SINGAPORE: She was hardly at home when her daughter was young. Cindy Tan was busy working instead, trying to raise two children as a single mother after her divorce.
Her daughter's distrust, and hatred even, was the heavy price she paid.
It was years later, when she was in her 50s, that Mdm Tan got an unexpected second chance to learn to be a mother again – the mother she'd never really been – to Valerie, who was nearly 30.
"It was like taking care of a newborn again,” she said. She had to be alert to her daughter’s safety nearly every minute. She had to help her form sentences in response to questions.
Except that the daughter she was now taking care of had schizophrenia.
To help heal her child's broken mind, Mdm Tan had to figure out how to mend their broken relationship. It was a daunting task that required rebuilding a fragile trust with an already-resentful daughter, whose illness made her prone to paranoia, suspicion, and withdrawal.
It left Mdm Tan at her wit’s end, at one stage. “I did plan to kill ourselves," she confesses, painfully. "I didn’t know what to do any more. I didn’t know how to help her.”
WATCH: A mother-daughter love story (6:56)
But, just as her daughter's own journey to recovery is today a beacon of hope for those suffering from mental illness; so Mdm Tan's parallel road is proof that it is never too late to be the mother your child needs you to be.
CHILDHOOD: 'SHE WASN'T THERE FOR ME'
Valerie Liu grew up feeling as if she was deprived of both a father and a mother. After her parents divorced early, her dad was no longer part of the family’s lives.
Her mother, on the other hand, was a businesswoman who promised herself that she would give her daughter and younger son a “life of luxury”.
“I just wanted their father to know that I could afford the two of them together,” said the 61-year-old.
But chasing that goal meant that her children were brought up by their grandmother and relatives. From the time Ms Liu was nine, her mother worked abroad as a director in a company, returning only once or twice a year.
And so began a rocky mother-daughter relationship. Ms Liu, who is now 36, said: “She wasn’t there for me, so I felt that I wasn’t cared for nor loved.”
It reached a point where they could not even have a “normal conversation” when her mother was on one of her rare visits home.
Whenever we talked, we’d fight and scold each other. Sometimes I’d just slam my door. And if I didn’t like certain topics she talked about, I’d just leave the house.
Mdm Tan remembers one incident in particular. Her daughter was about 14 or 15 and snapped at her, saying: “When I needed you, where were you? When I don’t need you, when I’ve grown up already, why are you here?”
By then, the resentful teenager no longer trusted her. She had previously taken her mother into her confidence after experiencing a childhood trauma. Without disclosing what happened, she said simply: “How could I trust her when she didn’t believe me?”
Turning to the company of friends instead, she became a “wayward person” – in her own words – who went clubbing, drank and smoked.
FIRST SYMPTOMS: 'I THOUGHT I WAS A DEITY'
Ms Liu thinks her “bottled-up, negative feelings” eventually caused the onset of her mental illness in 2006 when she was doing a pre-university bridging course in Perth. Her symptoms included hallucinations and delusions.
“I thought people were following me, and on the road, I kept hearing voices in my head,” she shared.
I also could hear the news talking about me. I thought I could talk to the radio. I thought I had superpowers … I thought I was a deity.
The fact is, there is no single cause for schizophrenia, said Dr Charmaine Tang, the deputy clinical chief and consultant at the Institute of Mental Health’s Department of Psychosis.
“Like many other illnesses, the causes are multifactorial and include both environmental and genetic factors," she explained.
For example, illicit drug use is "a well-known environmental factor associated with the development of schizophrenia", while having a relative with the illness also increases one’s risk.
“Traumatic and stressful experiences do not cause schizophrenia, but can trigger a schizophrenic episode in a vulnerable individual who is predisposed.”
During the period that Ms Liu was experiencing these episodes, the scared girl would call her mother. But Mdm Tan thought it was just stress, as her daughter would be crying about her studies.
She only realised that "something was really not right" when her son, who was also studying in Perth, called to say that his sister was in a very bad state and should return to Singapore.
Ms Liu came back to an empty four-room flat, as her mother was working in China. And over two years, her paranoia worsened. She recalls how the voices in her head told her that “the neighbours and my mother were conspiring against me”.
One day, she lost control. Feeling that her neighbours upstairs were disturbing her, she took a knife and knocked on their doors. The police were called in, and she was brought to IMH.
She cannot remember the incident, though her mother does. When Mdm Tan received the phone call about the case, she was “shivering”, and she flew home immediately.
AWKWARD START: 'I DIDN'T TRUST HER'
Ms Liu wasn't straightaway diagnosed with schizophrenia, but rather with psychosis. After staying at IMH for two to three months, she was released into her mother’s care.
The slow process of recovery, and of tentatively restoring their relationship, began.
Medication was helping Ms Liu, but she doubted her mother’s desire to help. “I didn’t trust her totally. So I’d see her actions. I’d monitor her … How does she talk? Is she patient? A lot of things. Is her tone sincere?” she recalled.
Both mother and daughter agreed that it was “very awkward” initially. Mdm Tan said she tried building up their relationship as if she was “trying to tackle” a potential boyfriend.
“When you want to tackle somebody, you always try to please,” she said. “You always give in … This was how I did it.”
Her daughter can now laugh at the thought. At the time, however, it did not help that Mdm Tan returned to China soon after – in Ms Liu's mind, breaking her word.
She said that she’d stay and work in Singapore. It didn’t happen at all.
Still, four years went by and she did not suffer a relapse, until she went on a holiday to China to visit her mother. With everything seemingly fine, she'd stopped taking her medication. Consequently, the symptoms returned – worse than before.
Back in Singapore, she heard voices again and became paranoid about people peeking into her bedroom. This time, when she was treated at IMH, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Sharing more about the condition, Dr Tang said: “Schizophrenia is a complex mental illness that usually has its onset in young individuals between the ages of 15 and 25.
“Worldwide, about one in 100 adults have schizophrenia, and it affects men and women equally … Contrary to common misconceptions, schizophrenia isn’t a disorder of 'split personality', but rather a disorder of fragmented mental processes.”
REKINDLING THE RELATIONSHIP
It was after her daughter’s relapse that Mdm Tan realised things could not go on the way they had.
"Every day, she'd tell me, 'Mummy, help me, Please help me find my soul. I don’t know who I am. Get me my soul back.' It was so scary," she recalled with a hitch in her voice even now.
To Ms Liu, the first sign that her mother wanted to change was when the latter begged for forgiveness. “If not, her tears wouldn’t have flowed,” she said.
She’s a very strong woman … and I hadn’t really seen her cry before.
This time, Mdm Tan took unpaid leave from work. And while her daughter was getting treatment, she enrolled in a 12-week course for carers of patients with mental illness.
When Ms Liu returned home, her mother observed her likes and dislikes. For example, because she was worried that people might peek at her, her mother installed blinds in their flat.
Ms Liu's biggest fear, however, was of the uncertainty about what was going wrong with her life. So she stayed cooped up at home. “I was very withdrawn ... I totally blocked off everyone."
She also could not form proper sentences to express herself. Extreme apathy and social withdrawal, poverty of speech, a severe lack of emotional reactivity and disorganised behaviour are some of the common symptoms of schizophrenia, noted Dr Tang.
Ms Liu’s mother guided her every step of the way, including once when she was just confused about how to climb the stairs of a pedestrian bridge.
“I didn’t know how to coordinate. I was very scared. My mum encouraged me to take one step at a time,” she recalled.
Mdm Tan said she slept only three hours a day during that period, ready to wake at any minute. She kept all the knives away and installed window grilles.
But even as she had to be like a new mother again, she knew she could not act like a parent towards her daughter, or Ms Liu would not listen to her.
“I could only act as a friend because she’d only talk to the friend and listen to her friend,” she said. It worked.
From young, her daughter had never wanted to hug or even hold hands with her. But as trust started to grow anew, Mdm Tan tried slowly to hold her child's hand when they went for walks.
“Little bit by little bit … until, oh my God, she didn’t let go of my hand – so, continue holding,” she said delightedly. Now they can call themselves “best friends”, her daughter added.
Their relationship now is one of the reasons Ms Liu can call her illness a “blessing in disguise”. Another is her new lifestyle. She started exercising – “at least three times a week” – and sleeping early, before 10pm.
“I’d put all my devices outside the room, which I didn’t use to do. In the past, I’d put my handphone beside me on the bed, for people to jio (invite) me to go out, especially at night,” she said.
Her name was another change she made as part of a fresh start. She felt that the name Valerie was more auspicious.
In 2014, during her recovery process, she started work as a receptionist in a non-profit mental health organisation. She was initially reluctant because of her social anxiety. But her mother helped by accompanying her at first.
“After a few days, she said, ‘You go to work on your own. And then you text me if anything’s wrong,'” Ms Liu recalled.
She pulled through, she thinks, because of the conducive environment and helpful colleagues. “They were very understanding. They knew about my condition."
Two years later, she joined the Singapore Association for Mental Health. She is now a community education officer and also a peer support specialist, for which she is trained to help others with mental health issues.
That role in co-leading groups of people towards recovery by, for example, sharing her experiences, has become her passion. “It really motivates me,” she said.
When you hold out hope for others, they will feel hopeful. And when you believe in them, they start to believe in themselves too. Just like when my mom held out hope for me.
While she considers herself to be a recovered patient, she hopes she can do better, to repay her mother “for what she has done”.
“Without her, I won’t be where I am today,” said an emotional Ms Liu, who also credited her relatives. “I want to maintain my health so that, in future, I can have the strength to take care of her.”
As for any hopes of having a partner, Mdm Tan showed her protective motherly side by making sure that such questions were off the table for this story.
Looking back, she understands why her daughter was angry with her. “What she wanted was love. What she wanted was security from me, but I wasn’t there for such a long period,” she said.
Now she gets to give her daughter all that and be the mother she always wanted to be – and best friend too.
Where to find help:
Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline: 6389 2222
Samaritans of Singapore Hotline: 1800 221 4444
Singapore Association of Mental Health Helpline: 1800 283 7019