Turning the page
Tammy Donaghy has faced enormous challenges in her young life. However, she tells Joy Orpen, she still managed to get to university, and is looking forward to helping other young people like her turn their lives around
Although she is only 19, Tammy Donaghy has experienced more of the dark side of life than most people three times her age. But she doesn't let that stop her when it comes to forging a better life for herself and for those around her.
Tammy's childhood was punctuated by some difficult circumstances. Her parents were quite young when she was born, and she ended up in foster care. There were drug problems in her neighbourhood and there was tragedy in her immediate family.
Her father, Thomas (Tommy) Donaghy, was, in her own words, "very caring, but he was in and out of jail". For example, he would save whatever money he could when he was in prison, so he could send her little presents. She volunteers that his life was bedevilled by depression and an addiction to drugs.
By the time she was seven years old, Tammy was already in the foster care of her paternal grandparents, Irene and Thomas Donaghy. "After senior infants, I saw very little of my mother," she says.
When she was in first class in Finglas, Tammy joined a club for children who had lost someone close to them. "One of my uncles died by his own hand when he was 20; he suffered from depression," she explains. A few years later, her dad also took his own life. She believes this tragedy was brought on by a psychosis caused by drugs.
It's hard to imagine the impact this traumatic event would have on an 11-year-old child. Luckily, Tammy had the support of her devoted grandparents. "They're really young at heart and they're very loving," says Tammy. "Even though they lost two children so tragically, they never turned to substance abuse, and that taught me not to."
Tammy says her personal experiences growing up in Dublin have convinced her that much needs to be done to tackle the issues of substance abuse and mental health. "Although I have never taken drugs, they've ruined my life. I've always been against them," she says. "When I was growing up, they were everywhere. There are not nearly enough services for people with problems. Many good people want to change, but they don't know how; they desperately need help and guidance."
When Tammy was about 13, she began to slip into a dark hole of depression. "I started wondering why my life was the way it was," she recalls. "I felt I had been rejected. I had a lot of bad thoughts; I was anxious, and began self-harming." This darkness would haunt Tammy sporadically over the next few years. Staff at St Michael's Secondary School in Finglas arranged for her to have counselling. But, unfortunately, it wasn't entirely successful. However, Tammy was also getting good support at the Youth Resource Centre in Finglas. She joined a music group, she did a junior leader's course, and she became a member of a youth forum.
As time moved on, Tammy's depression worsened, and she began to be plagued by panic attacks. Her school's concerned vice-principal eventually persuaded Tammy to see a particular counsellor whom she felt would be helpful. "I'd seen a few over the years, but none of them worked out for me," Tammy concedes. But she hadn't bargained on Charlie Traynor's innate ability to reach a troubled young person's inner core.
"I thought I was really screwed up in the head, but he made me realise that my bad feelings and thoughts were because of the difficult things I'd been through," she explains. "I had decided there was no point doing the Leaving Cert. But Charlie encouraged me to do it at ordinary level, and I passed."
Tammy had always wanted a career that involved working with young people, and in order to do that, she needed a Bachelor of Social Science degree. So, the logical next step was a one-year PLC course at Liberties College. A good result would get her access to third-level education. "I needed five distinctions to get into Maynooth University to do social sciences," she explains.
She was in Spain last May, with her family, when the results of the exams came out. She had, in fact, achieved not five, but a whopping 10 distinctions. "I started crying," says Tammy. "That was the happiest moment of my life."
Charlie says this astounding result is down to Tammy's own sheer determination and guts. "She had already stopped going to school when I first met her; she was anxious and having panic attacks. The resilience she has shown in overcoming all the obstacles facing her has been unbelievable. She doesn't shy away from anything. Her very greatest support is herself," he says.
Last July, Tammy spent two months in Slovenia as part of the European Voluntary Service programme. "It was a great experience," she says. One day, while swimming in the sea at Piran [a resort city on Slovenia's Adriatic coast], she began to feel blissful. "I couldn't believe I was swimming in the Adriatic Sea - it was so beautiful," Tammy says. "I thought, 'This is mad. And it's only the start. I can't wait to see what comes next'."
Tammy realises that she will always have to watch her emotional and mental health. "I go to the gym and I still see Charlie on a regular basis," she says. "If I don't do those things, I feel really crap."
As she approached her 18th birthday, Tammy began to look online to see what services would be available to her when she was no longer officially in the care of her grandparents. That's when she came across SpunOut which is, according to its website, focused on providing online youth information. Its tagline is, 'By young people, for young people'.
"It's just what I needed," says Tammy. "It's full of information about all the things that affect young people." A quick scan of the website produces information about abuse, sexual health, recipes, politics, LGBTI issues, mental health, climate change, drugs, study/exams - all of it in a format and language that young people can relate to.
So, now that she is a full-time university student with a terrific future ahead of her, the question has to be asked - what advice would she give a young person who is facing tough challenges?
"Even if you've had a very difficult beginning, you decide where your own story goes," Tammy says. "Finish that old hurtful chapter, turn the page and move on to the next one, which will hopefully be bigger and better. I want to show people that no matter how bad things get, there are other options, and you can turn your life around."
She is certainly doing that.
For more information, see spunout.ie To contact Charlie Traynor, child and adolescent psychotherapist MIACP, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday Indo Life Magazine