Setting boundaries is seen as a fundamental element of heathy relationships. There are countless articles freely available that instruct us on setting boundaries with co-workers, bosses, neighbours, intimate partners, children, and others.
In my work with Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, survivors of child sexual abuse, and with parents, it’s something that comes up time and time again. Victims and survivors can find it difficult to set healthy boundaries, and to maintain them, once they have been set.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how setting boundaries with others is definitely necessary – but it’s also necessary to set boundaries with ourselves. It’s an element of self-care that is worth highlighting. Self-care is something that a lot of my clients tussle with. It seems indulgent, wasteful, and something we’re not worthy of; especially those of us who have been brought up to believe that we are worthless.
Once people can be convinced that they are worth caring for, and once they can be helped to identify ways, and means, and techniques, that are examples of self-care for them, it’s hard to then place limits on those self-care practices. I feel like I’m saying to people ‘You deserve self-care, but not that much self-care.’
Being aware that addiction stems from trauma, and that traumatised people often battle addiction (even, sometimes, ‘acceptable’ addictions, like work, and exercise) led to my awareness that it’s necessary to establish, and maintain, boundaries with ourselves.
A self-boundary is recognising that a slice of cake might be good self-care, but an entire cake might not be. It is recognising that a walk in nature might be good self-care, but pushing yourself to walk 10kms a day might not be. It is recognising that healthy food might be good self-care, but four servings of healthy food in one sitting might not be. It is recognising that an early night might be good self-care, but that staying in bed for twelve hours a day might not be.
How do we know, then, when self-care becomes self-abuse? I think we can identify that by paying attention to our emotions, and how we feel about our self-care practices. Is your self-care practice something you look forward to, or something you are desperate to indulge? Is your self-care practice something that feels like you’re being kind to yourself, or something that you’re punishing yourself with? Do you feel better after your self-care, or guilty/ashamed? If it’s the latter, then you might want to look at establishing better boundaries with yourself. It’s a line we need to establish, and maintain, with ourselves exactly the same way we would with others.
Because, after all, the person you want to have the healthiest relationship with, is yourself.
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.
The world is becoming increasingly aware of narcissists as more and more countries – the US, the UK, and Ireland, to name but three – have fallen prey to narcissistic leaders. As with any disorder that gains prominence, every armchair psychologist thinks they are qualified to diagnose people they know and, indeed, people they have never met, with said disorder.
Narcissism is not a glib label to be applied to every person we come across who has a well-developed sense of self-esteem. Putting yourself first is not narcissism. Having a healthy sense of self is not narcissism. Being proud of your achievements is not narcissism. Being in a relationship with a narcissist is eroding, exhausting, and can even be dangerous.
While a narcissistic partner and / or a narcissistic co-parent can be frustrating and bewildering, the most damaging narcissist is the narcissistic parent. I’ve had experience of narcissistic parents, narcissistic ex-husbands, and knowing narcissists in a professional capacity. As a result, I can honestly say that, of these, the most damage is done by narcissistic parents.
Narcissistic parents will do some (or even all) of the following:
Gaslight Neglect Lie – to, and about, the child Ignore – boundaries, successes, fears, and even the child as an autonomous being Foster dependency – emotional, financial, and practical Guilt-trip Manipulate
If you can tick any of these off, you have my sympathy, and solidarity. If you’re a woman who has borne the brunt of an abusive mother, and the complications peculiar to that kind of relationship, please feel free to join my online support group.
Today is not a good day. And part of me is delighted.
I cried today, for the first time since…I can’t remember when. I have shed some tears, and welled-up in recent weeks: Reading of people’s hardships, and triumphs, and sharing their joys and their sorrows on the other side of my screen how could I not?
But today, I felt miserable. Overwhelmed. I felt bad. By that, I don’t mean I felt ‘off’. I mean I felt like I am a bad person. Inherently, intrinsically, indisputably bad at the core of me. This is not uncommon for people who have histories of child sexual abuse; we feel that, if someone had done something so dreadful to us, it must have been because they saw the badness in us, and addressed it. They knew they could abuse and rape us because it was all we deserved.
Today, through the tears and (for the first time in a long time, sobs), I was able to logically provide myself with reasons why:
1. Hours of reading and writing about child sexual abuse for my PhD work (enjoying the work, but acknowledging that I need to mind myself in the middle of it).
2. A ‘brother’ hopping on to Whatsapp for the first time in years to hurl abuse during the week (blocked and reported).
3. Being reminded several times before breakfast – by all the Mothers’ Day posts on social media – that most people have mothers who don’t set out to deliberately destroy them (mine’s a narcissist, so I have hundreds of stories about how she’s done this).
4. Not being on top of the housework (is any of us ever on top of the housework?!)
5. The voice in the back of my head that tells me I’m not good enough, that I’ll never be good enough, that I’m rubbish – the voice that’s silent more often than it whispers these days – getting louder.
My daughters noticed my tears:
‘Mum! What’s the matter?’
‘Mum! What’s wrong?’
They asked, alarmed, concerned, caring.
‘Onions,’ I responded. It was true. I had been chopping onions in preparation for cooking brunch. ‘I rubbed my eyes with onion-y hands,’ I expanded.
‘You silly goose!’ Ishthara used her favourite admonishment for me. ‘But at least it wasn’t chilli!’
I smiled and agreed with her.
Now, I must go back to my girls and tell them the rest of truth. I must tell them that I was having a bad day. I didn’t, earlier, because I didn’t want them to worry. But I wasn’t doing them any favours. By thinking I was protecting them from my sadness, I missed the opportunity to tell them that sometimes, everything tumbles in, and through, you; and you need the cathartic release of tears.
All of that said, I’m taking today as a win because I am able to feel, to know, to realise that today is just a day. This sad day is just one day. Unlike (not too many) years ago, when a sad day would mark the beginning of, or be an unremarkable part of, weeks – even months – of sadness and weeping, and fear. Proper Irish fear – eagla – equal parts terror, and paralysis, and foreboding, and regret.
Today is a win because it’s just a day, and I know that. I have no fear that tomorrow will be the same. I know it won’t. In fact, the rest of today won’t even be as bad as the earlier part was. I am measuring how far I have come. I am grateful for the relief of knowing – as opposed to hoping – that this, too, shall pass. I am not condemned to months of misery this time around.
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.
It’s Day 10 of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence and I’m reminded of the SAFE Ireland Conference I attended last year: That conference brought home to me how the violence and abuse I endured when I was married had affected me more than I’d realised. It was listening to other women and their stories that finally brought home to me how much damage had been inflicted on me by my exes.
I’d been single since the second week of August, 2003 (two days after I found out I was expecting my second child). For the most part, I’ve been very happy to be single. I live a full life, enjoy my children, have wonderful friends and am always busy. Every now and again, though, I think it might be quite nice to have someone who regularly accompanies me to events, who can hold a conversation, who is blessed with intelligence, and who might be a contender for romantic partner. When I get into one of these moods, I end up on one or other of the (frankly, horrendous) dating apps. I rarely stay very long, but the last time I peeked over that particular parapet, I was pleasantly surprised.
At this juncture, I want to tell you that I thought long and hard about publishing this post: I felt that, having been through what I’ve been through, and knowing what I know, I am the last person who would end up in yet another abusive relationship. My reluctance to share this was multifaceted:
I’m ashamed that – given how much I research, speak, and write about, abuse – I didn’t see it until it was too late. I’m ashamed that I managed to ignore the signs – or that I didn’t see the signs in the first place. I’m ashamed that I acted in exactly the same way as so many other women in abusive situations do. Not because I think I’m in any way better than they are – either in the superior, or the recovered sense – but because I thought I’d learnt that lesson already. I thought I’d figured out how to stand up for myself in situations where there was even a whiff of nastiness. I was wrong.
As well as that, my pride is squirming slightly. I am writing in full knowledge that there are those who will read this and gloat. I know there are those who will read this and bloat with puffed-up delight that I have fallen foul of yet another man. There are those who will gleefully share this post and rejoice at the fact that I have been involved (again) with a man who has scant respect for me (or, come to think of it, women in general).
I’m also feeling a bit dim. I didn’t spot the coercive control that Saradhi subjected meto for what it was. I could kick myself. My marriages had been so dreadful – my life had been in danger on more than one occasion – that I thought anything less than the overt abuse (verbal, psychological, financial, physical, sexual and others) I’d been subjected to in those relationships wasn’t really abuse. I was wrong.
More than these, however, I am aware that every time I write, or speak, about my own experiences, I speak directly to other women who have experienced similar. I speak directly to women who felt their own shame; experienced their own bruised pride; questioned their own intelligence; blamed themselves for their own abuse. I reminded myself that every time I open up – other women open up to me. And that is why I do this – because abuse thrives on secrecy and abuse thrives on keeping the victim shamed, and abuse thrives on the silence of the abused. Knowledge is power, and the sharing of knowledge empowers those with whom it lands.
To give a very specific example of what I mean when I write ‘coercive control’:
Saradhi said he was very pleased that I was pursuing my PhD. He said he was very proud that I was working on such an important project. He said he was aware that I needed the time and space to work. He said that he understood it was the most valuable thing – apart from parenting my girls – that I was doing.
That’s what he said.
I know enough, though, to know that what a man says is not nearly as important as what he does. What he did was interfere with my study time as much as he could – and he always presented his demands, expectations, and manipulations as perfectly reasonable, in some cases as downright loving, so it was hard to argue with him.
I am quite the night owl, and I enjoy reading and writing late at night. He, however, was not a night owl – especially not during the working week. That was fine with me – I was quite happy for him to go to bed before me.
‘But I can’t sleep without you,’ he would whine.
‘You slept perfectly well without me for nearly 40 years,’ I reasoned.
‘Yes, but now I know you’re there, so I don’t want to have to go to sleep without you. I’d miss you too much. I couldn’t sleep if you weren’t there.’
I thought about this, and decided I could manage a compromise – I’d go to bed at the same time as him, and just read in bed. But he was having none of that.
‘I can’t sleep if there’s any light in the room,’ he explained. ‘That’s why I have blackout curtains.’
‘Can you wear a sleepmask?’ I asked.
‘No. That wouldn’t work. They’re never dark enough.’
‘They are if you get a decent one. I’ll get you a proper one.’
Proffering my next solution, I agreed to go to bed at the same time as him, I agreed not to read while he was in bed, but said I’d get up early in the morning and get a few hours’ work done then. That, however, wasn’t acceptable to him, either.
‘I can’t sleep at all if you’re not there. If you get up, I won’t be able to sleep on.’
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to suggest that he didn’t necessarily deserve more sleep than I did.
When I was home and trying to work, he would constantly interrupt me – and then berate me if I displayed irritation. I explained that my research involves getting into a particular ‘zone’ and working there. I need to engage my brain in order to make sense of what I’m reading, to make connections across literatures, disciplines, my own research, and my own lived experience. Then, I need to figure out how to make sense of all of those resources, and write that down in a comprehensive manner. He had no understanding of this –
‘That’s just too far beyond what I’ve studied,’ he told me. ‘I’ve never done anything like that.’
As if, because he hadn’t done it, it wasn’t valid. I was less and less able to do what I needed to do with him around.
On a few occasions, I stated that I had a particular, specific piece of work to do and needed a specific period of time in which to get it done. After agreeing that I would have the time – uninterrupted – to do what I needed to do, he broke that agreement every single time. He was doing something to keep himself out of my hair – but would suddenly need my help. Even if I explained that I was busy, he would assert that what he was doing was for my benefit (or for our benefit), and I needed to muck in.
‘It’ll only take ten minutes,’ he said to me one time, when he knew I was up against a hard deadline.
Two and a half hours later, the job was finally finished, and I was released from my obligation.
So – I had to go to bed at the same as he, and I wasn’t allowed to read or write in bed. I wasn’t allowed to get up early. I wasn’t allowed to carve out time for myself at all if he was in the same physical space as I was. If we were in the same building, he demanded every drop of my time, my energy, and my attention. I literally couldn’t expect to go to the bathroom on my own. Expectations of such privacy were called out by him as indicative of my inability or unwillingness to ‘share myself’ and ‘to be intimate’. I shouldn’t, he told me, ‘be so shy as to want to hide anything from him’. (This was also why he used to seek out my old journals, correspondence, and even notes from my kids to read and pass judgement on – in spite of my repeatedly telling him that unless something was addressed to him, or given to him, he was not allowed to read it.)
To deny any part of myself that he wanted would, he told me, be ‘just selfish’. And we all know that women are trained – from birth – not to be selfish. We are trained to be selfless, giving, accommodating, generous, self-sacrificing. It is expected of us. I should have remembered that. I should have remembered that the first time I felt uncomfortable. But, here’s the thing, I couldn’t quite articulate why I felt uncomfortable. What I’ve realised since, however, is that that doesn’t matter. Why I felt uncomfortable was not nearly as important as the fact that I did. I didn’t need to qualify, or quantify, my levels of discomfort. As someone once said to me ‘If it feels wrong, it is wrong’.
While I didn’t remember it in my most recent relationship, I will remind myself that ‘I don’t feel comfortable’ is enough. ‘That makes me uncomfortable’ is enough. If someone wants more details it is enough to say ‘I’m not sure. All I know is I don’t like it.’ Anyone who presses for more, can just jog on.
I have been silenced and censored before and, falling prey to the strictures of the societies I have lived in, I have even silenced and censored myself. On occasion when I knew I couldn’t explain, or articulate what I needed to say, I have said nothing – feeling that unless I could produce hundreds of words arguing my position, or unpacking my feelings, they weren’t valid, and didn’t deserve to have life breathed into them.
What I didn’t quite realise when I was living through it was that this jealous demand for every ounce of me, and this intrusion on my precious time was a form of coercive control. I had come across coercive control before, but it was in conjunction with other types of abuse – so I didn’t recognise it this time. I’ll recognise it for what it is the next time, though! (Even as I fervently hope that there isn’t a next time).
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.
Yesterday, I spoke with PJ Coogan, on Cork’s Opinion Line about what it’s like to be the daughter of a narcissistic mother. You can listen back (from 12.00) here.
Being the daughter of a narcissistic mother is hugely damaging; not least because our society tells us that a mother’s love is unconditional, all-encompassing, and never-ending. When your mother is a narcissist, however, you know that to be untrue, but you can’t articulate it because you feel strongly (and, usually, correctly) that you won’t be believed. You will be treated as though there is something wrong with you because your mother doesn’t love you – but the truth is that there’s nothing wrong with you but plenty wrong with her.
If any of this resonates with you, please feel free to get in touch.
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 will accept that my title looks grammatically incorrect; or at least like I’ve managed to forget a word. Bear with me, though, I really do mean what I’ve said (typed).
A few months ago, I was sitting, having a work-related chat with the wonderfully talented and always exuberant Phil Kingston, at the Abbey Theatre. Within minutes, we realised that we were both Lamy fans. I explained that, because my writing is the way it is (small, not exactly artistic), I require an extra-fine nib in order to render what I write legible. I handed my instrument to him, and Phil wrote a few lines with it. He quickly agreed with me that it was a beautiful writer, and we had a most pleasant chat about pens, and writing, and choosing an instrument.
I mentioned that I habitually use a fountain pen, except for my Morning Pages which – for some reason – I choose to write on yellow legal pads in pencil. And, yes, I’m as particular about my pencils as I am about my pens. The one I favour for my Morning Pages is a beauty; a black 4B that I got in the Science Gallery a while ago. It is just the right blend of soft and dark for me: Not so soft that it smudges easily, and not so hard that it writes too faintly.
Phil and I continued our chat, we mused about how our respective upbringings had influenced our choices of writing instruments. In the middle of all this, I suddenly realised something, and shared it with him. I’d been brought up in poverty by an abusive (psychopathic) father and a narcissistic mother. I’d always loved writing – not just the intellectual, or creative, or academic element of it – but the actual, physical element of it as well. As a young writer of about four, I remember bringing my pencil to my mother to be pared. She refused. There was ‘still plenty of writin’ left in it’, she had declared, and refused to sharpen it for me. Any time I wanted to sharpen my pencil, she would admonish me, and tell me I was being wasteful – which was a sin! – and I was to use the pencil until it was no longer possible to write with it.
Of course, I internalised this message, and carried it with me into adulthood. It took until last August before I realised that I it didn’t serve me to believe that I was only ‘allowed’ to pare my pencils when their points were beyond usability. When I realised that I no longer needed to hold to that ancient belief, I abandoned it immediately. Since then, I have sharpened my pencil every time I have felt it necessary; I have allowed myself the tactile pleasure of using a pencil at its optimum point. It is bliss. Joyful, delightful, pleasurable.
It’s a small thing – sharpening my pencil every time I want to, so it always feels good when I’m using it – but it has made me examine other habits and attitudes that were foisted on me by others, and which don’t serve me. I feel liberated beyond what might seem rational by this one small thing.
So it’s really not an error when I ask – ‘What’s your Pencil?’ What is the old belief or habit that you’re hanging on to that is not serving you, and is not aligned with what you want, and deserve, for yourself?
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.
Today, I will be in the Garden of Remembrance, at a rally organised by Colm O’Gorman (Executive Director of Amnesty International, survivor of clerical abuse and rape, and the boy who sued the pope). We’ll be standing with thousands of other people in solidarity with those who were abused – physically, sexually, and emotionally – by the Roman Catholic Church.
This week’s visit by the pope has been hugely painful for many thousands of people on this island. People are finding themselves hurt, upset, and triggered all over again. Even as someone who was never sexually abused by a member of the Roman Catholic Church – although members of the church concealed that they knew my two elder brothers (Nigel Talbot and Cormac Talbot) were sexually abusing me – I have found details of the continued abuse of people by the Roman Catholic Church upsetting. I have heard from many survivors of clerical abuse how difficult and traumatic these weeks have been for them. I want them to know that I bear witness to their pain, I acknowledge it, I believe them.
I am going to the Garden of Remembrance today because it’s important to honour the truth of those who have suffered. It is important to honour the pain of those who have suffered – and to recognise the origins of that pain; the Roman Catholic Church and the Irish society that stood by in silence and allowed the rape and abuse of young children to take place.
I am going to the Garden of Remembrance today to honour the memories of those who can’t make it: Those who were murdered by the Roman Catholic Church; those who were sold by the Roman Catholic Church; those who had their bones broken by the Roman Catholic Church; those who had their spirits broken by the Roman Catholic Church; those for whom being there would be too emotionally difficult; those who died by suicide, who are in addiction, who are homeless, who are in psychiatric units on account of the trauma visited on them by the Roman Catholic Church.
I am going to the Garden of Remembrance today because it’s the least I can do.
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 .
Content Warning: Sexual Assault / Sexual Abuse / Incest
This week is Birth Trauma Awareness week.
For many women, the birth itself is traumatic because of how they are treated during labour and birth. For women who have been sexually abused as children, however, labour and birth can compound the trauma they have suffered.
While she was growing up, Orla’s* father ‘played’ with her by playing ‘tickling’ with her. He would chase her, catch her, and then hold her down tickle her, kiss her, and – as she hit puberty – touch her breasts, buttocks, and genitals.
Like many people who are abused over a period of time, Orla started to recognise the ‘cues’ from her father that an abusive incident was coming. She would try, desperately, to get away from him, but she was never successful. Orla felt helpless, but still, when he tickled her, she laughed. This would result in him calling her ‘a little flirt’ and saying things like ‘you’re just pretending you don’t want me to do it.’
Orla couldn’t get away from her dad because he was too strong. Her laughter would give away to tears, and then to crying, and eventually to screaming. Finally, he would stop.
When Orla grew up, she did not look back on her father’s actions as abusive, because it was labelled as ‘play’, and she remembers laughing at the time.
Years afterwards, however, when she was in labour with her first child, she was hooked up to a foetal monitor, had a canula inserted, and a blood pressure cuff. She had a panic attack on account of the restrictions on her movements. Her reaction seemed disproportionate until later, when Orla connected the events during childbirth with being restrained while her father abused her.
Like Orla, many women are surprised by the degree of their distress over routine aspects of maternity care. For abuse survivors, distressing or traumatic events can bring up the same feelings of helplessness and fear that they felt with the original abuse. It can be difficult to understand, however, why seemingly innocuous or helpful interventions can also bring up feelings of helplessness and fear. If the trauma of the original abuse was never correctly addressed, they are at risk for re-traumatisation, and may end up suffering from chronic post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).
Much of this distress can be alleviated for pregnant women survivors of CSA if, before labour, they have an opportunity to explore some of the features (events, procedures, and care policies) of childbirth that might bear similarities to their abuse, and to plan strategies for avoiding, or coping with, them.
Women often dread the prospect of deeply exploring the origins of abuse-related symptoms. Once they do take that step, with the support of understanding health-care practitioners / birthworkers, they usually feel relieved and unburdened of guilt and responsibility. Our capacity for healing is enormous, through it requires hard work perseverance, and courage. Finding the time, and the energy, for that is hard at any stage – harder again when you’re pregnant. A birthworker who brings compassion, and understanding of the trauma of CSA will make the biggest of differences to her client.
Yesterday, this petition popped up on my timeline. It details the plight of a young man who is the same age as my youngest daughter (14). Please bear in mind that I know nothing about this family, save what I read on the petition page, and saw on an RTE news-clip.
From what I can glean from those sources, Nonso Muojeke has lived in Ireland since he was two years old. His mother was widowed, then ‘claimed by’ her dead husband’s brother. According to Mrs Muojeke, he – and the rest of her in-laws – treated her horrifically. She fled to Ireland, from Nigeria, with her two children, arriving in 2007.
The family was refused asylum in 2009, and has lived in a terrible legal limbo since. Nine years is a long time to live, with no security, with no idea whether or not you’ll be allowed to stay indefinitely. Not knowing if you might be taken from your home and sent back to a place of danger. I can only imagine what that does to a person’s mental health.
For me, though, the person at the centre of this tale is not Nonso himself, but his mother. This is a woman who was treated horrifically by her in-laws after she was widowed and ‘taken’ by her dead husband’s brother, as his wife. She gathered the courage and the internal, and external, resources to leave the house, the village, the country, with her two young children. She arrived in Ireland – a place she knew little, or nothing, about and has stayed here, in spite of her case being fouled up by her solicitor (solicitors can pretty much do what they like in this country, by the way – without fear of censure). She has managed to provide for herself and her family without drawing from the public purse in terms of receiving a cent in social welfare payments, or getting healthcare for herself and her children.
She has held herself, and her family, together all this time. She has helped them to become part of the community where they live. She has kept her boys fed, warm, educated, housed, loved. And safe. She has kept them safe.
Now, however, the family is at risk of being returned to Nigeria. To a place where Mrs Muojeke was abused and degraded. To a place where the boys don’t feel a part of the society (because they never have been), to a place where the boys’ mental health would be at risk. None of this appears to matter to the Department of Justice, or the Minister for Justice. What this tells me is that returning a woman to a place where she is seen as nothing other than chattel – where she can be ‘inherited’ like a piece of furniture – is not something that this government objects to. This government is fine with the notion of a man ‘claiming’ his dead brother’s wife for himself (and then abusing her). This government is clearly absolutely fine with the idea of a man abusing a woman. But then, we know that already.
We may have voted to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution, but we haven’t yet managed to repeal patriarchy.
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 email@example.com or Aware: aware.ie; Tel: 1800-804848; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Today is a tough day for many of my American friends. It’s Mothers’ Day over that side of the Atlantic, and that’s not all sweetness and light for everyone. Aside altogether, from women who have lost their mothers to illness, there are many who were never mothered to begin with.
I believe that the last social taboo surrounds abusive mothers. The dominant narrative is that mothers are all-loving, all-giving, self-sacrificing fonts of love for all their offspring. To challenge that account of mothers is, to many, worse than blasphemy. This has the effect of silencing so many of us who survived our mothers, and who want to share our experiences to find other survivors and develop a community that understands, and supports us.
I remember, about eight years ago, I decided to cut ties with my toxic, abusive family (my father and two eldest brothers sexually abused me my entire childhood, my other brothers, my sister – who was also raped by one of my brothers – and their partners, choose to support my eldest brothers), and a friend of mine said ‘Well, yes, cut ties with all of them. Except your mum. You can’t not talk to your mum. Because….well, she’s you mum.’ It’s so difficult for people who were raised by someone who loved them – however imperfectly – that those of us who never experienced maternal love actually exist.
In the month or so since I started my secret Facebook Page for Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers*, I have been amazed, horrified, and comforted by the amount of women who share my grief at having been raised by at least one narcissist. The last time I spoke to my mother was at the end of 2016. It was a surreal conversation, in many ways, and if I hadn’t recorded it, it would be hard to believe some of the things that came out of her mouth actually did. Most notable was her response when I asked her why she had never told my sisters-in-law, that I had been raped by my brothers.
‘It’s not my place,’ she said.
‘Not even to protect your grandchildren?’ I asked.
‘It’s not my place,’ she repeated.
To reveal that I was telling the absolute, irrefutable, empirical, truth about my brothers was too much of a challenge to her view of herself. She couldn’t possibly be the person she wants the world to believe she is if she admitted that her sons raped her daughter, and she chose to support her boys instead of her girl. Mind you, this is the same woman who refused to let me be taken into care as a teenager because she was ‘worried about what the neighbours would say.’ When I confronted her with this piece of information (gleaned as the result of an FOI request), she nodded and said categorically and with a tone of extreme rightousness ‘Yes, yes, I did say that.’ Only a narcissist could possibly utter such a response.
In the case of narcissistic mothers, however, they don’t actually care about the ways in which they damage their children. They feel no remorse, accept no responsibility, offer no apologies, and care only about how they are perceived by people they don’t live with. If you suspect your mother might be a narcissist, this article provides a short list of things that others do, that narcissists will never do.
Finally, this piece, from Dr Karyl McBride, offers ten tips for coping with Mothers’ Day for adult children of narcissistic mothers. Mind yourself.
*If you’d like to join, please send me an email, a DM on Twitter, or drop a line in comments here. Comments are moderated before posting, so you won’t be revealing more than you’d care to share with the world at large.
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 email@example.com)
Last week, I wrote about unsolicited dick pics, and what it feels like to be on the receiving end of them. To be clear, I have absolutely no judgement around solicited penis pictures. If sending nudies is part of the sex-play between two consenting adults, I hope it works well for them.
The unsolicited pictures, and the sending of them, however, started a conversation on Twitter, and a number of women asked me why men sent these pictures. Well, as a woman, I have no idea. So I decided to ask the men who send them. Now, this is in no way a rigorous piece of scientific research. It’s a Twitter poll. There were 74 responses, and one of them was from a woman who clicked by accident and bumped up option two by one number. There may have been more people who clicked accidentally, but I have no way of knowing. All I can tell you is that, from the first few responses, the results were fairly consistent.
So, here’s what I got:
As you can see, 8% of respondents said they send these pictures because they think their penises are gorgeous, with 14% wanting the person on the receiving end to express admiration for the penis they are presented with. I must admit, that I thought the percentage of those in the first category would be higher. In my experience, men think their reproductive organs are beautiful (most women don’t – penises are only thought of aesthetically pleasing by women when they have an emotional attachment to the man on the end of it). Again, I’m surprised that so few men admitted to sending unsolicited penis pictures because they want their members to be admired.
The final two responses are the ones that worry me most. Sixteen percent of respondents admit to sending unsolicited pictures to shock the person who would receive it. There is something disturbing about a man wanting to shock a woman with a picture of his genitals. It’s an expression of a desire to exert power over the receiver, which is distasteful, to say the least.
Finally, the majority of men – 62% of them – who responded admitted sending unsolicited dick pics in the hope that the woman who receives them will send back a photograph of her genitals. I feel duty-bound to let these men know that that’s not how it works. Women are likely to be disturbed and upset if men send unsolicited pictures of their genitals, and really not inclined to reciprocate.
If you want to send pictures of your willies, guys, please afford the intended recipient the courtesy of ensuring that it will be a welcome photograph – and don’t expect one in return. Instead, wait until one is offered.
Here is what we need from you right now. (When I say ‘we’, I mean ‘me’ and the abused women I’ve spoken to recently.) We need you to listen to us. We need you to listen to our hurt, and our rage, and our pain. We need you to understand that, actually, this is personal. It is a personal message to every woman who has ever, or will ever, be raped or sexually assaulted – and Lord knows there’s enough of us – that we will be abused and traumatised again by the legal system if we dare to open our mouths and report the assault/s. That more worth and weight is attached to the lies of rapists than to the truths of rape victims.
Dear Decent Men, we need you to call out men (and women) of your acquaintance who say things like ‘I knew they were innocent’ – remind them that, in law, ‘not guilty’ is not the same as ‘innocent’. We need you to remind people who say that ‘Justice was done’ that there is a difference between ‘justice’ and ‘law’. We need you to remind others that laws were written for privileged men, by privileged men, to privilege privileged men.
We need you to remind those who need reminding that just because a judge is female, that doesn’t necessarily mean she is sympathetic to other women; that the legal system is a patriarchal institution, and those who are successful within it must play that game in order to be awarded success.
We need you to talk about how a jury of the accused’s peers is likely to be sympathetic to him by the very virtue of the fact that they are his peers – and not the peers of his victim. We need you to talk about how the members of the legal profession – on both sides – will have more in common with white, privileged males than with a rape victim.
We need you to let people know that you do not appreciate derogatory comments about women, and you do not want women referred to as ‘whores’, ‘bitches’, ‘sluts’, or ‘cunts’ in your hearing. We need you to state, simply, and calmly, that rape ‘jokes’ are not funny.
Dear Decent Men, we need you to make it clear that you think women deserve respect at all times; that you believe women – all women, all the time – are the only people who have a ‘right’ to their bodies: Everyone else has to ask, and that if they don’t get an enthusiastic, ongoing, non-coerced, freely-given ‘YES!’ then that’s a ‘NO!’ And ‘no’ is a complete sentence – not an invitation to do what you want anyway.
We need you to let other men know that when our vaginas hurt and are bleeding, and the pain is excruciating, that we may negotiate. We know that until a rapist climaxes, he won’t leave us alone. We know that a drunk rapist will take longer to climax than a sober one; so we offer an alternative – a hand-job or a blow-job – to make the burning, stinging, stretching, tearing pain in our vaginas, at our cervixes, at the very core of us, stop. That is not ‘offering’ to perform oral sex – it is the same thing as offering to swap one hostage for another. It is not an enthusiastic suggestion of consensual sexual activity.
Dear Decent Men, We need you to hold the space for us as we express our rage, and our fear, and our horror, and our feelings of being belittled and diminished by a system – a society – that does not value us. We need you to hold the space for us while we process our thoughts and feelings. We don’t need you to tell us things that you hope will make us feel better; that you hope will shut us up.
We need you to bear witness to our pain and suffering. We need you to acknowledge it. We need you to pledge to work with us to change a system that is so broken it is absolutely not fit for purpose. We need you to express, at every opportunity, that women deserve respect, not because we are / could be ‘someone’s sister / aunt / mother / wife / cousin / neighbour / girlfriend’ but because we are human.
With more than 25% of women reporting that they have been sexually assaulted, every midwife and birthworker will encounter a survivor of child sexual abuse (CSA) several times in her / his career.
Not everyone who has been abused will disclose to their midwife. Given that, I advise midwives, and other HCPs to treat all women as survivors until, and unless, they are told otherwise. There are a number of reasons why a woman might be fearful of disclosing to her midwife: Depending on where she is in her recovery, the woman may feel guilty about the abuse – victim-blaming is so common in society that it’s not unusual for a woman to feel this way. Often, we feel that we need to protect people from our reality, and don’t want to upset or shock our lovely midwives. There is also the additional concern that we will be labelled as ‘difficult’ or ‘needy’ or ‘defective’.
A survivor can also feel that her trauma will be minimised, misunderstood, or ignored. She may also worry that she will be told it ‘makes no difference’ or ‘it’s not relevant’. This is particularly likely if she has had these reactions on previous occasions when she has disclosed.
Pregnant women may also worry that their history of child sexual abuse will be recorded on their charts, viewed by many other people and discussed without her knowledge or permission. These days, with a mandatory reporting obligation on caregivers, women may be concerned that their abuse will be ‘broadcast’ and that they will be called upon to revisit it with other agencies. The stress of this may be something they don’t want to think about – especially not while they are pregnant.
Sometimes, a pregnancy might feel like the first time that a woman’s body has done something ‘right’ or ‘normal’, and the woman may be striving really hard to be treated as ‘normal’ throughout her pregnancy. There is always a possibility, too, that the woman may not have disclosed to her partner that she has a history of CSA. She may also be afraid of bringing up the emotional pain and stress of her abuse by mentioning it to her midwife.
Women may already have experienced reactions that left a lot to be desired with regard to the amount of empathy they were met with. Whether or not her midwife will be empathetic or knowledgeable is hard to tell on first meeting her. It can feel like a huge emotional risk for a pregnant woman to disclose her history of child sexual abuse to a stranger, even if that stranger is a medical professional. If a woman doesn’t get a sense that her information would be treated sensitively, indeed, that she wouldn’t be treated sensitively upon disclosure, she may feel safer keeping that information to herself.
(If you are a midwife or birthworker interested in learning more about how to support women who have been sexually abused, check out the details of this course, which will be available in May: http://bit.ly/2E9Be9p).
It’s also the title of a paper I presented at the SLSA (Socio-Legal Studies Association) Conference in Lancaster in 2016. If you want to read it (with the added bonus of my slides attached!), you can do so here.
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.
Forgiveness is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to – specifically with regard to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape. Forgiveness seems to be something that is as good – if not better – for the forgiver as for the forgivee.
The way forgiveness is generally talked about, it appears as if forgiving confers on the forgiver a deed to a piece of land high up on the moral ground. Forgivers are seen as morally superior, somehow. ‘Good’ people forgive. ‘Bad’ people don’t. This puts the onus back on the transgressed to do the right thing; to fix the situation. We are urged to ‘let it go’ to ‘move on’, to ‘let bygones be bygones’ to ‘be the bigger person’.
But is it really better for the person of whom forgiveness is expected to actually give that forgiveness? Is forgiveness the same as saying that whatever happened doesn’t matter? Or it doesn’t matter any more?
We’re told that holding on to the anger just hurts the transgressed – it does nothing to the transgressor. But are anger and a lack of forgiveness, and / or a refusal to forgive, the same thing?
I think the notion of forgiveness as the ‘right’ thing to do comes from religious traditions; specifically the Abrahamic religions. The idea of turning the other cheek (so that can be slapped, too), of giving your coat to someone who is suing you for your shirt is the ‘right’ thing to do; the ‘better’, the more noble thing to do. The morally superior thing to do.
I would contend that the only person you have to forgive is yourself. You don’t have to ‘forgive’ the person who hurt you, you don’t owe them anything. You do, however, owe yourself your best life. The only person you need to forgive in life is yourself. Really. You are the only person you ever have to forgive for anything. What could a person who survived child sexual abuse possibly have to forgive themselves for? We need to forgive ourselves for believing the lies we were told. We need to forgive ourselves for believing we were worth nothing. We need to forgive ourselves for hating ourselves; for turning the tyranny inwards. We need to forgive ourselves for being hard on ourselves, for expecting more of ourselves than it was possible to give or be. We need to forgive ourselves for the frustration that brings. We need to forgive ourselves for trying to love the people who were abusing us. We need to forgive ourselves for the denial of the damage that was done to us.
Other people, I feel need to ‘earn’ forgiveness. I think that can only happen when the transgressor is remorseful. There is a dyad involved here, and in order for the exercise to be effective, each must play their part. There’s also the fact that people who do not experience remorse will transgress again, simply because they do not believe that there is anything wrong with their behaviour.
What we’re looking for is peace – peace inside ourselves so that we can move forward and live our best lives, without the wrongs done to us tormenting us. Or continuing to torment us. We don’t need to forgive – in the accepted sense – in order to manifest that peace.
There have been many thoughtful blog posts, and posts on social media recently for those of us who do not have family, and for whom Christmas is not a pleasant, or a happy time. For those of us for whom abuse was a part of our every day experiences of childhood, with no days off for Christmas – or even for whom Christmas made the abuse worse – Christmas is a time we’d rather avoid.
All that said, however, many of us who have fraught relationships with toxic or dangerous families, or for whom Christmas is tinged with grief, have wonderful friends. These wonderful, thoughtful, friends often remember us, and invite us to join with them on December 25th, and 26th. Then we find ourselves, on the 28th, or so, alone with our thoughts. If we’re lucky, we will have plans for New Year’s Eve. But there are the days between Xmas day and NYE that can be even more difficult than the days of ‘celebration’ themselves. The week that lots of other people humourously refer to as ‘the lost week’ where they don’t know what day it is, and there’s still mountains of festive food knocking about can be really difficult for those of us who haven’t felt we have much to celebrate.
It’s a week for concerted self-care. For this In-between Week, I have a list of things that you can pick and choose from to make yourself feel better.
Get off social media for 24 hours (be sure to post in advance that you’re going to do this, so people don’t worry for your safety!). I love social media, but there’s a lot going on there at the moment that might make you feel more alone.
Join a park run. You don’t have to actually, run, but it can be good for you to feel your body, and feel yourself in it. Park runs are fun, free, and you don’t need to register. Just turn up.
Practice some self-appreciation. See yourself as a container for receiving good, and fill that container! By ‘appreciation’, I don’t mean ‘value’. Trying to value yourself often results in little more than either feeling squeamish, or like you’re trying to puff up your ego. Honest appreciation for what is present and true will boost your confidence in a powerful and authentic way. Honest appreciation is specific, both in what it is appreciating, and how it words that appreciation. Remember, appreciation is a gift you receive into your heart.
Paint. Even if you don’t, do.
Put some thought into buying a beautiful gift for someone – something you know they’d love, but would never get for themselves. If you don’t fancy braving the crowds in the sales, do the shopping online. In this exercise, though, that ‘someone’ is you.
Plant something. Tend it, and look forward to it blooming. Give it what it needs, when it needs it. If you don’t know how to grow things, read up, or ask a green-thumbed friend. Treat it the way you should have been treated.
Every time your brain presents you with memories that you don’t need, thank them for showing up, but tell them it’s time to go.
Make sandwiches, or buy biscuits and / or chocolate, and drop them into a soup run. There are several organised throughout the week and they are always grateful to receive donations.
Download Borrowbox, and check out an audiobook. This app works even when the library is closed. There is something lovely about having a book read to you.
Make a list of the films that are the celluloid version of comfort food to you. Watch them.
Read some contemporary poetry, or get on YouTube and enjoy some spoken-word artists.
Have a guilt-free duvet day.
Print off some kids’ colouring pages from the Internet (unless you have a colouring book to hand) and colour them in. Don’t worry about the lines. Just enjoy yourself.
Change the sheets on your bed.
Go through your wardrobe, chuck out anything that doesn’t fit / you don’t like / you haven’t worn for at least three months. Remind yourself of what’s in there that you actually like, and that you know looks well on you.
About a month ago, I posted on Twitter using the ‘Me Too’ and ‘Maternity Care’ hashtags. Quite a few people got in touch to say that they found the advice I offered useful. A number of women contacted me privately to say that they found my tweets validating and reassuring. A few fathers also sent me messages to let me know that they witnessed the mothers of their children experiencing issues around their treatment and they realised, having read my tweets, that these reactions and issues were directly related to the abuse they had suffered as children.
In the hopes that these words will reach – and help – more people, I’m posting them here, as well.
Sexual abuse is endemic. Treat ALL women as survivors until they tell you otherwise. Err on the side of caution.
Continuity of care is best for women in order to build trust. We are extra vulnerable when pregnant, birthing, and in the peri-natal period.
Before labour, ask if we have special requests for during labour – places not to touch, words not to use, etc.
Call us by our names. Not ‘Love’ or ‘Sweetheart’. Abusers rarely use our names. Don’t diminish our personhood.
Never, ever use the phrase ‘good girl’. We’re not girls. We’re women. Most of us were abused by people who used the phrase ‘good girl’ while they were abusing us.
Don’t use nursery / childish language around us. That can be triggering.
Don’t tell us to do something, eg ‘pop up on the bed’. Ask if we’d like to – explain why.
Accept ‘no’ as an answer – don’t try and cajole or persuade us to turn our ‘no’ to a ‘yes’.
Never tell us you’re going to do something. Ask permission. Our bodies belong to us, even when we’re birthing.
Never perform a VE unless it’s necessary (hint: it’s *never* necessary.
Be aware that our physiological responses may be different. EG we often pause dilation at about 4cms. Don’t rush with interventions because we are taking ‘too long’. Trust us. Trust our bodies.
After birth, breastfeeding – no matter how much we want to – may be extremely triggering. Have compassion.
I offer workshops based on trauma-informed care to birth workers, based on my own experiences, and my academic research, (and the fact that I was Ireland’s first practicing doula!). If you’d like details, please get in touch.
The seeds for today not being A Good Day were sown last night, just after 6pm. That’s when the first thing went wrong. This morning, we were up and had left the house before 7.30. By 9.00am, the second thing had gone wrong. Things kept going wrong until 9.41am. By 10am, seven things had gone wrong – including the first thing that went wrong last night. By 10.13am, we thought we were back on track. Then something else went wrong. This is Thing Number Eight. It was too much.
I couldn’t. I repeated that about 14 or 15 times ‘I can’t! I can’t! I can’t!’
Tears. Sobbing. Overwhelm.
The kindness of strangers.
The unexpected kindness of strangers.
The compassion of those who chose not to look the other way.
The unexpected compassion of strangers who chose to help.
The ninth thing went wrong. The ninth thing going right had been contingent on at least the eighth thing going right.
I was upset that the ninth thing went wrong. I knew I’d let my eldest daughter down because the ninth thing went wrong. But nobody died. We were all safe.
Later, the day (sort of) got back on track. I reflected on The Bad Day and realised that it had, actually, been a Good Bad Day: It took eight things before I felt overwhelmed. Eight. A year ago, one of those things would have overwhelmed me. A year ago, one of those thing would have incapacitated me. A year ago, I would still – twelve hours later – not have recovered. Today, it took less than an hour.
Today, I listened to what the voice in my head was saying. As I cried in the car after dropping my girls to school, I heard it. It said ‘I feel like a failure. I hate feeling like a failure.’ For the first time ever, it was saying ‘I feel like a failure’ and not ‘I am a failure.’
For all that they are real and valid, feelings are feelings; feelings aren’t facts. I was able to hear that I was acknowledging how I felt, rather than telling myself an absolute. This is progress.
A year ago, I’d have spun down a spiral that is hugely difficult to spin back up. In fact, I’ve never spun back up – I’ve only ever managed to crawl back up; slowly, on my hands and knees. Today, I was able to talk myself back from the first step on the spiral.
I felt dispirited, I felt like I had not won Wednesday, I felt frustrated, I felt powerless, I felt I had let my kids down. But I also felt like I could recover.
And I did.
Small victories, but victories none the less – and I have learned to celebrate my wins where I find them. Or where they find me.
Several things went wrong for me today – but they didn’t defeat me, the way they would have a few months ago. I’m learning. I’m learning self-compassion. I’m learning that sometimes, things just happen, and they’re not my fault. I’m learning that I don’t have to beat myself up when life doesn’t go according to plan. That’s what made today a Good Bad Day.
The Irish Government has said that there isn’t enough money in the coffers for a new SAVI report. The last one was produced in 2002.
A new SAVI Report is vital in order to get an idea of the current beliefs, attitudes, and – crucially – experiences of men and women in Ireland. Significantly for me, my eldest daughter was born in 2002, which means it’s very easy for me to remember that year. It’s not just nearly 16 years ago, it is a very real year for me. It means I can easily pinpoint 2002 in my memory, and compare and contrast now with then.
I am aware of how much technology has changed since then; how simultaneously enabling and disabling it is. I am aware of how much our attitudes towards sex and sexuality have changed since that year. I am aware that people are more aware, and more articulate around, sex, sexuality, and their sexual experiences now than they were then. I am aware that people who were young children in 2002 are now fully-grown adults. I am also aware that people who were young children in 2002, and who were being abused then, are now fully-grown adults who may, or may not, have ever had the opportunity to disclose and discuss their experiences. We need to capture this data.
We need to capture this data in order to inform policy, practice, and funding for people and services who care for those of us who are affected by sexual assault and abuse. We need to be visible and vocal about the fact that we are gathering this data so the people who are directly affected by it feel, and are, heard.
To commission a new SAVI Report would cost approximately €1m. The government has claimed they don’t have the budget. They do, however, have €64m for Irish Racing; they also have €16 for greyhound racing; they found an extra €500,000 for National Parks; and, of course, Leo the Liar easily found €5m for his own spin doctors
All of that tells us that sexually abused and assaulted children, women, and men in Ireland are worth less to this government than racing horses, bloodsports, trees, and Leo’s own personal public relations unit. As if our self-esteem hadn’t taken enough of a battering already.
I haven’t been thinking about failure as much as I used to. I used to wake up every morning, and feel paralysed by – among other things – a sense of failure. I felt I’d failed my children by not giving them a better life. I spent literally hours beating myself up for failing them. I felt they deserved more. Here’s a partial list of what I felt they deserved (and that I wasn’t giving them):
A better life. I couldn’t quite define what that ‘better life’ might look like, but I was sure it wasn’t the one they were living.
A country other than Ireland to live in. I had a horrible childhood in Ireland. I wanted better for my children. I felt awfully guilty for bringing them (under duress, but still) to Ireland instead of staying in Asia.
A bigger house. We could do with at least one extra room – I dream of a library / study / creative area. And bigger rooms. I’d like them to have bigger bedrooms. Preferably in the city centre. (Hey, if you’re going to beat yourself up – you might as well use the heaviest stick you can find!)
An extended family that wasn’t filled with abusive people, so they could have safe relationships.
Then, one day, when I was apologising to them for their lack, they gently disabused me of my notion of failure. You see, I was measuring what I thought they wanted against what I wanted for them, and believing I was right. I was wrong. Dismantling my list above, the girls made the following points:
In much the same way as I was vague about what their ‘better’ life might look like, they couldn’t describe it, either. They are happy.
They actually like living in Ireland. This seemed like such an absurd idea, that it never occurred to me as a possibility. Their experiences are not mine – they are not living a duplication of my life, just because they are living in the same geographical area. They have spent enough time in Asia to tell me that they don’t want to live there. They like visiting well enough, but they see Asia as ‘my’ place, rather than theirs (even though they are the ones with Indian blood!)
‘I love our house!’ they both exclaimed when I suggested they might not be delighted living here. More to the point, we are all very, very grateful to have a roof over our heads. Especially when there is a desperate housing crisis in Ireland at the moment, and one-parent families are disproportionately reflected in the homeless figures. I’ve been homeless, and it’s not fun. And, sure, there are houses we pass, and areas we pass through that we exclaim over and that allow us to imagine what it would be like to live there. It’s nice to have dreams. You don’t, however, have to realise every single one of them.
As they have gotten older, I have told my children more and more about my own history, as it is appropriate for them to know it, and as they have been able to assume the information. They don’t want to have anything to do with the people who abuse me. They have plenty of wonderful people in their lives – a richly diverse gang of men, women, and children from all backgrounds who share their lives.
I was astonished. I hadn’t realised that the girls were, and are, quite content to live in Ireland. We travel enough that they have experienced other places and cultures and aren’t insular and parochial in their outlook. They have travelled enough to know that they love travelling, but – equally – they love returning to this house, in this village, in this country. Unlike their mother, my children have a sense of ‘home’,
I’ve also beaten myself up, on a regular basis, for appearing to fail in so many other ways. Most obvious, is my failure to perform as this patriarchal, capitalist society insists I must in order to be a ‘success’.
Recently, however, I have realised a few things. I can make a living and be aligned with my own values. Crucial to this realisation have been three people: Meg Kissack, Karen McAllister, and Prudence Moneypenny. I’ve added these women – and the people they connect me with – to my team.
I’ve also realised that the only person I can truly ‘fail’ is myself. I fail myself by acting in ways that are not aligned with my purpose, my beliefs, and my values. I fail myself by trying to fit into a box that was never meant to contain me. I fail myself by denying what I bring to the party – by not acknowledging the value I can add to this world and the experiences of those who live in it.
Failing, I have realised, is not not doing everything by myself. Failing is not seeking and / or accepting help. Recognising true help can be tricky – often, I have found, the people who say they have your best interests at heart, really only have their own best interests at heart.
Finally, I have realised that part of my purpose may well be to allow others to do what they do best. That means accepting help that is offered if it supports me, and is aligned with my own beliefs and values.
If you feel you’re failing, I’d respectfully suggest that you’re really not.
A few years ago, I went to visit my friend, June. I wanted to bring her a gift, but rejected the obvious – wine, flowers, chocolates – in favour of a colouring book. She was delighted.
About a year later, ‘mindful’ colouring books, and ‘adult’ colouring books became a ‘thing’.
I liked the idea of grabbing myself a colouring book or two and calming myself with a bit of colouring. The first one I bought was full of mosaics. It drove me mad. There were so many little bits of it. It was abandoned. I got another. Its pages were filled with intricate pictures awaiting colour. I couldn’t give them what they were waiting for. They remained monochrome.
The pages of the ‘mindful’ and ‘adult’ colouring books that I bought, or considered buying, filled me with anxiety. I could feel it rising. The sections were too small. They didn’t scream ‘fun’, they screamed ‘task’. I have enough tasks I was looking for something to enjoy – in a similar way to how I enjoy knitting. It is repetitive, meditative, and soothing. These colouring books were not stirring the same emotions.
Then I remembered Kalkitos, and how much I’d enjoyed that, as a child. I also loved stickers, and using them to make pictures with. I couldn’t find any Kalkitos, but I did find a sticker book for adults. It was filled with tiny flower-stickers, and other tiny stickers. I was tempted, but couldn’t part with £12.99 to buy a book that didn’t fill me with excitement.
Then, I had a brainwave. Why was I so hung up on adult versions? Hadn’t I enjoyed colouring books as a child? So, why was I looking at adult colouring books?
I came home with this:
Which had the added bonus of these:
I was delighted. This little book, and the stickers in it, filled me with joy, and anticipation, and excitement.
Colouring might well be a good tool for improving your mental health. Like any other tool, however, you need to make sure you have the right one. Don’t feel you need a ‘grown-up’ version of something that used to bring you joy when you were a child. Think of comfort food; if a toasted cheese sandwich was what made you feel safe and loved when you were little, then avocado toast with a sprinkling of pink Himalayan salt and a light dusting of cracked black pepper isn’t going to revive that feeling. Go with what it feels right to use, rather than what you think you should be using.
Today is World Mental Health Day – a day when we’re supposed to reflect on our own mental health, and how we care for it.
I think that World Mental Health Awareness Day might be a more appropriate name, but I don’t get to decide these things. I suppose the fact that the day is named and acknowledged at all means that there is awareness brought to mental health. Not so long ago, people in Ireland didn’t mention mental health at all. It was stigmatised almost as much as being an unmarried mother. And that’s saying something.
Sadly, both states – being a lone mother, and having mental health difficulties – are still stigmatised in today’s Ireland. It’s no wonder that so many women who parent alone report having mental health difficulties. As a proud member of the steering group of S.P.A.R.K., I conducted research among our members and will be presenting my findings at our First National Conference on November 3rd, next.
Campaigns such as the Green Ribbon Campaign have certainly helped get people talking, but it’s not enough to get adults talking to each other about how they are feeling. We need to give our children the language to talk about their emotions, too, and – just as importantly – we need to listen. I am often struck by how the reaction to our high rates of suicide among young men, our response is to encourage them to talk. I honestly feel that that’s a case of ‘too little, too late’. As a nation, we spend their entire formative years telling our children to ‘shut up’, to ‘be quiet’, to ‘speak when they’re spoken to’, to ‘mind their own business’ when they ask questions, to do things ‘because I say so’, to ‘stop crying’ when they are upset etc. etc. How can we, then, reasonably expect these same children – when they are teenagers and adolescents – to talk about how they are feeling?
I must also point out that it’s all very well encouraging people to have conversations, to open up about their mental health, and to stop hiding how they really feel, but it’s a bit irresponsible if there isn’t also information around how to receive and react to the information once it has been expressed. What should you do or say to someone who reveals, in the course of a conversation, that they do want to die? Or even that they are teetering on the edge of a depression? Or that their anxiety is so bad that they aren’t sure they’ll be able to make it home from work?
Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems we have with regard to mental and emotional health and their effective treatment is access to appropriate supports. In Ireland, a child in acute crisis (eg at risk of dying by suicide) could be waiting months to be seen by a member of the CAMHS – the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. That’s if they’re lucky. Thankfully, Pieta House will see those who are suicidal much, much quicker. Adult services aren’t much better – with just six sessions of ‘talking therapy’ being offered to medical card holders in crisis; preceded, of course, by a good long wait on a waiting list. For those who would benefit from therapies such as CBT or DBT, a catchment area lottery applies. You may or may not be offered a treatment that has good success rates for your particular difficulty if it is not provided by the HSE in your area. This is hardly a person-centric model of care.
Even with a sympathetic GP, the help and support vista around mental health is rather grim. GPs often have little to offer beyond chemical intervention (pills don’t suit everyone, and the side-effects can be horrific; including increased anxiety and suicidal ideation), and general advice to exercise, drink less alcohol and caffeine, and avoid stressful situations.
I’m not saying anything new. I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. I’m just bringing attention (again) to the dire state of mental health services and care in Ireland, and the damage lack of access to care brings to the lives of those suffering.