Sunday 23 July 2017

Have you found your TRIBE?

We may be more connected than ever online but we are entering a new age of loneliness. Our reporter meets women, from swimmers to dog lovers, who've forged new friendships with kindred spirits…

Find your tribe
Find your tribe
Ashling Brady, Aoife Murdock and Olivia Lavin in Connemara
The Walk the Talk group

Kathy Donaghy

A tribe: a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognised leader.

It's one of our most basic human needs - to belong and to feel accepted. From the very first day we entered the school yard we've been looking for them: those people we could be friends with. As adults, we're still searching to make connections outside of our family to be part of a group, a gang of like-minded people - a modern take on the tribe.

Your tribe members are those people who accept you just as you are. They want the best for you and they make you feel understood. They encourage you to go for your goals and chase your dreams. And when the chips are down, they help you through the hard times by providing you with a sense of community and support.

But while we have more connections than ever before, more 'friends' to like and share our online musings, and perhaps hundreds of followers on Instagram, we are entering a new age of loneliness. We read about how it's become an epidemic among young adults and it is a huge affliction of old age. I would hasten to add that it can be found creeping into the lives of stay-at-home mums, the recently bereaved and the early retiree. Nobody is immune.

The research tells us that social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness, we are now told, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents - all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut.

I don't know why I picked a Tuesday to start going swimming again. But every Tuesday I'd show up at the pool and they'd be there too. They were a group of women who seemed to glide effortlessly through the water while I stopped and started and spluttered.

I was lonely. I'd found myself back in my native Donegal after two decades spent living and working in Dublin. My husband and I had left our jobs in the capital in search of a new life for ourselves and our young sons. Even though we decided to embark on this new life, I missed my old one - I missed my job in RTÉ's newsroom, I missed my friends. Recurrent miscarriage had left me grief-stricken and sundered from my former self.

So after a few weeks of plodding away by myself and exchanging hellos and pleasantries with these other women at the pool, one day they simply asked me to come and join them. If I was going to be swimming on Tuesdays, then I might as well be in their lane.

Gradually we got to know one another and find out about one another's lives. We all had kids of varying ages; we exchanged telephone numbers and started going for coffee after our swim session. We had the bright idea of doing a women only try-a-tri, where you train for a mini version of a triathlon. We decided to keep going with the training and try a sprint triathlon.

Our friendships kept going too. Now, almost three years later, we're still swimming away. Our lives have become more intertwined. Very few weeks go by that we don't see one another at least once, if not twice. We've got to know one another's families and share the ups and downs of daily life with each other.

Finding my tribe has helped me in more ways than I could ever have imagined. Over many thousands of lengths of a pool and as many cups of coffee, I have come back to myself. Being part of a small community of women where you share so much in common has helped me to heal. They accept me for who I am and I feel understood. I think they would say the same thing.

My own experience of finding a 'tribe' is not unique or exceptional. By nature we are tribal: we crave being part of something bigger than ourselves. Being free to find a community of like-minded women is not just good for the soul; the research shows it's also good for your health. Finding those people who help nurture your creativity, make you laugh and accept you warts and all is not always easy, but chances are it'll always be worth it.

When Lisa Ryan, originally from Wexford, found herself unexpectedly pregnant at 22, her peer group of fellow students could not relate to the massive changes going on in Lisa's life. Plans to do a Master's after her degree were shelved as she grappled with becoming a first-time mum.

While she'd always wanted children, Lisa thought this stage of her life would probably happen a decade later. When Elliot - who's now almost three years old - was born, Lisa found a gradual falling-away of old friendships. The typical twentysomething nights out were replaced by night feeds, and Lisa says because she had to say no so many times to meeting up, she stopped being asked.

"We were just at two very different stages of our lives. My friends are in their careers - I'm going round singing the Bob the Builder theme tune. I found it very isolating. I remember trying to explain something about childbirth to a friend and I think she felt traumatised. I would have been the exact same myself," she says.

Initially Lisa found support in mother- and-baby groups but even these depended on being able to be at a certain place at a certain time, which, as anyone who has ever tried to get out the door with a new baby knows, is not always possible.

Solace and eventually solid friendships came in a digital format and Lisa found her own 'tribe' in an online community of mums and dads. From beginning to communicate through the parenting website Rollercoaster, Lisa formed bonds with other first-time mums whose babies were due at the same time as Elliot. From here she joined a group called the Irish Parenting Bloggers, who chart their unique and individual journeys through parenthood.

"The beauty is I don't have to wait for that group to meet up on a Tuesday morning. You have your friends in your pocket. There's great solidarity there - we talk about everything and we've become great friends. There are about 10 or 12 bloggers and one of us might share a post and we have a big group chat about it. There's a kinship there, especially with those who are going through the same stage," says Lisa.

"When I was pregnant I started reading a lot of parenting blogs. Because I was in hospital for five weeks before I had Elliot with pre-eclampsia, I had time to do a lot of reading. I'd sit crying with laughter at some of the stories. It's really other parents telling you how it is," she says.

Her online friendships have also helped her cope with the postnatal depression that hit her after Elliot was born. "It's been a resource for me to get out of my own head. Not keeping it in and being able to talk about it to others even in the middle of the night was great. When Elliot was very small, I'd go online and ask if anyone else was up. You'd get a message back: 'Yes, I'm up.'"

Lisa says the community of blogger friends are like-minded and she credits them with opening her eyes to lots of things. "It's great to speak to people who are going through the same thing. I think that all any of us are trying to do is do our best to make sure our kids are getting the best start," says Lisa.

Every Monday, a group of women meet at Brooke Park in Derry city, making their way along its quays and back to the park café for coffee, scones and chat. The Walk the Talk group was the brainchild of Ursula McHugh, a cognitive behavioural therapist, yoga teacher and singer, who was inspired to reach out to other women after she heard a radio news report about loneliness on the radio.

She went to her mailing list and put a call out to other women who might be interested in regularly meeting up to go for a walk and a chat. Now the group of women, aged from 40-plus to 70-plus, meet every week.

"It's like our own informal network. It's like a tribe, really. Often people go through things and think they're the only one but deep down we're all the same. Everyone shares their experiences at different levels. I think the talk in our group is more relevant than the walk," says Ursula.

"It's intergenerational - that's the way it used to be in communities where you had the elder woman sharing her experience. We have mothers with children of different ages and grandmothers having all these conversations," she says.

For Ann Hickey, who joins the weekly group, the Monday morning meet-up sets the tone for the week. "Being with other women is a big part of it. It's being with women of a certain age and life experience - I think there's a strong overlap in how we think about things. We'll have thoughtful discussions. For me it's a really nourishing experience - it's almost a healing experience. I think we're all in our own lanes in life. This is about coming out of our lanes and connecting with one another," says Ann.

When 35-year-old Aoife Murdock moved to Galway last September to take up a job as an education officer with the Dogs Trust, it meant leaving behind her life in Dublin. While the job was everything she dreamed of, making friends when she worked essentially on her own was going to be more challenging. A friend mentioned the social networking app Girl Crew and Aoife thought she'd give it a try. It was during a visit to Madra, a dog rescue centre in Connemara, that Aoife had the brainwave of inviting other people on Girl Crew along.

Initially, two or three women met at the SuperValu in Barna and shared the journey out to the kennels in Connemara. With a shared interest in dogs, the group grew in number to six or seven regulars who meet up, go and walk the dogs, help clean out the kennels and, of course, talk.

Shortly after, they formed their own WhatsApp group - the Wet Noses and Waggy Tails group - to share stories and pictures of the day at the kennels for those who couldn't make it and to keep in touch.

"I think what's brought the majority of women out there is a passion for animals. They are people who live in the city who can't have their own dog or they miss their family dog. If you're passionate about dogs, they are very therapeutic for people. The others are very enthusiastic about the meet-ups. It's a mix of people - from students in their 20s to women in their late 40s. It's great because you're in the company of people who want to do something different and who love animals," says Aoife.

"I very much had to go out of my comfort zone, especially because I'm working on my own. I don't really get to meet people through the job or through my workplace. I found myself in a new city with a new job and I really wanted to reach out to like-minded people. I hope these friendships deepen - there are already some friendships," says Aoife.

"This has made the process of settling in so much easier. The first couple of months, I really missed Dublin and I missed my family and friends. The group has really helped me settle," she says.

They say the only way to have a real friend is to become one. Finding those people who make you tick is something we all aspire to. Often it means coming out of our comfort zones and going back to being like that child in the playground who dares to ask: "Will you be my friend?"

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