(Watch a video of Phyllis Dyson sharing details of her story with BCSS Foundation Board Chair, Renato Zane at the bottom of this post.)
Chris Sandy, a BC Schizophrenia Society Foundation (BCSSF) volunteer Board Director, has generously offered to once again match all donations made before January 31, up to a total of $10,000!
My name is Phyllis Dyson, and my mother, Carolyn, struggled with paranoid schizophrenia. In 1990, when I was in college, Mom was killed at a Lower Mainland SkyTrain station during an altercation with a police officer. She was only 45 years old.
After my mother’s death, I barely talked about her. If anyone asked about my mom, I’d change the subject. I never lied to my daughters, but I rarely talked about my childhood or my parents. I didn’t want anyone, least of all my girls, to know my secret burden.
“Mummy, how old was your mom when she died?”
My 10-year old daughter’s question came completely out of the blue at bedtime one night and rattled me to the core. I had just closed her curtains, and was sitting on the bed next to her while she lay under her floral comforter. I tried to hide my shock as I answered, “She was forty-five.” “That’s really sad, Mum.” “Yes, it’s very sad. It was a long time ago. I’m healthy. I’m fine,” I assured her in case she was making the connection that I was 45 myself. “Come now, you have school tomorrow,” I added.
I hugged her tightly and bid her goodnight. Then I walked into my room to try to collect myself. I did not want my husband or older daughter to see me so shaken.
In the days that followed, memories of my mother and my early childhood came flooding back. She was calm, loving, gentle, and shy. She was a single mom who never complained to us kids about being poor. She smelled of Ivory soap, cigarette smoke, waxy lipstick and cheap perfume. She had long, wavy black hair, and enjoyed a good joke and The Price is Right.
Diagnosed as a teenager, Mom had tried a variety of medications. As long as she received her long-acting injectable medication regularly, Mom was able to take good care of me and my older brother, Ron. She made sure we had clean clothes and a warm and tidy home. Despite our limited budget, Mom managed to create healthy meals, always making sure we had our greens. But my favourite meal was baked macaroni. Mom made the best-tasting macaroni and cheese ever! As we ate it, strings of cheese would hang from our forks.
My love for reading started early. Mom would take us to the library regularly. When we were young, Mom read to us while we cuddled next to her on the couch; Ron on one side of her, while I was on the other. When I was able to read out loud to her, Mom would beam with pride and encourage me.
Our little family of three was happy and doing well until I was eight. After years of stability, Mom thought she was cured. With the hope for a better life, she stopped taking her medication. And we kids saw that Mom began to change. Instead of her calm, loving self, she became moody and started acting in ways that left us kids very confused.
When we saw that Mom would become very upset very easily, we started to shield her from any bad news. We didn’t tell her when we had problems at school or run-ins with other kids. We were trying to protect her and keep everything at home as calm as possible.
But Mom became more and more unpredictable. She’d be fine one minute and then, without warning, she wouldn’t be. I believe that Mom’s biggest fear was that we would be taken from her. One time, in the middle of the night, she bundled us kids up and took us to a motel because she was convinced we weren’t safe. She stayed up all night to watch over us and protect us. She brought us home the following morning when she figured all was well again. Another time, after a fun day together, she suddenly didn’t recognize us, even though we were standing right there in front of her. She was convinced we had been stolen from her.
When Mom would get into these “states,” there was no reasoning with her. I became very frustrated and angry. After an argument one afternoon, I ran away. I thought that by running away, I would teach her a lesson. I walked and walked and walked, until a smartly dressed lady saw me on the sidewalk by Canada Way and brought me to a police station.
My mother’s worst nightmare came true… Ron and I became Wards of the Court
We kids were never told why we were sent to live with our maternal uncle. And whenever I asked my aunt and uncle when we’d see Mom again, they’d tell me to go play, as if that would help me forget my mom. When I realized we weren’t going to live with our mother anymore, all I could think of was…
This is all my fault. This is because I ran away.
I believed that we lost our mom, our home, and our life together as a family because of me. I was haunted by shame and guilt. I was afraid that people would find out what I had done. So, I hid this burden as best as I could, deep in my heart. While I didn’t know it at the time, my secret burden took root, grew strong, and deeply affected me for decades to come.
Back then, no one ever really explained to us what was happening with our mom, and we were discouraged from asking questions, speaking about her, or even speaking to her. Even when she was stable and on her medications, she was not allowed to visit us often. Our contact with her over the years was very limited and we missed her terribly.
I didn’t know my mother even had schizophrenia until I was 14. During one of our visits with her, Mom told me that God had spoken to her through the radio. “That doesn’t make sense, Mom.” When Mom calmly replied that she had schizophrenia, I had no idea what it was and how to react. I fled into the bathroom, looked into the mirror, and asked my reflection…
Years after my mom died and I was working towards my Graduate Diploma in Special Education, I summoned the courage to do some research into schizophrenia. That’s when I discovered the BC Schizophrenia Society (BCSS).
When I talked about my mother with other BCSS members, I felt no judgment, only compassion and understanding. For the first time in years, I felt a sense of belonging.
I quickly became an active and strong supporter of BCSS. I joined the local branch and spoke at a number of Partnership Education Presentations. I became convinced that I had sorted out many of my feelings about what happened because of mom’s illness.
But was I ever wrong!
My daughter’s innocent question left me deeply troubled for days. I realized that although I learned a lot about schizophrenia, and had worked hard to build a healthy, happy life with a successful career, good friends, and a wonderful family of my own, my secret burden was still there…haunting me. I still believed that I was the reason that we were taken from our mom.
How long would it be until my daughter would ask me more about my mom and family? What would I say? As I thought about her possible questions, I realized I really didn’t have many details.
My search for the missing pieces about my childhood turned into a book. And by writing a book about my mom and our family’s journey, I found some answers…and some peace. My book is called Among Silent Echoes: A Memoir of Trauma and Resilience and you can learn more about it here.
As I solved a few of the mysteries about why things happened to our family, the weight of my burden began to melt away. I saw how misunderstood my mother had been. I saw that people didn’t know her as Ron and I had. I saw the obstacles she had to face. I saw the lack of awareness and compassion that led to our shattered family. I saw that my mother did the best she could against great odds, and how much she loved us.
And I have also come to accept in my heart that I was not reason we were separated from our mom. As time passes, I find that I can talk about her more and more. I can share happy memories of Mom with my family. For a long time, I was worried that I was forgetting the sounds of my mother’s voice and laughter, but now my daughters remind me every day.
You can make a difference for so many who are searching for help, feeling desperate and lost.
Over the years, I have seen people stumble into BCSS group meetings, feeling lost and alone…. desperate for answers. Many are burdened with guilt, like I was. Through information and support, BCSS gives family members hope and teaches them how to cope.
I want to help BCSS continue to grow and do even more to help all of us whose lives have been forever changed by serious mental illness. This is why I wanted to share my personal story with you and hope that you will join me in supporting BCSS.
With your help, there is hope.
Thank you for reading my personal journey of how I came to better understand my mother whose love I will always feel in my heart. My biggest hope is that our story will touch others and move them to improve the lives of those affected by serious mental illness.
I’m off to make baked macaroni for my family so I can smile as the strings of cheese drip off their forks.
P.S.: With Chris’ match, your gift doubles! Please join me and give as generously as you can today!