Sunday 17 February 2019

'Whatever happens, I want to walk away with dignity' - presidential hopeful Joan Freeman

Presidential hopeful Joan Freeman has opened up about her history of heartache and miracles, writes Niamh Horan

Joan Freeman. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Joan Freeman. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

'The Den is getting fairly crowded at this point," laughs Joan Freeman as she settles in for a cup of tea at the headquarters of her PR team ahead of the race of a lifetime.

As she fights to secure a nomination to run for president against three former Dragons' Den investors, commentators are already predicting the contest will be every bit as bloody as the last.

But look past the former Pieta House founder's perfectly groomed tresses and million-watt smile, and there's no mistaking a steely determination.

Born in Clontarf, one of six children, she moved with her family to England after her father became unemployed. Even as a child, Joan remembers her parents instilling her with an unwavering self-belief: "My dad told me all my life: 'you're fearless' and I never questioned him."

It was only years later - long after the family moved home and Joan was in her 30s (with a family of her own) - that her innate sense of toughness was knocked.

She was at a conference and got a call to say her father had died. "I wasn't used to loss. I was destroyed by it," Joan says.

"It made me realise, we all know where our limitations are, and mine is losing people."

To cope, she became paranoid about her mother, the obvious next source of concern. "I made sure someone had to stay with her every single night… I said, 'she is not to be left alone'."

But then another phone call came - and it was not about her mother. This time the news was unthinkable.

"I lived for years in fear, expecting a parent to die," she says, reflecting on the memory of when her sister took her own life.

"I was at home. It was just a phone call. I felt incredible fear... the unknown," she says, describing the feeling as "an awful helplessness".

Joan explains: "At this stage she was still alive."

She is reluctant to talk about it. In fact, despite setting up Ireland's leading therapy service for suicidal people across Ireland, she has never discussed the tragedy publicly due to the need to protect the family.

She simply says that "it was completely out of the blue".

"I have often said over the years that the worst death of all to cope with is suicide. It's easier to cope with [an accident] because you know the reason behind it. You could have done nothing to prevent that."

Joan and her family were at her sister's side throughout her last few days: "She lasted in hospital for a few days," she says. "I was with her when she died."

Did you get a chance to tell her you loved her? "I would have told her I loved her anyway, whether she was conscious or not."

In the aftermath, grief hit her like a sledgehammer.

"I was a counsellor and I stopped counselling because I thought I wasn't worthy to be in any counselling room. So I stopped work immediately. I had four kids and I would send them all to school and then I would go in and lie on the bed."

The only thing that got her out of the house was her search for answers: "Fifteen years ago, there was no such thing - in my home anyway - as the internet. I would book an hour every day in the local library and just type in the word 'suicide' - just to see what would come up."

Unknown to her, she was starting research into setting up an organisation that would help countless families in similar situations.

"One of the best things I found out when I was going to the library every day is that family members are the last to know."

A woman of strong Catholic faith, how did she reconcile the tragedy with God? "There was nothing to reconcile. I had lost a family member in the most awful circumstances... In fact, I remember when my dad died every bit of faith I had left. And when my sister died, every drop of faith came roaring back. It was what I needed at that time. Research will tell you people who have faith cope a lot better with life."

Now a year after leaving Pieta House - an organisation which has raised millions, grown to 15 centres across Ireland (and two in the US), and employs more than 270 therapists and staff - Joan says she would use her influence and authority as president to prioritise the physical and emotional well-being of the nation. She believes that, although we constantly talk about mental health, there is little or no action about it.

Her cause is noble. But there are other peripheral issues which have raised eyebrows.

At the time of our interview, a video of Joan speaking in Knock is circulating online. In it she describes how, at 16 and suffering with bad eczema, "I placed my hands on the wall in Knock on the shrine and I've never had eczema again".

When asked about it now, she says it was no act of God.

"I am going to shatter that image about the miracle," she laughs. "A lot of children from an early age have eczema and they grow out of it in their mid teens, so that's what it was."

I question whether she has changed her mind in the run up to the presidential race because people might think she is crazy, or that her previous assertions might not be publicly accepted.

"I don't care. This is so insignificant," she says. "What the people need to know is whether I am capable of being president."

On the same topic she addresses another video, again in Knock, that shows her describing God as "the financial manager" of Pieta House.

Joan laughs again.

"I had 4,000 people in front of me. What I was trying to say was that the HSE didn't back us for years. The only person I could rely on was God so I made God the financial manager."

Was it your way of saying you were praying for funds?

"Exactly. I borrowed €130,000 and our home was collateral so of course there were a few prayers."

These days she has turned to more human benefactors for support - including a 'Go Fund Me' page and anonymous businesspeople who, she says, are willing to give her a loan.

Are they a household name? "No."

As for her thoughts on the current President, Michael D Higgins, Joan describes him as "a bright, intelligent, articulate man".

Still, she feels she is the right person to replace him. "Ireland is a very different place than it was seven years ago. Michael D brought in arts and culture, which we needed [back then]; now we need to bring in a culture of mental health."

If she gets into power she would be happy to make her expenses public. She is also happy to fly Aer Lingus and to drive her own car, an eight-year-old Hyundai 1.3-litre, rather than the two €100,000 BMW 740 models currently used by the president.

What does she say to commentary over the past few weeks that a person would need to have a serious ego to run for president?

"Of course you would want to have some kind of ego," she replies. "Number one: that you would have the audacity to go for it, but also [to feel] that you would have the ability to go for it. But past experience tells you what you're capable of. So you can call it 'ego'. We mustn't confuse it with arrogance. I would like to think that I am not arrogant but I do believe in myself."

Joan adds: "Women in particular suffer from the imposter syndrome.

"It is alive and well with women in Ireland and it is we who are confusing that with ego. We should be able to believe in ourselves."

She also says she has been surrounded by sexism all her life. "I think men and women are treated fundamentally, extremely differently."

"Someone called me 'darlin'' a few weeks ago instead of senator," Joan adds, although she asserts that she is not one to allow herself be tainted by it.

She voted No in the abortion referendum but would respect democracy and sign the bill into law. Much has also been made of the fact that her niece is prominent Iona Institute campaigner Maria Steen. Her stance is that she is not her brother's keeper.

Her own thoughts on Iona?

"I think it's got an intolerance that needs to be looked at. We are supposed to be an inclusive, tolerant, embracing society."

She certainly has personal reasons to take issue with the organisation that campaigned ferociously against same-sex marriage. A daughter is gay.

"As a mother, I felt such overwhelming love for her," she says of the day she came out. "Because I knew her life wasn't going to be easy. She wasn't following the traditional route of falling for a guy or getting married - or not - and having children. So this overwhelming love is what I felt for her."

Did the news take you by surprise? "It was completely out of the blue," she laughs.

So how does her husband Pat and her four children feel about her running for the biggest job in the country?

"They are so absolutely proud of me - that's the embarrassment. I am going to be absent out of their lives again and they have accepted that and loved me regardless."

So is there anything she wants to get out there before our interview wraps up?

"Do you know what Niamh, when I go to a big shop like Dunnes Stores and there are security people there, I feel guilty [without ever doing anything]. So when people keep asking if I have any skeletons I have the same fear I have around that security guard."

Her biggest fear facing into the next few weeks is that "whatever happens, I want to walk away with dignity".

Is she worried it's going to get dirty?

"Oh, it probably will."

And how does she think she will cope?

"I am made of gritty stuff."

Pieta House free 24-hour helpline n 1800 247 247 Samaritans free 24-hour helpline n 116 123

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