The Long Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse (Lecture Notes)

This post is a response to a question on Twitter the other night: Someone asked if there had been any work done on the long-term effects of child sexual abuse. I responded that I have a lecture I give that addresses just that. And I said I’d share my lecture notes. Here they are.

Physical Health Consequences of Child Sexual Abuse

I come with a health warning: you all know that child sexual abuse is far from sexy – it’s a difficult topic. You know that, you’re here because of that. Still, though, some of what I come out with in the next few minutes might touch a nerve. And if it does, please feel free to leave. Good self-care is essential for all of us.

When I first sat down last week to write this paper. I flexed my typing fingers, and said aloud,

‘Now, what should I tell these medical students?’

My daughter was in the room, and she responded:

‘Be kind.’

I think that’s a good place to start.

Meeting patients and clients with kindness is the least – and at the same time, the most – you can do for them. I know that’s probably so obvious a statement that many of you may be irked by it. Still, I think it’s also important enough to bear repeating. The most basic act of kindness, however, we need, as health professionals, is to listen to the people we care for – and to listen with all our senses to what they are telling us. This is where language is important. As medics, you have a language that enables you to speak to each other – to other medical professionals and healthcare providers. That language is often exclusionary to non-medics and it might be useful to be mindful of that when you’re talking to people who don’t have the benefit of your knowledge and education.

Apart from my academic qualifications, I’m also standing in front of you as a survivor of child sexual abuse. I was sexually abused by my father and my two eldest brothers for a total of 15 years. I was trafficked by my father until I was nearly 6 and ‘too old’ for that particular set of child abusers.

 
I was also – as is common among survivors – re-victimised countless times as a teenager, and a young adult, in my marriages and other intimate relationships. And I want to take a moment to explain that to you, because it can be difficult for people to understand how abused people can end up in situations where they are abused again. And again. I’ve heard – and you probably have, too, that it’s because abuse is what we know, and, therefore, what we gravitate towards. I’d argue that that’s a bit reductive – that revictimization is not quite that simple. People with histories of sexual abuse tend to be revictimized for a few reasons:

  1. This is one I first came across in Don Hennessey’s 2012 book ‘How He Gets Into Her Head’. Don is Director of the National Domestic Violence Intervention Agency, and he has observed that abused women are kind. And that kindness sees them (us) give second, third, and fourth, chances to people who hurt us.
  2. Our boundaries are very porous, to say the least, so we’re not always sure when we’re being treated badly, until it’s too late. I used to explain it to myself by saying that I was always wonderful at seeing the tail-lights, but rubbish at seeing the headlights.
  3. Abusive men are very manipulative. They know which buttons to press to active our guilt. One of the lines I’ve heard more than several times is ‘I’m being punished for another man’s crimes!’ or some variation on that theme. Why? So that they can get their own way.
  4. Closely linked to that point, is the way we feel we need to be fair. So, we ignore our previous experience in order to be ‘fair’ to the person we’re with. Often, compromising our duty to be ‘fair’ to ourselves.
  5. Perhaps the sum off all these things is Instinct. As abused children, we stop paying attention to our instinct, because to do so would be dangerous. By the time we’re older children, or teenagers, we have forgotten what our instinct sounds – or feels – like, so we can’t pay attention to it. That’s a skill we need to re-learn.

What is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse according to TUSLA

Sexual abuse occurs when a child is used by another person for his or her gratification or arousal, or for that of others. It includes the child being involved in sexual acts (masturbation, fondling, oral or penetrative sex) or exposing the child to sexual activity directly or through pornography.

Child sexual abuse may cover a wide spectrum of abusive activities. It rarely involves just a single incident and in some instances occurs over a number of years. Child sexual abuse most commonly happens within the family, including older siblings and extended family members.

Examples of child sexual abuse include the following:

  • Any sexual act intentionally performed in the presence of a child
  • An invitation to sexual touching or intentional touching or molesting of a child’s body whether by a person or object for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification
  • Masturbation in the presence of a child or the involvement of a child in an act of masturbation
  • Sexual intercourse with a child, whether oral, vaginal or anal
  • Sexual exploitation of a child, which includes:
    • Inviting, inducing or coercing a child to engage in prostitution or the production of child pornography [for example, exhibition, modelling or posing for the purpose of sexual arousal, gratification or sexual act, including its recording (on film, videotape or other media) or the manipulation, for those purposes, of an image by computer or other means]
    • Inviting, coercing or inducing a child to participate in, or to observe, any sexual, indecent or obscene act
    • Showing sexually explicit material to children, which is often a feature of the ‘grooming’ process by perpetrators of abuse
  • Exposing a child to inappropriate or abusive material through information and communication technology
  • Consensual sexual activity involving an adult and an underage person.

I have a huge problem with this last element of the definition. A child is, under law, incapable of giving consent. So, ‘a person who can’t consent’ can’t consent, so this is a bit problematic, to say the least.

Statistics

The last time there was any sort of national study undertaken in Ireland to figure out the prevalence of child sexual abuse was in 2002 – the SAVI Report – and it told us that 27% of the population of Ireland reported having been sexually abused before the age of 18.

Dr Rosaleen McElvaney, produced a paper a few years ago that disputed this – and she and her co-author on that piece, Kevin Lalor – are of the belief that it’s probably closer to 1 in 3.

But whether you accept one in three or one in four, you’re still talking about a huge number of people. A large percentage of the people that you come into contact in the course of your every day personal and professional lives will have survived child sexual abuse.

One of the things I do is train midwives and other birthworkers in trauma-informed care for women who were sexually abused; and I advise them to treat every woman they encounter as a survivor of child sexual abuse until they are told otherwise. Not everybody who has been sexually abused will feel comfortable disclosing. Often, people won’t even be aware that their symptoms are attributable to their abuse.

Several things can be attributed to the trauma of abuse that may not be immediately obvious: For example, I cannot remember the last time I went to bed and just went to sleep ‘like a normal person’. I have to bring a book, or the laptop with some work, or Netflix, or – sometimes half a Xanax – because I can’t just drop off. This isn’t unique to me – Greenfield et al (2011) conducted a national survey in the US that found a direct correlation between child abuse and difficulty sleeping as an adult. You don’t have to be a specialist to figure out why – any ideas?

I also suffer with chronic, severe migraines, and by severe, I mean Difene shots, and an anti-emetic if I don’t get Imigran squirted up my nostril quickly enough. Sometimes, a migraine has resulted in my staying in hospital for three days, on stroke watch.

But it’s not just me, researchers have found a link between child sexual abuse and migraines. (Tietjen and Peterlin, 2011; Brennenstuhl and Fuller-Thomson, 2015). The American Headache Society cites several studies demonstrating that childhood abuse makes migraines more likely to develop in later life (American Migraine Foundation, 2013). You won’t be surprised to learn that the more severe the abuse, the stronger the link between it, and migraines.

The reason appears to be that chronic maltreatment in early life alters the brain’s response to stress.

A study of inflammatory blood tests suggests a mechanism for the link. In this study, adults showed higher levels of biomarkers in the bloodstream when they had been exposed to abuse in childhood. Sexual abuse has also been strongly associated with the migraine-depression phenotype if the abuse first occurred before the age of 12 years (Kaleağasi et al., 2009).

I’m not suggesting that you ask every person who presents with a migraine whether or not they have been sexually abused, but it might be no harm to be aware of the links, and to – perhaps – mention them if, and when, it feels appropriate.

PAIN

I think it’s important to note that CSA can affect people’s perception of their own pain: Dissociation often means that we don’t properly ‘live’ in our bodies. If that makes sense? Somatic integration can be something that doesn’t easily occur for us. It can, therefore, take a bit longer for us to get back into our bodies and explain where, and how something hurts. Logging into our bodies can take a few minutes; which means that, as medics, you may need to exercise a bit of patience with people who seem to be taking forever to tell you what hurts and where. In addition, because we’ve grown up in pain, our thresholds may be higher than other, non-abused, people.  We can be a bit stoic, and a bit careless, with our own health and healthcare.

Broken Toe!

As an example, about ten years ago, I broke my toe. I knew it was broken because the pain of it made me cry. That’s my diagnostic tool, by the way – if a pain makes me cry, it means the offending bone is broken. Anyway, this was January, and I decided I couldn’t face hours in A&E waiting to be told what I already knew – that the toe was broken. So I left it. I was convinced that the two bits of bone would eventually kiss and make up, or a new piece of bone would grow and bridge the gap.

Now, in case you were in any doubt, I clearly don’t have a medical degree….Anyway, by May of that year, when things were still slightly uncomfortable in the general shoe area, I decided it was time to see a doctor. This was prompted, in part, by the fact that I was flying out to India for four months at the end of May: I thought it might be an idea to get the offending digit checked before I left in case things got suddenly worse, and I was over in India, and it suddenly determined that I needed surgery or something, and I had no one to mind my kids. So I hoiked myself off to Tallaght and sat around with a good book until an X-ray and a consultation confirmed that my toe was, in fact, still broken.

My rudimentary – no, sorry! – my non-existent medical training meant that my assumptions of magical healing were based on nothing other than wishful thinking; and my willingness to walk around with a broken toe for nearly half a year points to a deficit in appreciation of pain and its usefulness. 

A more obvious physical side-effect is the effect that being sexually abused had on my reproductive ability. I married young, and tried to start a family immediately. Sadly, because I was so young, doctors didn’t take my infertility seriously. I lived in Singapore at the time and I remember remarking bitterly – but still correctly – to my doctor that if I was trying to end a pregnancy, I’d get more help than I was getting while trying to start one. When I eventually found a doctor prepared to investigate, it was discovered that as well as polycystic ovaries, I had a condition known as hydrosalpinx: which basically meant that my fallopian tubes had fused closed – which is neither a congenital nor a genetic occurrence, and a number of doctors indicated to me that it was a result of abuse. In order for me to conceive, my tubes needed to be opened up, and stitched in place. I also had severe endometriosis. After my first round of surgery, I remember the gynaecologist asking me why I’d never said I was in such extreme pain. I hadn’t realised I was in pain. I thought that was just normal.

I did eventually have children and of course, childbirth was profoundly affected by my experiences of sexual abuse. Although my children were born abroad, and in my bedroom, with people who were in attendance by invitation only, the experience of childbirth was still fraught with difficulty. Part of the problem is ignorance, on behalf of birth attendants – whether they are doulas, midwives, doctors, or nurses – around the profound effect that a history of child sexual abuse can have on women. And it’s not just the obvious difficulties around being touched or having procedures performed on us.

For example, women who were sexually abused as children will often, in labour, ‘stop’ at 4cms dilation (Simkin and Klaus, 2011). Labour can actually go backwards, as well, with the cervix closing up again a centimetre or two.

It’s not hard to understand why; but a caregiver who doesn’t know that abuse can cause labour to stop, or reverse, is unlikely to react in a supportive way. It’s possibly useful to note that people who have a history of child abuse have been trained to be compliant. This means, we will often agree to something that we don’t necessarily want to do, in order not to upset the person who is doing the asking, or so we don’t get into trouble. It might, therefore, be worth asking ‘are you sure?’, rather than taking the first ‘yes’ or ‘no’ that you get.

Mammograms, too, can be difficult for women who have been sexually abused as children. Another person touching a woman’s breasts can be triggering, even if it’s for medicinal or diagnostic purposes.

Then there is the dreaded smear. For women without a history of abuse, a smear test is a non-issue. It’s like a trip to the dentist; not something they look forward to, but something they will do as part of looking after themselves, and as preventative, and diagnostic healthcare. For those of us who have been sexually abused, it can bring on an anxiety, or panic attack, it can be triggering, it can be so difficult that many women chose to go without.

I have suggested to the Irish Cancer Society that it might be useful to look at changing how smears and mammograms are offered to women; for example, having SATU-trained nurses deployed in key centres around the county so that women survivors of CSA have access to the kind of consideration and care they need. Small things really can make a difference.

The same can happen around pregnancy – getting pregnant and staying that way. For women who have been abused, the difficulties around conception include everything from receiving fertility treatment to ante-natal appointments and the actual delivery itself. Continuity of care helps, as does a little bit of kindness and understanding.

I have a few tips that work well to ameliorate the difficulties women survivors of CSA can encounter around obs / gynae issues. I won’t go into them here, because of time constraints, and I know you’re not all planning on heading down the Obs-gynae route, but I will send them on to Simon and he can put them up on your version of Loop or Moodle.

Disclosure

In your professional lives, you may find yourselves on the receiving end of disclosure. And that can be very difficult. It’s hard to know what to say to someone, and it can also be really difficult if you are a survivor yourself, or you’re close to someone who is.

I know I said this earlier, but sexual abuse is endemic. Err on the side of caution, and treat all women as survivors until they tell you otherwise.

  1. 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.
  2. If a woman insists on a C-section, listen to that. She may have a much better reason than being ‘too posh to push’. Fear of birth and birthing, of being exposed and vulnerable – particularly in a non-familiar setting (like a hospital) – is understandable in any woman. Even more so in a woman who has lived through CSA.
  3. Always ask for permission before touching a woman – never assume that your clinical judgement trumps her lived experience.
  4. Call us by our names. Not ‘Love’ or ‘Sweetheart’. Abusers rarely use our names. Please don’t diminish our personhood.
  5. 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, to get us to comply.
  6. Please don’t use nursery / childish language around us. That can be triggering.
  7. Don’t tell us to do something, for example, ‘pop up on the bed’. Ask if we’d like to, and explain why you think it is best / necessary.
  8. Accept ‘no’ as an answer – don’t try and cajole, or persuade us to turn our ‘no’ into a ‘yes’.
  9. Never tell us you’re going to do something. Ask permission. Our bodies belong to us, even when we’re birthing.
  10. Never perform a VE unless it’s necessary (hint: during labour, it’s never necessary).
  11. Be aware that our physiological responses may be different to other women’s, and / or to what’s ‘expected’.
  12. Don’t rush with interventions because we’re taking ‘too long’. Trust us. Trust our bodies.
  13. After birth, breastfeeding – no matter how much we want to – may be extremely triggering. Have compassion.

Sticking with the subject of infertility, sometimes women avoid sexual contact, even though they deeply desire a child because of the brutality of orgasms. (link here to the piece I reference: https://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/stories/sexual-abuse-colored-view-men/)

So – what do we do or say when someone discloses?

Well, here’s what not to say: (On the Slide)

Three little words – I believe you – to start with, then something like this: (Next Slide!)

And be prepared, that if someone discloses to you, and you react well, they might continue to disclose. You’re not likely to get a linear, start-to-finish account, but you might get a tentative ‘I have a history of abuse, so this might be hard for me.’

Coming back to the idea of no part of the body being unaffected by CSA, here’s a bit of a list:

Cancer

This probably seems less obvious, but in an interesting study published in 2016 by Alcalá points to connections between child abuse and cancer. Unfortunately, research into the links is plagued by three inter-related issues:

  1. There is no agreement as to what actions constitute abuse, and how abuse types – physical, sexual, and emotional – are distinct or inter-related.
  2. Analytic strategies limit the types of conclusions that can be drawn because of how they treat or measure abuse and related concepts and
  3. Few theories exist to explain the connection between abuse and cancer.

That said, Coker et at (2009) and Afifi et al (2016), find that reporting sexual abuse is associated with increased odds of reporting cancer – but little work has been done around understanding which types of cancer are related to abuse, and what the potential mediators of this relationship might be. Of course, it’s complicated because abuse is related to lower educational achievement, higher unemployment levels and lower earnings.

These socio-economic factors are also associated with higher risk of some cancers (Banks et al, 2006). Then, of course, we’ve got to consider the fact that sexual abuse can lead to very early exposure to HPV; not just as children, but as a result of the documented risky behaviour that sexually abused people often engage in. This leads to persistent infection, and – therefore – an elevated risk for cervical cancers. Now, if you bear in mind the aversion that sexually abused women have, or can have, to smear tests, you can see that these factors combined push us into the high-risk group.

Bessel Van Der Kolk and Suzanne O’Sullivan have both written extensively about the links between mental and emotional trauma – in particular, but not exclusively, the trauma of CSA – and physical trauma. Van Der Kolk is a psycho-therapist, and O’Sullivan is a neuro-surgeon. Both have found that people presenting with ‘unexplained’ physical difficulties can – upon psychological excavation – find an explanation for these difficulties; and it’s rooted in trauma. Not wanting to sound like a disciple of ‘woo’, but their findings, which make perfect sense to me, indicate that the energy trauma that is not dealt with has to go somewhere, so it invades the body, and presents as physical symptoms. Of course the physical trauma, or pain, or disease, is real, but its origins are not obviously in the physical body.

The Icelandic Research centre has conducted research on women who were sexually abused as children and found correlations between sexual abuse and myriad physical diseases and disorders. CSA survivors report complex physical symptoms without medical explanations, such as stomach ache, colon cramp digestion dysfunction and infection; cardiac arrhythmia, angina and hypertension; dizziness, fainting, glandular dysfunction, problems with the lymphatic and nervous systems, and chronic fatigue. They have had problems with sleep since childhood, and six have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia / ME.

All the women participants have suffered unexplained pain in various parts of the body. All have some kind of eating disorder, and some of them have used alcohol to try to ease their emotional pain. One of their case-studies, a woman called Heather has been very ill and has had many of the symptoms of a dying person; her oxygen levels fell, the lungs were not functioning well, there were disturbances in nerve function and the heart, as if all bodily functions were slowing down. Extensive medical examinations yielded no results (Sigurdardottir, & Hallsorsdottir, 2013).

Mental Health

The most profound difficulties I have, however, are without doubt the ones that affect my mental health. I have recently accepted diagnoses for anxiety, and complex post traumatic stress – which occurs when a person is exposed to emotional trauma over a long period of time, and over which they have no control, and from which there is little or no hope of escape. 

Again, having a diagnosis helps me to understand why I feel, and react, the way I do to certain circumstances – and, indeed, people.

Anxiety, for its part, isn’t just being a bit nervous, it’s a physical sensation in my solar plexus that paralyses me. It feels as though a fear like molten-lead has been poured into my core; rendering me terrified to move, and irrationally worried for the people in my life that I love most.  It cripples me. It also heightens my emotional responses to things and makes me (feel as though I) become an emotion – rather than just experience an emotion.

In case you start to think that I’m blaming my abuse for everything that ever happened to me, I’d just like to mention that there is empirical evidence for this. A 2012 study by Roberto Maniglio found that child sexual abuse is very much a risk factor for anxiety disorders. His research points to the fact that PTD is more related to child sexual abuse than other anxiety disorders. Male victims are at the same risk as their female counterparts. The risk of developing anxiety, interestingly isn’t linked to the severity of the abuse, or the age of onset. He also found that alterations in brain structure or function information processing biases, parental anxiety disorders family dysfunction, and other forms of child abuse may interact with CSA or act independently to cause anxiety disorders in victims.

What he doesn’t address is how early in life we can expect anxiety to manifest in victims, but that may also be due, in part, to how infrequently – until recently – children were diagnosed with anxiety.

I also spent years self-harming, and I have to confess I adored the sense of psychic relief that the physical pain brought. I was self-harming before the phrase was in use, and the word used back in the 1990s was ‘cutter’ and my goodness, did I apply myself to living up to that title.

My favourite target was my breasts – the most obvious ‘cause’, to my teenaged mind, of my abuse. Part of me thought that if I could just perform a DIY mastectomy, no one would ever sexually assault me, or rape me again. Cysts have formed under the scar tissue of where I cut myself, and sometimes get painful, so there’s another long-term side effect that you don’t automatically associate with child sexual abuse.

Years later, though, I was so glad I hadn’t been successful in chopping my own breasts off. Not only did I breastfeed my own two girls – my youngest until she was five and a half, I contributed daily for over a year to the human milk bank in Fermanagh – helping hundreds of children in the process. I mention this not because I think it makes me a better person, but because it was hugely useful in my own healing journey: My body suddenly doing something ‘right’ suddenly being ‘useful’, suddenly being helpful to others because I chose it to be was empowering.

The other thing I’m really glad I didn’t manage to do was kill myself. I was seven when I learnt the word ‘suicide’, and understood that it described what I’d been trying to do to myself. Suicidal ideation never really left me until October of 2016. I won’t go into details here – for no other reason than it’s a long story…

But October was significant for me, not least because I was so calm about what I saw as my impending death; I saw no way I could make things better. No way that I could improve my situation. No way that I could feel better about myself and the life I was living. I was so overwhelmed by everything. I couldn’t find a way out, and I really didn’t want to.  I’d just had enough. I wasn’t sad. I was relieved. Relieved that I had an ‘end date’ in sight. I found I didn’t have the energy, or the desire, or the commitment to my own life, to keep going.

Just as I was getting my affairs in order, small, positive changes started to take place, in quick succession. Maybe it was just pure, dumb, luck, maybe it was Divine Intervention, maybe it was nothing more than coincidence. I’m not going to analyse it too carefully – I’m just glad I’m still here.

But, on that occasion, I didn’t engage with the traditional mental health services, or with my GP, or other medical professionals. On previous occasions, however, I did – and I found that I frustrated the doctors who saw me: Whether that was my own GP or a psychiatrist in a nearby hospital. I didn’t present as expected. I was lucid, logical, crying, but not sobbing. Crying in a way that it appeared my eyes were just leaking, rather than I was ‘upset’. It appeared that there was an incongruity between my words – I was very clearly saying ‘I want to die’, but my body, my demeanour didn’t seem to be translating that in a way that the doctors had been taught, or trained to expect. I can be a challenge, I accept that.

Afterwards, however, after I’d been sent home and after I’d regained a sense of ‘let’s give this living crack another go’, I thought about my experience, and I realised something that could have made a very significant difference very easily, and very early on.

If one person had, rather than ‘what’s wrong with you?’ asked ‘what happened to you?’ the outcome of that particular episode might have been very different. My anguish – if I had felt invited to explain myself, invited to be heard – might well have been diminished quicker, easier, and in a safe, supportive environment.

Still, I survived. And, as I said I’m glad I did. And I’m glad I’m here. I’m glad to be here. Glad to be able to share some of my story with you. Glad to be able to stand here and say to every person in this room who has ever been affected by child sexual abuse; well done. You made it. You’re here, too. And you are not alone. You are never alone.

References

Alcalá, H.E. 2016, “Making the connection between child abuse and cancer: Definitional, methodological, and theoretical issues”, Social Theory & Health, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 458-874.

Brennenstuhl, S. and Fuller-Thomson, E. (2015). The Painful Legacy of Childhood Violence: Migraine Headaches Among Adult Survivors of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 55(7), pp.973-983.

Greenfield, E., Lee, C., Friedman, E. and Springer, K. (2011). Childhood Abuse as a Risk Factor for Sleep Problems in Adulthood: Evidence from a U.S. National Study. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 42(2), pp.245-256.

Irish, L., Kobayashi, I. & Delahanty, D.L. 2010, “Long-term Physical Health Consequences of Childhood Sexual Abuse: A Meta-Analytic Review”, Journal of Pediatric Psychology, vol. 35, no. 5, pp. 450-461.

Kaleağasi, H., Özge, A., Toros, F. And Kar, H. (2009). Migraine type childhood headache aggravated by sexual abuse: case report. AĞRI, 21(2), pp.80-82.

Maniglo, R. 2012, “Child Sexual Abuse in the Etiology of Anxiety Disorders: A Systematic Review of Reviews”, Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 96-112.

McGee, H., Garavan, R., de Barra, M., Byrne, J. and Conroy, R. (2002). The SAVI Report – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland. Dublin: Liffey Press.

Sigurdardottir, S. & Hallsorsdottir, S. 2013, “Repressed and silent suffering: Consequences of childhood sexual abuse for women’s health and well-being”, Nordic college of Caring science, vol. 27, pp. 422-432.

Simkin, P. and Klaus, P. (2011). When survivors give birth. 1st ed. Seattle: Classic Day Publishing.

Tietjen, G. and Peterlin, B. (2011). Childhood Abuse and Migraine: Epidemiology, Sex Differences, and Potential Mechanisms. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 51(6), pp.869-879.

Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps The Score. London: Penguin

Power

It’s that time of the year again – I need to choose my word. Now, I like to think that I generally choose my words wisely. I understand the power of words, and I try hard to select words that reflect, and convey, my meaning.

Since January, 2016, I have eschewed New Year’s Resolutions in favour of a single word to guide my intentions and my actions for the coming years. A few hours ago, I was on the phone to my friend Katie and I told her that this year was going to be defined by ‘Attack’. I explained that I was a bit fed up of being a ‘soft’ feminist. I was a bit fed up of being ‘gentle’ in my engagements with men. I’m learning to get a bit more obstreperous, but finding I’m not consistent with my obstreperousness. The conditioning runs deep.

So, I explained to Katie that, when I was using the word ‘attack’, I meant ‘dive in with enthusiasm’ rather than ‘aggressively assail’ or to deliberately injure. She understood. I admitted to having been influenced by Mona Eltahawy and her entreaty to stop being ‘nice’.

‘Attack’ I decided, was a good word to guide me through 2020. But. It didn’t really sit right. It sat ‘okay’, but not ‘perfectly’. I was happy enough to go with it. When I sat down to write this post, however, ‘Attack’ was no longer good enough. ‘Power’ sprang to mind.

So I’m running with it. I don’t want to be empowered in 2020 – I have power, I want to use it. My intention for 2020 is to prevent other people from blocking my power. My intention for 2020 is to ensure that I use my power fearlessly. My intention for 2020 is to use my power ferociously. My intention for 2020 is to use my power to attack.

Narcissistic Mothers

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.

PSA: This Is What A Rapist Looks Like

CONTENT WARNING: CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE, RAPE, INCEST.

This is a tweet I sent nearly two years ago. I’d joined Tinder to see what all the fuss was about, to see if I could find someone to you date because I was fed up going to events on my own, or with a friend, or one of my own kids. Not that there’s anything wrong with my friends, or my kids; but sometimes, it’s nice to have a straight, male, companion. It can be fun to have a straight, interesting, intelligent man to share experiences with, to discuss cultural events with, to look forward to seeing – to flirt with.  Anyway, there I was swiping left more often than right, and up pops one of my brothers.

Now, of course anyone who wants to be on Tinder can be there – but I got a huge fright that night when my own brother was suggested as a potential match for me. Not least because he is one of the brothers who abused me for years when I was a child and a teenager.

Of course, we all have stories of coming across friends, friends’ spouses / partners, neighbours, colleagues etc. on Tinder. What additionally startled me about seeing my brother pop up, however, was the fact that he a) lives in France and b) claims to be happily married. Of course, he was clearly home to visit his mammy (if you look at the date, you can see it was just before Christmas), and of course, people can separate, divorce, or have open marriages. But knowing that this particular person is a rapist (he sexually abused, and raped me – orally, anally, digitally, and vaginally for years); abusive; manipulative, and has a number of personality disorders, I was concerned for the safety of any woman who might come across him and innocently agree to meet him.

Two years ago, I didn’t have the presence of mind to take screengrabs, but when he popped up on October 1st last, on another site, I did. They’re reproduced below:

The only good news here is that Cormac claims to live on his own – which means that his wife, Orna, has finally seen sense and left him. If that is the case, it really is a shame she didn’t do so ten years ago, when their children were still young, and she learnt of the abuse her husband had inflicted on me. It’s a shame she didn’t do that before she decided to stand with him during the days of his trial in the High Court. The only other possibility is that he’s lying and trying to cheat on her. Either way, their marital situations are of no interest to me – but protecting other women from a predator is.  Like all abusive men, he is attracted to ‘kind’ women; a phenomenon that Don Hennessy discusses in his book ‘How He Gets Into Her Head’.  It’s also interesting to see that he declares he’s ‘gentle by nature’ – I’m not entirely sure that any rapist can be ‘gentle’. I remember him using torn bits of black sacks as ‘contraceptives’ when I was a pre-teen and young teenager. There was nothing ‘gentle’ about that. I remember his fingernails tearing my vagina, and I can’t say it was ‘gentle’. I remember his penis tearing my anus, and there was certainly nothing ‘gentle’ about that, either.

Maybe we just have different definitions of the word.

In any event, consider this blog post nothing other than a public service announcement – women (and men) please avoid this abusive man at all costs. You’re worth more. You deserve better.

 

Towards ACE Awareness

Earlier this month, I was honoured to have been invited by Jane Mulcahy to speak at her even on ACEs awareness in Cork.

If you’re interested, you can listen to her recording of the entire session here.

 

 

It Takes A Village (To Abuse A Child)

CONTENT WARNING: Child Sexual Abuse, Incest, Incompetent Agencies, Child Neglect

In much the same way as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child, as well. It takes adults in positions of trust and authority to turn a blind eye. It takes people who have concerns not to voice those concerns. It takes family members who have a feeling something is wrong to do nothing about those concerns. It takes professionals who know based on information they are presented with, and privilege to have, to do nothing with this information. It takes people who know the child is not lying to intimidate, and (attempt to) silence that child. Even when that child becomes an adult (as is the case for many adult survivors of child sexual abuse).

For me, my family was the first site of abuse: I was sexually abused by my father, Christy Talbot, and my two elder brothers, Nigel Talbot and Cormac Talbot.  Sexual abuse was a part of my life in the home from the time I was three until I was 19.  I was sexually assaulted (up to, and including oral, anal, digital, and vaginal rape), by one or other – sometimes more than one – of these males up to five days/nights a week when they were living under the same roof as I.

With apologies to Tolstoy, each dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way, but a  hallmark of all dysfunctional families is that it is static. A static family dynamic means that in order to ‘protect’ and preserve the family norms, each member must resume the role assigned to them when the family is together.  To people who were not raised in toxic, dangerously dysfunctional, abusive families, this may seem bizarre, but collusion is very important to the family members who so collude because it means:

  • They don’t have to confront their own part in the abuse – for example, my mother does not have to deal with the fact that she took, and continues to take, the side of the abusers (my father and brothers) over the side of the abused (me)
  • No confrontation of their own possible abuse – I was not the only one in the family who was sexually abused, although my abuse was the most severe. If they refuse to admit that I was abused, then my abused siblings don’t have to deal with the fact that they were, too. Their ideas of who they are remains unchallenged because they are not confronting all of their own realities and histories
  • They don’t need to seek help for their own psychological disorders / mental health difficulties. By continuing to deny that they were were abused, that they abused, and / or that they facilitated abuse means my siblings and extended family members do not have to work on their own healing. This is hard, ugly, work and not everyone is able to – or wants to – commit to it. 
  • Their childish view of people as binary – ‘good’ or ‘bad’ remains unconfronted – casting people as either heroes or villains, rather than looking at their complexities, allows my family to cast themselves as ‘heroes’ and me as a ‘villain’. They think that, because there are so many of them, and only one of me, they must be right, and I must be wrong. But – remember Galileo?!
  • Appearances are kept up – for narcissists (like my mother), this is hugely important. When all that matters is what other people think, cruelty to your own children is an acceptable trade-off to keep up appearances. Their health and well-being can easily be sacrificed on the altar of public opinion, if the opinion will view you favourably.

Collusion within the family was aided by collusion on the part of clergy, medics, social workers, and the psychiatrist I was sent to in St Louise’s Unit in Our Lady’s Hospital in Crumlin. As you can see from this document there were a whole slew of people having meetings about me – but none of them (save Imelda Ryan) ever actually met me. Highlights from this ‘Case Conference Report’ make the following observations: 

  • This is a very disturbed Family who need (sic) help – That help was never provided.
  • They are all under enormous strain, and playing very dangerous games – This is not elaborated on, and there is no indication what the ‘dangerous games’ were, or why the vulnerable children (of which I was one) were removed. 
  • The Gardaí will have to be involved – to try to maintain a control over the family – the Gardaí were never involved until I went to them as an adult. 
  • Joint interview to be arranged – Rosemary being present to obtain an objective sense of the situation – Rosemary was, apparently my social worker. I never met her. 

Mind you,  according to her LinkedIn profile, Rosemary is still in practice. Maybe I should contact her and ask her if she’s actually learnt how to do her job in the intervening years.

Imelda Ryan – who is so incompetent and ignorant with regard to the effects of child sexual abuse, and how it presents that she is a real danger to children – was appointed to TUSLA’s National Review Panel. (I’ll have more to say about her and it at a later stage.)

Given that child sexual abuse is endemic in Irish society, those of us who value children and want what’s best for them need to step up and speak out. Every child is the responsibility of every adult. Children are not (just) our future. They are our present – they are their own future. We, as adults, need to treat them as the precious beings they are and be the village they need to support them, to nourish them, to ensure that they are provided with what they need to thrive and reach their potential. Ignoring their pain, colluding to keep them in sites of abuse is a far cry from being that village. 

Silence is Fools’ Gold

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.

Safe World?

***CONTENT WARNING: GRAPHIC ACCOUNT OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE; RAPE; SPOUSAL ABUSE.***

 

I am in the Mansion House in Dublin, on the second day of the Safe World Summit, organised by Safe Ireland.  I’m not going to lie, there have been moments that have been difficult to bear witness to. There have been moments where I have inhaled sharply, but – for the most part – there have been moments that have inspired and motivated me.

 

After years of speaking out, years of listening to other survivors, and holding the space for them, I am still struck by the similarities between my experiences, and theirs. To be honest, I identify more as a victim/survivor/victor with regard to sexual abuse, than I do with domestic violence. I am aware that the domestic violence I suffered at the hands of my ex-husbands was enabled – in part – by the the abuse I suffered at the hands of my father, and my two elder brothers – Christy, Nigel, and Cormac Talbot.

 

I suppose it’s no surprise that the night before last, sleep was evasive. I suppose it’s no surprise that that entire day, I’d had flashback after flashback after flashback. The intrusive memories crowded into my brain. I spent the day – and most of the evening – with my mind and my body re-experiencing the abuse perpetrated on my body by Nigel an Cormac Talbot – my two elder brothers.

 

I felt, again, Nigel slobbering over my teenaged breasts. My body felt his breath, his grasping hands, his copious saliva running over my bare, exposed, goosepimpled flesh. Later, my body and mind would remind me of other occasions when my brothers sexually assaulted, and raped me. I felt these experiences as if they were happening again, in that moment – in those moments. I remind myself of stories where amputees detail having pain in the missing limb.

 

I re-experienced being eight or nine years old, and lying in bed, reading my book (I was always reading, as a child – I loved it more than anything else I did) and Nigel came in, pulled up my nightdress, and down my knickers. I was so used to my brothers entering my room – entering me – that I didn’t even put my book down. I disengaged so much, disassociated completely. I was reading my book, I was in my book. I was in my book more than I was in my body. I remember turning a page at one point, and glancing down to see him nipping his lower lip, a look of concentration on his face,  while using his fingers to spread my labia before thrusting his fingers inside me.

 

Clashing with this memory was another; of my other brother, Cormac Talbot. As one memory left my body, the other replaced it. This was a memory of Cormac, with his bony fingers inside me, nothing gentle about his touch, his ragged fingernails scraping my tender, internal, flesh. Repeatedly, hour after hour, my body and mind were re-traumatised by these memories and others: Memories of Cormac using a torn piece of a black rubbish sack as a crude type of condom, while he decided to rape me. Memories of Cormac, anally raping me as form of ‘contraception’. My sphincter muscles tightened, repeatedly, involuntarily, as my body remembered the pressure on my anus as his erect penis breached it. For a full waking day, these memories possessed me – and I use that word very particularly to evoke the image of being possessed by evil. Because I was.

 

For my entire childhood, I was so dis-empowered by my family, and the patriarchal culture in which that family operate(s) that I was trained to expect nothing else. I was told I deserved nothing better. Most recently, I was told I deserved nothing better by my ‘mother’ Phil (Johnson) Talbot.  I last spoke to her in November of 2016 and I recently referred to the record of that conversation to be sure that my memory of it was not flawed (reader, it was not).

 

During that conversation (which I will describe in greater detail in another post), she eventually said – her voice dripping with the cloying martyr tone she has perfected over 70 years –

‘Well, if it’s an apology ye’re lookin’ fer, I’m sorry – okay?’

I wasn’t going to get her off that easily.

‘What are you sorry for?’ I asked.

‘I’m sorry I wasn’t a perfect mother,’ her retort was spat in anger at my audacity to challenge her so calmly.

I made no response. She continued in the same tone.

‘And I’m sorry you didn’t have the childhood you think you deserved.’

Think about that for a second. Think about my ‘mother’ unable to contain her anger that I would dare think I was entitled not to be raped by her husband, and her precious sons during my childhood. More worryingly, however, was her refusal to tell their wives the truth. ‘It’s not my place,’ she repeated four or five times when I challenged her on aiding and abetting her rapist sons to abuse her grandchildren with impunity.

 

She disgusts me – they all do – but I recognise that they are part of the patriarchy. They are products of the patriarchy. They are complicit elements of the patriarchy. I also recognise, however, that I am the biggest the threat to them and, in a way, to the patriarchy itself. Because I am a fearless truth-teller. And I will not stop.

I will not be stopped.

#Stand4Truth

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 Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers

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 .

 

 

Not All Mothers Love

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.

Philip Larkin (no relation!) famously wrote:

‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.’

 

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.

Anxiety

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?

 

 

 

Baby Boxes Won’t Raise Birth Rates

(This is not a Finnish baby box!)

 

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.

Narcissistic Mothers

Cartoon courtesy of Ian Sala sonsofnarcissisticmothers.org

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 hazel@hazelkatherinelarkin.com)

Love Is All Around Us

I’ve been thinking about this post for the past few weeks. Then, with Valentine’s Day falling this past week, I thought about it a bit more.

I’ve been thinking about love, and how we seem to compartmentalise it. There are people we ‘fall in love’ with; people we are ‘expected’ to love, as a matter of duty, people we are assumed to love, and even deities that are demanding of our love. The idea of ‘self-love’ is bandied about – and we are expected to know how to love ourselves before we can ‘truly’ love another. I dispute this, as it happens. I know that I loved my children long before I loved myself. In truth, I think my children were instrumental in teaching me how to love myself.  But I digress.

While there are people we are ‘expected’ and ‘allowed’ to love – love is treated as something that is in short supply: We’re not encouraged to be too flaithúlach (an Irish word meaning ‘overly generous’) with our love, and declarations thereof. As if, somehow, declaring love for someone not on our ‘permitted / expected’ list is somehow an aberration. Like you, I’ve also heard that old saw that you can’t love someone you don’t know, and it takes years to get to know someone well – and well enough to know that you love them.

Here’s the thing, though. I love a lot of people – and, in part, I’ve only realised that, or allowed myself to recognise my feeling for these people as ‘love’ in the past year or two. There is a very long list of people I love, and I have started (only recently, mind you!) to tell them.  I’m newly confident. That confidence is as a result of a number of things that have happened to, and because of, me in the past year or so.  I’ve started telling people I love, that I love them. I don’t expect them to respond in any way but to hear me and to believe me. When I tell you I love you, I’m doing so in all honesty and sincerity. I’m doing so even though I may not have known you for years. I’m doing so even though I may not know every facet of your personality. I’m doing so even though I may not know or love everything about you. In a way, it’s similar to the Sanskrit greeting ‘Namaste’ – which means, essentially, that ‘the Divine in me recognises the Divine in you’.  The essence of love in me recognises the essence of love in you and wishes to acknowledge it.

 

Life is short, and the things that really matter have been brought into focus for me quite sharply in the past week or two. I’ve read what Dr Alistair McAlpine learned from his terminally-ill, paediatric patients. I’ve witnessed the horror that is yet another mass shooting in the US, that left seventeen beautiful children dead. Closer to home, I’ve read Emma Hannigan’s touching and dignified farewell post on Facebook, with tears coursing down my face.

 

Life – even the longest of lives – is short. What matters is other people, and spending time with them. Spending time loving them. Eat the ice cream. Eat it with someone you love. And tell them that you love them.

 

Forgiveness (Part 2)

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.

 

 

                                                                                                           

 

 

 


 

 

More On ‘Due Process’

I really dislike repeating myself, but it’s time to revisit this topic. I wrote about this in November – you can read that post here –  but felt compelled to return and write more after listening to this podcast from the BBC’s Woman’s Hour.  The women in conversation  with host Lauren Laverne – Salli Hughes, Zoe Strimpel, and Afua Hirsch –  discussed the #metoo campaign and there was mention made of how naming men on social media was not affording them ‘due process’. Again, there was a presumption that due process is fair and easily accessible. It’s not.

 

In addition to the points I mentioned previously, there is the very real fact that men still hold more power than women in every facet of life, including the law. Laws are written by men. The language used in laws, therefore, is ‘male’ and patriarchal and serves men better than it does women. The majority of victims are female. The majority of court officers – solicitors, barristers, and judges – are male. Even where women are Officers of the Court, they are working within a patriarchal system that rewards non-feminine behaviour. So, while more women may be in the legal professions, they are still marching to the beat of a patriarchal drum, with little leeway for their own feminist interpretation.

 

The fact that so few cases of sexual assault actually get to court means that very few solicitors and barristers actually have experience in these cases. Bear in mind, too, that no judge in Ireland has availed themselves of the training offered by the Rape Crisis Centre to educate them on how sexual assault and sexual abuse impact on victims.

 

If a person does decide to go the civil route, and sue their abuser, the cost is prohibitive, and the course is a lengthy and emotionally tortuous one. This prevents many from even contemplating seeking redress from the courts.  So the notion of ‘due process’ is a bit of an equality fairy-tale. At the same time, though, one of the legacies of abuse is that those of us who have been abused feel a responsibility to save others from the same pain, humiliation, and trauma. Sometimes, all we can do is warn other women. Our feeling of protection towards other vulnerable women far outweighs our concern that the men who hurt us might be annoyed by our speaking out.

 

I’m also uncomfortable with the idea of discussing ‘grades’ of sexual intimidation, harassment, and assault. That kind of discussion generally goes down the route of ‘X only did this, so he’s not as bad as Y.’ I think it misses the point and results in many women minimizing their own experiences because they ‘weren’t as bad as’ someone else’s. While, as far as the judiciary is concerned, there are levels of seriousness, for those of us who have been hurt, there need be no ‘grading’ of our experiences: We have all been hurt, we have all been humiliated, we have all been targeted for assault based on our sex (regardless of our gender).  We deserve to have that recognised, even if it’s just by ourselves. The first, and most important disclosure of sexual abuse is, after all, the disclosure a victim makes to themselves.

Don’t (Just) Write What You Know

 

Writers who are starting out are encouraged to write what they know. They are told that such an approach will lend an air of authenticity to their words, and will somehow be ‘easier’.  It’s good advice, but it’s not great advice.

Rather than write what you know, write what’s important.

Research goes hand-in-hand with writing. If you’re a writer, you’re also a reader. You are also a researcher. You are the kind of person who can find stuff out – by talking to people, by networking, by using libraries, by asking questions.

 

No matter your genre, if you only write what you know, you’ll only write one book. You might publish several, but they will all be about the same thing, and get repetitive. The only way to grow as a writer, and to keep yourself and your readers happy, is to stretch yourself. The only way you can do that is by finding out about things you don’t know about, and writing about them in the way that only you can.

 

What annoys you? What intrigues you? What upsets you? What issue would you like to see highlighted? Write about that.  Find the thing that fires you, that excites extremes of passion in you, and write about that.  If you feel you’re not enough of an ‘expert’ on it, become one – or become enough of one to write authentically about it.

Then write. You’ll be following the advice of ‘writing what you know’, but you’ll be writing about what you know now,  rather than what you’ve always known. You’re writing will, then, always be fresh, always ‘new’. It will keep you engaged, and be engaging for your readers.

Hot Stones

 

My words are like hot coals in my mouth

I cannot hold them

They scorch the soft, pink flesh

Jangling against each other as

I juggle them with my tongue;

Cracking against my teeth

They burn and fizz and fizzle

Blistering

I can no longer contain them

I can no longer conceal them

I spit them out

Hear them sizzle

Listen

I hold the Truth

I speak the Truth

I am the Truth.