'I had severe PTSD on the level of a combat veteran'
Iseult White, great-granddaughter of Maud Gonne, had a successful career in Silicon Valley before retraining as a psychotherapist. She battled her own PTSD and has now written a book to help teenagers and their parents
'All of the big changes in my life had something nice that drew me towards them, and a massive kick that sent me to them," says Iseult White about her decision to leave the world of technology services where she had been very successful, working in Silicon Valley and starting her own company at the age of 28, to train as a psychotherapist in her 40s.
She made the change after she had moved back to Ireland from America, and has just published her first psychotherapy book (she has written two popular technology books, that became university texts), The Mindfulness Workout, aimed at teenagers and the adults in their lives.
The book is written in a way that is thorough and precise, with excellent specific suggestions of exercises to do and a good, clear explanation of the neuroscience, but also relaxed and almost informal. Right through, there is sympathy and respect for teenagers and the challenges they face, as well as a noticeable degree of ease and familiarity with them. Iseult, clearly, is writing from experience as much as from any academic expertise, as mother to two daughters, the youngest of whom is 18, and two older step-children. Indeed at one point she tells me: "I would say that my work as a psychotherapist with teenagers is more improved from having been a step-parent, than from the training as such."
Iseult's step-children, a boy and a girl, were 10 and 8 when she entered their lives. "The interesting thing about being a step-parent," she says now, "is that what's going on is much clearer to you because it's not your baby. When it is your baby, you're caught up in that and it does affect your judgement".
But she is very clear about the difficulties of a relationship that must have more bad press than any other. "I went in so naively," she laughs. "I thought, 'these kids have a mum and a dad they seem to get on well with, so I'm going to be like this friendly auntie or godparent type person in their lives and it's going to be lovely…' It was nothing like that!"
There are, she says "a lot of tough times raising kids, a lot of times of frustration, but that's all mediated by the fact that they are your little infant and you're really connected to them. You don't have that to support you with a stepchild. And also, your stepchildren don't want you in their lives - most kids are dreaming of their parents getting back together. Kids are angry with their parents, there's an insecurity in having two different houses, and they tend to focus their anger on a step-parent. You get all of that, with none of the real capacity to intervene."
As a result, Iseult learned that "it wasn't my role to get involved. I needed to define where were my boundaries. For example, I was not involved in setting their bedtimes. There were times in the early days, where I'd be getting a phone call from Japan when their father was there on business, saying 'they said you did this…'"
The lessons, however hard-won, have stuck. "I didn't set bedtimes with my kids when they were teenagers either," she says. "I might have suggested 'God, you seem really tired, do you think you're getting enough sleep' and a lot of the time, kids will self-right anyway. But that approach of not getting so in their face about it… it's such a relief! The more you give kids a sense of agency in the world, the more they learn to make their own decisions. They learn to trust their own judgment. And that's what you really want. We do a disservice to kids by not giving them that appropriate autonomy. A teenager doesn't have full adult judgment but it's about not respecting them any less than you would respect an adult."
When Iseult became a stepmother, she wasn't yet a psychotherapist. That came after her daughters were born and was, as she says, a decision of two distinct parts.
The "nice" impetus for changing career, she says, "was thinking, how do I live out the second half of my life and feel that I am contributing and giving back? I don't want to retire to Spain and play golf, I want to feel I'm part of society and that what I have can be valued. As a psychotherapist, it's one of the few things where your age can be valued. The part that was a positive".
But there was a negative, too, the "massive kick" she describes, in this case "very severe" Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). "I'd had very good therapy in the States which had been really helpful; there was no sense of there being something 'wrong' with me for going. There, you're not a weird broken thing destined to a particular kind of life because you've been traumatised. It's a question of 'how do you work through that?'."
At that stage, she had gone almost pre-emptively to therapy - "one reason was because I knew I didn't want to parent in the way I had grown up. I wanted to understand what I was doing". Later, when she had her daughters, the urgency returned. "My kids got to a certain age and I had a flare up of the PTSD, which is a thing that happens. I had really severe PTSD on the level of a combat veteran. It's a dislocating experience - minor things in the environment, like the sound of a bus breaking, or a change in the light, could trigger flashbacks; could be enough to dump me back into the physical feeling of trauma again."
It is trauma, she says, that stems from her childhood, but more than that, she is not willing to say. "I think it's not useful to say too much because then that becomes the story, and for me, that's not really the story. Once it's public, then that's what people engage with, and they engage with it in a vicarious, creepy way that is not really useful. We encourage this cathartic culture of describing traumas, which is not actually helpful. So I don't talk about that. Also, they are stories that involve other people."
What she will say is this: "I didn't have a happy childhood. I hold the society and culture I was situated in at the time responsible for allowing trauma like that to happen to children within families as well as children within institutions. But," she adds, "it's complex. While I experienced trauma, my family also gave me resources that contributed to my resilience, and I believe that life is much better if you can see the resources as well as the challenges".
Iseult is the granddaughter of Sean MacBride (son of Maud Gonne and John MacBride) a founding member of Amnesty International, IRA director of intelligence in the 1920s, and later government minister, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974. Her mother, Anna, was MacBride's only daughter, who married Declan White, a veterinary surgeon; Iseult is one of four children and grew up in Dublin. Of Anna, Iseult says, "trauma is inter-generational and comes down in families. When my mother was growing up, her house was being raided by the Free State police".
And yes, there was plenty of weight to the family name. "That was always something that kept me very silent," she says, "and was probably part of why I first had psychotherapy in the States. I grew up and everybody knew who I was. An inspector would come into National School and I would be introduced 'this is Iseult, she's Sean MacBride's granddaughter…'" Was that awful? "Yes. And it doesn't make you popular with the other kids either," she says. "He was very well-known, so for me to say I experienced childhood trauma raises lots of questions in people's minds, and I think that's less interesting than that people who have experienced trauma get care." The 'what', she says "doesn't matter. The point is that you experience these feelings".
Iseult lived with PTSD all her life, she says, but then when her children were young, "it opened up in a bigger way again. I was having a lot more flashbacks, a lot more nightmares, I was unable to sleep. It's a constant state of high alert. When my kids were little, it wasn't necessarily the case that if they wanted a hug from me that I could really give them a hug in a meaningful way, because my body might have been too activated from trauma. My kids didn't know whether to sneak into a room or make noise before they came in, because whatever they did, they'd come up to me and go 'mum' and I'd jump a mile".
At this stage, Iseult was married and living back in Ireland, where she returned when she was pregnant with her first daughter. Up to then it was a long-distance relationship. "I was living in the States when I met my husband, although I had known him previously in Ireland. He couldn't move because he had his children here. But I had been thinking about moving back. I wanted to raise my kids in Ireland; it was nothing exact, but a sense of place, a sense of a culture. Also, Silicon Valley is a very hot-housed atmosphere for kids; the education system is very pressured. It's not how I wanted to raise my kids."
Parenting with severe PTSD was something Iseult had to work out for herself, "there wasn't anyone to say 'this might be helpful'… I had to live through it and work through it. I had to explain to them, 'I'm not always able to hug you, and I'm sometimes going to jump a lot, but you've got a dad and you've got a brother and sister, and these are my things, it's nothing to do with you'." Which sounds calm and matter-of-fact, but was of course, as she says "really hard".
And so, Iseult went for help, because "things got too bad". She asked around for a good psychotherapist "it can be very hard to find somebody, it's much more opaque here than in America", and was referred to an organisation where "I explained what I needed and asked did they have expertise in the level of trauma I was presenting with? They said they did, but they didn't, and that therapy ended by making me much worse. If I hadn't had a previous experience of good therapy to compare it with, I would never have known, and I would have left that therapy broken and believing there was something wrong with me, that I was un-helpable."
Iseult first complained to the organisation - "they treated me like I was making a customer service complaint, as if my coffee was cold", she says with a wry laugh - and when that got her nowhere, took the complaint further. Ultimately, she ended by getting a set of clear guidelines around psychotherapy practices adopted. As she says sternly - "that organisation was working with very vulnerable people".
The experience, rather than turning her off psychotherapy completely, gave her the urge to study for herself. "I wanted to understand how it could have gone so wrong," she says. She completed a masters in psychotherapy - her first degree was an MSc in computer science from Trinity - and now sees adolescents in private practice and through student counselling at TCD and DIT.
And does PTSD ever 'go away'? "Yes, but it's not a clear-cut journey," she says. And in fact, "what helped me is a set of techniques that are based in mindfulness". Iseult has been meditating since she was 14. "My mother was really into it, she was a Christian meditator. She started with Transcendental Meditation but she was a Catholic and religion was very important to her. I wasn't an active meditator through my teenage years, but I always did some amount of yoga and meditation. Trauma is an experience that keeps pulling you into the past, so anything like meditation that anchors you to the present is a key part of healing."
There is a quote from JK Rowling in The Mindfulness Workout - "You couldn't give me anything to make me go back to being a teenager... I hated it." So does Iseult feel like that? "Actually, I think we over-egg how tough it is to be a teenager on some levels," she says. "I think it's a great time of exploration, creativity, you're exploring the world and who you are in a way that you don't have the freedom to do again, and the intensity of teenagers - the intensity is fun. You'll never have a crush again the way you have a crush as a teenager - that feeling of going down a roller coaster when you see the object of your crush, you never feel that again. And we do them a disservice not saying that."
That said, she has seen so much of what happens when this intensity gets out of hand. "I see young people who are experiencing anxiety so profound they can't get themselves to school, are self-harming, caught up in eating disorders, or feeling so low they don't believe there is any point in living. I knew that if they had had a few more skills put in place at a younger age, that would help them. During the teen years, if you can put the right habits in place for looking after your mental health, that will serve you throughout your life. It will protect and inoculate you against mental health difficulties."
In working with these young people, Iseult found herself wishing for "an accessible book I could share with them and their parents, to help them learn how to handle the distress that was bringing them to see me". When she couldn't find the book she wanted, she wrote it, bringing together all her experiences - of trauma, recovery, parenting, step-parenting, career success, along with a strong determination to prevail, and do what's right.
'The Mindfulness Workout' by Iseult White is published by Veritas, €12.99
THE MAKING OF A MATRIARCH
Maud Gonne (pictured), revolutionary, actress and muse, had two children, a daughter Iseult, with Lucien Millevoye, and a son, Sean, with husband John MacBride whom she later divorced.
Iseult had a relationship with Ezra Pound, then married writer Francis Stuart, and had three children, Dolores, who died as a baby, Ian and Catherine.
Ian had eight daughters, including entrepreneur and food writer Laragh, photographer Suki, sculptor Sophia and Aisling, who runs the Rossnaree Art School in Co Meath.
Maud's son Sean MacBride had two children, Anna, a writer and historian, and filmmaker Tiernan, who is commemorated in the Tiernan MacBride Library at the IFI, the largest collection of film-related publications in Ireland.
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