Caroline’s story

Geraldine Owens. (0206SL01)
Geraldine Owens. (0206SL01)

Before he died in 2010, Creggan man Johnnie Owens got a chance to see a book his daughter Caroline had been working on. He told her he was glad she’d written it and that it would give people some indication as to what their family had gone through.

Johnnie didn’t just mean raising his children in the middle of a tense political climate. When he referred to what the family had gone through, he was talking about his own painful struggles with his mental health.

Geraldine Owens pictured with Sister Assumpta. (0206SL02) Photo: Stephen Latimer

Geraldine Owens pictured with Sister Assumpta. (0206SL02) Photo: Stephen Latimer

Caroline, a self-confessed daddy’s girl, has spent most of her life trying to understand what her father suffered. In her search for meaning the 52-year-old travelled to England to study and work in the field of mental health.

The long story short version is of a girl from Derry who has climbed to the top of her career ladder and is considered one of the most respected voices in the field of psychotherapy in England.

The ‘warts and all’ story is one of a child who grew up desperately seeking an explanation for the mental illness that devoured her father and hung over the rest of her family as well as trying to get through her formative years in a city consumed by death and violence.

As a young girl, Caroline like many others, witnessed the Troubles raging outside her classroom and her front door in Creggan’s Broadway.

But on the other side of that front door she was witnessing a kind of turbulence that, back then, she couldn’t make sense of.

Now, the former St Mary’s pupil has published her story and returned to Derry this week to officially launch her debut book ‘If you fall, run on.’

The book explores Caroline’s childhood in the context of the political landscape here but also takes a raw look at what her father - and subsequently she and the rest of her family - went through.

Very few subjects are off limits. It’s a tough story from the beginning but a must for Derry readers.

Caroline’s own story - while it has universally recognised themes - is a familiar one for people from the city.

Creggan born and bred and a past pupil of Holy Child Primary School, St Eugene’s Primary School and St Mary’s College, at first glance it’s a familiar childhood narrative for the North West. But Caroline and her siblings had more to contend with than their peers.

When he was 17, Caroline’s father Johnnie was in a horrific bus accident which killed his father, the severity of the crash decapitating him.

Being witness to that terror at such a young age, Johnnie struggled for the rest of his life after what Caroline now believes was a major misdiagnosis of his initial condition,

“The accident had a profound effect on my father’s emotional and psychological well-being and it is my opinion that he was wrongly diagnosed in the 1960s as suffering from schizophrenia,” says Caroline.

Post Traumatic Stress

“His symptoms bore all the hallmarks of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but PTSD was not properly recognised until the 1980s and by then my father had been showing the signs of ‘tardive dyskinesia’ which was a recognised side effect of anti psychotic drugs - which by the 1980s he had been taking for many years - because he was being treated for a psychosis.

“Tardive dyskinesia actually produces bizarre symptoms that make the sufferer appear odd and it’s these symptoms that are confused by family and onlookers as evidence of ‘the madness’.

“In addition these symptoms can seriously debilitate the life of the patient – and they did - for many years devouring the personality and functioning of the man who was our father.”

In his later years, Johnnie weaned himself off the medication and was able to enjoy life again, but only after years of alcoholism and mental illness which took its toll on the whole family.

Publicising her book this week, Caroline spoke fondly of her mother Margaret who she describes as “the very heartbeat” of the family.

“She was an ordinary woman whose considerable commitment and determination that our family would survive ‘the troubles’ at home and on the streets of our town, made her a formidable and extraordinary force to be reckoned with- just like many of the mothers in Derry.”

One of a family of seven, from an early age, Caroline set about bringing some clarity to what she saw her father going through.

“I spent much of my young adult life until now continuing my search for meaning through my journey in higher education and post graduate trainings and personal growth quest,” she explains.

Caroline was first appointed as a therapist in the Child and Family Department at St James University teaching hospital in Leeds and from there was appointed as a child therapist in a government pilot project for the treatment of children and families who had experienced sexual abuse.

From there she was appointed as a therapist in a Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Team in Yorkshire and was funded to train as a Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist at the prestigious Tavistock Clinic London.

Caroline now works as an NHS Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist – Head of Service, and university lecturer.

Caroline is now on the threshold of major changes in her professional life which she believes will tie together the elements of her childhood and adult life in a way which could potentially benefit thousands of others.

“I have worked for over 25 years now in the field of mental health- clearly motivated initially by my need to understand my father’s illness and of course my appetite for and curiosity in what makes us who we are and how we are in the world.

“I want to wean myself off the NHS eventually as it’s becoming an increasingly frustrating and demanding context within which to practice psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

“I have also been working on a personal growth book and already have a title and idea in mind for that and I have plans to further develop my career as a professional speaker.

Ultimately though, my aim is to set up a foundation for young people in order to inspire their potential. I have spent most of my professional life working with children, young people and families who are experiencing mental health difficulties.

“I want to move on from this work and using my knowledge and experience from the field of mental health in combination with my passionate interest and knowledge in the area of personal growth. This is something that I am very excited about and I have already pitched the idea to various sponsors.”

A genuinely affable person, Caroline is as passionate about teaching as she is about exploring the human mind.

“I am acutely aware of my potential to influence students for better and for worse,” she says.

“We as teachers and educators are are in a uniquely privileged position due to the context of our job - children and adults want to learn and it is up to us to further stimulate and inspire that potential.

“We are less likely to be remembered for the information, facts and contents of our lessons and seminars but for the quality of our attention, the way that we listen to our students, the ways that we are interested in the minds and spirits of those whom we teach.”

Back in Derry on a whirlwind visit to celebrate the launch of the book and still nervous about how it will be received, Caroline says choosing to put her life down on paper and publish it was more than just a cathartic process.

“I suppose there are various reasons for putting this book out there,” she says.

“Firstly- I had never intended to write a book- well not consciously. I put something of this in the opening chapter. The book almost demanded to be written from somewhere deep inside of me.

Political unrest

“I know that over the years living in England I had often become frustrated by hearing versions of my own history put to me by people who just assumed knowledge of what it was like to grow up a Catholic in Northern Ireland and who clearly misunderstood and minimised the cause of the political unrest.

“I was many times aware of the pejorative way in which recent Irish history was referred to or even caricatured. For many others though there remains a healthy curiosity about how we actually did manage. So I think that my book is partly a response to these.

“I think too that there is a part of me that needed to ensure that my mother and father and the mothers and fathers and ordinary people of Derry would always be remembered way beyond Derry and long after we are gone when hopefully our political troubles will be a very distant memory.

“Just as my father said regarding his hope that the book would be published before he died- ‘so that people would know what we went through’.”