Saturday, August 31, 2019

Why I Stayed

(Warnings: mentions of addiction and suicide attempts.)

“Jessica Burkhart is an author of tween and teen books. She loves all things pink and sparkly.”

Those were constant lines in my author bio. Plastered on 1.5 million copies of my books. My readers sent me glittery gifts in the mail. Loved discussing Twilight and all the sequels with me. Knew that if something was pink and sparkly, I needed to know of its existence.

However, my private, personal bio read: “Jessica Burkhart is an author of tween and teen books. She loves all things pink and sparkly. She’s also dealing with depression and anxiety.”

But how do you tell that to the kids who idolize you and want to be you? That love and adore that version of Jessica Burkhart? The Jessica Burkhart who’s cheerful and sparkly?

I didn’t tell them. I didn’t tell anyone. I was too afraid that if I did, I’d lose them and the career I put sixteen plus hour work days into would be gone. After all, I was living my dream—I had a Brooklyn apartment, a steady job that I loved and I was making it. No one would believe that I was depressed, would they?  I didn’t know what to do, so I began taking benzos. Then, I tore a tendon in my elbow from writing (Yes, seriously!) and started on painkillers.

By 2010—just a year after my debut novel came out—I was a full-blown addict. I thought of pills as pretty poison—they helped me feel “pretty” which meant feeling nothing. They were “poison” when they’d start to wear off.

The bottles said to take one fifth of what I took every six hours. I’d wait four hours if I was being especially good that day. Most days I’d go three and a half hours. But that makes a bottle of 150 pills run out really fast. So fast that my life revolved around where and when to get pills and when and how to take them.

It was all I could plan for in my life. I had it down to a science: always have one or two doctor appointments scheduled for every eight days max. I carried a notebook with me to every appointment that helped me keep track of what I’d told which doctor. I’d gone from crafting stories in fiction to creating lies for my own life to help me score. The notes filled an entire mini-notebook.

It took so much time to keep my stories straight. I had to make sure I didn’t go to the same doctor too often and I had to keep looking for different doctors and pain management clinics. It was exhausting and the fear of running out of pills was a constant. It happened a few times and the hallucinations, gut-wrenching vomiting, sweating and the other withdrawal symptoms I experienced were more than enough to keep me up at night worrying that one day, I wouldn’t be able to score. I was trapped in a loop that would keep me prisoner for almost seven years.

I needed help to get clean and I didn’t love myself enough to get that guidance. My life had become an ongoing cycle of pills. So many handfuls of pills a day. Pills crushed into fine power and put in my morning green tea. Sometimes, I was too lazy to even crush them, so I’d dump the full pills into tea, stir and wait for them to break down in the scalding water. That was just my dose of painkillers. Benzos were next. Rinse and repeat for lunch. And dinner. Snack time pills were chewed and swallowed.

Sometimes, I’d wake up a couple days later from a post-benzo and painkiller dose so heavy I shouldn’t have been alive.

Pills were fuel to my depression and anxiety. With pills, I didn’t have to feel. Which is why I thought I was happy for so long. Then, when all of that crashed around me, I took more and more drugs to “help” my feelings of sadness and loneliness. What I couldn’t see then was that without getting clean and dealing with my mental health struggles, I’d never be okay. I was going to die with my then one true love: pills.

It was only a matter of time. My parents had found me unconscious once and I knew I’d terrified them, but I wasn’t ready to get help. On one of the worst nights of my life, I walked in front of a car in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Somehow, the driver managed to swerve and avoided hitting me. He honked and screamed, though and when I finally crawled into bed sobbing later that night, I ended up looking at kittens on a local rescue’s Website. Why? I can’t remember.

Soon, I had two kittens in my tiny one-bedroom apartment. I loved them fiercely. Bliss, a grey and white tabby, had a hip fractured and I taught her to walk. Bella, my muted orange and white, was a one-eyed sweetheart. I bonded with both of them, but what Bella and I had was special. She was like a dog—she wanted to be with me everywhere and didn’t care if I was going on a trip on the subway or sitting on my porch—if she could be in my lap, she didn’t care.

And before I knew it, I realized that yes, I wouldn’t stay alive for myself. But for them? For Bella? For the pirate kitty who sat by or on me while I cried over hallucinated cockroaches and who watched me hurl lamps or books into walls when I just didn’t know what to do anymore, I could do this basic thing of staying alive. Both of my kittens became cats as they watched me exist with my addiction and mental health struggles. Then, one day, I couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't just exist. 

I went to rehab for the painkillers and got counseling. Hours and hours of counseling. And, soon after that, I was able to start to tackle the things in my past that led to my depression and anxiety spirals.

A year later, I started working with another doctor to come off benzos. That was a bitch. I won’t even lie. I’d thought coming off painkillers was hard. It’s been over two years, though. I know with certainty that I’ll never touch pills again.

The longer I’m off drugs, too, the more things come back. From my personality to my memories. I’m feeling things again. Some feeling suck, they really do! But I’ve learned how to cope without taking a pill. I’m able to feel happiness, too, which I could feel before, but it was muted. Through a haze of drugs that felt as though there was a Plexiglas wall up between what I could feel and what I wanted to feel.

I lost Bliss, my tabby, at the end of 2017 to a freak heart condition. Bella passed away in April 2018 after a short battle with cancer. They were each only five years old. It never crossed my mind, though, to go back to pills even in the darkest months after Bella’s death. See, the vet said she’d had cancer for a while, but had kept her symptoms very well hidden. I will always believe she stuck around long enough to make sure I was good—that I was clean and able to live—before she finally showed me that she was sick. She’d taken care of me for long enough and she could finally go. And, because of her, I’m here to stay. I still have dark days and I fight with my anxiety on the daily. But I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to keep being honest and open about my struggles with mental health and addiction.

My readers have stuck by me since I’ve started talking about my mental health struggles. I wish I would have come forward with my stories earlier, but hey, I’m doing it now.

Speaking of now, my current bio reads: “Jessica Burkhart is an author of tween and teen books. She loves all things pink and sparkly. She’s passionate about speaking out about the importance of good mental health.”

Thank you so much to Eva Pohler for including me on this World Suicide Prevention Day campaign. Please check out the rest of the stories that will be posted over the next several days.

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