EXHALE AND RECOVER

A story of my life, written by Our Life Logs.
**warning contains sensitive and adult content**

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Covered by ourlifelogs.com.

I grew up in the 1990s in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the times of “The Troubles.” If you didn’t know, The Troubles refer to a nasty civil dispute that spanned over 30 years between the British and Irish in the country over religious and nationalistic differences. Naturally, this made Northern Ireland a dangerous place to grow up.

When I was eight, riots made their way to Belfast and brought angry people with the intent to cause destruction by throwing homemade bombs into buildings. Well, my family was one of the unlucky houses hit. I remember waking up to a loud crash and the smell of smoke and petrol. My mother, my four younger sisters, and I were forced to evacuate.

Meanwhile, my father was drunk at a pub. When my mother called to tell him what happened, he basically said, “Well, I can’t do anything about it.”

He left us alone to fend for ourselves. Furious, my mother left him but still allowed him to take us every other weekend. I hated visiting him because he used to tell me I was stupid and that he didn’t like me very much, and all he ever did was drink at home, or leave us kids and drink at the pub.

Me as a baby

Having left our father, my mother started drinking every day and every night, leaving me to step up as the older brother. I wish I could say I held the family together, but that’s not entirely true. In some areas I succeeded, and in others I failed. We all just tried to get by.

For a year, our family jumped from one hostel to another until we found a small flat in 1998. By then, The Troubles were coming to an end, but the trauma was irreversible. Living with that fear took a toll on my psyche, and unfortunately, it was just the first of many dominoes to fall in deteriorating my mental health.

My mother did her best raising my sisters and me alone, and I tried my hardest to be helpful. Every Monday morning, I’d collect my mother’s benefits for her from the local post office. There was always an elderly gentleman queued up when I arrived. I eventually got to know him and would look forward to seeing him as he would give me 10 GBP whenever I saw him. To a nine-year-old in the ‘90s, 10 GBP was a lot!

But then, the “how are you’s” turned into strange, inappropriate questions like, “do you masturbate?” I began to see him daily on the streets in the neighborhood. He told me that if I told my parents about the questions, I’d get put in a home and they would be arrested.

One day, the man told me about a toy car that he’d left at his flat. He asked me to come by and get it. Innocent and trusting, I agreed, and that’s when the sexual abuse began. He often tied me to a chair and forced me to touch him.

Looking back, I wish I had screamed, but in a scenario like that, it’s often fight, flight, or freeze…and I froze. This went on for six years, and he kept me silent with threats and gifts. I didn’t want my parents to go away. So, terrified, I never told anyone and the secret weighed down on me until I grew to hate myself.

When I became too old at 15, the abuse stopped, but the years of damage remained. By then, I was struggling to grow into a teenager and figure out my sexuality. There was a duality to my feelings that made me question if I was having thoughts about men because of the abuse or if was I truly curious. I hated it. Not to mention people were being called gay as an insult on the streets as it was a heavily conservative area.

I began to feel like I was contagious and disgusting. I tried overdosing on pills but I had no idea how to do it. The pills I chose just made me sick.

In 2009, in the midst of me battling all the demons that had weaved into my psyche, I was hit with another wave. I learned that my father was sexually abusing a close relative when he got drunk. I was furious and tried to get the police involved. I see the irony of wanting to report others’ abuse when I was afraid to report my own, but maybe this was my offhanded way of getting justice.

Unfortunately, my father heard that I had sought help and got spooked. He killed himself before the police got to him, refusing to face his crimes.

When his family learned what happened, they immediately targeted me, blaming me for his death, saying that the allegations were false. They turned their backs on me, and I, of course, was riddled with guilt. I felt like I was at fault for his death, and having something like that on my conscience made the dark feelings from my past traumas grow stronger. I attempted suicide by overdosing once more but failed.

I was embarrassed that I had failed. It began to feel like I could do nothing right.

I tried my best to move forward despite my mental health crumbling with each hit. I found a job taking care of old folks and I started experimenting with both men and women. Eventually, I fell in love with a woman and married her in 2012. She knew that I was bi-curious, she knew about my father’s suicide and about my childhood (except the abuse), and still, she accepted me.

Our relationship started off great, but over time, she became more controlling. She’d clock the miles on my car and freak out if I derailed from her expected schedule. Then, it grew harder when she fell pregnant only to miscarry. We didn’t talk about the loss. It simply hung in the air around our every movement. She’d dismiss my issues with mental health and tell me that it was all in my head. I began to feel trapped and depressed by the grief and control of our relationship.

Then, in 2015, I had an out-of-body experience where I was cutting carrots with a knife and had a psychotic break. I vaguely remember calling my mother and telling her I wanted to die. My mother immediately told me she was on her way. She was coming from the countryside, so by the time she got to me, I was outside in the garden in my underwear in the pouring rain. When I came back to myself, I was baffled at how I’d gotten out there. That’s when I knew my mental health was getting far worse.

Not long after this experience, my wife and I separated, and while we remained friends, I felt empty.

Then, an angel came into my life—a man named Andrew. We met through Instagram when he commented, “Nice smile,” on one of my photos. We met in person, and it was love at first sight. I told him about my mental health issues, and he embraced me. When we kissed, I knew for a fact that I was gay. It felt right, never like how it was with women. In discovering this, I came out to my mother and sisters who accepted me with loving arms.

Me, my mum and sisters

Yet even a healthy relationship can only do so much for a person still battling self-hatred and repressed trauma. It’s like a band-aid. It stops the bleeding, but the scab always has a chance of busting back open.

I started hearing voices that convinced me I deserved to die and that my feelings were punishment for driving my dad to suicide. In 2017, I tried overdosing again, and just to make sure I succeeded this time, I tried hanging myself too. Thankfully, my partner, Andrew, found me before it was too late. He helped me check into a mental health facility, but being there only made me feel worse.

Ten days later, I checked myself out of the facility and tried to hang myself again, but the belt ripped. Quickly, I grabbed a scarf and tied it to the doorknob. Somehow, the door didn’t stay shut. I failed then too. That was when I took a look at the scarf and the door and knew I needed to accept help, even if it was going to be hard.

I was sent to a psychiatric hospital where I remained for three months. The voices continued until I was placed on psych meds. The voices may have quieted but the meds made me feel numb, like a dummy. One of the only things keeping me tethered to the outside world was Andrew. Through each of my suicide attempts, he stayed by my side. While in the psych ward, he visited me and supported me in my recovery.

And and I

I knew I could completely trust him, and after years of keeping it hidden, I told him about the childhood abuse. Andrew said to me, “You’re never going to get better if you don’t report this and get closure.”

Unfortunately, and fortunately, the investigation proved that the man who abused me had already passed away. I wish I had spoken up sooner to prevent others becoming his victims, but there was no going back. Even so, I felt…lighter. Simply being open about the abuse for the first time in my life was justice I could be content with.

When the doctors concluded I was fit to be discharged after three months, I started seeing a counselor for the sexual abuse and another for mental health problems for the next year. All that was well and good, but it wasn’t until I discovered Recovery College in 2018 that I had hope.

Recovery College is a program curated to educate those struggling with mental illnesses and help them learn how to self-manage their symptoms, help others, and step back into daily life. Through them, I was able to recognize my own strength, practice mindfulness, and develop a self-confidence I’d lost early in life. They helped me see that the bad things that happened to me weren’t my fault, even though it felt like it for so long.

I was so grateful for their help, I decided I wanted to be a part of others’ recovery. I had so much life experience to pull from and I wanted it to be used for good. Through the program, I got qualified, received my certification in suicide prevention, and began teaching there in 2019. I was trained in mental health and acute emergency care, gained specialist skills in suicide prevention, and now work in the SET Recovery College as a peer support worker and tutor and work within emergency acute care within the ED (Emergency Department) when busy. I also volunteer with NexusNI, a charity that provided me with the specialist counselling to overcome the trauma of sexual violence and rape.

I also found the courage to begin blogging about my life experiences and volunteering in the community. In doing so I’ve found healing I never thought was possible.

When I look back on my life, I see how much pressure I put on myself to hold it together despite what I was going through. I wanted so badly to appear normal and perfect, but the truth is, no human is. I used to live a life of holding my breath, but now, I can finally relax knowing that the demons of my past are behind me.

This is the story of James Keenan

James currently resides in a small town on the countryside of Downpatrick County Down, Northern Ireland (the burial place of St. Patrick), where he works as a suicide prevention specialist and writer. Growing up during The Troubles which led to his house getting bombed, James’ life started out rough and continued to be rough including sexual abuse in his pre-teen years, his father’s suicide, a messy marriage, and struggling with his sexuality, which all led to major mental health problems and many suicide attempts. It wasn’t until 2017 that he got the help he’d been needing for years. Since then, he has recovered and learned how to manage his depression. He is now employed in the Recovery College. He is also working closely with other charities and has dreams of starting his own charity. James believes that his biggest achievement to date is fundraising for a Cambodian NGO and twice visiting to build three houses, a toilet, and repairs on other houses previously built—and, of course, having managed his own mental health while helping others through their recovery, trauma, and preventing suicide within his local community.

This story first touched our hearts on June 22, 2019.

He likes to write poetry in his free time and plans to write his first novel soon. He is grateful for his partner who has stuck by him through his recovery and loves him despite his affinity for oddly designed socks. He remains proud of his sibling and says his dear nephews are the apple of his eye. He plans to focus on his future with Andrew, adopting children, travelling, and marriage. He also hopes to start his own business, create his own charity, and focus on writing a novel.

James in Cambodia

| Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: Colleen Walker | https://ourlifelogs.com/2019/08/01/exhale-and-recover/

THE TROUBLES AND ME

My story of personal experiences during my time growing up as a youngster during the ‘troubles’ based in Belfast since 1989.

Ireland is most famous for its Guinness, the shamrock, its international music figures Bono and Van Morrison, but what about Belfast?

Belfast has grown massively over the years being a fragrant city of culture, opportunities and landscapes of outstanding natural beauty. The city is widely famous across the world being the birthplace of the Titanic, the divide between the catholic and protestant communities, and the conflict known as ‘The Troubles’.

The height of the troubles dominated all of Northern Ireland since the 1960’s and ended in 1998 during the Good Friday Agreement.

The conflict still continues with the occasional riots, the mighty protests, the 12th July marches and murders making headlines on a regular basis.

I wasn’t born during the height of the troubles during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, however during the 90’s was enough to traumatise me. Unfortunately today there are still aspects of my life today which is badly affected, battling with PTSD.

I lived in an area of the Limestone Road known as Parkside situated 50 yards away from Tigers Bay. Parkside was a catholic neighbourhood and Tigers Bay being protestant. There was a huge divide between both communities which fuelled the troubles.

I have many experiences to share, some being small and others huge.

My journey to primary school was at the top of my street, but taking that walk each morning, you never knew what you where going to face, whether it be rioting, verbal abuse or a bomb scare. You never really knew, it was a gamble each morning.

It was a terrifying time and now in adulthood and reflecting back, I honestly don’t understand how I managed to cope all those years of suffering.

When riots started whether it be 10am, 9pm or 3am you were alerted each time by the loud sirens that rang from the neighbours gardens.They sounded just like the war sirens you would hear in the films. Everyone was alerted, adults would get together, teenagers would wake to get involved and the children, some watched, some cried in fear.

During the days after school or the weekends, the kids of the area, me included would gather up stones, slates and rocks in huge buckets and glass bottles would be collected too. Crates would be led out in rows and we’d be given petrol to make petrol bombs for when the troubles would occur.

It would usually start with verbal abuse, some shouting and some stones would be thrown. Then glass bottles and before you know it, petrol bombs are being used, blast bombs going off, group charges and the police would arrive in their riot gear, ramming both communities with their land rovers and before you know it the British Army are in their land rovers and saracens and they would be lifted out in their riot gear.

I’ve seen land rovers being set on fire and some blown up, I’ve even seen a land rover being rocked so much so it was pushed on its side. I’ve seen police shoot, soldiers on fire and have seen a lorry being given permission by its owner to be pushed towards the protestant community, set on fire and abandoned. That’s how dedicated people where during these moments of conflict. It was pretty horrific!

I would love to say I never got involved, but with friends sneaking off and throwing a stone, I wanted to do the same. I was terrified and the one time I did, I was caught on camera. My ma and da gave me a hiding when the found out. It was my first and last time.

When the riots was happening it was scary, but when nothing was happening it ghostly too. Usually when it was quiet you knew something was up or something was going to happen. You just didn’t know when.

At night the street lights would be cut and you’d hear breaking glass shatter, you’d smell the fumes of the paint that was thrown over cars, a neighbouring houses and across the street roads. The next morning when bright you’d see the damage, the disgust on the faces of those targeted and the anger bursting from every person on the street.

I was a target myself having a knife put to my throat as a teenager, being accused of terrorising an alcoholics home. Thankfully nothing more happened other than the blade sitting beneath my chin and the warmth of urine streaming down my leg. I wish I had have been that person terrorising the persons home, then I would have known why and that the scare I would have deserved, but I was completely innocent.

Another night my siblings and I where in bed and my mum and grandfather was sitting in the living room downstairs at around midnight. The street electrics was cut, rowdy crowds was heard and flashes of fire was seen. My family home was targeted in an arson attack with petrol bombs, leaving us homeless for months living from one hostel to another. My mother grabbed us all and we evacuated the building, my grandfather was stood outside shouting god forgive you to the arsonists. I remember that night as clear as if it was yesterday. I can still feel the coldness of the ground beneath my bare feet as I ran from the building wearing nothing but my batman pyjamas.

Months after the attack we moved back into the same house after it was renovated, I wore my shoes to bed for I do t know how long and the area became super cautious.

Another day I left school and from there we had to scoot to Tesco for our weekly shop. We had to pass our house to reach the supermarket and I didn’t want to carry my school bag, so I left it at my front door. We went to the shops and on our return, the street was closed, filled with police, the army and bomb disposal. My schoolbag looked suspicious propped up against our front door, they called for emergency services and the street was evacuated. I had to explain it was my school bag and had to identify the bag and the contents inside. That just showed how cautious everyone became. Again, I got another hiding for making a scene and being a lazy b*****d!

The riots continued and continued, it was like a competition, game scoring who one what fight. Even on Christmas morning rioting still occurred, it was just horrible.

The troubles where bizarre all over Northern Ireland, the news on the television was always crammed by the riots and the newspapers front page was blaze after blaze.

The trauma was endless, the sights became a regular thing and nothing would surprise you. I seen a gunman put a gun to a neighbours head and run off, I was dragged to the ground by a stranger telling me they where shooting, I was evacuated from school due to suspicious packages being found and bomb-scares being made.

The area soon became a horrible environment and residents lost interest in their home, some fleeing the area and many putting barriers up on their windows and peace walls was erected, cameras were put in place and although they didn’t stop the riots they reduced them a little.

My family ended up moving away from Belfast to a seaside village in County Down. It was a game changer having little worry, the peacefulness and the freedoms was immense.

Parkside still exists with new developments, the peace wall within the local park is open during daylight and one of the peace walls was made into a garden whilst another was removed. Tigers bay still stands with new developments and the two communities are working together.

Right across Northern Ireland you will always have political groups scattered here and there and conflict will always continue, but if two communities can join forces and become one, I am hopeful for our future.

Despite all the hardship, the trauma, the worry, the fears and sleepless nights growing up, the sights I have buried into my head and the memories replaying constantly…

I can honestly say I have zero anger towards any protestant community. I have nothing bad to say about the emergency services whether they are police or soldier, man, woman, young or old. I don’t hold grudges For I have learnt to accept all for who we are and what we can do together to create hope, love and peace.

– James Keenan

LITTLE SISTERS

A poem written to tell a story of my appreciation towards my siblings.

You’re my life a circle, one that never ends,

We may have fallouts but can always make a mends.

I’ve now been a brother for almost thirty years,

Starting with the first arrival who brought me happy tears.

We’re best friends, soulmates and siblings too,

Even through the darkest day, we’ll stick like glue.

We stick together during events good and bad,

We know how to give a hug when one of us is sad.

My precious little sisters so loving and kind,

When we are together we’re powerfully combined.

Years have gone by and I have had time to reflect,

Whatever path you decide to take, i’ll be smiling with great respect.

You have your families and you’re maturing now,

But I still as a big brother, I always question why?

Yous are the apple of my eye, the heart of our family tree,

I love each and everyone of you forever what will be.

Together we as siblings who are totally inseparable,

Cherishing each moment and making a life so memorable.

I’m your big brother yet I can still turn to you,

The same applies I’ll always be here for you too.

You aren’t just my sisters, but you’re my inspiration,

For it will always continue throughout our life’s duration.

We may not always be together with life sometimes keeping us apart,

But that doesn’t matter for you’re all in my heart.

So in happiness and filled with love, i’m gonna shout out loud,

I love yous so dearly, thank you for making your big brother proud.

– James Keenan