Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sarah Carey and the silence of the lambs

Photo by racka_roadrunner (Flickr)

I may make part of my living out of counselling and this attack on therapy from Sarah Carey's GUBU blog may date from before Christmas but it's still too good to miss. She wends her way from a lamb falling down a river bank to childhood memories of farm pets and from there she launches a broadside at the therapy business. Her basic thesis is that you might be better off allowing your mind to repress the bad memories from the past instead of dragging them up and upsetting yourself with them. She might be right too - my basic training is in Reality Therapy which sees the solution to our problems as lying in the present and the future and which, as an approach, stays out of the past as much as it can. Anyway, never mind me - read her article here which is more fun and wittier than anything I'm likely to come up with.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Holly: a cross dresser without the glamour on the Manhattan subway

Holly's hair was a mess. It was dishevelled with bits sticking out here and there. This could have been the result of a day's hard work but I have a feeling that Holly (whose name I have made up) wasn't really any good at doing her hair anyway. Neither was she any good at applying makeup. The makeup just didn't conceal the ridges in her face and the lipstick was too bright. This is what comes of being a woman in a man's body but with a man's brain in the cosmetic and dressing department.

You could tell that Holly was man by her big hands, big frame and the man's face behind her makeup. There were no rings on her fingers. She was, I speculated, on her way home from work with two colleagues, women. She sat beside them on the subway from Canal Street to Times Square admiring a top that one of them had bought. In this, and in the way she sat demurely beside them, she was all feminine. Regardless of her hair and her makeup, the women seemed to accept her as one of themselves.

Holly was in her fifties and I wondered how many years of pushing in among the girls she had had to go through and what it had cost her to get to this point. There was nothing glamorous about her. She had to go to work like anyone else. Her fake, furry jacket could have come from a charity shop. She wore ordinary jeans and scuffed boots. If she wanted an operation to change her gender I doubt if she could afford it.

So she does what she can to be who she is and I had the feeling, as we stopped at Times Square, that she just might have been the most courageous person on the train.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A career in alcoholism: man in Manhattan

“I am a career alcoholic.“ Tony, all smiles, energy and with a bottle of Bud in his hand, materialised beside me one evening in a bar in Manhattan where I had gone to shelter from a drizzle, have a drink and get a little peace.

Having established my name and country of origin, he told me about his career as an alcoholic. “It makes me feel good,” he declared. “What else matters?” I agreed. He was in that state of elation which, in some people, can turn ugly in a second if you put a different point of view.

He seemed in good shape for a guy who had made a career out of being an alcoholic. He was fifty years old, he told me. His hair was jet black, he was only a little overweight and he was light on his feet. Tony hopped around quite a lot as he talked and he sometimes danced in place to the music.

“Lose the hair,” he told me. “It will take ten years off your age.”

There was much that I couldn’t understand of what he said because he spoke so fast. For instance, I could not make sense of his explanation for why he, personally, knows global warming is real. “See this burn mark?” he said at one point, putting his hand to his forehead, as part of his explanation. There was nothing there but I said I had seen it anyhow.

Then he started talking about his ex-wife, “the evil one”, and how she had unsuccessfully tried to get his kids to say he had molested them.

“I am telling you this because you are elder,” he said. I am definitely going to lose the hair, I told myself.

He took out his wallet and showed me photographs of his kids. They were graduation photographs, three girls and a boy, all looking happy and proud of themselves.

He told me I was a good listener. Not bad, I suppose, when all you’re trying to do is avoid an argument.

Two young women, maybe in their twenties, came into the bar and sat down. Tony started to chat them up. The young women laughed it off but Tony’s attention had definitely turned in their direction.

I said goodbye and left. I expect he is still dancing in the bar in Manhattan, chatting women up, explaining global warming and showing pictures of his kids to other customers. I hope the career works out.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Link between depression and heart disease needs our attention

Photo by Adoodi (Flickr)

Poorer outcome for depressed patients

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 18th December:

The link between depression and heart disease is not often written about, perhaps out of fear of causing distress to people with one or the other of these conditions or with both. But to remain silent about the link is to deprive people of information that could save their lives.

The latest research, from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, confirms earlier findings that people who are depressed following a heart attack are significantly more likely to die during a follow-up period than heart patients who are not depressed. This outcome has been found in follow-up periods ranging from six months to more than six years in different studies.

Other research suggests that people who are depressed are more likely to suffer heart illness in the fist place than those who are not depressed.

Quite how it works is not clear. One theory is that in depression the brain’s regulation of the production of sticky platelets in the blood is impaired, that this brings about an increase in the production of the platelets and that this in turn can lead to an event such as a heart attack.

Effect on behaviour

However, It is also possible that the poorer outcome for depressed people following a heart attack is related to the way depression affects their behaviour. For instance, people who are depressed can find it difficult to motivate themselves to exercise, to take their medication or to modify their diet. If they are smokers, then giving up smoking will be far more difficult when they are depressed. All of these things, let’s face it, are hard enough to do when you’re not depressed.

In these instances, one can see how easily depression can leave a person more vulnerable to future heart problems.

What matters in all of this is to understand that depression is a real issue that needs to be taken very seriously after a person has a heart attack or develops another heart condition.

Depression not surprising
We need to remember that when you have a heart attack your whole view of yourself, your health and your life changes. So it’s not surprising that for some people this leads to depression.

One can also see how a person who led a very stressful life before a heart attack could become depressed afterwards at not being able to give the same energy to the issues about which he or she was stressed. If they have had to give up the work they used to do, then the emotional impact can be very, very strong.

It is important, if somebody close to you has heart disease, to recognise that depression may cause them to fail to exercise or to fail to comply with their medication or dietary requirements.

In such a case the issue of depression should be raised with the GP who may refer the person to a counsellor. If you prefer to contact a counsellor directly you can get the name and telephone number of an accredited counsellor from the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy at 01-2723427.

Exercise and mood
It is also helpful to encourage the person to carry out faithfully the exercise regime prescribed by the hospital or by the GP. Aside from the physical health benefits, exercise is known to improve the mood and is an important ally in the fight against depression.

I have directed this advice to people close to the person with depression because it can be hard for the person who is depressed to motivate himself or herself to do these things.

But if you have had a cardiac problem and you are not depressed, follow that exercise regime that the doctor advised: it will keep you in good shape psychologically as well as physically.

I’ve used the word ‘link’ in talking about depression and heart disease throughout this article because what we seem to know is that there is a very definite link between the two but what we don’t know is exactly how that link works.

There is, nevertheless, a link which is all the more reason for doing something about depression instead of letting it drag on and on - especially the wake of heart disease.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Crimes against women - an Islam thing or a culture thing?

Somewhere in Iraq at this moment there may be a young women locked in a room by her family with a can of oil and a box of matches. For the 'honour' of the family she must kill herself by burning herself to death. There is no escape. Monstrosities like this and the commonplace murder of women in Iraq for offences such as being seen talking to the wrong person or dressing in ways disapproved of by the militias suggests that crimes against women are particularly encourged by Islam. But this disturbing report by Mark Lattimer in The Guardian suggests to me that there are cultures which are toxic to women and that it is this rather than Islam or any other religion that bears the responsibility. Still, I'd love to hear some plain language condemnation by Muslim spokesmen/women of this nightmarish behaviour insofar as it's done in their name.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Happy Christmas but only if you want to - there's no law about it

Photo by krisdecurtis (Flickr)

Avoiding an unhappy Christmas creates problems

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 11th December:

There is no law written down anywhere that obliges you to have a Happy Christmas.

I think that is important to say at this time of year. The marketing industry would have us believe that everybody else is going to have a wonderful Christmas because they’re buying the right drinks, driving the right cars, wearing the right clothes, eating in the right places and, well, generally doing everything right.

Every man, this myth would have it, has a glamorous girlfriend or wife on whom the snowflakes fall gently under the stars as Santa appears around the corner in his sleigh. There is a blazing log fire inside. The children are all cute and would never dream of calling you, their father, a dork.

Of course, it’s not true. Moreover, we know it’s not true but somehow we contrive to feel aggrieved or even guilty if we are not happy enough at this time of year.

The problem with insisting on being happy at Christmas is that we can inflict extra pain on ourselves and on others when we fail to achieve this ideal. Drinking too much, taking drugs, fighting with people and brooding and moping are all things we do to try to get rid of negative feelings. Very often, though, we would do better to allow ourselves simply to experience the negativity which, if it is allowed to, will pass. Allowing it to pass means not talking endlessly to yourself about what’s going wrong but getting on with whatever it is you need to do today.

Other people
Consider the matter of involvement with other people. This is the time of year when most of us have closer contact with colleagues, friends and relatives than at any other.

That’s fine. We need involvement – it’s good for our mental and physical health. But we need to be able to accept that not all of this involvement will be unalloyed fun.

For instance, some people simply do not enjoy office parties at which you get to spend ages listening to some very drunk person explaining to you how he would reorganise the purchasing department if only the management had the good sense to put him in charge.

Similarly, visits to relatives are not always an unalloyed pleasure around Christmas. Some visits will be boring, others irritating . But despite the irritations, we know involvement with other people can be life-saving. We are less likely to be depressed and less likely to take our own lives if we have good relationships with others.

But to be with people we have to have the capacity to put up with feeling negative some of the time. We humans are contrary. We can be a bit spiky with other humans. We tend to be motivated more by what we want than by what the other guy wants. So we’re not as easy to be with as we would like to imagine.

Develop tolerance
Therefore in order to be with people we need to develop a tolerance of discomfort and annoyance because these are all part of the package.

I think this is especially so around Christmas Day and St Stephens Day. What seems to happen is that people who can usually tolerate each other good humouredly for an hour at a time are put into a sort of social pressure cooker and made to stay there for hour after hour. The pressure rises as alcohol is applied. And yet if people can get through the day without the lid blowing off, they are likely to feel a glow of well-being for having been there.

But what will blow the lid off is the person who cannot tolerate being irritated or discomfited and who makes sure everybody else gets to know about it.

Now, I would like you, me and everybody else to have a happy Christmas. But if you are going to be unhappy or irritated, at least don’t worsen the experience by feeling angry, guilty or aggrieved about the fact.

In short, if you want to be unhappy or fed up go right ahead and be my guest. Bah. Humbug.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Fathers and daughters in business together

John Flannery & Daughter, auctioneers in Charlestown, Co Mayo are among the few Irish firms I could find in a Google search which used "& Daughter" in its trading name. Despite changing attitudes the designation is still unusual. The issue is explored further in this item on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour which asks, Do fathers and daughters make good business partners?


BBC - Radio 4 Woman's Hour -Fathers and daughters in business together

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Sunday, December 9, 2007

Campaigns target domestic violence by men and women

Report from Women's Health Council, book by Amen founder

Some years ago I met a group of people with physical disabilities and, in the course of conversation, I asked if all of them had been born with their disabilities.

All had except one, a woman who had been so badly beaten by her husband that he had left her disabled for life and unable, ever again, to live independently.

I thought of her when I read, in a new report from the Women’s Health Council, that in Europe more women die or are seriously injured every year through domestic violence than through cancer or road accidents.

The report acknowledges that men suffer violence at the hands of women– but all the evidence, I’m afraid, suggests that men carry out most of the violence that occurs between the genders.

What’s going on with men who are violent towards their female partners? A few, I suspect, don’t know any better. It’s what they grew up with. Most people who see violence at home avoid repeating it in their own relationships later on. Some, however, may think it’s the thing to do.

Others, though, seem to have a pathological need to control their partners. Everything: what she wears, who she sees, how much make-up she puts on, who she talks to at work, who she telephones, when and how she does housework, has to be controlled in detail.

I suspect that behind this pathological need for control is a dread of losing the other person, a certainly that she will leave unless she is put on the very tightest of reins. The irony, of course, is that these control freaks generally end up losing their partners anyhow – by holding on to them so oppressively they drive them away.

New book by Mary T Cleary
Women who are violent and abusive to their male partners may have similar motivations. A new book, That Bitch – protect yourself against women with malicious intent, written by Mary T Cleary, founder of Amen, and journalist Roy Sheppard, describes instance after instance of such behaviour.

I don’t like the title, which was chosen to shock, because I think it creates an unnecessary barrier between men and women on this issue. That said, the book does a good job of highlighting one big problem concerning violence by women towards men. This is the reluctance of men to speak out because they have a realistic fear of not being believed or of being sneered at.

No slap, just tickle
An interesting campaign to bring together both of these aspects of domestic violence – men as perpetrators and men as victims – has been launched in the UK. The No slap, just tickle campaign aims to help men speak out against, and overcome, domestic violence, whether they are victims, perpetrators or bystanders.

The inclusion of perpetrators may seem odd but many violent men go through periods of remorse and this is something that can be built on by a campaign like this. The campaign urges men who perpetrate violence to have the courage to seek help and to understand that domestic violence is never acceptable. There are programmes to help such men, run by MOVE Ireland in ten locations around the country and contact numbers are given on the website.

The No slap, just tickle campaign encourages men who are victims of domestic violence to “have the courage to seek help – even if you have the impression that it will make matters worse. As a man you are no different to the countless women who have spoken out about domestic violence and freed themselves from it.” Amen can be a helpful resource to men in this situation.

And the campaign encourages men who are aware of situations of domestic violence to “urge the person in question to seek help – whether as a victim or as a perpetrator.”

Domestic violence is a choice. The men and women who perpetrate it do not, for example, have uncontrollable urges to beat up their bosses at work. Therefore if they beat up or torment one person and not another they are exercising a choice. That is a fact we need to bear in mind at all times.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Indian Government makes neglect of parents a criminal offence

We're used to the concept of parents having a legal duty of care towards their children but the idea of a reciprocal legal duty is, so far as I know, unheard of. Now, the Indian government may be about to change all that by introducing a legal obligation on children to look after ageing parents, according to the Reuters India story below.


Govt makes neglect of parents a criminal offence | Top News | Reuters

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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Separation and unemployment contribute to suicide, report suggests

Photo by Bethany L King (Flickr)

New Irish report on suicide

Connections with other people constitute an under-valued source of psychological well-being. As we become more individualised - not knowing who our next-door-neighbour is, spending more time in our own rooms with our own technology and so on - we ignore, at our peril, evidence of the links between isolation and mental ill-health. Further evidence for that link was reported in The Irish Times on Tuesday 27th November by Barry O'Keeffe.

"Separated men and women have high suicide rates, far higher than married people, according to new figures published last night," O'Keeffe wrote. "The figures also show that unemployed men are four times more likely to take their own lives than men in employment.

"The suicide rate of women who were unemployed was five times higher than that of women in employment. Women who were 'engaged in home duties' had a similar suicide rate to the employed.

"The report, which was launched last night in Dublin by Dr Jimmy Devins, Minister of State for Disability and Mental Health, was compiled by the National Suicide Research Foundation. Commissioned by the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention, it examined deaths which occurred in the Republic in 2002. Of the 1,800 deaths into which an inquest was held, 495 were recorded as deaths by suicide.

New data
"The researchers were given access to what is known as form 104 for the first time. This is a form which gardaí complete for coroners' inquests to determine the cause of death, when such deaths are thought not to be through natural causes.

"'It is the first time that Irish data has shown separated people to be a high risk group,' said Dr Paul Corcoran, deputy director of the National Suicide Research Foundation. 'It is worth looking into, in terms of suicide prevention as the number of separated people in Ireland is increasing.'

"Dr Corcoran said the study of inquested deaths was the first time such data had been separated out from general data collected by the Central Statistics Office (CSO)."

Highest rates are in young men
As in traffic deaths, overall, the study found that the highest rates of suicide were among young men, according to the report.

In general, two-thirds of men who died by suicide did so by hanging, whereas for women, the most common forms of death by suicide were hanging, drowning and drug overdoses.

On the issue of whether alcohol was involved, Dr Corcoran said the data was not reliable, as it seemed at odds with generally accepted data on suicide, ie alcohol dependence seemed to be underestimated as a factor.

The report found that an above-average number of deaths happened on Sundays and Mondays. It said accidental deaths peaked on Sundays, whereas suicide deaths peaked on Mondays.

For each of these categories, the rate was at least 20 per cent higher than average on these days. Suicide deaths were least common on Wednesdays and Thursdays, with 17 per cent fewer deaths than average.

Link to spring and summer
The data demonstrated that suicides peak in late spring and early summer (April to June). Dr Corcoran said people would expect such deaths to occur more in winter, but these findings bore out similar studies around the world. It also found that about half of suicide deaths occurred around the home of the deceased, compared with 26-30 per cent of the accidents and homicides.

"The data indicated that a final communication - generally in the form of a written note - was made in 30 per cent of suicide deaths.

Dr Corcoran said the data was limited in respect of occupation of the deceased. However, he said, there seemed to be a high rate of suicide among semi-skilled and unskilled workers, including builders' labourers, assembly line workers, security guards and bar staff.

He cited Australia where a major initiative had been launched to target young men in the building industry, where it was thought that issues such as bullying had led to suicides. "We should consider launching similar initiatives here," he said.

Forms not satisfactory
The data was based on the 104 forms, which are completed by gardaí for inquests, giving details about the deceased and the facts surrounding the death.

Dr Corcoran said it was not the fault of the gardaí, but these forms were not always satisfactory. The report recommends that some changes be made in these forms to provide more accurate information.

In addition, Dr Corcoran said some different mechanism needed to be developed to collect more in-depth information on the medical and other contributory factors associated with suicide.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Perfectionism linked to a range of emotional problems.

Perfectionism may be responsible for more emotional and mental health problems than we think, says this article in the New York Times.


Perfectionism - Psychology - Mental Health and Behavior - New York Times

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Sunday, December 2, 2007

Keeping in touch with the kids: tips for fathers working away

(This is the text of my That's Men for You column, published in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 27th November 2007):

Advice from

You’ll see them at the airports every day: the business travellers, all suited up, tapping away on their laptops or talking into their mobile phones. But they’re more than business travellers. Many are parents, fathers and mothers whose work means they spend more time in airports, planes and hotels than they do in their own homes.

It is doubtful if there are very many of them who particularly enjoy this aspect of their work. That’s especially so if they have children waiting for them back home.

Still, not everybody has the luxury of giving up a job that pays the mortgage in order to spend more time with the family and, indeed, not everybody wants to.

Keeping in touch
There’s a marvellous website called which has advice for fathers in this situation. It also has advice for other kinds of fathers – divorced fathers, non-cohabiting fathers, adoptive fathers and so on.

The tips on are as applicable to mothers who travel a lot on business as to fathers. Here’s a selection:

– Call the kids every day. Might seem obvious but if you don’t plan for it, the call might not get made until after the children are asleep. Even if you’re not travelling, you can always make a habit of calling the kids – or at least texting them – if your work runs into the evening.

– Tell the kids they’re welcome to call or text you any time they like on your mobile phone. If you’re not available, they can go to your voicemail. Expensive? Sure, but is it the most expensive thing you’re going to be doing this week?

– If you have small kids, leave handwritten notes for them before you go. Hide them where they can easily be found so the kids can hunt for them. This wouldn’t work with teenagers unless you attached money to the notes, which I do NOT recommend.

– Plan your business trips to be as short as they can reasonably be, to maximise your time with your family. I realise that in many workplaces there are macho idiots – male and female – who will sneer at this idea but you don’t have to give into this nonsense unless the macho idiot is a boss who might threaten your job in retaliation.

– If you’re away for a long time you might record a message to them on your digital recorder or on that souped-up mobile you conned the company into buying for you. Transfer the message to your laptop and email the recording to them.

– When you get home, talk about family matters before you talk about your trip. That way you’re emphasising that the family is where your priorities, and your heart, lie.

– Whether or not you travel a lot, ask yourself if you really have to spend all this time at work or if you’re putting in long hours because you want to? If you suspect you might be putting in more hours than you need to – after all, work can be more fun and exciting than being at home – then consider the concept of “emotional work.” This term refers to the effort people make to maintain relationships, especially their emotional side. It’s work in the sense that it often involves giving attention to people at times which you don’t really want to give them attention. But the concept can help you to plan to be at school events and so on which might otherwise never make it onto the to-do list.

– Consider delaying projects or seeking more family-friendly deadlines to give you more time with your kids. Of course, you don’t have to say this is what you’re up to – as a warrior in the corporate jungle I’m sure you are well able to come up with a line of bull to explain why you might want to push out deadlines.

Maybe not all of these suggestions are your cup of tea but pick one or two you could implement, try them out, and see what difference they make.

The website, as its name implies, is at and if you’re a parent of either gender, it’s worth your time.