Leanne Wolfe took her own life after years of bullying. Her mother Collette tells her story in a new book, writes Ellie O’Byrne
To say that Collette Wolfe has been through her fair share of adversity is an understatement.
The Cork woman came to national attention in 2007, when every parent’s worst nightmare came true for her and her husband Anthony: her 18-year-old daughter, Leanne, took her own life
following years of torment at the hands of bullies, leaving behind a diary that charted her descent into despair.
Leanne’s death may have been unbearable for Collette, but it was by no means the first personal struggle for her, she explains candidly, having agreed to meet for a coffee in a city centre hotel.
Collette, now 58, grew up in Ballyphehane, a working-class area on the south side of Cork city, one of 11 children whose father was an alcoholic and whose mother worked to support the family.
By the time she was eight, Collette had a terrible secret that she believed she had to keep: she was being sexually abused by a male relative. To this day, this abuse, that lasted until she was 11 years old, has left its mark, and sometimes in ways it’s difficult to explain to an outsider.
“I never go to the bathroom anywhere; I always wait till I get home,” she says in a confessional tone, leaning forward over her coffee.
“My husband used to joke that I had kidneys of iron, but I understand it now: the bathroom is where I used to be abused as a child. It was my vulnerable place, where no-one could protect me.” Other impacts also lasted into adulthood; repeatedly told by her abuser that she was stupid, she says, “I started to really think I was stupid. I had no education because of the effects of the abuse; I felt very ashamed and very dirty. Something about sexual abuse would come on the telly and I’d think that the people around me would know it was after happening to me.”
Finally, the abuse was revealed when Collette was 11, in a way that was itself a trauma. “One of my sisters was home from England and she walked in on it happening, in the bathroom,” she says. “All hell broke loose: imagine, you’re 11. I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t know how to stop it. And then I was told it was my fault.”
Collette’s mother passed away after Leanne died, and Collette admits to having struggled with her feelings while her mother was alive — not wanting to believe anything was wrong, Collette’s mother and other family members refused to accept that what had happened was abuse.
“My mother was a wonderful woman, but she made mistakes,” Collette says. “My father was an alcoholic, so she had to go out to work or we would have starved. She was amazing in so many ways: she never smoked, almost never drank, and she’d never even buy something for herself. Everything went on us.
“But to my family afterwards, it was like nothing ever happened.
Collette left school early and went to work in a meat factory. She met her husband, Anthony, when they were still in their teens. That they are still together to this day, despite all the heartache they’ve endured is, she says, a testament to the man he is.
But at 17, Collette admits, she was starting to get itchy feet about going out with the same boy for two years. “I’d a friend who was saying we were getting too serious, and I was wondering was I missing out,” she says.
“So I agreed to go out with this fella. We went out for a walk in Ballincollig, and my friend went off one way with her fella, and we went off the other way.” The young man, who she felt she knew, raped her.
“This wasn’t like the abuse at all, there was no keeping it secret, because the Gardaí were called,” Collette recalls. “He beat the living stuffing out of me, literally.” “When it was over, he told me I didn’t have to worry about being pregnant, but of course I went late, and not only was it all around the place that I’d been raped, it also went around that I was pregnant. Imagine walking back into work six weeks after that one? But my mam was a very strong person. She said, ‘you go back in and you hold your head up.’ It was a very male-oriented job.
“Some of the other workers thought I’d been asking for it.” It may be hard to imagine in this post #MeToo era, but Collette felt relief when charges against her attacker were not pressed and he left the country; she says she never felt she would have been treated fairly by the gardaí.
“I never told anyone this, not even my husband, but I’d had two glasses of Heineken,” she says.
With the aid of a ghost-writer, Collette has written a book, If Only I Could Hold You Again. It started out as a testimonial to the impacts of bullying, with extracts of Leanne’s diary, which the Wolfes discovered on the day of her funeral. But it evolved into Collette’s own story, including things she never thought she’d share publicly, like her rape and sexual abuse.
“It’s not an easy story to have told,” she says. “My sexual abuse was very secretive and even my husband only knew parts of it.” Things hit rock bottom for Collette following Leanne’s suicide; she was plagued by guilt surrounding her treasured youngest child’s death. The Wolfes were on holiday in Lanzarote when Leanne took her own life; she had been supposed to go too but opted to stay home. On top of this, it was Collette’s pain medication that Leanne used to overdose on; Co-codamol, a strong combination of codeine and paracetamol, prescribed to Collette for a slipped disc.
“When we went on holidays, I left the packets behind, and that’s what she took. That was very hard to accept.”
The discovery of Leanne’s diaries added to the torment; they documented years of escalating physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a group of teens. It had been happening right under Collette and Anthony’s nose.
“We never realised how bad it was,” Collette says. “We thought we had the bullying stopped two years earlier, but when we read her diaries, we realised we only made it a thousand 1,000 times worse.”
A year after Leanne’s death, Collette was treated for cervical cancer. And months later, her own mother passed away.
“I always was able to hold myself together, from all the things I went through,” she says.
“It wasn’t until months after Leanne died that things really started to slip. I couldn’t control my emotions or anything. My husband couldn’t talk or express himself, so we weren’t really communication.
“I just couldn’t live without her. I wanted to be with her. My brain would never stop, there was no rest. You’d say to yourself, what if you didn’t get on the plane, what if she came when she was supposed to have come, it was all what if, no peace, 24/7. All you wanted was quietness.”
The answer, eventually, came through religion: Collette found God, but not without a struggle. She had been raised Catholic, but was always cynical, she says.
“I thought I saw what God was, growing up. I was going to school when the nuns were in charge, and they were supposed to be godly, but I never saw a godly nun.
“We were poor, as half of Cork was at the time. But there were always some with more money, and they were treated differently.
“I had the free uniform and free books, but it was never done discreetly. You were always made feel it. God is not like that.”
Having been introduced to born-again christianity by a garda who attended her daughter’s suicide, Collette now says that in God, she’s found not only forgiveness for the bullies who tormented her daughter, but also peace.
“I’ve a joy and a peace that surpasses human understanding and it’s not mine: it belongs to God,” she says.
The Wolfes founded You Are Not Alone, a support group for the suicide bereaved, and have been outspoken in the press about the impacts of online bullying. They also hold a weekly prayer meeting in their home and host the annual Concert of Hope in Cork City Hall.
It hasn’t been an easy path by any means. But Collette finally feels she knows the way. “We’re the hope factor,” she says. “I hope that people read the stories and can relate — the sexual abuse, the rape, the loss of a loved one through suicide. And once they relate, I only want to spread hope.”
If Only I Could Hold You Again by Collette Wolfe is now on sale in paperback and as an e-book on May 23