I have only ever called the police once. I snuck into the living room of my childhood home in Belize to get to the green rotary phone sitting on the TV stand. I was a teenager with a high-pitched voice, incapable of exuding the authority needed to compel Belize City Police to come to our house. So, I spoke slowly, deepened my pitch, and assumed the personality of Miss Jennifer, our neighbour. Her voice and personality commanded respect. ‘Unu no gat hows?’ she’d bellow from inside her downstairs home across the street. She didn’t have to set foot outside; her voice would send the neighbourhood children running from her yaad.
I don’t remember exactly what I said on my call. But I’ll never forget using expressions like ‘krayzi laydi’, ‘pahn di schreet’, and ‘brok op’ as I urged the police to come before ‘shee hert sohnbadi’—in my best impression of Miss Jennifer.
A young policeman arrived at our house a few minutes later. He stepped out of the car and calmly approached my mother who was standing at our front gate. She was still clenching the stick she had used to break all the glass and smash what remained of the outdoor lights on our gate posts.
‘Eevnin. You brok sohnting?’ asked the officer.
He had stopped on the edge of the paved street about two feet from our gate. His question was punctuated by the sound of glass cracking under his feet. Intellectually, he was no match for my mother who eloquently and with an air of condescension explained—in English, not the local Kriol dialect, of course—that she had broken her lights on her private property and that she was well within her rights to do so. I looked on, wishing she would mention what she had screamed at the top of her lungs for the past hour: God commanded me to break the lamps.
Just a few hours earlier, my mother had been lying in the tall grass on the vacant lot around the lane because God had also told her to do that. And right before returning home to destroy the light fixtures, she had been praying in the middle of the busy street. That she could then choose to be so composed, so logical, so articulate, so SANE when confronted by the officer infuriated me. Why couldn’t she choose to be my mother? I wanted to scream at her to stop and then beg the policeman to call someone who could force her to take her medication. I couldn’t. I had a secret to preserve. If she found out I brought the police to her house, she would never forgive me. So, I just stood on the verandah and watched her perform, terrified that she’d convince the officer there was nothing he needed to respond to at our house. And he’d leave.
After only a few minutes, the policeman yielded to my mother, agreeing that he couldn’t legally do anything to stop her from destroying her property. She had won yet another one of her battles of wits and seemed so pleased with herself.
‘Jos kip yu voice dong. No bada yu naybas,’ he told her, and he left.
And I remained, feeling hopeless, helpless and infuriated. I was also extremely ashamed of myself. Since that day, I’ve been burdened not only by the shame but also guilt for feeding into stereotypes that are at the root of the stigmatisation and discrimination of people with mental illness in Belize. I feel like I betrayed my mother and have never truly forgiven my teenage self for doing so. I have, however, come to have more sympathy for the younger me and view what I did with a bit of compassion. I called the police because I desperately needed help for my mother. My family did, and we still do. But we had no idea of how to effectively help her. We still don’t, having had two distinct mothers. I started out in life with a mother whom I don’t recall ever giving me a hug or telling me ‘Ah lov yu.’ However, there were many other things she did that made me confident of the love she had for me when I was a little girl. My father lived with us, worked hard and was a good provider, but my mother was the head of the household. She was the caregiver who tied cactus wrapped in a kerchief around our heads to reduce our fever as she nursed us when we were sick. She was the parent who disciplined us and educated us. My mother was passionate about imparting all she knew to her children. She taught me how to read and speak Spanish at the large wooden table in the centre of our dining room. From Mommy, I learned how to cook, embroidery and tend a garden. From a very early age, she tried to instil a love of books and education in all her children, but she also always found time to play with us.
In my middle-school years, whenever schools in Belize City would close due to flooding during rainy season, my brother, sister and I would look forward to passing the day with our mommy indoors. I can still hear the raindrops pelting on the zinc roof and the windows, feel the cosiness of the house warmed by the gas oven and smell the medley of spices in the powder buns and trifle our mommy baked for us. After we ate our treats, my mother would lie on her back on the bed and extend her legs upward, lifting the top sheet to form our tent. Each time our tent was hoisted, we would read and play in it until our human pole fell, causing our tent to collapse on our heads. The sound of our giggles filled the house. I still mourn the loss of this mother, especially when it rains, because sometime during my primary school years, she gradually became a different person.
A memory of the woman my mother became is often replayed in a dream I have of her beating my older sister with a belt. With each whip, my sister cries out, ‘Ai noh andastan. Ai noh andastan.’ Though my mother had always been the parent in charge of discipline in the family—and she was never one to spare the rod—as her illness progressed, the punishments we received became more frequent and severe. She would spread hot pepper sauce on our mouths if she thought we were lying and beat our knuckles with a wooden hairbrush if we were even suspected of stealing. The sound of our cries filled the house, but no one helped us to process what was happening. The fact that our mother was suffering from a mental illness wasn’t something that was even shared with us by any of the adults in our lives. I suspect it was, at least in part, because we were children. In Belize, children are expected to be seen but not heard. As a child, I was never asked what I thought or felt about anything that was done by an adult.
One evening, my brother, sister and I were playing on the verandah when my father pulled up and parked his car on the street in front of our house. As two of my mom’s closest friends exited the car, we looked at each other, brows raised in disbelief. It was our first time seeing a female friend of our mom in my dad’s car. We piled into the doorway that led from the living room to the living room and waited for them to get upstairs. On entering the dining room, they were immediately greeted by the eager and curious stares of me and my siblings.
‘Good evening, Miss Pearle. Good evening, Miss Alice,’ we all said in unison, hoping that they would say something that would give us a clue to why they were there.
‘Good evening,’ they responded and walked single file straight into my parents’ bedroom, like marching ants, and closed the door behind them. They gave us nothing.
From the living room we could hear their voices, but we couldn’t make out what was being said. I tiptoed across the dining room to the hallway leading to the bedrooms to try to get a better listen. ‘Please! Please!’ my father cried. The sound of him pleading gave me chills. I gingerly walked back to the verandah and reported what I had heard. When they exited the room, their red eyes and runny noses made it obvious that they had been crying, but none of them said anything to us.
Having a mentally ill family member was something that we experienced as a family but never spoke about as one. ‘Yu ma sik’ was all my dad would say, usually after my mother had beaten us, in his attempt to justify my mother’s actions. Perhaps it was because he was not the type of man to talk about what he was thinking or even feeling. Mental health was also still taboo in Belize, so much so that I don’t think that he is even capable of uttering the term ‘mentally ill’ to describe our mother. To him, she is ‘sik’. That doesn’t sound too bad. When we were children, Dads, as we affectionately call him, may have also thought he was protecting us by not acknowledging that our mother had a mental illness. He had always tried to ensure we lived very sheltered lives. He cursed, smoked, drank and gambled, but he never brought any of his vices into our home. But no one could protect us from our mother. We lived with her. My siblings and I quickly figured out that ‘sik’ was a euphemism for mentally ill. However, knowing that my mother is mentally ill has only somewhat mitigated the impact of the things she has said and done to us.
Rather than protection, we needed education and guidance. However, no one has ever even shared a proper diagnosis of my mother’s illness with us. In the absence of a trustworthy adult to provide us with an explanation, we assigned our own meaning to her actions. To date, my older sister remains convinced our mother has never loved her. My older brother believes—just as strongly—that my mother isn’t ill. According to him, Mommy—disappointed with how her life turned out—has opted to tune out of it and create an alternate one for herself.
It’s been more than thirty years since I made that call, and we continue our despairing search for answers to two questions. From what mental illness does my mom suffer, and what can we as a family do to help her get better?
For decades, my mother and entire family have been failed by countless people and institutions within our community in Belize, so I will no longer bear the burden of guilt and shame alone. The Belize society needs to improve the way it views and treats those who are mentally ill. A family with a member who has a mental illness is an unhealthy family, so it’s difficult for me to imagine an effective treatment for the mentally ill that does not include interventions targeting the entire family.
I’ve often wished for a place or a resource my family and I could access to learn more about our mommy’s illness. Much of the anger I felt towards her stemmed from my lack of understanding of her symptoms. I described her behaviour in the presence of the police officer as a performance. During my teenage years, there were many other occasions when the extreme changes in her personality or behaviour, especially at times when it seemed like changing would be in her best interests, made me feel like she was faking. Why hadn’t she mentioned hearing God’s voice in her head commanding her to destroy things to the officer? Some knowledge of her condition would have prevented me from viewing this as a convenient omission. If, as children, we had been educated on her condition, our wounds from her sharp tongue and sometimes spiteful, selfish, erratic and cruel behaviour would probably not have cut so deep.
While there was no one to educate us on our mother’s condition inside or outside the home, the messages we received from society about those who are mentally ill were loud and clear. It saddens me that the community I grew up in taught me what words would conjure images of a violent and crazed individual who’d instantly be perceived as a threat to the neighbourhood. My mother loved her community. She opened our home to its members and generously gave her time and money. A priest from our local parish once came to our house to return a portion of the collection she had given during mass that month. It was too much, he said. My mother was also a founding member of HelpAge Belize, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to improving the lives of the elderly. During its early stages, the organisation was housed on the ground floor of our home. When I’d return from school in the evening, I was required to help make sandwiches for the senior citizens gathered at our house to do crafts and socialise. My mother was truly dedicated to improving the lives of the people in our community, and she required the same level of commitment to service from the entire family. It was, therefore, difficult watching her be rejected by the same community and prevented from participating in the activities she enjoyed most. It was illogical.
I’ve longed for her to be afforded the opportunity to be active in her community again, but battling a mental illness is a lonely and solitary experience for the person who struggles with the symptoms of their condition and their family. The number of friends my mother had dwindled until she had none left. Her own community won’t let her move beyond being more than the ‘krayzi laydi’. It’s as if she has a contagious disease. Still, we love our mother, and she is important to us. People with mental disorders with families who love and care for them need to be represented in any efforts to increase public awareness of mental illness. We only ever seem to hear from the families of people with mental disorders in the wake of a tragedy. It’s always heartbreaking to watch a tear-jerking interview of someone who has lost a loved one in which they repeatedly assert that the deceased was mentally ill but not violent. It’s as if they are trying to convince everyone that their loved one didn’t deserve to die in the manner they did. I often see myself in that person and am tempted to reach out to them. Interventions for families should include opportunities to connect with other families with the shared experience of caring for a mentally ill family member.
Belizean society requires a cultural shift or a drastic change in its attitude and approach to working with those living with mental illnesses and their families. In Belize, we have never traditionally had conversations about mental health, and we are known to be a ‘wan- wan- okro- ful- baaskit’ kind of society. Progress and change take their slow and sweet time to get here. I have, however, seen some signs of progress. In 2022, Alina Scott, the runner-up in the Miss Universe Belize Pageant, spoke openly about her struggles with mental health and body images. Alina competed on a platform that sought to destigmatise mental health issues. That year also marked the third anniversary of the publication of Benjy, a fictional story where the main character struggles with schizophrenia. The book was written by Kathy Esquivel, former First Lady of Belize and founder of the Mental Health Association. It was partly inspired by her late brother-in-law who lived with a mental disorder. Change is happening, but it’s not happening fast enough.
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