A masterclass in resilience
Despite her adversity, Lisa Conlan knew she could turn her life around.
And when she boarded the plane to Denmark four years ago, she did just that.
Photographs: Terumi Mascarenhas - www.fjordfoto.dk / Lisa's private photographs
Text: Michaela Medveďová
When you start talking to Lisa Conlan, you can't help but admire her infectious laughter.
Even though she's been in Denmark for four years now, if you had to guess her nationality, it wouldn't take long to arrive at the correct answer: she must be Irish.
And when you've heard her story, you can't help but admire her resilience - and the fact that after everything life threw in her way, she kept that laughter.
"I grew up in a very religious family - and my dad was verbally abusive," Lisa starts her story. Then, when she was 9, her parents separated because her mom wanted to get her children away from their dad. And so, while Lisa had always been good at school, suddenly, she was getting D's, had to repeat a year, lost all her friends, and started getting bullied. "I realise now that's where my ability to face adversity started. But I went from being a very extroverted child to being very introverted for the next ten years."
While she initially continued to struggle at school, after a few years, she decided she would turn everything around. As a result, she became one of the top students in the school and was even featured in the paper for it.
Her family's relationship with religion was heavily involved in her life. Growing up, she was at mass several times a week, her dad did not want her to have a boyfriend, and her mom would reaffirm the religious influence. As a result, Lisa had doubts about religion for a while but did not fully realise she was "brainwashed" until she unconditioned herself - by moving to Australia and New Zealand for two years.
But there were definitely things to be missed about home - like the warm Irish culture. "We're very friendly, social. We like to sing and dance. Music was a big part of my life growing up - we'd go to our dad's and sing together."
Losing best friends
When Lisa returned from Australia, she stayed at her best friend's place. She thought about moving back to her mom's, but she was understandably nervous, also because of their continuous religious disagreements. "When I came home for Christmas, my sister and my mom talked a lot about religion - and my sister said that I became a negative person. I was in shock - I thought I became so positive!" But this was followed by a horrible insult by her mother - and she couldn't stay there anymore. "My best friend told me: it's not about you, it's about their beliefs. But at that point, it was so fresh. My mom and my sister were my best friends all my life. I tried to salvage the relationship, but sadly we couldn't get close again."
After returning from her travels, Lisa met a new boyfriend - and when she could no longer stay with friends, she went to stay with his parents. However, her mother, with whom Lisa had continued arguments, went behind her back to badmouth Lisa to her boyfriend's mom. "Maybe she was trying to get me back into her life, but she wasn't doing it the right way."
Eventually, after she tried applying for housing support and was denied, Lisa and her boyfriend had to reach for an emergency solution. They bought a tent and two sleeping bags and booked a few nights at a campsite. "For the next three months, we moved campsites. It was hard walking around my hometown, not wanting to be seen. The only person who helped me was my brother. That's why he's the only person I'm close to from my family."
A Danish sign
Briefly, Lisa and her boyfriend moved back to his parents - after getting a job, they could get a place in a different city. But Lisa's troubles were not over.
She realised that her boyfriend had anger issues and was very jealous. "I was isolated. I didn't have any friends in the city - he didn't want me talking to anyone. He accused me of flirting with a 65-year-old bus driver. He smashed furniture around me, and I used to lock myself in the bathroom. I had no one to call."
Lisa was so happy when she managed to get a job that was in line with her artistic self - doing freelance work and helping design a book cover. "Suddenly, my boyfriend was treating me like I was a human. But the minute I wouldn't do something the way he wanted, he would lose it. And I told myself I would never live with a guy like my dad. The last time, he smashed a chair as hard as he could. I just ran up the stairs, so afraid, shaking. I had to move away from him, so I went to Belfast."
But unable to find work, she needed accommodation again and had to ask for help at a shelter. "They initially didn't accept me because I had good clothes. I've been living okay for a while, buying clothes at charity shops. I always knew how to make it look like I was doing okay. They treated me like I wasn't homeless." But she knew she wouldn't be at the shelter long-term. She knew she was getting out of there. "So I went to the library and started looking at programmes abroad."
And she chose Denmark
Years before that moment, she had a feeling she would live in Denmark one day. So when she needed to choose a place to work abroad, she started looking toward Scandinavia. She applied for a six-month role as a Bed & Breakfast manager at Petersholm, a farm close to Aarhus because she liked the group community aspect and needed to be around people.
To get there, she needed to stay with her ex-boyfriend for a few weeks to make sure she had some money in her bank. "I thought: I'm going to endure this. I remember I spent my birthday alone. But then I arrived in Denmark three days later, and the place where I stayed for a couple of nights had karaoke. And I was there, singing, feeling so free."
A bad déjà vu
In 2018, Lisa spent her first six Danish months in Jylland, and while there was still a lot of trauma from her past that she was dealing with - she slowly gained confidence and started to heal. She also learned about the country's education possibilities and eventually applied for university in 2020. "I loved being at school and had really good results. So what are the chances I ended up in a country where I could return to school and get support while studying? I remember thinking: If you do the thing you were once good at, you'll remember the person you once were."
She was also ready to meet someone new - and she did. Her new Danish boyfriend helped her with many practical things internationals need to sort out after moving to Denmark: getting a CPR number and a job. She told him she had an ex-boyfriend with anger issues.
Before moving in with him, she didn't know that he had anger issues, too.
Eventually, after trying to leave, she returned to the Petersholm community for a while and travelled. "Then he was trying to get me back, saying I was the love of his life. Of course, I got sucked back into that. I kept trying to leave but always returned. In the end, it got more abusive. I had part-time work but no SU and no money to pay rent, but when he grabbed my throat, I left anyway and just trusted I would find a way. After staying on a friend's boat one night in the cold, I checked my bank balance, and my SU was in my account. I booked a hostel for a week - and that's when I learned about Danner."
"I thought: I'm going to endure this. I remember I spent my birthday alone. But then I arrived in Denmark three days later, and the place where I stayed for a couple of nights had karaoke. And I was there, singing, feeling so free."
Someone in Lisa's network told her about Danner - an organisation providing help and counselling for abused women and children. Lisa rang them nervously but was very reluctant to go through that process. "Then the girl who showed me around told me that many women have left here really empowered. And I needed to be that woman again." Still, Lisa was looking for an excuse not to take this opportunity until one of the counsellors convinced her to try it out.
So she took Danner up on their offer of free therapy. "I'd been needing therapy for years and couldn't afford it. The therapist I got must be the best in the world. She was an artist as well and used art in therapy. I gave her a painting as a gift." Therapy helped Lisa understand so much about her issues with boundaries as she's never been taught by her mom to say no, which trickled into her relationships. "And losing your family, of course, means you don't have anybody. Then you go into relationships just thinking: give me a little love. I call it crumbs of love. You don't think you're worth more."
Lisa also started the journey of rewiring her brain - learning to spend time with herself, meditating, changing her thoughts from negative to positive, and expressing her gratitude for minor everyday things. In therapy, she learned that one of the things to do to progress towards healing trauma was exercise. "I was always incredibly athletic. I have a black belt in taekwondo and was a personal trainer. But I could not do that anymore because what had happened took so much away from me. But when my therapist said that exercise is good for the brain, I thought: I need to find that Lisa again."
And she found her - upside down. She fell in love with aerial hoops. She can use her taekwondo flexibility, and the beauty of the sport gives her so much confidence.
But other things also helped her when she was tired of feeling miserable. "I'd found this YouTube channel called Impact Theory with many incredible speakers on there - people who became successful from terrible experiences. I could see myself there - I could do something like that. And then, I discovered Toastmasters (a non-profit organisation where you can practice public speaking). I was too broken to join in 2019, but I tried again in 2021, told my story, and have made many wonderful connections."
Along with Danner and free-time activities, going for her degree in Communication and Cultural Encounters has been a positive force in her life. She's supposed to start her thesis in August, but given how organised she is, she'll probably start early.
"I switched my major because I wanted to work with marginalised groups and even thought about working with homeless migrants in Copenhagen. I started volunteering at a homeless shelter, but it didn't feel right - maybe it was too close to the bone." Her journey taught her to have compassion for people who are struggling. She wants to work with art to help people.
Thriving, not surviving
The past 12 months have been the best of Lisa's life. "It's also because I feel grateful. I feel good most of the time. This is a new thing for me. I feel so liberated. When I got on the plane, I knew that was the moment I turned my life around. But it wasn't automatic - it was this process of facing my demons, learning, and growing."
And she doesn't think this would be possible anywhere else but in Denmark. She appreciates how well the system works and how many opportunities there are to make use of. Another thing is the work-life balance. Lisa has never encountered that before. The bosses are respectful, there's proper sick leave, and a complete absence of a "work yourself to the death" mentality. "They pay you what you're worth. It sort of teaches you to value yourself, right?"
After four years in the country, she feels like she's adopting Danish values. Partly. "I feel that the part of me that's very open and chatty and friendly is the Irish part. I wouldn't want to have the coldness I sometimes experienced from Danes." But what she's learning is the sense of boundaries and putting yourself first. "And that life can be good. Life can be above survival. I was always surviving and came here and learned to thrive. Danes can buy and enjoy material things and make their houses cosy. And I enjoy that, going to restaurants, or sitting in the sun. I feel like I'm getting the best of Denmark now. My network is constantly growing because I feel good, am very open, and people can feel it." Lisa now works in a bar, and after being isolated for so long, she just enjoys talking to everyone. And thanks to her studies, she has found her forever friends group.
The strength of relationships
With her characteristic openness, Lisa gravitates toward like-tempered Latin American people. For example, her current partner of one year is Argentinian. "But he's more like a Danish person - so quiet! But so warm, and we have amazing conversations. That's what I always wanted in a partner - someone who's supportive and calm. He never gets angry - he's always so relaxed about everything to the point where I'm like: How can you be relaxed right now? But that's really good for me." In addition, he's a musician, into sports, and was there for Lisa through the trauma of her previous relationship.
"And I'm meeting my brother for the first time in five years because my boyfriend bought me tickets to Edinburgh. We were going to go home, but it was a bit expensive. So I asked my brother if he wanted to meet me there - and the next day, he bought tickets, too."
Lisa's mom wants to see her too, which makes her nervous. Her sisters have not talked to her in years, but she's been in contact with her mother, although she hasn't seen her in six years. She had to block her on social media several times because she was so abusive. But after she's been to Danner and the therapy they provided, she decided to unblock her and try again. "As long as she can treat me like a human being and respect me, we can be in each other's lives. But she has somehow become more compassionate."
An unreal real life
Does Lisa's story feel like out of a book? She'd really like to write one about her life – and has already started one called The Willful Tiger. She also thought of making a YouTube channel or being a motivational speaker - she thinks her future involves talking to people, she likes to write, and she'll probably continue to make art until her death.
"I'm very open to the flow. Sometimes, things just happen. I guess the right things come to you at the right time. Denmark came at the perfect time. But I'm sure that no matter what I'm doing, I'll be happy because I'll choose to be happy. I believe now happiness is a choice, a mindset, and something you can work on every day."
And a few weeks ago, Lisa and her boyfriend moved into their apartment. "It's a big deal. We've been looking for so long. Whenever I come home to my apartment, I can't believe I have my own space and a balcony in this weather. It's been a journey, and I wake up so grateful every day. It doesn't feel real to me that this is my life now."