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Now that I'm older and wiser, the advice I'd give to my younger self

Published 08/08/2016

Changed times: Dawn Purvis wanted a better future for her boys
Changed times: Dawn Purvis wanted a better future for her boys
Proud mum: Dawn Purvis with her sons Ernest and Lee
Happier times: David Lyle with wife Helen

What advice would you give to your 25-year-old self? That has been the question Radio Ulster presenter Vinny Hurrell has been posing to some well-known figures on his Monday night show — and their responses have made for compelling listening. Here, we find out what former PUP politician, Dawn Purvis, and advertising agency boss David Lyle had to say.

Dawn Purvis (49) is a former leader of the PUP and ex-programme director of the Marie  Stopes Clinic in Belfast. She is divorced with two grown-up sons and lives in the city. She says:

At 25, I was married with a baby and another one on the way; there's only 15 months between my sons. What I'd stress to my younger self is education, education, education - no matter how much you hate it, stick with it. It's your way to living a productive, independent life and making a contribution to society.

As a young girl, you have all these dreams and aspirations. Mine changed every week.

One week I wanted to be a ballerina, the next week, it was a nurse, and the next, something else. I've often heard young girls talking and somebody saying, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' The girl would say something like 'a solicitor' and the friend would say 'Ach, wise up - you couldn't get a job like that'. I've also heard parents saying things like that.

But you have to stick to it and believe you have the ability within you to change the world around you. It was only later in life that I realised that you can draw from your own strength within to make changes. We all have that gift.

That realisation came when my marriage broke up. I wasn't prepared to continue with the life I had been living. I wanted something better for myself and my children, and it was up to me to make that change. I was 27 by then and had been married for five years.

For a long time I was in a marriage I didn't want to be in. I worried about how I was going to survive financially outside of that - I was totally dependent on my husband. It was scary but you can do it. We all get by. Change is scary but it is necessary, to make things happen. You just have to take a leap of faith and do it. And take responsibility for your own actions.

You can't wait for someone to open doors for you; you have to do it yourself. I learned that when I joined the PUP and became actively involved in politics.

My home was hit by a bomb in the street in 1992, when my children were 17 months and two months old.

I thought, 'I don't want them growing up witnessing the violence I have and living with fear, and the mental map in your head of where you can go and where you cannot go, and thinking about people being different and being afraid of people that are different'.

I decided to play my part to make a difference to society. If I'd known that when I was younger, who knows? (I was 26 in 1992. I'm 50 this year - I can't wait!) I had experienced violence from a very early age, from when I was three. We lived in Donegall Pass in Belfast and the city centre was an economic target for car bombs and shootings. We lived with that; it becomes normal.

But when I was 26, it struck me that it was abnormal.

David Ervine was saying, 'This is an awful place and we need to do something to make it better', whereas previous politicians had said it's a lovely place if only the bad people would go away. Well, I thought, those bad people are my friends' fathers, brothers, cousins and uncles, and they're not going away.

And when that bomb hit my house, a BBC reporter came to interview us. The whole street was wrecked and my whole family lived there. She was looking for emotion and reaction, and she got it, but when she came to me, as part of a young married couple with two wee babies, and asked me how I felt, I said: "I don't feel anything."

She said: "What do you mean?" I said I felt no anger or blame towards the people who had done it because they probably were the same age as me and were living in the same conditions, and thought they were trying to achieve whatever on behalf of their communities.

I felt no ill-will towards them. I thought, like me, they were victims of circumstance.

We didn't ask to be born into this conflict. I looked at my two sons, who I love with all my heart, and I didn't want them to grow up with this. I needed to do something about it and I became actively involved with the community and helped set up mother and toddler groups and after-school clubs.

In the past I was very shy. I used to hide. I'd get very embarrassed and go red from the neck up. It's just the type I was; probably a confidence issue. But, after I got a job in the City Hospital when I was 18 - I could write a book on all the different jobs I've had throughout my life; I even used to clean toilets - any embarrassment went out the window.

Returning to education and becoming actively involved in politics helps take you out of yourself, too.

If I look back at my past, I don't regret anything.

Maybe there are some things I'd have done differently, but you make your choices at the time for what you think are the right reasons, and I like to think that's what I did.

I don't regret my marriage - without it I wouldn't have my two beautiful sons, whom I'm immensely proud of and love very much.

My advice to my 25 year-old? He's probably sick listening to me but I'm his mentor and guardian and I'm always here, any time, for my children.

They'll be embarrassed by this but I remember talking to them about the birds and the bees when they were eight and nine. The youngest had come home from school and discussing condoms at the kitchen table, doing his homework.

I thought, 'Now's the time for a little chat' and they both turned pale. I asked the youngest how he knew what a condom was and he said it was next to 'contraception' in the dictionary. I asked when he had heard about them and he said it was in the school playground.

So we had the chat and we update those conversations regularly and talk about relationships.

We have the rules at home when the boys are going out, the three Ps: no puke, no pregnancies and no police.

And the best advice I can give them and anyone else at 25 is education. It is so important."

David Lyle is chief executive of Lyle Baillie International, an award-winning advertising agency based in Belfast. A widower, he has three daughters. His son died in 2005, following an overdose. He says:

My first of four children was born when I was 25 and I got my first job in an advertising agency. I’d been working on the accounts side of advertising since university. It was a big breakthrough — a very special year.

I was full of excitement; full of vision about the future, and I immersed myself in advertising very quickly and got some major accounts for Northern Ireland.

Having our eldest, Rachael, was a wonderful experience. I remember at night standing by her cot, full of awe at the sight of this little baby — it was a very spiritual experience.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was being sucked into a world of stress which comes with the job, which, as the years went by, would intrude on family life. I would have liked to have spent more time with them.

I missed birthdays and various events because of some crisis with filming or whatever. On Rachael’s 18th birthday I was stuck in Glasgow on an eight-day shoot while she was at the Culloden hotel with her friends.

We were filming the anti-terrorism ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ ad — ‘I want to be like you, Dad’ — for the Northern Ireland Office. It was launched before the ceasefires. We knew it was going to dig deep into people, this relationship between father and son. The son did become like his dad and that led to tragedy.

But missing Rachael’s birthday opened up a whole series of things I look back on with regret. I wish I’d known about the work/life balance sooner. I learned through painful experience. There’s guilt there but, at the same time, the family accepted Dad does a crazy job, and we wrote and created some monumental TV ads.

Would I have changed anything? You still have to be prepared to do the 24/7 things but that needs to be balanced. If you work eight days on the run, you need to take some time off.

I’m still deeply affected by the death of my son, Matthew, in 2005. I still miss him. I feel Matthew’s death contributed to my wife, Helen, contracting cancer and her death in 2009. She felt it was the shock of finding Matthew dead that led to her diagnosis, because she was a very fit and healthy woman.

Matthew was a recovering heroin addict. He injected a small amount of it with some sedatives and that’s what killed him. I’ve thought a lot about my helplessness in the case of Matthew, and my attempts to help him over the years. I spent a lot of time with him on his last day alive and had great conversations with him.

He had a desire to get fit again and to get a job, and he asked me to bring him to the bicycle repair shop. We talked about the things he hoped to do and, after he rode back home, he said, ‘I can’t go anywhere without dealers stopping me, saying they have drugs for me’.

I should have spotted the signs then. The dealer we now know who sold him drugs that day, he’s dead as well. I regret that but it’s about how you spiritually deal with something and work through it, and I have been fascinated to study the human brain ever since. Emotion drives everything.

We all try to alter our brain chemistry every day — I drink strong coffee every morning. There are many ways to do it, legally and illegally, and they are quite simply ways to alter our brain chemistry. I told Matthew all these things were dangerous and he said, ‘You drink alcohol. You drink coffee. What’s the difference? They’re all altering your brain chemistry’.

After his death, I put out his own words about drugs and the effect they have and they are much more powerful than any official body’s. It says on his grave, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ’. I take comfort and strength from that. There is nothing, no drugs or pharmaceuticals in the world, that can separate us.

I miss Matthew and Helen and their loss pains me in a profound way, but I have found a place in which I can handle the grief. As a family, we are full of thankfulness. My daughters remember all the happy, funny, hilarious times and we laugh about them, full of thankfulness and joy. They were two very precious people in our lives. It’s important to be thankful, instead of asking, ‘Why did God do this?’”

Belfast Telegraph

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