Dil Wickremasinghe is a journalist, psychotherapist, an award-winning activist and founder of counselling and psychotherapy service Insight Matters. At just 16 years of age, Dil was made homeless after coming out as gay to her strictly religious parents. Born in Rome to Sri Lankan parents, Dil has made Ireland her home with her partner Anne Marie and their two children.
This is Dil’s story.
We moved to Sri Lanka when my parents separated. Homosexuality is still illegal there, so I knew from the age of 18 that I’d be forced to immigrate to live a full, authentic life. I plotted to get away as soon as I could.
I spent years travelling the world but moved to Ireland in 2000 as I always felt an affinity to Irish people. Within 24 hours of arriving in Dublin airport, I was marching down O’Connell Street in broad daylight, dancing and singing ‘It’s raining men’ during Gay Pride. Even though I’d never been to Ireland before, I felt I had come home because of that sense of safety I got from the moment I got here.
Work-wise, like many migrants, I started in the catering and hospitality industry. I worked in recruitment for a while. During this time, I had a really good job, I was in a relationship and bought a house but it was then that my mental health issues kicked in. I had been forced to immigrate because of my sexuality and that in itself is traumatic. You have to leave everything you know. Every immigrant will experience this. you have to turn your back on everything you know and step into the unknown.
My parents were very religious and when I came out, they threw me out of the house and I was homeless at the age of 16 so I experienced a lot of trauma. I thought that immigrating as far as my legs could carry me would get me away from the trauma but that’s not how trauma works. It follows you wherever you go and usually only rears its head when everything is ok and you feel as if you’re safe.
In 2006, I went into a downward spiral with depression and suicidal ideation and a friend of mine suggested I go to talk to someone. That’s when I discovered therapy. I accessed the amazing charity One in Four. It was my own experience of sexual abuse that took me into therapy.
In Ireland at the time, there was a lot of talk of clerical abuse and people coming forward with their stories and I was being triggered every time I opened up a newspaper or turned on the TV. When I went into therapy, I realised that my sexual abuse wasn’t the only issue. I had a whole platter of issues I had internalised over the years. Being abused, being homeless, being othered, being rejected by my family. Therapy has a way of bringing everything out.
When I started looking for a therapist in 2006, it took me 10 attempts, 10 separate therapists that couldn’t work with the diversity that I bring into the room – my sexual identity, my gender identity, my ethnicity, my value system… and so on. The therapists I saw didn’t have the skill or awareness. I finally found someone who ‘got me’. That was the catalyst that got me into psychotherapy – I didn’t want it to be that hard for someone else.
My wife who I met 10 years ago – she had the same experience when she was grappling with her sexuality in finding a therapist who was familiar with LGBTQI+ issues and she’s a white woman from Meath! She was in the process of qualifying as a psychotherapist when we met, so when we set up Insight Matters, we thought surely there’s others who had this experience. 10 years later, we have 100 therapists working with us and our ethos has always been to provide culturally sensitive, accessible, LGBTQI+ affirming therapy that I so badly needed in 2006.
We have clients coming to us from all over Ireland – it shouldn’t be the case. They should be able to go into their local services and talk to someone who understands, who has skills in this area – but this doesn’t happen.
I got into journalism because I wanted to share my story and help others with similar experiences with being discriminated against or excluded or feeling othered to come forward – they might feel more comfortable talking to me, the migrant lesbian woman than say talking to someone like Pat Kenny who’s male and white. You go to a whole deeper level when you know that the person asking the questions has travelled the same path as you. Now, as a psychotherapist, this person might be sitting in front of a person who looks like them.
Our school children and students have become so diverse but when you look at the staff room, it’s like being back in 1950s Ireland again – so how is that kid growing up in that classroom going to feel? We need more diversity at these levels.
How do I champion your own human rights? –it’s challenged every single day. From the moment I wake up in the morning and my feet touch the ground, I feel I am challenged. I’m very different from the world I live in. I’m not just talking about ethnicity and sexuality. Even the way I parent, even the way I approach my own health and my family’s health would be very different. We take a very holistic approach. I’m so used to questioning everything.
There is a great definition of mental health that has always stuck with me – being able to live independently of the culture that you’re in. In very basic terms, if everyone around you decides to go right, and for some reason, going right doesn’t feel ok to me – I can follow my own instincts and go left. This doesn’t mean any judgement on those who go decide to go right, but for me going the other direction works best for me and I’m going to follow it.
If you start questioning something, and start seeing holes in it, you’re in the situation where you have to say, and now what? If this worked for your family and all your friends and the majority of those around you but not for you, you now have to figure your way out of it. It’s easier to leave the decision making to other people, because if things go wrong, you can blame others. But when you’re the one making the decision, you can only blame yourself if it doesn’t work out. It’s harder to take the other path.
This is an extreme example but if you are a child whose parents are abusive, you desperately want to believe they are good. Your very existence relies on it. And if you come to realise they’re not good, the sense of loss and desperation seeps in. It’s a paradigm shift when you can’t trust what you’re meant to trust. I learnt in therapy that my parents were my first abusers, before the sexual predator who abused me. I needed to believe they were good people until I got away from them and was able to look back and realise that never should have happened. They are human, they make mistakes.
This unknown piece, when you realise you can’t trust who you’re meant to trust can be very scary for people and I can completely understand why people wouldn’t go there.
At times, I feel like an explorer in a deep forest and I’m finding my way. There are very few people who have walked this path and I feel it. Some days it feels harder, some days it feels easier but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What would you say to someone in your shoes? I would tell them ‘you are lovable’. I tell my kids that every night – you are loved and you are safe. I know not every child has the privilege to be in that situation. I wish I could tell that person in my shoes they are loved and safe but they might not be at that moment so I would tell them they are lovable and that they have the capacity to love themselves and keep themselves safe. If they are a child, I would tell them to live for the day they can get away. You are not what is happening to you right now, I would tell them. For the longest time, I thought what happened to me shaped who I am and defined me, but it’s a separate thing. You can choose who you become. Too many people fall down the road of addiction or bad relationships.
You deserve happiness. You can choose your own future.