I am not superhuman

Opus Dei member Olivia Darby stresses that members of Opus Dei are just like everybody else. She gi

If you have learned about Opus Dei from the media and Da Vinci Code, it is easy to believe that it is a shadowy sect, governed by some sinister Dr No type figure, high on power and attempting world domination.

I am a member of Opus Dei. I take the bus with you. I walk past you in the street. I might be behind you in the supermarket queue, and you might buy me a drink at a bar. I am 23, I work for a charity, I love cooking, reading, and walks along the Thames. I struggle to get up every morning and I find it impossible to be tidy. Superhuman – I don't think so. When my brother asks me whether I've been brainwashed, I can only sigh, "I wish!” Maybe Opus Dei could wave a magic wand and help me keep my room tidy!

I am in the middle of the world – your world – but you probably wouldn't notice me amongst the hundreds of other people you pass on your way to work. I'm not a nun. I do not live in a dungeon, nor an ivory tower. Members of Opus Dei live their lives side by side with everyone else.

I guess this can lead to the other fear – the infiltration of society by a group of people who you don't quite understand. There are two good reasons to laugh at this. Firstly, I am free. Contrary to popular expectations, I have never been instructed to kill any infidels. I joined Opus Dei four years ago. I think I may have got an inkling of this if it were the case, and if someone did ask me I would a) say no, and b) make them an appointment with their doctor. Secondly, there are about 500 members of Opus Dei in the UK, out of sixty million people. None of us has super powers!

But hold on, I may have missed the key point: the vocation to Opus Dei is a vocation to be saints in our daily lives. Saints have to emulate Jesus. They have to love people. Saints are people who try every day (even though they might not always succeed) to love God a little bit more, and consequently make the lives of those around them easier.

What does this mean to me? I work with around 180 disadvantaged children a week. I chose this work because I hope I can have a positive impact on their lives. But perhaps more importantly, I try to see each child as an individual, as a child of God, just like me, regardless of their religious background. With so many children, there is the temptation to see them as numbers, and just look at the statistics (x number passed their exams, no one got pregnant this year). But the real point is to develop the personality of each child, to help them to learn about themselves, to pass their exams so that they can give something back to society. Too see the joy on a girl's face when she realises that she is worth something after she has helped a younger child achieve something.

My vocation means looking after my friends. Not to be a fair weather friend, but to be there through thick and thin. My vocation means that of course I want my friends to come closer to God, because I believe that fulfilment comes through loving Him. But this does not mean that I would pressure them into it. My boyfriend is not a Catholic. I would love him to share my faith, but faith is a gift –it cannot be forced on someone. I love him just the same.

My vocation means trying to build a deeper relationship with God, through daily Mass, prayer and sacrifice. People get a bit worried about the sacrifice bit. But really, we all make sacrifices for the people we love. You don't know that someone loves you until they give you their last rolo. And we make so many sacrifices for much less important reasons- stilettos, leg waxing, nails so long that you're almost disabled (vanity, vanity). What is forgoing salt or getting up on time for love of God compared to blisters from too-tight shoes?

I chose to join Opus Dei. No one even suggested it to me before I said that I wanted to. And ever since I have been a firm believer in St Augustine's "our hearts our restless until they rest in You alone, O Lord". Accepting my vocation, which crept up on me and was never in my life-plan as a teenager, has given me a great peace. I couldn't have said no, not because anyone forced me, but because saying no to God, when he has called you, does not make one happy. Trust me - as a nineteen year old it wasn't what I had thought I wanted - but I was also quite sure it was the right thing to do. I'd be lying if I told you it was always easy - as I said before, I'm not superhuman - but it is always worth it.

Olivia Darby joined Opus Dei at age 19. She is now 23 years old and works for an educational charity helps disadvantaged children in London.
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How society is failing transgender children

In the wake of the cancellation of a public debate on this subject, one of the speakers shares her view on where society's approach to gender nonconformity is going wrong.

In August this year, several UK councils issued guidance to schools on accommodating female pupils who wear binders. A binder is a constricting undergarment for the upper body: what it binds are the breasts, pressing them down to a flatness that the wearer feels is appropriate to their self-perception as masculine or gender-neutral. According to Cornwall Council, the binder is “very important to [the wearer’s] psychological wellbeing.” But binders have unwelcome physical side-effects too, including “breathing difficulties, skeletal problems and fainting.” Lancashire Council’s advice urges teachers to “monitor [wearers] carefully during physical activities and in hot weather. It may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.”

When the NSPCC invited me to participate in a discussion on the subject “is society letting down transgender children?” (part of its Dare to Debate series), those guidelines were one of the first things I thought of. They’re written in accordance with the overriding principle of gender identity politics, which is that affirmation is all. Any bodily harms incurred count for little compared to the trauma believed to be inflicted by a “mismatch” between appearance and identity. It’s a doctrine that insists we’ve moved beyond the tyranny of physical sex and social pressure, and into a realm of pure selfhood where all must be able to live in accordance with their own inherent being.

And yet, look again at that list of side effects: breathing difficulties, skeletal problems, fainting, inability to participate fully in exercise. The female adolescents wearing binders have reproduced all the problems of tight-lacing corsets, this time in the service of restrictive anti-femininity rather than restrictive femininity. So is issuing guidance to reduce the harms of binder-wearing in schools an act of care for transgender children, or an abdication of it? Is the role of adults in authority – whether parental, educational or medical – to validate everything that comes under the rubric of transition, regardless of long-term consequences, or could another approach be better?

The number of children who identify as trans is small, but rapidly increasing: referrals to the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust’s gender identity development service have doubled year-on-year. Putting gender-nonconforming youths on a medical track opens the possibility that they will be prescribed puberty blockers, delaying the physical changes of adolescence that individuals may find distressing. Later, treatment can include cross-sex hormones and surgery to create the desired sexual characteristics.

For many, this can alleviate profound anguish about the self, but not without costs. The long-term effects of hormone therapies aren’t known, and won’t be until the current generation of trans children have lived well into adulthood. There’s a risk that increased medicalisation could be imposing permanent physical changes on children who, left to their own devices, would discover they are quite happy living with their natal sex – about 80 per cent of children diagnosed with gender dysphoria desist before adulthood, but the normalisation of medical transition could commit many to irrevocable treatments they would otherwise avoid.

Remarkably, as I found out when I worked on a long feature on the subject, there isn’t any agreement on what gender identity is or how it relates to the physical body. Which means that transitioning children are receiving an untested treatment for an undefined condition. Medicine often involves a surprising degree of idiosyncrasy and guesswork, but this uncertainty both about what is being treated and the effects of the treatment should be a cause for caution. While many who transition find it wholly positive, not everyone does: doubt and detransition happen, and these stories tell us that the quickest path to reassignment is not always the best treatment for someone presenting with dysphoria.

Sometimes, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria might mask a different underlying cause to a child’s distress. Psychiatrist Susan Bradley reports that children with cross-sex identification are often (not always) either responding defensively to a violent background or engaging in the obsessive behaviours associated with autistic spectrum disorders. A policy of “watchful waiting” – listening to the child, supporting them and giving them freedom to experiment and develop – is vital if we are to give children the kind of help they really need. But in an environment where anything short of total and immediate reinforcement is deemed abusive, “watchful waiting” is not an option.

One more problem: if gender dysphoria is conceived as the problem, and gender reassignment as the solution, then transition represents the summation of a process which should in theory resolve everything. In practice, newly-transitioned young people (especially those crossing the threshold from child and adolescent mental health services to adult provision) can find themselves stranded, no longer in receipt of the support they had during transition. We simply aren’t getting the treatment of transgender children right if we’re only treating their gender.

The consequences extend well beyond children who identify as trans, of course. Schools are suffused with sexual harassment and sexual violence, yet girls are expected to accept a child they previously knew as a boy as female like them, or be called bigots. The naturalisation of sex-stereotypes in parental narratives of transition surely has a limiting influence on other children’s conception of sex-appropriate behaviour. For some gender-nonconforming children, the cultural celebration of transition leads to anxiety about whether they themselves should be trans, even if they’re happy in their bodies. Certainly, many gay and lesbian adults have looked back on their own childhoods and remarked nervously that their behaviour then would qualify them as trans now.

If we’re not able to address these issues, then we’re manifestly failing children. But addressing them is incredibly difficult: practitioners who privately mention their doubts about current approaches to gender noncomformity are afraid to ask questions publicly, anticipating personal attacks and the loss of their jobs.

They’re not wrong to do so. After announcing the Dare to Debate event, the NSPCC was put under sustained pressure, I was persistently abused, and following the withdrawal of the other panelist, the charity cancelled the event. Previous installments in the series have looked at child sexualisation, foetal alcohol syndrome, and asked whether the investigation of child sexual abuse has tipped into “hysteria”, but apparently it would be just too daring to talk about gender. Doctrine so bitterly defended that it must even be protected from good-faith debate is a kind of restrictive garment for the intellect. Wearing it can ease our mental pangs. But the damage it does besides is very real.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.