An absent father and a relationship with a manipulative boyfriend during her high school journey resulted in Aimee Woolley (19) questioning her self-worth for many years.
Aimee was born in Cape Town and grew up in Table View with her grandparents and her mother.
“I’m my mom’s only child. In the complex where we stayed there were lots of kids around and I viewed them as my siblings. My parents were not married and never lived together. I only saw my father twice in my life.”
Aimee recalls the first time she met her father.
“I woke up one day when I was seven years old and my mom said, ‘your dad is going to pick you up for a few weeks’. Before that, there was no mention of my dad.
“Growing up in a single-parent home, even though I could see other children having two parents, I assumed that before I was born there was only my mom. I never questioned why I did not have a father. Maybe because I was just happy. No one in the house mentioned anything about my dad. My grandfather took on the role of father figure when I was little, and he still does.”
Despite not having any interactions with her father before, Aimee was looking forward to meeting him and spending time with him.
“My mom packed my bags. I was excited because I was going somewhere else - away from home.
My dad showed up in a bakkie with his wife and my sister. It was weird to think I had a sister because I grew up alone with no siblings. I remember standing next to my mom when my dad arrived. I don’t know if I’m imagining it, but I could have sworn I saw some tense looks between the two of them. It was over quickly. They greeted each other and I got into the car promising my mom I would be on my best behaviour. My dad’s wife greeted me and I think my dad tried to hug me but it was a bit awkward. I didn’t hug him back because I didn’t know the man. He was foreign to me.”
Aimee recalls arriving at her dad’s house.
“All I remember is that it was a beautiful big yellow house. I looked at the backyard first because I wanted to see where I could climb the trees. I was very outdoorsy and I loved climbing trees and walls. I think the plan was for me to stay with him for three or four weeks but two weeks into the visit I got homesick and I cried to be taken back home.”
During the visit, Aimee recalls being part of many family outings to different places.
“I was focused on my surroundings and new experiences. It was all new to me. I think my shyness went away after a bit and I started laughing and joking with my dad. He always took a camera with him and everywhere I looked there would be a flash because he was taking pictures of me. I think my sister accepted me as a big sister. I became very protective of her during that time, she was adorable! I called my step-mom ‘aunty’ because I only have one mom and she was fine with that. She would always lecture me if I did something wrong and if I got hurt she would patch me up. But there was a boundary between us and I think it went both ways. I called her aunty and she probably viewed me as a niece. She treated me with respect and kindness though. She won me over. During the two week visit, I got more affectionate with my dad and he rolled with it.”
The following year, Aimee spent another two weeks with her father. Between the two visits, Aimee doesn’t recall him calling or visiting once.
“This second holiday was a lot better than the first one. I was excited to see him the second time. I got closer to my dad during the second visit. He would put me on his shoulders and carry me while we walked around. By this time, my dad and aunt had split up, so I stayed with my dad and two sisters (another sister from a previous marriage) and his new girlfriend. I called his girlfriend by her name. She was nice. I was relaxed during this visit. I just felt normal, like I was sleeping over at a friend’s house. I was happy for my dad but sad about not being with my aunt.”
Aimee did not know it at the time, but that would be the last contact she would have with her father.
In Grade three, when Aimee expected to visit her father again during the holiday, he called before he was scheduled to pick her up at home.
“He called me, said that he was not coming and that we needed to cancel. I was sad and I cried. The next day I told my friends what had happened and they did everything to cheer me up. I was very supported. My mom tried to support me by saying, ‘I am not going anywhere.’ She even made me a cake at one point. That’s when the switch went off for my dad. I had my mom and I didn’t need my dad. It’s how I still view my situation.
“My dad never called again or visited. Ten years have passed and it is as though he has disappeared from the earth. Sometimes I wish I could ask him a few questions but I end up telling myself, ‘it is his loss. If he does not want me in his life, why would I want him in mine?’
Grade four until Grade seven, proved to be a few challenging years for Aimee.
“I didn’t fit in. The bullies were the popular girls in my grade. There were about eight of them. They would just pick on me because I wasn’t social and I didn’t know a lot of the slang. I would also get picked on for my body weight because I was chubby. I felt stupid. It was mostly verbal and not physical abuse. I was sad about being bullied but it did not get to the point of depression. I was sad because I believed them. I never told my mom and grandparents about the bullying. I felt I could handle it by myself. I just kept quiet and let the bullies do their thing.”
When Aimee began high school in Grade eight, things began to change for the better.
“I thought, ‘it’s a new school’, which meant new opportunities and new friends. I started becoming more active, more fit and happier. Instead of being in the B team in high school I was selected into the A team for netball. I think the mindset of ‘I’m going to lose weight’ motivated me almost unconsciously. I started taking long walks and playing netball and that played a big role in me losing weight.
“During my second year of high school was when everything went downhill. I got my first boyfriend. He was two years older than me and in Grade 11. I wanted everything between us to be perfect. I once showed him a picture of how I looked in primary school and he commented on how much weight I had lost and that he liked long hair.
“So, I grew my hair long and got even skinnier by not eating. I would wake up early in the morning, exercise in my room by doing sit ups and push ups, then eat a small breakfast and when I got to school I would give my lunch away. I’d live on water. I’d go to netball practice and do more exercise there. I’d walk home, which took about 30 minutes and then later I would have a really small portion of supper, then shower and go to bed. The next day I would repeat the same thing. I was 69 kilograms and went down to 50 kilograms in 6 or 7 months.
“I kept telling people I was on a diet. One of my friends could pick me up with one hand. My friends were concerned. I just said it was me, but they knew exactly who it was. It was my boyfriend. He didn’t like the way I looked and I was changing myself to suit him. None of my friends or family liked him. They warned me that he was manipulating and changing me. He was very jealous and restricted me from seeing some of my friends.”
Aimee recalls an incident in her relationship with her boyfriend that left her feeling powerless.
“One day we went to a friend’s house to watch a rugby game on the TV. Instead of joining them at the TV he pulled me into a room. This incident was two or three months into our relationship. I said, ‘no’ and he stopped. I didn’t see it as harassment because I was an innocent girl. I didn’t really know what to think or do. I was also shy. I didn’t want to tell anyone because what if they didn’t believe me?
“A week after that first incident he did it again. I had never been in a relationship before. I didn’t know how to go about it. I was like, ‘okay, is this what a relationship is like?’ I know that relationships are private, so I kept it from people. Things became worse as he always manipulated me to do things. He used to say, ‘If you love me, you will do it. If you don’t, I will leave you.’ I was too afraid of him leaving me and I continued to be confused about what was expected from me in a relationship. So, I always gave in.
“But the relationship was breaking my fragile self-image even further. He would flirt with other girls in front of me. He would unclip their bras and say things to them with me next to him. Every time I said something about how unhappy I was about his behaviour, he would stop talking to me until I felt it was my fault and I would apologise.
“I felt ugly. Not good enough. Uncomfortable in my own skin. The relationship caused me to be depressed. Surprisingly, I never smoked, drank or cut myself. I just became a walking corpse.
“I isolated myself from everyone, even friends and my family. I stopped eating for days. I stopped going out and when I was at home I would lock myself in my room. I felt that I wasn’t wanted or loved.
Aimee’s weight loss and depression were red flags to friends and family.
“I was getting sick every week. I was coughing all the time and had a fever. My mom kept telling me I must talk to her and not keep things from her. But I still didn’t. I just said, ‘everything is fine’. I also didn’t answer my friends when they asked me if anything was wrong.”
Aimee’s boyfriend broke up with her just before her 16th birthday.
“He called me and broke up with me over the phone. I just broke down in my room, I asked him to please not leave me but he said he had had enough. At that time, I was an emotional wreck. When we were together I would cry about the smallest things. I would tell him that I was jealous and somehow nag about what I was not happy with. I suppose it was too much for him.
“I cried uncontrollably in my room. My mom heard me and asked me what had happened. For the first time, I told her everything. My mom and I got close after that. She was disappointed and shocked. She lectured me, as all mothers do, and told me that everything would be ok. Now, if I’ve got problems or need help I go to her. I’m open with her about what’s going on in my life.
“I started getting in touch with my friends again. They were a great support and assisted me little by little to get over my ex-boyfriend. Because we were in the same school, we would see each other from time to time. Whenever they saw him they would crowd around me, so I did not see him or let him see me. I even had a male friend who threatened him and told him to leave me alone forever.
“The distance from my ex-boyfriend gave me the space to reflect and learn from my story. I wondered why I endured such a toxic relationship. In a sick way, my ex was giving me something I had always longed for. I had never had a close relationship with a male figure. In my life, I have my grandfather and uncle present, but we are not close in an emotional sense. For the first time, I had a male figure whom I was able to cuddle and hug. A male figure who deeply liked me - even though it was in a weird manner.
“In a strange way, I became accustomed to being mistreated. It was as if his ugliness, in my eyes, was still a sign of love. I began to like it. In my mind, I created this fantasy in which it was better to be in an unhealthy relationship than not to have a relationship at all. I think I developed the belief that he was probably the only person who would like me. No one else could.
After a few years, Aimee began dating someone else and for the first time, she experienced what a truly loving and caring relationship looks and feels like.
“It is miles apart. My new boyfriend never makes me feel unworthy. He respects me and I feel really well taken care of. He affirms all the good things I know I possess.”
When asked for her last remarks, Aimee concluded: “Do not settle for relationships that are not making you feel uplifted. We all deserve to be next to people who value us. The first step to get this type of relationships is to work with yourself. When you heal and develop an authentic acceptance for yourself, you begin to truly love YOU. Then and only then, you are able to attract to your life the people who will do the same.”
Aimee is a Life Choices Academy student.