Sunny California weather didn't seem to help at all. Belinda couldn't get a job with insurance and her health woes continued. Even so, she took to the city of angels, finding friendship and club gigs in LA's goth scene.
Belinda met Rio Larribas at the Fang Club, the first time Belinda guest DJ'd in 2001. "Our friendship struck an immediate chord," Rio recalls. Both arriving before the club opened, they chatted a bit, learning they shared a passion for music and dance. A short while later, through the blur of clubbers, Belinda noticed Rio again, showing off his skilled fan dancing, in his self-made modern style. Fascinated, she complimented him. Flattered, he showed her how to use the fans. Rio taught her his best tricks, which she adapted to her own Geisha-inspired dance.
They became the best of friends, confidantes, mutual safe harbors in a storm. When they met neither knew how much they'd need each other. Like she, he would suffer organ failure: his kidney, her liver. The pain brought them closer, but pulled them apart when one would be too sick to visit the other. Through it all, they danced. "Belinda and I knew the pain we felt but we tried to never let it control our lives," Rio said. "Sometimes it would be too much to bear and in those times things would seem to worsen."
The worst was yet to come. About a year after moving to LA, Belinda's whole body began to ache. It slowed her down, she put on weight. Fibromyalgia, docs later told her. The disorder causes constant widespread body pain. The pain side of the tug-of-war was pulling hard, but Belinda yanked back, still pursuing the things she loved. She started school again at Santa Monica Community college, studied photography, opened a photography business with Mike, she kept DJing. And she danced through the pain. She was a striking presence in her dance choreography class at Santa Monica, remembers her classmate Sydney Cassata. The two women bonded in part with their shared sense of style: Dark hair, red lips - the gothic girls in a class of hip-hop fans. Belinda's final recital departed from the rest of the girls too. Inspired by the Ice Queen from the Chronicles of Narnia, Belinda adorned her eyes with ice crystals, wore a flowing black dress with sheer sleeves and danced a ballet-based piece to her original music, "Chasing me." It all impressed Sydney. Belinda "was the only one who thought outside of the box." Belinda liked Sydney's dance too, a Barbie doll-featuring commentary on media images emotionally scarring women. At its first rehearsal run through, "Belinda grabbed me backstage, and she had been crying," Sydney remembers. Belinda told her, "Your piece really, really moved me and I know exactly how you feel."
Then would you believe me?
If Belinda had extraordinary insight into the harm caused by viewing women through stereotypes and assumptions, she'd gained it through experience. Young and able bodied, she looked healthy to most observers, even doctors. She couldn't possibly be as ill as she claimed. It's a common problem for chronic pain sufferers. Many illnesses -- lupus, multiple sclerosis, an array of autoimmune disorders and chronic pain conditions -- hide in people who look fine on the outside. They also disproportionately affect women. Doctors and laypeople alike view illness through a narrow lens. A person with a broken leg is "obviously" injured. No one asks if it's "really" broken.
Yet a sizable segment of society suffers silently with "invisible" illnesses: Conditions inflicting horrific, crippling pain, while leaving scarce evidence. A close look might reveal dark circles of restless sleep and everlasting exhaustion. A long talk might reveal memory lapses and derailed thought trains. A passersby wouldn't see it. Even a friend or relative mightn't notice. The few who do notice seldom see these subtle symptoms as cause for concern. "But you don't look sick" is a familiar refrain to the invisible ill. So familiar it's spawned websites, books, and support groups intent on debunking the myth that "sick" shows like a neon sign.