Hazell McKenzie is no stranger to mental illness and the devastating effects it can have on those who suffer from it, and on their families and friends.
“I am a single mother who struggled with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and hearing voices,” she told WMN. The St Vincent born author of Suitcase of Dreams said the book is her memoir that took her two decades to complete.
It is set to be released in hard copy and E-book on November 5 on Amazon.
“My journey began over 20 years ago when I came to the US in hopes of a better life," when she literally packed a suitcase as an eager, teenage island girl. "To my surprise, it wasn’t better. My mother passed away at the age of 37, two years after we arrived in the US. I lived in constant fear that I too would one day suffer the same fate as her by dying young.” Life, she said, was difficult for her and her siblings, and the death of her father 13 years later and her pregnancy at 29 added to the hardship.
“I suffered from chronic depression for 18 years, too afraid to seek help because I didn’t want to be stereotyped or be labelled as ‘crazy’. I struggled with paranoia, delusion and ultimately hearing voices.” Things got so bad that the people and things that were important were severely affected. “My mind was on overload. I started to forget things including my children’s birthdays... Sometimes I forgot to cook them dinner. My son would cook food for himself and his sister if my sister wasn’t at home. I was so embarrassed about my mental state of mind, and I refused to tell anyone.”
She reflected on one of the many occasions on which death “showed up at my house uninvited.” That particular morning as she was getting her children ready for school, she remembered how “the voices echoed in my head as if they were six different people standing in front of me speaking all at once. They all yelled at the same time, ‘kill yourself!’” She said at the time she was struggling to even provide food for her children and the voices instructed her to crash her car and end it all.
She said, “I drove mindlessly with tears streaming down my face because there was no other way out. I wanted to get rid of the noise. So, I drove faster,” but then there was another voice telling her to be still. “There was a tug of war going on inside me. I wept bitterly.” Eventually, her faith in God won. “God kept me long enough so I can witness my own miracle. I am alive today to tell my story,” even though, for the most part, it is not a happy one.
As an immigrant, a minority and a single mother of two, every day was an uphill battle. “Even with BA in History I was unable to gain employment for three years. For that entire time I struggled to feed my children, everywhere I went I either had to walk or run because I couldn’t afford bus fare, I had to steal lemons from a Chinese fruit stand because I couldn’t afford deodorant. I stuffed cardboard in my sneakers because I walked a hole in them and couldn’t afford a new ones. I was too ashamed of my struggle to ask for help.” Additionally, her son was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and Asperger Syndrome . “I hated the way this American system treated my son. I hated the narrative they presented on paper about him. They didn’t see him they saw his disorder and treated him as such, and he was so much more."
But as dark and ominous as the clouds were for McKenzie, she was somehow able to find silver linings. She became a family advocate, working with school districts and community agencies in supporting the needs of families and children enrolled in middle schools. She also assisted parents with children with special needs by attending Individualised Education Plan (IEP) meetings and educating parents on the law regarding special education.
“I ran weekly workshops for parents to help them identify symptoms in early childhood of children struggling with special need.” She eventually moved into the realm of social work. "What inspired my drive to becoming a social worker was the many challenges I faced as an immigrant and as a minority. As a minority in the US seeking help from the institutions put in place to help struggling, single mothers such as myself was challenging. The attitudes of individuals in service delivery was demeaning and provided very little help... I have worked in social services for approximately ten years but have only had my MSW (Master's in Social Work) since May 19, 2019."
And even amid the struggles McKenzie found the strength to do other things that she loved, using them as therapy to treat with her mental illness. “In 2005 I recorded and released my first gospel album with a group I was a part of called Expression of Praise. My mom was a singer, she had a love for music and when I was about ten, I discovered that I too had a love for singing. Being a vocalist has always been one of my many dreams. It was one of the dreams I stuffed into my little suitcase.” She said singing has helped to soothe her during her emotional turmoil.
McKenzie appeared on and won Season 12 of the reality television series Worst Cooks in America aired on the Food Network "six months before I attempted suicide."
“At the time when I was on set, I still didn’t believe it. I walked into a room of 16 hopeful waiting for a shot at $25,000."
And three years ago she started a company called AdamaDOLL, INC. “The mission of my company is to treat and combat childhood sexual abuse through the use of technology and the natural play process of children,” a doll. “With this instrument we are able to capture conversation between the child and the doll and through the sensors we are able to track the difference interaction with the doll and the child’s vital." Her plan is to get it into hospitals, doctors’ offices, schools, government and private agencies that work with sexually abused children.
After the launch of Suitcase of Dreams, McKenzie plans on conducting book tours and continue to seek out mental health platforms to talk about sex abuse and depression, “and put my book on every book store shelf across the US and the Caribbean. I am hoping that whoever reads this book finds hope, drive and determination to push as hard as they can and as far as they can. My story is a testament to my faith and my willingness to success.” Her ultimate goal, though, is to bring it alive on a movie screen.