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Changes: Katriona O'Sullivan

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Annie [00:00:04] Hello and welcome to Changes! It's Annie here. Lovely to have you with us on the day after Saint Patrick's Day. I hope you maybe had a chance to go to an Irish pub and experience some great Irish traditional music, maybe have a little sip of creamy Guinness and clink a glass and say sláinte! I did all of those things this weekend and it's great to be here post Paddy's Day with an astonishing Irish guest for you on Changes. Doctor Katriona O'Sullivan is a psychologist and award winning lecturer at Maynooth University, but she is most known for the fact that she wrote a memoir which came out last year entitled Poor. It has been pretty much the biggest book in Ireland all year, number one on the non-fiction bestseller list in Ireland, almost since it came out in May last year. And checking this week, ten months later, it's still number one. It's won Biography of the Year and the Listeners Choice Award at the Irish Book Awards, and even Barry Keoghan of Saltburn called it powerful, saying 'Katriona is a legend'. The reason why this book has spread far and wide is because it is a searingly honest account of a childhood growing up in poverty. Katriona was one of five children with parents who were addicted to heroin. She became pregnant at 15 and was homeless. Ultimately, her story is one of hope. She managed to change her life to turn it around in a miraculous fashion. She ended up doing a PhD at Trinity College in Dublin. As I said, she's a lecturer. Her work is focused on change within the systems of education, giving working class and marginalised children equal access and equal opportunities. So she has enacted huge change in her life and she also lives to create change for others. The paperback of Poor is out on the 18th of April. We had to get her on before then. I cannot recommend this book enough. As I said, it's so moving, it's so beautiful and it's so important. Should be read by everyone in my opinion. So yeah, please welcome to Changes doctor Katriona O'Sullivan. So you grew up in poverty, which is what this book is about. You talk about choice quite a lot and this idea of being able to choose how you live and how you succeed in life. Tell me about how you feel about that. 

Katriona [00:02:28] So I believe that choice is a myth. It's a myth that's perpetuated by the privileged people in society. Like, it's easier to say that somebody hasn't worked hard but the truth is, when we really look at choice, like my life was decided by the parents that I was born to, the community that I was living within, and the school that I went to. Like a lot of my decisions in life were really made by that and I had no say over that. And we have the rare cases of people who are able, for whatever reason, to choose differently, but they're like in the minority. I never knew I could be this. I never knew I could be a PhD lecturer. Like, literally, the jobs that were sold to me as a young woman was be a hairdresser- don't get me wrong, I love hairdressers. Or you could work in a cafe. At best, maybe, you could become like a care worker or nursery- a nursery nurse. There was never any choice in my life and I think it's a myth. And it's used to control people. 

Annie [00:03:34] You have managed to break through from the kind of societal constraints that growing up in poverty put on you and you've made, as you know- mentioned, this incredibly successful academic career for yourself. Can you do the same psychologically? Can you stop feeling poor even when you're not? 

Katriona [00:03:50] No, that takes a lot of work. I describe it as being- it's like a really heavy coat that you're wearing, like a wet coat. So say, for example, when I went to Trinity College, you know, I definitely realised that I didn't belong there, like that this place wasn't made for me. But, like, even though I succeeded in there and I got a first and I did really well in my degree, the mindset, the fear, the feeling, the difference, the lack of trust of people in power, the self-esteem stuff, that has taken a lifetime to try to shake off and it's like that heavy jacket now, it's just a little bit damp, it's not like as heavy as it was but it definitely takes me work to start the day and to try and like, coax myself out of it. I'm very lucky that I've had a lot of therapy and I've got a really supportive marriage and a good- a good family. I've created a good family. But the reality is, yeah, poverty in the mindset, it takes a long time for that to take- to change. 

Annie [00:04:57] I'd love to get a kind of sense of your existence as a child, what your house was like, the smells, the sounds, your kind of memories, sensory and not sensory of growing up as a young child in your house. 

Katriona [00:05:12] Yeah. So *laughs* one of the reasons I wrote the book was to be able to contextualise addiction, you know, my parents addiction, because when you don't know an addict you can have this assumption that they're like- you see things like shameless and- 

Annie [00:05:27] Yeah. 

Katriona [00:05:28] Benefits Street, you know, and you have this idea that that's what addiction is, like that's what they are, that's the whole of them. But like, my house was full of life *laughs* full of life and music. So like my parents, like my earliest memories actually are of being in- at the top of our road in Vine Street in Coventry, there's reggae music playing, there's dope being smoked, there's people dancing, there's drink. There's my mam and dad laughing and, you know, having the crack and- there's life. So there's loads of life in my early memories, loads of like colours and, you know, strong language. Now alongside that, you know, is like the- at 9:00 or 10:00 is then when the drink and the drugs come in, is the, is the turn of the community, the turn of my family where there's violence about to erupt, where my mam and dad start fighting with each other, where there's- the anger emerges. And so I grew up in a home where literally it was stinking, like my house stank. It was squalor. The word squalor is what you would imagine. There was burn marks in the- in the chair. Cigarettes had fallen out of my dad's hand while he was stoned and burned into the sofa. And there was bottles, half drank bottles of cider or whatever over err, full ashtrays. Like, literally what you imagine a home to look like with, with addiction, severe addiction. And, there was no food. So like *laughs*, I was hungry. Like, I mean, actually physically hungry as a child as well as, I think, emotionally hungry, like longing for care and longing for stimulation. But there was vibrancy there as well. So like, if you can imagine, like as a little girl, like I'm this five year old, like bright, vivacious little girl. I love music, I'm great singing and da- and like I'm outgoing and bright. And so this, this house is like a merry go round. There's a mess everywhere, there's a lack of food but sometimes there was like, fun and crack and smoking and parties and men and people coming in. *Laughs* it was terrifying. Like, honestly, as a young girl, like, I just remember, like watching my parents put needles in their arms and being really scared that they were going to die, like just that they were going to die and what was going to happen to me. And so, yeah, it was hard. It was really tough, really tough. 

Annie [00:08:01] You illustrate a scene where you were six years old and you see your dad OD on his bed in your house, and I mean, there's so much harrowing, you know, about that scene but one of the things that really struck me is when he's taken away by the paramedics, how they then speak to you. 

Katriona [00:08:18] Yeah, like I loved my dad. Like as a little girl, I idolised my dad. My dad taught me to read, he was really erm, articulate. Like he grew up in Clontarf, like he was adopted and he grew up in Clontarf so he was very well-spoken and he had a- 

Annie [00:08:33] Clontarf is a well-to-do area of Dublin, just saying for those who don't know. 

Katriona [00:08:37] Yeah, they call it they call it leafy Clontarf in the, in the newspaper *laughs*. 

Annie [00:08:41] Says it all, yeah. 

Katriona [00:08:41] Yeah, yeah. So he grew up in a really nice middle class house, but he was adopted at five and he'd had a lot of trauma before then which obviously affected him so my dad was this really great kind of character. And I loved him like, he used to take me out in his green Cortina and erm, play the Eagles and I just thought he was, like, the best person ever, despite the fact that he wasn't doing what a dad should do. I just loved him. This particular day, I remember going into his bedroom and I found him with a needle in his groyne, so he'd overdosed and he was blue in the bed. And I obviously had an out-of-body experience or something because I hear my voice screaming and I didn't realise it was me and my- one of our lodgers ran up and he was like, 'Tony, what have you done?! Tony, what have you done?!' and err, he called the ambulance. And I remember the ambulance men just really manhandling my dad, like talking about him like he was a piece of shit. Like he was, you know, he was responsible. But I remember, like, asking them- I'm like six, 'is he dead? Is he dead?' and they just kind of like, moved me one side, ignored me and kind of, like, were disdainful towards me as if I'd done something wrong and that was pretty- I mean, situations like that teach a kid like me that fair enough I can't trust what's going on at home, but then you can't trust the people who are supposed to be looking after ya. So like- and my parents would have said that as well. They would have said, don't trust the police, don't trust the social services or whatever and so incidents like that would have reaffirmed that idea that there's nobody really that you can trust or go to.

Annie [00:10:18] How many siblings were around at that point? 

Katriona [00:10:23] So, there was four of us at that point so my sister wasn't born then. So it was- there was four of us. I had two older brothers and a younger brother. 

Annie [00:10:31] And did you play a role? Like in all families I think people have a kind of role that they play within a family dynamic. What would yours have been? 

Katriona [00:10:41] I was the mouth *both laugh*. I was- yeah, I was the one who said it. You know, I'm saying to my mam- I was like 4 or 5 and the next door neighbour, they were Irish as well, their mam was giving her soup every day for lunch and I remember saying to my mam, 'why are you not- you're supposed to give us soup like Shelly's mam. Like what-?'. 

Annie [00:10:59] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Katriona [00:11:00] So, like, I was more like the loud one. The one who was asking questions and annoying my mam particularly with what I was doing. 

Annie [00:11:07] So your dad is Tony, your mam is Tilly. What kind of a mother was she- do you remember her being at that time? 

Katriona [00:11:15] It's hard you know because, I- I love my- I love my mam. I love her now more than I ever did. But as a kid like, I think women, particularly mothers, get so much- so much more judgement than than men and fathers do. So, like, my dad could get away with anything realistically, but because she was the mam and she was on drugs, like, I knew pretty early on that she wasn't acting like a mother. Like, I could see that because I could see other kids and their mams. And so my mam was just- my mam was just a complete drug addict, like 100% driven by drugs, like every single day that was her focus and you could see that. So there was a period of, say, my first 4 or 5 years where all I remember is the drive in her to get stoned, and I could see it every single day. So like, we were just a kind of, an afterthought. I was an afterthought, I think. But as the years went on, and when we did talk about things- like one particular story that I talk about in my book and it's- it is heroin, is my mam prostituted herself, you know. When my dad went to prison, my mam had no way to pay for her addiction and she prostituted herself and I saw her doing it. It was so shocking to me that my mam was doing this thing that these women were doing. And years later, when I said to her, like, did you ever love me, mam? Like, did you ever love me? She said, 'you know, when I was doing that, like all I kept thinking was, I need gear and chips for the kids' and like, while that sounds terrible to another person, that kind of made me feel like, well, at least we were up there in her mind. 

Annie [00:13:01] In the priority list. Yeah. 

Katriona [00:13:02] It was a priority for her and it really kind of made me so sad, more for her than even for me, but more for her because that judgement of her mothering and the damage that she caused, I think actually stopped her being able to recover herself, because whenever she woke up from her addiction and saw the mess that she created or that her addiction created, she needed to self-soothe again, she needed to get back so it was a horrible cycle that she was in. But she wasn't a great- she wasn't a good mam. And my mam was quite violent and volatile, especially towards me, so our relationship was not good. I don't think she liked the fact that I was outspoken. She didn't like that I said it. I would question, she didn't like that so that caused a lot of difficulty between us. But I- well, I talk about myself as if I'm an adult, like I was- I was 7 like. *Annie laughs* I mean, you know, I didn't do anything wrong by expecting her to feed me at the end of the day. 

[00:14:05] *Short musical interlude* 

Annie [00:14:15] We asked you your change questions in advance and for your childhood change, you cited an event that happened to you when you were seven, an event of sexual abuse towards you. Without asking you to go into the details of that, I wanted to know, I suppose, how something like that can change a child? 

Katriona [00:14:36] Yeah. So I wrote about that in my book because I think it's really important to talk about the impact of sexual abuse on a person. And it's something that we don't talk about, but like 1 in 4 people or 1 in 5 people, it depends on where you are in the world, have experienced some form of abuse as a child, irrespective of the fact that my parents weren't doing a great job *laughs*, I was hopeful as a little girl. So I do have, I think, a pretty positive outlook. I'm a bright person. I, I look at the world as in like the half- the glass is half full. And as a little girl, I was really hopeful that my mam would eventually love me the way I wanted her to, or that my dad would stop taking heroin and would play with me more. Or I felt like the world was going to get better. And I was also very free in my own body. So as a young girl, like, I loved music. Like music was my escape. Music and books were the places where I felt most safe and most free. So I spent a lot of time my bedroom *laughing* making up dances, listening to music, singing songs, and also I had books there. And then when this happened to me, which was a really horrific incident, it actually robbed me of hope. So I went from- like within a moment or a situation, I went from being this child that was like, 'it's going to get better' to being completely fractured as a little girl. It not only fractured the hope that I had, but it disconnected me also from my siblings. So like my brothers who were like my safe place, we were going through it together, all of a sudden this horrific thing had happened to me and I felt like I wasn't the same as them anymore and I couldn't trust them anymore. So it kind of robbed me of everything. And then finally it robbed me of my body. Like, as in like the freedom that I'd felt within my body, I, I use the story of like being able to like, do a cartwheel and let my knicker- my dress go over my head and show my knickers as little girls do. That was completely gone. There was just a shame, a heavy shame that walked around with me. And little children, like, I know because I did psychology and I'm a- I'm a doctor of psychology now but like, the psyche of a child is that when bad stuff happens, like we automatically think it's to do with us, and an adult's job in your life is to kind of say to you, no look, this is the thing that was caused that, it wasn't you, that bad person did this. But I didn't have any of that. So like, automatically I was like, this is me. So I became very critical of myself, very inwards. What's wrong with me? What did I do to make that happen? Was it my body? Was it the way I speak? So this- it was like a complete fracturing. I've spent my life trying to reach that little girl, like trying to actually go back to her and soothe her. And in some ways I have, but in other ways there is still work to be done in actually aligning myself and loving my body, particularly, and being free. I still don't know if I could do a cartwheel. I probably couldn't anyway because I'm so old *Annie laughs*, but I still *laughing* I still don't know if I'd have the freedom that I would have had before that happened. 

Annie [00:17:57] Yeah, yeah. Thank you for answering that. In the book, reading about your story you are so vulnerable in so many situations and as a reader, you're kind of just rooting for you so much, rooting for someone to come and be there for you and see you, really see you and see your situation. And that actually happens in school. It happens in a bad way, you get terrible teachers but there's a few kind of angel characters that kind of come through that you're just so thankful for, and one of them is a woman called Miss Arkinson. 

Katriona [00:18:27] Yes. 

Annie [00:18:28] Would you mind walking us through just kind of what she did for you as a young, young Katriona? 

Katriona [00:18:34] Yeah. So I think we're all born, like, with this kind of empty space inside of us and our parents jobs are to, to provide a light in there. So like their consistency and their love and the hugs and the discipline and the food, *laughs* definitely the food, they provide a light in babies and that light then can guide you in life, and it's like a security and I- when I went to school at age 4 or 5 in Coventry, like I didn't have any light inside of me. So I was really worried and, you know, fearful and I was quite naughty as well. Like, I was a naughty little kid like I was, you know, telling people to fuck off at that age already because like, don't tell me what to do *laughs*. But I mean, a lot of that was because I didn't have any guidance. But there's two things that she did that changed my life, that actually placed a light in me that lasted- has lasted forever. The first thing was that she always expected me to be able to achieve whatever she asked me to do. So like, a lot of times when kids are bold or naughty in school, like teachers don't really believe that they can achieve things, you internalise that, but Miss Arkinson, she always asked me to do jobs, it was soooo fucking annoying. And most of the time I didn't actually do the job. So I'd just piss off out of school and I'd go out into the playground and play on the climbing frame, and I'd have to be come and found. But she never stopped believing in me. She never stopped asking me. And I think like, that infiltrates you as a young child, like, especially when you don't have that anywhere else. Like, I just kind of knew that this consistency, this belief, that she believed in me. Like I used to lie at home in bed at night and there was murder going on in the house downstairs, like fights, police, and like, sometimes as a child, when you're in that trauma, you're searching in your mind for someone or something to hold on to, to keep you, keep you safe in your head, like because you're spiralling or you're afraid so much. Like at night-time she would- she would be the person that I'd think of. She thinks I'm great. She she thinks I'm great. And so that's, that's game changing for a kid like me. And the other thing that she did, is she she taught me how to wash myself. So erm, I wet the bed erm, because I was in a terrible situation, and I'd just roll out of bed, no one washed me, no toothbrushes and we'd just head to school. And that meant I was err, pissy. And no- *laughs* no one wanted to play with me which is so sad because, like, I'm at home and they're all messed up, and then I'm in school and I'm dying for connection, and then because I smell and I've got nits, no one wants to play with me. And so miss Arkinson actually ermm, I remember this day she- the teacher's assistant, I remember them looking at each other across the classroom, I was really aware of any trouble that I might be in. And I seen them looking at each other and one of the erm, the teacher's assistant took me in the bathroom and she said- she come down to my own height and she said, you've not done anything wrong, I'm going to help you, I'm going to help you to learn how to wash yourself. And in that moment, I felt so ashamed. I was like, they know, they know what I am, because we knew what we were, like, you know what you were. But also, I wanted so much to be helped. So she brought out this big fluffy white towel and a flannel and literally like- an a pair of knickers from Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, five pairs, and erm, she taught me to wash myself. And every morning I'd arrive into school and the little bag would be on the desk. No comment, no nothing and I just go into the toilet and clean myself and drop the bag back and that would be there every day. And like, that was so empowering for me as a little girl to have some kind of say in what I look like and what I smelled like or whatever, it was, it was really lovely. 

Annie [00:22:33] And then the teacher, Miss Arkinson, would just go and wash- wash- launder your things and bring them back. I mean, it's just such an act of kindness, isn't it? 

Katriona [00:22:42] Yes, it is. And she actually fed u- fed me like *laughs* all the way through school as well so- because we were in her, we were in reception and nursery with her, and then we moved into, you know, juniors or whatever. I used to go into her class before I'd go over to the junior school, and she'd always have a bun for us and so she fed- she kind of like gave us breakfast every day for years going forwards. One of the funny things about my story coming out is the conversations that you see publicly with teachers, because you know, some teachers are saying we can't do that now, and then there's loads that are saying, actually, we still do that, like we still do that. And so I actually think in education, it's one of the reasons I wrote my book because I do want to acknowledge the impact that teachers, good teachers had on my life. Like, I, I definitely wouldn't be here if I hadn't had Miss Arkinson there, and Mr. Pickering there. I just wouldn't have felt that I was worth anything if I hadn't have had that intervention in school. And they didn't have to do that, they just did it because they were good, kind people. 

Annie [00:23:45] Tell me about Mr. Pickering and what he did for you. 

Katriona [00:23:49] Basically, the story goes my best friend, she cheated in an exam and got into top class with me *laughs* and our first essay for him, she got her- she got her mam to do it and I got a terrible grade. And he wrote in mine, ask Louise to guide you on how to write. So I went up to him and said err, she got her mam to do it! *Laughs* I grassed on my best friend. 

Annie [00:24:15] The mouth came out. 

Katriona [00:24:15] Yeah, the mouth. But I was like, I want him to think I'm great! 

Annie [00:24:19] Yeah, yeah. 

Katriona [00:24:19] You know, so I think, you know, that must have shown him something different about me, that I wanted to be good because that was in there as well. One day he'd asked me to do a job for him or something in his little room, and I remember my friends going, *childish voice* 'oooh, he loves you, Mr. Pickering loves you'. And I went in, you know the way kids are, they slag the life out of ya so- but I went in and he told me, he told me his life story. So he told me that he was a miner, and he left school at 15, and he was from up north, and he had gone to university when he was 30, he'd always loved books and he became a teacher late. He'd done Open University. And honestly, it was the first time I actually saw a teacher as being like a human being, especially at that age. I was like, oh, this guy is like, normal. So that kind of really helped. And then there was two things that he did that changed my life. The first one was parent-teacher meeting. So they never came. They never came. And, there was a knock at the door and it was him. I answered the door and it was him and I was shitting myself because when a teacher came to your house, you're in big trouble. Like, my mam and dad were like, don't ever bring the wag man here, the police here, or a teacher *laughs* so I was shittin'. And I went in to my dad- he said, is your dad there? And I went into my dad, my dad's drinking a can of Special Brew, I'll never forget it! And I said, my teachers at the door. My dad gave me the evils and went and said hello to Mr. Pickering and I stood behind listening. Mr. Pickering just said to my dad, I just expected to meet you tonight, Mr. O'Sullivan. My dad mumbled an apology and he said to him, I just wanted to tell you that Katriona is amazing, she's so talented and I think you should be ashamed of yourself for not supporting her more. 

Annie [00:26:04] *Exhales* woww. 

Katriona [00:26:05] And, like, my dad was really sorry and said he would try harder or whatever. Like, my dad wasn't this shameless character, like, he wasn't this violent, crazy character like, he just felt embarrassed that this teacher had said this. But me, behind the door, I literally grew another foot. Like, that light in my belly- a second one came on. It was like someone else's going to bat for me. Someone else has just gone so far to try to help me. You know, so that was, that was powerful and made me see him and the world differently, like the distrust that I had grown to believe was- the world was a bad place, there was a little crack in that idea because of this wonderful teacher who just went out of his way. And then as a teenager when I had John *laughs* so I'm in the hostel, I have a baby, I'm living in a high rise flat in Birmingham, Bromford in Birmingham, and the door knocks one day, John's like eight months old and it's Mr. Pickering. I'm like, what- *awkwardly* hi sir *Annie laughs*. I'm a mam now, I'm like, hey sir. And he's like, ahhh, I'm so glad to have found you, can I come in? And thank God I- I cleaned the living room. And he come in and he said, look, I've arranged everything for you to come back to school two mornings a week. Just do your English and your maths, your English literature, English language, and your maths. That will help you all- in the future. I've arranged a little bit of childcare support for you, please come back. And like, I really did not want to go back. Like I was settled in, like, leaning into the shit, basically. But like his belief in me and his want, I was like, oh my God I have to go. And so I went back and did my English anyway, I failed the maths *laughs*. I didn't get up one morning for the maths exam, but I went back and I went back because of him. And so this, this man, this teacher who had no reason to invest in me, just went that extra mile for me and it definitely changed my life. I'll always be grateful for him. 

[00:28:11] *Short musical interlude*

Annie [00:28:21] You became pregnant at 15. I mean, this is obviously another huge, pivotal mament in your life. You left home then. What were the circumstances of you leaving home? 

Katriona [00:28:30] It's- you know what *voice shaking*, it's really hard to erm, think about what happened when I got pregnant with my son. Like, I don't- I still don't understand why my parents kicked me out. I still don't know what their reasoning was. I kind of think maybe, like, I was always telling them off for their addiction. So I got pregnant at 15 and within a month of me finding out I was pregnant my mam said, you're not going to be able to stay here and have a baby here. And they told me to leave. And so I actually slept out on the streets for a couple of nights in Birmingham. I went to my son's dad's, his mam wouldn't let me stay there so I was like, literally homeless. And I- I don't know why, I remember my brothers were really, really upset, like really sad. Their eyes were red and they were really upset about me being told to leave, but I don't know why- I think in some crazy mentality, that my mam might have thought that I was going to get housed, or that if they didn't want me there that I'd get a council place or something. I don't know, but erm, I ended up living in a squat, breaking into a flat and living in a squat in Birmingham. And it was one of the darkest periods of my life. Like, having a child- obviously, it's supposed to be this joyous kind of *laughs* event but like I am, like, broken at this point, like there's no, no hope, I've left school and I'm having a baby and I've no support. It was horrific, like a really dark point. 

Annie [00:30:04] A relief, a sensation of relief upon reading your story is the fact that your mam was able to be there for the labour. And, you know, it was very telling. You say- just in passing in the book, you say about the fact that your mam and dad had both spiralled upon you leaving and your mam had had a near-death experience and was lucky to be able to be there for the labour, but I thought that was quite an interesting insight that upon you leaving, not having someone to give out to them and keep them in check, they really spiralled as well. 

Katriona [00:30:34] Yeah they did, they really spiralled. Yeah. I think I kind of was that role, like I was the person that would be like hiding the drink, hiding the drugs, trying to manage them. Like I was- I was actually that all the way until the end of both of their lives. The lovely thing about writing the book has been- and writing my story is actually kind of rediscovering my mam in that sense, because the story- ahh, I feel sad when I actually say that, but like, she really demonstrated how much she loved me when I was in labour. And then for the month or so after I gave birth to John, oh my God, it was like, this is what my mam would be without drugs and drink. I actually got a glimpse of that, and I got a glimpse of the love that she really had for me and also for him. So that was a really special time, and I'm so grateful that she actually did have *laughs* the near death experience because it pushed her to- she had a varices bleeds, that's eventually what killed her, she had another one, but she had a varices bleed which happens in addiction. But she, she was wonderful at that time and I just remember we all slept in the, in my mam's double bed, me, my mam and my son, like, and because I didn't have a clue. Like, I knew- I knew nothing about parenting I- 

Annie [00:31:54] Well you're 15! You're 15! 

Katriona [00:31:55] *Laughing in disbelief* I know, I had no idea, but she was so good. And honestly though, as a grandmother, she always loved my son, like she adored my son. They all adored my son, like all of my siblings, all of my- my parents as well. However, I think my mam and dad's relationship, they were so co-dependent and then when he came back, it was just gone. She went straight back into the addiction, but that particular period was so, it was so lovely to remember and actually quite sad as well, because, you know, she died really without ever having the freedom from addiction. Like she never got long enough to be herself and- and feel and be free. 

Annie [00:32:38] How old was she when she died? 

Katriona [00:32:40] She was 60. My dad was 56 and my mam was 60. 

Annie [00:32:45] Yeah. 

Katriona [00:32:46] It's really young. 

Annie [00:32:48] Very young. So you'd already experienced the prejudices that come along with growing up in poverty, but there's a whole new layer on being a teenage mother. 

Katriona [00:32:59] Oh, wow. 

Annie [00:33:00] How did that label affect how you were treated and how you were able to move through the world? 

Katriona [00:33:08] Society really hates lone parents, like really vilifies. And especially when you're young and you're poor, like, there's, there's so many challenges to, to just living a good life when you're, when you're that. So like- I mean the judgements, even like from friends and family, like they all kind of wrote me off and said I wasn't going to do anything with my life, basically. But it's a, it's really hard because, you know, you live- like what people expect of you is what you, you give out at the end of the day. 

Annie [00:33:41] Of course. Like if someone tells you you're cheap and worthless over and over and over and over and over again, you're going to believe that. 

Katriona [00:33:46] And they don't have to say it directly. So like when I went to school, like I was- school communicated to me that I wasn't very clever by, by focusing on completion only for me. So I remember there was a girl in my class and she was lovely, her name was Annette and I went to her house once and *laughs* she had a chessboard on her coffee table, and her and her sister had a room that I used to study in. And I remember in school the conversations with Annette and the conversations with me were completely different. So Annette was university, A-levels, you know, maybe you could go here. It was completion, let's try and get her to the end of her GCSEs only. And like, that conversation actually becomes the conversation that you have with yourself. Annnette is clever and I'm not clever because that's what the educators said. There was never any like, I never met anyone who went to university, no one told me that was possibly something I could do so, it's not even that people have to directly say it to you, what they expect of you and how they treat you in that expectation as well- like even say if you go to get your dole or the employment office and they're pushing you towards like courses or things that they think suit you as a poor person, so like, you can become a binman *laughs* or you can become- 

Annie [00:35:04] Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Katriona [00:35:05] You know, you can become a plumber, you know, or a carpenter or server in some way. Them things become part of what you believe you are at the end of the day, and as a lone parent living in a highrise flat in Birmingham, being on my, on my dole, I believed and I was treated a certain way and I believed that about myself for a long time. 

Annie [00:35:27] And you then fell into your own experiences of addiction. And again, a bit that really I found very interesting in the book is when you talk about that- that you were addicted to drugs or alcohol, but you were addicted to the act of escaping reality and seeking reassurance that you were worth something. So that was the addiction, it's like how do I get out of this, this narrative that I have for myself? How do I escape this world? 

Katriona [00:35:54] Yeah. So drugs were great for that at the start, but I always had this really heavy guilt because of my parents. So like whenever I took drugs, like I was really ashamed of myself. But I was like, addicted to men, sex, not sex as in like, *laughing* orgasms. 

Annie [00:36:11] Yeah, yeah. 

Katriona [00:36:11] Because you very rarely have them *laughs* at the end of the day, when you're doing one night stands or whatever. It was more like to feel, to feel something away from what I was feeling-

Annie [00:36:23] Val- valued. 

Katriona [00:36:24] Valued but like you're driven to things that actually make you feel less valued. It's not- so it's, it's an unconscious thing. So, like, I always like to say about myself, like I woke up every day wanting to be better. Like I wanted to be a good mother. I- like my mam, wanted to be a good mam. I wanted to get a good job, I wanted to pay my bills. I wanted all them things. But like when you've been through poverty and a hard life like I have, there's other things that drive you, stronger- stronger things that you don't necessarily have a lot of control over and, like in my case, like my- the trauma and my insecurities and the doubt and the loud voices in my head that told me I was worth nothing, like I just wanted them to be gone. But oftentimes you look for solutions in the wrong places and I would be looking in a gangster, looking for a gangster like. If you're in prison, you're attractive to me. Literally, I was like the bottom of the ladder, looking for love in all the wrong places. But also then drugs and drink were the thing and it was a horrible existence, because I had a child then as well. And like, I loved him, like I genuine- and I do still love him like he's the light of my life, but it's very hard to love someone when you're broken. It's just very hard to love them. And so despite the want, I had them 3 or 4 years of just being degraded by myself and by the life that I was living, and it was horrendous. 

[00:37:52] *Short musical interlude*

Annie [00:38:02] You had a very big moment of change when you bumped into someone on the street, in O'Connell Street in Dublin, and someone who you knew, who was from the same economic background as you, and she told you that she was studying law at Trinity. Now, Trinity, if you're if you're British and you don't know Trinity, Trinity is like the equivalent of an Oxbridge university in Ireland. You had two GCSEs when you met this girl and something happened in that conversation. An impulse that was stronger than all the oth- you know, all the other impulses that made you actually do something very proactive and go and *Katriona laughs* knock on a door and like-

Katriona [00:38:42] Yes. 

Annie [00:38:42] Demand to be heard! 

Katriona [00:38:44] Yeah. Because you know what, one of the things that I think is really important is- in conversations like this is like, poor people are not broken people. Like, I was broken emotionally, but like I had loads of skills. Like when you grow up like I do, like there's loads of skills in my community like, and some of them are really worth *laughs* they're really great. Like, I can fight you verbally, I can advocate for myself, I can demand what's, you know, in social welfare or whatever else. So there's loads of skills. And when I met Karen on this, this day, honestly, I never knew anyone like me who went to university, especially not a place like Trinity, it's like Oxford. And Karen was on O'Connell Street and she was like, I'm in Trinity College, like all full of herself and I was like, fuck off! *Annie laughs* Like literally, my friends were going in there to rob bikes at that time, and now they go in to rob laptops at the end of the day. So I was like, no way. And she said, look, there's this program, it's called the Access Program, it's a foundation year. They give you money, they give you childcare, they support you. The skills that I have came into play on that day. I literally, brazen as anything, marched over to the Trinity Access Program, the door- knocked on the door and said to this woman *laughs* this little posh woman, 'errr, my friend Karen is in here and I think I need to change my life and-', and she called me- and she kind of quietened me down, she called me in and she said, tell me your story. And I don't know, the stars aligned what it was, but I literally said to her, like, this is where I'm coming from, but I know, like I know there's more, please can you help me? And she just looked me in the eye and she just said, wow, aren't you phenomenal? And that conversation, like her saying that to me, like a woman in that position was just *gasps* oh my God, like someone thinks I'm great. And like, I found myself applying for this course- honestly, I'm going to be honest, I didn't even know what it was, to be honest I was like, it just felt good. And I was in recovery at this stage, you know, like I was in therapy. I was searching for a change at that point and it was like- so I found myself being interviewed by these poshies, *laughs* these lecturers in Trinity. Don't get me wrong, I love poshies, I wish I was one *Annie laughs* like I- I'd swap everything to have been growing up as a poshie, but I didn't grow up like that. So I'm in this interview with these fuckin academics and they're asking me all these questions and I'm shitting myself. The poverty is there, the psyche. I'm like, I'm going to fail, I'm going to fail. And then this man says to me, tell me about a book that you've read? And I knew I had it then. I fucking knew, because I was reading The Road Less Travelled at the time and I just was like, I just explained it, and when I walked out I just instinctively knew. And like, my dad, you know, for all of the damage, for all of the harm, like when we got the letter of offer like he was, I can't explain how happy he was. Like he framed the letter as if it was the degree. You know, he framed the letter of offer because I think for him it was like, it wasn't all broken like. We didn't- we didn't- we didn't hurt all of them. We didn't, you know, we didn't- so yeah, Trinity was just like this phenomenal experience that I don't know if I'd had if I hadn't met Karen on O'Connell street. 

Annie [00:41:59] Your da also was err, a kind of cog in the wheel of getting you into rehabilitation, wasn't he? 

Katriona [00:42:05] Yes. Yeah so-

Annie [00:42:06] There was a conversation with him, yeah. 

Katriona [00:42:09] Yeah, so my dad had got sober when he mov- he moved back to Ireland and got sober, and he'd like, taken my son and was looking after my son while I was trying to get my shit together, in inverted commas, which I was actually just partying. 

Annie [00:42:22] And that was in, was that in Coventry? Were you in Coventry or in Dublin at that point? 

Katriona [00:42:25] Birmingham. 

Annie [00:42:26] Oh Birmingham, Birmingham sorry. Yep. 

Katriona [00:42:27] Yeah, I was in Birmingham. And then I was go- yeah, I was raving, like it was like, you know, it was 90s, I was on a mad one enjoying myself but also broken, not enjoying myself and then my dad got sober in Ireland. When I arrived to visit, I just- he was sober and I'd never seen sobriety in anybody, never seen it. And, it was like, who is this person? You know, I was kind of angry, to be honest, because I was like, why couldn't you have done this 20 years ago? But he- he was a, you know, he was an example to me of, like, the possibilities if you tried to change your life. And so I went mad in Ireland. I was here crazy for a year or two and then I just turned to my dad one night and said, please help me. And he kind of pushed me towards recovery. I went into treatment and I went into rehab and it was a really important piece of my journey, actually, of change. I was actually going and doing the work on myself. I don't know if I'd have gone to Trinity without having done the work on myself, whether I'd have been able to survive it, to be honest. 

Annie [00:43:29] Did you ever speak to your mam and dad about your childhood and how you're brought up, and try and reckon with them about it? 

Katriona [00:43:39] Yeah, like me and my mam and dad actually did some therapy together. You know, when I was abused as a child, like I did tell my mam and she didn't do anything, and like that kind of, like, really fractured things with me and her for a long, long time. And so we were able to talk about that in therapy. So my mam had periods of sobriety as well, she could never get it for long. My parents were so sorry. They were so, so sorry for the pain they inflicted on us. Like- and my dad, even though he smoked himself to death and he still dabbled in this, that and the other, he did his best to try to rectify it as much as he could when he was in recovery. We did talk about it a lot, and there was anger and there was fights and there was sorry's and lots of different conversations and eventually there was just forgiveness I think, on my side, a real forgiveness. Not a head forgiveness, like an actual understanding and forgiveness that they really didn't mean to do what they did. They were really unwell and didn't have choices. 

Annie [00:44:47] What did this book, now you have the benefit of hindsight, the whole thing, putting it out into the world, doing things like this, talking about it, talking about your life in relation to it, what has writing this book Poor done for you? 

Katriona [00:45:01] I think it's helped me align myself more. So like on a personal level, there was a judgement in me of myself. So like as a teenager, it was like I went from being this 12 year old vulnerable little girl to this 13 year old delinquent who chose to be crazy and get pregnant and be mad. And in my head, I had the similar judgements that other people had of me, of my failings, in inverted commas, and writing about myself and writing my story and actually working with the editor as well, there was one point where she said to me, so she was editing my book and we were putting it together and she said, I don't think you should say that about yourself. And I- it was something I wrote about myself as a teenager, she said, I don't think you should talk about yourself like that. And it really shocked me. And so it made me go off and kind of reflect upon- because I was being really hard about getting pregnant and being homeless and she was like, how could you have chose anything different? And so in terms of myself, it's given me a whole- like a really whole view of myself and a real compassion for the things I did that I was ashamed of and the things that I did that I had no choice about. It's also kind of like, it makes me angry. It shouldn't be so rare for a girl like me to achieve what I have. Like we should be doing more to ensure that people who grow up in poverty can actually flourish in the way I have. Like, I'm not so unique. Like a lot of people like to say to me, ahh sure you have this great ability, it's you, you're resilient, you're strong. Like, I grew up in a community where everybody- like Katriona, little Katriona's were there everywhere, it wasn't that I was unique and so there's a bit of anger that we don't do more to ensure that people can actually flourish in the way that I have, and the system has become so restricted now. So the reality is, if it was today, I couldn't march over to Trinity College and get in the way I did. They wouldn't let me in and if I did get in, I wouldn't have a grant, there wouldn't be childcare support, there wouldn't be all these things in place that allow a person to move out of poverty and actually contribute fully to society. So it's given me this kind of like, further drive to keep doing what I'm doing. 

Annie [00:47:21] And let's find out what you are doing. I mean, you know, you are trying to create change in your job as a doctor, as someone within the education system who has power to kind of create change but what exactly have you done to implement change and what are you working on that you still would like to achieve? 

Katriona [00:47:38] I'm so privileged. Like I'm a, I'm a university professor and I run a program called the Stem Passport for Inclusion and literally what it is, girls are not getting access to science, technology, engineering, maths across the world, and it's such a risk at the moment, especially if they're poor because that's where all the jobs are. Like, we've created a program where we're going out to disadvantaged schools and the girls in the schools get a university qualification in science, technology, engineering, maths that they can use to go to university if they want to, but they also get a mentor from a company, a tech company, a science company, and they get to learn about jobs. And so we're running that across the country in disadvantaged school, we have every girl that's in fifth year gets this qualification and then it just means that they're just getting to see a different world and a different life for themselves and understand their potential in different ways. We have it ,n government policy now so last year, it was included as a recommendation by the Irish government as a national program. So like we're really trying to make system change, like there's great programs that run individually all over the world, but like it should be governments that take hold of these excellent programs and fund them. So like for me, I'm using my privilege to kind of show them that this works and actually try to get them to fund them and ensure that they're there. 

Annie [00:48:54] And do you work in regards to diversifying teachers as well? What is that work? 

Katriona [00:49:01] So I was the coordinator of a program called the Turn To Teaching Program. And that was about getting diverse kids into teaching. That's really hard to do though. Diversity in teaching is so- in every profession actually, it doesn't matter where it is, but in teaching particularly, having teachers who understand poverty particularly is fundamental to- you don't have to have lived it, but you definitely have to understand it. So, like what we're doing in Maynooth is we're trying to ensure that people who come from poverty, travellers, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, there's a course here now where they can do a year and then go into teaching if they want to. But the other thing that we're doing is developing a program that actually educates teachers about poverty, because they just don't know. And like, I believe that teachers are the key to change in society. I genuinely think if we thought about how and who we recruit as teachers, we definitely could be improving the lives of kids in poverty like myself. Right now, it's so varied. You can go from a classroom with a great teacher, to a shit teacher, to another shit teacher. And if you're poor, that's just not okay because the shit teachers can ruin your education experience. It's just not okay for that to happen, especially in communities of disadvantage. 

Annie [00:50:18] So like, you don't have the support system at home or the people that you can go home to and they can say, oh, well, that teacher wasn't right in saying that to you. 

Katriona [00:50:26] Yeah. 

Annie [00:50:26] So you- you- you are completely vulnerable to what that teacher is telling you about yourself. 

Katriona [00:50:31] Yeah. So I always use my own story because now, like, I'm like a middle class mammy at the end of the day, like my kids go to lovely schools. I'm in like a WhatsApp group with all the mams, right. And my lad went to school last year and one of the teachers was shit, like literally. And instead of- like, so what happens is, in the in the mams group we're all like, oh my God, miss this is not very good, we need to get a tutor in place so that we can protect that subject for the year. But like, if that was me and my mam and dad and it was maths, for example, I'm just losing maths. That's it. It's gone forever for me. And and like, we really can't allow that to happen in communities of disadvantage. Like, fair enough if it happens in places where people have money and they can supplement education, fine. But like the best teachers should be in our poorest schools, in the poorest communities to ensure that we can give them the best chance in life at flourishing and demonstrating their excellence. I had a conversation with a leading academic in sociology in Trinity College. I said to him, like, we should have a relative scoring system in our leaving so- in their A-levels, where the child's schooling and their socioeconomic is taken into account. So what they get is ranked. And he said, but that would affect my kids. He actually said that. So like, people want equality and equity when it doesn't affect them. And so I think there is definitely a real conversation for people to have just to own up to the fact that the privilege that you have, you're actually keeping it for yourself and your own family. The hardest part of going to Trinity College, the hardest part was that. Like, I was so saddened, like and it makes me cry now. If you imagine like, I'm in Trinity and I am like deadly *laughs*. 

Annie [00:52:22] Yeah. 

Katriona [00:52:23] I'm getting firsts in my exams, I'm like, brilliant student, I'm still a poor, poor woman, I'm still a lone parent, my parents are still addicts, whatever. And I'm in this place and I can see all the privilege and the kids that have so much right, and they're achieving. And then I'm like, but my brothers and sisters are like going to prison, losing their kids and like, like they're equally as good as me. They're equally as capable as me. But like, because they don't have privilege, they don't- and then like through the education that I received in Trinity, I realised that when you get an education, you know this. Like, you're taught to think critically about society so like, what made me so sad was realising that actually, people who graduate from university and have the compa- the ability to think critically, they know. And when you know, you can choose to do something about it or you can choose not to. And that was so hard for me because I was like, you know that idea that the world is good and true? It's actually good and true for some people, as long as it's not affecting my kids getting into Oxford or all that other stuff and that's really- that's why as well I wrote my book and I've been vulnerable because it's like I am privileged, like I'm really privileged in this position and I can speak about poverty and education in a way that maybe contributes to, to change. 

Annie [00:53:45] Katriona, thank you so much-

Katriona [00:53:47] Thank you. 

Annie [00:53:47] For telling us your story today and erm yeah, you're- you're fucking amazing. The book is so brilliant. Anyone who is listening, who's been moved by Katriona and her story, please go get that book it's called Poor. Katriona O'Sullivan, thank you so much. 

Katriona [00:54:03] Thank you. 

Annie [00:54:08] If you enjoy Changes, please do rate, review and subscribe to the podcast. Share it with your friends and family, go on social media, tell everyone about it. Tag me Annie Macmanus, I always love to see how you react to these episodes, and it's just so helpful to be seen and to be shared by you lot so thank you so much if you do. There's a whole catalogue of episodes to listen to. If you have missed any at all, go back and check them out and we'll be back next week. Changes is produced by Louise Mason with assistant production from Anna de Wolff Evans. See you next time!