Gabe & Izzy

Gabe and Izzy take a “bite” out of bullying

February 8, 2006
By Gala White, Contributing Writer
The Argus-Press
Owosso, MI

DURAND—When Gabrielle “Gabe” Ford talks about bullies, the kids listen because she has a compelling story that many of them can relate to—being bullied. The attractive young woman spoke in a soft, sometimes halting voice, as she recently told her story to the students at Durand Middle School.

Gabe sat in her wheelchair holding a microphone and told the students about the long-lasting effects bullying had on her life. All the while, her dog, Izzy, who brought her back from a life of isolation, laid on the floor beside her. The two are a team and their mission is to take a ‘bite” out of bullying.

Gabe wasn’t always bullied—that started towards the end of the 7th grade when she began having trouble keeping her balance and sometimes slurring her words. Imagine being a young active girl who played soccer and other sports and who, from an early age, loved all kinds of dancing—tap, jazz, ballet—and loved being on the stage. And then imagine all that being taken away from you by a rare neuromuscular disease called Friedreich’s Ataxia. “Hearing I’d never dance on stage again felt like a knife in my side,” Gabe said.

Her mother, Rhonda Hillman, waited six months before she found the resolve to tell her daughter that she had FA—just three days after Gabe’s 13th birthday. Gabe said that was when she began, what she terms, “spinning herself into a cocoon.” Losing the ability to do all the things she loved, and then being bullied at school every single day, greatly increased her feelings of being different and in the end resulted in her withdrawal from life.

A year after she found out about her disease, the family moved to Fenton and Gabe found herself in a new school in Lake Fenton Township. “I made it my goal to hide my disease. I was young and afraid and wanted so much to be like my healthy classmates.” But, she recalled, it was in her junior and senior years of high school, as her disease became more obvious, that the bullying got worse. “My speech slowed and I fell a lot,” Gabe said. The kids called me names, they tripped me, knocked my books out of my hands, slammed my locker shut while I was trying to open it, and one boy kept hitting my legs, leaving them bruised. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my mother, what was happening because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t stop it.”

However, one day her mother saw the bruises on her legs and Gabe finally told her about the boy who was hitting her. A trip to the school and a talk with the principal stopped that behavior, but the verbal abuse continued.

“Mom urged me to educate the kids at school about my disease, hoping they’d understand and be helpful to me, but I strongly objected. I asked her to let me handle it my way—trying to hide it,” Gabe said. And, she told the students, “Not every kid was mean to me, there were lots of nice kids, too. I have to remember that,”

It was after her graduation that she became eaten up with loneliness. She explained it this way: “My life changed a lot. My friends had found a new freedom and I couldn’t keep up with them.” She began to hide away in her bedroom when anyone came to visit and on the rare occasions when she was persuaded to go out, she had panic attacks and fled to the safety of her bedroom. She told the students, “I constantly worried: If people made fun of me in high school, what will they think of me now that I can’t walk? I was angry down deep about not having any friends and ashamed of myself.”

Gabe realized the loneliness was becoming more than she could bear and she asked her mother if she could get a dog. “I wanted a black-and-tan coonhound because I loved their big, soft, long ears and sad faces.” At first her mother said no, but then relented, warning her daughter that she would responsible for all of the dog’s needs. Soon, Gabe got her puppy, Isabel—Izzy.

Gabe explained to the students what Izzy did for her. “Izzy and I became very close. I told her everything. She would listen to me intently, watching me with her beautiful brown eyes. I would sing her to sleep at night. It was nice to have someone who needed me.” Gabe and Izzy are inseparable and she described her dog as being her best friend. “If it hadn’t been for Izzy I wouldn’t have made it. We’re connected.”

Then one day Gabe found Izzy lying on the floor, unable to get up. “Mom and I rushed her to the vet,” Gabe said. Tests showed that Izzy had a rare, sometimes fatal, liver condition that required specialized surgery. The breeder offered to give Gabe a different dog, but she didn’t want a different dog…she wanted Izzy. After years of hiding, Gabe had to go out in public. She had to do it for Izzy. “Carrying for Izzy during her sickness meant I had to get over my fears,” Gabe said.

Unfortunately, the surgery could not correct Izzy’s liver defect, but a special low-protein diet stabilized her condition. And Izzy’s illness was similar to Gabe’s. Izzy also had trouble with balance, the doctors couldn’t cure her and one day the illness might take her life. The odd coincidence led to the cable TV network Animal Planet doing an episode about Gabe and Izzy. This was a breakthrough for Gabe and another step towards her recovery from the effects of bullying.

An even bigger coincidence between Izzy and her was in store for Gabe. After a few years of good health, Izzy began having trouble with weakness and walking and was diagnosed with a rare progressive muscle disease.

Gabe said, “Now the two of us take coenzyme Q10 and vitamin E. We both require special diets. We both have weakness, tremors, fatigue and muscle atrophy. She needs me and I need her. We lean on each other to survive our diseases.”

The young woman, now 26, has come a very long way from that cocoon of isolation she spun for herself. It was a struggle, but with Izzy’s companionship, she made it, although there are still times when the past haunts her. Gabe now travels around to schools talking about her disease and the effects of bullying, hoping that by telling her story, others will realize that bullying can have long term repercussions on the person who is being bullied. She has been featured on TV and in magazine articles and more importantly, she has come to terms with both her disease and the bullying. “I have forgiven those who bullied me,” she told the students.

She also had some advice for the students, “If you’re being bullied, tell someone.” She doesn’t advise fighting back because it can escalate into something physical. And she said, “If you hear bullying going on and don’t say something, you’re just as guilty as the bully.”

Gabe’s mother is one of her biggest boosters and Gabe finished her talk with something her mother had told her: “Mom is a positive person and she believes that God knew I’d someday dance again on the stage in a different way. She believes Izzy came into my life to help me cope with my disease.”

After her talk, Gabe answered questions from the students about bullying, about her disease and about Izzy. She told the students “I hope my talk to you today has helped.”

Copyright 2006 The Argus-Press
Reprinted with permission