Driving Me Round The Bend

Some useful tips to help you become a good driver, as published in the Mayo News on Tuesday 14th October.

I often wonder whose idea it was to start designating certain days and weeks as National Awareness ones. Whoever it was, I am truly grateful to them, because otherwise, I’d have nothing to write about. Last week was National Road Safety Awareness Week, so it feels timely to talk a little bit about driving.

Driving to me is a necessary evil; to be endured, not enjoyed. I do a lot of it, and because I am some kind of sadist who likes to make life as difficult as possible for myself, my commute takes me across Dublin city every morning, from Rathfarnham to Clontarf. This daily penance has made me wonder at times whether I am in fact actually Super Mario, trying to navigate a course with threats and obstacles appearing unexpectedly from all directions.

We all know bad driving, and sometimes we even drive badly ourselves, but I can confidently say that eight years of driving around Dublin has made me the best driver in the country, unlike everyone else around me. With that in mind, I thought I’d share with you some useful lessons I have learned over the course of my driving career. Only when you have successfully mastered all of the below are you considered a competent driver on the country’s roads.

ONE: Headlights are installed on your car as a means of decoration, and occasionally, they can help you to see when driving at night. They are not, of course, in any way meant to help you be seen by other motorists. This is why, under no circumstances, should you use them on a wet day while travelling on a three-lane motorway at 100kmph. This might mean that other motorists attempting to change lanes actually  have a chance of seeing you. The key thing to remember about using your headlights is that as long as YOU can see where you are going, nothing else matters.

TWO: Indicators have a similarly decorative purpose, and are to be used at your own discretion. Times to consider using them could include: changing lanes on a motorway, exiting a roundabout (in this case, it doesn’t really matter which indicator you choose) when overtaking, and pulling out of a car parking space into moving traffic, but these are all optional. Most Irish drivers are telepathic and already know your intentions, so don’t feel under any obligation to help them out. (I often marvel at the fact that there is as yet, no universal hand signal for “USE YOUR BLASTED INDICATORS! I think I might invent one.)

THREE: It is a prudent and efficient use of your time to continue your grooming routine behind the wheel of your car on your morning commute. This can include, but is not limited to, applying a full face of makeup, plucking your eyebrows, squeezing your spots, shaving, or brushing your teeth. Paying attention to surrounding traffic is optional while you embark on this crucial process to ensure that the sight of your 8am face does not scare the living bejaysus out of your colleagues.

FOUR: Good news, cyclists! You are completely exempt from adhering to any of the Rules of the Road. In fact, just do the opposite of everything the rules say and you’ll be grand. In particular, be sure to treat red lights as drivers treat green ones, and in what is a growing trend, cycle to the right of traffic so that you have double the chance to be indignant when they fail to spot you where they would normally expect to see you.  Apply the logic behind tips 1 and 2 above to the use of bicycle lights and hand signals. And treat drivers as The Enemy. (I cycle myself, so this of course gives me the authority to be judgemental of and self-righteous about other cyclists.)

FIVE: When you occasionally break free of the city and head west, ensure to bring the exemplary driving habits you have learned with you to the streets of Ballina and Westport. What Mayo needs more than anything is an influx of angry, impatient drivers, rolling their eyes and giving out about hesitant tourists and elderly pedestrians. In particular (and this is tried and tested), when driving around the dual lane system that blights the bridges of Ballina, be sure to use your horn liberally at anyone who does not understand the term “lane discipline”. This will surely result in a positive outcome and endear you to your fellow drivers.

So now that you have absorbed all of the above, you should now in theory be one of the best and safest drivers in the country. Off you go, do the opposite of everything I have written above and remember, once you are behind the wheel, you are never, ever wrong.

Happy motoring!

driving and shaving

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F*m*n*sm – a dirty word?

Some light-hearted thoughts on feminsim I wrote for the Mayo News a few weeks back.

Readers of my online rantings will know that on my twitter biography, I describe myself as follows: “Trying to figure it all out, secretly hoping I never succeed. Researcher, feminist, dreamer, Mayo GAA nut, Mayo Club admin team, Mayo News columnist.” That pretty much sums up most of my existence in less than 140 characters, which is actually a bit alarming when you think about it.

But regardless of my Mayo and GAA allegiances, it’s the “feminist” part of my bio that seems to provoke the most reactions. Recently, before a game in Croke Park, the real world collided with the virtual and I was approached in by a beaming jersey-clad gentleman with an outstretched hand. “Howya Anne-Marie”, he said. “You probably don’t know me, but I follow you on twitter. I’m @MayoMan5000.” I’m always a bit embarrassed when I meet people from the internet in real life, because I give out so much on there, but sure enough, I recognised MayoMan5000 from his photo and we exchanged some niceties. (Incidentally, MayoMan5000 is not his real virtual name, and fortunately not his real name either.) We had the usual GAA pre-match chat. He predicted a 15 point win, I went with a more conservative two points; we were both sadly mistaken. Then the conversation veered wildly into the unexpected. “I hope you don’t mind me saying” says he, (proceeding regardless), “but I see on twitter you call yourself a feminist. Now, I must say, you don’t strike me as much of a feminist at all!” Surprised, and, I’ll admit, a little put out, I asked why on earth not. “Well look at you here”, he says. “Above in Croke Park, cheering on the men. Sure I thought all feminists hated men!” And with a loud guffaw, he was on his way back to the middle of the Cusack Stand to rejoin his companions, leaving me more than a little bewildered.

Feminism is one of those words that’s grown itself a bit of a bad reputation over the years, and has somehow managed associate itself with all sorts of ludicrous activities such as bra-burning and man-hating. Now let’s face it, anyone who has ever shopped for women’s underwear will know full well that bras are far too expensive to be setting alight at will, and frankly, man-hating is too impractical, given the amount of men hanging around the place. Feminism also tends to be labelled as “whiny”, “stereotyping”, “unglamorous”, “unfeminine” and “aggressive” to name but some. Really, being a feminist sounds deeply unpleasant. Why would anyone want to be one?

In reality, feminism can be as simple or complicated as you want to make it. Call me old-fashioned, but in my eyes, ultimately it boils down to this: the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”. Now, that’s not so outlandish, is it? It’s hardly radical, and doesn’t merit the fear and contempt associated with the word, among men and women alike. It’s true that feminist debate can be contradictory and complex, sometimes even aggressive, and is intrinsically linked with all sorts of other issues such as gender, race, age, class, religion. Ultimately though, it’s about simple equality.

The fact remains that women are still not equally represented in either industry or politics. We are systematically paid less than men, and our childbearing potential is a barrier to career progression. Objectification of women is more common than ever, yet we are routinely prevented from making decisions about our own bodies. I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t object to these facts, yet there is a real reluctance among us to identify as feminists. But the discussion must also acknowledge the tendency among women ourselves to judge each other – our bodies, our clothes, our life choices – we don’t make it easy for ourselves, either

There’s a very simple test you can take that determines whether or not you’re a feminist. You might preface it with, “I’m not a feminist, but …”, but if you’re asked the question “Do you believe that all human beings are equal?” and you answer “yes”, well then, my friend, I hate to break it to you, but I’m afraid you too are a feminist.

Welcome aboard, there’s nothing to be scared of – but do leave the matches at home.

A little note on #littlethings

Today sees the launch of the HSE’s new mental health promotion campaign, Little Things. The campaign is a new, positive wellbeing campaign, designed not quite as a suicide prevention measure, but rather, in order to help us to help ourselves and others through the normal, everyday dips in mood that most of us experience at some point in our lives. It’s about educating, empowering and equipping us to deal with tough times, and just as importantly, reminding us to reach out to others, who may be going through their own difficulties. Ultimately, the aim is early intervention, protection and prevention – stopping normal ‘dips’ from becoming more serious or long-term problems.

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Disclaimer from the outset – I was involved in certain elements of the development of this campaign on a professional level. I found it a compelling and educational process, and speaking to members of the public about the new messaging and about mental health in general demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that people really want to make their own difference when it comes to mental health issues in Ireland, but that they’re not always comfortable with doing so. Males in particular freely admit that this is an area they sometimes struggle with, and would like to see conversation around it becoming more normal and acceptable – and less of a big deal.

What was really striking was just how difficult the terms “mental wellbeing” or “emotional wellbeing” were to grasp. Any discussion of mental health invariably reverts to the traditional mental ILL-health narrative, and the concept of looking after your mind, as you would your body, and taking a preventative approach as you would with your physical health, is still alien to many. As a matter of urgency therefore, we need to change that, start educating ourselves and being more proactive in this regard.

Secondly, and this is evident from looking at the #littlethings stream on twitter last night, particularly after Enda Kenny broke a twitter hiatus of almost four years to lend his support to the campaign, there is real anger out there. Fury that the government can be seen to get behind this campaign, yet fail the country so utterly when it comes to the provision of services to those in difficulty who urgently need them. The government, in this year’s “giveaway” budget had a golden opportunity to reinstate the €15million in funding that they whipped away from the “ringfenced” budget last year, yet chose not to do so. €15million is a relatively small sum in the grand scheme of things, especially when you bear in mind that €68m was allocated to the Horse and Greyhound fund (wait for it) “in recognition of the significant shortfall in funding going into the horse and greyhound sectors in recent years as a result of the downturn in the economy”. Public anger is therefore completely and utterly justified, and not for a second should this campaign be deemed a solution to the problems of severe mental ill-health and high suicide rates.

However, that is not to say there isn’t a place for a campaign like this – in fact, quite the opposite. Fixing our problems with mental ill-health in Ireland shouldn’t just consist of implementing suicide prevention measures. Rather, we should be speaking to people who sit on all points of the mental health spectrum – i.e., every one of us, at any given time. As Alan says in one of the TV ads (below) “Thoughts can become feelings if you let them” – a line that succinctly sums up how mental health issues can develop over time, and a decline in mental health can be gradual. You don’t normally just wake up one morning in severe difficulty – it typically happens over time. This campaign is therefore designed to interrupt, to educate, to empower, and to make us aware that there are things we can do for ourselves and others – things that are scientifically proven to have a positive effect – at an earlier stage that can turn the tide before we reach crisis point.

And critically, it should serve as a reminder that every single one of us has a role to play by reaching out to others who may be experiencing their own tough times. And even if they’re not, a little kindness can make an immeasurable difference to someone else’s wellbeing without you ever knowing. Take it from someone who knows.

little things

The campaign is launching today, so you’ll probably see it on your screens at some point this week.  On social media, follow @littlethingshub,  like yourmentalhealth.ie on Facebook, and feel free to share the little things that help you to mind your mind – they may well help others. Check out the newly designed website yourmentalhealth.ie – a “one stop shop” for information on mental health, wellbeing, and also, importantly a directory of support services of all types available throughout the country.

We all need to help each other to prevent suicide

Wednesday 10th September was World Suicide Prevention Day. There are now lots of days and weeks designated for mental health awareness, so much so that it’s starting to become a bit confusing, but I reckon there’s probably never a bad time to be reminded to mind your mind. Next Friday October 10th is World Mental Health Day. With these two dates in mind,  I wrote this column for the Mayo News on Tuesday 16th September.

Last Wednesday was World Suicide Prevention Day, a global day designated for raising awareness of suicide and suicide prevention. Traditionally shrouded in silence and shame, the stigma with which suicide was traditionally regarded in Ireland is being slowly cast aside. But as welcome as that is, it makes the consequences no less devastating, and indeed it is an occurrence with which many of us are all too painfully familiar. Recent statistics from the World Health Organisation suggest that at a global level, someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds. Ireland has the fourth highest suicide rate in Europe, and 475 people died this way last year. Over one a day. That’s a lot of grieving families, partners and friends.

Suicide is complex, as are the reasons behind it. There is, however an established link between suicide and mental ill-health, and we are finally starting to talk about it. The conversation has developed significantly in recent years, and we are slowly but surely moving towards a point where it is just as normal and acceptable to talk about your mental health (or ill-health – there is an important distinction) as it is your physical wellbeing. However, it truly is a case of a lot done, a lot more to do.

Crucially, the question people are starting to ask is “What can we do?” This is a welcome development, given the countless campaigns to raise awareness of suicide and depression. At this point, I think it’s fair to say we’re all well aware of the problem. Now what we need are solutions, and the truth is, every single one of us can make a difference. To put it bluntly, it’s high time we all looked in the mirror, and stepped up and took some responsibility for suicide prevention.

It’s all very well advising people struggling with their mental wellbeing to “reach out”, “get help” and “talk to someone”. That’s the overriding message, and yes, it’s good advice – more often than not, it will help. But as someone who has suffered in the past with mental ill-health, the fundamental problem with telling people who are struggling to “get help” is that it places all the onus on someone who is unwell to take that first step. What if, for a change, those who are well started doing some of the reaching out? When you’re in that dark place, when you’re so unwell that you’re starting to believe that not being alive at all would be preferable to living with unrelenting darkness, it’s common to withdraw and isolate yourself. “Just talking” to someone can seem like a mammoth task. When I experienced my first bout of depression over fourteen years ago, I didn’t leave my house for nearly two weeks. I needed someone to reach out to me, and I was one of the lucky ones – somebody did. I will forever be grateful to that person, because I owe them my life.

If we are serious about tackling suicide, we all need step up to the plate, and start being kinder to each other. We need to be cognisant of the fact that 1 in 4 of the people around us will be suffering from a mental health issue (mild or major) at any one time. Every single one of us at some point will experience emotional difficulties. We don’t know what others are dealing with in their day-to-day lives, and there may not be any signs. But there are lots of little things we can all do. A phone call, an email to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while; even a kind word to a stranger can make the world of difference. When you ask someone how they are, listen to their reply. Remind your loved ones that you love them.

If someone comes to you for help, it can be daunting, but don’t panic – you don’t need to be a professional to help; neither do you need to solve the problem. Just listen. For as little or as long as it takes. Hang in there; don’t give up on them. Believe me when I say that simply being there can be enough. [Update: If you do wish to equip yourself, the HSE ASIST course is an excellent free resource – read my account of it here.]

Let’s look in the mirror and take some responsibility here. Let’s as a community educate ourselves and be more thoughtful, supportive and kinder to each other. And let’s end this scourge on our society for once and for all.

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