Caroline Martin: 'Cancer stopped me in my tracks - I was a servant of the status quo'

Meet our new advice columnist, psychologist Caroline Martin, who has worked in the public sector and now runs a private practice. When counselling clients, she leans into her life experience, from miscarriage to cancer 
Caroline Martin: 'Cancer stopped me in my tracks - I was a servant of the status quo'

Psychologist Caroline Martin: ‘Parenting is certainly the toughest job. Seeing my children in emotional distress for whatever reason is really hard.’ Picture: Moya Nolan

Caroline Martin has had cancer, endured miscarriages and seen life from the perspective of her severely disabled sister. Yet, for all that, she considers herself abundantly fortunate. A happy person by nature, she’s a psychologist and a mother of three, two teens and a 10-year-old.

Currently in private practice, she was chief psychologist at City of Dublin Education & Training Board for 16 years and has an MSc in counselling psychology from Salem State University, Massachusetts. Caroline is the new advice columnist for Feelgood.

“I want to do right by readers,” she says. She sees the role nicely chiming with her core philosophy. “I believe really strongly in the collective, in the power of connection within communities.”

Trained in restorative practice, she says: “When there is hurt in the community, the best way to deal with it is together. This is so important in schools and in companies.”

Explaining that restorative practice is a Celtic concept with roots in Brehon Law, she feels there’s lots in Irish culture, pre-colonialism, that we can draw on today. “The importance of connection is all over the place. There are 26 words for family in Irish, and nine for tribe.”

Advice columns, she says, “go back to that collective piece” and have an important role in connecting people to one another even if they don’t know each other. “They remind us we’re not on our own with our struggles. You think ‘oh, I’m like that woman, that man, I have a similar struggle’. There’s an immediate sense of relief, even before getting to the advice.”

Day to day, much of what she deals with in her practice is trauma of various types. “A lot goes back to our early childhood experience, how we stored trauma in our body, how it manifests later in life when we meet challenges.”

The trigger for this resurrected trauma, she says, can often seem fairly innocuous — argument with a friend/family member, rupture in a work relationship. “Somebody making a demand on you might trigger an old feeling of fear of letting down a parent. A lot comes back to how you navigated difficult situations in your early life.

“When really young and presented with a challenging situation, we typically adopt a strategy to resolve it – fight, flight or freeze.” And then she adds a fourth strategy — fawn: going out of our way to appease whoever might be a threat in our life.

Having worked with many women and girls over the years, Caroline has seen that females tend to “lean quite readily” into ‘fawn’. “It’s quite indoctrinated in girls, the idea: ‘I’m lovable if I’m good, if I meet certain expectations’.”

Self-care is critical

What does the 48-year-old do to look after her own mental health? “I run. I’m new to it — since 2018,” she says. The impetus to run came after visiting her GP when she didn’t feel well. She wondered if she was peri-menopausal. “I said ‘something’s off’. She suggested anti-depressants. I said ‘no, let me start exercising, eating better, going to therapy again’.”

A qualified clinical supervisor, she also has her own supervisor who she sees regularly. “It’s non-negotiable in my diary. If in that space, I feel I need more therapeutic support, then I go to therapy.”

If you’d asked her back in 2017 if she’d ever be a runner, she’d have said “absolutely no way”. After the GP visit, she started walking — and walking faster. “I was craving the buzz I got, so I was going faster and I ended up running. I love the sheer abandon of it. I go out super-early. I used to chase the sunrise. I’m not so hung up on that now.”

Feeling really lucky to live not far from Shankill beach, she loves running because it’s a reminder of her body’s strength. “We can get so into our heads we forget to check in with our body. I like to let my body run, do its magic.”

Four years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer (hormone-receptive). She was at her fittest ever. “That’s not unusual. It’s maybe why I discovered it quite early. The lump was easy to find.”

It sounds counter-intuitive to say, she reflects, but the biggest lesson cancer taught her was that she had time.

“Cancer stopped me in my tracks. I was in a very stressful job. I loved being a public servant, loved the idea of serving, but I realised I was no longer a public servant – I was a servant to the status quo. That really upset my equilibrium.

“Having cancer stopped me perpetually going, going, going. I realised I had time — to pause, catch my breath, take in a clear blue sky, enjoy my kids and do work that makes my heart sing.”

Coping with miscarriage

Caroline found cancer easier to navigate than miscarriage. Following the births of her now 17-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter, she had three miscarriages. “One was a very late miscarriage, but because I went in [to hospital] early, it wasn’t registered as a stillbirth. I’ll never forget the trauma. The cancer I survived, but this left a much bigger wound — that the State didn’t count him, like this baby didn’t count.”

At this year’s census, Caroline mentioned her son in the time capsule section, where citizens could leave a message for future generations. “I felt this is the only State record I could put him into. It felt really important to do. I found it healing.”

Seeing her parents struggle in the early years to get the right services for her younger sister — she has severe intellectual disability — has made Caroline sensitive to challenges experienced by today’s parents of children with disability. “I hear their struggles and think we’ve hardly come any distance at all.”

What has she herself learned from being a parent? She laughs. “What haven’t I learned? It sounds clichéd – joy, happiness, fun. They make me laugh, make me so proud.”

But parenting is really tough too, though given her occupation, she considers herself fortunate to have many tools at her disposal as a parent. “Parenting is certainly the toughest job. Seeing my children in emotional distress for whatever reason — they’re feeling isolated, left out, not achieving a personal goal — is really hard. It’s very hard to stay calm.”

When she was in her 20s and living in the US, she began having heart palpitations. “My brother had a friend, a cardiologist in Boston, so I called him. He asked if I drank too much coffee. I said no, but I drank eight cups of tea a day.”

But when it comes to any troubling issue, Caroline knows the value of not going it alone. Even in her 20s, she knew the value of reaching out for help when she needed it. With her new advice column, starting next Friday, July 1, she’ll be encouraging readers to do the same.

  • Please send your questions to feelgood@examiner.ie

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