public to take a look at where and how our children are treated when we’re away from them.
Dialogue is always good: People expressing their opinions and sharing their experiences, making suggestions and offering support is helpful. I am delighted that the conversation here has not resulted in women who work outside the home being pitted against women who don’t.
It’s disheartening, though, to note that this debate is happening now – when the damage has already been done to a number of children. As I have mentioned before, Ireland is a nation of reactionaries. We, as a nation, don’t sit down and plan things. We lurch from crisis to crisis and try to cobble remedies together instead of methodically looking at solutions to possible problems in the planning stages. Look, for example, at the current baby boom. Where are the babies born now going to go to school in 4 or 5 years’ time?
One of the reactions to abuse in childcare is people asking for cameras to be installed to keep staff under surveillance. I have a few problems with this. Cameras don’t always work. They can be switched on and off with ease. Then there are issues around child protection – all parents would have to consent to all other parents having access to images of all the children. I might not want your husband watching my daughters. I might not want your wife commenting on our child’s speech to your wife.
My biggest concern with cameras is the message they sent to care-givers. If I put you under surveillance it means I don’t trust you. It means that I will allow you to do something but I won’t really trust you to do it or to do it properly. People who are constantly being watched are not necessarily going to do their jobs better. Certainly, care-givers aren’t going to express a more loving attitude because they know they are being filmed.
When I needed childcare, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful live-in nanny. Part of the reason that things worked so well for us was that Nishanthi knew she was a respected member of our household. When she’d only been with us a few days, she came to me to hand up her passport. Initially, I thought she needed me to take it for safe keeping, but it transpired that Nishanthi assumed that (like her previous employers) I’d want to hang on to it so she couldn’t run away. I told her I’d happily put it in the safe in my room for her, but that I certainly wasn’t demanding she surrender it.
“Nishanthi,” I told her. “I trust you with my baby. If I thought you were going to run away, then I have no business leaving my child with you.”
I think that basic premise applies no matter who you leave your children with. If you have an inkling that all is not as it should be, then act on that instinct. In Ireland, we defer too much to perceived authority figures. “Why” is largely academic at this moment. Whether it’s part of our colonial hangover or not is irrelevant. What matters is that we fix it and think for ourselves. I’m a great proponent of personal responsibility and recognise that, as a parent, my child’s welfare ultimately rests with me.
Baby zoos are impractical and not the best solution at all. Industrial solutions are fine for bags of cement or packets of biscuits, but for our babies? Definitely not the way to go. People say they like the idea of their children socialising with their peers. But how many other children do they think they need to ‘socialise’ with? If the were at home with Mammy, they’d only have one or two other kids to play with. So 30 or more children is not ideal. At a time when we are beginning to realise that large class sizes in schools are not conducive to either the social or academic excellence, why can’t we make the same realisation with regard to our babies.
There are many different solutions to the childcare issue. Each family needs to make the choice that is best for them, based on solid information and their own preferences. It is right that we are reeling. But when we’ve finished reeling, we need to do something real.
As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close (as I type, there’s just an hour left), I wanted to share something with you that has been bothering me for the past few weeks.
In April of this year, Donal Walsh – a sixteen year-old from Kerry was a guest on the Saturday Night Show on RTE. Donal was dying of cancer and knew his days were numbered. In fact, he died on the 12th of May – just over a month after his TV appearance.
I never met Donal. I don’t know anyone who knew him personally, but he came across as a lovely bloke. He loved sport, he loved his family. He was connected to his community. And he wanted to live! More than anything, he wanted more time with his family. He was desperate to stay alive. And he was furious with people who die by suicide leaving “a mess” behind them.
Now, I have no doubt that Donal Walsh wanted to live. I have no doubt that he was perplexed by people who don’t want to live – but I worry about the effect his words may have had on people who are feeling suicidal.
I was a suicidal teen. There were times when all I wanted was to die. Death would have been a merciful relief. I used to go to sleep praying to a God I fervently believed in to let me die in the night – to please let the overdose work, to please let the poison seep through me, to let me annihilate myself. Unlike Donal I had no loving family. Unlike Donal, I didn’t have a future worth living for. I didn’t have a team of medics who were rooting for me, I didn’t have a community that cared about me, I didn’t have teachers who were keen to do anything they could to help.
In short, Donal had people and a future to live for. Many, many suicidal people don’t and telling them he’s “very angry” with them isn’t exactly helpful. More guilt to add to the pain and guilt they are already suffering. I understand that Donal wanted to live but what he didn’t seem to understand was that people who die by suicide don’t want to die – they just want their pain to end. They just want to wake up in the morning and not suffer. They want the misery to stop gnawing on their innards. When nothing else they try does that, they do the only thing they can and end their pain permanently.
Being angry with people who are in pain doesn’t lessen their pain.
It reminds me of the horrendous years I spent trying to have children. It was the biggest sorrow of my life that I was childless. I would have done anything to have a child to call my own (how I managed it is a whole other blog post!). I knew I was in trouble the day I caught myself talking myself into taking a baby who had been left outside a Prague supermarket in his pram. But that didn’t mean I was angry with other women who had abortions. Just because I wouldn’t have made their choices didn’t mean I had any right to condemn them. Or even be angry with them. I was jealous – but I wasn’t angry. I was furious that Fate, or God or pure dumb luck had given them a pregnancy they didn’t want when all I wanted was a pregnancy, but I couldn’t take that out on the women.
I have no doubt that Donal Walsh meant well, I have no doubt that he wanted to inspire suicidal teens to stay alive. Sadly, he was not informed enough to do so in a more constructive way.
The response to my last post was overwhelming – both online and off. In truth, I’m not out of the woods yet. Yesterday was a good day, though and today hasn’t been too terrible.
Many of you were curious to know what ‘turns’ things around for me. There are a few things.
I do keep a gratitude journal and that helps. I think. At the same time, acknowledging all the things in my life I am grateful for doesn’t mean that the stuff that troubles me goes away, or troubles me less.
Friends. People just picking up the phone or calling in or sending an email of support and compassion makes a huge difference. I’ve been overwhelmed by expressions of kindness. The concern of others is enormously uplifting.
Acceptance. For years and years and years I used to beat myself up and tell myself I was, somehow, a lesser person for being sad. These days, I allow myself to ‘own’ my sorrow and accept that it is real. I make an effort to be kind to myself. Taking to bed and letting the sadness lie on me like a blanket actually works better than beating myself up for being that way.
Indulging myself. Knitting. Reading. Walking. Cuddling my girls. All the things I love to do, I do. I don’t belittle myself in my own head by telling myself how bad I am for not doing more ‘worthy’ things. (Okay, I try not to belittle myself for how bad I am for not doing more ‘worthy’ things).
I turn off the radio.I love the radio. It’s my favourite medium. But it’s full of doom, gloom, contention, argument and discontent. When I’m not feeling great , it agitates me (in a bad way) and I feel like I need to respond in a very concrete way to what I’m hearing. My feeling of helplessness is exacerbated. So I stop listening. I put on an audiobook, or listen to music or drama (thank you, BBC Radio 4) instead.
If people ask how I am, I honour myself by being honest and saying ‘not great’. I’m careful not to overshare and if people want to follow the line of conversation then they can. If they don’t then they don’t have to. I’m mindful that I have no idea (generally) what other people are going through.
I do as little as I can. The house is a mess, I haven’t written as many words as I should have, I haven’t finished making those cushion covers……The list of things I haven’t done is as long as my leg. It serves to do nothing but further overwhelm me. So I take a deep breath and decide what is vital – then break that task down into it’s smallest components and call each of them a job. I don’t set out to clean the house. I set out to empty the dishwasher.
Above everything else, my kids keep me going. I am uncomfortable with the idea of giving someone else the job of keeping me alive, but the truth of it is that there is no one else to mind my kids. If I was hospitalised for a short period, someone would be able to take them for a few days or a week. After that, however, there is no one. I have no family who could take them and the ‘care’ system in Ireland would kill them. Figuratively, if not literally.
Also, a few years ago, I made my children (pictured below) a promise. I had one of the worst times ever and ended up – calmly, logically and with extreme clarity (so I thought) – ‘realising’ that the best thing I could do was kill myself. When I got out of hospital afterwards promised my kids I’d never leave them until they were adults. I take promises very seriously and only make ones I am sure I can keep.
Perhaps the hardest part of this overwhelming sadness is that there is no end date. I have no idea when it will be over. I can’t say to myself “just another week, Larkin and then it will all be over” or even “this will be over in six months”. I have no idea when things will improve, but I have leaned to tell myself that this, too, shall pass. I’m getting better at believing it.
This month – May – is Mental Health Awareness Month. The initiative is being supported by See Change and there is more information about the campaign on the Green Ribbon website. (Green ribbons being the symbol for the campaign).
It is true that there is more awareness around mental health and mental ill-health and smashing stigma, but there is still a long way to go. Getting people to talk and to listen and to engage with the conversation is just the beginning. It’s a bit like feminism, starting the conversation doesn’t mean the job is done. It means the job has started.
I hit a bump this week and found myself flooded with all the usual detritus that goes with such bumps. It’s torrential when it happens and – like a torrent – it overwhelms. I could cry for hours straight. I can go to sleep late and wake up early just to fit in extra crying jags.
My children write me notes to tell me how much they love me in the hope that that can cheer me up. It does. And it doesn’t. It makes me feel better because I feel wrapped up in their love. It makes me feel worse because I don’t think it’s their job to make me feel better. My nearly nine-year old shouldn’t feel she has to spend 20 minutes writing a list of all that is good in the world to try and keep me in it. Because, of course, at the back of my mind is the guilty knowledge that – a few years ago – they came very close to losing me. I worry that every time I am sad, upset or in tears, they worry that I will turn them into orphans. At those times – and at others, when all is well in my world – I remind them of my promise not to leave them.
They think I don’t notice that one of them has her eye on me at all times – as though they have discussed it with each other and agreed this between themselves. Which, in truth, they probably have. They think I believe them when they say – as they position themselves either side of me at night, like two guardian angels – that they just want company and to sleep in a bigger bed tonight.
I was in conversation with a very dear friend during this latest bump and he put his finger on it.
‘Don’t be scared,’ he entreated me down the wobbly line from his part of Asia. ‘You’re not on your own.’
I was scared. I hadn’t realised that until he pointed it out to me. From ten thousand miles away, he could hear my fear when I – who was feeling it – didn’t even realise it was there.
I can’t speak for everyone who has an episode of mental ill-health, but here’s what it’s like for me:
I just don’t feel like I deserve to live. I feel like I’m a burden on humanity. I am an offense. Feeling like this about yourself is scary.
I offend myself. I do not know how to redeem myself in my own eyes and this, too, is scary.
I feel like I can no longer go on like this – yet I have no solution. Feeling like I don’t have the solution to a problem scares me (I always have a solution!).
The stress takes a physical toll – I have been hospitalised on more than one occasion with migraines born of stress. My neck, shoulders and upper-back feel they are made of steel.
I feel like I’m fighting a war – that I have been fighting a war for more years than I can number and that, while I have won a couple of battles, I am losing the war.
I feel scarred and battle weary, which is scary.
I can’t stop crying. Not even in public. I feel as though, by losing that amount of control over myself, I have no dignity. Feeling as though you have no dignity is scary.
I look like shit and I don’t care. It scares me that I don’t care.
I feel as if I have no anchor. Feeling like you are blowing in the wind is scary.
Failure is the biggest, most overwhelming feeling when I’m like this. Failing at life, failing at being ‘normal’. Feeling like you are failing is scary.
Feeling like the world has no use for you is scary.
Feeling like the world would be better off without you is scary.
Feeling like your whole existence has no value, no meaning and no importance is scary. Because if those things are true of you, then you have no right to exist. And the alternative can be equal parts attractive and scary.
Feeling that everyone knows the secret to life – except you – is scary.
Feeling that you’ll never be good enough to be told the secret is scary.
Feeling that, somehow, you deserve this is scary. (Even when you know that’s not how Karma works.)
Feeling that you can’t even speak – can’t even advocate – for yourself is scary. Especially if you like to tell yourself that you’re ‘normally’ reasonably articulate.
Wondering if this is your new normal is scary.
Wondering if you will ever be able to manipulate your brain into cohesion again is scary.
Wondering if this is the time that will prove unbearable is scary.
But scariest of all is when it stops feeling scary. When there is no feeling. When you rummage around inside yourself to figure out the name of what you’re feeling; and you come up with nothing. Because that is how you’re feeling. You are feeling nothingness. There is no word in the English language to describe the emptiness.
I’ll be wearing my green ribbon this month to invite people to start the conversation. Don’t be scared to engage in that conversation with me.
Oh dear, Ireland. What are you doing? What are you doing to the women who live within your jurisdiction? When will your patriarchal misogyny end? When will your tyranny wear itself out? When you start to treat women like equals? Are you completely incapable of learning from your past?
It is 2013 and women in Ireland are dying for the want of access to legal, safe, abortion. Savita Halappanavar is not the only woman who was treated inhumanely when she arrived at NUIG, in the early stages of a miscarriage. This is how women are treated in hospitals in Ireland.
We’ve been here before. Women have had to leave this country in their thousands for abortions that they cannot legally procure in Ireland. Now, in the past 48 hours, we have heard that our government is set to propose abortion legislation that will ‘allow’ women who are pregnant, a termination of that pregnancy if they are suicidal. Provided no fewer than six (six!!) consultants – two obstetricians and four psychiatrists – concur that she is, indeed, suicidal. Oh yes! And one of those psychiatrists must be a perinatal psychiatrist – of which there are only three in the country.
I don’t know where to begin with this one. Do you know how difficult it is to assess suicidal ideation with any degree of certainty? To be blunt, you can only be 100% sure that someone is suicidal when they have completed suicide. Do you know how difficult it is to get six people to agree on anything? Let alone six medical consultants who bring their own moral, ideological and religious beliefs to the consultation?
When and how would these assessments take place? Six different appointments with six different consultants? Or one appointment with all six? Where would the assessment/s take place? In a hospital? If so, of which variety – mental or maternity? In the woman’s home? Or somewhere else entirely?
Who would foot the bill? What if the woman had a medical card? Some consultants don’t see public patients. And – have you seen the waiting lists for consultants? You could be waiting months to see one. I have a sneaking suspicion that that’s part of the plan, though. That if a woman who is four weeks pregnant has to wait six months to see a consultant, by the time she does so, it will be too late to terminate the pregnancy. Or she’ll have already killed herself, thereby relieving the consultants of calling it either way. Or, as is more likely, she’ll have taken the boat or the plane out of this jurisdiction to somewhere the laws are more humane.
There’s something that worries me more than this six consultants nonsense (for it is nonsense): In this country, under the 1871 Lunacy Act – which is still in force today – it takes just two doctors to decide that a person should be forcibly detained in a mental hospital. So, theoretically, a suicidal pregnant woman could present, seeking six consultants to decide whether or not they believe her (I’ll get to that in a second) and two of them could have her committed to a mental ward for the duration of her pregnancy. THAT scares me.
Then there’s the notion that women are devious little feckers who run off and get pregnant on a whim and then decide to fake their suicidal ideation in order to hoodwink doctors into ‘allowing’ them to have abortions. That sickens me. It speaks of how women are still infantalised in Irish society. How they are presented as generally un-trustworthy and incapable of making decisions for themselves and their families.
In the same vein, attendees at the Home Birth Association’s annual conference today were reminded that, should they dare to attempt to birth at home without ‘permission’ from the HSE, they can be forcibly removed from their homes by members of An Garda Siochana and brought to a hospital. Once there they be subjected to procedures that they neither want nor need – and many of which, are in fact, not evidence-based.
Why does Irish society fear women so much? Why does Irish society fear our wombs so much that it feels the need to control our reproductive rights? Let’s not forget that this is the only country in the world where the CEO of a maternity hospital is called (and insists on being called) a ‘Master’. That single fact tells us so much about how women are perceived in this country. We’ve a long way to go – and for the moment, Ireland is no country for fertile women.
The other day, I was really saddened to hear the mother of a baby giving thanks for the fact that her child had slept for ten hours straight. She was delighted that – with a little bit of ‘professional’ help from a soi-disant sleep nanny – her baby hadn’t disturbed her all night. This woman was bemoaning that her life was different since her baby had arrived.
Well, newsflash! Babies are supposed to change your life. If they don’t, you’re doing it wrong.
I am fed up of hearing people talk about their babies as if they (the babies) were evil little demons trying to rob them of sleep or peace or ‘me’ time. If you have made the decision to have a baby, it is up to you to change your life to fit in with the baby – not the other way around. And that isn’t as hard as it might sound; most babies are extremely accommodating and won’t put too much of a stop to your gallop. I’ve brought mine to work; I’ve taken them for trips in trains, planes and boats; taken them to the cinema, the doctor, the dentist, lunches, brunches, dinners, launches and anywhere else I might have to go. They’re very portable, I find.
But let me get back to the sleeping thing because I actually meant this post more as a public service announcement than a rant. (No, really!). It’s actually dangerous to have your babies sleeping away from you. The fad for having babies sleep away from their mothers is a fairly recent – and a fairly Western – one.
With this separation of baby from parent/s, began the rise of SIDS. In Africa and Asia, children sleep with their parent/s for at least the first two years (in some places, even the first five years) of life. Cot-death is unheard of. There is more on that here and in Meredith Small’s book ‘Our Babies Ourselves’ .
But, quite apart from the science and the evidence – let’s be practical about this. I am a great proponent of lazy parenting. I am far too lazy to get out of my bed in the middle of the night and wander around a dark house into another room to pluck a crying baby from her cot before feeding her (or comforting her if she doesn’t need a feed), putting her back in her cot and stumbling, bleary-eyed, back to my own bed. I love my sleep too much. So my babies slept with me and found the breast as and when they needed it. (That didn’t work so well with my eldest, who was early born and unable to suck. I expressed and fed her every hour for the first few months, then every two hours. I kept her in the bed with me, though. It was still easier to feed her that way.)
Apart from when they were sick, I never had a broken night’s sleep when my children were babies. I expect they’ll come – along with the ten-hour sleeps – when they’re teenagers.
At the risk of proselytizing with the zeal of a new convert, I want to share with you my latest discovery.
For the past few months I have had very little energy. I think of myself as the kind of person who has high energy: I feel I have lots of things to do, but am blessed with all the energy I need to do what needs to be done. It’s been several months since I felt that way, though. In retrospect, I’ve been slowly running out of steam.
Casting an eye over my ‘to do’ list has had me nearly in tears at the thought of all I have to do and of how I’ll never manage to do it because I simply don’t have the energy. Even looking at the list made me feel tired, overwhelmed and like an immediate failure.
That was bad enough. What was worse was the sudden, inexplicable weight gain. All the clothes I like in my wardrobe are a size 10. I am not. Not any more. Since September of last year, I have gone up a dress size. This depresses me no end. You’d want to hear what I’ve been saying to myself; out loud, under my breath, and in my head.
Sharing my despair with a friend, she suggested that I might have a difficulty with my thyroid gland. My symptoms were a match. I spoke to another friend who was diagnosed with hypothyroidism two years ago. The symptoms she spoke about – the extreme fatigue the weight-gain, the brittle nails, the life-less hair – were very familiar to me. Too familiar. Depressingly familiar. But, at the same time, I was excited. If it was hypothyroidism I was suffering with, then a simple blood-test would let me know. After the diagnosis, there were pills that would put all in my world to rights. I presented for the blood-tests and had myself convinced I was suffering from the condition and would soon be happily living with it.
Imagine my surprise when, a week later, my doctor told me that my test results showed nothing to worry about in the thyroid region. I was disappointed. I know, it’s a bit mad to be disappointed to learn you don’t have an incurable medical condition, but I was desperate to have an answer – a reason for all that was going ‘wrong’.
But there was more. Drawing my attention to a line of red data, my doctor informed me that my iron levels were alarmingly low. Usually at around 15, they were currently showing up at a decidedly low 1. She suggested that this might be what was robbing me of my zest for life. I was doubtful. I had all the signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism – how could mere anemia account for all that ailed me?
Suffering a bout of extreme scepticism, I started my course of iron tablets.
Oh Lordy! The difference those pills made in a matter of a fortnight! I wish, wish, wish, wish that I had gone to the doctor for a blood test months ago. I have found that I am waking up refreshed and raring to go after 6-7 hours’ sleep. I am looking at my ‘to do’ list with delight and zest. I am staying up past 7pm in the evening not because I have to – to supervise homework and send emails etc. – but because I feel I have the energy to. I don’t guilt trip myself out of bed in the morning, I rise full of excitement at what the day might bring.
My brittle nails and less-than-bouncy hair are also easily explained away by a lack of iron in my blood. Iron brings oxygen to the cells in the body. None of which can function well – or even properly – without oxygen.
I’ve even figured out the weight gain issue. My sub-conscious was convinced that my lack of energy was due to a lack of food; so encouraged me to eat more than I needed to. I have noticed feeling inclined to eat less and less in the past ten days or so.
As if in any doubt, I knew all was well when, on Friday morning, I was up humming and happily scrubbing toilets at 5.30am.
So I’d urge you – if you are no longer feeling yourself, instead of trying to figure out why, head to your doctor and ask her to figure out why. That’s her job, after all.