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When Shakira lost her voice she was so desperate she went to Lourdes. Now its back and after re-evaluating her life shes got her sights set on a J Lo-assisted Super Bowl show

There was a time, in late 2017, when Shakira thought she might never sing again. After suffering a haemorrhage in her vocal cords, she could barely speak. I always thought there were going to be things in my life that would go away, like beauty, youth, all of that stuff, she says. But I never thought that my voice would leave me, because its so inherent to my nature. It was my identity. So when I couldnt sing, that was unbearable. There were times I couldnt even get out of bed I was so depressed.

Theres something almost fairytale-like about this: a cautionary fable about the danger of taking happiness for granted, starring the Colombian singer who sold a reported 75m records and became one of the richest women in pop. To give her voice the best chance to recover, there were periods when Shakira wouldnt speak at all. I had to communicate through signs and nobody could understand me.

Her children then two and four couldnt read, so writing didnt help. She says she never fought with her partner, the Barcelona defender Gerard Piqu, so much as when she couldnt speak. He jokes that you would think you would want your wife to shut up but when I had to remain quiet, he felt like one of those ex-convicts who are given their freedom and dont know what to do with it. How did she stay positive? I was not positive. I was so pessimistic. I was a bitter person to be around. She laughs. Gerard saw the worst of me.

Doctors told her she needed surgery, but she wasnt convinced it would work. Instead she tried hypnosis and meditation, even going to Lourdes to get holy water. Either I needed surgery or divine intervention. When her voice eventually returned, without an operation, it felt like I was having some kind of religious experience. On her El Dorado tour, which shed been forced to postpone, every night on stage was a gift.

A film of the tour is about to be released, which is why were meeting in a hotel suite in Barcelona, by the window in the late afternoon, a darkening sky outside. Shakira sits cross-legged and tiny in a giant armchair, eating gummy sweets. A publicist is somewhere across the room in the shadows.

Watch a trailer for Shakiras El Dorado tour film

There is a palpable joy to Shakiras concert performances, filmed mostly at her Los Angeles show in August last year. She dances in sparkly fishnet leggings, her voice filling the stadium as she sings such Spanish-language favourites as Chantaje and her English-language crossover hits, including Whenever, Wherever and She Wolf. She thinks the experience has made her a better singer. You go out in search of affirmation that youre good, that people like you. But this time it was different I was out there because I wanted to feel the pleasure of singing.

In February, Shakira will perform with Jennifer Lopez at the Super Bowl half-time show, viewed as a career high for many artists. At least it was until 2016 and the NFLs treatment of the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had started kneeling during the national anthem in protest at racial inequality and police brutality. Many artists, in solidarity with Kaepernick, reportedly turned down the chance to perform at half-time. Did his protest have any impact on her decision to take to the stage? She looks down. Well, you know, I think its the right thing to do for the Latino community because weve also been through so much in Trumps America, with walls being built and She doesnt finish the sentence. Its an opportunity to celebrate our culture, you know?

Why has Latin pop become so big? Well, it was about time, says Shakira. Now 42, she wrote her first songs at just eight and recorded her first album, Magia, at 13. When I started, Colombia had a nonexistent pop scene. I had to overcome so many obstacles to become an international pop singer. Later on, even when I crossed over to the Anglo-American market, I had to fight my own record company to put out music like Hips Dont Lie. My music always had some kind of fusion Colombian and Middle Eastern influences, so it made my path even harder.

She lives in Barcelona with Piqu and their two sons. This tour is her first as a mother. I had no idea how this was going to feel, she says. At some points, I thought it was going to be impossible. My kids were so little, running around amok. She tried to arrange the dates so they would coincide with school holidays and they could be with her, but other times they stayed at home with Piqu. Those separation periods were hard.

Keeping the balance Shakira and Gerard Piqu, with their sons Milan, left, and Sasha at a New York basketball game in 2017. Photograph: James Devaney/Getty Images

Being a mother, she says, is the hardest job Ive ever done. Im never sure if Im doing it right. Im always second-guessing myself. I love being a mother but its challenging to keep the balance to not let motherhood prevent you from reading a good book, going out with your boyfriend-slash-husband, having an adult conversation. Has it affected her creativity? It could if you dont protect and defend that space.

Her children attended her show for the first time and saw their mother perform to tens of thousands of emotional fans. In the film, there is footage of her sons with their father, watching Shakira and looking a little bewildered. It must have blown their little minds. Yeah, I think a little too much. Im trying to give them some normalcy and thats one of the hardest things, because were not normal. At least, we are normal people but our lives are very unnatural in a way. We try to hide all the unnatural things and pretend were a regular family.

Its a work in progress, she says. I dont want to overload them with every single detail of my career, or every victory. Im more interested in them learning about the obstacles, my difficulties and their dads. They werent born when I was back in Colombia and every single door was shut in my face. Those are the stories I want to tell them because life isnt always easy. Not everything happens as you planned.

Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll grew up in Barranquilla, on the coast of northern Colombia. Her father, who is Lebanese but grew up in Colombia, ran a successful jewellery business until he went bankrupt when Shakira was a child. She and her mother went to stay in the US for a while and, when they returned, her father had sold everything, including their furniture, to pay debts. Though largely insulated from the countrys decades-long armed conflict, she was still very aware of it. When youre born in a country where there is huge social strife, and a few people have a lot and a lot of people have nothing, you grow up intolerant to that inequality.

Every Friday, her Catholic school would send its students into poor neighbourhoods to teach other children how to read and write. It was almost an impossible task. They were barefoot, shirtless in the sun. There were no proper resources or infrastructure. It was so unfair that some kids were able to go school and university, but for others that wasnt an option. I had to succeed, make money, become someone relevant in society, because I felt that only that way could I do something.

When her third album Pies Descalzos (Barefoot) was a hit, Shakira taught herself English, released the crossover album Laundry Service and became an international star. She also started the Pies Descalzos Foundation, which opens and funds schools in Colombia. She has since campaigned for education on the global stage, advised committees and presidents and formed an unlikely friendship with the former British prime minister Gordon Brown.

Her reputation as an activist and philanthropist took a hit this summer when she appeared in court in Spain answering allegations that she had avoided 14.5m in taxes. A statement released at the time said the singer had paid all tax due, and the issue was about when she had become resident in Spain (previously, she had been resident in the Bahamas; in 2017, she was also named in the Paradise Papers, the investigation into offshore finances). But she wont talk about any of this, says her PR, because of the legal issues involved.

Palpable joy Shakira in concert. Photograph: Xavi Menos

The film portrays her as fiercely determined, with laser-focused knowledge of what she wants. I am very structured and I make the rules, she says at one point, sitting on a private jet, travelling between shows, and I dont allow myself to fail. That sounds exhausting, I say, and she laughs. I dont remember saying that, but maybe I say so many things. Actually, with time Ive learned that you have to allow yourself to make mistakes. I guess we all have a little fear of failure we were trained that way but its true, its an exhausting way of living. Does she still have a fear of failure? Of course. But I fear other things a lot more. I fear for my familys health, their wellbeing. There are things that are much more important than personal and professional success.

That doesnt mean shes ready to take her foot off the gas. I want to continue growing and continue being an interesting lady. There are so many other things that I still want to achieve. Such as? Like one day waking up on a farm and being able to just mow the lawn, and milk some cows. One day I want to have a farm life. I dont think I could ever be bored of being in nature. Eat all I want. Sometimes I think theres going to be more to life than my actual life.

She smiles, not entirely serious. I dont believe her anyway. There is a shot of her at the end of her concert, a tiny tornado, all wild hair and pink leopard-print, performing an inhuman leap. She looks as if she couldnt be anywhere else.

Shakira in Concert: El Dorado World Tour is in cinemas worldwide on 13 November via Trafalgar Releasing. Find your local cinema at

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If youve got famous parents, your chances in the film industry appear to improve exponentially. If were serious about equality, this has to change

Interviewed by Variety at the Los Angeles premiere of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the actor Maya Hawke denied that a personal connection led to her being cast in Quentin Tarantinos latest film. Hawke is the daughter of Uma Thurman, who has appeared in three Tarantino films, and she argued that she had gone through the same casting process as other actors by sending in a self-taped audition piece with her father (Ethan Hawke). Its perhaps a sign of our changing times that she was even asked about this, since the open secret of pervasive nepotism in the film industry has seemed to bother remarkably few people since the days when the Barrymores became the first acting dynasty.

Variety (@Variety)

No nepotism here. Maya Hawke says she had to go through the same process as everyone else for her role in #OnceUponATimeInHollywood

July 23, 2019

Indeed, people who rightly get exercised about working-class actors being increasingly shut out of the film industry can become defensive when it comes to nepotism in film. When I recently questioned the casting of Honor Swinton-Byrne in her godmother Joanna Hoggs film The Souvenir alongside her mother, Tilda Swinton, people countered online that Swinton-Byrnes performance in the film was excellent. I fully agree with that assessment, but believe its worth discussing the casting in a prestigious film of a first-time actor whose mother met the director at the expensive school they attended as children. Films thrive on personal connections, and family collaborations or friendships have yielded invaluable work but its right to ask if this masks a financial and social ill. It seems a pattern in need of breaking.

First, its important to rule out talent as a valid counter-argument to charges of nepotism. A great many children of are adept at their craft. But this is unsurprising because they may have been exposed to it from a young age. If you accept that other people who have no family connections with acting can be equally talented, then nepotism has to be considered wrong. For instance, Sofia Coppola is an immensely talented director: that doesnt change the fact that her father, Francis Ford Coppola, helped her to make The Virgin Suicides, her debut feature, by producing it with his own company, American Zoetrope. Sofia Coppolas cousin, Jason Schwartzman, got his debut role in Rushmore through her. Another cousin, Nicolas Cage, made three films with Francis Ford Coppola at the outset of his career: Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club and Peggy Sue Got Married. (The word nepotism derives from the Latin, nepos, meaning nephew, and thence the Italian nipotismo, after the practice of popes giving jobs to their nephews).

Film-making is, of course, not a democracy. Theres a case to be made that artists should be allowed to create their work as they see fit. This is true, yet other inequalities in film are now being met with initiatives to correct, for instance, gender and racial disparities. This is right, because such moves address fundamental inequalities. But the fact that children of rich actors never seem to have trouble finding work also propagates systemic inequality. The phenomenon is so widespread that we dont even question the fact that the children of, for instance, Melanie Griffith and Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Bono, Will Smith and Johnny Depp are now becoming stars.

The issue of the employment of children and family members is hardly top priority for an industry still reeling from allegations of widespread sexual abuse, and which is still failing to represent, hire and reward women and minorities adequately. Creating an awkward red carpet moment, as Variety did in subjecting Maya Hawke to forensic questioning, is perhaps not the solution. The systemic nature of nepotism, as with industrial racism and sexism, requires asking tough questions of producers and creators. In so doing we may end up with an industry that is more open to recognising and paying talent fairly and reflecting a diverse, complex society.

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Do you have to call your children seven times before they come to the dinner table? Do you have a system to limit their usage? Tell us about your battles

Madonna said in a recent interview: I made a mistake when I gave my older children phones when they were 13. The 60-year-old American singer, who has six children, said: It ended my relationship with [my children], really. Not completely, but it became a very, very big part of their lives.

According to Pew Research data, 95% of American teens now report they have a smartphone or access to one and 45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis.

We want to know: what age was your child when you gave them a phone, and did it change your relationship with them? If so, how? You can send us your answers below:

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Cooking Iranian dishes for her new neighbours opened all sorts of doors for Atoosa Sepehr

In December 2007, Atoosa Sepehr arrived in the UK from Iran, knowing no one, her life ahead a clear space, a blank sheet. She was 30 years old, fleeing a disastrous marriage and her escape more of which later had been an overnight flit. Shed packed in under an hour, been driven to Tehran at speed by her mother, bought a ticket and raced through departures.

She landed in a London lit up for Christmas, the crowds buzzing. That did give me a boost, it was beautiful, everywhere was bright, everyone was celebrating, says Sepehr. I felt some hope like this could be home but no one was talking to me and that was hard. In Iran, wherever you go, people talk to you as if theyve known you for years. I was very down, scared and homesick.

Alone, in a flat in north London, Sepehr began to cook. Until that point in my life, Id just cooked food, says Sepehr, but now, I wanted my mums food. On Christmas Day, I decided to make her special dish herbed rice with meatballs. I ate that and spent all day wrapped in a blanket and watching TV.

And after that, I made more of her food, and my grandmas, my aunts. I was killing myself to get each one right phoning them up and making one dish 20 times to get exactly what I was used to. Its hard to put into words, but I was missing home and those tastes, when I got them right, were taking me back like hearing music that you listened to long ago.

Soon, the neighbours from her building started to introduce themselves and to ask what she was making, what created these delicious smells? Sepehr began knocking on their doors and offering them dishes. Then she invited them around to share it. Without knowing it, she was building the foundations of a brand new future.

Now, more than 10 years later, these recipes have been written up in Sepehrs first book, From a Persian Kitchen. She still lives in the same building and still cooks for her neighbours, but London is her home now, a city she loves. A British citizen, she has an English partner of five years and hopes this book will be the first of many.

Its a world away from the life she expected. Born in the south of Iran, but mainly raised in the central city of Isfahan, Sepehrs father was an engineer whose hopes for his daughter were no different to those for his son. My parents were really liberal, my dad was a feminist, she says. My mum had the same rights as he did and is a strong woman. She didnt have a career and loved to look after us, to make life easy for me and my brother. She never let me cook because she wanted me to get on with my school work.

But Sepehr certainly learned to love food. My mum was a great cook, a fantastic cook, she says. The love I saw her giving the food was unbelievable.

As children, shed take us to different places outside the city just to get the right ingredients. I remember going to a farm to get yogurt or milk just out of the cow, and then to another to buy beans. At meal time, whatever we were doing, whatever was happening, we came to the table. Eating is like that for everyone in Iran, rich or poor. Its a social thing, never just functional. Everything revolves around food.

It wasnt until Sepehr left home to study computer science at university that she cooked for herself. After graduation, she moved to Tehran where she built a formidable career in a male world, first working as a computer programmer, then in the stock market. After completing an MBA, she became a high-earning high flyer, importing and exporting steel. It wasnt a place for a woman and thats why I chose it, she says. No women were doing that job so I wanted to.

On the face of it, Sepehr was forging ahead a role model for the modern Iranian woman. At home though, her marriage told a different story.

I married when I was 27. My husband had been my class mate at university, says Sepehr. He was sweet, popular, handsome, really charming. When people met him, theyd always say: Hes beautiful, where did you find him? Unfortunately, he had two faces and when we married, he became a completely different person. I didnt even know him.

Her neighbours heard the scenes (He would throw things and threaten to jump from the building to put me under pressure) and urged her to leave him. But Sepehr kept granting second chances.

I wanted to make it work, she says. He was the person I once loved and I could see that he loved me although thats something my mum always questions. Now, looking back, was it love or control? At the time, I didnt want anybody to know unless there was no hope. I never give up on anything easily.

The couple sought counselling with a psychologist, but when Sepehr was able to see the therapist alone, he took the same line as her neighbour. He told me not to go back, she says. He said: If you were my daughter, Id want you to divorce.

But in Iran, divorce wasnt easy without the husbands agreement, which Sepehr knew her husband would never give. He also holds the power to ban his wife from leaving the country. I felt that would be the first thing hed do if I tried to end the marriage, says Sepehr. Instead, she made a plan of her own quietly arranging a transfer to work in her companys London office, and applying in secret for a five-year visa. It was the hardest choice Ive ever made, she says. Carry on in this life or give up everything and start again. Only when the paperwork was in place did her parents make the seven-hour drive to Tehran to talk to her husband (who quickly became abusive), then take their daughter back to the family home.

My husband didnt know about the job in England, and I thought Id reconnect with my family, then maybe in a month, move to London, she says. But that same evening, within hours of arriving in Isfahan, her husband called, begging her to return. When Sepehr refused, he told her that tomorrow, her passport would be revoked. My mum said: Pack your bag. You must leave tonight.

Sepehr had no air ticket and at this time in Iran, payments were in cash, not credit cards. The cash machines werent open at night so my brother called his friends asking them to quickly bring any money they had. Soon Sepehr was back in the car with her mother driving her to Tehran airport. She always follows all the rules, but on this night, she broke every speed limit. Somehow, they made it. It was a miracle everything worked. There was a plane. There was a ticket. I got the flight. The next morning, my dad received a phone call to confirm Id been banned from leaving the country. It was too late Id already left.

The divorce took four and a half years, by which time, Sepehrs ex had accepted that she wasnt coming back. For that period, Sepehr couldnt risk going home, even to visit, so threw herself into a new life. First, in the steel company, then slowly, the cooking took over. She began a blog, then edited an online magazine. Though shed never imagined a career in food, it became her comfort, her shortcut home.

Her book is a love letter to the Iran she left. For three years, with no agent, no publisher, Sepehr worked alone, perfecting family recipes, styling the dishes and taking all the photos herself. (She bought a camera and taught herself through YouTube, even though her partner said theyd never be professional enough for a book.) In some ways, says Sepehr, she was a woman possessed.

If youd seen me, youd have thought I was mad. Every morning at seven, Id get up, go to the kitchen to cook, then Id spend the afternoon in my living room, which Id turned into a studio, taking photographs. Every dish has so much emotion and practice behind it.

The book is also a tribute to her family, dedicated to her parents, her grandmother and her aunt, though she is able to visit them now. Theyre proud of her reinvention and, of course, relieved. When I held the first copy in my hands, I called my dad and said: Would you ever have thought Id write a cookery book? He answered: With you, Atoosa, nothing surprises me.

From a Persian Kitchen by Atoosa Sepehr is published by Robinson at 26. To order one for 22.10, go to

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She said I had cancer, and an eating disorder, and pneumonia. I didnt realize it was abuse until years later

I felt the cold metal of the tool through my shirt as she checked my spine for deformities. I was filled with panic, and a certainty that I had scoliosis. I pictured my spine twisted. Would I need a back brace? Eventually a wheelchair? I got lightheaded and said I needed to stop the test.


The article Id been assigned to write on a new scoliosis clinic didnt require in-person interviews. But Id just earned a graduate degree in journalism, and I was eager to prove myself to my Pulitzer prize-winning professors. So here I was at the clinic. When Id suggested to the physical therapist that she test me for scoliosis so I could describe the exam in my article, shed been pleased.

After prematurely ending the exam, I still felt like I was about to pass out. For a minute, I couldnt even see. I was led to a chair and handed a glass of water. As the dizziness subsided and my vision returned, I thought, Shit, shit, shit. This has never happened in public before. Soooooo fucking unprofessional.

I apologized to the woman with a lie: Im getting over the flu. The truth was, I was having a panic attack because of childhood abuse, and I didnt even know it.

* * *

Nearly two decades before I was tested for scoliosis, I sat on a plastic exam-room table with my T-shirt off. Dr Wirtz, who also happened to be our neighbor, felt my left breast, then my right. I was 10 years old and more nervous than embarrassed. Dr Wirtz was the fourth doctor Id been to in our small Wisconsin town, and I hoped he wouldnt say my barely grape-sized left breast made me too sick for school.

My mom was always saying I was too sick for school. When I was six and my parents divorced, I missed half the first grade because she was convinced my stomach pains were caused by something deadlier than lactose intolerance. To her, a cold was pneumonia unless it was actually pneumonia, in which case it was something worse.

As Dr Wirtz poked my nipples, my mom filled him in on my paternal history of breast cancer. The disease had killed my grandma, great-grandma and great-great-grandma. I thought about my grandmas open coffin. She was the first dead person Id ever seen. But the fact that she was dead didnt frighten me. What scared me was how, two years earlier, a doctor had chopped off one of her breasts and made her wear a wig.

A week or so after the appointment with Dr Wirtz, my mom asked my babysitter to look at my breast. Im sure my babysitter, a popular high-schooler named Shauna, thought it was a weird request. My mom had a charismatic way of getting people to do stuff, though. She called me over and lifted my T-shirt. Look at this; isnt it strange? she asked Shauna, touching my breast and getting her to do so as well. Shauna shrugged her shoulders and played it cool. Nope, she replied. I was uneven at first, too.

Dr Wirtz wasnt worried either. Hed told her I was just growing, and the ultrasound backed him up. No cancer. But the fact that babysitters and doctors can never be 100% certain is unbearable to people like my mom. She hired another babysitter, found yet another doctor, and frantically and forcefully prayed over my breast in tongues every night before I fell asleep.

The next doctor a specialist, this time agreed with Dr Wirtz: my development was right on schedule. At my moms insistence, he and his team ran lengthy tests, but didnt find anything wrong. My mom was still sure I had cancer, and by this time so was I. The specialist told her to bring me back in six months if my other breast didnt start growing.

I trusted my mom and prayed God would heal me. In the name of Jesus, please take away my breast cancer, was on a constant loop in my head. I assumed Id drop dead if I went too long between prayers.

After having prayed nearly non-stop for six months that cancer wouldnt kill me, I would have preferred it if my mom was right. Photograph: Joe Gough/Narratively

When my other breast eventually started to grow, my mom took me back to the specialist anyway. The cancer was clearly spreading.

This time, my dad met us at the hospital. He was very concerned. When the doctors saw my breasts matched in size, they werent surprised. Two little grapes. They ran one more set of x-rays to confirm that I was cancer-free and that they were free of my mom.

I sat in the waiting room with my parents for the final-final result. I knew I had cancer. My mom knew. My dad nervously clenched his fists. Someone came out and gave us the news, and I almost cried out of desperation. I had thought I wanted to be healthy, but when I found out I was, I felt alone and confused. I wanted to be sick because sick people get more love and attention. I sighed in disappointment. My dad noticed my negative reaction and yelled, which he rarely did, You want to be sick? Marisa, whats wrong with you?

He was so happy I wouldnt die the way his mother had. He was so happy Id live a long life. And he was so happy my mom was wrong. But after having prayed nearly non-stop for six months that cancer wouldnt kill me, I would have preferred it if my mom was right. Realizing I couldnt trust my mom was scarier than cancer ever was. If she was wrong about breast cancer, what else was she wrong about?

* * *

When I was 14, my mom wouldnt even let me walk the dog around the half-mile residential circle we lived on. I could only go halfway around or Id get kidnapped. Or the dog would get kidnapped. I dont even know. Id stopped arguing with her, even though Id begun to realize she was wrong more and more. She still believed Id had breast cancer a few years earlier. It was gone by this time, of course, because God had healed me one night as televangelist Pat Robertsons voice boomed from our upstairs radio.

When I was at my dads every other weekend, I didnt have to take on my moms paranoia. I got to be a regular kid who hung out with cousins and watched MTV. I told my dad I wanted to live with him, and thats all he needed to hear. We took my mom to court for primary placement.

I was introduced to my very own court-appointed guardian ad litem. I nicknamed her The Shark because her job was to fight for my best interest, and only a bloodthirsty animal could defeat my mom. The Shark interviewed me several times to make sure living with my dad was what I really wanted. Once, she asked me to confirm this in my moms living room. I sat tensely on the designer couch, knowing my mom was listening from the other room, ready to pounce. But I didnt waver. Eventually, The Shark was so confident my dad would win that we decided I didnt have to testify at the hearing.

The morning my parents went to court, I went to school expecting to be picked up and packing for my dads by the final bell. But thats not what happened. I dont remember who broke the news to me. I just remember my mom smiling self-righteously and gloating about successfully representing herself. Even though my dad, grandparents and my guardian ad litem sided with me, the judge sided with my mom. He said I was doing so well in school and needed stability. I felt powerless and blamed myself. I shouldve gone to that hearing.

Near the end of my senior year of high school, my mom discovered Id been plotting to attend the small university in Michigan where my grandparents taught. She lost it. She wasnt going to let me go especially not to people whod testified against her in court. She thought she could stop me, and the level of control she had over me disgusted me. I rebelled by not eating at the dinner table. Id take my plate to the living room and eat while watching bad sitcoms. My mom decided this new behavior combined with my sometimes finicky eating habits was similar to that of eating disorder patients wed seen on Dr. Phil. She tried to convince my latest doctor that Id die without immediate in-patient treatment.

Dr Locascios Band-Aids were Sesame Street-themed and he treated me like a little kid, even though I was 17. He was nice and funny, but he never talked to me without my mom present. When my mom abruptly announced my eating disorder, I rolled my eyes, but Dr Locascio didnt notice. He was already looking at my medical history and realizing Id always been a bit underweight. Maybe there was something to my moms theory.

Seeing she had a chance, my mom started blabbering on about how I didnt drink soda or eat pork or seafood. I liked salad more than any kid she knew, and I ordered a small cone at ice cream shops. And then there was the foot thing. Sometimes the outer edges of my feet were cold and red. Poor circulation is a sign of anorexia, right?

I began to zone out. This wasnt happening. I wasnt here. By now, my family, friends and I had started referring to my mom as overprotective and a hypochondriac because she took me to the doctor for every little thing. But my mom was so good at combining fact with fiction that even I got confused what was real sometimes. I started to get dizzy. Almost passed out. Dr Locascio helped me lie down while my mom continued talking. He didnt realize my lightheadedness was one of countless panic attacks Id have in my life when dealing with medical-related stuff. Instead, he thought I didnt eat enough for breakfast just like my mom said.

Now I just have journaling and breathing exercises to calm myself down and remind myself that Im probably not sick. Photograph: Joe Gough/Narratively

Although Dr Locascio agreed I had an eating disorder, he didnt admit me to a clinic. My mom found a way around that. She formulated a plan to keep me under her control. Shed fly me to some eating disorder clinic-of-the-stars in LA and watch over my shoulder as I checked myself in. This plan wasnt a secret, and I slammed doors and yelled until my throat burned every time she brought it up. We always kept our windows open in nice weather, and the neighbors called the cops during a particularly bad fight. Two uniformed men came to our door, annoyed to be making a house-call for a mother-daughter dispute. There was no use trying to explain what wed been fighting about. My mom was charming, and I had no bruises. They left.

I wanted to run away, but I knew I couldnt. My mom would just send those cops after me. Shed once called the police on my dad when he forgot to call her and tell her wed made it to his place safe. Their tactical flashlights had scared me awake.

At the California clinic, I could barely speak because of all the screaming. It was my 18th birthday. Legally, I was an adult and it was up to me; but it didnt occur to me I had a choice. Saying no had never worked in the past. Why would it now?

After checking in, I was in shock. Then, crying uncontrollably. Out of protocol, a friendly nurse confiscated my shoelaces and sweatshirt drawstring so I wouldnt kill myself.

The doctors were good in Los Angeles, though. They sent my mom home right away. They knew I didnt have an eating disorder. The head physician invited me into her office, and from behind her large wooden desk, she told me I didnt have to have contact with anyone I didnt want to have contact with including my mom. She was the first person to ever tell me this, and the anger I felt about the whole disaster was suddenly vindicated.

Two days later, I left the clinic in an airport shuttle with a $10,000 clean bill of health. This was the first time Id ever been on my own. My dad had paid for my flight to my grandparents over the phone. I was free. I boarded the plane wearing my recently de-draw-stringed sweatshirt. I was so sure of myself. But then I spent the entire four-and-a-half-hour flight clenching my armrest, trembling and worrying Id go into cardiac arrest, like Dr Phil said sufferers of eating disorders were doomed to do. Maybe my mom was right. Maybe I was the crazy one. Or maybe I was just as crazy as my mom. These were the thoughts Id struggle with for years to come.

* * *

My panic attack at the scoliosis clinic convinced me I needed help. I found a therapist named Katie 40ish with short, red, choppy hair. The artwork in her office was hung too high. I told her this, and she didnt take it personally. She knew it was just my anxiety talking.

When I first described my mom to Katie, I used the words I grew up with: Shes just one of those really overprotective moms, I said. She loves me too much.

But when Katie heard the details of my childhood illnesses, she gave me another term.

Have you ever heard of Munchausen by proxy? she asked.

I laughed out loud. Thats where the parents poison their kids, right?

Katie didnt laugh. Instead, she explained that Munchausen syndrome by proxy classified under factitious disorder imposed on another in the latest American Psychiatric Associations Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesnt always, or even usually, involve poison. Its a rare form of child abuse where a caregiver (usually a mother) invents or exaggerates illnesses in a child for sympathy and attention. The caregiver wants to be seen as a hero fighting to save the child and views the child as an extension of him or herself, instead of as an individual.

Katie said it was pretty clear to her that Im a survivor of this form of abuse. I didnt want to believe her.

I crossed my arms and legs tighter and picked at the cuticles of my ring fingers enough to draw blood, rationalizations and denials racing through my mind: Abuse? How could this be true? My mom loves me! Its obvious. Maybe my memory is wrong. Maybe there werent so many doctors visits and tests. Maybe Im the exaggerative one.

I left Katies office and ordered my childhood medical records. Within two weeks, a three-quarter-inch stack of papers confirmed my memories and forced me, at least momentarily, to accept the truth.

I was never seriously ill growing up. Never even really had symptoms. I leafed through photocopied pages of typed and handwritten medical notes some with recommendations that my mom see a therapist. The doctors words are concise, objective and unemotional. Holding physical evidence of emotional abuse is rare often impossible yet this was what I was doing.

I was furious not only with my mom, but with all the adults of my childhood. Why didnt my teachers question my absences? Why didnt the fucking doctors stop testing me for stuff they knew I didnt have? Why didnt anyone call my dad? I was also angry with myself. How didnt I know this was happening to me?

After a few years of therapy, the anger is gone, but my self-doubt and anxiety remain.

My mom is now dying, and our monthly phone calls revolve around her sharing detailed and opposing descriptions of her countless, incurable physical ailments. I usually let her talk because I know shes sick just probably not sick in the way she believes. Confronting her with the idea that shes mentally ill and has exaggerated her physical symptoms as well as those of my childhood, of course has gotten me nowhere. Ive never used the word abuse with her. Theres no point. Doctors who arent on her side are wrong. Anyone who isnt on her side is wrong.

When it comes to my body, I still catastrophize any physical imperfection. Now I just have journaling and breathing exercises to calm myself down and remind myself that Im probably not sick.

But sometimes I forget to journal or breathe. I have a small mole on my left cheek that my dermatologist generously calls a beauty mark, but I believe its a precancerous growth that will have to be removed. I regularly picture an absurdly large area encompassing the mole being sliced out of my cheek like a piece of pie. After the surgery, Im still sick and suddenly sickening to look at left with large, railroad-track scars and a lopsided eye from a haphazard stitch-job. I kill myself rather than go through chemotherapy.

I know I imagine things like this because I was abused, but I dont always feel like I was abused. Too often, I still think the way my mom trained me to think. Its hard to feel something you cant physically see or describe without hauling around medical records. Sometimes, I wish shed just poisoned me and eliminated any doubt.

This article was originally published on Narratively. Looking for more great work from the digital storytelling platform Narratively? Here are some suggestions:

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Motor neurone disease and physics both played a part in her split from her husband Stephen Hawking, she says. She talks about the challenges they faced in their 30-year marriage and about how close The Theory of Everything was to reality

Here is Stephen Hawkings verdict on the movie about his marriage: it needed more science. And here is Jane Hawkings verdict: it needed more emotion. Those opposing views on The Theory of Everything, which brought Eddie Redmayne an Oscar and a Bafta for his portrayal of Stephen and Felicity Jones Oscar and Bafta nominations for her portrayal of Jane, reveal a great deal about not only the personalities of the worlds most famous scientist and his former wife, but also one of the major strands of difference in their relationship.

But the truth is that science is probably more absent from the film than emotion, because what the film represents is a triumph of Janes experience and persona after decades in which the family was viewed solely through the prism of Stephens genius, who as well as being the worlds best-known scientist is also the worlds best-known sufferer of motor neurone disease (MND).

Today there is an aura of unassuming achievement around Jane, who is sitting in the conservatory overlooking her garden in a quiet corner of Cambridge. Meeting her feels like fast-forwarding through time to meet an older Felicity Jones, so accurately did the actor represent her subject. But then, talking to Jane, it all turns on itself again: the reality was, she says, that she and Stephen met Jones and Redmayne when they were researching their roles, and was later astounded to realise how closely her mannerisms, gestures and speech patterns had been noted. When I saw the film, I thought: shes stolen my personality!

Jane Hawking: The difficulties of dealing with Stephens disease were much greater than they appear in the film.

Her relationship with Stephen started when both refused to be daunted by the fact that Stephen had just been diagnosed with terminal motor neurone disease. They ploughed into marriage in the face of his parents pessimism about its chances of success, and had three children. In the face of pressures that were almost too much to bear, and alongside her friendship with another man, they somehow kept their marriage together for a quarter of a century before ending it with a remarkable degree of equanimity.

Does the film present an accurate portrait of their marriage, which began at Trinity Hall in Cambridge in 1965?

The important thing is that the feelings, where they are there, are very much true to our experiences. So from an emotional point of view, its spot on. The only thing is that theyve had to minimise the strains and struggles, because in our real life the difficulties of dealing with Stephens disease were much greater than they appear in the film.

And, yes, the impression given in the film that she and Stephen managed to split up without too much acrimony and that Janes new partner and now husband, musician Jonathan Hellyer Jones, became part of their immediate family is indeed an accurate one (although for a long time after they met, their relationship was platonic).

Jane met Jonathan when, to give her a break from the constant demands of caring for Stephen, a friend suggested she should take up singing in the local church choir, run by Jonathan. It was 1977. The Hawkings, then parents of two young children, were living in Cambridge, where he was garnering a reputation as one of the most glittering scientists of his generation. Jane, though, was isolated and overwrought. How much were the demands on their marriage the product of Stephens disease without it, might they still be married today? Jane isnt sure: although his health was a huge strain, there were others. From the outset, Stephens eccentric family made no secret of the fact that they didnt think the marriage would survive.

Stephens mother once said to me, We dont like you because you dont fit into our family. On another occasion she learned by chance that the Hawkings were planning to move to Cambridge so they could be there when the marriage foundered, as they were sure it eventually would.

Jane and Stephen Hawking in 1974.

But it wasnt just about a lack of support from the wider family. The truth was, there were four partners in our marriage, says Jane. Stephen and me, motor neurone disease and physics. If you took out motor neurone disease, you are still left with physics. Mrs Einstein, you know, cited physics as a difference for her divorce …

During their marriage, she says, Stephen would retreat into himself. And, though he tried to explain physics to her, she always felt shut out of the world that was so crucial to him. But the stresses of MND were not solely or even mostly down to the physical difficulties of the condition; what brought even greater disruption to their lives was the advent of the carers who shared their home, who disapproved of aspects of their lives, and whose presence meant they could never have the privacy that every family needs to thrive.

They whispered about us and they undermined me, says Jane. Its clear the pain is still there. One of those nurses, Elaine Mason, went on to become his second wife, though the two later divorced. This is an episode of their lives Jane is reluctant to rake over, although it was this relationship that tipped the Hawkings into splitting up, rather than her relationship with Jonathan. Why did they carry on for so long, even after she had met Jonathan and become close to him? She says it never felt like a choice: she loved Jonathan and depended on him for support, but she absolutely loved Stephen as well.

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The musician, 70, on rethinking her career, laughing with Dolly Parton and shopping with Neil Young

My father was a PoW in Korea. He was also in the Second World War. I clearly remember the day we were told he was missing in action. We didnt know he was a prisoner of war until just before he was released. I never talked to him about his experiences. He wouldnt ever talk about it. I wrote the song Bang The Drum Slowly about that, after hed died.

My parents were marriedfor 50 years.They had a wonderful marriage. My brother and I were lucky beneficiaries of that. They were a truly magical couple, and until I went to college I thought that everyone was like that.

Moving around when I was a child [her father was in the Marine Corps] taught me to take home with me when I was on tour, and wherever I went. Ive always found touring exciting.

I released a record in 1985 called The Ballad of Sally Rose, which was a commercial disaster. I put my heart and my bank account into the tour for that record. I lost a lot of money. At the end of the tour I was booked to play a petting zoo. I had to rethink my career after that.

Spiritually Im a seeker. There are things I dont think well ever know the answers to, but I think we all must be more concerned with the here and now than the afterlife.

I dont believe anyone would have any interest in me if Id never met Gram Parsons. He instilled in me a deep love for country music. Before that I was just a Joan Baez wannabe.

You can learn so much from animals. They have this wonderful quality of being in the moment, and they help you spend time there. They dont worry about the past, or the future: all they care about is their walk and being with you. I run a dog rescue on my property in Nashville.

If you love your work, you dont need to rest. My work is nourishing, and in many cases its what has got me from one day to another. The people Ive met through it keep me going. Neil Young, or my band, producers Were a little community. We see each other down at the grocery store.

Dolly Parton is the funniest person. Working with her and Linda Ronstadt was the definition of fun. We laughed a lot, and we worked. Did we get greedy about how many solos we were getting? No! We had to make sure Linda was singing enough!

Ive lived a very harmonious life. I just turned 70, and when I look back I really think I must have done something right in a past life to have had it so good. People quote Martin Luther King: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. I have to believe that.

Emmylou Harris appears at C2C Country To Country festival in London this weekend

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As more American parents work low-wage jobs with unusual hours, theyre turning to 24-7 daycare centers to help raise their children

When I first visited Dees Tots Childcare three years ago with photographer Alice Proujansky, I was struck by how appealing the place was. The owners, Deloris and Patrick Hogan, run Dees out of their family home in New Rochelle, New York and work around the clock to serve parents who need daycare, whether at 7 in the morning or 11 at night.

I was also struck by what Dees and other 24-7 daycare facilities represented. They serve an ever-expanding number of children whose parents work non-standard and unpredictable hours. The parents might be working two service or retail jobs or they may be night nurses. According to the National Womens Law Center, 9% of daycare center care is now provided during evenings or weekends.

These venues range from Shifts Night Care Center in Jackson, Mississippi, to Tip Top Child Development Center and Five Star Sitters in Las Vegas, to Success Kidz 24-Hour Enrichment Center in Columbus, Ohio. Nearly 40% of Americans now work non-traditional employment hours. Almost two-thirds (64.2%) of women with children under age six are working, and one in five working moms of small children work at low-wage jobs that typically pay $10.50 an hour. They all need to earn more if they are to truly be able to afford daycare, and in a cruel twist, many must work more and stranger hours to do so.

The number of parents forced to rely on 24-hour daycare will only grow. It is simply the nature of everyday and every night life in todays America.

Diana at bedtime.

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We plan for births, but fail to take full charge with deaths. Annalisa Barbieri meets the families who are building coffins, cancelling the hearses and creating highly personalised funeral services before, sadly, putting her new knowledge to use

Six years ago, my cousin died. As we waited on the kerb, my aunt, her mother, reached out, as if to touch her daughters coffin through the glass of the hearse window. Ihate to think of her in that box, she said. And a chink of brutal reality hit me; this was not like any funeral I had seen at a roadside before. This was her child, in a box in a car. The tragedy was only accentuated by how alien it all felt.

I had, not long before, given birth to my second child at home, with my eldest upstairs asleep, and the promise of blueberry pancakes (and a martini) after. I started to think about how much preparation we put into birth: making birth plans, reading books, talking about it, everything to make it as perfect personal as possible. Death is more certain than giving birth, but we rarely talk about it or want to plan for it. Yet when death comes, funerals are, as my partner says, the ultimate distress purchase.

All through the ceremony I chewed on this. Both ends of life, one so well catered for, so planned; the other so little talked about or planned for. And yet here we were, marking a death in a way that seemed so dark and sad and not particularly recognisable as being my cousins. Ive always thought you know youre at a good funeral if the deceased were to wake up and feel right at home. And while personalised services are familiar enough these days, the conventions of hearse, traditional coffin and brisk service linger.

For me, the most terrifying part of afuneral is when the coffin comes in. That and hearses, which have always evoked a visceral reaction, as if simply by looking at them you might die. They hint at one thing: epic pain and loss.

I had written about wicker coffins for a column once. Did wicker coffins make funerals nicer? Could anything?

It was investigating how to make funerals more family friendly that led me to Gloucestershire to meet Jane Harris and Jimmy Edmonds, whose son, Josh, had died, aged 22, two years earlier as a result of a road accident while travelling in Vietnam.

As they had sat around the kitchen table taking in the terrible news, they decided to take control of Joshs funeral in their own way. Why would we want to hand that special ritual to someone else? Jane explains.

It was Jimmys idea to build Joshs coffin, helped by a cabinet-maker friend. We spent 30 on materials, Jane says. The whole community helped organise the funeral and for the men, building the coffin doing something was useful because some found it difficult to talk. There was atraditional division of labour, the men doing one thing, the women another. It was like a ritual.

Joshs coffin was made of one-inch plywood and his funeral took place not in a rushed half-hour, but over seven hours. It was held at a local venue that had nothing funereal about it: one wall was lit by fairy lights. The day was about honouring, remembering and celebrating. Joshs coffin arrived in an estate car, and was carried in by his friends and father. (Its useful, Jimmy tells me, to check practicalities. That the coffin will fit through any door you want it to, and that it will fit with people on either side carrying it.)

Friends remembered Josh, sang songs and read poetry. A humanist celebrant conducted the ceremony. People werent afraid of the coffin, Joshs parents say: They touched it.

The second half of the funeral involved the coffin being carried to amore private room where people said their goodbyes and wrote messages for Josh on pieces of paper or ribbons, which were then threaded through the coffin poles and subsequently kept indeed, they were the first thing I saw when I walked into Jimmy and Janes house, hanging in the sitting room.

This was the death of a young person in the wrong order of things, says Jane. We didnt want it to be dark. We wanted to create a safe place [at the ceremony] for his family and his younger sister. [Josh also has an older brother]. It was an incredibly enriching day, the most important day of my life, but also the saddest.

Why do the funeral yourself? You can create something thats about you and your family and the ritual of it saved me, in so many ways, says Jane. We werent trying to save money, we were trying to save ourselves.

The final stage of the funeral happened the next day when Josh was cremated. Even here, the family did their own thing, booking a double slot at the crematorium, so we wouldnt be rushed. (You usually get 15 to 20 minutes and that can seem a savagely short time to say that final goodbye.)

Joshs ashes are now all over the world, some by the tree they planted for him, some his mother carries in a bracelet, friends have some and some are in the house in a silver-lidded dish, which Jimmy pulled out and opened. He proffered it to me and this is where Ifaltered. I realised it was a huge honour to be allowed to touch his sons ashes, but I had never touched human ashes before. Three years later, this act was to stay with me save me, actually as I handled my own fathers ashes; and it made the whole process so much less terrifying.

In Cambridge, I met David Spiegelhalter and Kate Bull, whose son Danny died aged five, of cancer, in 1997. Dannys death had been expected so they were able to plan. Even now, Kate says, people dont mind bringing up the subject of Danny, because of their involvement in hisfuneral.

Danny had been a very popular young boy, so the day after his death, he was laid out in his Thunderbirds outfit and more than 100 people came to see him, including other parents and many of his classmates. David had got the Natural Death Handbook and found it an absolute revelation.

Five-year-old Danny Spiegelhalters coffin, made by his family

Although Dannys family, like Joshs, involved a funeral director to a degree, they did much themselves. Twenty-four hours after he died, the funeral director took him away and we went and made the coffin, says David. It was enormously therapeutic for me to make it; I did it with my mens group. We had measured Danny up, and then Iwent to the builders merchants to buy the MDF. The weather was fine and we worked outside to make it. It was serviceable and robust, with a well-fitting lid and rope handles.

Indoors, a second committee, largely of women and children, continued the work: Dannys mum, his two sisters and children he had known. They painted the coffin, drew on it, attached stickers. Then, about an hour before the funeral started, the funeral directors brought Dan back, put him in the coffin and David and I screwed the lid on, explains Kate, which was very hard.

Dannys coffin was lined in cloth and a cushion, with bread and presents inside it and his favourite model car. His coffin was carried down the street to a local hall, with his uncle, playing Danny Boy on the violin, walking ahead of the procession.

We had a master of ceremonies to conduct it, says Kate, and balloons on the coffin. Dannys teacher spoke and held up works of his, and his nurse spoke. There were lots of children at the funeral, and they touched the coffin and were looking at it.

Danny was taken in a hearse from the centre to the small local cemetery, with just family and close friends in attendance. The grave had been dug, but they lowered the coffin in themselves and filled in the grave using spades.

The school later organised the children to make flags and pictures to put on the grave. When I visited it in 2013, there were still little toys, visible, in the grass.

Not long after my cousins death, other people I knew started dying. An uncle, three friends, two aunts including the one whose comment had started all this. We became adept at organising family funerals. Each time, we used the same undertakers who we had got to know so they were no longer anonymous people in dark suits. The funeral director, Linda, became like one of the family. She knew my dad and my dad knew her.

Then, last year, my father died. This time, Iknew we had options. Iknew we could keep him at home for a while, that we could make his coffin, that we didnt need a hearse to transport him. I knew we could bury him in my garden if we wanted to. But none of this was right for us. Moreover, because of my research, I was no longer scared to talk about death and so had talked to my dad about what he wanted: to be cremated and brought home, to Italy.

We kept my father at home for 11 hours after he died. It was, incredibly, amagical time. Then, we said our final goodbyes. We had already calledLinda.

My fathers funeral could not have been more beautiful. We used a hearse, but that didnt scare me. When his coffin came into the church, there was no jolt of fear. I actually smiled at him. My children had picked flowers from our garden, and had written their nonno letters, which I had sent to Linda and she had put in with him. He had three eulogies, the priest knew him, and we took our time. We drove to the crematorium the bit I had been dreading where, because Linda had talked us through our options, there was no conveyor belt to take him away, no curtains drawn. We played Italian songs and when everyone else had gone, his close family gathered round the coffin as Jane had said theyd done with Josh and we said goodbye.

Jane Harris and Jimmy Edmonds co-founded a charity last year:

The rules: what you need to know to create a personalised farewell

The three rules to adhere to:

1. You must register the death.

2. You must dispose of the body in an approved manner.

3. You must not expose a dead body on the public highway.

Direct funerals such as David Bowies are on the increase. Here, there is no ceremony, the body is collected, then disposed of cremated or buried. You can have a separate ceremony at a later date. Direct funerals suit some (its cheaper) but for many, a funeral ceremony, with the coffin present is an important part of grieving and saying goodbye.

You do not need to use a funeral director unless you want to. Or you can use them just for parts of the funeral. If you cant find a funeral director who will do this, look elsewhere.

If you are told you cant do something you would like to do, check. It is very easy to be bullied when you are vulnerable and grieving.

You do not need to use a hearse any suitable and safe vehicle can be used.

You do not need to use a coffin although most crematoriums will insist on a rigid container. Bodies can usually be buried in ashroud as long as they can safely be lowered into the grave. If a person has died of an infectious disease they would have been placed in a body bag by the hospital/undertaker and a shroud could then be wrapped around that. See for more information

You do not need to embalm a body unless it is being repatriated abroad.

Most crematoria will deal with the family direct.

You can keep a body at home, with sensible precautions.

You can bury a body on private land as long as certain guidelines are followed (;

Last, the Natural Death Centre website ( is a fantastic resource for learning more about the choices you have, including a template for a death plan. (Why not? We have birth plans.)

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The comedians father killed himself when she was three. She was plagued by the fact he made no mention of her or her sister in the letter he left. Then, 30 years after his death, a box arrived

My father died when I was three years old and my sister was three months. For years, we thought he had died of some sort of back injury a story that we had never really investigated because we were just too busy with the Spice Girls and which one we were (I was a Geri/Mel B mix FYI). Then, on the 10th anniversary of his death, my mother sat us down and explained the concept of suicide. Sure, we knew about suicide. At 13, I had already known of too many young men from our town who had taken their own lives. Spoken about as inexplicable sadnesses for the families, spoken about but never really talked about terrible tragedy nobody knows why he did it. What we had not known until that day, was that our father had, 10 years beforehand, also taken his own life.

When I was growing up, I idolised my father. I thought his ghost followed me around the house. I had been told how he adored me, how I was funny, just like him. Because of our lovely Catholic upbringing, I secretly assumed that he would eventually come back, like our good friend Jesus.

My mother, being the wonder woman that she is, never held his death against him. When she looked into his coffin, she felt she saw the face of the man she had married: his stress lines had gone, he seemed free of the sadness that had been dogging him of late. But it was still tough for her to talk about. She didnt want to have to explain to a stranger in the middle of a party how he was not defined by his ending, but how loved he was, how cherished the charismatic, handsome vet in a small town had been. She didnt want his whole person being judged.

Once she had told us, I did not want to talk about him. Ever again. I now hated him. He had not been taken from us, he had left. His suicide felt like the opposite of parenting. Abandonment. Selfishness. Taking us for granted.

I didnt care that he had not been in his right mind, because if I had been important enough to him I would have put him back into his right mind before he did it. I didnt care that he had been in chronic pain and that men in Ireland dont talk about their feelings, so instead die of sadness. I didnt want him at peace. I wanted him struggling, but alive, so he could meet my boyfriends and give them a hard time, like in American movies. I wanted him to come to pick me up from discos, so my mother didnt have to go out alone in her pyjamas at night to get me.

I look like him. For all of my teens and early 20s, I smothered my face in fake tan and bleached my hair blond so that elderly relatives would stop looking at me like I was the ghost of Christmas past whenever I did something funny. You look so like your father, they would say. And as much as people might think a teenage girl wants to be told that she looks like a dead man, she doesnt.

Aisling Bea with her father. Photograph: Aisling Bea

And then there was the letter.

My mother gave us the letter to read the day she told us, but, in it, he didnt mention my sister or me.

I had not been adored. He had forgotten we existed. I didnt believe it at first. When I was 15, I took the letter out of my mothers Filofax and used the photocopying machine at my summer job to make a copy so I could really examine it. Like a CSI detective, I stared at it, desperate to see if there had been a trace of the start of an A anywhere.

I would often fantasise that, if I ever killed myself, I would write a letter to every single person I had ever met, explaining why I was doing it. Every. Single. Person. Right down to the lad I struck up a conversation with once in a chip shop and the girl I met at summer camp when I was 12. No one would be left thinking: Why? I would be very non-selfish about it. When Facebook came in, I thought: Well, this will save me a fortune on stamps.

Sometimes, in my less lucid moments, I was convinced that he had left a secret note for me somewhere. Maybe, on my 16th no, 18th no, 21st no, 30th birthday, a letter would arrive, like in Back to the Future. Aisling, I wanted to wait until you were old enough to understand. I was secretly a spy. That is why I did it. I love you. I love your sister, too. PS Heaven is real, your philosophy essay is wrong and I am totally still watching over you. Stop shoplifting.

This summer was the 30th anniversary of his death. In that time, a few things have happened that have radically changed how I feel.

Three years ago, Robin Williams took his own life. He was my comedy hero, my TV dad he had always reminded my mother of my father and his death spurred me to finally start opening up. I had always found it so hard to talk about. I think I had been afraid that if I ever did, my soul would fall out of my mouth and I would never get it back in again.

Last year, I watched Grayson Perrys documentary All Man. It featured a woman whose son had ended his life. She thought that he probably hadnt wanted to die for ever, just on that day, when he had been in so much pain. A lightbulb moment it had never occurred to me that maybe suicide had seemed like the best option in that hour. In my head, my father had taken a clear decision, as my parent, to opt out for ever.

My father had always seemed like an adult making adult decisions, but I suddenly found myself at almost his age, still feeling like a giant child. I looked at some of my male friends gorgeous idiots doing their gorgeous, idiotic best to bring up little daughters, just like he would have been.

Finally, just after my 30th birthday, a box turned up.

The miserable people he had worked for had found a box of his things filed away and rang my mother (30 years later) wondering whether she wanted them or whether they should just throw them in the bin.

She waited for us to fly home and we opened it together three little women staring into an almost-abandoned cardboard box.

Now, most of the box was horse ultrasounds which, Ill be honest, I am not into. But there was also his handwriting around the edges and, then, underneath the horse X-rays and files, there were the photographs.

Any child who has lost a parent probably knows every single photograph in existence of that parent. I had pored over them all, trying to put together the person he might have been.

The photos in the box had been collected from his desk after he had died. We had never seen them before. They were nearly all of me. He had had all of these photos stuck on his desk. I was probably the last thing he looked at before he died.

My fathers death has given me a lot. It has given me a lifelong love of women, of their grittiness and hardness traits that we are not supposed to value as feminine. It has also given me a love of men, of their vulnerability and tenderness traits that we do not foster as masculine or allow ourselves to associate with masculinity.

To Daddy, here is my note to you:

Im sad you killed yourself, because I really think that, if you could see the life you left behind, you would regret it. You didnt get to see the Berlin wall fall or Ireland qualify for Italia 90. You didnt get to see all the encyclopedias that you bought for us to one day use at university get squashed into a CD and subsequently the internet. You have never got to hear your younger daughters voice it annoys me sometimes, but it has also said some of the most amazing things when drunk. I think you would have been proud to watch your daughter do standup at the O2 and sad to see my mother watching it on her own. Then again, if you hadnt died, I probably wouldnt have been mad enough to become a clown for a living. I am your daughter and I am really fucking funny, just like you. But, unlike you, Im going to stop being it for five minutes and write our story in the hope that it may help someone who didnt get to have a box turn up, or who may not feel in their right mind right now and needs a reminder to find hope.

In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at

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