My first encounter with Co-operation Ireland’s Women's Development Programme was the day I accidentally came across an advertisement seeking participants.
At the time I was recovering from the lowest few years of my life. My first professional job had ended badly and after giving birth to my second son I quickly succumbed to severe post-natal depression and anxiety. My relationship collapsed and I was forced to return to my hometown seeking family support.
It is fair to say that I was only coping with caring for my children. My own life, dreams, hopes and goals had been relegated in the daily struggle of life. Before this I had been an activist with most of my work undertaken remotely and online.
Although I was part of a community, my mental health didn't allow me to be part of one where I would interact with other people in real life.
On the day that I applied for the programme I was petrified. I knew I wanted to do it and I knew that it would help, but I was so scared to speak to people I didn't know. I knew however that this would be a way for me to prioritise my own needs.
At the beginning of the course I was so out of practice of being in other people's company that I would leave at the end of the six hours exhausted - mentally and emotionally drained. Slowly, however, I was able to relax a little more and build relationships with the women in the group, and facilitators Diane and Patricia.
These women were interested in me, supported me and genuinely cared about me! When your self-worth has been in your boots for almost half a decade it is very hard to get it out. But every conversation I had, every time someone enquired about me or asked my opinion I grew a little. My shoulders would rise and I would store up the feelings of being valuable.
When I began to want to enquire about others I knew I was very seriously on the mend. My empathy, which had disappeared while I struggled, was coming back! I found I cared about all the women and loved hearing how they were, what they had been getting up to and what they thought on the issues of the day.
The programme taught me a lot about myself, and for the first time I found I could disagree vehemently with someone on a particular topic, but it didn't diminish the respect I had for them as a person and the care I had for them.
With this I also practised the art of not having to react. For the first time I was able to hear other people's stories, words and opinions without reacting, even when I was listening to something that I strongly objected to. In these instances I was able to take a step back from the situation and judge whether my opinion was necessary. If I articulated my thoughts would it be helpful? Or did I even have to comment or mount a challenge.
I am so grateful for this. I hold some very strong views and had Co-operation Ireland not given me this opportunity I wouldn't have developed this skill.
Since finishing the course I have started up a book club of 12 women in my community. We meet once a month and chat occasionally online. The book is the main focus but I soon realised I had lost the art of building and maintaining relationships with anyone who wasn't a close friend or family member. Forming the book club has brought a renewed social connection which is so important as a human.
I have also started up a weekly parent support group that helps to battle the isolation that comes with summer holidays. The numbers of people meeting up can range from two or three to 20! Kids get to see their friends from school, parents get to chat and connect and it’s all for free.
The practical community skills I have learned in the programme have given me the confidence to start these groups - a task that beforehand would’ve felt overwhelming. I have gained so much but the most obvious change in my life is the growth in my confidence.
After my previous bad experience in work I was pretty sure I would never attempt to enter a professional environment again. I had half accepted living hand to mouth and my only ambition was to get a wee job that would give me enough extra money to keep the wolf from the door. I thought this would make me happy, but I wasn't happy. It was those weeks with our group that gave me the confidence to start making plans to ensure I could use the skills, knowledge and experience that I have.
These plans have come to fruition and I will begin a master's degree in September. I hope to eventually find a role for myself helping others by using the potential that I had forgotten I had!
There is a TED talk by an inspirational Irish woman called Orlaith Hendron called Find Your Tribe. In it, Orlaith discusses the need for women to shore each other up, support each other and lift each other when we're down. I will forever be grateful to the women who helped me remember who I was and who became my tribe.