Bill Walsh speaks about the work and life of his wife Brenda Walsh (now deceased)
Interview date: September 2006
Bio: Brenda Walsh spoke out in the community in the 1980s about what it was like to have a mental illness. She volunteered with the Canadian Mental Health Association and was instrumental in the development of the Consumer Health Awareness Network Newfoundland and Labrador CHANNAL. Brenda was a wife, a mother, and an educator of those around her on the realities of living with a mental illness. Brenda lost her battle with cancer on May 30, 2004; Brenda also fought another battle against discrimination and began the fight towards the promotion of mental health and understanding of mental illness.
Interviewer: Bill Walsh is being interviewed regarding the community activism of his late wife, Brenda Walsh
Walsh: Brenda’s role in this particular – I wouldn’t say ‘movement’ – involved speaking out about mental illness.
Interviewer: So, when was she diagnosed?
Walsh: Brenda was diagnosed as having a mental illness when she was in her mid-teens, at 16 years old in 1970. She had two older brothers who were involved in narcotics – illegal drugs – one was a pusher and one was a user. Although Brenda never took part in any illegal drug activity, her father, a pharmacist, saw Brenda’s behaviour and thought that his daughter Brenda was also on drugs. One night in particular she came home and she more or less went deranged. He had her taken from his home by the police and she ended up in the lockup at age 16. The watchman or guard at the time said, ‘It doesn’t appear that she’s on drugs’, and sent her to the Waterford Hospital. She was in the Waterford Hospital for six months under heavy medication. She was misdiagnosed at that time as having Schizophrenia. She was correctly diagnosed with Biopolar Disorder in about 1976… ’78 and from then on she was treated – with the right medication.
In 1972, Brenda Tilley went to work in an establishment where we met. We were engaged in September of 1975 and were married November ’75, two months later.
She got pregnant within five months after we were married but lost a baby almost right away. But, she was deemed physically and mentally well enough to have a child by her doctor. So within a year Allison was born and fourteen months later, David was born. Brenda ended up in the hospital when our son was 13 days old, on his christening day due to postpartum depression. She ended up in St. Clare’s Hospital and stayed there for three or five weeks. She then came home, got well and carried on from there. After three and a half years we had Elizabeth and Brenda had eleven years without admission in the hospital. Then going through change of life, she ended up in hospital three or four times over that period of time. We were married for almost 29 years when she passed away with cancer.
Interviewer: So what was your wife involved in, what activities?
Walsh: Well, she was a stay-at-home person. When we married she only worked for a short period of time - because she would take on a lot. Brenda liked to do a job and do it well. But she became stressed over it if it wasn’t getting done up to her standard, so then she had to leave work.
...What got her involved… Back in the early 80s… there was a situation going on in the city. There was a neighbourhood in the west end of the city, where they were going to build or open up a home for ex-psychiatric people who are being discharged from the Waterford Hospital.
It was going into a fairly affluent neighbourhood. A lot of the neighbours, called up on an open line show…They said, no, we don’t want that in our backyard… My wife, being the person she was, called up and identified herself with her name – ‘[I am] Brenda Walsh’… I have a mental illness and I take offense to people who are putting down people who have mental illness who are trying to get back to society. We’re not allowed to get back in society because of the attitudes that are there.’ So that’s how she started.
Interviewer: On the radio.
Walsh: Yeah, on radio. So the commentator at the time invited her to get involved with mental health. I think at that time she got in touch with the president at the time of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Newfoundland and Labrador. It was Dr. Arthur Sullivan, a psychologist at the University. . . She took part in different forums and what have you, and I always went along with her for support . . . After Dr. Sullivan left the scene, I think Moyra Buchan became involved as Executive Director. There were various positive activities in those days – a lot of things happening. There were forums, programs or what have you at a provincial conference at Littledale. I took part in that one weekend with my wife.
Interviewer: For CMHA?
Walsh: CMHA, yes – for mental health issues. . . .
Interviewer: Do you remember when that was?
Walsh: That would have been… about ’85 or ’86. She was invited be a guest speaker at most of these [conferences and forums] and she did. She spoke from memory about her role as a consumer – a consumer is a person who avails of the services in the mental health system. Everybody was totally in awe and inspired when she was spoke. In particular, I remember one time in particular, in the late 80’s. She was invited in as a guest speaker by a graduating nursing class at Southcott Hall – maybe 50 of them. She told her story starting from the time she was 16 up to that time. She also spoke about her experiences in the hospital. She was never abused but patients were belittled… and were looked on as a lesser person; they would say, ‘You don’t know what you’re saying so you take your pills’ or ‘we will let you know when you can go home’. . .
Interviewer: So she would talk about her story.
Walsh: Her story – exactly – it was written in a lovely article. Martha Muzychka, CMHA’s president since then, came to our apartment in Pleasantville at the time, and did a two-hour interview. There was another occasion – she was interviewed on the early morning open line show. She was a guest of Bill Rowe for two hours one morning all over the province and people called in and couldn’t believe she was so articulate.
Interviewer: Do you remember the date of that?
Walsh: That would have been… 1987-88, around there. I know it was in the late 80’s anyway. The late George McClaren was the producer of his show, and I was in his studio with him – in, you know, the control room. Brenda and Bill Rowe were in another room, and I could see through the glass. When George McClaren turned off the mike, he said, ‘You know, that lady is some lady’. He said, for her to come out and …‘spill… her guts to the world’ about her role of struggling with mental illness. Years ago people with mental illness were considered to be not normal like they should never be around.
Interviewer: How do you feel that Brenda’s speaking, affected other people. How did it affect other women and men with a disability?
Walsh: Well, she was seen as being effective and very positive, I would think. She was one of the founding members of CHANNAL. [Consumer Health Awareness Network Newfoundland and Labrador] CHANNAL is for people with mental health disabilities. She was one of the people who founded it back in the mid-80’s. She got people involved in believing in themselves, you know; particularly, the women. Because women were downtrodden and they should never have been. . . . People became more powerful in their own personal lives and were able to lift themselves up. Brenda would always be the helper, but never wanted the accolades – never wanted the praise – and that’s the way we both ran our lives, you know. . . She had all the characteristics of somebody who could’ve gone places, but really never had the chance, you know. . .
Interviewer: So how was Brenda as a Mom?
Walsh: Oh, she was a wonderful mother. She was a terrific wife. She was the mother that my children were certainly proud of; and it was evident at her funeral because they took part in the service – the three of them. She was very caring, very loving and very loyal – always gave to herself last in order to put the children first. The three kids could read and write before they went to school because their mother taught them.
Some people have said to me, you know, you should be proud of your kids. I said, we both were. She was the best person… I never had anybody else in my life… When my wife died, I lost my best friend and I wish I could have her back tomorrow, even if she was bipolar six days out of seven. I would know that she was there, but that’s not the way it was to be. On January 12th, 2004, Brenda turned 50 years old. She was diagnosed with cancer in February 2004. Less than three months later she died at the Palliative care unit at the Miller Centre.
What was she like as a wife and mother – she was the best in the world. I can’t give any more than that. Can’t say no more than that. My girls will never get over losing their mother, because none of my kids are married, and my daughters always say, you know, they want their mother there to the wedding, especially my older daughter. She’ll be thirty on her birthday, I said, your mother will always be there for you. My wife was always first; and I know why my daughters look at their mother as the end-all/be-all – and my son the same way.
But my wife was close with Moyra Buchan more than anybody in the mental health system, because… they would go together [to different meetings]… and she became a really close acquaintance with Brenda. And when I called Moyra to tell her [Brenda] was quite sick… [Moyra] nearly died herself. She just couldn’t believe it, you know.
Well, she came to the Miller Centre– she bought 12 lilies to palliative care on this day. In less than 24 hours all the lilies died and to me that was a sign. In three days my wife Brenda passed away.
But, I was always involved from day one. We always went through her consultations together. So I presume… this is why I accepted it [her death] so readily and I was able to deal with it so readily because I was part of her life from the beginning – right, from beginning right up until she died. Her ordinary illnesses – you know, be it the flu or whatever the case, or the major nervous breakdowns… I don’t know what proper word to use, but anyway, even when she was getting ready for shock treatment. She only had it maybe twice years ago. She hated the shock treatments, and I don’t blame her because it’s not a nice thing to see after. The face is lit up so red because the shocks are going through and they’re like zombies for two or three days. Maybe it was then, but not now – not as readily.
Interviewer: So, what were Brenda’s experiences as a consumer?
Walsh: I know there were two occasions that Brenda had to be certified. All her rights were taken from her. You know what certification means. Brenda left the hospital. She went down the back stairwell, see, and out past the security on the front desk. All she had on her was her jeans and her sweater and a pair of slippers and it’s snowing to beat the band. They found her down on the corner of LeMarchant Road and St. Clare Avenue, and security men found her… she was so heavily drugged, what they do first is introduce you to quite a lot of medication to try to bring you down, see. One is a horrible drug called Haldol. They use it still but not as much as they used to– horrible drug. Like the flesh came off her fingers like this size (demonstrates).
Interviewer: How did she feel about getting those drugs? She still remembered how bad they were?
Walsh: Oh yes. Yes, because, definitely, they were terrible. Then they start weaning down off certain drugs and she’ll be on certain medication…which is what she needed to be on, but in order to get that balance, they had to try certain things because I suppose it was… up and down, up and down. I never had to watch Brenda and make sure she took her medication. She always took her own meds because I gave her the trust that she deserved, you know. I gave her the support and the children always knew from the time they could remember right up until she passed away their mother took medication because of mental illness, and that’s how they were… accepted it, because we never ever hid it. [Our] daughter who’s now 29 years old was in grade eight and they invited in people to the school, like professionals. It was Mental Health Week. And we went along because Brenda… anything to do with mental illness, she wanted to be right there in the forefront because she wanted to make sure it was being told the way it should be.
Interviewer: She was an expert.
Walsh: She was an expert in her own unorthodox way… no training, no education beyond grade eleven. [She] barely got grade eleven because that’s when her mental health started to become really acute. So I remember at St. Paul’s on Newfoundland Drive where the kids all went to school, there was a police [officer], he spoke about drugs in the community and he showed the different paraphernalia, what was used, and all the different samples, and… they invited people from the audience to come up and say a few words and Brenda got up to the microphone and she had to introduce herself… and she said, the reason I’m here because… I had a brother who died of an overdose of heroin and barbiturates when he was 32 years old. I just want to let you know that I take medication because I have a mental illness, but my medication is good medication. That’s how she related to kids, and the kids were so amazed with her that they gave her a standing ovation, you know, when she finished. [As] I mentioned earlier on, the nurses- the graduating class – applauded and said, we got more out of this than the three or four years they were studying out of the books.
Interviewer: It’s kind of like reading a book… and actually meeting…
Walsh: The character in that…[story]
Interviewer: They are learning from your experience.
Walsh: Exactly. Exactly.
Interviewer: So what do you think was Brenda’s…biggest obstacle? Or barrier…?
Walsh: Yeah. Well, it was earlier on in the years…I think, before I became involved in her life. The biggest obstacle – was having a very dominant father figure who she loved undyingly… That’s what held her back.
Interviewer: Did she talk about having an abusive father publicly?
Walsh: No. No, just that he was a dominant father and she never used the word – abused.
Walsh: When she left the hospital, after being into the Waterford for six months, she came home. From the time she was 16 until she was 21 when we got married – that’s five years – she never saw a GP, a psychiatrist, a pharmacist or anybody. Her [father] was a druggist; he could get her the pills. If she was running low, he’d make sure she never ran out of pills.
Interviewer: Oh my.
… the young fellow was in grade ten, so he’s 17. You don’t smack a 17-year-old in the face because he couldn’t master Mathematics. And another time when he was younger…[they]… had a birthday party for (him)… they never ever were allowed to have any [other] children in. There were always the three of them by themselves. And he brought home - I remember missus telling me this years ago – fish and chips and ice-cream for his birthday. And John, being probably ten or eleven, and said, “All I’m going to get for my birthday is fish and chips”; and he [the father] took it all and he threw it up against the wall. Their father said, nobody gets it; go to bed. Everybody had to go to bed – the three kids.
Walsh: The most traumatic for Brenda – would be her childhood years, I’d say. I’d say it would have to be.
Walsh: As I say, I wish she… you know, wish is the word we always use – but if she was alive today, she’d be able to give you a lot more than I can. I’m only going back, you know, to when I can – when she was 18. So ... if you want to go back to that part in the beginning, that’s where it all stems from, because I know from all the… family members over the years have told me that he was a very volatile person, even other members of the family – not his own children, but nieces and nephews….If he didn’t approve it, they weren’t allowed to do it. So he had some effect on them, didn’t he? John [her brother] couldn’t do his Mathematics and his father… the only response his father gave him was a smack in the face.
Interviewer: What about her mother? Was her mother abused?
She was a trained singer. And when people came over and speak to me, I would say . . ‘I know I’m her supporter but . . . she’s my supporter too.’ I had professional people ask me years ago, how could you stay married so long with some people who have mental illness? That was asked to me many times.
Walsh: Oh, psychologically abused, yes. Yeah, definitely, no doubt about that. Her mother wasn’t allowed to wear certain colours. She looked lovely in navy because of her colouring And if he didn’t approve of it, she wasn’t to wear it…. He dominated their lives, you know… Everything had to be his way. What is the old expression: It’s either my way or the highway . . . so most people got on the highway. … But, you know, he was good to us; but I always used to say to Brenda and she agreed with me… I’d say, Brenda, you know, your father was a good man to us. I said, he was atoning for his wrong. He bought us all kinds of nice stuff – . . . but I said it’s a way of him making up for his wrongs. She loved her mother and father with an undying love.
Interviewer: How did Brenda share her experiences as a woman, wife, mother, and consumer?
People say to me, you were so supportive. You were wonderful. You… stood by her. I said, Brenda stood by me for 29 years; we stood by each other, and I know why they say that and I respect why they say that because she did have a mental illness, but she was able a lot of things – things that I couldn’t do. She could get up in front of thousands people and speak, without any hesitation. At the end of each little presentation, she used to (say)…, ‘I’m going to finish this up now because I always like to give a little bit of a high note… because I don’t want anybody depressed, (people would be there… would take their tissues out, wiping their eyes . . .) I have a mental illness … and I don’t feel too bad about it and, you know, this is how you got to do it.’ This is why it was so easy for her to be so enlightening to other people.
Interviewer: So she used to sing at the end of her speeches?
Walsh: Yes – and the song that she would sing is the one that Bette Midler made famous – Wind Beneath My Wings. She used to say, I’m singing this because… she said, it’s because my husband is my wind beneath my wings – helps me to keep afloat.
That really, really hurt me because I married my wife knowing she had mental illness . . .
Interviewer: … Was there any particular activity or moment that stands out, you know, when she was involved in her activism.
Walsh: Yes, a couple – one in particular . . . trying to get the CHANNAL movement working; and when it became recognized and functioning, she said… I think I’ve done what I’m supposed to do, and then she backed away.
And then she would be called on occasions… ‘do you think you could’… I remember… Sister Elizabeth Davis – she was head of the health care.
She called her up and she asked her would she take part in a symposium at the Waterford Hospital and… Brenda said, yes, I certainly don’t mind. Well, she was on the board of directors [of CMHA] – Brenda was – and they were all volunteers, you know. There was Sister Elizabeth, of course, and I think Dr. Sullivan. That would’ve been in the late 80s.
They all… even the psychiatrist – they were enthralled with her because she was so articulate and so knowledgeable in her own way. It was all adlibbed though. As I mentioned earlier, she never had any notes and never ever kept notes… she never forgot a thing. And I think that’s what it was… she always wanted to be a teacher, and she used to say, I think I’m teaching now. That’s what she would say to people, and speaking in front of these crowds of people. You know, I always wanted to be a teacher, but I never had the academic ability to continue on because mental illness hit me at a time in my life when I was not able to function. As you get older, it’s harder to get back into the books, right.
She was enriching people’s lives to make them aware that people who have disabilities, be it mental or physical – particularly mental in her case because that’s all she was really involved with – that they do have the ability to do what they can and to try to help out. . Sometimes she’d go to a meeting and they would say, now what would your fee be and, you know, these were professional people. She would say, ‘My fee is letting you know that… coming away from this that you got something out of it’; that is my fee – and that’s all she ever wanted.
Interviewer: What do you think were her greatest victories?
Walsh: Oh, her greatest victory was… well, getting married was a victory because she was delighted with me. She was happier to get married than I was, and I was the one who suggested that we get married. And be able to have healthy children – she always prayed for a healthy child because where her mother lost seven. And overcoming… knocking that door down… ‘I’m here and I got a mental illness and there’s lots out there like me. So we’re on this bus together. Whether you like it or not, this is how we are and if you don’t like it, then leave the room’.
Interviewer: Did she talk like that?
Walsh: Yes, indeed she would. And even at the hospital, when they would have their afternoon sessions. You know, there would be eight or ten patients around and there would be the doctor, the nurse and the social worker and Brenda would have her say. They would all have their say. Brenda would say, you know, this is all well and good – but, this is really not getting anybody well and we’re not getting anywhere with this, are we? And I think what we’ll do now – we’ll end this meeting.
Interviewer: Was that like the therapy sessions in the hospital.
Walsh: Yes! – in the hospital – therapy sessions, you know, when you’re on the wellness program, right? Not in the beginning because she wouldn’t hold them when they were in the beginning because the mind is too erratic, right, but she said, no, I think we’ll end this; and then they’d come in her room. You know, a bunch of them going around – the doctors and he had four or five interns. And she’d say, no, I’m not in the mood to talk to you today. You come back when I’m in the mood. And you know what they discovered in 1991 – there was a wonderful doctor from Poland, and he discovered through blood work that… Brenda had a severe thyroid condition, called Grave’s disease – Graves was the scientist who discovered it back in the 1700’s. Her thyroid readings were always way out of kilter. I remember one time she wasn’t allowed out of her room, and every 15 minutes they came in to take blood work – for 24 hours.
This was how they discovered her thyroid was a major contribution to her illness this doctor said, you know, it cannot be all mental with this lady because, he said, Brenda would rebound in two days.
And they discovered this and they… anyway, then she became a patient of Dr. Doug Taylor, internal medicine. He’s also a pharmacologist. A fantastic doctor – in fact, he’s my doctor too – and he kept her well for all those years, from 1991 until she died in 2004, because he was treating the physical part of it. Now, she did have some relapses – mental relapses – but they never ever… they never put the thyroid on the back burner. That was always part of her therapy. So she was well a lot of times over the last number of years.
Interviewer: Right. You were saying that Brenda considered herself an educator.
Walsh: Yes, very much so – Brenda said that she was a non-professional educator.
Interviewer: This is going to be, I guess, read by probably young women that are studying in school or students doing research. It’s going to be on the web.
Interviewer: What do you think Brenda would say to them?
Walsh: She would say, keep focused. Keep focused with what you’re going to be doing, what you’re going to want to do and try to do to make a better place for people, for women especially. Keep positive in what you’re trying… never ever give up trying, and if you fall down, get up again. Keep going. There’s no such thing as a negative. We always… we worked that way together, we never believed in negatives. A lot of difficulties, yes - everybody has difficulties. But this is what she would say: Keep going. More power to you, she’d say. Now you put on the kettle, she would say, I’ll sit in my chair with my cigarettes and my cup of tea. And that was all she wanted, you know.
Interviewer: Yeah. Well, I guess we’re not telling young women to smoke cigarettes?
Walsh: No. No. No, that’s right. If you have something that you like to do then do it, but never give up your thoughts or your abilities
Interviewer: It’s been an honour.
Walsh: If Brenda was only here she would give you more than you’d want, you know. She was so powerful that way. People really leaned towards her because of her own knowledge. She developed her own knowledge. But she wasn’t one to be tied down by the system either, I’ll tell you that much. They weren’t going to hold her back, and she did put them in their place many times and I stood up for her and I said, yes, if she doesn’t want to take part in something, she doesn’t. She has her own mind. It may not always have be a well mind…
… when I went into the Waterford to see her, . . .she had her 49th birthday at the Waterford Hospital . . .and my daughter … Allison gave her a pair of lovely, red ruby Isotoner slippers, like little bootie slippers that came up around your ankle.
And they were lovely and she loved them and I went in a few times after- I went in every day as best I could because a lot of times it was stormy- I went in this day and I said, Brenda, where’s your slippers. Over there somewhere… that’s okay. I see missus coming down corridor and there were…
Interviewer: The slippers.
Walsh: On her feet. As I said, there’s the slippers. And she was so kind and so giving and she even gave away her facecloths, and she gave away a lovely suit that I gave her one time – a lovely 2-piece suit. Bill, she said, I got lots of stuff. I said, oh yeah – but, my love, I don’t mind what you give away, but it beats me out dragging stuff back and forth. I need… can you bring this in tonight. It’s in my closet. She said, you know what it’s like. And I bring it in. Next time it would be gone. She’d be keeping people going. They were the best ones dressed in there. (chuckles) She’d be coming out in rags. But that’s what she was like. She was just a wonderful person, you know, my best friend and I know I got the best kids in the world because they came from the best mother in the world, and that’s how I’ll end it. (Interview Ends)