She was abused as a child, almost killed by an ex-partner and attempted suicide ... now Belfast singer Kaz reveals how she turned her life around
Ahead of the launch of her own music series for Radio Ulster, award-winning jazz singer Kaz Hawkins tells Una Brankin how she managed to survive her dark past and achieve peace of mind.
Picture a four-year-old girl in her Sunday best, sitting in a draughty Belfast church every week in the late 1970s, captivated by her grandmother's glorious mezzo soprano soaring from the choir stand. And think of her at home, equally enchanted by her mother's singing as she did her chores, her clear voice reminiscent of the country singer Crystal Gayle.
Imagine the child starting to sing along, beginning to receive compliments for her efforts, and standing on a talent show stage in an over-sized dress, belting out a show tune.
It should have been a lovely childhood for the talented little girl. But from the age of four to 11, that helpless child was being sexually abused and raped by an uncle, at his home in Bangor and in her family home in south Belfast.
Too frightened to tell anyone, Kaz Hawkins kept the paedophile's secret for two decades, until a doctor dragged the truth out of her, following an attempted suicide.
For someone like Kaz, who went on to endure more horrendous mental and physical suffering, the talk of a new method to permanently eliminate painful mental flashbacks must be a tempting proposition.
No more torturous memories, no more hellish nightmares reliving past trauma.
But for the acclaimed local jazz and blues singer, there are too many ethical dilemmas with this latest scientific research, which has shown that post-traumatic stress disorder and addictions can be overcome by removing certain memory-activating neurons in the brain.
Even as someone who suffered terrible sexual and violent abuse, as well addictions in the past, Kaz says it's not for her.
"How selfish would I be to erase the pain from my mind and leave the people around me affected by it?" she says, with feeling.
"I have flashbacks all the time and I had a relapse a couple of years ago, but I have recovered, with the help of therapy, and I can deal with it.
"I think the emphasis should be on recovery and healing, not messing with the equilibrium of your brain. And I'm proof that you can recover and lead a normal life. Yes, abuse and trauma take your self-worth and leave you out of kilter, but you can recover."
Now 44, Kaz has been given her own music show on BBC Radio Ulster, beginning on Sunday March 26, the first official day of summertime.
A compelling performer, she is currently writing a new album at her home in Carrickfergus and preparing for upcoming gigs in the UK and the US.
You'd never guess at the sexual and physical abuse behind her cheery chat, unless you'd heard her confessional soul-searching songs. Remarkably matter-of-fact in her recollection of the sickening way she was treated, she explains that she had no escape from her uncle, now dead, when he came to live with her family at one point.
Back then, Kaz Hawkins was known as Karen and she went by the family name of McIntyre.
"I only realised later on that he had groomed me into protecting him and protecting his lies," she recalls.
"I thought it was normal to keep what he called 'our little secrets'. He made me believe it was normal. I thought it happened to everyone. It was only in my teens that I realised it wasn't normal."
Reeling from the realisation that she had been raped, Kaz went out and bought 20 bottles of bleach to put in the bath.
"It was madness. What saved me was that I'd watered down the bleach with bath water," she remembers. "I poured in every bottle and got one of those thin green scrubbers. This is graphic, but I sat in the bath and scrubbed myself for an hour.
"The effort I put in … it was crazy. When I think of it now, I'm shocked. It was the same with the cutting - I had sores all over my legs and arms. I needed some sort of release, like an itch you have to scratch. It became a routine."
An inevitable decline into depression was the result, at a time when mental health was still a taboo subject. As with most who self-harm, Kaz cut herself for the feeling of control and release it gave her,
"You learn to put on an act. You hide the abuse. You cover up the secrets all the time. So, I'd try to 'scar up' as it's referred to, to feel alive, to feel the rush of the pain, to feel that I was in control of it.
"I became addicted to it; I have an addictive personality anyway. It became a constant cycle.
"And one time I cut my right arm really badly and burst a vein open. It got to the point I wanted to die. I had no self-worth whatsoever."
When turning to God didn't help, drink and drugs were the only thing Kaz had to block out reality.
She had three children by three different men and married the father of the third child "out of necessity".
The marriage didn't last and Kaz fell into serious bouts of depression. After several suicide attempts, mostly by overdose, she lost custody of her children and was admitted to the Windsor House psychiatric unit at Belfast's City Hospital, where she attempted suicide again, almost dying on an operating table.
When she reluctantly told a consultant the reason for her distress, the police were alerted and the uncle was arrested, but he was never charged, because his victim was deemed unfit by her carers to give evidence against him. He was, however, forced to leave his neighbourhood by angry locals.
Kaz had a harder time convincing her family that her uncle was a paedophile and rapist, and was accused of being "an attention seeker".
The case tore the family apart; to this day, Kaz's father and her siblings are not "up for discussion" in this article.
After her release from Windsor House, she fell back into her self-destructive ways and had to take the devastating decision to give up her children, then aged 10, eight and five, for fostering.
She went to work in Spain as a DJ in a karaoke bar, drank too much and became hooked on cocaine.
Her "pure evil" partner at the time was beating her up but her low self-esteem prevented her from leaving him, until they returned to Northern Ireland and he tried to kill her, slicing her throat and kicking her unconscious after she managed to call 999.
With the help of friends in east Belfast, who took her in and watched out for her, Kaz eventually got rid of her abusive partner and began her battle to get her children back.
As the first mother in Northern Ireland to lose three children to foster care all at once, it was an uphill struggle, but after some intense therapy and healing, they were returned to her.
Now 25, 24 and 21, they don't wish to be named here but they are on good terms with Kaz and have made her a grandmother of three.
"Back then, they thought I had no maternal instinct and it wasn't easy to get them back, but I knew it was the right thing to do," says Kaz. "They had amazing foster families, especially my eldest son's, and they did do well but at the end of the day, I'm their mother.
"And they get it, the kids. They've told me giving them up was the best thing I ever did then because I might not have made it. I couldn't function as a person, never mind as a parent.
"Now I'm a funky cool granny!" she laughs. "My grandson sent me a Happy Birthday video the other day thinking me for being the only one making noise with him at Christmas, on top of the piano. He's two going on 12 and he loves music. Wee show-off. It's just in him. Like it was in me."
Articulate and focused, her Belfast accent vanishes when she sings in that powerful gospel-tinged voice. Having put the past behind her with the help of intense therapy, she has a new self-confidence and an upbeat demeanour, admitting to being head over heels in love with her partner of two years, David, a 50-year-old civil servant.
A key part of the therapy she underwent involves visualising a miniature version of herself a child, safe and secure, in a doll's house. She then imagines taking her tiny self out, and comforts her and reassures her she is safe.
Her song Soul Superstar refers to that process. "I used to think of my younger self as so weak, but I realise now how strong she was to get through all that. Soul Superstar was hard enough to record; I had to strip myself bare emotionally. I cry on stage sometimes singing it, and at the piano but that gets it out. It releases you from the pain.
"I did want to die in the past but something inside kept me going, and music is a big part of that. I grew up going to church but I'm not religious - or political - but I do believe we all have to have something to strive for, otherwise life is meaningless.
"I don't know about God but I feel my mother and my granny around me all the time."
Her mother's death at 52, from a massive heart attack, devastated Kaz. Margaret, a non-smoker and non drinker, had supported her daughter's singing ambitions from a young age, and entered her into a local heat at the King's Hall in Belfast for Opportunity Knocks in the late 1980s, when Bob Monkhouse was presenting.
"I remember thinking he wasn't as tall as he looked on TV," she chuckles. "I was nervous; I sang Secret Love (from Calamity Jane) in this big ballgown - every time I think about it I'm traumatised! I didn't get through but the musical director heard something in my voice and said I'd have to hear Etta James. My granny bought me a tape from Smithfield Market."
Roll on a couple of decades, during which she'd sang in covers bands, Kaz found herself on another talent show stage, this time for Britain's Got Talent.
"I felt exploited by them - they got me to tell my story then Simon Cowell comes out all over the media and says he doesn't want to hear any more sob s tories. I felt they'd made a fool out of me, like my uncle had. It got me down but it also gave me the incentive to write my own material.
"You put on a fake face when you're doing covers but that experience gave me the strength to get up on stage now with my own material. I pack a punch - it gets graphic sometimes and people in the audience can get emotional, especially in the States. We're too afraid to let go over here.
"It's weird, I get more nervous now because I'm singing about my life," she adds. "It's soul-baring but it's positive. I wasn't pre-destined for suicide and music became a better coping mechanism than medication and being locked up. It's the best therapy I could have had."
One of her songs, Surviving, is about the abuse, with a message for her uncle. Another, Lipstick and Cocaine, is about hope and about the people who helped her, including a doctor, a policeman and her mother.
After leaving her 'Mama Kaz' covers band behind her, Kaz debuted her own songs at the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival in 2013. Since then, she has won awards, supported Van Morrison and Nanci Griffith in concert, released an album, toured all over the UK with her new group and performed in Boston, singing and giving a lecture about her hard times and about her philosophy of "fighting the fight to come through trauma".
This week she's off to the US, where she made the February cover of ION Indie magazine, resplendent in a red bandana, matching gloves and a Yankee flag-themed dress.
From dressing head to toe in plain black, Kaz now wears vivid rockabilly clothes and has her arms covered in colourful tattoos: "I replaced my scars with art and I love wearing colours - it makes me happy".
She has stopped smoking recently, conscious of trying to extend her life to see her grandchildren grow up.
And although she may joke on Facebook that she's going out on the razzle, she sticks to the occasional glass of red wine, in order to preserve that wonderful voice.
It was on a night out with friends two years ago that she met David, whom she has convinced to act as her tour manager when he has time off.
"He's a darling - I love him, I'd marry him in the morning," she freely admits. "I married young and divorced young; there was no big dress or anything, so I'd want to have the full works next time.
"wWe take the Mickey out of each other. He's a very calming influenc e; I'm more the manic, excitable artist. We're chalk and cheese. He's had his problems in life too and it was a perfect time for us to meet - we want to travel the world together. He's a music fan, too, but he can't sing a note!"
She's excited about her new Radio Ulster show, which is produced by Ralph McLean. In it, she takes listeners through her life in music, playing the songs that inspired her.
"The joke is I've a face for radio, as I said to Ralph," she laughs. "He says I'm a natural. That's probably because I can talk the legs off a stool. I do still get anxious in crowds though, and sometimes at things like CD signings I feel overwhelmed and exhausted afterwards.
"But I'm fine on the radio. Ralph's producing me; he only has to show me what to do once and I'm off."
In May, Kaz will release a self-penned song, Don't Slip Away, in aid of the AWARE NI charity, which supports those affected by depression. She is proud of her role as ambassador for the organisation.
"A lot of people are surprised at how I can talk about my depression and what I've gone through, but there are so many more out there who have gone through it and who haven't the strength to talk about it, that I feel I have to tell my story, for them."
She adds: "If you stay quiet, you can never grow. It's my life and I've confronted what happened and accepted it. I have no more anger and I have a gift for a reason - it's not just being able to sing; it's how I use my voice."