I watched as my sister's boyfriend crushed her spirit and tore her away from the people who loved her most.
by Angela Sanford* as told to Liberty Lay
Kevin Wade was a popular guy in his high school, the good-looking, football star type. But I never knew the truth about him until he started dating my younger sister Brooke.
Kevin was Brooke's date to her junior prom, and they kept going out for the rest of the spring. At first it was just weekends, but soon they were together almost every night. And when they weren't together, we knew we could expect a phone call right around dinner time. Every time, Brooke would be in her room by the second ring, and every time, Mom would silently cover Brooke's food with foil and stick it in the fridge. The meal would be long over by the time we saw Brooke again.
When Kevin and Brooke started dating, we knew very little about him at all. He seemed like the "strong, silent type," and he didn't seem like a guy who would open up to anyone. Whenever he came to our house, he was quiet and withdrawn. We all assumed he was just shy. We thought it was odd that an outgoing, high-energy person like my sister would be interested in such an anti-social guy, but we chalked it up to the "opposites attract" theory.
Then one of my friends told me Kevin had a drug problem, drank a lot at parties and had been physically abusive with his ex-girlfriend. I expressed my concern to Brooke right away, but she said Kevin wasn't like that at all. She acted like everything was perfect and told me not to spread rumors to our parents.
At first I didn't want to get in the middle of everything, but to be honest, Kevin scared me. I didn't tell Mom and Dad everything I'd heard, but I made enough comments to raise their suspicions. Brooke was as stubborn with them as she had been with me, and now, on top of everything else, she was furious with me.
Kevin and Brooke continued dating, but the situation between him and my family became more and more tense. Brooke was even starting to act a little like him—keeping all her thoughts to herself and shutting out the rest of us. She even broke contact with her closest friends, the people she'd grown up … with.
Then, the summer before Brooke's senior year in high school, Kevin ran away from home and got into serious trouble with the law. Brooke ended the relationship, and we were all relieved.
With Kevin out of the picture, my sister went back to being herself. Ever-friendly and ever-popular, she had a great senior year. She stayed busy in school and starred on the volleyball and softball teams. She renewed her involvement in church, and she filled her free time by hanging out with her friends. She was even voted Homecoming Queen. She seemed to have everything going her way.
By the end of her senior year, Brooke had decided to attend the college where I would be a junior. I was looking forward to having my little sister around again, helping her adjust to college life and starting up the goofy escapades we'd enjoyed in high school. Then, the summer after Brooke's high school graduation, Kevin came back into her life.
Warning signs Brooke believed that Kevin had grown up and was a new person. I knew that people could change, but I didn't see any evidence of that in Kevin. It didn't take me long to learn that sharing my opinion with Brooke only made things worse between us. I just prayed she wouldn't get hurt.
Whenever Kevin was around that summer, he jealously guarded her every move. He'd follow her all around the house, even standing outside the door when she went to the bathroom. Instead of speaking to me or my parents, he just whispered in Brooke's ear. He was totally possessive. Soon, Brooke was canceling planned outings with us and with her friends because Kevin didn't want her to go.
Even Brooke's clothing started to change. No matter how hot the Texas sun blazed down, Brooke never left the house in shorts or a summer skirt. She only wore pants and turtlenecks. When I asked her about it, she said she felt more comfortable that way. But I remembered a comment Kevin made once when Brooke wore a skirt above the knee—"You tryin' to show off or something?"—and I knew her new wardrobe was not her idea.
Brooke sometimes had tears in her eyes when she got off the phone with Kevin, but she always acted like it was no big deal. We watched as he gradually pulled her away from those of us who loved her most.
A vicious cycle When Brooke and I headed to college, the pattern continued. Early in the semester, Brooke often made the short drive home to spend time with Mom and Dad—and Kevin. But it wasn't long before she skipped the visits with Mom and Dad and only went home to see Kevin. At college, she almost never came by to see me—not to do laundry, to have dinner, to watch TV—and I was living in the same town. I knew it was because of Kevin.
Once, when Kevin came to visit Brooke, I invited the two of them to my apartment. I wanted to show Kevin that it was possible to have a good time without drugs and beer, but he obviously didn't enjoy the evening at all. No matter what I tried, he refused to carry on a conversation with me. He just held Brooke's hand and stared at her the whole time they were there.
After Brooke's midterms, my parents came to visit her in the dorm. They were overwhelmed by the change in her. She had no energy, no brightness, none of the spark that used to light up a whole room. But they didn't know why she had lost her spirit, or what they could do to help her find it again.
Confused and feeling helpless, Mom and Dad [wanted] to bridge the chasm that seemed to separate her from the rest of us.
Finally, Brooke broke down and told my parents what she'd been going through. Kevin had been emotionally and verbally abusive, crushing Brooke's self-image. She hated her own body because Kevin constantly accused her of dressing like she was trying to show herself off (even though she had always dressed on the conservative side). At the same time, he'd said she was lucky to have him because no one else would want her for a girlfriend.
Brooke, who was pretty and well-liked, no longer believed she was either of those things. Kevin had demanded to be first in her life, and the pressure had become too much for her to bear. She decided to break up with Kevin because she just couldn't handle it anymore.
Brooke moved back in with Mom and Dad after the fall semester and got a job near home. She barely left the house ... As the only people who saw her much, my parents and I did everything we could to rebuild her self-esteem. She was a long way from being herself again, but we felt like she was making a good start.
But even though Brooke had been hurt and she needed constant affirmation and reassurance of our family's love, somewhere in the back of her mind I guess she still missed Kevin. It wasn't long before she arranged to meet him. And as soon as she saw him again, they got back together. Unfortunately, they're still together.
Out of our hands I don't really understand why Brooke went back to Kevin after all the pain he put her through. I get angry with Brooke sometimes because she refuses to see what Kevin is doing to her, and to all of us. But I can't be mad at her, because I know she needs my love and support more than anything else.
Sometimes things like this divide families and tear everyone apart. We've come close to that ourselves, because my parents sometimes disagree about how they should handle Brooke's relationship with Kevin. And they've disagreed with me on how, or even if, I should be involved. …
Brooke and I will always be sisters, even when she doesn't seem to want me in her life. I will always reach out to her and wait for her to reach back.
* All names in this story have been changed.
Why Me? Once angry at God and the world for her blindness, Katie Pavlacka is learning to accept it … and she's also swimming for Olympic gold.
by Mark Moring
Eighth grade. The jerks were everywhere.
Almost every time Katie Pavlacka turned a corner at school, they'd be waiting, ready to spring another dumb prank, for a few yuks at her expense.
Sometimes, they'd stick out a foot and trip her, and watch her fall forward while her books went flying down the hall. Sometimes, they'd sneak up and slam her locker shut before she could grab what she'd come for.
But their favorite stunt was the one with the sliding glass doors. They really got a kick out of quietly closing the doors as Katie approached, just to watch her walk—wham!—face first, smack into the glass.
Oh, they thought that was so funny.
And Katie, she was already mad at the world anyway. Mad at God too. How could he just sit back and let those jerks get away with that stuff? Didn't he know that life was hard enough for her already, without any help from those creeps and their stupid shenanigans?
Didn't he remember that she was blind, for heaven's sake??
"Is there really a God?" Katie's parents first noticed something wasn't quite right with her eyesight when she was about 5. In elementary school, she wore glasses and used large-print books, but she still could do pretty much everything her friends did.
But her sight kept deteriorating, and by the time she was in 7th grade, her world was fast getting dark. Within two years, she was completely blind.
Doctors never figured out why Katie lost her sight, but the lack of diagnosis never really bothered her. After all, her blindness wasn't their fault.
But God? Where was he when her lights went out?
"I kind of questioned, is there really a God and why is this happening to me?" Katie, now 19, says today. "I was mad at God, and I took it out on a lot of people, especially my family.
"But I also kept a lot inside and beat myself up with all that anger. I was mad because I was different, and I didn't want to be different."
Then came the aide. That really sent Katie over the top. The school assigned a woman to help Katie with her tasks, but Katie didn't want any help. At all.
"She followed me to all my classes to help me take notes or whatever," says Katie. "But I felt like that was intruding into my freedom. Nobody else had some lady following them around all day."
Poor aide. Had to endure the wrath of Katie.
"I scared her away," Katie says with a laugh. "So they got me another aide— a younger, more lively one. I rebelled against her too, but she took a stand and took control. And by the time the school year ended, we went from being worst enemies to really good friends. She helped me accept my differences instead of fighting against them."
And then, in 9th grade, along came Michelle Weinberg, another freshman who had a way of making life a lot more fun.…
"It took me a couple of years before I started getting past my anger and depression and all that I was going through. But I came to realize that God is there and that he cares. I also came to realize that it was my faith now, and not just something I had grown up with. I reached a point where I wanted to be serious about being a Christian, and get to know God better. Michelle helped me to reach that point."…
"Patience" and "waiting." They sound like such stagnant words, so motionless. But not for Katie. While she waited, she took a hard look at the challenges she faced and decided to dive right in. Literally.
Making a splash Katie always loved sports. Especially softball. But when her failing eyesight reached a point where she could no longer hit or catch the ball, she turned to swimming.
She hit the water at first with a vengeance, to prove to others—and herself—that despite her failing eyesight, she would stillexcel at something.
In time, that vengeance turned to passion and determination, so much that she swam more than three miles before school every day.
She made the swim team her freshman year at Liverpool (NY) High School. And though she competed againstsighted swimmers, she held her own.
Katie "feels" her way through the water by brushing up against one of the lane ropes. And when it's time to make her turn, a coach touches her on the back with a tennis ball attached to the end of a pole. Or the spray from a sprinkler tells Katie she's near the end of her lane (see photo on page 73).
Her high school coach encouraged Katie to check out the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA). Then Katie attended a swim camp for disabled athletes at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
A little more than a year later, Katie was a national champ, winning four titles—the 100-meter freestyle, 100-meter backstroke, 200-meter freestyle and 100-meter breaststroke—at the 1998 Disability National Championships. She competed in the "S-11" category, for athletes with the most profound vision loss.
Later in '98, Katie joined athletes from 34 nations in the World Championships for the Blind in Madrid, where she placed fourth in the 200-meter freestyle, and won a gold medal on a relay team.
Last October, Katie swam in another international meet in Australia, and she'll be there again this October for the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney—just after the main Olympics for able-bodied athletes.
In the meantime, Katie is a straight-A sophomore at Oneonta College in New York, where she's also on the swim team. She's also started training for a marathon. She wants to run one of the 26-mile races sometime in '01.
Busy, busy, busy.
"If only I could see" The hardest thing about being blind, says Katie, is the loss of freedom to go anywhere, anytime.
"Sometimes I feel limited in where I can go," she says. "A lot of times, I have to rely on other people to get me places. Or I have to take the bus instead of hopping in the car. Times like those I sometimes wish, Gee, if only I could see.
"But I don't miss a whole lot by being blind. I have a really good imagination, so sometimes I forget I'm not seeing stuff because I can picture what I think things look like.
"I've also found that my blindness has helped me learn how important relationships are—to be able to talk to people and share my experiences. I've learned to communicate better with people and get to know them better. It's made my friendships deeper, I think."
Still, Katie sometimes wonders what it would be like to see again.
"Not being able to see one second and having perfect vision the next, that would be awesome. The first thing I would do is learn to drive and take a vacation. And walk around without a cane."
And maybe go back to her middle school, walk safely through those sliding glass doors, stroll down the hall and up to her old locker, just to open it without any childish interruptions or mean-spirited pranks.
But Katie doesn't dwell on such far-fetched possibilities. She'd rather deal with the real.
"My blindness is just something that's happened to me," she says. "I just want to make the best of what I have and go from there."