2017 – A Pace Odyssey

Greetings, readers of this blog. Real life has been so, so busy of late that blogging has really taken a back seat.

Funnily, when I moved back to the west, I somehow imagined that life would be much less busy; that I would have more downtime. I even harboured quaint notions of writing a book. However, that’s looking more like a pipe dream at present, and in fact the opposite has proven to be the case. Happily, it’s not because of workday drudgery – I’m lucky enough to have a job I adore, even though it takes up more time than is ideal – or time spent on a soulless commute. Rather, it appears it’s down to my rather worrying inability to say no. But life’s short, right? And when there are fun things to be done, there’s no time like the present to jump in and take part.

These days, when I write, it’s mostly for work, either in the day job, or for The Mayo News. Speaking of which, here’s (a slightly edited version) of the latest column, on just one of the things that’s filling my time.


 

Back in January, you may remember me sharing my new year’s resolutions in this column. As usual, mere weeks later I can barely remember these virtuous aspirations. The road to hell, and all that.

One thing I do remember however, is resolving to become a better runner.

Now, we must bear in mind that the bar was pretty low, given that I’d only run three times in the previous six months. One of those times was from car to house to escape a shower. Any progress on this front, therefore, was a guaranteed win. At the time, I think I may have harboured ambitious notions of running five kilometres every day for the month of January. That wasn’t at all delusional, was it? Looking back, I can’t help wondering whether I was still under the influence of the Christmas cheer when I signed up for that challenge, but needless to say, it didn’t happen.

Before you scoff, however, it wasn’t a total disaster. While I didn’t run every day (I mean, really, who was I kidding?) I did manage (mostly out of shame) to pull on my runners at least every two or three days. And something unexpected happened. Over the course of the weeks, I started to feel fitter. Now, this of course may to a normal person seem like a natural progression, but remember, we are not dealing with a typical athlete here. By the end of January, I found I could run those five kilometres without needing an ambulance on standby. I even started to enjoy it.  Somehow, in failing to achieve what I set out to do, I discovered my running mojo. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Of course, having reached these dizzy heights of achievement, the thrill started to wear off. I was craving a bigger hit, a stronger high. So I went and did what any notoriously flaky runner would do. I signed up for a half-marathon, obviously.

Look, I can only conclude that I’m in the midst of a mid-life crisis. For thirty-odd years I have regarded long-distance running with suspicion, much like the way a dog will look at a curled-up hedgehog or a child will look at an electric fence – with the assumption that by going there, there will inevitably be pain. I’ve always thought those people who ran distances for fun were a bit mad. Now, I suddenly want to be one of them? Anyway, seduced by the prospect of actually achieving something worth bragging about in 2017, I signed on the dotted line, victory speech already in mind.

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What I do not look like when running. 

Three weeks in, and I won’t lie – it’s daunting. I’ve entered a whole new world of jargon and terminology I never knew existed. Aerobic pace and anaerobic pace and lactate threshold and marathon heart rate and high intensity training zones. Luddite-like, I don’t even own a sports watch and the thought of learning how to use one stresses me out more than the thought of running thirteen miles. (THIRTEEN MILES. Mother of God.) The soles are about to fall out of my year-old running shoes and I can’t seem to dress for the weather, no matter what I wear. I’ve committed to training four times a week, and the sessions are already ominously long. I’m afraid of getting injured, getting bored, or just becoming a bore. But, barring disaster, I am seeing this out if it kills me. (God, I really hope it doesn’t kill me.)

 

Already though, the bug is biting. Last weekend, I ran an unprecedented (for me) 14 kilometres, and I swear, I felt like an Olympian. A very slow, very sweaty Olympian with old lady feet. But I’ve started to believe I might be able to do this.

D-day is the River Moy Half Marathon on 13th May. It’s on home ground, so should be special. I’ve decided not to set any timing targets, so there’s no pressure. Frankly, I don’t care how long it takes – I just want to cross the line. I also want to be one of those people who nonchalantly wears the souvenir top that subtly, smugly tells people I ran 13 miles (13 whole miles!) without dying.

I’ve learned a few things along the way; I’ve learned that if you run slowly, you’ll always get there eventually. I’ve learned that motivation comes in very different forms for different people. I’ve learned that encouraging oneself aloud on tougher runs may earn some funny looks, but is well worth the ridicule – whatever gets you through. I’ve learned that I feel happier in my head when I’m running regularly. I’ve learned that the support and encouragement of a group is invaluable. And I’ve learned that a long run in good company is the very definition of time well spent.

It’ll be an interesting journey. Here’s hoping it’s not the road to hell, in every sense of the word.

I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

Volunteers – the people who make the world go round

Working in the tourism and development sector over the past year has taught me a lot. It has taught me that when dealing with public bodies, everything moves agonisingly, achingly slowly. Patience is a virtue. It has taught me that diplomacy is the greatest untaught skill you’ll ever need, and it has taught me that in the West of Ireland, no-one ever reads emails. But most of all it has reminded me that frequently, good things happen because good people make them happen, and more often than not, in their own time and without payment.

Volunteerism is what makes the world go round in rural Ireland. From festivals to football games, funerals to fun runs, the success of community initiatives depends on people giving up their time, their energy and often their money, to work for free. They give up their time with their kids to go to meetings; they leave the fireside on dark, rainy winter nights to sit in community centres. They dream and aspire and plan and toil to make their communities better places to live. And it’s damn hard work.

Sometimes they don’t get it right. But you know what? At least they’re trying.

Volunteering is a double-edged sword. If you put yourself out there and put your neck above the parapet, you will be recognised and thanked for it. At the same time, you’ll probably be criticised if something goes wrong – usually by the perennial hurlers on the ditch who never lift a finger to contribute themselves. And volunteerism isn’t sunshine, lollipops and rainbows either. Working with a committee with people of differing opinions can be really challenging. There are times when you’ll have blazing rows, you’ll run out of patience and you’ll feel like throwing in the towel. Sometimes you will. But the sense of achievement you’ll get from being part of a successful event, and giving something back to your homeplace will generally far outweigh that – it’s a feel-good factor like no other.

I’ve heard it suggested that sometimes volunteers are only “in it for the glory”, for the ego boost, to make themselves look or feel good. And to that I say – if they are, fair play to them. There are far easier ways to get your ego boosted. And if contributing to your community makes you feel good, I can think of worse drugs to be taking.

Volunteering is a masterclass in compromising, listening and learning. The boss in the day job reminds me occasionally: “Being right is nothing – getting it right is everything”.  He’s good with the lines, but there’s truth in it. You might disagree with someone nine times out of ten, but if you can find that 10 per cent of common ground, everyone benefits. Learning to put aside the ego when you’re not getting paid isn’t easy, but speaking for myself, I’ve found it’s good to be reminded now and again that I don’t in fact, know everything and am occasionally wrong about stuff.

One thing that’s struck me since moving back west is the age profile of community volunteers. At every community meeting or event I attend, with a few notable exceptions, the people giving up their time to help out seem to be the people that have been doing so for the past 25 years. Where’s the new blood? Where are the twentysomethings and the thirtysomethings? Many of those who have been active in their community for years are getting tired and jaded, and want to pass the baton on, but are often left standing on the line for the want of a replacement. And that needs to change.

But maybe sometimes, it’s just a simple matter of picking up the phone and asking someone to help, or telling them what you need. Joining a committee or putting yourself out there can be daunting; sometimes a bit of encouragement is all it takes. And at the end of the day, we all like to feel wanted.

The concept of community is continuing to evolve, but increasingly, it feels like we are becoming less integrated and more isolated. But if you live in a community and avail of its facilities, its public spaces, its amenities, you have a responsibility to contribute to that community.

And who knows? You might even enjoy it.

This article was originally published in The Mayo News on 16th August 2016. 

 

Asking For It?

I’m aware that it’s been months since I last updated the blog, but I have been doing a bit of scribbling elsewhere, mainly for work and for the paper. There will be a day of retrospective column uploading happening soon. In the meantime I wrote this a couple of weeks back about consent. It was published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 16th November 2016. 

Many of you will have seen Louise O’Neill’s excellent documentary, “Asking For It” last week on RTE2 (Irish Times review of Asking for It here).  The documentary sees the acclaimed author explore the issues of consent and sexual assault in Ireland. O’Neill’s documentary is significant, in that it is probably the first time a conversation on consent has gone truly mainstream, and moved away from the feminist arena, where it has, of course, been talked about for decades.

“Consent” with regard to sexual relations seems like a pretty obvious concept; it implies that both or all parties have given their permission or are partaking willingly in sexual activity. It also means that ‘no’ means exactly that – no.

23 years ago, in another seismic moment for Irish women, Lavinia Kerwick became the first rape victim in Ireland to waive her anonymity when her rapist was given a suspended sentence. The 18 year-old was raped by her then boyfriend, William Conry after attending a disco in Kilkenny. The couple walked to the grounds of Kilkenny Castle grounds and lay down together, where they talked for a while, then, despite her protests, Conry started getting rough and raped Kerwick.

In court, Mr Justice Fergus Flood said there had been “a high degree of intimacy” between the two, and that Conry was now contrite. In description of evidence given by a sergeant, he said that “things got out of hand and just went too far”. This language suggests that the judge felt the events were beyond Conry’s control. An attitude – highly unflattering towards men, it must be said – that persists to a certain degree to this day.

I distinctly remember being in a room of adults where a heated discussion took place about the case. I recall a majority of the people – men and women – protesting that it wasn’t Conry’s fault. By wearing what she wore – a black top, black velvet mini and a red jacket – and by going alone with her boyfriend to this dark place, Lavinia Kerwick was “asking for it”.

These Neanderthal attitudes are what shaped many a generation’s attitude to sex and consent. Popular culture for years has espoused the notion that when women say no, it doesn’t really mean no – look at any James Bond movie or Indiana Jones movie for examples. In fact, men were legally permitted to rape their wives in Ireland until 1990. Combine this with the traditional Catholic shame associated with sex and the lack of basic sex education available to young people, and you have the makings of a sick society.

The question of consent doesn’t just apply to interactions between individuals, however. The State itself routinely shows contempt for consent when it comes to women. Tusla for example, funds a number of rape crisis centres in Ireland. According to Rape Crisis Network Ireland, the funding contracts between Tusla and the RCCs explicitly require access to information gathered from survivors by the centres. Outrageously, the State contracts specify that if the consent of the survivor to any such disclosure is needed, RCCs will have to obtain it – or breach the funding agreement. Such an outrageous stipulation makes a mockery of the notion of consent and in doing so, further violates survivors.

Add to this the fact that the State can also legally compel women to give birth against our wills by preventing us from accessing abortion services, or from travelling to obtain one (in the case of migrants). It has also subsequently forced women to involuntarily undergo Caesarean sections. Just this week, the HSE sought an order to force a pregnant woman at risk of uterine rupture to have a Caesarean section against her will, to vindicate the right to life of her unborn child – who was legally represented in court – a situation that arose as a direct result of the 8th amendment. Thankfully, the court ruled it would be a step too far to order a forced C-section, regardless of the risk to both.

The screening of “Asking For It” on a national channel brings the conversation on consent into the mainstream like never before. But is it any wonder Ireland has a problem with the concept, when women are reminded repeatedly from all sides that their bodies are not their own?

Walking Home Alone

In the aftermath of the Brock Turner rape case sentencing in the US, and the powerful words of the woman he assaulted, Irish women took to social media to share their own experiences of “rape culture”. From being groped in nightclubs, to catcalling, to casual” sexism in the workplace, it painted a harrowing picture of a culture that is so engrained, we often don’t think to question it. The response to this outpouring from men was interesting and mixed, and I’ll be following up with a column on that. 

In the meantime, here’s the column I had (coincidentally) written for last week’s Mayo News, on one of my own experiences.

I’ve recently started a new job. It’s great and I love it. But, as with any new job, there’s a lot to take in, and that new job enthusiasm sometimes takes over. So one night, in an effort to get some quiet time to clear some things off the to-do list, I found myself in the office late. So late, that when I locked up the building, the security gates were shut. And in the darkness I discovered that the keypad was broken, so I couldn’t get out.

It’s a pretty secure car park, with high railings. I weighed up my options.

Call a colleague? At that hour of night, when in all likelihood, they wouldn’t be able to fix it? You’re a grown woman, I told myself. Sort this out yourself. Sleep in my car? Well, it’s 14 years old, and no hi-lux. Call a taxi? Never occurred to me. Scale the wall and walk home? I live in the middle of town, a ten-minute walk from the office. After a 14 hour day, it seemed like the easiest option.

Clambering over the wall none-too-gracefully, I hoped no-one would ever have cause to re-watch the CCTV footage. There’s 350 metres to walk to get to the main road. I throw my eye over my shoulder; clutch my bag close. No-one in sight. It’s a beautiful calm, quiet night with a radiant moon. I set off at a brisk pace. All good.

I walk about 100 metres and check behind again. In the distance, a guy on a bicycle is approaching down the hill. I keep walking. I think about tomorrow’s to-do list and wait for him to pass. But he doesn’t.

Nervously I look over my shoulder. He’s there, on the opposite footpath, just behind me. Despite the downhill, he’s slowed the bike right down, so he’s travelling at my pace. I hold my breath.

I keep walking. Directly across from me, he coasts slowly down the hill, his fingers on the brakes. He’s staring across, unspeaking. It dawns on me that he is doing this deliberately, to intimidate me. It’s about 200 metres to the main road. Most of the houses are unoccupied.

Contemplating my options, I keep walking, but don’t increase my pace – I don’t want him to know I’m scared. I can hear the whirr of his bike chain, his breathing as he coasts slowly downhill. I turn to face him, meet his gaze head-on. He stares back, expressionless. He’s young and slight, in his early 20s maybe. I wonder why he’s doing this. Every warning I’ve ever heard about walking home alone returns. I berate myself. Yet, I feel oddly calm. Either this man will attack and there’ll be a struggle, or he won’t – I’ve no control over his decision, and it’s too late to change mine. I clutch my keys in my pocket and turn away.

100 metres to the main road. It feels like 100 years. A game of cat and mouse.

We reach the junction. It’s still quiet. I turn left, to head for home, or at least to run to the safety of the nearest house. And just like that, all the time looking back over his shoulder, he turns in the opposite direction and cycles away. I exhale. I take off up the road like an Olympian, checking every so often that he hasn’t turned back. Nothing.

I’m home in five minutes, door locked. It’s over; I’m safe.

But I’m a different person now. I now have proof that I don’t have the personal freedom I took for granted.

The first reaction of many of you reading this will be to think how stupid I was to put myself in that position. I’m right, aren’t I? I mean, everyone knows women shouldn’t walk alone at night.

But like thousands of us do every day and every night, I took a chance. Why should my freedom be restricted because someone else decides it is their right deliberately intimidate me?

It was a minor incident in the grand scheme of things. But it made me feel angry and helpless.

And if something had happened, the first reaction would most likely have been that it was my fault, not his.

And that is just not fair.

Women and the 2016 General Election

This column first appeared in The Mayo News on 1st March 2016. 

While the 2016 General Election campaign itself failed to set the world on fire, the public’s interest was finally ignited precisely 48 minutes after the polls closed, when the Irish Times’ exit poll gave us a hint of just how much the political landscape was set to alter.

Now, there are so many fascinating angles from which to analyse the outcome, not least the massive task that lies ahead in forming a government, but it will be interesting to see over the course of the next Dáil term just what discernible effect, if any, the introduction of gender quotas – aimed at increasing female representation in the Dáil – will have had.

In the 2011 General Election, 86 out of 566 candidates were female. 25, or 15% of those won seats. This time out, 161 out of 546 candidates were women, and at the time of writing, at least 32 are guaranteed seats, with up to 37 potentially being elected. This would give a minimum female representation of 19%. (Update: 35 women were elected to Dáil Eireann in the 3nd General Election – 22% of deputies, representing a 40% increase on 2011).

The increase might not appear majorly significant given the low base, and should certainly reassure those worried male politicians that quotas are not actually designed to disadvantage them.  They merely present the electorate with a greater choice – and ultimately the electorate decides who to employ. Imposing quotas is a crude measure, which fails to address the root causes of low female participation, not least the family-unfriendly nature of the role. However, change needs to come from within, and women need to be visible in their participation in order to mobilise others. This is therefore a long-term project, so this weekend’s result is a move in the right direction.

The gender breakdown remains the same in Mayo, but with a new face at the table, with Fianna Fail’s Lisa Chambers replacing Fine Gael’s Michelle Mulherin. Based on this campaign, however, here is a strong possibility that we may see a more equal playing field next time out, should Sinn Fein’s Rose Conway Walsh have anything to do with it. At a national level, it is important now that there is adequate female representation at cabinet level too.

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Dara Calleary and Lisa Chambers celebrate after being elected. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Let’s hope our new female TDs have a thick skin, given the higher level of scrutiny they will face from the public than their male counterparts. They will inevitably encounter not just political criticism, which is of course fine and necessary, but most of them will also deal with criticism of their appearance, their clothing, their mannerisms and even their voices. Sometimes this will come from their own colleagues. You only have to look at the vitriolic bullying personally directed at Joan Burton over the past five years for proof.

Let’s get this straight. It takes a hell of a lot of courage and self-belief to walk the walk and put yourself in front of the electorate, let alone take on the responsibility of governing. It’d be far easier to hurl from the ditches with the rest of us.  The very least our female TDs now deserve is to be treated with respect, and to be judged by the same standards as their male colleagues – on how they do their jobs.

 

10 more things I’ve learned since returning west

Last June, I made the decision to take myself out of the city and head back to the bright lights – no, sorry, the dark skies – of North MayoAny regrets, you ask? No, not a single one. But adjustment does takes time and it continues to be a learning curve.

I wrote last year, just six weeks after getting back – about seven things I’d learned since returning west, and here are some more life lessons I’ve learned about relocating back to the country in the past nine months.

Being brave (or foolhardy) pays off. Phew!

So yes, it’s all worked out so far. I moved back west jobless, on a wing and a prayer, to a town which despite not having benefited as much from the boom as other places, was nevertheless hit hard. My fortnightly column for the Mayo News and some news reporting was one of my only – and very welcome – sources of income. That, and a few quid I’d put aside for a rainy day. As it happened, it lashed rain for most of the summer. But by the end of it I’d managed to secure enough freelance work to keep me fed and watered, and by September I was about to start an exciting full-time role in a new and challenging environment.

It wasn’t easy – I had to put myself out there, something that doesn’t come naturally, but it has come together relatively well so far, and I feel very lucky that it has.

Taking time out is good for the soul

When I first moved, I was lucky enough to be in a position where I could take a little bit of time out and not work full time (which is quite convenient when you don’t have any work anyway). I used that time to rest, relax and reconnect with my area again. I behaved like a tourist, walked the streets of my town and the surrounding towns and got to know them again, while rekindling old friendships and acquaintances that had fallen a little by the wayside. Sometimes I got up before 11am. And I visited places in the county I’d never visited before.

Like returning to an old love, it felt familiar and exciting all at once, and the relationship remains solid to this day. And it meant I could take on a fresh start with a bit of energy.

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Taking time out and gatecrashing this guy’s party on Clare Island

Trying to get stuff done? Forget about email

The single biggest source of frustration in my daily life is the reluctance of people to reply to emails. First world problems ahoy! I don’t understand it, but then, writing is my thing and it’s not everyone else’s. However, memo to the people of Mayo, email was designed as a two-way communication tool, y’know?

Here, if you want to talk to someone, you just have to pick up the phone or doorstep them – it might take seven times longer, but it’s the only way to get stuff done. But I suppose personal interaction isn’t all bad either and maybe I should just be a bit less odd.

Positivity breeds positivity

In a mid-sized town, particularly one that has been ravaged by the recession, there will always be a certain amount of negativity. Whether grievances are genuine, or whether it’s hearing criticism of the efforts of other groups or individuals from those who have never volunteering their own time or knowledge, or whether it’s an unwillingness to move past old or perceived slights to collaborate and co-operate for the greater good, there is plenty of it about and it can be frustrating. But that’s life and you’ll never please everyone.

However, there is also a heap of really good stuff and fresh thinking happening – be it in enterprise, tourism, agriculture, hospitality, or festivals and events, people are recognising the need to work together and be creative. Volunteerism is strong. People love dressing up in mad costumes for stuff. And the more people give up their time to make their area a better place, the more it inspires enthusiasm and pride in others.

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Volunteers at Samhain Abhainn Scary Woods Walk – one of my favourite events in Ballina

Returning to the city is a shock to the system

Perhaps it’s the country girl in me, and I’m a bit mortified to admit this but on the rare occasions I need to return to Dublin, the frantic pace of city life comes as a jolt. Drivers drive harder and faster, walkers don’t dawdle, there’s more stress in the air. It’s actually  embarrassing, but I quickly feel claustrophobic, and getting back out is a relief.

But that said, when you’re in the mood for a nice meal somewhere new or a lively gig or a late bar or an excellent Thai takeaway  –  that’s when you realise that Supermac’s doesn’t quite cut it and you start to miss city life. Pros and cons, eh?

Everyone knows your business, but it’s not all bad

One of the downsides of moving back to a small town and trying to participate in the community is that you will be talked about. Now, not being talked about is much worse, but I have at various stages been mildly alarmed by people I barely know being able to tell me my (exact) address, where I work, who I have had a quiet drink with the week before, and what political party I am apparently about to join (spoiler: I am not joining any political party).

That said, you will always have people – like your neighbours – looking out for you and in the event that you die, it is unlikely you will be left alone long enough for your cats to eat you, so on balance I think I will take that.

People are doing it for themselves

There is a very real sense in the West of Ireland that they have been left behind over the past few years, and that decision-makers in Dublin are living in a bubble when it comes to acknowledging the reality and the challenges of rural life. In recent times, exasperated at the lack of assistance from on high, locals are just getting on with it and making stuff happen. Working hard, defiantly (but not foolishly) taking risks, rallying their communities and walking the walk themselves with little support from the banks, it is they who will be responsible for preserving rural communities.

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A recent surprise arrival to Belleek Woods. At his size, I won’t argue

Making new friends in your thirties is not as hard as you’d think

One of my biggest reservations about leaving Dublin was the small social circle I would have. Aside from my family, I had a tiny handful of close friends in Ballina, one of whom proved a lifesaver by renting me a room in her house for the summer, instantly making me feel at home all over again (thanks Nic!) and saving both my parents and myself the indignity of dealing with an adult child who was likely to regress to teenage behaviour in the home house.  I learned that the only way to meet new people is to be open to trying new things.

I am an unlikely and uncommitted sportsperson, but I joined the running, cycling and swimming clubs, and while my interest in partaking in sport will never be fanatical or consistent, it worked, and I felt good for it. As a bonus, I now have another small handful of new and delightfully mad people in my life that I feel privileged and proud to call friends. Result!

Romance is like everything else – if you’re looking, you’ll find it eventually

I’m including this because I’ve been asked about it surprisingly often by both male and female friends who are single and considering leaving the city. Before I moved home, I was warned by a dear friend (who shall remain nameless) that whatever chance you have of finding a partner in the city, the chances of it happening in a mid-sized town in your thirties are minimal. And let’s face it, that’s probably correct – the odds, numerically speaking, are not in your favour. But that said, it’s not a dating wasteland either.

I’ve always felt that love and romance can crop up in the most surprising of places, and probably when and where you’re least expecting it, so I’d recommend just going with the flow on that one. Getting off the couch helps, too. Failing that, just go on tour …

Again, this place is bloody gorgeous

I know, I said it last time. And to those of you familiar with the area, it won’t be news. But there’s rarely a week that this place doesn’t cause me to catch my breath and remember how lucky I am. I’m about to start my dream job, marketing, promoting and developing the region, and to say that I am excited is an understatement. And yet, while I want to share the loveliness with the world, there are places I secretly want to keep under wraps such as the below beach (no, I am not telling you where it is.)

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Somewhere secret in North Mayo

So in a nutshell, life is good. It’s cheap to live here, the quality of life is excellent, and while there are certain irritants and disadvantages, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

If you’re thinking of making a similar move, I certainly won’t be the one discouraging you. But don’t get a cat. Just in case.

ASIST Training – the aftermath

A couple of months ago I wrote about my decision to enrol for the ASIST training workshop. Devised by Living Works to enable people to deliver “suicide first aid”, the course is delivered in Ireland by the HSE (National Office for Suicide Prevention), co-ordinated by the HSE Regional Resource Officers for Suicide Prevention and most importantly, it’s available free of charge to everyone, though places are limited.

At the time, suicide was in the news (even more than usual), and it got me to thinking; if the State is going to continue to fail people who are in immediate danger of suicide – which it is; there is no disputing this – then the rest of us had better damn well start equipping ourselves to deal with it, and fast.

My reasoning? Once upon a time, I told someone I was close to that I felt so low that I didn’t want to be alive any more. I can still see the look of panic in her eyes, but despite her best intentions I felt even more hopeless and alone after the conversation ended. Late that night I put on my coat, sneaked out and sat numbly for a long time in the cold by the river, weighing up the pros and the cons of being alive. I decided that the pros were few and far between and the world would probably be a better place for everyone else without me in it. But for some reason or another, I decided to go home and sleep on it. The next day, as it happens I had a another conversation with a far more positive outcome. However, many others since have left their homes in a similar state of mind and never returned.

Fast forward a decade and a half, to a time when we have realised that far more people than we realise have experienced depression, mental distress or have felt suicidal. There is far less shame in talking about it now, but many of us just don’t know how. We’re afraid of putting someone under pressure, of burdening someone else with our problems, or if we’re asked for help, we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, or not knowing where to get professional help.

Thinking about my well-meaning friend, and putting myself in her shoes, I realised that even  having felt suicidal myself in the past, all these years later if I were placed in a situation where someone told me they were suicidal, I still wouldn’t have a clue how to deal with it. Neither would I know where to look for help if faced with an emergency. Over the two days spent attending ASIST, I learned something very valuable. The help is within each of us.

ASIST

Though the HSE offers a number of workshops around the topic of suicide prevention (and I’m sure others do too), covering general awareness of and alertness to the signs of suicide, ASIST is an intervention workshop, which means that it’s designed to equip you to intervene in a situation where there is a strong and immediate risk of suicide and ensure that the person at risk is kept “safe for now”, while putting in place supports to help them through this crisis period. The workshop also trains participants to seek a shared understanding of reasons for suicide and reasons for living. For some, this can be as dramatic as “talking someone down” from a dangerous position; for others, it can be interrupting the planning process or planting uncertainty about the decision and helping them to focus on reasons for living.

So, having completed the two days’ training, what’s the verdict?

Well, first and foremost, it does what it says it will. I can confidently say I would feel far better equipped to intervene in such a situation now than I would have this time last week. Basically what the training does is:

  • attempt to explore –  and subsequently remove – your own biases and attitudes towards suicide, so that they don’t influence the intervention.
  • It gives you a clear “pathway” or model to have that conversation with someone, bearing in mind that such conversations can be long, circular and challenging.
  • It does not focus on long-term problem solving; merely a “safe for now” approach,
  • and at all times, it acknowledges the need to protect the wellbeing of the person who is intervening.

The course is two full days, though they are shorter than average with lots of breaks and plenty of tea and coffee. We had two trainers and broke into two smaller groups of about 12 people. The sessions are mostly interactive – and while many people (myself included) shy away from group work and role play in sessions like these, it’s absolutely essential to contribute, or at least to witness, if you’re to feel confident working with the model. And you will. And it’s not all doom and gloom – there are plenty of laughs too!

One incredibly important thing I felt ASIST did was  was to acknowledge that not everyone who dies by suicide has experienced mental health issues. This is a point I feel is frequently lost. It also acknowledged the effect of alcohol on our mood and decision-making. And it also acknowledged that as a caregiver, even if you intervene to keep someone “safe for now”, you may not be in a position to provide further care, and that is fine – you can seek assistance or hand over responsibility if you need, once you have intervened.

Given my own experiences I was apprehensive about attending, and make no mistake about it, the two days are tiring and emotionally draining. If you’ve recently lost someone to suicide, or felt suicidal in the past, or are feeling unwell in the present, it might not be the best environment for you. So bear that in mind, but on the other hand, learning to work your way through the model and equipping yourself with this knowledge and confidence is empowering too.

I won’t go into much more detail here, apart from to say that I would highly recommend attending this training. It’s available widely – and for free – through the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention along with a lot of other related courses – check them out here. You’ll need to contact your local Regional Resource Officer for Suicide Prevention to get the latest local info. And please feel free to drop me a line or comment below with any questions and I’ll do my best to answer.

For those based near me in Mayo, the next ASIST training takes place in the Ballina on Tuesday 31st May and Wednesday 1st June – contact Mary for more information.