11 December 2016

We are not Asking For It

This article was published on Headstuff.org and was shared over 270 times showing that the following story holds relevance to many other people. This was not easy to write but I feel it is now important to share. I spent a long time in silence and will no longer stay mute. 
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Author and feminist Louise O’Neill’s documentary Asking For It aired a few weeks ago on RTÉ 2. It focused on the issue of consent and Ireland’s attitude towards rape culture, sexual violence and the distinct lack of sex education we have for young people in Ireland. It sees Louise – who has written two successful books that deal with female sexuality and misogyny head on – visit informed representatives from bodies such as the Sexual Violence Centre in Cork, the Criminal Court of Justice, and NUIG’s Department of Psychology.
The bottom line is that we need to do a lot more to educate everyone about consent. We need to teach people that it’s okay to say no, or to change your mind, and that your partner should respect that. Sex should be reciprocal no matter what the circumstances are. The documentary told us that we need to dismantle the savage undercurrent of rape culture in our society, covertly threaded into our day-to-day actions, thoughts and words.
While scrolling through Facebook this evening, I noticed a male friend had shared the link to the documentary. However, the accompanying status featured words like ‘disgraceful’, ‘one-sided’ and ‘man-hating.’ To make sure I understood his point of view, I watched the documentary again. Nothing struck me as inflammatory. It didn’t strike me as biased. There were a variety of interviewees, men and women, survivors of rape, and academics. Examples of sexual assault crimes were directly drawn from reported court cases that featured in the news. I definitely didn’t hear Louise O’Neill proclaim war on all men alá Braveheart and encourage us women to wear their innards as hats.
Louise O'Neill (Image Source)
The male friend didn’t react well to my challenge. He was indignant. ‘We shouldn’t consider every man a potential rapist just because he was born male. We should learn to differentiate the rapists from the men. Rapists have deep seated psychological problems. Ordinary people don’t commit rape. It’s degrading to teach men about consent. We all know what it means. It doesn’t matter how many times you teach a rapist about consent, it won’t matter. That’s why they are a rapist, not a man.’

So, puzzled, I did what I have done for a few years since I began to identify more as an agent than an observer or an object. Someone who calls out behaviour or opinions not rooted in knowledge and the correct context. A voice with a story; experience; validity, too often hushed or silenced by a louder voice, often male.
I challenged his comment by saying that I thought Asking For It was not one-sided, but simply the other side. The side that is only coming to the fore now. A chorus of lived experiences rising to the surface, telling you it straight, beseeching that you don’t ignore this reality. But when it is heard, in the form of an article, a blog post, a status update, or video, it inevitably unleashes a cacophony of comments designed to silence, shame and stigmatise the author. Some are loud and vulgar. Some are quieter and pointedly ‘wordy’. All are individual knife wounds.
‘Feminazis’.
‘How much had you had to drink? You should have been more careful.’
‘Rapists don’t look like normal people.’
‘Who’d want to fuck you anyway!’
So you’re left there, possibly bemused, possibly dumb-founded that what you thought was clearly rational and painfully factual isn’t enough for people to either believe you or to question their own internal bias. The figures, the reports and lived experiences all point to an overwhelming issue – rape perpetrated by men. And yes, I mean some men. Not all men. Does that lessen the severity? The knowledge that behind every headline is someone who has lost a core part of themselves to another. Someone who has already thought worse about themselves than any vitriol an online troll could throw. As Louise says in the documentary, an accused man is innocent until proven guilty; yet there is a subtext in our society that every woman is a liar until proven honest.


Around and around we went. Until I cracked. ‘LISTEN TO ME’, I said, ‘listen to me’. What about my side of the story? The point of view of a victim? Nothing. Not even an acknowledgement. It was more important for him to prove a point, to defend every man than it was to hear me out. A woman. Who at 21 was extremely fortunate to just about escape a terrible, terrible situation. A woman who was taken advantage of. A woman who blamed herself and internalised the deep-rooted, coloured shame inwards, pointed directly at her gut with a sharpened blade. A woman who took three years to take heed of other women who would no longer bear that same heavy silence and to brave another look at those excruciating memories with a different perspective.
He could not defend all men. A lot of men don’t need to be defended. They understand. They know. They respect. They are aware. They are supporters. They are friends. They are listeners. They are with us. But there are some men who aren’t like that. Just like there are some women, too. And there always will be. But are we to wait for the wolves to emerge, teeth bared, as they claim their prey before we raise the alarm? Only then do we pick up our pitchforks and cry ‘Disgrace!’ or ‘Enough is enough!’
Or do we do something about it?
The man on Facebook argued that we all know what consent means – that we have all known about consent since childhood, when our parents wouldn’t allow us a sweet and we had to accept their decision. But a lot of kids will still try to get the sweet. They will manipulate their parents and smile sweetly at them. They might beg, wearing down their resolve. Or they will simply come back later when no-one is watching and take it anyway.
The only formal sex education that I have ever received in my life was a short session in 6th class about periods and what you could expect. Skip forward 4 years to Transition Year and there I was, sat in the middle of a crisis pregnancy talk where adoption was spoken about. How 1970s. And nothing in between and nothing after.
Nothing to explain why I had periods. Nothing about how boys’ bodies worked. Nothing about contraception. Nothing about STIs or STDs. Nothing about the joy of intimacy. Nothing about respecting your partner. Nothing to say that my pleasure mattered too. Nothing about abortion. Or about consent. That I could say no. And that if they didn’t stop that I could still leave. But if I did, to be aware that smiling faces can turn on you as quickly as a light switch can flick on and off. That a person’s actions and words don’t equate with asking for it. Sex is not a punishment to inflict on someone who does not comply with your will, desires or needs.
So what can we do? If all the facts, figures, whispered conversations, court cases, victim impact statements and shared stories in the world aren’t enough? As frustrating and tiring as it will be, keep challenging people about rape culture. Keep calling their bias out. Keep the conversations going. Make sure that the young people in your life are educated about sex and consent. Talk to your peers about it. Keep your voice elevated above the ignoble abuse, whether you do it in your own calm, quiet way or by demanding attention, even if they dismiss your words or deem you aggressive.  
But do it. Both women and men. For each other. We shall not observe. We will be heard.

1 August 2016

Hiding in Supermarkets

Well, it's been a pretty impressive 4 month radio silence from my blogging ventures, right? 

After an overwhelmingly positive and supportive response to my last (and extremely personal) post about mental health, I took a few months off from writing to do other things and get my head out of my laptop for a while - in part because I moved back into the city and because I also re-read this interesting little book from the School of Life series. I'd recommend it - it definitely helped give breath to my feelings about multi-tasking i.e fuck it.

A photo posted by Sarah G M (@sarah_mrphy) on

Seeing as I have resisted Pokemon GO thus far (it's easy when loads of Ash-wannabes walk into me on a daily basis), I'm back with an apology. An apology specifically for some of you who may know me but not very well.

We all have people who pop in and out of our lives, people who 'know' us...-ish, kinda, 'would know to say hello to' kind of acquaintances. They could be old classmates, people you've met a few times at a party, people you met through a friend of a friend, people you used to work with, old neighbours, people you used to be good friends with but have since drifted, or people you have Facebook stalked the bejaysus out of and have to stop yourself asking them whether their Aunt Brenda enjoyed her trip to Medjugorje when you meet them out, panic, and rapidly try to remember whether they told you that or whether Mark Zuckerberg and co. are to blame. You know exactly what I mean.

Let me first make two things clear.

One:
I am an awkward person. Like really awkward. I've carefully socially conditioned myself into appearing like a normal member of society after years of practice, but on the inside, I often still feel like I'm 15 and have braces again. All elbows and acne. Don't believe me? Check out this sweet piece of photographic evidence of said awkwardness, magnified by the fact it was 2005 - and I consider this a pretty good photo of me back then. I did warn you about the elbows.


I know that I'm not alone and that we all have shoe boxes full to the brim of photos like this that we're planning on burning at some point. But, Sarah (I hear you cry), you look so fly. I know, guys, I know. Don't let the short hair and sassy pose fool you. While I often speak in front of groups of people in my professional life, in primary school I used to get so nervous when asked to read out loud that I'd lose my voice. I would go bright red any time the teacher called on me. And I wasn't very good at stating my opinion - I'd often wait until I knew what the group's consensus was before chiming in, usually agreeing. My own personal convictions were yet to emerge with the imperturbable tenacity of Beyoncé. To be fair, she had only just released 'Crazy in Love' two years previously so it was early days for both of us.

Two:
I hate small talk. N'able. I'm terrible at it and so, when faced with a situation in which I see someone I kind of know and I know that there is a conversation looming but one that will in no way allow us to progress our friendship or acquaintanceship in any meaningful way, I just go into meltdown. It usually goes like this:

Me: Hey! It's nice to see you. How are you?
Them: Hi Sarah, I'm good, thanks. How are you?
Me: Grand, yeah. How are you?
*weird silence*

If I manage to avoid falling into that Moebius strip of a conversation, I usually revert to the usual 'So what are you up to?' or the dreaded 'What are you at yourself?' lines that I've heard people ask post-Leaving Cert students outside Mass. This then is laced with attempts at jokes which often fall so flat on their face that I go home afterwards and mentally shout at myself, 'WHY DID YOU TELL THE BREAD JOKE? WHY? YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT TAX FORMS. THAT WAS WEIRD'. The usual.

So combine these two facts and you can understand that sometimes when I'm tired and all I want to do is get some groceries, I just like to keep myself to myself. It's part of being a true introvert at heart. So when I see someone I know-ish, it's not unusual to find me ducking behind the grapefruit. It's very seldom because I don't like the person. It's more that I can't deal with the small talk. Now, I have been pleasantly surprised and have had great chats with people in many of the different foodstuff aisles in Tesco, but 7 times out of 10, I'm thinking, 'How can I end this conversation in a natural way that doesn't involve me pointing and shouting 'STAMPEDE' and sprinting in the other direction?'.

So to all those people, I'm sorry. It's not a nice thing to feel like your presence has made an adult woman hide behind the grapefruit display, especially when it's actually got nothing to do with you. It's all me.

But recently I've made a vow to change. To take life by the horns and go say hello like a normal person. I'm now beginning to see these encounters as opportunities to say blazes to small talk and maybe, just maybe, have a nice conversation.
Maybe we might get to know each other a bit better.
Maybe I've had a tough day and actually that person might really cheer me up.
Or vice versa.

When someone asks me how I am and they're not still walking by (a very Irish thing to do, use a question as a greeting and expect no response), I'll try and give them a little more than the non-committal 'Fine. How are you?'. I mean, it's definitely not easy to rebuke all the small talk topics you've internalized from childhood like talking about the weather. Ugh. However I did read a helpful article on this very topic recently - give it a go yourself and see if it helps.


And it does involve actually listening to what the other person is saying instead of thinking, 'Oh no. It's my turn to speak next. What will I say?'. And giving a little bit more in your responses, even to standard questions like 'How was your weekend?'. You could say, 'It was good, thanks. Yours?', or you could try 'It was good, thanks. I went to the cinema and then painted an oil painting of Vladimir Putin. Yours?'. I know which answer would pique my interest. Now here, I'm no great conversationalist  either and it will likely take a lot practice and a bit more hiding in supermarkets, but you might say hi to an acquaintance and walk away from the random encounter with one more friend.

I think that no matter how much you grow and change as a person, you'll always relate to who you were during those pivotal teenage years and the unavoidable accompanying ungainliness. If you're familiar with Mortified (watch 'Mortified Nation' on Netflix asap), you'll know that part of what makes stories of ourselves as teenagers so funny is because we see who we were in there too. If you see yourself in my supermarket hide-and-seek tactics, join the club, but I hope you'll feel inspired to take control of small talk and own it... if you want to.

See you by the grapefruit (or not).

27 April 2016

#IAmAReason

When I was 21, I had a really exciting opportunity to live and study in Vienna for a year. 
I was thrilled at the prospect and even though I'd be away from home, I relished the idea of spreading my wings. It felt like a real adult step and the idea of spring by the Danube, opera and mountains
meant that I felt ready for anything.

Actual picture of me on the way to Aldi.
Fast forward 9 months and by the time that year came to an end, it was a very different story. I've never really talked about this and only my closet friends know about it in any detail but considering the recent news that 12 million euro from the mental health budget will be diverted elsewhere, I feel it's time to add my voice and story to the masses screaming out in protest over this.

That year away was without a shadow of a doubt the most difficult year of my entire life. It was like a big emotional pileup - everything crumbled around me and without wanting to sound dramatic or fall victim to cliches here, I did too. I have always considered myself very upbeat and positive. I'd get down, sure, but who doesn't? You just get back up again, right? However during that year away, my personal and family life imploded and I suddenly found myself 1000 miles from home and even in the busiest of rooms, very, very alone.

From looking at Facebook, you'd have thought 'Isn't she having the time' and it definitely looked like I was any other Erasmus student away in the sun - smiles all around and making loads of new friends. Realistically though, if I wasn't out with friends and forcing myself to be in that exact moment, distracting myself by trying to have a good time, I was in bed, binge watching TV, basically numb, unable to talk to friends or family about how low I was feeling because, well, what was the point? They were back at home too. Plus they've their own stuff. It would be really selfish to offload on other people when they can't do anything. Some great friends even came to visit and still I didn't really tell them. They can't fix it, I told myself. No-one can. I'm fine anyway. I'm failing my classes, but I'm fine. I'll be fine. Fine fine fine. It will all be fine.

Not a great thought process really nor one I would recommend - especially considering I've some of the most wonderful, caring and considerate people in my life that I could ask for. I did them and everyone who loves me a disservice because if it was them, I know I'd want to know regardless of distance or the problems they were facing. But perspective is a funny thing and while I'm now in a position to look back and see all of this, at the time, I couldn't. I literally couldn't. I didn't have the tools or the head space to see things from a different angle because it felt like I was drowning and that was all that I could feel - it was everything, entangled in my every day, all I woke up to and fell asleep to - it got very dark for me despite the cemented smile others saw in pictures.


By the time my final exams were drawing closer, things got worse. Any coping mechanism I'd developed wasn't working anymore as I felt increasingly anxious and I really desperately wanted to press the red ejector button and just go home. I ended up sending a huge long email to my university in the middle of crisis mode, no filter to my thoughts, and needless to say, they got a bit of a land - I'm sure they were expecting photos of me and my fellow students wearing lederhosen, yodeling and being poster students for Erasmus, but man, I fooled them! They urged me to hold tight for the meantime and seek someone to talk to.

The fact that my home university now knew was somewhat of a relief so I pulled myself together and worked up the courage to seek out the University of Vienna's student counselling services.
I remember walking in and meeting with a counsellor who spoke English. As I sat down, she simply said 'So why are you here?' and the floodgates opened. Someone was listening, a professional, someone who could, maybe, help, so I let it all out - months of pain and devastation just burst out of me. When I finished speaking, she looked at me with an arched eyebrow as I looked back at her hopefully. And with somewhat of a shrug, she said 'There are 3 weeks to the exams. What do you want me to do about it?'

It was as if I'd been kicked in the stomach. The wind went clean out of me. I stammered, 'I- I don't know. Counsel me?', and she turned, took a piece of paper and as she wrote, said 'Here is the name of a 24 hour pharmacy. They'll give you some medication', and handed me the slip of paper.

Another gut wrenching kick in the stomach.
You couldn't make it up, lads. This happened in 2012, not 1812.

She rose, opened the door and I staggered to my feet, slack-jawed, and left. Outside I just stood in shock. I'd just opened up, practically begging for help, in floods of tears, and here I was 20 minutes later with a quick prescription and a swift 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet' out the door. It wasn't what I wanted and for me, it wasn't what I needed.

You don't need a crystal ball to see that the remaining few weeks didn't really pan out too well and as soon as I could get out of there, I did with such glee that it bordered on mania. For the remainder of the summer, I tried to get on with things, to 'get over it' and to not let that year defeat me. That wasn't the way I should have seen it at all - it had nothing to do with being defeated or weak.
I was just tired, mentally exhausted, and, honestly, not myself. By the time my final year of college loomed, I knew that I couldn't do it. I couldn't. As in, there was no actual way that I would get through that year without failing academically or doing myself more harm. So I took a year out. A challenging, laborious, agonizing year, sure, to follow the worst year of my life but I had to. It was survival mode. And it was a good thing too. I returned to university the following September with a new vigor and focus that I had lost in the years before.

It's important to note however that even though a year out helped me in a lot of ways, the only reason I was able to finish my degree and cope was because I sought out counselling. In fact, since leaving college I have gone back to counselling for different reasons and for me, it has been the best decision of my life. Better than throwing out that Von Dutch hat I mistakenly bought when I was 13 and impressionable. Better than taking my mother's advice and starting to buy good quality shoes. Better than buying phone insurance after I lost three separate phones in a year.


And still, when I went for counselling in UL, there was a 5 week waiting list such was the demand. When I sought counselling in Cork earlier this year, the waiting list was 2 months long because it's a charitable service - you pay what you can afford. You can see some problems already.
Waiting lists like those mentioned shouldn't exist for mental health services. They just shouldn't. It takes a lot of courage to go to professionals and say 'Hello, how's it going, yeah, I'd like to have a bit of a chat with one of your lovely staff weekly, if possible, just need a bit of support because things can be abit tough sometimes, you know', without having to wait for weeks - which could mean you spend a longer time alone without the support you need, depending obviously on what's going on in your life.

Secondly, the fact that there's even a service whereby you pay what you can afford is upsetting - it's great, don't get me wrong, but it suggests (as is the case) that most mental health services in this country are unaffordable. And they are. We're talking 60 quid upwards at least for a counselling session. And if you were to choose counselling as your way of being supported instead of or in addition to medication, it would ideally be weekly. And I can't afford that. Could you?

The news that Leo Varadkar, former and current stand-in Minister for Health, is going to divert funds away from the mental health care packages promised in the last election is an absolute punch in the face and yes, you should be outraged. Blind with fury. You should be even angrier that at today's Dáil debate about this very topic 10 TDs reportedly showed up. 10. Out of 157. With another 24 popping in to say a bit before heading off. I've never been too hot at the sums but that's less than all the secondary characters in Downton Abbey. Here's a screenshot of how it looked today.

It is not good enough. One of the biggest challenges facing modern day Ireland and our elected representatives couldn't even show up to talk about it. Without the support I've been able to source and receive since that dark year five years ago, I'm not sure where I'd be or who I'd be today. And this is just my experience. This doesn't factor in those who cope with other mental health issues or illnesses either from a young age or due to some life experiences or people affected by suicide (which in Ireland is a lot). I'm actually pretty sure we could all do with a good chat and some support every now and again. So speak up. And shout. And roar. And petition. And make this a priority. Get involved. And donate if you can.

Do what my friend Dan did and email his local TDs directly and question them directly whether they decided to attend that debate. Or if you are around this week and want to join with the thousands of others who are saying that they are a reason this shouldn't happen, be it for them or someone they know, get to one of the many events that are springing up in reaction to today's news. There are demonstrations in Dublin and Cork this Thursday and a gig this weekend on in the Workman's Club in aid of Pieta House celebrating a compilation album in aid of the same.
UPDATE: According to the Journal.ie, the reports that only 10 TDs were present to last night's debate were incorrect and more TDs were present at various points of the debate (approx. 40% were present for some part of the debate). I accept that it's common within the Dail for TDs to say their bit and then leave, however it is not acceptable that this issue didn't merit full support from all Irish elected representatives.