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“Gather together to blossom”- An interview with Cat Houlihan

This week Ellen Cain brings you a WR interview with a twist, venturing out of the realms of Tech & Engineering, this interview dives into the healthcare world (on the other side of the world!) 🌏.

Ellen recently spoke to a close friend of hers and an absolute wonder woman, Cat Houlihan. Their conversation covered everything and inbetween moving to Australia, being a new mum and setting up the first of its kind, a residential treatment centre for people with eating disorders 💙.

“I believe we are all humans with a range of experiences on offer to us. For whatever reason some of us respond to the world’s challenges in this way or that.”

So here it is, take 5 and immerse yourself in this incredibly insightful and refreshing interview with Cat Houlihan, Clinical Director and Clinical Psychologist at Wandi Nerida.

Thank you for letting us pick your brains Cat, you are such an inspiration 🙌.

Please can you summarise Wandi Nerida for me?

Wandi Nerida is Australia’s first residential treatment centre for people with eating disorders. Wandi Nerida means “gather together to blossom” and is a name gifted to us by the local Aboriginal community.

Tell me a bit about your job and what a day in the life looks like for you and your son, the gorgeous Rex?

Wandi Nerida was built to be a home-like setting on 25 acres of beautiful bushland on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. As the Clinical Director I am responsible for the clinical program, the groups and therapies that our “participants” (clients) will engage in as part of their recovery journey. I’m lucky that no two days look the same! Some days I’ll be busy with meetings, talking to families and other services around Australia, other days I’ll be running groups, eating meals with participants and supervising staff. Sometimes I’ll be taking a mindful 5 minutes by the dam or walking down by the horses. Other times I’ll be in the office having a cry because I’m feeling overwhelmed by the intense nature of the job and balancing work and life responsibilities. On the odd occasion I have barricaded myself in the office because I’ve heard that Stan the carpet Python who lives under the staff building is on the loose!

A day in the life with Rex is go, go, go, from breakfast to bedtime. We eat, play, go for walks, to the park and to the beach and that can sometimes be before lunchtime! Rex is lots of fun, a very busy bee, and once he has fully figured out what we’re doing he’s ready for the next thing. It’s enjoyable and energising and exhausting and challenging all at the same time.

The business you work for is the first of its kind in Australia, what have been the major challenges for you?

Moving to Australia has been quite a big culture shift, especially working in healthcare. I didn’t understand how different it would be until I was in it, and it can feel quite lonely working in a team with different training backgrounds and ways of thinking. It’s been good learning too, but some days I find myself missing my old teams and the good old NHS! Having a baby and then taking on such a big role after maternity leave has been as challenging as you’d expect and doing this without my usual support network of friends and family around me has made the tough times extra tough. Being a new service with a new team meant the first few months were extremely busy and chaotic with unexpected problems that were my responsibility to solve. I’d often have to stay late, miss nursery pick up or seeing Rex at all that night – which still happens sometimes – and I feel incredibly guilty for.

Mum guilt is the worst and you are juggling so much more than a normal 9-5 and being a parent. Kudos to you! Bar the sounds of a toddler crying, what gets you up in the morning?

Haha, that’s pretty much it! I’ve just started walking once or twice per week in the mornings when I can which I love. I used to jog on the beach and trying to build this back up after a couple of years off. I also strangely enjoy my drive to work, it’s just under an hour and if I have a good coffee and podcast, it’s a nice peaceful moment in my day.

How have you found being a female leader in your industry?

Working in healthcare in an eating disorders service means that I work with mainly females including other leaders which I’ve found helpful especially when coming into the role from maternity leave and having other mothers supporting me. Due to the nature of eating disorder treatment around 90% of our participants are female too, so as a leader I have felt quite comfortable in that sense. I still feel like an imposter most days, but that’s because I have an underlying sense that someone’s made a mistake hiring me generally, not because I’m female!

I am sure you are more than qualified to do your job! I guess we all feel like we’re faking it at times. Do you or have you faced any stigmas or male/female inequality in your role or previous roles?

I can’t say that I’ve faced any stigmas beyond the typical cultural norms relating to gender stereotypes that can also be expressed in the workplace. There is inequality in my workplace with a larger female-male ratio of colleagues which means valuable experience and perspectives can be lost in the service development and decision-making. That said, the males we do have typically occupy more senior roles.

You’ve had some major life changes over the past few years; move to Australia, had a baby, offered a chunky job and all without your friends or family. What has reality been like for you?

I’ve tried to give a real perspective in previous answers and not paint a fantasy picture of Australian life. I miss home every day, especially in winter (yes, I love the cold!) Covid has of course made things harder, though I’m very excited to be returning home with the family for Christmas 2022.

Otherwise, life really has its ups and downs! Being a mum is one area that can feel both wonderful and challenging, so is being a clinical director, so is being in a relationship. I’m proud of how many challenges I have overcome and try to remember this when I feel the inner critic piping up. I’ve always been drawn to excitement and chaos to a certain extent, despite longing for predictability and order once I’m in it. I have high expectations for myself which have been both a blessing and a curse. My reality is probably quite ‘normal’ in that I am a typical human being with complex emotions and thoughts that I can’t always make sense of, and it doesn’t matter where you are or what you do when you have these experiences.

You have so much on your plate, I imagine being overwhelmed is just part of your bread and butter now. Are you able to self soothe yourself based on the experience you have as a clinical psychologist or does your mental health, and the mental health of your patients fall in two completely different worlds?

It definitely improved through my clinical training. Learning about psychology and mental health helped me understand myself much more, the suffering I’d experienced and how it was expressing itself in my daily life. I’ve learnt strategies for self-soothing but can’t always apply them effectively! It’s a lot easier for me to provide support to others but I don’t see myself as different in any way. Like I was saying before, I believe we are all humans with a range of experiences on offer to us. For whatever reason some of us respond to the world’s challenges in this way or that, I am lucky that I’ve had the training, therapy, and support for personal growth, but I’ve also definitely experienced mental health issues particularly anxiety and depression which I was not able to easily recover from without help.

How did you find the first year of motherhood and what are the best things about your life down under?

The first year of motherhood was really hard! Looking back, I recognise postnatal anxiety and depression but didn’t seek support for this at the time. The early months are a bit of a blur to be honest, I felt lonely and stressed and exhausted. I’m glad to see the back of it haha! You helped me get through the really tough times and helped me learn it’s ok not to look back. I’m happy to say I’m enjoying the toddler stage a lot more now, but I was really unprepared for the physical and emotional demands of motherhood especially in those first few months.

The best thing about life down under is the exposure to nature, I live in a beach town with nice beaches and walks in the National Park. It’s a slower pace, early to rise and early to bed which suits me, and less of the daily stressors that come with city life (like traffic!). It’s normal to see dolphins in the sea and parrots in the back garden, and it’s so vast there’s lots of exploring left to do.

Sounds dreamy! Hopefully this year you will finally be able to bring your babe home to meet your family and friends. Have you Googled ‘how to survive a 12-hour flight with a 2-year-old?’ yet?

Yes I have. There were some good tips but also many parenting blog posts simply saying, “don’t do it!”

I’ll never forget the conversation we had about the flight, you managed to convince me that it was only a day and would all be worth it, and then when we were hanging up you said “but yeah I’d never do it with my toddler”. Haha thanks for the words of encouragement! And thanks for inviting me to this interview, its been an honour and a pleasure and I think you’re doing a wonderful thing

Thank you so much Cat! Keep rocking #womenrock

An interview by Ellen Cain.

A voice for diversity in Tech & Engineering <3

I: @womenrockbristol

T: @womenrockbrstl

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