The first half of Marie Balter's life reads like bad fiction.
At 6, her alcoholic mother abandoned her. She was adopted by an elderly couple who locked her in the basement and abused her.Suicidal and depressed, she was committed to Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts for 20 years. There, she was kept in a locked ward, misdiagnosed, mistreated and given up on as "hopeless."
In addition, she was finally reunited with her natural mother. But within a year of the reunion, her mother died in a fire. Her adoptive parents disowned her. And when she tried to reconcile with her adoptive father, he "dropped dead in my arms when I went up to kiss him."
Eventually, with the help of a doctor who refused to give up, Balter was correctly diagnosed. She had severe anxiety and panic disorder, which were frequently exacerbated by the medications she received.
Twenty years ago, she was released from the Massachusetts hospital and began to reclaim her life.
Wednesday, she was in Salt Lake City to discuss survival. During her keynote address before "Suicide and Depression Update: A Landmark Conference for the '90s," Balter said she had to let go of her anger and forgive people for mistakes in order to change her life. But most of the credit, she said, belongs to God.
The change was drastic. She married, earned a master's degree in social work from Harvard and returned to Danvers to start her own mental-health center.
"It sounds like a lot of tragedy," she said. "But I wouldn't change my life one bit. Now, I try to bring a message of hope."
Society itself, she said, is depressed. "We don't even feel empowered any longer to change that which we don't like. We have a sense of hopelessness. That does not mean hope is not there."
Shock treatment, tubs and cold packs fueled her anger and frustration. So did the family that gave up on her.
"Could I have moved in my life if I had not taken some move to reconciliation? I had to forgive those who mistreated me. Until I had done that, I could not have moved. But I made a bargain with God. I didn't ask him for a miracle. I said, `I will do the work. I will make the effort.' "
At Danvers, staff placed quarter bets that she wouldn't be out for two full weeks. "It's been 20 years. I'd say they were wrong."
A small portion of Balter's life was the subject of a made-for-television movie, "Nobody's Child," starring Marlo Thomas. Balter wrote a book by the same name.
The conference, a unique private-public collaboration sponsored by the divisions of Mental Health and Substance Abuse and the Western Institute of Neuropsychiatry, attracted mainly professionals who deal with suicide and depression. For them, Balter had a special warning: "`We get so used to working with people with problems that we forget there's pain behind the symptoms. We are the write-off society. Let's not write them off.
"If we evaluate what we do by productivity, we may fail. But if we evaluate what we do by what we can do with the quality of life, we succeed. Most of all, you need to believe in yourselves. You are the bearers of hope."