Editor's note: I wrote this post a year ago, but didn't pubish it at the time due to just not being ready to talk about some of the darker aspects of my treatment, but after touching on these themes in articles for BP Magazine last summer and Essence Magazine most recently in January, I decided that this might actually be of benefit to other mental illness sufferers or loved ones caring for someone struggling with mental health issues.
I've always been someone who was good at compartmentalization -- which, for me, is the ability to function under horrible circumstances. My gift for it often masked the depths of my disease, bipolar disorder, because I was so "high functioning." Kind of like an alcoholic who can hold down a job. Or, in my case, a manic-depressive person who could get a college degree, have a career and have healthy relationships with friends and family ... and still be incredibly self-destructive.
As a kid, even when I was dealing with intense bullying and harassment, having daily anxiety attacks and going to the nurse's office almost every day at school, I still got straight As. I think this lulled myself and my parents all into a false sense that I had great coping abilities or would just "out-grow" these issues. When, in reality, I didn't have good coping skills and they just all turned into something else. I got better and better at putting the hurt in a box when it came time to "perform" as a good student. The day I couldn't suck it up and just perform anymore was the day I realized I had a serious problem.
Right now, I'm working on chronicalling the hardest part of my struggle with mental illness, 2001 through 2009, almost a decade of severe depression marked by insomnia, hypomania and self-destruction. And remembering all that time has brought up a mix of emotions within me.
There's a line in the graphic novel "Watchmen" were an aging, female super hero who had survived a brutal sexual assault by a friend and lover (amongst other tragedies), recalls her past, saying that time had essentially caused even the grimy parts to be a bit brighter. This often happens with my own memory, where I tend to dwell on the good times more than the bad. How sometimes I have to remind myself how truly horrible something was because I'd put the nightmare in a box and didn't care to look at it anymore.
Writing a book means opening up those old nightmares and reliving them again. Every moment with them is a reminder of how better I am and how truly awful it used to be.
Like, I tend to focus on my time in California as overwhelmingly positive. A place where I made many good friends, had a lot of adventures, felt loved and respected and had a very good job with a great newspaper. It's often difficult to reconcile the bliss I often felt there with the fact that I was sick most of the time, was hospitalized for depression three times, spent too much time in Bakersfield Hospital's emergency room, had to take extended leaves of absence from work and when I was at work, was so miserable the most I could do was grunt a hello. If that. That my mental illness was "life-threatening," in that my peers feared I'd kill myself on a whim or on accident and my mother would call me at 6 a.m. in the morning because she was having anxiety attacks over me being so far away and sounding like a corpse over the phone.
Like, how if either of my sisters came to visit I was so happy to see them, but almost always flew into a deep depression the minute they had to return to St. Louis. Two of my hospitalizations happened shortly after one of my sisters had come to visit me. The first time was after my sister had spent a summer with me, then returned to St. Louis. I missed her so incredibly much and felt so alone, that I stopped sleeping and eating, developed a violent nervous twitch that I still sometimes deal with to this day and three weeks after she left had to be dragged to a hospital by my friends and co-workers.
This sounds weird to say, but I think the only reason why I survived it was because so many people were completely invested in keeping me alive, even if I was only half-assed interested in living. I had A LOT of friends for a self-loathing, suicidal person. Even my employers seemed dedicated to the task, once forcing me to take three days off work and see a doctor after I'd fallen asleep, mid-meeting, mid-conversation with one of my editors. I never once got a bad employee review. They never once even came close to firing me even though my medical bills and chronic absence had to be money losses. Even after I had to be moved to part-time for six months, they tried to figure out a way to accommodate me and make things work. I eventually left on my own, realizing I couldn't do the job anymore. Then, even though I quit, they approved my unemployment insurance because they agreed that I was too sick to do my job. Me sobbing on the phone profusely, recounting all the hospitalizations and leaves and my executive editor on the other end of the phone, agreeing with the claims adjuster that I deserved the unemployment check. I'd been very sick.
They all played a huge part in my recovery, pushing me through it when I could no longer put up a happy face and act like I wasn't sick. My parents. It could not have been easy on my parents who sent a happy, healthy, funny, albeit a touch naive 20-something to Texas to start her career only to have a smelly, unkempt, surly, moody 30-something return. But they didn't give up on me either. They pushed me along, even if I only had a partial interest in things like "getting out of debt" or "finding a job" since I was spending about one night a week in their basement on the phone with the suicide hotline sobbing, wondering how I was going to endure this pain, potentially for the rest of my life.
This may sound kind of obvious, but trying not to kill yourself when that's ALL YOU WANT TO DO is hard. Unable to cope or compartmentalize anymore, all my energy was focused on telling the self-destruct voice in my head to shut up and please leave me alone. There would be days upon days of this. And who can care about the paying of debt or looking nice or finding a job when you can barely get out of bed in the morning and only bathe about once every three weeks? The only reason why I hadn't done it was because of my parents, who I loved more than myself, and couldn't handle the thought of hurting. Especially after I interviewed a bereaved parent support group back in 2001 who told me that no parent ever gets over the death of a child, ever, no matter how that child dies or how old they were when it happened. That the pain stays with you, forever, because a child dying is like having all your dreams and hopes for the future die. You learn how to function and you live your life, but you never "get over" it.
Knowing that my parents were highly unlikely to ever "get over" any untimely demise on my part was the only thing that kept me alive. Knowing that they would spent the rest of their life thinking there was something they could have done, then continually beating themselves up for it, was not something I could live or die with. They'd already proven that they were pretty much willing to give up everything so I could get well. I thought of myself as a giant, misery inducing liability. But for them I was their second-born daughter, the one with my father's face and my mother's charm who drew them elaborate homemade cards for birthdays and anniversaries and talked to them for hours about politics, current events and history. Who they read stories to and took to the zoo or art museum whenever I asked, and taught how to scramble eggs, and oiled my scalp and braided my long hair. I was the one who never got too old to give them a hug and kiss good morning and another hug and kiss good night. Who was never embarrassed to have them around, even as a teenager, and was always happy when they came to see me at school. Who always wanted to be around them. Always. To the point where I had to be nuisance and nosey, from child me sticking my fingers under the bathroom door to get my mother's attention, to teenage me inviting myself along on shopping trips for plants and soil with my father just so I could talk and talk and talk to him. The illness wasn't their daughter. Danielle Belton was. And Danielle Belton was always going to be worth saving as far as they were concerned.
If they were willing to love me even when I was unlovable, the least I could do was not self-destruct.
So, I worked through it. And I got better. And then I got healthy. And it's almost like it didn't happen. Except it did and it all still sits in the back of our minds and none of us ever want it to get that bad again.
I've been "healthy" since the spring of 2009. That was the last time I was in a hospital being treated for my bipolar disorder. And since becoming stable, I promised myself I would never do anything that would threaten that stability -- meaning, I wouldn't ignore signs and expect myself to just "put the bad stuff in a box" and perform to hide the issue. So far, so good. When I recognize that something is leading me down a dark path I stop and reassess. I talk to friends or family or a doctor about it. We find a solution. We work through it. We move on. This is very much preferable to my "old" coping technique of "hope it goes away on its own." But I'm not going to pretend like it was easy to get to that point. It was a lot of hard work.
Now, it's hard for me to believe that I ever though my life wasn't worth saving. Or that I was hopeless. Things are going quite well for me. My writing career is back on track. Things are looking pretty good for 2012. I'm happy. Things aren't perfect, but what's that? What's perfection? It's just nice to not feel sick. It's just nice that when a panic attack does happen, it's just a panic attack, not a harbinger of doom.