Marty Balencie

Mental Health

Showing Signs of Life

August 26, 2020

I was born in Florida in 1978 and lived there until my dad took a job in Birmingham, Alabama. Before I graduated high school, my parents moved back to Florida, but I stayed in Birmingham to finish school. After a year and a half on my own, I couldn’t do it anymore, so I moved back to Pensacola, Florida, with my parents where I attended junior college. At age 20, I was working two jobs: one was as a dancer in a nightclub that paid me in alcohol and cash under the table. That’s where I met Abe (not his real name), fell madly in love and began a tumultuous relationship with him.

A Tumultuous Love and a Difficult Revelation

Before meeting Abe , I hadn’t told my parents that I was even attracted to men. I promised myself that when I met someone I really loved, I would tell them. Abe was that guy. When I finally told my parents, Mom was completely fine with it, but Dad didn’t take it so well. Abe was on probation when I met him. He’d gotten into some trouble with the law, but I thought I could help him. In the beginning, everything seemed good, but those closest to me could see the cracks. Love truly is blind. While in college, I was living with Abe and his friend, who was running an illegal escort business out of the house. When that fell apart, we moved in with Abe’s mother and brother, where I slept either on the couch or on the floor until Abe came out of court-appointed rehab. When he was released, I moved him to Tallahassee so I could study sociology. I wanted to pursue photography and art, but my dad, who was putting me through college, didn’t think a liberal arts career would be successful.

Escaping a Dark Place

I wasn’t enjoying college and there were a lot of intense situations happening at home. To put it lightly, life with Abe was horrible. Though he was never physically violent, he was emotionally abusive. He once tried to commit suicide in front of me and threatened to kill me if I tried to leave. The whole relationship (and my life in general) was one big mess and I was sinking into a deep, dark place. I needed to get away. Abe had violated his probation, so I called the cops and had him arrested. It was the only way I could escape him.

When I told my friend, Sam, what had happened, she and her husband came to Florida, packed up my belongings and took me back to their house in Alabama. They saved me. I lived with Sam and her husband for about 6 months until I was able to save enough money to get my own place. I carried on partying with my new colleagues and friends I met—it was still life in the fast lane for a while.

Battling the Unseen Enemy: Cancer

At 26, I started getting unusually tired. I was barely functioning and, no matter what I did, I never had any energy. After multiple misdiagnoses, they eventually found a tumour in my intestines. The doctors in Birmingham said they had never seen cancer like mine before. I was prescribed six months of chemo and twenty rounds of radiation therapy. I still remember going out to bars and partying between the rounds of chemo, but at the end of the six months, I was completely beat.

I was having chemo treatments every two weeks, which made me even more exhausted than before, so I ended up gaining a lot of weight. Most people don’t know this, but there are different types of chemo for different kinds of cancer. For me, it was a drip that ran into my artery through a device in my chest. The needle went straight into the device through my skin. Ten hours later, I was done. I’d occupy myself during those hours by writing about the people I’d see and meet.

By the fourth round of chemo, they realized that the tumor wasn’t shrinking, so I immediately started radiation therapy. I was pumped full of steroids just to give me the energy to get through the treatments. Radiation is like a strong, loud x-ray that they direct at your cancer Monday to Friday for four weeks. After two weeks I started to feel the side effects, which lasted for about a month. The doctor told me that the pain is similar to childbirth. It was the worst pain I’ve ever experienced.

Finding Purpose in Life

July 13th, 2006, doctors told me that the tumor was completely gone. Whenever bad things happen, we always think “why me?” I ran through everything in my head that I had ever done wrong trying to figure out why I was being punished so hard. A year after my good news, I realized the answer to that question. My older sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. I knew in that moment that I had to go through what I did so that I could help her on her journey. This was a massive turning point for me. I realized that my life has a purpose.

The hardest thing about cancer was the physical pain and the insecurity I felt from the way that I looked. The best thing about going through cancer was my own personal transformation. I have learnt how to live my life fully with everything in moderation. I don’t need to party like it’s my last night on earth anymore. I am better about looking after myself and the people around me now. Life is way too short, so enjoy it, take yourself out of your comfort zone and inspire people. This was my mindset in 2008. I started going to the gym and had a new job. I slowly regained my confidence and even started dating again. I dated a guy for two years, but the relationship ended about the time I was told I needed brain surgery.

I had been suffering from migraines since high school. Sometimes they were so bad I would end up in the ER. A brain scan revealed that I was suffering from Chiari Malformation, which is a condition where your brain is detaching from the base of your skull. If I moved in certain ways, it would cause pressure and ultimately my headaches. I was at risk of being partially or completely paralyses. The surgeons had to shave down the opening of my skull and my C1 and C2 vertebrae to alleviate the pressure. It was a major operation, so I was in ICU for a while afterward for monitoring. When I was discharged from the hospital, I went back to Florida with my parents. I couldn’t wash or dress myself, so I needed a lot of support. My best friend, Paige, was a huge support to me during this time. That whole experience again made me wonder “why me?” However, because of my experience with cancer, I knew there would be a reason. I just didn’t know what it was yet.

From Surviving to Thriving

When I made it back to Alabama in 2012, I was in a good place again – I felt good about the way I looked, my health had improved, and I was taking control of my life. On my cancer-free anniversary in July, I celebrated by posting a picture of myself holding a sign that read “Survivor.” My family and I were actively raising money for a cancer charity, so I started encouraging other people to do the same with the sign to raise money for the American Cancer Society. I eventually created the social media campaign, The Signs of Life, to raise money and awareness. We took photos of people holding signs that said “Fighter,” “Caregiver,” “Advocate” and “Remember.” The campaign began to garner a lot of attention, so I quit collecting donations and started collecting people’s stories instead. I wanted to share the stories to let people know they weren’t alone. On a trip to D.C. I randomly met an editor from the Huffington Post who liked what we were doing and wrote an article on the Signs of Life Campaign. Suddenly, we weren’t just making a difference in Birmingham and Florida anymore; our impact was on a national level.

I had met a guy while in D.C. who I was thinking of moving in with, but I needed somewhere to live temporarily while I worked out the details. My best friend of 6-7 years, Paige, offered me her place, so I put everything I owned in storage and moved in with her. Whilst living with her, I realised that moving to D.C. wasn’t the right thing to do. Paige was happy for me to stay with her, and I’ve been with her ever since. She, like me, is gay. We’ve helped each other through a lot and are truly the best of friends, so in 2017, we decided to get married! We truly do love each other, we never argue, and we continue to take care of each other. It’s the most ideal situation for us, and we’re lucky that all our friends and family are so supportive. We believe that your soulmate isn’t necessarily your lover; they could be a friend instead. I know that I have found my soulmate in Paige and I will always look after her. That’s why I have made a life-long commitment to her.

My dream is to leave a positive footprint on this earth before I leave. Whether it’s big or small, with lots of people or few, I want to be remembered for the good I’ve tried to do.

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