Teen shares story, reminds peers 'it'll get better'

Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Mackenzie Belk, 16, of Jasper, poses for a portrait at the Jasper Parklands on Thursday.

Special to The Herald

As more and more of Mackenzie Belk’s friends reached out to her last year about problems they were struggling with, it suddenly occurred to her: “If those are the ones who are talking to me, there has to be so many more.”

So Mackenzie, now a 16-year-old junior at Northeast Dubois High School, decided to share her story on Instagram and go so far as to invite others to contact her.

“My goal this Wednesday is to reach out to as many of you as possible who are struggling to let you know you are not alone and your situation will get better,” she wrote last August.

“My parents separated before I was a year old. Therefore, I don’t have any memories of them together. When I was younger, I hated it, but now that I’m older I realize that they weren’t meant to be together and that there would probably be many more problems if they were. Because of this they shared custody of me.”

Her dad lives about an hour away and she was taken frequently from one house to another to satisfy the custody arrangement.

By the time she was in the fourth and fifth grades, her father gradually stopped picking her up. When she was in the seventh grade, in 2016, he was arrested on drug charges, spent a week in jail and went to rehab for a month.

“We didn’t have much communication after that, and I didn’t know how I should feel about the situation. I was ashamed, lost and felt extremely betrayed he would pick drugs over me,” she wrote.

By the spring of 2017, her father went missing. The family finally located him in the hospital, put there by an overdose. He was on the psychiatric floor because his mental health was so poor.

“Ever since this point things have been pretty inconsistent, and if I’m being honest right now I have no idea how he’s doing,” she wrote a year ago. “But I do know that all the struggles that were put on me because of this have subsided. I do know that I’ve made so much emotional and mental progress that it’s insane. I want you all to know that it’s a process. It can be a really long process, too, months or even years.”

Then she issued the invitation: “I want you all to know that if you have or are currently struggling with something like this, please feel free to reach out. 100 percent judge-free, I’m here to listen. And for all of you, you are not alone and your situation will get better.”

A few months before Mackenzie shared her story online, she had broken up with her boyfriend. Feeling down, she took a close look at what those she followed on social media were sharing.

“I was just seeing a bunch of sad, and I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore, ‘cuz it’s making me even more sad,’” she said when I met her early this year.

“And so I completely changed it. So now if you scroll through my Instagram page, it’s a bunch of positive, encouraging quotes. I remember specifically, I went through all of the people that I was following and unfollowed all of the accounts that I knew would just drag me down.”

“If you’re constantly seeing things that are negative, that’s how your mind-set is going to be,” she said when we finally met again — outside and socially distanced — earlier this month.

Realizing that she wasn’t the only person tired of the negativity spewed online, she started going out of her way to post positive quotes and affirmations on Wednesdays, “to get you through the rest of the week.”

After months of doing that — she’d sometimes post up to five times a day — the self-imposed consistency made it more of a job and less of a pleasure. Today, she still posts a lot of positivity, but she does so randomly.

She posted her story about her father, and the progress she had made in dealing with the situation, on one of those Wednesdays. The post got 25 responses, some of them from people sharing struggles of their own.

“I think it probably was them looking for the affirmation that it will get better even if it doesn’t seem like it’s going to,” she said.

Mackenzie’s mother, Paige Mundy, is the social worker for Northeast Dubois schools. Mackenzie figures that has given her more empathy, and that she has learned and grown through watching how her mother deals with problems.

Paige has a sign in her office at the high school that says, “Grow through what you go through.” A larger one with the same message rests in Mackenzie’s bedroom.

“You put yourself together [from the pain] and you just grow from it,” Mackenzie said. “Hurt doesn’t look like this or that; it can be anything in between. … You just have to put the face on each day and keep going through until one day you actually feel better. For me, it really just took the time.”

It also took time for her to be open about her feelings, even with her mother, who also grew up with an addicted parent.

“You can’t have people trying to force it out of you; otherwise it’s just going to shut you down. That’s why I always try to put those [invitations] out there so that people know that I’m there and that I’m open if they ever need anything. But it’s not like ‘I know something’s wrong with you; tell me what it is.’”

While the necessary time was passing, Mackenzie lived her faith and became more involved with her church, Redemption Christian in Jasper, and its outreach activities, including Night to Shine and Tri-Cap’s Holiday Shoppe in December.

Pre-pandemic, she was part of a Sunday night Bible study with other girls her age and looked forward to the Wednesday evening youth gatherings to hear a message and socialize. During the pandemic, she and about a dozen teens meet virtually every Wednesday evening. Some evenings they talk for more than 90 minutes.

Mackenzie has volunteered with at least three dairy and produce distributions at area churches this summer.

“I love serving now," she said. "Redemption has opened a whole new world of actually getting out there and doing stuff to make the world a better place.”

When I interviewed Mackenzie the first time, at her school in January, her mother sat nearby working on her computer as we talked. A few times Paige entered the conversation, like when she told her daughter that she never knew exactly how much to tell her about what was going on with her dad.

“Do I tell everything? Do I tell nothing? Do I tell what’s necessary depending on age? That was a tough balance for me, but I felt like you were smart enough you were going to know something was going on anyway.”

Whatever Paige shared with her daughter, she was sure not to trash-talk her dad and framed his actions as “a good person making bad choices. Addiction really can affect anyone.”

After Paige shared new information, she would ask her daughter: “What do you need now?” She intentionally didn’t ask a more pointed question or push her daughter to respond.

“Because I didn’t like to talk to you,” Mackenzie said.

“Every once in a while she’d come up to me and she’d just cry and I’d know” where it was coming from, Paige said. “Or she’d text me something about it.”

As Mackenzie got older, Paige shared more details.

“She was getting to the age where peer pressure was going to start and she was going to have to make some important choices about the path she was going to take,” Paige said.

Because addiction can be hereditary and her own father was an addict, Paige never experimented with drugs when her peers did. When she said no, she put the burden on her dad. Mackenzie does, too.

“It kind of sucks that in this point in time that you have to have an excuse,” Mackenzie said. But she has hers at the ready: “I can’t. My dad is addicted. … No, I can’t. I literally can’t.”

Mackenzie, who plays soccer for Northeast Dubois and has a boyfriend and a car to drive, comes across as a mature teen who has her life together. Unless you know her story, you wouldn’t guess the turmoil she has been through to get here.

What she wants her struggling peers to know is that “it’ll get better. If you can’t do anything, if it’s out of your control, you just have to give it the time that it’ll take and eventually something will change. If you can’t change it on your own, you can’t worry about it, because then it will just stress you out and make you sad.”

A couple of years ago, when the Dubois County Substance Abuse Council held its first opioid awareness vigil, Paige invited her daughter to attend with her — not expecting her to say yes. But Mackenzie did say yes, and mother-daughter attended the vigil in 2018 and again last year.

Last year, the mother of one of Mackenzie’s neighbors from childhood spoke about her son dying of an overdose. Mackenzie was 7 when he died and was best friends with his 6-year-old daughter. That was the first presence of addiction in Mackenzie’s life, before her father’s addiction was an issue.

“I was seven so I had no idea what was going on. So hearing [her story] with a more mature outlook was crazy to me,” Mackenzie said, calling the vigil overall “very powerful.”

“Even if you aren’t a recovering addict or alcoholic or anything, you could get something from that because you likely know someone that is. Just hearing their stories. [Addicts] are some of the strongest people because of what they’ve had to overcome after it’s chemically changed their mind.”

Mackenzie’s father is doing “really good” these days. He lives with his parents, helping them on their farm and working a job he had before at a restaurant. He and Mackenzie participated in a family “staycation” in Gatlingburg, Tennessee, last month, the first family trip her dad had joined in years.

More importantly, he is keeping in touch with his daughter.

“I know he’s doing much better than he was a few years ago,” she said, “but I never want to get my hopes up too far just because that’s how recovery is and you could slip back at any point.”

I asked what she had posted most recently on Instagram. Her answer didn’t disappoint. Earlier that day she had posted: “Today I want you to think of all that you are instead of all that you are not.”

If Mackenzie’s story resonates with you, she invites you to contact her on Instagram @mack.belk or via email at Mackenzie.belk1@gmail.com.

The third annual Overdose Awareness Candlelight Vigil is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at 18th Street Park in Ferdinand.

Martha Rasche is a member of the Dubois County Public Health Partnership Mental Health Committee. With funding from the health partnership, she writes about topics related to mental health. Read her blogs at TheseAreOurStories.com. Email her at mtrasche@twc.com.

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