I first tried to commit suicide at the age of eight. I tried to suffocate myself with a pillow. Of course being a child, I wasn’t familiar with the word “depression.” All I knew was that I desperately wanted to be someone else. I had seen Miracle on 34th Street on television in which Natalie Wood showed Kris Kringle a photo of her dream house.
As with most Hollywood films of that era, a happy ending was provided for all and Natalie got her house. I concluded Kris Kringle must be God to perform such a miracle and if He could give Natalie Wood her wish, He would do the same for me.
So I opened our gargantuan Sears Roebuck catalog to the girls' clothing section. I selected the little girl I wanted to become. She was thin, blonde and smiling. I wanted my name to be Debbie because all the Debbies in my school were thin, blonde and smiling. If I were Sears Roebuck Debbie no one would beat me, no one would yell at me and call me names, I would live in a house (not unlike Natalie’s dream house), both my parents would live in that house and love each other, I would be a Girl Scout and a cheerleader, take ballet classes, ride a bicycle and have a dog. Yes, if I were Sears Roebuck Debbie, I would be happy. I opened the catalog to Debbie’s page, so God could see my wish.
I also put a bookmark where God could find my dream bedroom. It was a white furniture set complete with a canopy bed. The bedspread and canopy were ruffled and pink. Barbie had the same bed.
And a Teddy Bear was resting comfortably on top of the ruffled pillows. I had always wanted a Teddy.
I then got into bed and buried my face down into my pillow. I was determined to keep it there until I was gone from the world so I could then wake-up as Sears Roebuck Debbie in her dream bedroom, in her dream house, with her dream parents, living her dream life. But I discovered suffocation is neither pleasant nor easy. I started coughing and choking, so I gave up. I put the Sears Roebuck catalog away and returned to my real life filled with fear, violence, isolation and abuse.
My sister moved out just as I was beginning high school. My mother’s abuse escalated because she then had only one child on whom she could take out all of her frustrations.
The summers were the worst because I was so very isolated. I was not allowed to have other girls over to our apartment, so every day of my summer vacation was spent watching our little black and white television all day and night. Despite my love for old movies and TV reruns, I was exceedingly lonely and my depression worsened.
One day I watched a Natalie Wood movie where she stuck her head in an oven to kill herself. (That Natalie gave me the worst ideas!) So I turned on all the gas jets of our stovetop without lighting them. I lay down and waited. Suddenly, I could hear my mother’s Volkswagen Beetle’s muffler rounding the corner a block away. It was my warning alarm that Ma would be home in another two minutes. In a panic, I turned off all the jets. Unfortunately, I couldn’t open the windows, because years before my mother nailed them all shut. So I opened the back door and tried to wave the fumes out. When I heard Ma driving into the parking lot, I immediately closed the door and sat on the bed, trying to look innocent.
As soon as she stepped into the apartment, she commented, “I smell gas.”
I lied, “Oh the pilot light went out and I just now lit it.”
She seemed to buy it.
After the gas fiasco, I decided to go another route. This time I tried suicide by NyQuil. I drank the whole bottle. Again I waited. Again nothing happened. When my mother got home from work, she noticed I was groggy. I told her I was just tired. Watching TV all day can be really exhausting you know.
After I ran away from home for the second time, my mother forced me to see a psychiatrist. As I sat in my sessions, I wouldn’t say anything - not a single word. I just stared at the man for forty-five minutes. And he just stared back, not asking me any questions or making any comments. As I sat there, I dug my chewed-up fingers into the sides of the big chair in which I was sitting. After each session, I went home with black leather embedded under my fingernails.
The psychiatrist put me on a drug called Haldol - a powerful antipsychotic. It turned me into a zombie. It was hard enough sitting through Sister Innocent’s Chemistry lectures, but now I found my head continually dropping onto my desk. It was my junior year at Mount Saint Mary Academy. I had third-year Latin, fourth-year French, Algebra II… I just couldn’t focus at all. Up to that point I had always been an A and B student, then suddenly I was struggling just to pass.
To punish me further, my mother decided to have me board at the school. Much to her chagrin, I liked it. No one yelled at me or beat me. It was a clean environment and they fed me a full breakfast and dinner. My roommate, Marianne, was very sweet and understanding. I found some peace as a boarder. Although I did have to visit the housemother every night to get my Haldol.
When I began my senior year, my mother had me living at home again. I didn’t have to see a psychiatrist and was taken off Haldol. I was back on the honor roll again, but the abuse was worse than ever. I ran away again and never returned.
I wish I had found proper mental health services as soon as I arrived in New York.
Sadly, I did not.
Instead, I just tried to survive on my own as best I could.
1985 was an especially tough year for me. My father told me he did not want me in his life. My older sister told me she did not want me in her life. Though I had quit working in the porn industry, I also also gained a lot of weight. I felt more lost than ever.
I bought a bottle of 151 proof Bacardi rum, a package of Unisom sleeping pills and a can of Tab diet cola. I washed down all the sleeping pills with a tall glass of half Tab and half Bacardi. After about fifteen minutes, I threw up blood all over my floor. I was never a drinker and apparently my tummy couldn’t handle 151 proof Bacardi. When I saw all that blood, I felt frightened and called 911. I was taken to the psych ward at St. Lukes-Roosevelt on 10th Avenue. I stayed two weeks and came out with even more problems than when I went in.
After moving to back to New Jersey in 1990, I further struggled to survive. Though I went back to school and graduated with a 4.0 and a BA, I still found it difficult to hold a job. My life was becoming increasingly more and more out-of-control.
I discovered my fiancé was cheating on me. He was cheating on me with prostitutes. He was cheating on me with prostitutes who were men. He was cheating on me with prostitutes who were men dressing as women.
It was a level of betrayal beyond my comprehension. I decided I did not like this world or the people in it. I did not want to be abused or rejected by one more person.
At 4 am I went to the roof of my building, took a cocktail of prescription meds (three handfuls) and planned to jump just before the pills would knock me out. While I was waiting in the dark for the drugs to kick in, I prayed to God and asked for His leniency. I also prayed to Jesus, Mary and every angel and saint. I asked them all to intercede for me and ask God to be merciful. This was not a call for help. I wanted out of life once and for all.
I said to God, “If you really didn’t want this to happen, you would do something to stop me.”
I stood quiet for a moment. Nothing happened so I figured God was not objecting.
There was a tower clock lit up in the sky. At 4:20 am I felt as though I would pass out in another 30 seconds. I was too short to climb up on the parapet, so I got an empty tar can and stood on it. I took off my glasses and put them in my coat pocket. The thought of getting shards of lenses stuck in my eyes as I landed on the sidewalk did not appeal to me.
I have flashes of memories from that morning… I remember feeling like an anvil was suddenly thrown into my chest - twice. Then I felt something like acid fill every vein of my body. I later learned that while in the ambulance, my heart stopped twice and I had to be zapped back to life. What I thought had been acid coursing through my veins, was actually a shot of Epinephrine. Apparently, even though it was 4:20 in the morning, someone who lived in one of the apartments across the street saw me on the roof and called 911. It was the rescue workers who yanked me off the parapet.
I woke up three days later in a dark room that smelled of urine. The room had tiled walls and no door. I was lying on a thin plastic-covered mattress that had no sheet. I was wearing a paper gown and paper pants.
I thought, “I must have done something really terrible because now I’m in jail.”
There was light coming in from the hall. I got up from the bed and walked to the doorway. I peered into the lit hall and saw a woman. I asked her where I was.
She screamed at me, “Get back in your room!”
She then pointed to my toes, which were past the door’s threshold and sticking out into the hall.
I pulled my feet back a few inches and asked again, “Where am I?”
She told me I was in “The Crisis Unit” and could not leave. When I saw she was not around, I walked as quickly as I could to the nearest exit sign. I pushed the door open and sirens went off. Within seconds, security guards were grabbing my arms and hauling me back to that ever-so-friendly woman in the hallway.
Some sort of black gunk was oozing out of every one of my orifices. I asked what was happening to me and was told that I had been given activated charcoal after my stomach was pumped in the ER and my body was purging it. I then understood why my esophagus had been hurting so much. In addition, I had a huge black and blue bump on my sternum and a tremendous pain in my chest from being zapped in the ambulance.
When I was released, I still felt very shaky and was certain I would attempt suicide again if I had to be alone every day. So I enrolled myself in an outpatient psychiatric day program. I was there for a couple of years.
It was at that program that I learned about mental health recovery. I learned that having mental illness does not mean that one cannot have a fulfilling life and accomplish one’s dreams. For me, mental health recovery is a state of wholeness where a person is physically and emotionally stabilized so they can achieve goals and function well in society.
Mental health recovery doesn’t necessarily mean “cured.” For me, it is an ongoing process that began many years ago. It means I am doing everything in my power to support all aspects of my being (physical, mental, intellectual, spiritual, financial, creative, social and environmental). Slips and relapses have been part of my recovery path. When a roadblock occurs along my journey, I now possess the tools to go around it, over it, under it, or to just kick the darn thing out of my way.
My mental health recovery has involved finding love, joy, peace and balance in my life.
I have been diagnosed with many mental disorders. The most deadly has been depression and it has been the illness I found most resistant to treatment. It has almost killed me on more than one occasion. I have been so ill that I had to keep all my windows closed and blinds pulled down for fear that I would be tempted to jump from my fourteenth floor apartment. After trying many, many antidepressants and not finding any relief, I finally found one that helps me to remain stabilized. In addition, talk therapy had been very useful. I find it most beneficial to open up to someone with whom I have no personal connection.
Anxiety plagued me even before I entered school. I grew up in a very unstable, dysfunctional home where I never knew what to expect. I was yelled at and criticized every day. Nothing I every did seemed good enough. So I was constantly worried that I would do or say the wrong thing and make everyone angry. Anxiety became a way of life for me. For many years I was on anti-anxiety meds, but I am happy to say that I have been off of them for over six months now. I utilize prayer, meditation, mindfulness, yoga and walks in the park to combat my anxiety. Also, excluding sugar, white starch, animal fat and sodium from my diet has helped me handle both depression and anxiety. I eat lots of veggies, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, sardines, salmon, nonfat dairy, olive oil and tofu.
Years ago, I was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and later with Schizoaffective Disorder - Depressed Type. My psychotic symptoms manifested as auditory hallucinations. I had these psychotic breaks during the times of my life when I was feeling most anxious. I was prescribed a number of antipsychotics over the years (aside from Haldol, I took Zyprexa, Mellaril, Geodon, Abilify and Seroquel.) I have not heard those psychotic voices in many years now.
My disordered eating began around the age of eight when I first started to feel I was fat. My mother had eating disorders. She would binge on sweets and then go on some sort of starvation diet like The Watermelon Diet or The Stillman Water Diet. Ma was absolutely obsessed with dieting and weight. One of her co-workers was named Elaine. I never met Elaine, but I heard about her everyday. Ma would tell me how fat Elaine was, how disgusting Elaine was, what Elaine had “the nerve” to eat that day at lunch, how Elaine was “as big as a house”…
One day I was walking in NYC with my mother, many years after she had retired. We passed by a Fifth Avenue art gallery. There was a stone hippo in the window.
My mother stopped me and pointing to the hippo said, “Look Michelle, it’s Elaine!”
Even when she was ill with dementia and in her last months, Ma still talked to me about her weight, food and... Elaine.
I went on my first starvation diet when I was twelve, eating only 500 calories a day. My mother thought it was great because I was getting skinny.
And so began the binge/starve cycle that continued until I was fifty-years-old.
Back in the 80s I jumped on the Jane Fonda aerobics bandwagon and became an exercise fanatic. If I did not feel as though I was going to collapse at the end of a workout, then I had not done a good job. Jane said I needed to “feel the burn” and “work through the pain.”
I would binge on huge amounts of junk food, then starve and over-exercise. Sometimes I would not eat anything for as long as three weeks. I would start eating again only when I felt I was going to die if I did not.
I have been too thin and I have been too fat. In fact, for more than ten years of my adult life I was clinically obese, weighing 175 to 200 pounds at a height of 5’ 3”.
I was diagnosed with Binge Eating Disorder and Bulimia - Nonpurging Type (meaning one uses fasting and excessive exercise to purge calories).
It wasn’t until I watched my mother suffer and die that it finally sunk in what damage I had been doing to myself. My mother had Vascular Dementia, which was the result of a series of mini-strokes over a period of many years. The strokes were caused by atherosclerosis. She had clogged her arteries with all those decades of binging on junk food. In her nursing home she became completely helpless - unable to do anything. She could not bathe or dress herself, she could not walk, she stopped eating, had to be tube-fed, and eventually she couldn’t speak or see. I realized that I can take control over my health, just by eating a healthy diet and moderate exercise.
When I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder I had never heard of it. I immediately bought books by Marsha Linehan, who is considered the foremost authority on the subject.
The Diagnostic Statistical Manual describes Borderline Personality Disorder as:
A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-mage, and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts…
For me personally, BPD has been a response to past severe and repeated trauma, marked by feelings of profound emptiness and nonexistent self-esteem.
BPD has many symptoms and those symptoms vary from person to person. It has manifested in my life with intense depression, anxiety, phobias, isolation, overspending, binge eating, promiscuous sex, unstable personal relationships, trichotillomania, other self-injurious behaviors such as head-banging, multiple suicide attempts, identity issues and to a very great extent - an intense fear of rejection and abandonment.
Therefore, BPD encompasses many of my other diagnosed mental disorders.
Currently, I am diagnosed as in recovery from BPD.
I have learned to live within my means and am no long a spendaholic.
The depression, anxiety and eating disorders are all under control.
I have not had promiscuous sex since I worked in the sex industry thirty years ago.
Because I did not find out I was African American until I was seventeen, I do have some serious identity issues. Also, I did not grow up with my Italian father, so I do not identify with my Italian heritage either. None of my family members are willing to have a relationship with me. So there remains an emptiness in my heart regarding my identity. It is something I pray about often. It is something I continue to work on.
I also continue to work on developing healthy relationships and creating a positive support system. In the past, I gravitated towards those people who were unloving and emotionally abusive because that is what knew from my childhood. It seemed I was innately attracted to those who would inevitably reject me, just as my father and other family members did. That is all I thought I deserved. My level of self-esteem was based on the opinions and treatment of others. My self-esteem now comes from deep within my core and I realize how much I deserve respect and love.
I used to idealize the men in my life and put them on a high pedestal where I would worship them. That was unfair to both them and me. It was unfair to them because I was setting them up to fail. It was unfair to myself because I was setting myself up for diappointment. Now I am learning not to idealize anyone. We are all imperfect human beings and it is in our weaknesses that we are strong.
My seeking out and developing healthy relationships is definitely a challenge and a work in progress. Yet I am progressing every day.
For many years, I was unable to discuss my childhood and history working in the sex industry with anyone, not even my therapists. Now I am telling the world about my past.
I have not been hospitalized or attempted suicide in ten years and my overall condition has stabilized. I am now making and achieving goals, and am helping others do the same.
Yes indeed, I have found my sanity in mental health recovery. The search is over.
Mental health recovery is possible.