Caroline Burke, Mica Adesso and Meredith A. Martyr in conversation with Ursula Somerville
In March 2017, the International Association for Women’s Mental Health held the 7th World Congress on Women’s Mental Health in Dublin in the Royal Dublin Society (RDS), titled: Rights, Resilience, Recovery. It was co-hosted by The National Women’s Council of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin. Three feminine souls, Caroline Burke, Mica Adesso and Meredith Martyr, from the United States, travelled to attend and take part in the Congress. Ursula Somerville caught up with them in conversation.
Ursula: I want to thank each of you for taking part in this conversation. Let me start with asking you, how did you decide you would return to Ireland so soon after your last visit here for the IAHIP conference in 2016? You know, each of you had an involvement in that conference either by presenting or by volunteering – was there something at that conference experience that brought each of you back one year later?
Caroline: My experience at the IAHIP conference was inspiring, powerful, and memorable. A special part of it was the joy of travelling and learning with Mica and Meredith, and soaking it all in with them. And it was great to begin in Cork and then to travel with you, Ursula, to your home in Rathfarnham. Just wonderful.
Ursula: Ah yes Caroline, I too have such fond memories of that journey! Was there anything else that really stood out for you?
Caroline: On a larger scale, I was struck at how open and welcoming people within IAHIP were in having us attend and present at the conference, and how willing they were to engage in our work. In America, our professional psychology association can sometimes be impersonal, but my experience of IAHIP was very personal – so much so that the conversations that I held within the 24 or so hours at the conference remain with me still. From the beginning of the conference, when visiting with members at breakfast and at the opening keynote by Jean Manahan from ICP (Irish Council for Psychotherapy), to the end of the evening with glasses of wine and music, I was struck by how educational and relational the experience of being in the company of Irish humanistic psychotherapists was for me. And I found myself uplifted that, in the land of my fore-mothers and fore-fathers, I was ‘at home’ with people who courageously lean into the collective pieces of suffering and hope.
Ursula: It sounds, from what you are saying Caroline, that you felt a part of the experience from the very start, there’s nothing earlier than breakfast! So, what about you Mica, what is your story of your travel to Ireland?
Mica: For me, as a young woman training to become a psychologist in the United States, my professional trajectory is defined by different milestones, each of which requires significant striving. ‘Keep your eyes on the prize’. There’s a plethora of opportunities to accumulate experience and the quantity of experience is asked for on many applications – ‘List the number of publications as first author’ – and contributes largely to assessing one’s candidacy for internship or postdoctoral fellowship or job, etc. ‘This will look great on your resume’. It makes a lot of sense, the more experience you have, the wider your perspective, and the more nuanced and fine-tuned your abilities become. The short equation, or schema, that I held was: ‘the more you do equals the more worthy you are’.
So, I applied to this and that, submitted this article and that conference proposal. I asked to help on that person’s research, and work in this person’s lab. You are known by what you do. In line with this philosophy, I applied to present my dissertation research at IAHIP. Knowing that IAHIP is a group of humanistic and integrative psychotherapists, I highlighted how my research was on the construct of altruism. I got denied.
So, as the striving student that I am, I counter-proposed, with the aid and assistance of both of you, Ursula, and Carrie – three different ideas! Two of the ideas were in line with my research and professional interests, and the third idea was more of a hobby that became a profession for my partner, and something I had fascination with. They accepted the third idea of video- storytelling about IAHIP as an organisation!
So, I went with it! The greater draw for me was to spend time with my advisor from graduate school (Carrie) and one of my colleagues from graduate school (Meredith), both of whom had their presentation ideas accepted! Additionally, Carrie had encouraged me to submit one of my personal writings to the IAHIP Journal, Inside Out, a few years back. In doing so, I emailed with you Ursula, and your warmth and kindness and sincere interest communicated over email was so palpable to me that I was drawn to go to this conference to meet you too.
Ursula: Ah, yes, that was when I was on the editorial board of Inside Out, I so remember receiving your offerings by email and the felt sense of my skin tingling as I read each piece, I think that was back in 2013 and it felt like a numinous experience then, you know our first contact together. I am so delighted that you ‘counter-proposed’ and were accepted and travelled here to us.
Mica: So, that’s the back story to arriving in Ireland for the first time in my life, and spending my first day at the IAHIP conference. I was greeted so warmly. I remember specifically that Kay Noonan introduced me to the whole conference by saying something like, “We’re lucky to have Mica with us here who will be capturing videos and stories throughout the day.” It was like I was an old friend who everyone knew. No last name. No degree status. She didn’t even rattle off all those darn publications that I had as first author (laughing)!!
I was invited into conversation; I was called to participate in the very impactful and experiential sessions put on throughout the day; I shared tea and cookies with fascinating people from all across Ireland. Not once was I asked what year in my programme I was, nor if my dissertation was defended, nor if I completed internship, nor how many publications I had, nor if I submitted to present once (or twice or three times) to this conference. No status questions. They wanted to know who I was. As a person. As a human. As a wounded healer. Oh my god.
My fear in saying this is that the Irish people will not understand this major shock. Because, as I learned throughout IAHIP, Irish psychotherapists centre themselves on who they are as people, as therapists, as wounded healers, as people who hold spirit in their bones, and whose bodies hold the score of years and years and years and years of oppression and historical trauma. And because of this, not in spite of this, they are able to hold spaces of healing for others.
Ursula: Oh Mica, that level of understanding has never been explained before, you know, I just take it for granted that as humans and therapists, we want to know the person we are with.
Caroline: Mica, I totally agree with this, “They wanted to know who I was. As a person. As a human. As a wounded healer…”, was stunning to me, almost remarkable. I am glad you have emphasised this piece because it was indeed transformative in our experience.
Mica: I thought about returning to the United States, to my status as a trainee, and introducing myself to fellow psychologists at our national, annual convention as: Mica, wounded healer. I feel confident in assuming that in the APA (American Psychological Association) all-time history, this has never been done. And to imagine the ridicule, and shame and embarrassment… and dismissal from others as ‘not able to do this work’ or ‘too broken’ or ‘inappropriate self- disclosure’, made me feel so sad. I want to be more like the Irish psychotherapists. More grounded. More spacious. More able to expose truths – in myself and in others and in history, and having that be why, when Irish psychotherapists hold hope, it feels more powerful.
Ursula: Mica, thank you for this considered response. I am struck how similar your experiences, Mica and Caroline, were of here in Ireland and the U.S. I do hope my fellow IAHIP members recognise themselves in this description.
Meredith, I am eager to hear about your journey to Ireland.
Meredith: I will be completely transparent in sharing that before I attended the IAHIP conference last year (Spring 2016), I did not imagine that I would have the professional and personal transformative process that I did. I have attended many conferences, even for being a young graduate student, in the United States that were centered around psychology, policy and gender studies. I expected rigid boundaries, impersonal research presentations, and a crowd of audience members who would introduce themselves by asking what my name is and how many publications I have authored. This was most certainly not the case at IAHIP. I was overwhelmed with the genuineness, warmth, and passion for the field of psychotherapy. I remember sitting during the beginning of the conference and listening to a speaker self-disclose that she attended therapy and that psychotherapy has saved her life. I found myself pushing my eyes to the side of my head, looking for other’s reactions in the audience to this – how could someone disclose this in such a public way in a professional setting and at a research-based conference? My mind stood still, I breathed in the Irish air, and realised my internal indoctrination into the field of American psychology and the emotional ‘cutting off’ that has occurred through my graduate school training. As the conference progressed, I found myself being continually challenged and would take moments in between sessions to thoughtfully reflect on the cultural, practical and personal challenges that were being offered to me in this space. I found this to be sacred and so important to my growth as a practitioner, scientist, student, and human. The people I spoke to, the sessions I attended, and the relationships built were all moments that individually and collectively contributed to my decision to shift my research focus.
Ursula: Meredith, one of the fears I had when our training standards started to change to a degree or masters level was that we would experience that ‘cutting off’ you describe and it would be about academia instead of ‘lived experience’ for our practitioners. But the theme of personal and impersonal is carried through each of you and I am really struck by you, Meredith, shifting your research focus as a result of your contacts at the conference.
Meredith: Indeed, Ursula, I returned to Ireland with the purpose of being reminded and reopened up to the feedback from others that my American ways of viewing and distancing myself from psychotherapy could be more detrimental than helpful. I also returned to Ireland with the hope of contributing meaningful research by investigating abortion stigma and shame that is experienced by Irish women after they have their procedure in other countries. This research was inspired by narratives and conversations had at the IAHIP 2016 conference. I returned to Ireland with a profound sense of humility, awareness, and silence to ensure that I treated this research with the utmost respect and care it deserved. This year I returned with nothing, but intentionality and a sense of humanistic, feminist purpose.
Ursula: I love to hear you leaning into ‘humility, awareness and silence’ – hmm, my favourite way of being! I want to stay in this place but if I can move on to the visit this year – 2017. The Congress met on International Women’s Day, March 8th, in Dublin and for me the plenary session was a particularly numinous experience. Meredith, I know your experience was one of travelling through the capital during a march about ‘Repeal the 8th’. While Caroline and Mica you were each in the RDS hall for that plenary session I would love to hear how these experiences impacted on each of you?
Caroline: I have recalled this experience each day since International Women’s Day – how can I not? Here I was in a conference hall in Ballsbridge, Ireland, standing shoulder to shoulder with women from around the entire world. And, although from very different places on the planet, we held one piece in common: we identified as women who were in solidarity with others who are experiencing oppression. On our feet we together stated in strong voices that we affirm: “the importance of full access to mental health rights for women”.
Ursula: Ah yes Caroline, here you are talking about the Dublin Declaration to “advance women’s mental health and well-being across the globe”. Now that was one powerful experience.
Caroline: Yes, we were speaking that day in solidarity for the women of Ireland, and we were simultaneously speaking for all women in the world whose rights do not exist or are threatened. Just within a few inches of me I heard women voice this declaration in accents from Africa, Ireland, India, Australia, Europe, and more. There was a powerful sense that we were no longer isolated, that our strength was in our unity and it was represented in that room at that moment. A shift occurred within me personally as well, a shift which gave me a felt experience that there is power in the universality of women who unapologetically express their absolute right for access to mental and reproductive health care in order to assist our physical and mental well being. Inspiring and powerful and true.
Ursula: Inspiring is definitely a collective experience of being there for sure. And Mica what do you hold from your experience in the RDS that day?
Mica: A couple of pieces stand out for me, in particular, about March 8th, 2017 in RDS. Firstly, to be frank, I didn’t know anything about the 8th amendment until just before departing for Ireland when you, Ursula, advised going to the Congress on March 8th and mentioning a march to repeal the 8th also happening that day. So, I looked up what the 8th amendment was about. I read about it and still didn’t really understand what this meant. Throughout our days in Ireland before March 8th, I witnessed Carrie introducing herself to others intentionally with, “Hi, I’m Caroline Burke. I’mfromtheUnitedStatesandIdidn’tvoteforthecurrentAdministration.” All in one breath. To not leave any room for anyone to think differently or wonder or begin hating her. Before another round of breath finished, whoever she was speaking with responded with the utmost empathy and concern and care. “Oh, I’m so sorry for what you’re dealing with”; “This is awful”; “I can’t believe what he (whose name will not taint this conversation) is doing with a, b, or c.”
They knew everything that was happening in the United States. Every executive order signed, every country on the travel ban list, every news piece that had happened in the less than two months of his presidency. One woman’s comment has resonated with me; she said, “With all the threat around planned parenthood being de-funded, you may have a bit of understanding of what it’s like here for us.”
It was like a gut-punch in a ‘wake up’ kind of way. My privilege was particularly evident and had a slimy and gross weight to it. They know my history and I am so painfully unaware, and until then, unimpacted by theirs. The woman went on: “I marched with you on January 21st.”
She didn’t march for me. It wasn’t out of pity. Or sympathy. Or out of my country’s (long-time- coming) misfortune – over there – where it could remain out of sight, and out of mind. She marched with me. Because she, as an Irish woman, knows oppression. And she knows that change can only happen when we come together and lift each other up. Stand up with each other. Show up and march with each other.
So, when it came time for us to stand up and speak up in that hall in RDS on March 8th – you bet it brought tears to my eyes. Tears at feeling the unqualified and undeserved support from this woman, tears at the uncovering of a major ‘blindspot’ (or unawareness) of mine, tears at getting to stand up with the Irish women, tears at feeling the power of the collective, tears at being a part of a community that spans across the globe, tears at understanding the 8th amendment: that for any of us to be free, we all have to be free. That for any of us to experience healing, we all have to experience healing.
Ursula: Well said, this really captures the essence of the time in the hall that day and I feel it all again now as we talk.
Mica: Secondly in my thoughts is the piece that stood out to me which is more personal and also relates to why I wanted to return to Ireland, Ursula, Carrie and Meredith. In short you are why!
Ursula: Well I am eager to hear this Mica!
Mica: Inside our circle of four women, we hold identities such as grandmother, mother, sister, friend, queer, questioning, mentor, adventurer, space-holder, hope-holder – that I get to experience as I ‘be’ with you. Since my mom died seven years ago, and since my grandmother and aunt and cousins have felt it too painful to talk to me (maybe because I remind them of their daughter/ sister/ aunt, my mom?), I have craved – felt desperate for – such a community of women in different life stages, with wisdom in abundance, and the intimacy needed to share our selves with each other. This happens in our circle of four women. And this fills up a void that I feel so presently in the rest of my life. This microcosm of our circle of four women I felt on a macro-scale on March 8th in the RDS. All sisters. All connected. A full feminine collective.
Meredith: Ah, yes, women saving women!
Ursula: I am touched beyond words to hear this Mica and your words also Meredith, and to be included with these wonderful sisters from such a far-flung country and yet all connected here. Meredith, I am eager to hear what happened when you were away from us that day?
Meredith: On March 8th during the Congress meeting, I was away from you all and had travelled to downtown Dublin around the late morning to meet with a research participant. It was a psychotherapist with an independent practice who had agreed to speak to me about how her female clients experience abortion stigma and shame. We met for an hour and I recall sitting in her space with the same sense of purpose and humility I had been so impacted by at IAHIP in 2016. After expressing my gratitude for her participation, I left the office and wandered down the sidewalk to hail a taxi to return to the Congress. I walked along the River Liffey and found myself being fully encompassed in a sea of mostly cisgender women wearing black sweaters that read ‘REPEAL’. At this moment a taxi stopped at the curb and I was torn between stepping foot into the taxi to return to the conference or to be a part of the Repeal the 8th march. With hesitation, I sat down in the taxi and informed the driver where I had to go. As he shuffled through traffic, banging on the wheel, and apologising for the delay in where I had to go, I realised what was happening: I was where I was meant to go. I paid my minimal fare, hopped out of the cab, and ran back towards the River Liffey.
I turned to a woman who was standing next to a street lamp, and asked if I may march with her. She smiled and said, “Are you an American?” I replied, “Yes. I hope that is okay.” She laughed and stated, “Yes. We need as many international allies as possible.” I never asked for her name, nor did she ask for mine, however we stood next to one another, chanted together, and held tears in our eyes as women spoke to the crowd declaring that they have carried shame for too long. I rocked in and out of feeling both completely present in the crowd and completely pushed out of the moment, realising that I was physically a part of what I was documenting as I was here in Ireland. The humility washed over me again and I felt as if I was a part of a sacred space that was so important for me to witness and experience.
I eventually left the River Liffey and headed back to the Congress. I sat in the taxi in complete silence and wandered into the conference hall holding my head high. Two men at the door greeted me and commented that I had missed the ‘main event’. I felt both sad that I had missed such a significant historical event at the Conference, yet knew that I was meant to experience what I had experienced. As a researcher, it was important for me to humanise and be an emotional part of the collective experience as I was at the Repeal the 8th march. I wholeheartedly believe that in order to ask our participants to open up to us, we must open ourselves up to them as well, and be brave enough to admit that we (although so well-trained to think) do not know anything about the lived experience.
Mica: Wow, Mere! This is awesome! I got tingles hearing how you were already where you were meant to go…
Caroline: In the midst of research – here you are talking with such poignant words…my goodness. Here is what I was so struck by….this great description… “I never asked for her name, nor did she ask for mine, however we stood next to one another, chanted together and held tears in our eyes…”
Ursula: It feels so wonderful to be part of this conversation and I am brimming with pride that it started here in Ireland using our collective connections of human contact!
Mica: Ursula, you must tell us what was March 8th like for you?
Ursula: Ah, thanks for asking Mica, I am bursting here with details of my time with each of you on this most important day. I have so many memories and experiences of the Congress as a whole, but even more special memories of International Women’s Day on March 8th. We started with breakfast at my house with three eager Americans, and one of whom had finished with her presentation the previous day. Wonderful conversation at the table, then the journey to the RDS, I think you ran to it Mica! An event with the car park attendant – again. But it was when we began to gather and took our place in the hall that the enormity of the event began to descend on us. The hall was full, with both men and women in attendance. We were introduced to, to name but a few, Marian Keyes (author), who read from her upcoming book about a mother who accompanies her daughter to the UK for an abortion; we listened attentively to the poems of our poet Paula Meehan, and we met, and for me the first time I had heard of, Ailbhe Smyth, feminist, socialist and LGBT activist, and convenor of the coalition to Repeal the 8th amendment. Such a powerful delivery of her message to all present. And that day the news of the bodies of some 800 Tuam babies was in the press, on International Women’s Day, together with the Repeal the 8th marches, we praised another activist, Catherine Corless, whose tenacious research brought this ‘dark shadow’ of our history into the light. I was heartened also to see men attending in the room, and being as moved as all of us as we made our Declaration. We came out of the hall and each of us was ‘full to the brim’ for this is how we described ourselves, moved once again to tears as we connected with each other and other members at the Congress. We were holding and perhaps doing some repairing of the dark happenings of the past. I totally recognised that as a mental health therapist this was the place to be this year, and I am so grateful and proud that the International Association for Women’s Mental Health and the National Women’s Council of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin chose to come to Ireland to host this important event.
Caroline: YES! Full to the brim is exactly how I felt Ursula!
Ursula: I so want to thank each of you, once again, for agreeing to have this conversation, of course, we said more, but space determines we conclude here. So, until the next time we gather with copious Assam tea, digestive biscuits at the table at no. 7… Thank you.
Ursula Somerville MIAHIP, SIAHIP is a psychotherapist and supervisor working in private practice in Dublin.
Caroline Burke (Carrie) is a psychologist in St. Paul, Minnesota. Mica Adesso is a psychologist in Colorado.
Meredith A. Martyr is a psychology graduate student in the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.