Mary O’Hara

Mary O’Hara

The first pupil from her inner-city high school to attend Cambridge, the 42 year-old journalist/author shares about the poverty, violence and dysfunction that defined her childhood in West Belfast, Northern Ireland.

To learn more about Mary or her book Austerity Bites go to

Follow her on Twitter @MaryOHara1

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Episode notes:

To learn more about Mary or her book Austerity Bites go to

Follow her on Twitter @MaryOHara1

Episode Transcript:

Welcome to episode 232 with my guest Mary O’Hara. I’m Paul Gilmartin, this is the Mental Illness Happy Hour, a place for honesty about all the battles in our heads, from medically diagnosed conditions, past traumas and sexual dysfunction to everyday compulsive negative thinking. This show is not meant to be a substitute for professional mental, ran out of breath there. It’s not a doctor’s office, I’m not a therapist, it’s more more like a waiting room that doesn’t suck. The website is It’s also the Twitter handle you can follow me at – so go check out the website. You can fill out surveys that help us get to know who you are as a listener and you can also browse the forum, you can support the show financially, you can buy a Mental Illness Happy Hour t-shirt or coffee mug, you can shop... I just reach a certain point in describing the website where I just – I tire of myself. Is it bad that I am a minute and seven seconds into the podcast and I’ve tired of myself? It’s not a good sign because I’ve got a big ass pack of surveys and the interview with Mary is about an hour and twenty minutes long, so this is going to be a long one. This is going to be a long episode. I did want to mention one thing about the interview with Mary. There’s a moment when we were talking about civil rights in the sixties and as I was playing the show back and editing it I realized I meant to say “integration.” Instead I said “segregation,” so if you’re puzzled by what I say there, that’s why.


Anyway, I’m going to kick things off with a couple of Struggle in a Sentence responses. This is from Isla and about her depression. She writes, “It feels like I’m trapped in a bubble that keeps me from taking any action that could make my life better and it separates me from others. It’s like watching life go by from the sidelines.” Boy, I bet a lot of people relate to that one, I do.


This one is by Kristi and she writes about her depression: “My kids laughing their little hearts out. Quick – I need to smile so they know it’s good to laugh and I’m not mad at them.” About her ADHD: “Where the fuck is my – oh, I haven’t heard this song in forever!” About her anxiety: “It’s like being married to an abusive husband: ‘I’m sorry I can’t go to the park. My anxiety won’t let me.’” Wow, that is great. That is great.


This is from our friend Catla, uh, Cut...Cutler or Catla? I can’t – I always forget. Cotla, that’s right. No, Catla. Shit! Anyway, Catla is a trans female and she writes about her OCD: “I want everything around me to be right and perfect because nothing about me is right or perfect.” That is profound. A snapshot from her life: “Every morning when I get up I go through shock trying to figure out how to work my oversized and too masculine body, so I wind up staying in bed hitting the snooze until I need to get up and leave. Every night when I go to bed I have to free my mind from the stress of working my body that doesn’t fit in order to be able to sleep. As a result I can’t go sleep without an extensive relaxation process. During my day to day life I have trouble focusing on tasks because I’m preoccupied with my gender struggle. I have tested in the 150 to 160 range for IQ, but I can’t put my entire mind to any problem because my body doesn’t match my mind. Every hour of every day of my life is filled with frustration as a result. Sorry for the novella here.”


This is filled out by a guy who calls himself Very Treatable. About his ADHD he writes, “It’s like there’s a million trains whirling around me in all different directions and I have to know who’s in each window of each train because one of them is super important, and I have to make eye contact with each in order to know.” That is right.


Jonny Toxic 1985 - this sounds like a terrible Johnny Depp movie! About his physical disability, which is cerebral palsy, he writes: “Every time I pass a stranger on the street I ask myself, ‘is this going to be the person who will call me Speed Racer or some other diminutive name?’ If you are going to call me something like that at least have the decency to call me Racer X.” Snapshot from his life: “I work part time and the pay sucks, but it’s really all I can handle because I can only be ‘on’ for four hours a day. I come home to an empty apartment and the security blanket of Seinfeld episodes, Iron Maiden and Springsteen records. I depend on those three things because they help me forget about the body I am imprisoned in, unless Bruce Dickinson is fencing during Powerslave.” I have no idea what that is. I think Bruce Dickinson is a heavy metal singer, [Bruce Dickinson is the lead singer of Iron Maiden and a competitive fencer] but, anyway, thank you for that Johnny.


And then finally this is a dark thought from a guy who calls himself Flying Squirrel. He writes, “I think about how I would kill people and dispose of the body. I sometimes think about who, who I know that would help me if need be. After all, good friends help you move. Great friends help you move a body.”




Paul Gilmartin: I’m here with Mary O’Hara, who is an award winning journalist who writes about social issues and mental health. She writes for The Guardian and The Observer and she won a book of the year award for The Guardian Review of Books. Congratulations.


Mary O’Hara: Thank you. Yeah, so, it’s just when The Guardian writers choose their favorite books. So, it was nice.


PG: What a way to put it down, though. Now we officially know you’re Irish.


MO: No, I’ve gotta diss myself just a little bit more.


PG: If the dialect didn’t give it away, that certainly did. You are from Belfast, and I know we have a lot of young listeners who may not understand the history of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, so if you could, I know you could explain it a lot more eloquently than I could. Give them the lowdown.


MO: Well, I suppose it’s like how many centuries have your audience got, you know? It’s a long and twisted history. Trying to summarize Northern Ireland, Jesus...


PG: Would you say it started with Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell?


MO: Everything started with Henry VIII. Now, civilization and everything. Debauchery. Everything started with Henry VIII. No, the situation with Northern Ireland is a kind of peculiar one. It’s constitutionally, but to cut a very long story short, when there was an agreement in the early 1920’s between the British government and Ireland that some of Ireland would get its independence of British rule, and it had been ruled by Britain for a long time. One of the things that they didn’t get was the six counties in the north of Ireland, and one of the reasons for that is because a very large proportion of the population in Northern Ireland are pro-union, as in pro-being part of Britain.


PG: The crown.


MO: Yeah. And that’s –


PG: And generally tend to be Protestant.


MO: That’s absolutely right. So you’ve got, sort of Protestants/Catholics is how it’s usually talked about, but really what they mean is Nationalists and Unionists. So, the proportion of the population that wants to be part of a united Ireland is still smaller than the proportion of the Northern Irish population that wants to be part of Britain.


PG: And much less wealthy.


MO: Oh, yeah, and over the years there have been times of incredible social unrest in Northern Ireland, and perhaps the biggest issue arose in the late 1960’s, really around the same time as the civil rights movement was happening in the U.S. and you had the riots in Paris and across Europe. Northern Ireland experienced the same thing because the Catholic part of the population had been for a long time discriminated against by the majority Protestant rulers. Northern Ireland at that point had its own government separate from Westminster [Westminster is shorthand for the British parliament] in London, and in things like housing, employment, education: Catholics were less likely to get the same opportunities as Protestants. There is – a lot of issues coalesced at the same time, but there was a civil rights movement launched to highlight these inequities and to say, “we need to change this, this is unacceptable.” Around the same time, the IRA, the Irish Republican Army, which had fought for Irish independence back in the day to get the whole of Ireland free, and ultimately got the south of Ireland free of the British, came into resurgence. There was a number of incidents where the police in Northern Ireland...there were lots of incidents of police brutality, a lot of Americans will recognize this in the current climate of when people go out to protest legitimately sometimes they find themselves faced with almost militaristic police responses. People die, people are injured, that then snowballs, creates a much greater problem, and in the Northern Irish context what that meant was that the IRA suddenly found itself no longer dormant. Lots of people felt that the only way to get the whole of Ireland united, to get Northern Ireland free of British rule, was through armed insurrection. That was the option that people felt was open to them. It – there was a lot of incidents that happened. One of the responses, there were many responses, but one of the responses was to send the British Army in to Northern Ireland in the early 1970’s. There were thousands of British troops walking the streets of Northern Ireland, especially the cities. Places like West Belfast where I grew up, where I was born were – we had four or five what were called “foot patrols,” the combined army and police presences on our streets five or six times a day. Local people were often just pulled aside. They were searched without any recourse. People were imprisoned without trial for periods of time.


PG: Generally Catholics?


MO: Yeah, usually.


PG: And the area that you grew up in, was it predominantly Protestant or Catholic?


MO: Well, it’s interesting, West Belfast, because it really speaks to the issue of Northern Ireland. Because the main road is called the Falls Road that runs through West Belfast, and it is a Catholic road, a center for Republicanism. And yet only a stones throw away, divided by a huge wall, is the Shankill Road, which is the Protestant equivalent. These are very working class areas, have had long histories of poverty, it’s the area where for instance the old cotton mills used to be back in the industrial age. So, real heartlands of working class culture, but very different traditions right along side each other. Now what that meant was there were opportunities for clashes, for enormous clashes between the two groups because they had such divergent ideas of what the world should be and what their communities should be. And certainly, in my lifetime, when I was growing up there, I mean the violence that I witnessed on just an, almost a weekly basis I think most people would find quite extraordinary. We had for a long time – our streets were barricaded off by army vehicles, we had tanks driving up the street, people shooting from rooftops, bombs going off. It was, you know, for a very long time an incredibly unstable situation. Lots of young men, and it’s usually young men, would then try to defend their communities – Protestant and Catholic – they all felt they had to do something to defend their communities against what they perceived to be as an enemy. So they go, ah –


PG: Would it be fair to say though that the Protestants had the army more on their side than the Catholics did?


MO: Yeah, but you know it’s kind of interesting, because there was these wonderful pictures of the early days of “The Troubles,” because it was called “The Troubles” in inverted commas [‘inverted commas’ is British English for quotation marks] is very fucking Irish right there. That’s like, it’s not a war, it’s “The Troubles” - we’re all a tiny bit troubled by some things, you know. And it’s kind of like - ‘cos I only took it for granted growing up there, but later on I’m like, seriously? That’s what they decided to call a civil war? (Speaking in an exaggerated Irish accent) “Ah, sure, we’re only havin’ a tiny bit o’ trouble today!” No. So, it was sort of ridiculous, but in the early days when the army turned up strangely the Catholic community saw them as their rescuers. Because what the Catholic community were worried about at the time was this dominant Protestant, sort of, political force that was then manifested in the police force: 99% Protestant. They thought the British Army coming in would be an independent arbiter in some way and there were pictures of women in the street giving baked goods to the soldiers when they arrived ‘cos they felt they were going to be a buffer between them and this police force and political institutions that were oppressing them. Now, over time that altered and when it did alter so dramatically. Hence you have the IRA then targeting soldiers. Lots of them were assassinated, blown up. It was an incredibly, sort of, messy situation. And so it weirdly transformed from them being seen as a protector to the being seen as another part of the British establishment and the enemy. I mean for me, because I had soldiers on my street all the time, one of the things that struck me –


PG: The household you were raised in, one parent was Catholic, one parent was Protestant?


MO: Well, my mum had a Protestant father who fought in the Second World War for the, as part of the British Navy. And they – but was brought up a Catholic as was my father. But because of that background, as children my brothers and sisters and I were always aware that we were part something else, right? So, whenever there were these – whenever people were talking about sectarianism or identity or “be on your side, you’re not on their side,” well, for someone like me who was an obstreperous little shit, and I always had a million questions and I’d be like, well, I just happened to live here, but part of me is part of these other people, so tell me why I should hate these people? So I was very aware from an early age that this idea of identity is a bit confused. You can tell yourself you’re something, but you look into your background and suddenly you realize you’re actually something else entirely. So, I used to annoy a lot of people including my friends, because they’d be quite dogmatic, they’d be like, you know, “Up the IRA!” and all this kind of stuff and I’d be like, well, you know... And then I started learning a wee bit about politics as I got really into politics generally when I was quite young I was kind of like, but, isn’t it the case really that a lot of working class people are being done over by people who are wealthy? Isn’t it the case that none of the middle class areas have soldiers in them everyday? And they’re not being blown up and no one is shooting on their rooftops? Shoot me, I’ll ask that question. But I – I began to see that is was a much more complicated picture then maybe we were being told that it was.


PG: If the ruling elite can get the poor people to fight each other, they can just sit back and sail their yacht.
MO: They can, and that’s exactly what they were doing. There’s actual lough [‘lough’ is lake in Irish] in Northern Ireland where that’s what they all do. They go off the weekends and sail their yachts. But it’s kind of – for me the soldiers were interesting because even as a little girl I could tell that a lot of them were really young...and actually terrified. So, you know they’d walk up and down your street, and they had this technique where they would, they always had rifles, but they had this technique where they would bob up and down. So, they’d be, like, down on their hunkers, down on their knees, and then up again, down again, up again, because –


PG: So snipers –


MO: Snipers, and kids are curious, you know, kids would go up and pet a rabid dog, you know, they don’t care, like. So you’d go up and have a conversation with these guys and you realize, well, they’re not actually that weird, you know, they’re just people here doing what they think they’re supposed to do. And then you realize you’re talking to eighteen year olds. When you’re ten, eighteen seems ancient, but you’re not that stupid to realize that this guy is still young, you know, this is the age of my uncle or my brother, or – and I sort of felt for everybody in the situation. I sometimes felt it’s easy to define things as, you know, no areas of gray. There’s always an area of gray.


PG: Always. Always. That’s one of the things that I stress so much, and why I always – I should say why I started adding to the Shame and Secrets survey is: did you have any positive experiences with your abusers? And almost always, even the worst abusers, there was something that they did that –


MO: That was an act of kindness once or twice. There’s always something, and I think that’s definitely, certainly from, like, the place I grew up had – like, there was so much social unrest and so much destabilization that were – there was a lot of mental health problems, a lot of domestic violence, alcohol problems, all of those kinds of things. So you’re exposed to how people react to these, like, extraordinary traumatic things. But even in the midst of the bleakest of moments there are random acts of humor and random acts of kindness even by people who you can’t believe would be capable of it.


PG: Any of those spring to mind?


MO: Well, it’s interesting, because in my own experience, like, lots of my friends lived in households with extreme domestic violence, for instance. A lot of the men were unemployed. A lot of them were being pushed and pulled into terrorist organizations, often being threatened, some of them had been shot, so their lives were often pretty bleak. And you could be in a room, I mean I was in a room once with one of my best friends and her father was holding a knife to her mother’s throat. And you would think there’s nothing about this man that is redeemable, he’s holding a knife to his wife’s throat. And yet every summer he drove us to the coast to have some kind of holiday. Because, you know, we needed to have a break from all this shit, you know, and it was – so you’re kind of like, “yeah, well, he beats his wife, but he takes us on holiday, and when else do we going to get a holiday,” you know, your thirteen year old self says. You know, so it’s just so twisted in many ways, and I think also because when, when you’re witnessing acts of horror you can’t believe that someone can pull back and in the context of Northern Ireland over the years a lot of the guys who perpetrated the most heinous acts went on to be community workers, went on to be advocates for poorer people. Everything from getting, helping people to find a home to, you know, if an elderly member of the family has dementia how do you get better care for that person? It’s – none of these things are simple, and I think when you’re exposed to it first hand you’re very reluctant to let people paint any issues as black and white. There’s always more to it.


PG: There always is and, you know, what springs to mind is in the Middle East some of these organizations that commit these terrible, terrible acts are also helping to feed some of the poor people, to take care of the mothers who are widows, and complicated.


MO: It’s really complicated and after, remember – I moved to England when I was eighteen to go to university, and like there was just constant questions, people had never been to Northern Ireland. And when I – at that age it was still pretty bad, it was 1988, so there was still, every time I went home there were still people being shot, and, you know, there were bombing campaigns in London, and –


PG: I remember visiting London in the mid-eighties and just – I think it was about a week after the really big bombing in the department store, and maybe not a week, but it was shortly thereafter, and I just remember kind of, uh, being a little nervous, having a good time, but also –


MO: Yeah, yeah, what can happen next? Of course I had a classic once, I’m going of on a tangent here, but you know how it is when a story comes into your head that you just want to...


PG: Sure.


MO: I was at work, I think it was ‘92, and there had just been a massive bomb in the City of London [the City of London is the financial district of London] and interesting ‘cos it was a financial target, you know, very symbolic, but, my dad rang up and he says, (speaking in concerned dad voice) “So I’m really worried about you, are you okay, you know, it seems like a very scary place.” And I’m like, “You live in West Belfast!” You know, I’m like, “What are you talking about?!” You know, I’m like, okay, I know, there’s a few bombs going off, but, like, what’s new? But I’m just like – he says, “Oh, I don’t know, it’s not the same, you know, I don’t – you know, it’s dangerous...”


PG: Dad, I can’t hear you over the tank.


MO: Yeah, you know what I mean? So I’m just kind of – but, for him it’s just an unknown ‘cos at that point he’d only been to London once and he just thought it was like a foreign country. You know, “My daughter’s in danger,” and I’m like, oh for Christ’s sake, you know, you walk down the street and you’re in danger, you know. I know how to take care of myself, the one thing you learn when you grow up on the streets in the middle of a civil war is how to get the hell out of Dodge when the shit hits the fan, you know. I’m like – when I was a teenager I didn’t do high heels for a reason. I lived in flat lace-up shoes, right, and luckily for me, sort of mods were quite in at the time so everyone wore flat shoes, but we needed to run like, we needed to know that we could get out trouble fast. I’m like, “I think I can handle myself, Dad. Alright. It’s okay.”


PG: Share some recollections that you have of your childhood, be it related to “The Troubles” or within your family.


MO: Boy, you ask big questions. (Laughing) Okay, oh my god, right, so there are lots of – there is no way to talk about my childhood and not think about the weird circumstances that we were in. So, I used to find myself sat in the corner reading books ‘cos I used books as an escape to – ‘cos I used to go and do whole shelves in the library.


PG: Really?


MO: I would just go from one end to the other. I bored the librarians to death ‘cos I would just take – I mean this is like as a seven year old or something, take all the books home, sit and read them ‘cos I needed to escape, and the thing I think that defined my whole childhood for me was it was always about escape. Everything was about how I was gonna eventually get out, so I’d read all – I read every children’s book known to man that was in English, you know, because I, I didn’t care whether it was about frogs or, you know, I didn’t care what it was about as long as I could escape a bit. And my friends and I used to spend a lot of our time doing things like that. We had, weirdly, this odd piece of waste ground that used to be, I think, like a del – like a sort of depot for deliveries, but it had all become sort of overgrown with like, wild foliage. Now for us inner city kids this was like nirvana, you know, we were like it’s on the end of our council estate, so basically, I suppose the equivalent of what you would have here would be in any public housing complex, we were in the Northern Irish equivalent, except with a few thing – you know, like being shot at, whatever. But we would just escape into this little what we thought was like –


PG: Wilderness.


MO: Wilderness, you know, and thinking about it now, it was probably –


PG: There’s not a lot of green in Belfast.


MO: No, but it was probably like a hundred square feet or something, but when you’re ten it’s like amazing. So, we used to just go over there and we’d, like, do the thing where you make pretend houses and pour pretend cups of tea and all this kind of stuff and hide under dark leaves, and, you know, find tadpoles and stuff, like. This is – our parents had no idea where we were. But the other thing that we were doing, which people get a bit weirded out by, is – well, we were just like kissin’ boys, right, we were just like at ten, you know, get all these boys to come over and sit in our pretend houses, and we would just like snog the faces off them, you know. And these just – these bewildered ten year old boys goin’ “what’s happenin’?” and we’re like, “well you’re gonna kiss me!” Now I’d be like, what is...


PG: Why are people weirded out by that?


MO: Well, because they don’t think that ten year olds are interested in that kind of thing.


PG: I was at ten and all my friends were.


MO: None of the boys were, the girls were – the girls were like tiny little tarts, you know, we’re just, you know, nippin’ away at these poor guys. But we just had this weird kind of, almost – I, I read a lot of Famous Five books [the Famous Five is a popular series of British children’s novels similar in style to The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew]and stuff when I was a kid, so I loved all this, you know, it’s just let’s have a little adventure. But we’d come out of that, we’d go back into reality, back into homes where there was a lot of trouble, a lot of, like, the sorts of social problems you get with poverty, frankly. The area we lived in was one of the, if not the poorest region in the whole of Western Europe, and, I mean, really, really bad.


PG: I had no idea.


MO: Yeah, and it’s still is.


PG: And by that you mean West Belfast.


MO: Yeah, and it still is. It still is up there, it’s still one of the poorest areas in, I mean, that’s a big piece of land to be among the poorest of, so, most of our dads were unemployed –


PG: And you’re including Bulgaria and those other –


MO: The west, well, Western Europe, so –


PG: Oh, so, Western Europe, ok, ‘cos there’s some incredible poverty in Eastern Europe.


MO: Yeah, so, well, when we were kids of course it was still, they were still all communist, so they had a – it was an entirely different thing, so, but even compared to places like Spain, which coming out of the Franco regime had extraordinary poverty. Portugal: extraordinary poverty. Parts of the south of Italy: extraordinary poverty. So, even compared with some of those places, which really were dire, West Belfast was...


PG: Whenever I see a documentary on Belfast it’s – the two things that strike me is: the lack of greenery, which is ironic because it’s in Ireland, which is one of the lushest, greenest places on the planet.


MO: But, you know, it’s funny you should say that, because one of the weird things about growing up in a ghetto, which is what we grew up in, and it absolutely defines our childhood, which was that we didn’t move outside of like, one or two square mile radius. We didn’t go anywhere apart from when someone’s dad decided to take us away for the summer to a caravan [caravan is British English for a camping trailer] so, our –


PG: Because it was dangerous?


MO: Often, yeah, but often just because people didn’t have any money. You know, people just – you just didn’t go anywhere, and, so, that creates a mentality that is very defensive, but also offensive toward people that try to enter or come near you. But weirdly, we were in these ghettos and they were very urban, so any documentary about Northern Ireland will be about these areas because it’s where the intensity was, it’s where “The Troubles” were happening. It’s where the violence was. And yet, if I stood on the corner of, like, the road, like the main road that ran up the side of our council estate, the first thing I see is a mountain. I mean, just, like, a mountain! And it’s just this huge hulk of green. And, like, the idea of going up the mountain or going to the other side of it was preposterous. And it wasn’t until I was of an age where I had to go to the airport because I was going to London, and it turns out you have to go over the mountain to get to the airport, and I went, “wow”...


PG: I’ve never seen a shot of that in a single documentary.


MO: But it is possibly the single – apart from the docks, it’s possibly the most topographically significant thing. And also, when we were growing up, because we’d look at the top of the mountain, and of course the armed forces would be up there. They had their – they had little spy things up there to look down at us. So the mountain was associated with being scrutinized, with being watched, like we’d have helicopters all day and night with spotlights on us, and we were just used to these things, but because we were in this mentality of ghettoization, it’s very hard to look at the mountain as anything other than something troubling, because we’re being watched from it.


PG: That’s so fucked up.


MO: Yeah, and it’s really, really, really screwed up. And then, a mile in the other direction from, if I stood on that road looking up at the mountain, if I turned and just went the other way, I’d get to the university area of Belfast, so Queen’s University is like one of the top ten universities in Britain. I mean it’s a global player, an amazing place. And beside that is the botanical gardens, and you go in there and there’s like, there’s an amazing, you know, an amazing array of foliage and plants, and this beautiful, kind of, you know, I don’t know, it’s just – Elysian Fields. And I would go wandering up there ‘cos that told me that there was something beyond what I was living. And then our teachers would take us on day trips sometimes, you know, they’d hire a minibus and take us out, and then we’d see the green. Then we’d get out and we’d see the contrast between where we were everyday and what was beyond where we were. But unless we’d had an education system that allowed us to do that we wouldn’t’ve been able to see beyond our noses, and I – you know what you were saying there about if you keep the poor fighting each other then everyone else is easy? If you keep the poor locked into communities where they never get to meet other people how can you possibly see what the world has to offer?


PG: And how can your ideas change?


MO: How can your ideas change and how can you be open to new ideas? But, the fact that we live on, quite frankly, the greenest, lushest piece of land, weird as it is, that is imaginable, but don’t get to see it is –


PG: You know, I was thinking, the other day I posted something celebrating the Supreme Court decision legalizing marriage and, of course, you know, you get the people: “Blah, blah, blah,” talking about the constitution and how it wasn’t right, you know? To which I always say, “You’re either for equality or you’re not.”


MO: Yeah.


PG: But the people have these entrenched ideas about something or some group of people being all bad, or an act being all bad, or whatever. I just want to say to them: go make two friends with this group that you demonize and I bet your ideas will change.


MO: Well that’s interesting you say that because one of the things that I started doing from an early age was exactly that. So, at the bottom of my street is what was called a “peace wall” – ironic, right, because there’s nothing peaceful about this damn thing, it’s just literally dividing communities and often it was used as a platform to just shoot at each other from and stuff. But I wanted to get to know the people on the other side of that wall. I wondered why can’t I get to know my equivalent on the other side of that wall. So I started doing drama so that I could do plays and musicals and got involved with theaters that would deliberately get kids from both sides of the divide together, and we’d be doing plays together for, like, months at a time. There is no way once you’re in that situation that you see any differences, you only see what you have in common, but you have to get a chance to meet. When I got a bit older I joined a community relations group. So I was, sixteen, seventeen. That was fantastic too, so we were older teenagers. One of the things that was – really freaked the shit out of me was they themed weekends away. So, we’d go away for these weekends, next we’d talk, you know, sometimes you’d fancy someone, you know, sometimes there’d be a, you know – whatever, teenagers – but then we’d sit in these groups and talk about history. And there was a moment that I realized that none of the Protestants had been taught Irish history. None of them. All the Catholics had been taught Irish history since kindergarten. We knew the entire story. They were utterly unaware. Now, if you keep people in that level of ignorance, then what gives them the motivation to reach out? They’re even more cut off in a way then we were, because at least we had some context for what was happening. These guys had no context whatsoever. It was incredible. But then the other thing that happened was that as a girl growing up in that environment, in many ways you had it easier, strangely, because we weren’t being recruited all the time into paramilitary organizations. Unless your family was, like, part of the paramilitary networks, as a girl you could – you didn’t have to deal with these guys coming out and threatening to shoot you if you didn’t sign up. I –


PG: You just had to go to funerals.


MO: Yeah, right? And my school overlooked the IRA graveyards. So, when we were at school that’s what we looked out on from our classrooms.


PG: Wow.


MO: So, you know, we were – we had a constant reminder of that. But when I started doing the community relations stuff what I realized was that the boys, some of them had to back out because they were being threatened for being part of this community relations group. They were being threatened by local paramilitaries and being told that they’d be shot if they kept going. And these are guys from working class areas, you know, tough little fuckers, you know, really like hard men, like little gangsters, you know, who were trying to do something and it was totally cut off to them. And like my older brother kept saying to me, “You’re getting yourself into a lot of trouble here, you know, if you keep this up, you know, shit’s gonna hit the fan.”


PG: For you or for them?


MO: Well, for me, he was saying. But then, what he was also telling me was that it was for him too. So, if I kept being part of this, then by default he was associated with my actions. And all I was doing was hanging out with kids who were Protestant. Now, you gotta ask – you gotta ask: what kind of society tells its children that it will shoot them if they talk to each other? I mean, that’s what you’re talking about. It’s –


PG: Crazy.


MO: It’s absolutely crazy. And all, you know – and weirdly the first place I studied after Northern Ireland was in Charleston, in South Carolina.


PG: Really.


MO: At the College of Charleston. I was on a scholarship and, in fact, I emailed my professor when the events happened there last week because I had been on that campus, and, you know, I still have friends there, and we were talking about this because I remember turning up and Northern Ireland has no Black people. Well, it has a few now, but back then it was – we had a few Vietnamese immigrants, a few Chinese immigrants, and you did not see Black faces anywhere. But one of the weirdest things was I grew up next to the hospital and the Black people I knew were doctors because the hospital used to train doctors from Africa in how to stitch people up after shrapnel wounds or being shot. So my association with Black people was doctors. It was the completely different of what everybody likes to paint Black people as. Turn up in Charleston, suddenly have all of these, like, amazing Black friends and get into really deep discussions with them about segregation, about the history of the South, and interesting for us to connect because I came from a different kind of ghetto, but it was a segregated community and it was segregated often by wealth and power. We couldn’t see it by the look of someone’s face, we couldn’t tell by someone’s skin color where they belonged in the pecking order, but you could tell by where they lived. Fascinating to me, absolutely fascinating. Dig a bit deeper into the constructs that create segregation, and so I’ve always been fascinated by that ever since and then to watch what happened, you know, just incredible. I can’t disconnect from twenty five years ago when I was studying there and learning about that, learning about the Confederacy, learning about what it all meant, and even a quarter century later that that’s still an issue.


PG: You know, I’ve been thinking about twenty first century bigotry. Most people that are modern day bigots don’t think that they’re bigots because they think, “I support Black people voting, I think that, you know, segregation was wrong,” and I believe that they are just our version of the person in the sixties who was afraid of segregation, but didn’t think that they were a bigot because they thought, “Yes, slavery should have been ended.”


MO: But, it’s just so selective. I mean it’s like, it’s like you were saying earlier, but, you know, either you’re for equality or you’re not. It’s really, you know, it’s – it’s a complex issue, but it’s not that difficult to get your head around. It really isn’t.


PG: Are – you just ask yourself, “Are you treating that person the way you would like to be treated?”


MO: Well, you know, it’s one of the things that I suppose in the past few years I’ve – and I’m not an angry person. If I was gonna be angry I would’ve been a long time ago because the circumstances, but one of the things in the last few years, my work has been this kind of new wave of bigotry that has emerged in Britain, and it’s not a racial bigotry, it’s like a resurgence of class hatred, class bigotry, and almost like a, some kind of political, pseudo-philosophical war on the poor, and that really rankles with me because one of the things that happened after the Great Recession to Britain – it’s what my book is about – it’s the austerity policies that were put in place and the harm that it did to people who were already not very well off. But the thing that accompanied it, accompanied it, was incredibly toxic, because all the political rhetoric and the media rhetoric was painting people who were living in poverty as if they were some kind of social reprobate misfit to blame for their own circumstances. You know, to me the idea that a child going to school who happens to be from a poor family is to blame for those circumstances, I mean – that was me. That was not my fault that grew up where I grew up in poverty, so don’t expect me to sit back and be quiet while you try to tell a new generation of children that they are second class citizens. It’s absolutely extraordinary to me that in modern Britain that is the dominant political narrative. Incredible, and because that narrative –


PG: It’s here too, they’re, the really – the news outlets that make me sick are the ones that convince middle class people that poor people are the problem.


MO: Yeah.


PG: You know, they’ll show a poor person using a microwave and say this per – you know, look at him afford a microwave, why is this person on welfare? And I’m all for someone to have a degree of personal responsibility, but –


MO: But I think that they don’t seem to get – and this is like, this the most ridiculous thing about these arguments is that what they don’t get is the more you put people down, the more you tell them they’re worthless, the more they’re likely to believe that they’re worthless. It is actually very, very hard when you grow up in those conditions to convince yourself that you are as worthy as anyone else. Someone tells you you’re shit, you know, it’s easy to believe that you’re shit. And that’s not what you’re told when you come from a middle class background. You’re told that you can be president, you know, you’re told to be aspirational, you know, “reach for the stars, yay, yay, yay,” you know, whereas you’re a poor kid you’re kicked when you’re already down. And you know the statistics here on dropout levels for young people from poor backgrounds when they even make it to college because it’s so hard to make the adjustment into that world that’s culturally different. If you’re hammered enough from these so-called people who are successful it’s very hard to crawl your way out of that idea of who you are.


PG: So give me some, some more snapshots from childhood to paint a picture of –


MO: One of the things that is to me –


PG: You know what, do me a favor: reach behind you and close the door. We got, ah, some –


MO: Cleaners, I think.


PG: Some visitors or cleaners or something.


(Sound of door closing, then laughing)


PG: There – that was very nice. I think you might be able to turn pro, and –


MO: It was a door closing! It’s very dramatic. It was beautiful, I even did a little hand gesture to indicate –


PG: Nice, nice flourish at the end.


MO: Yeah, yeah, you know, I could be on a game show, you know, I could be the woman in the sequins dress just closin’ doors. Yeah, I’m sort of thinking, but – it all ties in really as opposed to these issues around poverty and inequality because they define who I am.


PG: And by the way, the book that Mary wrote that has – that won the award is called Austerity Bites, and it’s about those very topics. About the – once the recession hit the UK, the cuts to –


MO: Social services, everything. Social – any social provision began to be targeted including for disabled people. And –


PG: Well, aren’t you a little tired of the disabled sucking off us, Mary?


MO: Oh, yeah, yeah, you know, those lazy, feckless bastards, you know –


PG: With their great parking spaces –


MO: Yeah, oh my god, yeah. I’ve actually had people ask me that, you know, “Well, they can’t be that badly off if they have a car.”


PG: You’ve gotta be shitting me.


MO: Yeah.


PG: Wow.


MO: So why, why do they need our help if they can afford a car? There’s a point where you’re dumbstruck, you know, there is – there are points where you just go, “It doesn’t really matter what I say to this person, you know, because the fact that they’re saying that to me just speaks volumes.”


PG: Unfriend. Unfriend.


MO: Unfriend. You know, I don’t know. I don’t know what you do with those people, but you don’t spend too much time –


PG: So give me some snapshots.


MO: So I had – so for me, personally I think, my education was possibly the single most important factor in my childhood. So I – I had a grandmother who was, for want of a better word, a total asshole, and she told me once I started off my own back, being interested in reading, like basically eating books for breakfast, she told me that there was no way in hell that I was going to amount to anything, who did I think I was, I thought I was better than everybody else. And I’m like, what, because I can read? You know.


PG: Wow.


MO: Yeah, so there was a bit of me that just went, “No, nah, nah, nah, nah. Just to spite you I’m gonna kick ass,” you know. “Just to spite you.” It just so happened that I had these amazing teachers right from the get go, and – it just inspired me beyond belief. And, at the time in Northern Ireland we had basically what ended up being a segregated education system not just by religion, but by social class as well. So, if you were a kid from a working class background your chances of passing this qualifying exam to get you into the best schools were pretty slim, and I failed that exam at age eleven. Normally what happens is that you are then designated as person who would be a shop worker, or a receptionist, or a box – make boxes in a factory. All jobs that need to be done, but to be told that that’s all your fit for at a age eleven really rankled, and my teachers told me which school I should go to, which happened to be on the Falls Road, and was run by this extraordinary woman, a nun, who was in the Sisters of Charity, which were an order of nuns that were all about redressing poverty. They were out in the field, they weren’t sequestered, they weren’t cloistered, and her whole ethos was: A. if you’re a girl you can do anything, and B. if you were a girl who grew up in poverty you can do anything. And it didn’t matter what our background was. We arrived in that school, the first thing we were told is: “What do you want to be? What do you want to do with your life? We’re here to make it happen.” Utterly extraordinary to be part of something like that.


PG: What do you remember thinking or feeling the first time you heard that?


MO: Terrified! This woman was one scary lady.


PG: Really?


MO: Oh god, she wore – she wore those glasses that when the sun hit them they tinted and went slightly darker, so we all used to call her – we all used to think she was like a mafioso, you know. She would like sort of march around the place terrifying everybody. But terr – I mean she literally terrified everybody. When the IRA came to tell her to shut the school down because there were funerals going on she told them to sod off. You know, “My girls are not missing a day of school.” If there were riots on the street should would walk us down the road to make sure we got home, walk us back up again. You know, all kinds of stuff, but, you know, you’re a young girl and you’re thinking this woman is awesome. Right? Scary as hell, but awesome. But, how – you know, terr – if you asked anybody who when to my school what they thought of her the first thing they’d say is, “We were terrified.” But the second thing they’d say is that she told us something that most kids in poverty never get told: that with the right support, a good education system, we can, you know, we can break out of this. And, so we had like, the school had the best record for employment in the high – one of the highest poverty areas in Europe. Something like 80% employment leaving school. The rest of us went to university. The idea that you could – you could do all kinds of things wasn’t out of our remit. We had people who went on to be actors, doctors, lawyers, you know – that was not happening in the other schools in our area. As hard as they tried that wasn’t happening. So for me that is the most defining thing, because what she refused to give into was what she saw as the, I suppose, being – as us being penalized for where we were born, and being told that we were less than, and she wasn’t gonna have any of it, frankly. And that was an amazing thing to be a part of. And, that’s why I say when, you can live in the hardest of circumstances but every now and again someone does something that just blows you away.


PG: Did you have any champions within your family? People who championed you and your intellect?


MO: It was kind of hard, because – they just thought I was a freak. I mean they weren’t wrong in that regard. But, but this is – I was sort of like, weird, and, like I was nerdy, but I was still a tough little street kid too, so, I mean – if you asked my childhood friends now they would tell you what I was like, because I’d come home from school, I’d do my homework, I’d read a couple of books, and then I’d go out and hang around on the street corner, and steal these boys and make them kiss me, and, you know – and just get into all kinds of trouble, and, you know, start drinking beer at like twelve, and, you know. And it was –


PG: You have a lot of energy. I mean that’s a full day.


MO: It’s a really full day, I tell you. But I was as like, I was like, I don’t know – I was like sort of street kid/nerd if there is such a thing, you know. And, so, it was difficult because most of my brothers and sisters were younger than me, and I spent a lot of my time looking after them as well, because of difficulties at home. So I did that kind of side of things too: did the shopping for the family, made sure all the food was on the table, all of that kind of thing. So I had those responsibilities at home. I had these re –


PG: And how many kids?


MO: Seven. And I had these really great friends who were, like, they’re still my friends. We were together since we were like, ankle-high, you know. Wonderful people. So I always had them, they always supported me. My older brother – there was one point where, I think I was thirteen, and he went and punched one of my boyfriends because he said he was distracting me too much from my schoolwork. And, just like – just went up and punched him in the street. And, so then, I kneed him in the nuts, and said, “Look, how stupid do you think I am,” you know, “just because I’ve got a boyfriend doesn’t mean I’m not gonna do my shit, right? And now I don’t need you protecting me.” You know, it’s like – that’s when I realized what feminism was, you know. It’s like – it turns out you can knee blokes in the nuts, that’s brilliant! So he was constantly trying to – you know, make sure I didn’t fall off that path that I’d put myself on.
PG: But you couldn’t see it at the time, you just...


MO: Oh, I could see it clear as day. I knew he was being protective. But he was my older brother and he was being a dick, so, you know, what do you do? And, but he, but even he didn’t quite understand why I had to do what I had to do, and so, like, I’d be sitting in the kitchen writing an essay and frettin’ about it, and then I – my dad came in and go like, “why don’t you just not do it if it’s causing you that much stress, just don’t bother.” I’m like, “You haven’t a clue, have you?” You know, my parents were semi-literate as well, so they didn’t – they didn’t read. I mean my mum read Mills & Boon and I’m just like, “Jesus, that’s terrible, what do you read that shit for?” But –


PG: What did she read?


MO: Mills & Boon, you know those romance novel things, there’s always some hairy-chested medallion-wearing suave dude on a Mediterranean yacht that comes in and scoops this housewife away, that kind of story, you know. So I’m like, yeah, whatever floats your boat if that’s what you have to do to deal with all this shit fine by me. But I’d be like really, earnestly carrying on with stuff, and then at fourteen I decided to stop drinking because it was getting in the way, you know. Like ‘cos at fourteen that’s what you do. Well, like –


PG: I’ve had a hard life.


MO: I’ve had a hard life, my friend. And so – me and my friends were doing that weekend drinking thing and stuff and then I had to knuckle down and get on with some shit, but other than that no one in the family really kind of understood what was happening. Now when it came time for me to be doing my A-Levels, which are the equivalent of the final exams here in the U.S.


PG: To get into to university?


MO: To get into university, and I had an offer from Cambridge, which was an incredible thing on so many levels because if I went I’d be the first person from my school ever to go to either Oxford or Cambridge in its history. And you bear in mind what I was telling you about my principal and telling us we could be anything, it was a really big deal, and when I told people that this is what was going to happen, my dad stopped talking to me, he didn’t speak to me for six months.


PG: Why?


MO: Because I was supposed to only leave the house if I was on his arm, walking up the aisle and getting married, that was –


PG: Oh my god.


MO: That’s what was supposed to happen. And my mum threatened to kill herself if I left ‘cos she said that she couldn’t cope if I – ‘cos I did all the stuff at home in terms of looking after younger kids and all of that, managing household finances and things and she said, well – she had tried to kill herself a few times, this – it’s not like I could take it as an idle threat. And she’d been institutionalized a few times, so this wasn’t like some random threat, this was something that I understood very clearly as someone who’d patched her up after different attempts and my friends and my boyfriend at the time said you can’t let this happen. This is like – if you walk away from this, you know, you will absolutely never forgive yourself, and – so I went to my teachers, I went to the head teacher and said, “Look, this is what I’m facing.” And it’s quite funny, two of the nuns went marching down, marched into the house basically. In the Catholic community at that time, even though my mum was atheist, it’s still kind of, you know, scary when the nuns come. And they had the whole habits and everything. They looked like, you know, pretty fierce pterodactyl-ly type figures. So they swooped in and said, “Under no circumstances do you tell this child you’re going to do this. ‘Cos you know what? You’re not gonna kill yourself. You’re not. You know you’re not.” And they’re just like, “So, just let her live her life.” And, of course, my mom’s like, “Oh, yes sister, I think she misinterpreted me. I don’t think she understood what I was tryin’ to say.” And they’re like, “No, she understood what you were tryin’ to say.” And, you know, it turns out it was an idle threat, you know, there were lots of things wrapped up in it like obviously she didn’t think she’d be able to cope, and this was her only way of communicating that to me. But they basically said, “No way, bitch. This is not going to happen.” But it still didn’t make it easy to leave, you know.


PG: And so where did you go?


MO: Well, I went to Charleston first on that scholarship and then straight to Cambridge after that.


PG: What did you think your first day in Cambridge?


MO: Holy shit. That’s literally what I thought. Well, it was weird because I turned up and when I originally applied, I mean there was no internet at the time, so you couldn’t just do a search and find out what people thought of this place. I had no idea. I knew no one had ever been. Even set foot on the land of Cambridge you know, had no idea. So my – one of the teachers and I looked through the brochure and decided, “Ok, so where do you want to go?” Well, I don’t want a big college ‘cos I think they’ll be too intimidating for me. I love history so let’s find an old one. So we picked an old one that didn’t have – ‘cos the collegiate system in Cambridge like twenty nine colleges make up the university, but you live in a college, it’s a cultural thing. We didn’t know this. “So that picture looks nice, let’s pick that,” right? It was all male and I was going to be in the first year of women in four hundred years at this joint.


PG: What?!


MO: Yes. So I went from an all female –


PG: Those are some sweet odds, Mary!


MO: Oh –


PG: You didn’t have to pull the boys in to make out –


MO: Oh, don’t get me started, right? I didn’t have to pull them into the bushes anymore. But, it was – so I turned up. It was estab – you know how you were talking about everything starts with Henry VIII? Well, he established this college, right? He established this college. And, I get there, and I realize there are ten men for every woman. A lot of nerds. So, some of them are staying in their room the whole time, which is is fine. But, A. first year women in its history. B. it was the poshest college – even other Cambridge colleges mocked it for being posh.


PG: And which college was it?


MO: “Maudlin,” right? It’s spelled Magdalene, which I thought it was pronounced “Mag-da-lene” when I first got there and was pretty quickly corrected for my plebian, you know, lack of knowledge about the place. It was the poshest, it was full of these big, burly rugby players. I think in my first week I punched one of them and I kneed one of them in the bollocks. [‘Bollocks’ is British slang for testicles.] Because they came up, and, you know, tried to, thought that like, “oh, yeah, yeah, I could easily woo this woman,” and I was like “fuck off,” you know. So I got a bit of a reputation as a hard nut, which is hilarious because in Belfast I was like little quiet girl, you know, no one would have had me down as a hard nut. But to all these posh English guys I was like little boxer-scrapper woman, you know. It was funny.


PG: The street urchin from Northern Ireland.


MO: I was, I was like, I was like Rocky or something, you know what I mean, just turning up and all these people were – like you had to wear like a gown to dinner –


PG: What?


MO: Yeah, you couldn’t wear jeans to dine. Dinner was by candlelight. I mean it was like – it was Harry Potter. If you could imagine a dinner scene in Harry Potter that was my college. And it was the only college that still had dinner by candlelight. That’s how far back it was. But, the contrast between that and home was – I tell ya, it was – there is just –


PG: You must have thought you were on another planet.


MO: Now, I did. It was like – I was – that’s how I explain it to people because it wasn’t just like, it’s not even like going to a foreign country, it’s like on the moon, it’s like I have no idea about any of this. So I’ll give an example. You know this idea of how you have like fifty sets of cutlery at dinner time and you panic because no one’s taught you how to use them, right?


PG: That you start from the outside and move your way in?


MO: So it was bloody obvious to anyone sittin’ beside me that I didn’t know what was going on and, like some people who became a good friend of mine was sittin’ next to me a said, “Just work your way in.” And I’m like, “Oh, thank you,” because he made no big deal about it. And it was great. The funny thing was we got to the third course and – which was a sorbet and it was this tiny little dish and I was sittin’ thinking “It’s not much of a dessert, is it?” I mean Jesus, it’s like one tiny scoop of sorbet. Or “sorbit” as I called it at the time. And so I ate it and I’m thinking, “Okay, that’s it,” and so I said to this guy, “That was like a really crappy dessert.” And he’s like, “That’s not your dessert that’s a palate cleanser.” I’m like “What do you mean?” He’s like, “Well you’ve just had a fish course, now you’re clearing your palate for the meat course.” I’m like, “How many of these are there?” and he’s “Oh, there’s another five after that,” and I’m like, “Jesus Christ.” I had all the bread on the table because I thought all these portions are really small. So, I was just eating all the bread because I was hungry. I didn’t know there were all these courses to go through. So it was things like that that were just mystifying to me. And then once you’ve done them once, you’ve done them once, you never make the same mistake again. But I had moments of mortification like that all the way through.


PG: Give me a couple more. These are so fantastic.


MO: Just like words that people would say that – however well read I was my – you know that statistic that says if you’re a kid that grows up in poverty your vocabulary is like thousands of words short by the age of seven compared to someone who doesn’t grow up in that background. Even with my book eating I make stupid mistakes like pronounce words wrong because I’d never heard them said. I’d read them, but I’d never heard them said and so I’d turn up at like, so I was studying politics and I’d turn up at a supervision ‘cos at Cambridge you get one on one teaching, which is like, incredible. So it’s just you and this extraordinarily intelligent person. And I said things like “head-JEW-mony” for hegemony, just – I was pronouncing everything wrong and I didn’t realize until I was in a lecture and in the lecture someone would say it and I was just, “My god. Jesus Christ,” you know? I’m just shooting off all these signals that I don’t know jack. But the weird thing was – I keep saying – I realize I keep saying “the weird thing,” but it was fucking weird. But I got to the end of the first year and again, I had no idea where I was in the pecking order. I didn’t know what I was doing was any good. I didn’t know whether the leap I’d made was a leap too far there. I really was convinced that I was going to be kicked out. That I was gonna fail because it’s a really intense academic experience and I worked my butt off, right? I played sport, I did plays, I drank, I did all the stuff you’re supposed to do at university. All of it. And when there’s ten men for every woman, why not? But, I got to the exams in June and had a total meltdown. I’m like, “What am I doing here? I shouldn’t be here. I don’t belong here. Why’d I even think of coming here,” and one of my friends found me walking around the garden like talking to myself. Just going – this is like, okay – this is it, I’m a fraud. I’m a total fake. So kick me out now. Don’t even have to sit the exams. This is literally what I was doing. He he was shaking me going, “Will you catch yourself!” Like, “Jesus Christ,” you know, and I’m like, “You don’t understand, do you? You don’t -” and he’s just like – so he took me, got me a pint of Guinness, sat me down, and said “You’re gonna kick ass.” I still didn’t believe him. But I kicked ass. Like I got the highest mark in the university in Politics in my year, and I’m like, even my supervisor wrote to me and said “This is incredible.” And then the next year, I said, so does this mean I can like not have to be so intense? So I set up a dance company. I asked him how many essays I could get away with writing without being kicked out. Amazing how your mind changes.


PG: How few, you mean?


MO: Yeah, how many essays can I write and still get through the second year. ‘Cos I didn’t have exams at the end of the second year. And he said “Okay, so you know you won’t get the highest mark again, you know you won’t replicate that if you don’t do what you did,” and I said, “I’m okay with that. I want to set up a dance company.” And I did. And I thought when else am I going to have the chance to do this? And I got a bunch of people just wrote and choreographed and floundered about the place like an agent.


PG: Where’d, where did that come from, the desire to start up a dance company?


MO: Well all the drama I had done in school and the community work and I’d been in every musical known to man, like Oliver, The King and I, I’d been in all of them jumping about like a little squirt and I loved dance, you know, just always, and I – but no I want to choreograph, I just, sorry – wrote the production, auditioned people, you know, just did this whole thing based on Dante’s Inferno, corralled all my friends into doing things like selling tickets, and putting up posters, and, and just – and I was still doing plays as well, and I was doing a play with a couple of Old Etonians [Old Etonians are alumni of Eton, a prestigious boarding school where several British prime ministers and members of the royal family were educated], you know these really posh guys who (affects an exaggerated upper class English accent) “spoke like this and O’Hah-rah!” you know, called me by my second name [‘Second name’ is British English for last name] and everything. And, I said I’m going to live this experience, I am gonna have this full experience, and I’m really glad I did, because there was a bit of me that had this enormous chip on my shoulder about where I’d come from, I didn’t have the insouciance that these guys had, you know, they felt they belonged here. This was – their whole life was about being here. To me it was the most ridiculous thing that ever happened. And once I realized that I could hold my own academically, that I could do that, now I can relax, ‘cos I had a guy who came one day, who came – who weirdly with my friend Richard who had helped me with the cutlery situation, and we’re walking through the courtyard, and as if I wasn’t there, this guy turned to Richard and said, “So, I don’t really understand why she’s here.” As if I wasn’t standing there. And he said, “What do you mean?” He goes, “Well, it’s not like anyone from her family has been here, it’s not like her parents have been here, so I don’t understand why she’s here.” And Richard looked at him and he said, “’Cos she fucking earned it.” And then the two of us just wandered off and left him standing there. And six months later I find the same guy up a tree drunk off his head just like, I dunno, talking nonsense, and he fell out of the tree and, just at my feet, and I thought, this say it all. This is like, you know, “you dickhead.” But, of course, he would have gone on to make a load of money in the city.

PG: I’m sure, I’m sure. Is your dance company still around?

MO: Oh, god no, I only did it at uni. But it was great, it was great.

PG: So what was the focus of study at your college?

MO: Oh, all the colleges do all different subjects.

PG: Oh, ok.

MO: So, it’s a weird thing where you do – you’re part of a college but you’re also part of a faculty. So we had a mixture of medics, lawyers, classics, anthropology...

PG: You mean you studied all of those things.

MO: The entire spectrum was studied at the college, but different people were doing different subjects, so three of us were doing Politics. In my year, I think there were maybe twelve doing law, five or six doing medicine. Engineers...

PG: So you didn’t get your degree in journalism.

MO: No, I got my degree in Social and Political Science. And then after I went to work for The Guardian I actually worked for The Guardian on the commercial side of the company for a while, and the editorial side headhunted me from the commercial side. The editor asked me if I wanted to write for the paper instead of bringing money in for it, and they sent me to the University of Sheffield to do my journalism...exams.

PG: That’s fantastic. Were there moments when you were studying political history at Cambridge where they talked about Northern Ireland and you thought, well this isn’t exactly right?

MO: Yeah, well I still get that. I mean, I’ve had that in, like around people who are like really great journalists who don’t really get it.

PG: What are the common myths or misreported things?

MO: Well, one of the things are the things that don’t get reported, so people don’t know is that people still get shot and still get beaten, they don’t realize –

PG: Even though there’s a peace accord for –

MO: That’s right.

PG: Ten plus years.

MO: So, for, like coming up to twenty years there’s been a peace agreement, but you don’t eliminate those things overnight. The poverty is still, I mean, excruciating for a lot of people. The areas that are the poorest are the ones that have the worst of the troubles. They’re also the areas that were policed by the paramilitaries, so for a long time you wouldn’t call the police if something happened to you, you’d call the paramilitaries and that’s who sorted it out. So you still have those sectarian – and you’ll see them sometimes on the news when there’s riots or whatever. But that goes on – all year long there are incidents and difficulties, and that includes some people being shot, it includes attacks on the police force, etc. etc. So that kind of stuff still carries own. So people don’t necessarily know that because it doesn’t get reported in the national media. Loads of things I’ve had said to me along the lines of, well, “the IRA never hurt their own people.”

PG: Oh, even I know that’s bullshit.

MO: Right, but I’ve had perfectly educated intelligent people say that to me. And I’m like, “No. No no no no no. That is certainly not the case.” And, I mean, I could, I could, like repeat so many examples of where that happened in my life with people that I knew who were killed by the IRA and were part of the Catholic community, or who were attacked by the IRA, etc. I mean, it’s extraordinary to me that people don’t realize it, but I’m always having to remind myself that what I know, I can’t assume that other people even have an inkling of it. And, I’m always ready to help people learn a bit about it when they ask those questions. But I’m still – when it’s a – especially when it’s journalists who ask me, I’m like, “No, come on.” I mean you haven’t even got the excuse of going to a library to research it. I mean a couple of Google clicks and you’ll find out virtually anything that you need to know. And there’s no excuse for ignorance in this day and age, there just isn’t. And you can find this stuff out if you look, and you don’t have to look hard.

PG: Let’s talk about your emotional life. You know you grew up in this environment. You had the poverty, you had the violence around you, you had a mom who sounds not really emotionally equipped to deal with life, a dad who had a very certainly small view of womens’ place in the world. What are the issues that you struggle with? Are you able to get in touch with your feelings, you know? The reason I ask is when I meet people who are great thinkers, like yourself, people who are intellectual – Mary just made a face. I forgot I was complementing an Irish Catholic, I should know to never do that. The thing that they struggle with is being in touch with their emotional life because often issues just get processed intellectually and they bypass what one is feeling. Are you able to feel your feelings and describe them and process them and talk with other people about them?

MO: Yeah, I think, I think so, I mean, something happened actually here in LA last fall where I was at a movie. I was at a movie with my husband and it was – I can’t remember the name of it, the Brad Pitt one, where the Second World War where they’re in the tank, I can’t remember the name of it. And actually, I’ve never had a reaction like this, really, but I had to get up and run out of the cinema. Because the noises of the shooting brought something back that I had never thought about since, and I was hyperventilating, and had to run out and get some fresh air. I have never, ever, ever had that experience. There was something in the sound that those bullets were making that just triggered something.

PG: Was it a specific memory it triggered?

MO: No, it was a feeling. It was, just, unadulterated fear and panic and helplessness. And I know of, I know my memories and I know the things that happened and I – I mean I’ve written about them, so I know what it was like to be a child hiding underneath the sofa while people were shooting outside the house, you know, I stood in a kitchen while someone came and put a gun to my mother’s head and told her they’d blow it off, and I was eleven years old and standing and witnessing that. Now all of these things I know and all things things I’ve one way or another coped with and dealt with over the years, but something in that sound sent me some place I’ve never been, other than in some primal way at some point that I can’t even begin to deconstruct. But I was talking to one of my very close childhood friends recently. Actually her twenty year old son died a few months ago of a heroin overdose and she said to me, you know, she moved to Germany at the same time I moved to England because we both wanted to, you know, get out. And she said the reason I brought my kids up in a different country was to protect them from the stuff that we had to face, from that misery from the violence, from the poverty, and here I am with my twenty year old son dead. And she and I have the kind of relationship where, if we’re in the same room, we don’t even have to explain what we’re thinking and feeling. We have always had that connection. I’ve always had that connection with one of my younger sisters as well, where there is no need for words, and we’re Irish, we can talk, right? We have – we can fucking speak.

PG: What is it about the Irish and the love of language, both talking and writing –

MO: And the singing, and the writing, and – it is, and it’s the same – it’s musical as well. And there’s something weird, the more I’m away from the country the more I realize how lyrical in the way we speak is. And even the Northern Irish who sound kind of harsh and scary compared to the southern Irish we sound like we’re going to beat your bollocks in at any minute, but even then there’s a lyrical quality to it, but there’s just that weird connection where we talk all the time, not just as girls, but I used to talk with – I had a lot of male friends growing up, like a lot of male friends, and sometimes we’d just sit on walls and talk about everything that was happening: the pressures they were under, the family issues, about shitty schools, about whatever was going on. And we would just talk and connect. And we built an incredible strength from that, I mean, I am so eternally grateful for the people that I had in my life as a child and as a young adult because it absolutely created a foundation that we didn’t have in our wider society or in our families for a lot of us. We found that connection together and we’re still there for each other, and even over the years when we got the calls, the inevitable calls about who’s dead – ‘cos I’m forty five years of age, I tell ya, I’ve lost more through being shot or, you know, blown up or tortured than anyone wants to have in their life.

PG: How many people would you...?

MO: I couldn’t even count. But even, even just looking at the boys I grew up with, you know. In my immediate street at least ten of them were dead by the time we were thirty five. And that’s just in roughly the same street. And I remember them sitting on a wall and we all had dreams. So those of us that made it to feel like those of us that got through – there is an incredible strength in that and I can’t, I can’t even articulate it I suppose. If I needed to offload it on something around these issues or – I could just call Michelle and there’d be no need for anything to be explained. And that goes way, way deep. Way deep. But I think I find it hard to unpick the differences between the bits of it that were to do with the poverty and the bits of it that were to do with The Troubles. ‘Cos they’re interlinked. But there’s definitely a strain of it that is to do with your place in society and being told that you are not worth something. And the thing that I have, the greatest problem I have coming to terms with is when people say to me, “But look at what you’ve done. You’ve done all these things. Shouldn’t you just feel great about it?” And I’m like, “Well, I’m never going to be satisfied.” I mean I suppose any ambitious person is never satisfied otherwise what’s the point? But, I feel like I have to constantly proof myself to myself. Over and over and over again.

PG: What are the greatest hits of negative self talk?

MO: Oh god, I mean, I think it’s the classics, you know, there’s the classics that everyone goes through and I – I probably done them all, you know: “I’m worthless. Who am I to think I could do this?” You know, “I don’t belong here. Why would anyone love me?” You know, it’s all the classics. There’s nothing unusual about, I think, how I would deal with these things. I think everybody who’s ever felt insecure or out of place would have had exactly the same thoughts.

PG: Have there been any pieces of your childhood that you have really gotten to a, into a quiet kind of space and really felt and mourned with tears what either happened or hadn’t got to happen?

MO: Oh god yeah, loads and loads. But I think probably the thing that I carry the most is the people who didn’t make it. Absolutely. And I don’t just mean the people who ended up, you know, being shot or whatever. I mean the people who ended up drinking themselves to death, the people who were so emotionally wrecked from what happened to them that they just couldn’t find the strength wherever it might have come to get through. And I – all those lives destroyed, that I find very difficult to process because I just, I just feel it was such a waste. Such a waste of potential, such a – none of these young people deserved to have that life anymore than the kids anywhere in the world today living in misery deserved to have it happen to them. And I feel that loss all the time. I feel that loss.

PG: How do you feel your relationship with your parents and having to be a parent yourself to your siblings – how do you feel that’s affected you, if at all? I don’t know how it could not.

MO: Yeah, yeah. I don’t think that –

PG: And your mother’s instability.

MO: I don’t think that there’s anyway that it wouldn’t affect you. I like to say that I got lucky and I was without a maternal instinct, so I didn’t have to make one of those judgments about do I have children? Do I not? I just knew I didn’t want kids. I imagine if I was the sort of woman who that would have been even harder for me because I would have been constantly worried about whether I was repeating mistakes, whether I was capable of being a good mother, etc. I’ve never had to think about that. It’s just, you know, the culture tells you you are supposed to have these feelings, but I’ve not had them. But, I’ve got a lot of children in my life.

PG: Nieces and nephews.

MO: Yeah, gazillions of them and godchildren up the wazoo, you know, like everywhere, and they’re expensive. But, I’ve never had to think too hard about that. But, I in many ways also feel like I did my motherin’. I think one of the hardest things was leaving my youngest brother to go to university ‘cos he was only seven. And I knew I was leaving him in a very difficult place. And whilst I went back at the end of every term, I still knew – I still felt like I had let him down terribly. And, like I’d go home and he’d show me report cards and things because he wanted to show me what he was doing, but for a long time my parents didn’t even send him to school so he ended up not getting the education he was supposed to get and – that he has done what he has done with his life is incredible to me. It’s just, you know, he’s a caretaker in a college and he’s got two young kids, and his wife died suddenly a few months ago, and watching how he’s had to deal with that. So weirdly in the past few months I’ve found myself back in that role of taking care of them. As a grown man I’m back in that position, which I’m kind of grateful for in the sense that I can be there for him, I can do this, I can help him through this, but I felt terrible about leaving him behind.

PG: Talk about your mom’s suicide attempts and what you remember thinking or feeling and how you’ve come to terms with what you had to see and feel.

MO: It was – I used to get told that – my name at home was Maureen, not Mary, one of those weird twists of Irish families that –

PG: Morning?

MO: Maureen.

PG: Oh, “Moor-reen.”

MO: “Moor-reen,” as you guys would say, “Moor-reen!” And so people would say, “Oh Maureen will sort that out, she’s the smart one.” So the assumption was that because I was kind of intellectually driven and curious that that must mean I’m emotionally equipped to sort through the detritus of all of this, so it was sort of delegated to me. And I took that responsibility quite seriously in that, if there was a fight in the house, if there was violence in the house, if my mom was going off the rails, then I was the one designated to sort it out. It didn’t matter whether I was nine or nineteen. I was supposed to be the one sorting it out. I mean, that’s just wrong. You know, when you look back on it that is just plain wrong. A nine year old should not be bandaging up her mother’s wrists. I also knew enough to know she was cutting herself the wrong way. So I knew that if she’s done it in a different way it would have been fatal. So I was aware there were issues here that she didn’t want to go all the way. I’d often have to go around the house finding her stash of vodka bottles, so they were always in the toilet cistern. So, you know, again, classics, you know, if someone is an alcoholic – everyone hides their booze in the same place so, it’s like, you don’t have to be a genius to figure this stuff out. It’s under the towels, it’s in the cistern, it’s under the mattress. And so I’d go around collecting these things and throwing them out and then she’d go berserk, you know, ‘cos she couldn’t, you know – she’d go berserk. And my dad was teetotal. He hasn’t even tasted alcohol so he has no clue what it’s like to have the slightest high. He doesn’t know what, he doesn’t know what a buzz is. He hasn’t a clue. So for him alcohol is only a disease, is only like an evil. So how do you deal with these two living in the same house, you know, so he’d beat the living shit out of her. She’d have another drink. Blah, blah, blah. And you know what it’s like with these things, they’re cyclical. So, she’d end up being institutionalized, then she’d have a dry period, she’d be almost like a normal human being, and then off the rails again.

PG: I get the feeling as you talk about, you know, patching your mom’s arms up and all that stuff that, that it was set against the backdrop of such chaos and sadness and violence to begin with that it really couldn’t have been – the volume couldn’t have been that loud on it like it was just one of another, just another piece of chaos in the big pie.

MO: Yeah, I suppose you’d think that, except the idea of home as a sanctuary. The idea of home being the one place in a storm that if you go there you’ll be okay. So in many ways that was amplified. In many ways that was worse than things going on outside. Because for all the unpredictability of that, all the strangeness of it, all the danger, the one place I should have felt okay and secure there were all these other things happening. And – I mean fortunately for us because my dad didn’t drink, and he – whilst he had his own issues, violence being one of them, was there. We knew he’d be there when we got home from school. My mom would just vanish, for weeks sometimes. Like we wouldn’t have a clue where she was. You know, I’d just sit staring a the window at night waiting to see if she’d turn the corner. And if your mom goes missing in an environment like that, it’s scary, we just didn’t know where she was. But we knew that he’d be there. And we knew that social services weren’t taking us away as long as he was there, and that was something, which is why – why school was so important in my life. Because it was the stable place. It was my sanctuary. I didn’t have it at home. And I think, for friends –

PG: And it sounds like where you discovered yourself, where you discovered who you really are and that gave you a way to thrive.

MO: I was allowed to, and this was about you – what you want from life, and not what other people are asking for you, and not the random stuff that people are throwing in your way. So weirdly, the home stuff took on a greater significance in that environment I think, and you know what it’s like a teenager, right? You’re like all over the show. So, like rage against the machine or what when you’re fourteen, fifteen in that environment, you know. Just like, I mean, god and you hate your parents in a normal situation, you’re just like whoaaa!

PG: So what were some of the primary emotions you would feel when your mom would make an attempt or she would go missing?

MO: Well, you would take it personally wouldn’t you, because if your mother leaves you feel abandoned and –

PG: Would you be sad? Would you be angry? Would you be –

MO: Well, I would often go into management mode first because I saw my job as making sure the younger kids didn’t get frightened, and making sure that they felt sure that there was someone around making sure that they were gonna get dressed for school in the morning and that kind of stuff.

PG: So you didn’t really allow yourself to feel.

MO: I did on my own. But my first reaction was very much, okay I’m not the important thing here, these guys are.

PG: Paint a picture for me of when you did then have some time on your own process. Paint a picture of that for me.

MO: Well, I think, it’s just – and again some of it is not no different from what normal teenagers would experience, except it was less imagined, you know. But I think any young person that has lived in a house with a parent who’s an alcoholic or an addict or has mental health problems will understand those sorts of feelings and what you do with them, where you put them, like whatever the wider circumstances. And I don’t think it gets enough attention, you know, how kids and young people feel in those circumstances because you’re at the mercy of someone’s illness all the time and this is the person who’s supposed to take care of you. So you get angry as hell. You get, really, really, really like –

PG: So was that your primary emotion around these things?

MO: Yes, on a really gut level. You are furious, you know. But at the same time I felt deeply, deeply sorry for her because I knew that she was out of control and I knew that she didn’t choose to live that way, I mean who chooses to live that way?

PG: You could see that she was sick.

MO: Yeah, I could see that she was troubled, I could see that just her existence was extremely difficult and like, brothers and sisters and other people, I’d try to explain this to them and say we have to take care of her, we have to try and get her through it and I was just – they thought I was mad because I tried to understand her. They just, like, wrote her off entirely, and I couldn’t really do that but I’ve had to do it as an adult, you know. We haven’t spoken for ten years because it got to the point where I can’t fix you, I can’t deal with you. If you’ve never admitted to your problems, which she never has, then she’s never got the right kind of help because she refuses to believe she has a problem, then there’s a biddy that grows up eventually that goes I can either carry this with me for the rest of my existence or I cannot and I chose not to.

PG: Sounds like healthy, healthy decision with somebody that refuses to –

MO: Seek help in any way.

PG: Seek help – yeah, or even admit they have a problem.

MO: Yeah, it’s, it’s a real – you know, that takes some doing to go that many years and cause so much chaos and still not, like, face up to your demons as it were, you know, you know? You know, sometimes I wish I had like a video camera and just videoed her the whole time going “Now you tell me you don’t have a problem,” you know. But I think you just – I think as a, as a young adult and a young woman I find I still carried guilt, I still carried responsibility, ‘cos in my formative years that’s what everything was about and I, I literally reached a point where I have to make a mature decision here, you know, I’m a grown person, I have my own life to live and – and that’s okay. Turns out it’s okay. I can do that. Now would they call that disassociation, call it what you want.

PG: I don’t think so, I think that’s a healthy boundary.

MO: But – yeah. ‘Cos when I was younger I couldn’t do it, but now I’m, yeah.

PG: Better than the insanity of enabling that person and hoping their gonna change and then resenting them for not seeing the light.

MO: One of the interesting things is because in my working life I write about this issues. So I write about addictions and mental health and having witnessed so many things first hand it does give me a level of insight, but also because I spent so much of my time interviewing people with lived experience as well as experts. The whole spectrum of people and you know, if I can’t learn something from that shame on me, and one of the things that I’ve learned is that I have it within my power to do things for myself and it’s not an overly complicated thing, it’s just: I can do that, it’s all right. I’m not being a bad daughter or a neglectful person, you know, there’s just only so much you can do.

PG: Is it hard for you to ask for help when you need it?

MO: Oh, yeah. God, yeah. I’m terrible. I’m like really, really bad at it.

PG: When is the last time you remember asking for help and what was it about?

MO: Oh, god you know. I ask all the time for like small stuff.

PG: No, I’m talking about like –

MO: I don’t know it was probably, probably when my brother’s wife died. Because I just felt that I didn’t really know what I could do that was best for him, and so I turned to the one person who, if I do need help I always turn to and it’s one of my younger sisters, my sister Lisa. Who is like a dynamo on every level. She’s got five kids of her own, all of who are amazing and wonderful and cool. But she’s the person to who I can say “I can’t deal with this, I can’t do this.” Like my husband, we’ve been together fifteen years. He knows me pretty well and, but even then he has to tell me to just ask for help, you know. A little – you know, well he just says I’m stubborn. He’ll go, “You’re so stubborn, just ask,” you know, “what’s the worst that can happen?” And I’m like I know, but for me I have to be able to stand on my own two feet. I have to be independent. Everything is about self sufficiency. I have programmed myself that way through the years. I never want to be at the mercy of something I can’t control. I never want to be that way.

PG: Yet, all of us –

MO: Of course we are, logically –

PG: Are –

MO: Logically, we’re –

PG: You can’t get through life without having those moments.

MO: You can’t get through life without being shunted from pillar to post, so you can imagine I’m like a spinnin’ top when things happen, I’m like, okay, okay. But the other thing I do have – I am incredibly good in a crisis, weirdly, so any crisis, I’m your gal. I can step up. I go into a zone. I can sort shit out pretty quickly. The logical part of my brain will click in when everyone else is screaming.

PG: My – I have that same thing. Things slow down for me when, like when the earthquake happened twenty years ago, I was like immediately, okay, let’s secure food; let’s make sure that the gas is turned off; we have water; call the family back home; let them know we’re okay; where are we going to sleep tonight? One of the first things I said to my wife was, “We have that pasta primavera in the refrigerator. If we keep the door closed it will stay cold for a long time.”

MO: But that’s exactly – that’s exactly how my head works ‘cos I will be in any kind of crisis situation just – I’ll be the person going: “Okay, I’ll assume a leadership role automatically. I’ll delegate. I’ll – .” You know, that’s just – it’s just who I am and I – and it’s – I might have a breakdown two weeks later or something, but I’ll get your ass through the immediate problem.

PG: I did. I had a physical breakdown where my body, like two weeks later I had rashes and – oh, it was horrible, because I just held it all in.

MO: Yeah, yeah, I’ve had that, but – you know. In the moment, no problem.

PG: Sure! Our seed’s strong. Well, Mary thank you so much for coming. I just really had a great time talking to you and I know the listeners are going to love you and love hearing this. So thank you so much and thank you for what you do.

MO: Well, it’s been a pleasure and it’s been great talking to you. Well, talking to you the past six months on different things, and so thank you so much.

PG: Yeah, and if people want to get a hold of you or read any of your stuff – your book is called Austerity Bites.

MO: It’s out in paperback in the U.S. So it’s on Amazon and the var – you know, any of the online sites you’ll be able to get it, and there’s a website for the book: And you can find out more about me and my work and links to the journalism, etc. all on that.

PG: Okay. Thanks, Mary.

MO: Thank you very much.

Well, I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. Before I take it out with some surveys I wanted to remind you guys there’s a couple of different ways to support this podcast if you feel so inclined. You can support us financially by going to our homepage. The website is, and you can make a one-time PayPal donation there or become a recurring monthly donor, which is greatly, greatly appreciated. God bless those of you who are monthly donors. It really helps. You can also, if you’re going to shop at Amazon, do it through the search portal on our homepage and we’ll get a couple nickels from Amazon, doesn’t cost you anything. You can also support us non-financially by going to iTunes and writing something nice about us, or by spreading the word through social media about the podcast. All those things help and it really adds up.


Enough of my yakking, let’s get to the surveys. We’ve got a gigantic stack. I don’t think – I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get through all of these, but I found them all to be compelling for one reason or another, so let’s get into it. This is a Shame and Secrets survey filled out by – and by the way, Ivy is about ten feet from me and her breath smells like it is right in my face. That is – and I’m – got a little green tea, maybe that’ll...battle some of the stink.


This is a Shame and Secrets survey filled out by a woman who calls herself Ugly Little Girl, so you know she’s brimming with confidence. She’s straight, she’s in her thirties, raised in a slightly dysfunctional environment, never been sexually abused, been emotionally abused. She writes, “I was about twelve, came home from school and sat at the table. Talked to my stay at home dad about my day. We got into an argument about god knows what. My memories are hazy but I have an opinion. His opinion was different. He ridicules my opinion. Makes me feel small. Laughs at me. This makes me feel angry. So I start pushing his buttons and we go back and forth until he is furious. His face contorts and his mouth does that thing I will never forget. It’s some cross between a snarl and a sneer. Then he’s after me chasing me through the house. If he catches me he’ll hit so I run in my room, barely beating him to my door. My heart is pounding and I’m screaming, crying. I slam my bedroom door in his face and hit the lock just as he starts turning the handle. He’s shaking the door knob, threatening to beat down the door. Banging on the door, screaming at me. No way in hell am I opening that door. I run to the side of my bed, cowering beneath my desk – shaking, crying – so afraid the attacker is at my door and maybe today he’ll beat down the door and get me. I hate him. I hate my dad. It’s my fault. I hate myself. I’m a bad girl with a shitty backtalk mouth and I made him do this. I pushed him to this. Why didn’t I just keep my damn mouth shut? Why does he hate me? I hate me. I do this every single day for years. It stops when I’m fourteen or fifteen and I stop engaging him. I come home from school and go to my room and don’t come out until my mom comes home. There are lots of other stories where my dad should have been my protector and was not. I’m not sure if he was trying to toughen me up by letting me fight my own battles or if he just couldn’t ‘see’ me.”


Any positive experience with your abuser? “I love my dad and I know that he loves me. He was Mr. Mom in the eighties when that was still weird. He didn’t have the emotional tools to be a stay at home parent and I think he was battling his own mental health demons including depression. I later found out that he has self medicated with pot for most of his life. He was devoted to his family and to my mother. We lived in a rural part of the country and he supported my 4-H projects and took us caving and hiking, and to the lake, and to baseball practice. It was confusing that my worst nightmare, the attacker at the door jiggling the locked door knob was also supposed to be my protector.”


Darkest thoughts: “After I had a baby I got what must have been post-partum depression. I would fantasize about cutting us all to pieces with a kitchen knife. When my husband came home from work he’d find our bloody, dismembered bodies all over the house. Mercifully these thoughts would pass, but I was so shocked and appalled by those thoughts that I’d never tell. There must be thousands of women and children that are in danger everyday but no one will tell because of the potential consequences. The first time it happened after having my first child I called my husband at work and told him how overwhelmed I felt and that I was having scary thoughts. His only reaction was, ‘don’t hurt the baby.’ That’s when I knew I was to keep my crazy to myself.”


Darkest secrets: “I lost control with my kids several times when they were little. I spanked, not in that ‘it hurts me more than it hurts you’ way, but in the ‘it definitely hurts you more than it hurts me’ way. I could see stars and feel my ears ringing and I would smack their butts until my rage had passed. I never left bruises, and it was only on the butt, but I was so ashamed that I’d become exactly who I’d sworn I’d never be as a parent: my father. I’m so, so ashamed, and would give anything to go back to those moments and swoop my children away from that insane woman who is hurting and scaring them. This probably happened ten to twelve times over a six year period, but I would threaten to ‘give spankings’ daily. The last time I laid a hand on one my children was three years ago. My most challenging child was mouthing off for the thousandth time that day and I cuffed him upside the head. It actually wasn’t ‘in a moment of rage’ and was actually an afterthought that, unlike spankings past, wasn’t even meant to hurt him. But I caught him off guard and he lost his balance. As he turned to catch himself he tripped over his feet and smacked his head hard into a wooden door frame and he went down. I can see all of this in ultra slow motion. My heart stopped. He was quiet for a moment, then he screamed and cried – thank god he was conscious – and immediately developed a huge goose egg above his eye right at the hairline. I had never hurt any of my kids in this way. I knew butt spankings, which had for the most part ended years ago. I was almost exclusively a threatener at this point, but not life threatening. This felt completely different and was so horrifying and scary. I cried and apologized to him over and over, but I will never forget the look of hurt, fear and betrayal in his eyes. I was now completely my father. My thoughtless actions could have hurt or killed my child, and I could have easily been that monster you see on the news with the kid in the ICU with brain swelling. I could just read the comments section now: ‘who would hurt a child? I hope she gets raped in prison everyday.’ At least someone else would hate me as much as I hate myself. In the next few days I was terrified that someone would ask him about his very obvious injury. I told him to tell the truth that he hit his head on the door. I told him that he could tell the whole story if he wanted to, that he didn’t have to lie to anyone and I deserved any consequences that came of it. I don’t know who asked him what. I couldn’t bear to ask, but DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) never came knocking. I told my husband the whole story. Watched the look of disgust cross his face. I guess I finally hurt the baby. As I said this was three years ago, and as of that day I have never laid a hand on any of my kids or threatened to spank or in any other way hurt them. They are all pre-teen and teens now and we have a peaceful home. I will never ever forgive myself for any of this, most especially my son’s head injury and I imagine they all will carry the scars I left for the rest of their lives. We’ve talked about these things as a family, and I’ve apologized so many times. If I’ve done one tiny thing better than my father it’s that. My father has never acknowledged his mistakes let alone apologized.


You know, as I read that I think that is so fantastic that you’ve apologized, and that you’ve recognized, and you need to forgive yourself. You need to forgive yourself. We’re all human. We all do things that we regret. And you sound like a really well meaning mom that was overwhelmed and wasn’t raised with the tools, you know. And I would imagine too, when if you’re in a – if you were raised in a house where the threat of physical violence was constantly looming, you know, that’s going to give you some PTSD or something like that that then gets triggered when you’re beginning to feel overwhelmed. You know, you talked about hitting until you were seeing stars and your ears were ringing. You know, that sounds to me like a physical response, you know, like a switch being flipped. Anyway, sending you some love and really, really thanking you for being so honest about that. You’re – you are to be commended for changing. In the – whatever knighthoods we are able to give – maybe we should start knighting people on the show. That would be an interesting low budget ceremony. Get a lightsaber. “I hereby bequeath to you the title of” - I don’t know, I’m bored with this riff. Anyway, I just – my hat is off to parents who break the cycle and you are breaking the cycle.


This is from the What Has Helped You survey filled out by a woman who calls herself Fuckface Unbearable. Her struggles are depression and anxiety and what helps her, she writes, “I tried some meds that were supposed to help with my migraines and depression but they left me with a constant mild headache and foggy. Recently my husband and I have made it a point to have a long hug at the end of the day. It helps more than I ever would have thought. It makes me feel loved like I never have been before and listening to this podcast makes me feel like I’m not alone. Thank you.”


Thank you, right back at you.


This is from the Psych Ward Experiences filled out by Alice “Wunderlund.” “Wunderlund?” Jackass. It’s like the Jewish superhero: “Supermun.” She was hospitalized as a psychiatric in patient a total of five times. Only one of those admissions was voluntary. “My longest stay was five months. I was ordered in by the mental health tribunal after another suicide attempt.” Describe your experience: “The first four days were horrible. Restraints, injected sedatives, seclusion rooms – it was like something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The last hospitalization, however, was what turned things around. It was a two week stay in a facility that was all about long term health and well being and really pushed the idea of self care instead of relying on others to ‘save us.’ I can honestly say that this stay helped me to shift my thinking and probably saved my life. I’ve gone from numerous suicide attempts resulting in resuscitation and life support, severe self harm and alcoholism to a year without the need for any hospitalization, no self harm and only a few minor relapses related to alcohol. Without the last hospitalization I am pretty sure I’d be six feet under.”


Well, congrats on your progress, that’s fantastic.


This is a Shame and Secrets survey filled out by a woman who calls herself Battle Scarred, and I’m just gonna read a portion of it because she didn’t completely fill it out. She’s straight, in her twenties, raised in a slightly dysfunctional environment, was the victim of sexual abuse and never reported it, she’s been emotionally abused, and I just want to read her Darkest Secrets. She writes, “I’m a compulsive skin picker. I’m afraid I’ll always have the scars all over my body. They’ll never fade and I’ll keep picking, making them worse and creating new scars. I’m afraid I’ll never come to terms with the fact that I damage my skin and I will never look ‘normal’ again. I’ll never be able to wear a sleeveless wedding dress or wear a bathing suit on a beach vacation with friends. I’m afraid I’ll never accept that reality that I’ll have to wear the evidence of my mental illness on my body for the rest of my life, so I’ll just continue to hide it under clothes and by avoiding social situations that could expose my secret by coming up with bullshit excuses for why I’m covered in scars. Yeah, I had adult chicken pox, or my favorite: I was splattered in hot oil from a lantern when I went camping with my friends one summer. Right.”


Well, I hope – I hope you can get to a place where you have compassion for yourself. The fact that we all feel overwhelmed and thing – the minor thing that separates us is how we all choose to cope with being overwhelmed and the one thing we can change is to find coping mechanisms that are healthier than the ones we’ve been using.


This is from the What Has Helped You Survey filled out by Leady and her issues are depression, self harm and self loathing. And what helps her is music, diary, drawing in pen, stabbing a chair, burning paper, bathes and running.


I kind of like the stabbing a chair and burning paper. I don’t know if those happen at the same time. Maybe she – I guess you couldn’t do it while you’re taking a bath. You could stab a chair while you’re running. Run in place while stabbing a chair. That’s some good cardio.


This is Shame and Secrets survey filled out by a guy who calls himself Bearded Otter. He is straight, in his twenties, raised in a pretty dysfunctional environment, never been sexually abused, has been emotionally abused. He writes, “As a child I had the trifecta of bad parenting: angry, insecure step dad, a passive mother and an absent father. Let me just illustrate this with an awfulsome story. My step dad always assumed I was gay because I never went out on dates, so instead of talking to me like any loving parent would, he decided to test me. When I was about sixteen he invited me into his bedroom one morning. He was a cop. He had gotten a hold of a video tape from a prostitution sting operation. Footage showed a stripper dancing for a bachelor party in a hotel room. One of the guys give her some extra money and she strips naked and lays on the couch. Each of the guys proceeds to line up and take turns rubbing their faces into the woman’s crotch. Needless to say, I found the footage disgusting and didn’t want to watch it with him. I left the room and failed his test. He got angry, talked with his other cop buddies and came to the conclusion that I was gay. He held this against me for months refusing to speak to me. I had no dog in this fight because I was child, but was always treated like a disappointment and talked down to. My mother, despite her love, never tried to stop his emotional abuse and left me feeling lonely when my natural father, despite his promises, never took the time to develop a relationship with me.


Any positive experience with your abuser? My step dad would take me to movies. I remember seeing the original Star Wars when it was rereleased in the nineties and hold that memory sacred. I makes me not want to hate my step dad, especially now. Twenty seven years old and have come a long way through therapy, meditative and mindful practices, and self care. I see him now as the flawed, insecure and hurt man that regrets his actions now. He has softened his demeanor and expresses his love for me frequently. I guess when I finally sit down with him, tell him about the pain he caused me I will feel like I have some resolution with the past, but in the meantime it feels complicated.


Darkest thoughts: Engaging in rough and dominative sex. I would like a woman to physically dominate me in nearly every way possible and vice versa. It makes me said that I might not get to live out this fantasy if I decide to stay in my current relationship. I consider breaking it off and getting on to or join some other kinky community.


Darkest secrets: Right after graduating college I moved across the state and my then girlfriend broke up with me. A few months later she and my then best college friend started dating. I lacked the emotional control and self care and as you would imagine lost my mind. I spent everyday stewing in rage. I harassed them through text and online messages threatening violence, trying to hurt them emotionally. I eventually stopped when he told me to fuck off. Even after this rage dwelt in my chest and continued to poison my soul and my mind for nearly half a year. However, looking back I still feel guilt over my actions. I thought about apologizing to them, but I’m also sad at how poorly I treated myself and I’m so much better now so that gives me comfort.


Sexual fantasies most powerful to you: Dominant and submissive role play. I could flip back and forth. I am fascinated by those BDSM-style relationships where one partner has to sign a contract and completely submit to the other. I would like to do that for about a week, then go back to watching Netflix after it got old.


What if anything do you wish for? The chance to be a part of something bigger than myself. To feel wanted, like a church or a start up business. I don’t want to be a slave to someone else’s expectations anymore.


Being a part of something bigger than yourself is one of the greatest things in life. And I encourage you to pursue that. Thank you for that.


This is a – these are some loves from the loveoff I did. Roxanne says, “I love when I look in the face of one of my students and see they are feeling really heard and basking in my attention.” Kate writes, “I love watching my boy-girl twins have their first conversations together. They are almost three. They are so funny and proper and when Olivia convinces Finn to give her a taste of his popsicle, she leans in an nibbles it like she’s a cat.” Nicholas writes, “I love playing hooky from work to go to the library.”


Yeah, right. I couldn’t ever imagine leaving work to go to a library. God bless you. God bless you.


Nancy writes, “I love being around other people who aren’t afraid to share their dark secrets and painful realness.”


Partly agree.


Kristy writes, “The smell of magnolias.”


I don’t even know what magnolias smell like. Turns out they smell like ass.


This is filled out by Kay. This is a Shame and Secrets survey. She’s straight and in her twenties, raised in a stable and safe environment, never been sexually abused, not sure if she’s been physically or emotionally abused. Darkest thoughts: “I think about killing myself at least once a day. I go to a job I can’t stand for at least eight hours a day. I don’t want to do anything but go to sleep when I get home. The one thing I’m good at, playing music, seems so unreachable because “being a adult” is in the way. I constantly think about quitting my job and focusing on music but I’m terrified I won’t succeed, and I’ll disappoint myself and my family. I’m also scared to pursue my dreams because I hate myself and my body. I’m afraid everyone is judging me because of my appearance.


Darkest secrets: “I was bullied a lot as a kid because I was overweight, and I think my issues with my body and myself came as a result of the trauma. I never told anyone how much I was bullied because I was embarrassed, so I’ve been holding on to this shame, anxiety, depression for most of childhood and my entire adult life. I’ve never spoken to a therapist either because as far as I know no one in my family has seen a therapist, let alone talked openly about their feelings, and I’m afraid I’ll be judged or seen as week by them. I’ve never had a bad enough life to see a therapist, so I’ve just never sought help.


And I wanted to read this to tell you: go see a therapist. Who gives a shit what your family thinks and there is no such thing, there is no criteria to meet to go talk to a therapist. There is no minimum to reach. It’s about your feelings. Are you not feeling – are you feeling as if something is missing in your life, or there is an issue that keeps cropping up? That is a reason to go to therapy. So, go. And you don’t have to tell your family.


Here’s some loves. Steven writes, “I love when I walk by the front door of the local art supply store and the scents of pencils, paper and paint comes briefly wafting out.” Missy writes, “Blowing bubbles from the roof and watching peoples faces below while they look for the source of the bubbles while trying to pop them as they walk by my loft.”


That’s fantastic. That is fantastic.


Tracey writes, “I love watching old childhood TV shows and movies with our daughter.”


I bet that’s gotta be nice.


This is a Shame and Secrets survey – hold on, sip of tea. Herbert says hello, by the way. This is a Shame and Secrets survey filled out by a woman who calls herself Bipolar Kitty. She’s bisexual, in her twenties, raised in a pretty dysfunctional environment, never been sexually abused, she’s been physically and emotionally abused. She writes, “My mother moved us away from our physically and emotionally abusive father when I was four. I’m glad she was able to move us out of that situation, but looking back now my mother was very emotionally abusive so I’m not sure it was that much better. When my siblings and I were young my mother always pretended she was dead. She would hold her breath and become unresponsive until we cried and then she would burst out laughing. The memory that stands out the most is one winter when I was five. My mother said she heard something outside and was going to check it out. We heard her scream and when we ran to the dining room window we saw blood on the snow. We knew our mother had been killed. We sobbed and started to hide. After a while our mother burst through the door and yelled, ‘Psyche!’ She had thrown food coloring into the snow. As I got older she would call me ‘skank’ and ‘slut’ even though I was still a virgin. She told me I would never graduate. When I would have panic attacks and fall to the floor hyperventilating she would tell me to knock it off. There were many more events but I think you get the picture.”


Yes, we do, and that is so fucked up.


Any positive experiences? “I do have good memories with my mother and still have a good time with her but I do not think of her as my mother. The only good memory I have of my father is when he took me and my siblings to Disneyland. We had fun, but he bought us all shoes that were too small so we developed sores and blisters on our feet.”


Darkest thoughts: “I like to think about kidnapping and slowly torturing my husband’s ex and then eventually killing her.”


Darkest secrets: “I used to cut myself and burn myself with lighters. Only my husband knows that. My mother was too caught up in her drama to notice my scabs and scars.”


She was too busy faking her death.


Sexual fantasies most powerful to you? “Being tied up and dominated by a hot girl. Nothing too extreme but I do enjoy thinking about sex with girls. Sharing it makes me excited. Only my husband knows of my desires.”


Ooh, hold that – music kicked in. Pause.


What, if anything, do you wish for? “I wish my mother would become less self-centered and focus on giving my brother a stable childhood.”


How do you feel after writing these things down? “Kind of empty. I feel I was robbed of most of my childhood.”


Anything you’d like to share with someone who shares your thoughts or experiences? “Don’t give up hope. Things do get better. Don’t hide the abuse to protect the abuser. As soon as I told my grandma what was happening she confronted my mom and I went to live with her. My life improved dramatically after moving in with my grandma. I wish I had told people sooner.”


Thank you for sharing that. I’m so glad you got to live with somebody who was loving and appropriate.


These are some loves. This one was filled out by Lisa. She writes, “I love that my boyfriend understands my bipolar and supports me through the rough days, even if it means not talking or touching me. He just keeps reminding me that I am loved.”


Loved ones of people who suffer from mental illness take note. That is exactly, exactly – just keep reminding the person that you love them.


Chris writes, “I love the moments people share in the loves and it reminds me that in amongst all the dark that a lot of people have there is always some light.”


Thank you for that.


Mor-a-mi. Mo-ra-mi? writes, “I love writing with a fountain pen and having a spare ink ready for when it runs out.”


I hope you’re writing something fancy. You better not be writing something plain with your big fountain pen. I hope it has a big feather. And you use the word “thee.”


Brian writes, “I love when I pick an album or playlist that ends up by serendipity the perfect accompaniment for whatever it is I’m doing.”


That’s a great one.


This is Psych Ward Experiences filled out by a woman who calls herself Oh Hey There. She’s in her twenties. Why were you hospitalized? “I was hospitalized three times over the period of one year when I was thirteen for anorexia nervosa and anxiety. My first two hospitalizations were at a local facility only about five miles from home. I spent a month at this hospital both times. The facility itself wasn’t horrible while I was there, but looking back it was awful. It was like being in jail. The windows were barred and we were only allowed one hour outside each day. It was this small patio that was fence in with barbed wire. The children’s side was separated from the adult with locking doors. This facility wasn’t really geared toward eating disorder patients. There were only a couple of us at any given time. Every morning we had to line up in the hall with medical gowns on for weigh in. We couldn’t eat in the cafeteria with the other kids. We had to eat with a monitor in a separate room. I actually learned some eating disorder behaviors there that I hadn’t known of before like food rituals and sneaky ways to exercise. My parents could visit once a week during group therapy which was simultaneously comforting and embarrassing. I felt like I was failing them. I told them I missed my dog and they brought her outside my window one afternoon. She was not allowed inside. I tapped on the glass and cried as she wagged her tail.”


Boy, that is a...heartbreaking image.


“The first time I was hospitalized there my roommate was this burly girl who spent the evenings wadding up toilet paper, wetting it and trying to get it to stick to the ceiling. She asked if she could make out with me and looked like she might pummel me when I said no. That evening I requested a new roommate. The children who had been there had been raped, attempted suicide, done drugs, been abused and more. I simultaneously empathized with them and felt like I did not belong. I just thought I was fat. One kid always felt the need to tell me that I ‘didn’t look anorexic.’ Most kids only stayed a week and I watched as new people drifted in and out actually seeing some students from my school. At this facility as well the staff used a feeding tube as a threat to get us to gain weight they would force us to eat ungodly amounts of food. If you you didn’t finish you had to drink a whole bottle of Ensure. I felt bloated and disgusting all of the time. It was no wonder I went back to starving myself upon release. My third hospitalization was at a special facility just for girls under the age of eighteen with eating disorders. It may had been two thousand miles away from home in the desert but it was a much better place to heal. There was no barbed wire fencing. If we were doing well we were allowed to go horseback riding. My first day there I was given a feeding tube. I hated it at first, but quickly realized they were feeding us normally-portioned meals. So every time we ate didn’t feel like a binge. I felt a bit like I was at that juvenile camp from the book Holes: surrounded by the desert with no options for running away. I spent Christmas and three months there and an additional month in a transitional home: a house with a nurse and a therapist, but where we were allowed to prepare our own meals and go to a public school. It was in the art room at this facility that I discovered a punk rock CD in the stereo system and found a new outlet, one I still use today. I’m very fortunate that I had parents that were willing to invest that type of time, resources and money to help me. I still carry around some guilt that they’re still trying to recover their retirement funds. I feel guilty for refusing to talk to them on Christmas Eve because I’d gotten extra mustard on the sandwich they served me. I feel guilty for taking my parents’ attention away from my brother, who felt very alone that year. I want to apologize to all who were my friends at that time for the hell I must have put them through with the constant pestering of ‘do you think I’m fat? Do I look like I’ve gained weight?’ etc and ultimately not understanding why they fell out of my life. Hospitalization may not be perfect, it may not be ideal, but I don’t think I would be here today if I hadn’t been hospitalized. July 5th marks the ten year anniversary of my first hospitalization. Here’s to never going back to that place ever again.”


Thank you for that, that was really moving. And I’m so, so glad you’re in a better place. God, I just love, love seeing people turn corners.


Some more loves. Kimberly says, “I love wearing shorts and a t-shirt after a long day of sweating in my military fatigues.” Barbara Jean writes, “I love when my grandson puts his arms around my neck and his head on my shoulder.”


Aww, that’s sweet.


Andrea writes, “The way my boyfriend says ‘hello’ when he picks up the phone.” Joe writes, “I love when I think I failed a paper and it comes back an A or a B.”


Oh, that is an awesome feeling, Paul said, as if he had ever gotten an A or a B. No, I was a good college.


This is a Shames and Secret survey filled out by a trans male who calls himself No. He is straight in fifties, raised in a totally chaotic environment, was the victim of sexual abuse and never reported it. “I was repeatedly molested as a young child between the ages of four and eleven. When telling my mother her response was ‘bad things happen to everyone so get used to it.’”


I dunno, that sounds pretty healthy to me. I think your mom was great.


“It took a lot of therapy to deal with my childhood but I will always have the anxiety at certain things. I’ve over the years learned to manage and live with my PTSD.”


He’s been physically and emotionally abused. He writes, “I was raised by a violent alcoholic and a drop-in father.”


Positive experiences with abusers: “As my parents have gotten older I have accepted that my mother did the best she could especially with her addictions. My father, even older, continues to be self-centered and uninvolved unless he wants something. He’s this way with all eleven of his children.”


Well why can’t he step up, pump out one more and make it an even dozen? Why would you emotionally abandon eleven when you can round that to a sweet, sweet dozen? Oh, my lord.


Darkest thoughts: “I have when I’m overwhelmed felt I’d like to either disappear or run away. Sometimes I feel the need to escape.”


Boy, I think we all do.


Darkest secrets: “I was molested by two of my mother’s lesbian lovers. I had such hangups about this for years.”


Sexual fantasies most powerful to you: “I get embarrassed to verbally share what fantasies I’m interested in because I fear judgment and denial.”


What, if anything, would you like to say to someone you hadn’t been able to: “Nothing, really.”


What do you wish for? “Peace.”


That might be the first time that somebody said that.


Have you shared these things with others? “I’ve shared with my husband but even after being together thirty-plus years it continues to come with a lot of anxiety.”


How do you feel after writing these things down? “Nervous.”


Anything you’d like to share with someone who shares your thoughts or experiences? “Not really.”


Here’s some more loves. Roger writes, “I love when an idea for a story strikes me and I can’t wait to crack open the laptop.” Margaret writes, “I love the feeling of writing with a freshly sharpened Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil.”


Margaret, I don’t think that’s specific enough. I would like more detail.


Gina writes, “I love a solid nap on fresh sheets with just the right amount of sunshine on my face and a dog on the bed.”


Oh, that’s nice. I love when Herbert, when I take a nap when Herbert comes near me. I like to have an Ivy near me. But Herbert, Herbert is just the fucking best, just the best.


I love this one from Julie: “I love the smell of snow.” There is a smell to snow. There is a smell to it. It’s so subtle, but yeah, that’s a great one.


This is a Shame and Secrets survey. This is filled out by – oh boy, this is gonna be a long episode, I still got surveys left. This is filled out by a woman who calls herself Spin Spin Spin. She’s straight, she’s in her thirties, she was raised in – where does it say what kind of environment – pretty dysfunctional environment.


Ever been the victim of sexual abuse? “Some stuff happened, but I don’t know if it counts. While listening to the podcast some memories have resurfaced. I remember drinking the night that I blacked out. I remember him on top of me. I remember his smile and laughing. I remember the penetration. I don’t remember anything else. I feel like my mind has played a trick on me and it’s not really a rape because he was smiling and laughing while he was on top of me. I’ve also had some memories from my teen years on the internet (I’m now in my thirties) of older men grooming me. And more than I care to remember. It makes me feel so much pain that now that I’m older I let those things happen to me. I was so starved for love and attention that I let these disgusting men use me.”


You know, if you guys have not seen the documentary Hot Girls Wanted it should be required viewing by every person, especially people about to turn eighteen years old. It is – almost every type of sexual abuse that has some type of grooming involved involves somebody’s loneliness and insecurity being used against them. It is – man. I was about to start to lecture parents and say “remind your kids that you love ‘em and they’re beautiful,” but, you know, I bet there’s parents that do that and their kids just because of the society that we live who still are just starved for attention and have low self esteem around their looks.


Let’s see, she’s been emotionally abused and “love-avoidant, love addict shame cycle over and over with every single fucking relationship I’ve ever had. Even when he fucking grabbed my throat and squeezed I was thinking ‘if he could only look into my eyes and see my pain he would stop hurting me. How much fucking pain do I need to convey on my face before he lets go.’ I’m so disgusted with myself. Where was this über-bitch I let everyone see now when my childhood was full of bullies.”


Oh, “Where was this über-bitch I let everyone see now, when my childhood was full of bullies and sexual/emotional abuse. I’m so sorry to my sixteen year old self. I failed you.”


No, your sixteen year old self didn’t fail herself. The people around you failed your sixteen year old self, so don’t blame yourself. You were a child.


Any positive experiences with abusers? “I’ve had a lot of positives with all of them, especially the physically abusive. He is one who can make me pee my pants laughing and make me pee my pants with fear like a frightened animal.”


Wow, that heavy. Let’s just be grateful you’re peeing.


Darkest thought: “I wish I could just kill myself to see everyone’s reaction to see if I matter. Just linger around a little bit and see what they do. Like an out of body experience. I don’t want to die, I just want someone to notice me. I want someone to tell me that they love me and me actually feel it instead of just feeling like they are lying or trying to appease me.”


Darkest secrets: “I am so broke right now. I work forty five-plus hours a week and make dick. I want to steal from my company’s petty cash drawer so bad, but I can’t. I know my boyfriend has relapsed and he won’t leave and he is sucking me dry. I am drowning and can’t ask for help. It is like me throwing up a fucking boulder every time I try to say please help me I can’t do this anymore. I am anchored to the bottom of the ocean and with every wave there is just little hope that water will dip down low enough for me to get a breath in, but it never does. I just continue to clog my throat and feel my lungs burning as I am gasping for air.”


Well, I hope you do. I hope you do ask for help because it sounds like there’s some enabling and some love addiction going on with your current boyfriend and you know, just boot his fucking ass out, because the sickness of enabling somebody is every bit as life threatening as your boyfriend’s drug addiction. They are both equally damaging. And I want to thank you for – thank you for sharing that. There’s tons of great support groups for codependency.


Some more loves. Barry writes, “I love just standing outside and feeling the ground under my feet and the air around me. And then I’ll turn around and go back inside and live my dead life.” Jennifer writes, “I love the feeling of brand new runners before the miles are on them. Pillows on my feet.”


Oh, is there anything better than new, new gym shoes? I still remember a pair of shoes, a pair of Adidas high-tops I had in college that to this day I’ve never felt such comfort. I don’t know what they did. I wish I had those shoes.


Kristi writes, “I love giving communion at church. It’s like you get to share a sacred holy moment with another person. I feel the need to fake smile a lot and that is the one time that it is definitely shining on my own.”


That’s beautiful.


This is a Shame and Secrets survey filled out by a woman who calls herself Patty Poo. She is straight, she’s in her fifties, she was raised in a totally chaotic environment, she was the victim of sexual abuse and never reported it. She writes, “I never reported it at the time, but I confronted my brother, who was the abuser, later in life in my thirties. He told me to get over since he had been abused also by his Boy Scout leader. If he could get over it, why couldn’t I? The family took his side.”


She’s been physically and emotionally abused. “My home was violent and I never knew when it would happen. My parents decided to get divorced, finally. There were late night raids rousing me from sleep. I would have to choose who to live with right then, and of course there was no right answer. Either way, I got beat by the other. If I refused to answer anymore questions they both beat me. This resulted in insomnia which I still deal with. After I confronted my brother and my family about incest, I was told my brother had changed and that I should forgive him. He was a born again Christian and God had forgiven him and I was just a failure of a human for not following God.”


Any positive experiences with your abusers? “No.”


Darkest thoughts: “I have a hit list and have all the tools I need to be a ninja. I spy on my abusers and when they are not expecting it I confront them and laugh as I castrate, torture and finally kill them. Sometimes this fantasy presents itself as if I am Mengele and they are getting off the cattle car at Auschwitz. I love the terror in their eyes as they know I hold their life in my hands.”


Darkest secrets: “The night I decided I would never return to my parent’s house I stole a lot of jewelry.”


Sexual fantasy most powerful to you: “I go to the doctor for sexual tension and he or she using a vibrator talks me into an orgasm using gentle encouraging words.”


What would you like to say to someone you haven’t been able to? “You are guilty, off with your head.”


What, if anything, do you wish for? “To sleep soundly through the night at least seven hours and to hear the judge pound the gavel and say, ‘guilty as charged.’”


Have you shared these things with others? “Yes, I’m in a safe, nurturing environment for the most part. I’ve made a good life for myself without my family.”


How do you feel after writing these things down? “A little scared, but happy to see how far I’ve come with my issues.”


Anything you’d like to share with people who share your thoughts or experiences? “I’m almost sixty years old and have been through years of talk and journal therapy. I didn’t start getting better until I incorporated meditation, exercise, massage and readings into my healing. It can get better if you feel the fear and do it anyway.”


Amen. Amen. There’s no guarantee of a life without fear, but so many coping mechanisms that help us walk through the fear and support networks are great at helping us walk through the fear. But, thank you for that.


This is an awefulsome moment filled out by a woman who calls herself Scruffy Looking Nerfherder. And she writes, “Last Fall a roommate was very suicidal. After she called someone in our group of friends to talk her down from going through with it for the sixth or seventh time in two months we decided she needed more help than we could give and took her to the hospital. She absolutely hates them but she really needed help. A friend and I spent eight or nine hours that afternoon and evening getting her out of bed and into her counselor’s office at the hospital and getting her checked in. At one point we ended up in the intake room alone together. As soon as the person doing the forms closed the door she immediately turned to me and asked, ‘Hey, have you ever made out in a mental hospital?’ I hadn’t. So we did.”


This is a Shame and Secrets survey filled out by a trans male who calls himself Ollie. He is bisexual, in his twenties, raised in a totally chaotic environment. Ever been the victim of sexual abuse? “Yes, and I never reported it.” He writes, “It wasn’t physical, but the behavior of my mother, who, apart from sexual or angry showed no other emotion. So I grew up finding female sexuality to be repulsive and the sexual attention from men to be the only way to get attention. I found it creepy when kids my age hugged their parents and I assumed most people were pedophiles. I had no idea what paternal or platonic love was. My mom was an alcoholic and used to walk around in ‘sexy underwear’ talking about how turned on she was and have loud sex with men who she’d only just met. Once, when drunk, she gave my boyfriend a lap dance. He was thirteen.”




“When my sister was caught in bed with my mom’s boyfriend (my sister would have been between twelve and seventeen) my mom was jealous and angry at my sister for being a sexual threat. I told her early on I was a lesbian so she would get distracted and stop talking about sex even though I was till attracted to men. On of her friends dressed me up in lingerie when I was ten and took photos of me from provocative angles. My mom was in the other room and I didn’t really understand what was going on. I thought they would just be cool photos. When my mom asked to see the pictures he said they didn’t develop properly. I know now that he was a pedophile and if I knew where he lived I think I’d kill him. I’ve never told anyone any of this. I’m too ashamed that it’s not real abuse but I’m so messed up I can’t hold down any real relationship and I’m certain this is the reason I’ve hated my ‘female body.’ As an adult I was raped by an abusive ex.”


All of that stuff is real abuse. All of it. All of it.


He was also physically and emotionally abused. And he writes, “Due to the emotional nature of the possible sexual abuse.” No, it’s not possible sexual abuse, it is sexual abuse. “...I’ve ended up in a few emotionally abusive relationships. I have zero self confidence as a result and even if I’m dating someone I find impossible to ask for a hug or a kiss. I had a boyfriend once who used to pity me and call me “such a victim” with a smile on his face and stub cigarettes out on his arms and legs even in public.”


Any positive experiences with your abusers? “The ex who physically abused me was also caring and sweet. I didn’t have to be present when I was with him because the only feeling I had to deal with was pain, which is the only feeling I’m good at and it was free. It was fine until I tried to break it off. Then he manipulated his way into sleeping with me even though I kept saying I didn’t want to. I was too phased out on medication to care. It was least self conscious time of my life and I enjoyed it, which is fucked up.”


Darkest thoughts: “Being a little girl again, as I was born/raised a girl, and being physically abused makes me feel wanted. I find it hard to orgasm over anything else. I zone out during sex. I have no emotional tie to sex.”


Darkest secrets: “I think I typed them all.”


Sexual fantasies most powerful to you: “I like being hit or slapped in the face and roughly fucked. Anything with zero romance.”


What, if anything, would you like to say to someone you haven’t been able to. “I’d like to tell my mother that she was terrible at raising kids and emotionally empty because she fucked me up so badly I’ve been spending my whole adult life become as little like her as possible.”


What, if anything do you wish for? “The ability to love someone and show it without anxiety.”


Have you shared these things with others? “No, it’s too big of a can of worms.”


Oh, I just want to encourage you to share it with a mental health professional because that stuff that happened to you is really serious. It’s really serious. Incest it – it leaves really, really deep scars, but – we can heal, we can heal. And I’m proof. I’m proof.


How you feel after writing these things down? “Broken.”


Anything you’d like to share with someone who shares your thoughts or experiences? “Sexual abuse isn’t always people touching you. Sometimes it’s how your trained to think, feel and what you’re exposed to. You are no less valid in your pain and your need for help.”


Well, you just dittoed me. That sounded very –


And this is the last, not the last survey but the last Shame and Secrets survey filled out by a woman who calls herself My Poor Fucking Husband. She is straight, in her thirties, raised in a slightly dysfunctional environment. She’s never been sexually abused, she’s not sure if she’s been emotionally abused.


Darkest thoughts: “Sometimes I envision punching people in the face when they are mid-sentence. It doesn’t matter the topic of conversation, sometimes people just need a good punch in the face. I also tend to envision anyone but my husband when we are having sex. From past lovers to the bartender at my favorite dive. It sometimes brings tears to my eyes during sex because I feel like such a fucking asshole. And I feel even worse because I bet he thinks I’m crying because it’s so good. It’s really good and he is one of the hottest men I know, but my mind wanders.”


Don’t beat yourself up for that.


“We are in couples therapy just to stay on top of clear communication but I will never share these thoughts or secrets because I fear I will lose everything with him. I will share these with my personal therapist.”


Darkest secrets: “I have lost track of how many people I’ve slept with. I’m thinking in the high forties. How did that happen? Recently out of college I was back visiting with friends. A bunch of us got together to party and reminisce. Some guy friends of mine were celebrating one of our friends becoming engaged that day. As we all passed out in the living room he wiggled his way next to me begging to get into my pants. Yes, not even twenty four hours engaged and surrounded by his future groomsmen he was willing to mess around with me. Many years ago a friend of mine’s girlfriend was out of town on vacation and a few of us were partying at her apartment. I went to the couch to sleep and he continued to come out and say, “Just sleep in my bed, it’s cold out here, you don’t have a blanket, etc.” I kept saying no until finally I just gave up and went into his bed. We made out, touched, etc. I continued the cycle of feeling like a slutty piece of shit who can’t be trusted. They were engaged a few months later. I attended the bachelorette party, bridal shower, wedding, and later baby shower. I love her and she is such an amazing girl. I’ve kept that secret forever. It’s been almost nine years and will take it to the grave. But I have a little piece of me that hates him. Men are fucking pieces of shit and they will all cheat on you or betray you eventually.”


You know, I understand that that’s how you feel, but, you know, ask yourself how you would feel if someone said “All women are etc. etc. etc.”


She writes, “When I get super fucked up with friends I will text an ex of mine. I will ensure he is still in love with me even though he is married too, and see if he will give everything up to move to my city and be with me. His answer is always yes, even though I have no intention on pursuing that. I’ve given my number to people and text back and forth with them when I am out drinking. I’ve come on to the bartender who works near my house. I know he would act on it even though he really likes my husband. I never go beyond texting or Facebook messaging or flirting. No kissing, touching, etc.”


Yeah, but that doesn’t mean – that doesn’t mean you’re not being unfaithful. You know, the litmus test for fidelity for me is – would you do it if your partner was right there with you and if you wouldn’t then you shouldn’t do it.


She writes, “Flirting, no kissing, no touching, etc., but I want to but I won’t. I refuse to continue being ‘the bad one’ in our relationship. And even though our marriage is new for two year I refuse to let it fail. But a sick part of me thinks that I may be trying to sabotage this marriage before he has the chance to destroy it. Beat him to it. For sure he will do something fucked up like all the other guys I described.”


Not all guys are like the guys that you described, I can tell you that.


Sexual fantasies most powerful to you: “Me dominating the male. I also regret not experimenting with women and often wonder if that would have been a better option for me considering my track history with men.”


What, if anything, would you like to say to someone you haven’t been able to? “I would like to tell the guy who continued to fuck me as I passed in and out of drunken consciousness in college that he probably should’ve called it quits instead of finishing. I may not have been okay with initially – I may have been okay with it initially, but losing consciousness is certainly a red flag that the girl may not be into it anymore. Then again, maybe I deserved it.”


You did not deserve it, and that is rape.


What happened? She writes, “Super Troopers was playing on the TV in the background and I hate that fucking movie to this day.”


And you should know also that people who have been sexually violated, often times one of the ways that they cope with it is by becoming promiscuous as a way to try to regain control, and so these things that you, you know, the ways that you put yourself down. Just know that it could be coming from the trauma that you’ve experienced.


Have you shared these things with others? She writes, “About to share with my therapist.”




“Could not share with friends or husband because I don’t want the judgment and don’t want to lose them.”


How do you feel after writing these things down? “A little better and ashamed.”


Thank you, thank you so much for your honesty.


And finally, we’ve got a – actually we have two short things: a memorable vacation argument filled out by Brittany. She writes, “My mom was pissed off on a cruise. She called me a fucking bitch, then slapped me a across the face. I felt so helpless. I decided to wipe my ass with her face towel. I felt much better after that.”


I kinda wanted to end the podcast on that one. But, I decided that I want to end it on this one which is a snapshot from a Struggle in a Sentence survey and this one is filled out by Caitlin. And she writes, “When I was nineteen I was hit by a car as a pedestrian. They were drunk. I had to relearn how to walk again. The first time I walked was in the kitchen of my mom’s house. I walked to her – I walked from her to my stepfather like a baby taking its first steps. It was magical. I know this was supposed to be about a struggle, I mean relearning how to walk was one of the biggest struggles of my life so far. But that moment of triumph and absolute love made it worthwhile.”


I love those bittersweet moments. Well my voice made it through it. What are we at? A hundred and fifty three minutes, sweet mother of God! Well, if you’re out there and you feel unstuck – go get help, go get help. Call an 800 number, call information, call a trusted friend, Google an issue that you’re struggling with. Do anything. Do anything but don’t try, don’t try to do it on your own. Life’s much better, life is so much better healing with other people. And just know that there’s always help. We’re surrounded by help. It may not seem like it but we are and you’re not alone. You’re not alone and thanks for listening.




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