Coming to terms
Abuse as a child and her Sri Lankan parents’ desire to ‘cure’ her of being gay drove Dil Wickremasinghe into deep depression, says Joy Orpen, but when she found love in Ireland, she also found a new purpose in helping others
Dublin is world-famous for many reasons — the Liffey, a beautiful bay and its host |of wonderful, old buildings. But, for Dil Wickremasinghe, 40, what makes this city special is the healing she found here after a troubled life elsewhere. It's where she finally faced her demons and turned her life around.
Dil's story starts with her very beautiful Sri Lankan mother, a top model and businesswoman, who manufactured her own clothing range.
The garments were made in Sri |Lanka and sold in Italy. On one of |her trips home, Dil’s mother spotted |a very handsome man. Not only did he succumb to her charms, but he married her and, not too long after, Dil was born in Rome.
For business reasons, the family |was constantly shuttling between Italy and Sri Lanka. There were other pressures, too. When Dil was 12, the family moved into her grandparents' 16-bedroom house in Sri Lanka. And, although Dil did well, academically, she was weak in a particular subject, so she was sent to a tutor — but with disastrous consequences.
“I was a really needy child because I wasn't really connected with my parents,” Dil says. “The teacher, who was in his 60s, groomed me by telling me that I could trust him. In time, that led to full-on sexual abuse.”
Needless to say, Dil failed the subject, and her parents were absolutely furious. But, around that time, her mother, who had been searching for God, decided to become a Jehovah's Witness — something she hoped her daughter would follow her in. But, instead, Dil fell in love with a girl of a similar age, who was also a Jehovah's Witness.
“My parents tried to cure me of my lesbianism with religion,” says Dil, who left the family home at 17 and was homeless for about three years.
Despite the challenges she faced, Dil got a job in radio, which she loved. But she was sacked when the station bosses discovered she was gay. Distraught and realising she had no future in Sri Lanka, Dil decided to become a flight attendant based in Bahrain.
During this period, she started |dating a woman, who invited her to |visit her home in Ireland. And, in 1999, Dil did exactly that, her trip coinciding with Gay Pride Week.
“Suddenly, I found myself marching along O'Connell Street, and I thought, ‘Wow, I'm not a freak after all,’” Dil says.
“I had felt deeply ashamed of my sexual orientation, and I had been told |it was a crime against nature. But Dublin had taken me under her wing and said, ‘We like you the way you are.’”
Unfortunately, as the years went by, Dil’s past — the unhappy childhood, the sexual abuse, the lack of understanding — started catching up with her and she began to feel suicidal.
“I became a workaholic to escape |my problems,” Dil explains. “I worked around the clock in my job with a recruitment agency. At 3am, I might get a call to find a chef for a hotel by the morning.
“But the shame from my past was massive, and it turned into depression. No matter how good things were — and, by then, I was in a relationship and had bought a house — it all seemed flat.
“In 2006, it finally caught up with |me. I was given a prescription for antidepressants by a GP, but I knew that wasn't the answer for me. Then a friend suggested I talk to someone. I knew that, if I didn't get it all sorted, it would ruin the new life I had created.” Dil went |to a number of therapists, but it was only when she went to One in Four — an organisation that specifically supports victims of sexual abuse — that she started to truly heal.
“I had issues with being gay, what it means to be a migrant in Ireland, sexual abuse, and so on,” Dil says.
“There is no point in going to a therapist who is prejudiced or has |little knowledge about aspects of your experience. The connection between you and the therapist is crucial to healing.
“All the stuff I'd suppressed kept bubbling up. It was like I had to keep regurgitating it until I could make sense of what I'd been through. Then I would be able to stand back and say, ‘This is what happened to me. None of it was my fault, but it's no longer central to my life and it doesn't define who I am.’”
Dil urges everyone who has experienced abuse, sexual or otherwise, to seek help. “When it comes to abuse and trauma, people can get stuck in it and it can hold them back from living life to the full unless it's looked at and dealt with. From being in a position where |I was only surviving day by day, I can now say I'm living an authentic life.
“From there, I went on to reclaim my life in the media,” she says, “and I met
Anne Marie Toole. We are now engaged.” In 2011, Dil and Anne Marie set up Insight Matters, a central Dublin practice that offers affordable “inclusive and culturally sensitive” psychotherapy, counselling and personal-development guidance.
“We are about inspiring change in self and in society,” says Dil. However, she warns that change isn't always easy.
“When I confronted my feelings, I was in my pyjamas for three months. There's no quick fix for mental-health issues. You have to work through them, uncovering the various layers.”
Currently, Dil hosts Global Village, a popular radio chat show on Saturday evenings on Newstalk, which highlights social-justice and mental-health issues by focusing on those affected by them.
In a ground-breaking move, the show now has a dedicated slot for dealing with emotional and mental challenges. “It’s something we should all be talking about,” says Dil, who recently won the Lord Mayor's inaugural Frederick Douglass Award for her “outstanding contribution to civic life in Dublin by an immigrant”.
Dil is a fine example of a woman who has taken full control of her own destiny in spite of a painfully challenging past.
Insight Matters, tel: (01) 891-0026, |or see www.insightmatters.ie
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