Anorexia, a drink problem and depression left Belinda Bennetts feeling suicidal, but now she is helping others turn their lives around
In a deeply honest account of addiction and despair, mum-of-one Belinda Bennetts tells Karen Ireland how moving from New Zealand to her mother's native Northern Ireland has proved a huge physical and mental journey.
Belinda Bennetts has travelled a long way to find her forever home in Northern Ireland and the journey hasn't just been in miles - it has taken all the courage and energy she has to get here.
Indeed it is a miracle that Belinda is here at all to share her story. Several years ago the Zimbabwe-born writer, while suffering from a bout of depression, felt there was was no reason to go on - and attempted to take her life.
"Life was so bad at that point that I wanted to end it all," recalls Belinda, who has been living in Northern Ireland for the past two years. "I thought everyone would be happier and that I would be doing the world a favour if I wasn't here.
"This wasn't a cry for help. I really wanted to die. Some people take this action to get noticed, but not me. I just wanted it to be over."
So, what was so bad that Belinda, who has a four-year-old daughter Lucy, wanted to escape from it all permanently?
"It has been a hell of a long journey," she says, a nod to her new book which is called Fear To Love: An Inner Journey Home.
Reflecting on the crisis that engulfed her, Belinda (37) now says she can see the origins of it in her childhood. "As a little girl growing up in Zimbabwe I felt different. I was shy and very spiritually aware and I would pick up on stuff.
"I felt like I was never good enough and didn't deserve any one's love. I was sent to boarding school at five and I remember crying in my room as I missed my family and then I was hit for crying."
By the time she entered her early teens, Belinda had developed an eating disorder and watched her beloved father die. "At 12, I developed anorexia as I hated the way I looked and thought others did, too.
"The only person who was close to me was my dad and he died when I was 13 from prostate cancer.
"From that point on, depression kicked in and I just felt so low and lonely. I was never as close or had as good a relationship with my mum as my dad, so I missed him terribly."
Things went from bad to worse for Belinda who by the age of 14 had found a new best friend in alcohol.
"From the ages of about 14 to 23, I was deeply depressed and drinking to numb my feelings and emotions," she says.
"I was drinking a lot, but I was very clever when it came to keeping it a secret. I was working on the family farm at the time and managing to hide it from everyone."
In 2001, at the age of 22 and one year after getting married to the man she simply refers as 'J' in the book, Belinda and her new husband decided to make a fresh start and emigrated to New Zealand.
By this stage her husband knew that she had a drinking problem and she stresses he was very supportive but it wasn't enough.
"I was slowly dying inside. Nothing could lift the blackness that surrounded me. At my worst I was drinking a litre of vodka a day."
A visit to the doctor resulted in Belinda being put on anti-depressants but her GP was unaware that she also drank heavily. Consequently, the combination of alcohol with her medication only served to exacerbate her problems and she felt worse. "I just reached a point where I thought everyone would be happier if I wasn't here."
Thankfully her husband found her before it was too late and called an ambulance which rushed her to hospital where she says she woke up from a haze to find a team of psychiatric doctors in her room.
Recalling that moment now, she says: "I was frightened but I realised I couldn't go on ... that I couldn't drink any more. I also thought that my life must have been saved for some reason and so I decided to get help."
Belinda started to go to counselling and was also under the care of a psychiatric nurse for more than a year.
"Slowly, I got the pieces of my life back and I managed to get a job in a local health shop. I got into alternative therapies and I trained as a Bowen therapist, which is a form of acupressure. I also read as many self-help books as I could," she says.
As she began slowly piecing her life back together Belinda then had more good news - she discovered that she was pregnant. And she says that when she finally held her little girl, Lucy, for the first time she realised she had to get her act together and to be strong for her.
"Unfortunately by this time my marriage had broken down and my husband and I decided to separate," says Belinda. "But when I had my daughter in my arms, I felt a part of my heart opening up that had been closed before and I felt an obligation to her to make everything okay for her."
As part of that promise, Belinda knew that she needed to make a fresh start - a process that brought her all the way from New Zealand to Northern Ireland, her mum's home country. With her sister Vicky and her family already living in the province, Belinda knew she wanted to have the support of her family at hand.
"I wanted to be close to family and the fact it is where my mum is from convinced me it is the right place to go for a fresh start," she says.
Perhaps it was the radical change of surroundings, but her new life in Northern Ireland brought back some of her old feelings of despair.
Shortly after Belinda arrived she found herself getting depressed again and constantly having panic attacks.
"I remember standing in my room one day and looking in the mirror and saying - who are you?" she says.
"I broke down and was in floods of tears and I heard a voice say 'write - you have to write about it'."
So that's exactly what she decided to do - and her book Fear To Love quickly began to take shape.
When she started to write, she realised she couldn't stop and it all poured out. Belinda says: "Writing was an incredible release and I found myself going back to beliefs I had before all my illnesses and addiction.
"I started to remember things that had happened to me which had resulted in the way I was feeling.
"I never felt good enough so I starved myself to make myself look better for other people. I had issues and felt that I was neglected as a child. I realised that I had bonded more with my nanny than I did with my own mum."
Writing about this epiphany on her blog, she says: "I saw that I was not broken in any way, that I didn't need fixing.
"I saw that all that I had was some heavy thinking, negative thinking, that was the actual cause of my feelings of emptiness and not being enough. This understanding allowed me to not take the thinking so seriously and make way for the wisdom that lay beneath it to come through."
"From the age of 23 I had patched my life up as best as I could, but at 35 I reached a point where I knew that I couldn't go on as I had been.
"Something had to give. It was from that point that I was guided to an understanding which turned my life around - the understanding that our feelings are created by our thoughts, and that we are only ever experiencing a thought created reality.
"I came to see that my experience is created from within moment to moment." In total, it took three months for Belinda to collect her thoughts in the shape of a book, which she then decided to self-publish in order to get it on sale more quickly.
Belinda has now also added another string to her bow by starting to work as a life coach, bringing the wisdom she has learned from her own experiences to help other people going through challenging times.
"I have lived with the pain of anorexia, addiction, depression and suicide so I really felt I could relate to and talk to others about their experiences," she says.
"I also realised that I was controlled by my thinking and when I went underneath that I was a much better person and the truth was there untouched underneath.
"I am really passionate about helping people who suffer from stress and anxiety disorders," she adds.
Belinda does a lot of her work online and counsels people from the United States as well as locally.
And she adds that she really does feel that she is finally home: "I love living in Belfast. I feel a real connection with here as there is a lot of old family blood here. I feel very settled and content."
- Fear To Love: An Inner Journey Home by Belinda Bennetts is available in No Alibis book store on Botanic Avenue and Amazon (£9.79). For further details about Belinda or to make an appointment, contact www.belindabennetts.co.uk