Kaz Hawkins: When I get up on stage, I'm in this safe place where no one can touch me
Her life story is the stuff of nightmares, but Belfast blues singer Kaz Hawkins found her salvation in music. Now she’s drawing on her own experiences to help others with mental health issues
Blues singer Kaz Hawkins is a survivor. Which is nothing short of a miracle. For the larger-than-life Belfast woman with a huge voice to match has come through child abuse, repeated suicide attempts, drug and alcohol addiction, losing her children and spending seven years with a violent partner who slit her throat and left her for dead.
And that’s hardly the half of her spine-chilling story. Yet today Kaz, who was a finalist on Opportunity Knocks as a youngster, has fought off her demons to discover new happiness and peace of mind, crediting her music as her saviour.
And now the 42-year-old singer, who’s fast earning herself a reputation as one of Northern Ireland’s most gifted performers, is selflessly trying to use the horrors of her past to help raise the profile of mental health and suicide awareness in east Belfast.
But, by a tragic twist of fate, a day-long series of concerts and talks which she helped to organise in east Belfast started at the very same moment that a 19-year-old suicide victim was being buried just up the road.
And, after I conducted a public interview with Kaz at the headquarters of East Belfast Community Counselling, a number of audience members were so traumatised by the singer’s shocking revelations that they needed help themselves.
Kaz had promised a no-holds-barred conversation, with nothing off-limits, even though she knew it would be harrowing for her. And although she was close to breaking down at one point, she spoke forcefully, articulately, passionately and emotionally about her nightmares, which moved her to write a number of her most powerful songs, though she finds most of them too difficult to sing nowadays.
Kaz, who was born Karen McIntyre in 1973 in the Village area of south Belfast, says that it was at the age of four that the sexual abuse began, perpetrated by an uncle who's now dead.
"The first time he abused me was in his home in Bangor and then, for one reason or another, he ended up living with us in Belfast and it really got intense. It went on for maybe six or seven years and it was only as I got a little older that it stopped," she says.
"I only realised later on that he had groomed me into protecting him and protecting his lies. I thought it was normal to keep what he called 'Our little secrets'."
But the attacks deeply scarred Kaz. "I was off the rails and so I turned to God, going to church regularly, but that didn't work. And then there was a complete downward spiral into drugs and drink as I tried to cope with those awful memories," she says.
Kaz had two children, but she was still haunted by the abuse she had suffered. "I became a self-harmer," adds Kaz, who has a number of colourful tattoos on her arms to cover up the cuts. "It was my way of trying to cleanse myself. And I also sat in a bath of bleach, because I felt so dirty."
She was institutionalised in Windsor House mental health unit in Belfast's City Hospital, where she attempted suicide again, almost dying on an operating table. Reluctantly, she told a consultant what had triggered her despair.
The police were alerted and Kaz's 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 the area where he'd been living by angry local people who'd discovered his sordid actions.
The neighbours might have known he was a paedophile, but Kaz had difficulty convincing members of her own family that she had been abused. She was told she was an "attention-seeker". And she said she saw little point in living - even after she had a third child.
"I wanted to die," says Kaz, her voice trembling with emotion. "I had no fear of death, or danger. Everything had broken down and all my coping mechanisms were gone. I didn't want to suffer the pain anymore. I didn't want to feel the blame inside me, or carry the guilt anymore.
"I wasn't in control of my mind. I had been pumped full of medication, locked up on suicide watch. And I wouldn't let anyone get close to me.
"There was a real aggression within me and I attacked a number of nurses. But I started pretending to be good, just to get days out of Windsor House."
Even after she was discharged back into the community, Kaz's problems intensified. She took the heartbreaking decision to give up her children, aged 10, eight and five, for fostering.
"I knew I was no use to them. But somewhere in the back of my mind there was a fight there, because I didn't give my children up for adoption. I wanted to get them back when I had sorted myself out."
Kaz went to live and work as a DJ and a singer in Spain, but there was no light at the end of the tunnel after she became hopelessly hooked on cocaine and her partner began beating her up, but she couldn't leave him.
Her self-worth was non-existent. "I didn't care. I had lost my children and there was nothing left in me."
Kaz and her partner came back to Northern Ireland, but the abuse went on and the relationship only ended when he cut her throat.
"I remember lying on the floor thinking I was going to die, but I crawled to the phone and I just about managed to tell the police my address before he kicked me, knocking me out cold.
"The next thing I remember was waking up in the Mater Hospital and I was so afraid of my partner that I told the doctors I had inflicted the wounds on myself," says Kaz, adding that her abuser then came to the hospital and forcibly took her away without her consent.
However, Kaz eventually broke free from his control with the help of friends in east Belfast, who took her in and watched out for her. She adds: "I got time to heal and I fought to get the kids back."
It was to be a long battle and she suffered a mental breakdown after her mother passed away.
"But after that, I was determined to prove to the authorities that I could be a good mother and home-maker again; that I wasn't going to run off, or kill myself, and that I was off the drugs and had undergone therapy.
"I couldn't really blame the authorities for being wary of giving three children back to someone who'd abandoned them. However, after two-and-a-half years of stripping myself bare and throwing myself on the mercy of the social services, I persuaded them that I was functioning again."
All the while during those distressing years, Kaz was leaning more and more on her music to aid her recovery and to act as her celebration of life.
"I'd always been a singer. At 12 years of age, I went to the King's Hall to audition for Opportunity Knocks when Bob Monkhouse was the host and I was picked for one of the televised heats in London."
Ironically, given what she'd gone through as a child, Kaz sang Doris Day's classic Secret Love and, though she didn't win, she received positive feedback from the judges.
The show didn't exactly turn her life around, but the pianist who accompanied her at the King's Hall did. "He said I should listen to the blues singer Etta James and that was that. I cried when I first heard her and I couldn't believe how good she was. I still get the goose pimples when I listen to her," says Kaz, who much later was in an all-girl band called Kazmania, singing cover versions of other peoples' songs.
But quietly in the background, Kaz was writing her own songs, some of them about the traumatic periods in her life, although she didn't sing them in public immediately.
"I was a secret songwriter," she says. "It was very personal. This was my life I was putting down on paper.
"One of the songs was called Surviving and it was about the abuse, with a message for my uncle. I don't sing it anymore because I'm not in that place anymore.
"However, I do sing another song from the same period, because Lipstick and Cocaine is about hope and about the people who helped me, like a doctor, a policeman and my mother."
For Hawkins, who once called herself Mama Kaz, performing in public is an unsurpassable high. "This almighty joy has come from my music. When I get up on stage, I close my eyes and I am in this safe place where nobody can touch me. It's the best therapy I could have had."
After leaving her Mama Kaz band behind her and debuting her songs at the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival just two years ago, Kaz has gone from strength to even stronger, winning awards and supporting established stars like Van Morrison and Nanci Griffith in concert.
She's also released an album, toured all over the UK with her new group, the Band O'Men, and last year she was in Boston to sing and give a lecture about her hard times and about her philosophy of "fighting the fight to come through trauma".
Although Kaz has never been keen on taking the Simon Cowell route to stardom, she was talked into auditioning for a number of TV talent shows like the X Factor and The Voice, but to no avail.
However, she said she was approached by Britain's Got Talent to appear on the show and to tell her tragic back-story.
But that was the day that Cowell hit the tabloid headlines by saying that he was sick of sad stories.
The newspapers were full of his outburst, but Kaz still got through the next stage of the show, though she pulled out of the competition, feeling that she had been hoodwinked into opening her heart about her mental problems.
Kaz, who's now a grandmother, said she has no regrets about turning her back on the possibility of making millions from TV glory.
"To me the definition of success is being alive. That is what matters to me," says Kaz, who fervently hopes that by speaking out about herself she can help other people with mental health problems, depression and suicidal thoughts.
"This whole thing needs to be blown wide open.
"Young people must be aware that they can get help and that's why I'm doing what I'm doing to increase the profile of counselling organisations and to raise funds for them.
"When I was young, there was nowhere for me to go to seek advice about what could be done for me. It was easy for people like me to be locked up back then. It was easy to feed medicine down our necks.
"There has been progress in recent times, obviously, and there are organisations to point people at risk in the right direction, but we need more funding to be pumped into the services on offer here and across Northern Ireland to make sure our next generation is looked after.
"The politicians at Stormont are too busy fighting with each other. Too few of them are prepared to stand up and be counted," adds Kaz, whose concert after the interview raised more than £3,000 for the counselling service.
Which really was something to shout about this lady, who talks the blues as well as singing them.
Other poignant case studies to come from East Belfast Community Counselling
Case study 1
”I wasn’t sure what to expect from counselling. I’d never been before and I was really nervous, but my counsellor put me at ease and explained how it would work. It is the first time I have been able to talk about events from when I was a child, things which were still upsetting me.
“My counsellor listened and eventually I was able to get some perspective on the situation, but most importantly I was able to move forward. I am now in a new relationship, I still sometimes get bad days, but not as many as before.”
Case study 2
“My life fell apart when I lost my job. At first, I was hopeful that I’d get another one soon.
After six months I didn’t want to go out, I was arguing more with my wife and kids. Most days I didn’t get out of bed until after lunchtime. It made the day shorter that way.
“My wife gave me an ultimatum: she was going to leave unless I went to see my doctor.
“My doctor suggested I try counselling as an alternative to going on anti-depressants and she referred me to East Belfast Community Counselling.
“Jill, my counsellor, encouraged me to talk about things. She suggested setting myself small goals each day.
“It was difficult at first, but gradually became easier.
“I am now volunteering one day a week for another local charity and have spoken to the Educational Guidance Service for Adults about my options for re-training.
“The difference is that I can now see a way out, whereas before there was nothing, only blackness.”
Case study 3
“Counselling helped me achieve a new way of looking at my life — to cut myself some slack and realise that a lot of the pressure in my life comes from myself.
“My counsellor, John, was able to help me look at things in my life in a different way.
“He helped me recognise that things that had influenced my life were “influences” only, but that I still ultimately remained in charge of the final decisions.
“The result is that I have renewed enthusiasm about what I can accomplish in my life and in relationships.”
For details on the organisation, visit www.eastbelfastcounselling.org/tel: 028 9046 0489.