Ursula: Shirley Ward is, among many things, a founder member and Honorary member of IAHIP and a pioneer of pre- and perinatal psychotherapy. She granted me the great privilege of a conversation which I look forward to bringing to our members here.
Ursula: I want to thank you for agreeing to have this conversation Shirley and sharing with our members what life can be like following ‘retirement’. But before we talk about that, I would love to know what it was that brought you into psychotherapy in the first place?
Shirley: My own problems!
Ursula: Ah, like a lot of us!
Shirley: Some of these problems were on a conscious level but in retrospect many were on an unconscious level and I needed the depth work for healing.
Ursula: So, what was your original training?
Shirley: I trained as a teacher and was also a professional sportswoman, but due to a knee injury had to retire at 24. I changed from physical gymnastics to spiritual gymnastics because my search for personal spirituality was ever present. The knee injury turned out to be associated with a difficult birth. The physical and mental pressure of professional sport reiterated the points of the original stress which had weakened the knee joint.
In the 1970s, I was head of religious education in charge of community development in a large Catholic comprehensive school. Being sensitive to the needs of children with problems in school, I trained as a school counsellor at Leicester University for two years. During this course my own personal problems began to rise. I asked the tutors if they knew of a Christian therapist and they suggested Dr. Frank Lake and the Clinical Theology Association in Nottingham. And so it all began. I went in the deep end head first. A great birth script!
Ursula: Yes, that’s twice you have referred to birth in your responses and I do want to talk about your work in pre- and perinatal psychotherapy and the influence that Dr. Lake had on you, but first tell me a little about your early life.
Shirley: I was conceived, born and lived under the spiritual energy of the great cathedral church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Peterborough. It had been a medieval Benedictine community. I always loved the sacred space it created for me. I walked through many energetic dimensions of life and death in this environment. I have never questioned the existence of a force higher than myself because I experienced it daily in those formative years and always knew of its existence. By the age of four, I had the words refectory, lavabo and cloisters in my vocabulary. I was marinated in energy that deep within filled me with hope and optimism. So much of my belief that environment is above and beyond nature stems from this early period of my life. Environment is the pinnacle upon which all human behaviour, character, health and responses are formed. In England I found peace with the Grail Society and now in later life I find solace at Glenstal Abbey when I am able to go.
Ursula: I don’t want to miss the opportunity to hear more about the energetic dimensions of life and death in your environment at that time, but let’s come back to that again and for now continue with your early life.
Shirley: From the age of 11 to 22, I helped my mother nurse my sick father who died of multiple sclerosis at the age of 48. The MS was thought to be brought on by the trauma of the Second World War. We were also told medically that Peterborough was an area with a very high ratio of MS due to the removal of minerals in the ground caused by the brick making industry after the war. Having to cope with my mother’s grief was influential in my decision not to marry as the pain of loss was too great for me at that time. Having no siblings made it more difficult and I struggled through school and college, but my physical abilities got me through with a lot of success on the sports field. My intelligence and human potential became unblocked the more I let go of the negative patterns in my life.
After converting to Catholicism in my 20s, I became a nun at the age of 27 and lasted for four years. I never regret these years. In many ways I continued to learn so much on so many different levels. I was not your usual ‘run of the mill’ nun. I coached hockey in a red tracksuit with a blue and white veil flying behind me! In 1968 it was the time when nuns were having fashion shows before they went into ‘mufti’. In obedience I had to teach classics, knowing very little about the subject. So I took classes to see the film Ben Hur. I then organised a school cruise to Athens through the Corinth canal and beyond. We had a great time – but I was verbally flogged by the Mother Superior and Novice Mistress for not asking permission to go. The convent and I went our separate ways two months after we returned from our ‘classic’ journey – never to be forgotten.
Ursula: (laughing) I’m sorry to laugh Shirley, but it’s hard not to at the image of you on the hockey field with a flying veil!
Shirley: You would have laughed even more if you had seen the underwear I had to wear under the novice’s long habit. Remember, I was used to wearing shorts, miniskirts, t-shirts and bikinis. Suddenly I had to wear a heavy aertex vest, the length of which came to between my knees and ankles. It was unbelievable. On one occasion I ran up and down the length of the Novitiate in it and the novices couldn’t believe their eyes but still fell about laughing. This was the only way I could accept having to wear it!
Ursula: That’s so funny Shirley.
Shirley: On with the serious stuff. Although the emotional problems of parental illness and financial difficulties were overwhelming, nothing has ever prevented me from believing that there is something out there that is beyond our human understanding. I often feel I am on this earth but am not of it. And I meet so many others who say the same. But I found that I have enormous resilience and determination to discover and pioneer new ways of working to help others to move forward in their lives. This is a major birth script of mine. When I feel stuck – keep moving forward without the pain of the forceps. There are different ways to transform difficult situations.
Ursula: I know your faith is very important to you. However, the aspect of birth script has entered again in our conversation and I think birth script is something you may have learnt from working with Dr. Lake and the pre- and perinatal psychotherapy; so can you speak a little about it here?
Shirley: Finding Frank Lake and his work in 1976, and Alison Hunter, one of his pastoral consultants who founded Amethyst in 1982, changed my life. I fell into the pre- and perinatal work. It answered so many questions I thought were unanswerable. It was not only birth scripts that became life scripts but the whole experience from conception to birth I found that formed me as a whole person. I knew that I had to dedicate my life to finding out the truth about womb-time in order to help others understand their own problems.
I was lucky to be able to explore the trauma of being a war baby. Saying this, my heart goes out to all babies born in war situations, conflicts and traumatic situations and the effect that this has on personality and mental illnesses. I needed the depth work of pre- and perinatal work to attempt to heal the damage associated with my prenatal growth from conception in December 1940 to my birth in September 1941. The Battle of Britain raged, the bombs were dropping, and fear of annihilation marinated the nation. The terror inflicted on pregnant women and the negativity passed on to babies in the womb is horrific and can have lifelong consequences with mental illness. I know, I have been there – even though I have a deep inner core from my early spiritual experiences. The overwhelming transmarginal stress in trimester three during pregnancy can cause unbelievable mental damage to a baby which is present in many adults for the rest of their lives. So much more research is needed.
Ursula: Yes, and knowing this I have great concern and distress with the amount of war and displacement in the world right now and so many children caught up in it also, children born and those about to be born.
Shirley: It can take years to get the insight as to why we behave as we do. For years I had a real fear of what the next trauma was going to be in my life and I also have been very hampered by sudden lapses of confidence which stopped me in my tracks on projects I wanted to do. Then I saw the light – it was my mother’s fear of where the next bomb was going to drop and would she be able to keep me safe. I had to differentiate what were her emotions still affecting me, which I didn’t need, and what were mine. I had to remember with compassion that she was born in the First World War and now here she was pregnant in the Second World War. Now I just get on with the job in hand, knowing I am perfectly capable with the potential needed and there actually was an historical place where these feelings originated.
My dream is that more people will train to understand pre- and perinatal work. Consequently, I have spent over 40 years of my life researching foetal consciousness. I have a passion to find out why the human race behaves as it does. It starts in the womb – but few want to know about it. So many mums-to-be are not even aware what smoking and alcohol does to their unborn babies even though it has been medically proven.
Ursula: You have tried to bring this message where you can over your years of work?
Shirley: Yes, I have lectured internationally in USA and Europe, including Russia, France, England and Ireland. I spent months during the 1990s at the United Nations in Vienna where there was enormous interest, often with 28 different nationalities present, and my words being translated into German, the language of the UN in Austria.
But I can’t continue without mentioning the wonderful people I have met on my travels and who have influenced my life and teachings. In 1974, I met Mother Teresa of Calcutta in Birmingham as I ran the Co-Workers for her in Northampton. It was a timeless moment that has stayed with me for life. In 1981, my travels brought me into contact with Rosalyn Bruyere and her wonderful healing work and we have been friends for over 30 years. In 1984, Dr. John Rowan became a Patron of Amethyst. In 1985, after studying for my degree in human relations, my path crossed with Dr. Violet Oaklander, a wonderful child therapist in California. In 1986, I gave up teaching in England and came to Ireland for two weeks and am still here 32 years later. I came over because we had prayed for peace in Ireland daily and then I found I was just coming home. It has been a great privilege to work with Alison Hunter and Carmel Byrne at Amethyst to help adults, children and babies to heal their lives, and to teach students to go out and spread the word and continue the healing.
In 1987, Dr. Jean Houston was invited over to Ireland by the teachers in Dundalk. I met her again in Washington DC in 1991 when I attended the Conference run by the Association of Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH), where I heard from her about the concept of Fractals. It was also here that I met many of the pioneers and founders of pre- and perinatal work, including Dr. Thomas Verny, Dr. William Emerson, and Dr. David Chamberlain, who invited me to become an international advisor for APPPAH and really helped me to feel part of this great community which has continued since then.
Ursula: Not to mention your training in Amethyst and the work that you write about in your book Fractals from the Womb: A Journey through Pre and Perinatal Psychotherapy (2014). I reference this book all the time in my work as psychotherapist and supervisor. I would like to see more emphasis on it also in current trainings for psychotherapists. You have lived a very full life. ‘Retiring’ at the age of 70 and being awarded Honorary Membership of IAHIP in 2011. Having served the organisation in multiple ways: founder member, Chair of the Accreditation Committee and Secretary for two five-year stints, Chair and then Secretary of Complaints Committee, Vice Chair of IAHIP in 2003 when you created a new logo for IAHIP, and 11 years’ service on the Editorial Board of Inside Out. People know you for your writings in Inside Out since 1993. You have also advertised IAHIP globally with your internationally published papers. I think that you were also included in the European Who’s Who in Catholic Life, and in 2006 and 2011 were selected as one of the best 100 Educators. I hope I haven’t left anything out. But, here’s the question – what have you been doing since becoming an Honorary member?
Shirley: Life hasn’t stopped. It’s almost got busier! I wasn’t prepared for life after 70 to be governed by all of my earlier life experiences.
I was always a prolific writer particularly with the pre- and perinatal psychotherapy for Inside Out and international journals. I had written other books on masses for teenagers in 1978 and 1983, but Fractals from the Womb: A journey through Pre and Perinatal Psychotherapy was published in 2014. This is being republished at present by a different publishing firm in the USA, set up by one of our Irish Amethyst students in Oregon.
There is a second book in the pipeline on Birth, Earth and our Future. I firmly believe the first 9 months of life gives us the foundations of our character and life. The state of parents at conception, the way we are treated in utero and the type of birth we have influence the way we interact with each other and the planet. This interaction or intercommunication will decide the future of the planet. It is not left to other people – we are all individually responsible for the future of the planet. This in turn leads to Collective Intelligence, Collective Energy, and Collective Interaction for worldwide sensitivity and healing for the planet. At least there is a dream to achieve healing for the care of our common home globally.
Ursula: These are beautiful words to live by: “achieve healing for the care of our common home globally”. Thank you for that Shirley.
Shirley: I have also trained as a Minister for Lay Led Liturgies in the Catholic Church in the Killaloe Diocese and have already led communion services, when the priest was abroad. He consecrated the communion hosts at a mass before he left. I love it and am passionate to see the laity in charge of their own parishes with the declining number of priests. It’s only going back to the early church as in the Acts of the Apostles.
Dioceses are now training Pastoral Workers as a new vocation to assist priests and then to be ready to take over when there are even fewer priests. I am very excited about this but in a meeting, I asked the Bishop if he would produce a shorter course for the over 70s. Everyone laughed and clapped but the Bishop said I was already trained and to keep on with what I am doing!
Ursula: I can pick up the excitement in you as you talk about this part of your current life. But I am also hearing that you thought you required further training in this field – what is it that sometimes we don’t fully get that we have done enough in our life course and it takes another to tell us what we are capable of doing, in other words, is this also part of our birth script?
Shirley: We are conceived and come into life with enormous potential. According to the environment we are marinated in, the negative events on our sacred journey from conception to birth are the problems that need clearing. They fog up our whole life and block our potential. We need the integration of our life story in order to move forward freely and know what we can do. Then we don’t need others to tell us what we can do.
Ursula: This seems a good place to ask you to expand on that energetic dimension of life and death in your environment early in your life, is there more you can say here?
Shirley: Remember that my womb and early life experiences were enhanced by death all around, in the country, Europe and the world. We lived opposite a cemetery and the Cathedral was next door. From this environment of sacred and spiritual energy I grew up quite naturally aware of a sixth dimension. The Cathedral had over a thousand years of prayer permeating the stones and I was absorbed by it.
People love solving mysteries. The mystery of life and death we can’t solve until we reach that energetic dimension in our lives, but it is there for us to tap into. There is much more understanding these days of the chakras and human energy field with so many complementary medicines being practised in the country from spiritually active countries. When we receive prayer or energy healing, it may not be used immediately but ‘hangs around’ for 10 or 20 years or more until we need it. That is the real mystery and is what I tapped into in my early years. It is as natural for me to speak to those who have passed over as it is for me to speak to the living. The church has been speaking to dead people for over 2,000 years so I am not doing anything that hasn’t been done before.
Ursula: Thanks for that Shirley. So can I now bring us more present and enquire what is happening for you now?
Shirley: I was elected Chair of the Ogonnelloe Seniors Club for 2018 in a very thriving, compassionate, caring community. In a year I have also learned how to work with mosaics and stained glass. Now I am drawing animals and learning how to paint with water colours. As we get older, we need to learn new skills in order to grow new neural transmitters in the brain to keep ourselves healthy. I am also learning how gentle, spiritual and caring the rural communities of Ireland are, with a quietness and humility it is possibly hard to practice in busy, industrial towns. The land itself is rich with sacred energy.
Ursula: Keeping ourselves healthy is paramount in our work as psychotherapists. Have you experienced or avoided ill health or burnout while working in this field?
Shirley: I haven’t avoided it. Illness can really educate us and it can cause our death. In 1992, Alison Hunter and I worked and lectured in Moscow after the Chernobyl disaster. We both came home with radiation poisoning, which in many medical circles is not recognised. I ended up with a serious thyroid problem that eventually affected my heart, which is now under control with medication. But in 2014 when I was 73, an external event of which I had little control, traumatised me and I was hospitalised 3 or 4 times and eventually underwent major surgery in 2016. I had to wait for a prognosis, and during those months prepared myself for death. I was one of the lucky ones. After that, I made the decision that I had been given back my life and needed to serve humanity by sharing what my life’s work was proving, be it 50 or 100 years ahead of its’ time. Hence, another book!
Ursula: I want to go back a little on what you were saying about your second book and ask if there is anything you are able to add about how this Collective Intelligence, Collective Energy and Collective Interaction can happen in a world that seems to me to be so divided and, well, broken?
Shirley: Another word of course, is interconnectedness. It is up to individuals and groups to make this happen. I always searched for some of the finest minds to learn from. Jean Houston has been a great mentor for me and she speaks of the rising of our collective intelligence created from the ‘world mind’, unique she says in its capacity to interact at all levels, and this ‘mind’ is seeking solutions at an incredible rate. Her recent course is on Quantum Powers, which includes using our power with the energy of the universe and planet earth. The Ocean Rescue project sponsored by Sky is only one of many projects founded by inspirational people. I believe it can happen and Jean Houston encourages us to nurture our 89 imagination and, as Einstein did, tap into a deep well of greater possibilities for co-creation with planet earth and the universe. If we nourish the environment, then nature will nurture us spontaneously. We are the ones truly responsible for the future.
Ursula: The Ocean Rescue project is about everyone making small everyday changes that collectively lead to big changes, this ties in with Jung’s thinking that if we can look after that which is in front of us then collectively there will be changes, and here I am thinking of psychotherapy. Do you have any thoughts on psychotherapy and psychotherapists today, since, as you say you first trained in the 70s and became involved in this work?
Shirley: Yes. I don’t agree with the way in which all students who train for psychotherapy today have to have a degree. I was fortunate as I studied for a degree in human relations (of all things!) when I was 40. I believe this part of the necessary criteria is barring so many good people from training, who have wonderful life experiences and would make excellent therapists.
We are all so richly unique, I just hope that individuals follow their own dreams and do not worry about being different. We are lucky to have experienced our own therapy, not just to pass our intended courses, and to make a living, but to make the world a better place. The future of planet earth for our children’s children is in our hands, as we help those who struggle to find sense in their lives in the therapy room. With a higher energetic understanding of that, as a profession we can help to change the world. However long it takes – but it has to happen.
Ursula: I am thinking of you on the hockey field with your veil flying after you in your red tracksuit, and I also remember working with you on the Editorial Board of Inside Out and one thing that always struck me was your sense of humour. In this work of psychotherapy and now with your sense of world healing have you maintained your sense of humour?
Shirley: Yes. I have always had a great sense of humour, if people take the time to hear it. In fact, readers may pick up on it as they read this conversation. Sometimes I am too quick for my own good. It’s partly genetic as my mother and grandmother were very funny. Using humour to get through dark and difficult days, my grandmother raised six children during the First World War as my grandfather was abroad for four years in the war.
My great grandmother was a Farren and there are connections somewhere to Elisabeth Farren, the Irish Comedienne who was on the London Stage in the 1800s for 20 years. I love humour but sometimes I can get myself into trouble with the speed of the humour and I have had to learn to be more sensitive! I am also a Libran so naturally have the ability to balance out both sides of a story. And I just love to listen and read other people’s stories. Listening to others makes our own world so much richer.
Ursula: So, you could not have chosen a better profession to work in when you talk of loving listening to other people’s stories. I know you live in a beautiful part of Ireland and you’ve described the community aspect of it earlier. I know also that you have, I think, three cats which are very important to you also.
Shirley: My cats are very precious to me. I have Tonkinese triplets, and they are a Siamese and Burmese mix and would be the temple cats in the Orient. My red boy is Runi Manu. My brown boy is Tomi, named after Tom Brown’s schooldays because he was so mischievous as a kitten, and still is. My blue boy is named Stani as the litter was born on St Stanislaus’ Day. Oh yes! I have been Chair of the Midland Cat Club of Ireland for 17 years and help Carmel who is the Show Manager, to run the Cat Show every February.
Ursula: Before we close our conversation Shirley, what does a day in your life look like?
Shirley: Besides all the things I have mentioned, outside in the field we have the local farmer’s ponies to help keep the grass down. There are two tame male pheasants strutting about. The dawn chorus wakes me often at 4am and during the day there are a great variety of birds around the bird table. I watch the swallows come and go each year in April and September. I love the peace of being with the animal world.
For those who know us at Amethyst, Alison, now 86, who is also an Honorary Member of IAHIP, has been confined to bed now for nearly three years. Carers come in for five hours a day to her and Carmel is her main carer. So, I try to see Alison or phone her every day. She is not able to sit beside the bed as she has Lymphedema with legs that do not work due to polio when she was 20.
Ursula: Shirley, I am sorry to hear this about Alison; readers will remember the lovely conversation Alison had with Sarah Kay in this journal back in Autumn 2011. If they have not read it yet it is well worth visiting our website and reading it.
Shirley: Of course Ursula, I agree. This brings me to the reality of today alongside everything else that is going on. I have a home help three times a week, am on 8 drugs a day. I have on hand a social worker and an occupational therapist who has provided me with a bath seat. I have a good doctor and good friends. I have no family in Ireland. Many in England have passed over – but I talk to them. I have an emergency alarm on the wall that talks to me and tells me when the main power goes off during an electric power cut. When I answer it, I am reminded of Shirley Valentine who talked to the wall!!
Sometimes the arthritis is bad and I have a shopping scooter which I take to the shopping centre or go for walks along the promenade at Lahinch. Ironically it does 4kms an hour. I laugh as in my twenties I was an amateur rally driver and speed has been part of my life. When the M1 in England was built, my then boyfriend was a fanatical car mechanic with a ‘Baby Austin’ with double cylinder heads. The M1 had no speed limits or no speed cops so we raced up and down the motorway at well over 100 mph. This is why I always drive Subaru cars and now have a vintage one which serves me well, with the speed limits in force today!
Ursula: Hmm, rally driver, just as well there are speed limits Shirley, and there seems to be no stopping you in many aspects. I will give you the last word but I want to thank you very much for allowing me to listen to you talk about your fascinating life and I believe, in your sharing, giving others a glimpse into a life after ‘retirement’. I like to think of not retiring from something as much as retiring to something and I think you have certainly demonstrated this to us.
Shirley: Thank you Ursula for giving me the opportunity to share my life and work with you. I am always aware that like all of us, the cats, the ponies, the birds of the air and pheasants are survivors, and have been since conception. The ovum and sperm made it, to create each one of us as we are. We made it – and there is still a lot of living, loving and caring to be done.
Life is precious. We are all survivors. May life be good to our readers as they travel on their sacred journey of life and thank you for reading my story.
You asked me Ursula, in the beginning, what life can be like following retirement. This is it – for me! Older age is like any other age – you learn to adapt!
Shirley Ward lives in Ballybroghan, Ogonnelloe, Killaloe, County Clare. She may be contacted through her website www.shirleyward.org and her email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ursula Somerville is a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor accredited with IAHIP.
Kay, S. (2011). Alison Hunter in conversation with Sarah Kay. Inside Out, 65, 2-27. Retrieved 30 December 2018 from https://iahip.org/inside-out/issue-65-autumn-2011/alison- hunter-in-conversation-with-sarah-kay
Ward, S. (2014). Fractals from the womb: A journey through pre and perinatal psychotherapy. Author: CreateSpace Amazon (Being republished 2019 by Twin Flame Productions, Oregon).