Desperate for Love: The Life and Times of a Survivor - PART 1

Growing up, I watched my best friend struggle to exist within our normal, thriving civilization. Even though I was fully aware of the world she lived in – the part that was there, in my face, presenting itself to my 5 senses -- I didn’t know exactly what had plagued her every day of our childhood as she decided to keep the darker parts to herself. So, I had a hard time understanding, well, everything about her. I know that I, in my young and immature, untrained mind, judged her and at times even became impatient and angry with her. But as we travelled our joined path over the many years, as the nightmare piled onto itself and finally exploded in plain view, I’d come to see my friend, Ireland, as my hero.

This is a story of a survivor; a survivor of abandonment, neglect, incest, sexual abuse, Stockholm Syndrome, repressed memory, and post-traumatic stress. It’s a story to help other survivors understand themselves; the way they think, the way they feel, and the things they do to help themselves survive. It’s also a story to help people in the lives of a survivor understand their struggling loved one. I have, for my entire adult life, called Ireland my initial education. In 1991, I was drawn to becoming a counsellor for sexual abuse and began my training, working a crisis line to help women deal with their flashbacks and anxiety that repeatedly blindsided them as they continued to try and live a semblance of a normal live. I then went to college for Social Services and worked at several places, all including services some form of abuse and post-traumatic stress. Of course, I learned a lot from my formal education but I felt I had something a little more than many of my colleagues who learned from teachers and textbooks. I had a role model of the complex dynamics that are involved in surviving on-going trauma, sitting in the passenger seat of the vehicle of my life.

As I mentioned, I didn’t know during our childhoods, everything that was going on with Ireland, and I have never held that against her. In fact, I can see it as a blessing in disguise. Had she told me of what her dad was doing to her regularly, I would have told me mother and my mother would have pulled me away from the friendship for my own safety. She wouldn’t have reported her father and saved Ireland from her everyday hell. Mom believed you didn’t get involved. I know it’s disgusting but that sadly, was a common belief back then, in the 1970’s. In Mom’s defense, because she was aware that Ireland was also not being taken care of properly, that her basic needs were not being met, Mom often fed her and clothed her. At one point she gave us paint and furniture to fix up Ireland’s room and get her window fixed so the snow would no longer drift into her room.

Because I was not aware of it all until we were young adults, I was able to continue to be there for my friend. All is as it’s meant to be.

She asked me to write her story

A few years ago, Ireland asked me to write her life story. I almost broke down in magnificent tears in that moment because I knew, by wanting her story out there, she had finally risen above the trap of shame that held such a grip on her for most of her life. I felt honoured to write it and we spent quite a bit of time considering the best way to get it out there. She not only wanted to tell it to face it and release it from her, she wanted to help others with it, knowing that in doing so, her silent suffering would not be for nothing. There would be purpose behind the pain. Because there is so much involved in her story, and we decided we couldn’t leave any of it out without taking away some impact and message, the story will be published in parts. This of course, is Part 1.

Since Ireland’s story involves several other people – friends, family and otherwise – all the names and locations have been changed to protect others’ privacy and provide some respect to those who have not yet healed so that they can be the director of their own healing in their own time and their own way, as in my opinion, it is meant to be.

I asked my friend to choose everyone’s name. I am compelled to share with you my thoughts on the name she chose for herself – Ireland. It’s not just that she loves the name Ireland, but it is her dream to go to Ireland. To her, Ireland is her happy place. It is recommended to those who experience anxiety and post-traumatic stress to come up with a happy place, or safe place, to go to in their minds as part of a plan of coping with their symptoms and triggers. When life gets overwhelming for her, she can go to a land of green upon green in a sea of mist in her mind. It’s her temporary escape. And so she chose this 1-word mantra of peace and safety to be her name. Brilliant.

Ireland's childhood dog, Bandit

Our days together began

In 1977, my mom and dad separated and Mom moved us into her parents’ house in a little town just north of the American border. I dreaded that first day of school. At my previous school, I had achieved the reputation of the smallest and youngest kid in the class with asthma and food allergies, so I was quite shy and insecure. I remember walking into my new classroom along the back wall, a sea of grade 6er’s flittering around me, some ignoring me and into their own conversations, some quietly checking me out, others snickering and pointing. I wanted to run.

And then I saw her. Standing at the front of the room, at the chalkboard, erasing the day before’s work. She must have been given the job by the teacher. It was the shy, sad girl with strawberry blond hair who lives with her Dad and 2 older brothers behind my grandparents’ house. I had met her and made friends with her during Sunday visits.

Something made her turn fully around as if someone was calling her name, and she looked right at me. I smiled a little. She smiled back. It was like nothing needed to be said. For some reason, I felt so much relief.

Ireland and I hung out almost daily from that point on. We walked to the bus stop together, sat on the bus together, hung out at recess together, and walked home after getting off the bus together. The walk from the bus stop was 5 blocks down the middle road of several small, gravel, dead end crossing roads, in the treed area we lived in. We’d stop in at the grandparents so I could drop my school stuff off and grab something to eat to take with me. When Mom or Grandma wasn’t looking, I’d grab for Ireland.

Ireland's childhood home

Ireland's home life

As I mentioned, Ireland lived with her dad and 2 brothers. At that age, I had thought that her dad probably did his best. I didn’t know. I had never seen a dad try to be a single parent. At 11 years old I pondered, are dads even made for this?

Their house was a mess, cluttered and dirty, and there was hardly any food in the fridge but I liked going to Ireland’s. There weren’t any rules, really. Not like the ones in my house when Mom and Dad were together, or the grandparents’, or my other friends’ houses. No time to come in for supper rule. No time to come in at night rule. No bedtime. No homework before play rule. No ‘no swearing’ rule. It was more like don’t stand in front of the television rule. Don’t leave the door open so the dog can get out rule. Don’t go into your brother, Mike’s room or you’re dead meat. That last one was a warning, not a rule. If you didn’t listen to the warning, you were on your own. And we could smoke in Ireland’s house. At the age of 13, my mom didn’t know I smoked and I did everything to make sure she didn’t know but Herman, Ireland’s dad, didn’t care. At the age of 13, I thought this was so cool.

All we did was hang out in her room and read magazines, listen to records, put pictures from the magazines on her wall, and talk about the boys at school and the men in the pictures. She liked different ones than me. She liked Shaun Cassidy, Andy Gibb, Erik Estrada (but we liked to call him Erik Estrudel and then laugh), and that guy from BJ and the Bear. We talked about the boys we thought were cute at school. We liked different boys and that was a good thing. When no one else was home we’d go out in the living room and watch TV. When there was food in the house, we made fried egg sandwiches or French toast or Kraft Dinner.

We just hung out.

When her brothers, Mike and David, and her dad came home, we tried to stay out of their way. Everyone in that house could laugh but also they could yell at each other a lot. They made fun of each other a lot. The guys made Ireland cry sometimes. She’d scream at them to f**k off a lot but they would just laugh more. So it was just best to hang out in her room.

Shortly before I moved behind Ireland, her mother decided she didn’t want to be a wife and mom anymore and just moved out. To me, as strange as it was for a father to be raising his children alone, it was even stranger that a mother would leave her children. The abandonment of her mother and her father not being equipped to properly take care of a daughter, to me, was the core of all her issues. On the outside, her clothes were out of style, dingy and sometimes too small. Her hair was greasy and because of the greasy hair I figured, she developed an acne problem. I assumed that because of this, she didn’t think much of herself. I assumed that she didn’t do good in school because there was no one at home pushing her to do her homework and praise her when she did well on a project or a test. I figured all her problems were because she felt no one cared. I shared this with my mom and she did what she could to counter that message by involving Ireland in everything she could. My mom became like a second mother to my friend.

Misunderstandings, frustrations and dependencies

It seemed to me, there was so much anger going on inside Ireland. She didn’t have a lot of patience with much of anything or anyone, especially children. When we became of age to babysit, we both got our own jobs babysitting for adults we knew. Sometimes I would go with her when she babysat because, as much as she wanted the money for it, she didn’t really seem to like or understand children. Again, no patience, but there also didn’t seem to be a nurturing part to her. I supposed it was because her mother wasn’t nurturing. No one taught Ireland how.

Hanging out together was on her terms. She simply had to have everything her way. And when things didn’t go her way, there came the anger. I just got used to it. Not only did I have to follow her rules and ideas, she got upset when I hung around with anyone else.

As I write this, I imagine you, as the reader, wondering, “Why the hell did you call her your best friend? Why bother with her?”

I needed her too. Consciously, I wasn’t aware how much I needed her – I needed her to need me – this did not come out until adulthood. My friendship with Ireland was like a coping mechanism for the craziness going on in my home life.

She called me her life line. For some reason, she couldn’t do much of anything like make phone calls to find out information. I had to do that for her. She couldn’t fill out job applications. I had to do that for her. She couldn’t figure out how to interact with children and play with them while babysitting. I would show up at her babysitting jobs and take over. She couldn’t solve the simplest problems. I had to do that, too. To me, it didn’t seem like her brain worked the way mine did. It’s not that she had a brain injury or developmental disability, it was like there was this constant voice in her head reminding her, “Oh, come on, you know you can’t do that.” I believe it was as simple as, no one taught her she could.

And then there was this other part of her. It was like sometimes her brain would just stall out. As a young girl with my own anger issues due to my own home life, this part did not go over well with me. It was only because I didn’t understand it, and neither did she so she couldn’t explain it. We never talked about it. I just went on assuming she was doing it to piss me off. She developed this staring thing. She would, out of the blue, just stare at me. I would be talking to her and when it came time for her to respond, she would just stare at me.

“What!?!” I would scream at her in frustration, after maybe the tenth time in a couple of weeks.

She’d blink and reply, “What?”

“That’s what I asked you? Why are you just staring at me – AGAIN?”

She would never explain this to me. If I was having a bad day, this would infuriate me. The staring was frustrating but when she didn’t tell me why she was staring, I just wanted to scream. Years later, I found out she was not aware she was staring. She was not aware. She was simply not there.

Ireland and the men

Men were drawn to Ireland. Old men. Creepy men. It seemed everywhere we went in our neighbourhood, there was an old, creepy man who would talk to Ireland in this inappropriate way. There was this weird Italian man probably in his 60’s named Gustav who lived on the center street of our neighbourhood of the small, crossing dead end street and trees. We had to pass his house every weekday twice, in the morning to go to the bus stop and later to walk home after getting off the bus. Gustav would come out of his house and stare at us walking passed him. When he would talk to us, it became clear he was not paying attention to me, but to Ireland. It was almost like I wasn’t even there to him. He focused in on my friend. He eyeballed her with this eerie gaze and the tone of voice he used sent a chill down my spine. It was just wrong. The chills stopped and the shock kicked in when I noticed Ireland was not only not grossed out but she seemed to be enjoying it. She was flirting back!

As we walked away, “Ireland, what was that all about?”

“What?”

“Didn’t you just want to slap him? It was like he was coming on to you!”

“Ya, well…. it’s just for fun. The old guy needs some attention. It makes him feel good. Ya, it creeps me out too. I mean, I would never do anything with him. It’s just…. Oh I don’t know. F**k it.” And she changed the subject.

Any time we saw Gustav after that, she appeared just as disgusted by it. Like she needed to first see from someone else that it was wrong.

That summer, we got a 1-time job cleaning another older man’s car out. He lived alone down the center road in the other direction. When we finished, he paid us and then asked us if we wanted to come inside and clean his house. Again, he was focused in on Ireland, ignoring me; again with the creepy voice. This one looked Ireland up and down. I had seen men do this on TV to women they were attracted to. The difference here was, Ireland was just 13 years old. She started a conversation with him that was heading down the road to agreement.

I grabbed her by the arm, “Ireland we have to go now. My mom is expecting us for lunch and its 12:15.”

Whispering to her once we got onto the road so Mr. Creepo number two didn’t hear us, “That man wanted you.”

“No he didn’t. He wanted his house cleaned.”

“Never mind.” It was sad. She seemed to be either getting used to it or learning how to ignore it.

Ireland’s mom had come around once in a while during this time. I had found out that while she was married to Ireland’s father she had had several affairs resulting in longstanding consequences. This apparently, was no secret. Ireland’s father Herman, was not her biological father. She didn’t really know who her biological father was. Mike had a different father too. Ireland had a younger brother, Stephen, who lived with Ireland’s mother’s mom. Stephen’s father was the babysitter from when the kids were younger. The only child that was Herman’s was David. So it didn’t shock me to discover that her mom started parading a boyfriend around right after she left the family. Enter Jeff the boyfriend. This guy just seemed icky to the bone. And he too, wanted Ireland.

Ireland and animals

And then there was Ike. Ike was an 80-year-old man who lived in a little room in one of the barns on a farm in the next section of our rural area just outside our little town. He was the caretaker of this farm of horses and cows that was owned by a family from Buffalo. They were rarely around. Ireland got a job feeding the cows and other odd tasks around the farm after school most days. On the surface, this seemed a much better fit for her. She left the babysitting to me. I loved kids. Ireland loved animals. At home, she had a white German Shepherd named Bandit that was a little scary and mean. But Ireland could do anything with him (not in a mean way….she would never be mean to him or any animal….ever) like tickle him between his paw pads, and he would lie back and take it. If anyone else dared to do that, Bandit would probably rip their faces off. After Bandit died, Ireland had Pokey, a little brown puppy. Pokey meant the world to her. So it just made sense that she would end up working on the farm. Like I said, on the surface this was the perfect job for her.

But there was Ike. Ike was alone most of the time. He was seen driving around, alone, in his old beat up clunker of a car. The room he lived in had a tiny cot, an old gas stove and a table full of liquor bottles and food. At the other end of the room there were bridles, saddles, etc. And lonely, 80-year-old Ike got neglected 14-year-old Ireland in that room often.

She never said anything to me about what happened while she was working. She did however seem to always have chips, pop and cigarettes on hand during that time. This was, she explained, payment for working on the farm. Seemed a logical explanation. But something also seemed to be off. It was at a gut feeling level for me.

Sometimes she would take me with her to hang out with the horses and cows. I had had a pony at a younger age when Mom and Dad were together and we lived on a little hobby farm, so spending time on a real farm was a dream for me. We would ride one of the horses for hours. I would at times help her to feed the cows. Then there was one day when Ike invited us into his room where he gave us Cherry Brandy and I witnessed him put his hand on Ireland’s leg.

I don’t think I went back after that.

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