Fashion Designer Tracy Dizon On How Being At Rock Bottom Saved Her Son’s Life—And Her Own!
Some may call it unfortunate, but Tracy Dizon counts herself lucky to have seen the world through Xanax-tinted glasses and a view from rock bottom.
Tracy easily looks like the type of person who is often, well, misunderstood. While she may not dress in the usual fashion, she has that quirkiness about her that’s reminiscent of artists like Yayoi Kusama and Andy Warhol, who people celebrate for being brilliantly flawed. She’s a designer by profession, who makes intricate headpieces fit for royal weddings.
She arrives fashionably late with her son Atreyu in tow to our cozy meeting place in Ortigas. She apologizes profusely for not being able to procure a Grab to make it on time. I assure her it was quite alright. After all, it wasn’t my place to get ruffled over something so trivial when this woman has gone through such an ordeal to get here—and I’m not just talking about the traffic.
As interviews go, basic questions are asked first as an icebreaker, but asking Tracy something as simple as "How are you?" works akin to Harry Potter’s "Alohomora," opening the locks to chapters of her life that have been wildly difficult but rewarding.
Where to begin
Hindsight always gives a person 20/20 vision, and Tracy is no exception. She tilts her head to the side before she begins to tell her story starting from the year her mother died.
Her relationship with her family was a tumultuous one. To start, her father was controlling, conservative, and strict. From not allowing her to go to prom—to him it was unnecessary—to letting their troubled daughter stay in a shelter instead of offering their home. In Tracy’s own words, “How could a parent let that happen?” But what really soured her relationship with her family was the manner in which she chose to raise her son.
Tracy and her son visiting the same bed where they used to sleep in when they were at the Home for single Mothers, 2011.
“One of the things they couldn’t understand was that I chose to give him my surname, as opposed to [Atreyu] taking his dad’s name,” says Tracy. “My dad got mad about that. He blamed me for choosing a man who wouldn’t even give my son a proper name, but for me that was my choice. I decided that whoever he is, he is mine. We are a package deal. He is more than just a boy who needs a man to give him a name. He is my son.”
Atreyu and Tracy by the wall at UP Vinzon’s Hall, 2007 | Photo by Candice Reyes Talampas
Prodded to talk more about his dad, Atreyu quickly interjects and says, “I think my mom is enough for me to complete our family despite the challenges we had to face.”
As for her late mother, she was more a loyal wife who stood by her husband. But nearing the end of her life, Tracy’s mom reached out to her and made amends. “Six months before she died, she apologized, for herself, her inactions, and whatever happened between us, so I was okay with that."
After her mom died, Tracy felt abandoned when she was left here in the Philippines while their whole brood was already settling in the States, leaving behind obligations for her to carry such as estate tax, insurance claims, etc. As she mourned her mother’s death, she was also unknowingly mourning the death of her life as she knew it.
“My family would always threaten me, telling me they would leave me, they would all migrate to the States and all that. And because of those words, I realized I had to fend for myself,” Tracy recalls. “I needed to be independent from my family because as they would tell me, I was no longer part of the ‘immediate family’ but rather just an extension. I was minding my own business, building my career, my name, then all of a sudden when they left, I was forced to deal with matters that I was not considered part of for a very long time.”
She was so angry she stopped working. She appeared in a billboard ad at that time but she wasn’t even able to relish that small moment of success. “Because I had to stop everything. I was so anxious that the name I carved out would be muddied because of things beyond my control. That’s where I really started spiraling down.”
She had to leave the career she carefully built to take up a job selling her dad’s properties—for which she got no commission, save for an allowance equal to that of a household help’s salary.
When it rains…
Apart from the family drama draining her, Tracy also had to deal with another challenge, this time concerning her relationship with her then boyfriend, a Japanese. He was diagnosed with cancer.
She remembers running errands, lining up to fix her late mother’s Social Security, while exchanging messages with her boyfriend in Japan. He was in the hospital lining up to get tests done and complaining about the queue. A few text messages after, he sent this: “They say I have cancer.”
The next day, she flew to Japan but being there made her feel even more helpless. Apart from the language barrier, since they weren’t married and she wasn’t a part of his life in an official capacity, every time there would be visitors, she had to step out. It was then that they both realized the many differences between them that would eventually pull them apart.
One of the biggest things that drove a wedge between them was her family entanglements. “He said he didn’t want to get caught up in whatever was happening with my family. If we were to get married, he would be legally bound to me [and them] and it wasn’t something he wanted for himself. He said it wasn’t fair to him. He was only 28. I understood where he was coming from.” She admits that part of the reasons she wanted to get married was it would free her from obligations from her own family.
But the boyfriend would leave for Europe to study. They agreed to iron out their plans before he moved. But for one reason or another, the one-month timeline turned to one week, and Tracy felt short-changed. One thing led to another and they broke up.
The funny thing was, he was secretly talking to Tracy’s friends months before their big blowout and he was planning to propose. This broke Tracy.
She was soon diagnosed with GAD (General Anxiety Disorder) and MDD (Major Depressive Disorder).
“I would just literally stare at the wall. I was prescribed Lexapro, and when you’re on anti-depressants you’ll need to find an activity you can do on loop. Like playing Plants vs. Zombies, or in my case, drawing circles,” Tracy relates.
After Lexapro, she was prescribed Xanax. “And that drug made me feel crazier. I would tell my son, ‘you know I had the craziest dream…’ then he would tell me ‘mom that wasn’t a dream. That happened this morning.’ I lost touch with reality.
“What snapped me out of it was when I became paralyzed. I went to the doctor and he told me to drop all my medications because it was affecting my heart. He also said I needed a drastic change in environment or else. That was one of the rare times that my dad went out of his way to bring us to the States for a break. It was on that trip that I met Patricia Field (costume designer for Sex and the City).”
Tracy walked into the famed stylist’s boutique and luckily saw her idol in the flesh manning the store. Needless to say, she fangirled like crazy. They got to talking, and the next day, Patricia sent an email to Tracy with a photo of herself wearing Tracy’s creation.
Patricia Field taking a selfie wearing a Tiara by Tracy headpiece, 2015.
The encounter with Pat Field was enough to spark new inspiration. “That’s when I realized that in life you have to lose in some aspects to win bigger in others. There’s always balance. So in 2016 I promised myself that I would do something different every month. I would do small things to remind myself that I can be brave again.”
October 6-- Fashion Week Brooklyn, Tracy backstage prepping the runway models before the show in Brooklyn, New York | Photo by: Luis Chimbo
She started rebuilding her life, traveling to new places, making new friends, and eventually dating again. Then just as she was finishing a new collection she was working on, Manila FAME came a-calling. It was right on time for her to debut her new self and announce to the world that she was back.
Less than a month from her success at the show, she was managing orders and thinking up new ideas. But Tracy’s struggles weren’t over, it turns out. One Sunday, Atreyu collapsed on the floor and started having a seizure.
December 12, 2016 — recovery period in PGH
“There was no question about it. You drop everything”, she says, recalling the moment.
Mother and son went through procedures, hospitals, doctors. Finally, they met Dr. Gap Legaspi—Director of the Philippine General Hospital, who was able to shed light on what her son’s condition was. It was a rare brain tumor with only a few recorded cases worldwide.
During Atreyu’s surgery recovery stage
With the help of many people—friends, family, and even strangers—Tracy was able to raise the funds to get Atreyu the medical attention he needed. He underwent a craniotomy on December 11, 2016, and they were able to remove the tumor completely. The first diagnosis was a stage 1 brain cancer low-grade Glioma and was later reversed to a rare benign tumor—Extraventicular Neurocytoma.
The rainbow after the rain
After that whole ordeal with Atreyu, Tracy understood her life better.
“It all had to happen that way. If I had been engaged, living in Japan, I don’t think we would have raised that money to help him. That time when my ex had cancer, I learned how it felt to take care of a loved one, a patient. The depression I had to go through, the rock bottom I reached, it made me vulnerable, but it prepared me,” says Tracy now.
Atreyu and Tracy posing by the same wall, 11 years after, 2018 | Photo by Dar San Agustin
“In my travels, I met some backpackers from Vietnam, they were the ones sharing the Go Fund Me page. They would personally tell my story. For a time, I resented my ex that he made me transfer Atreyu to Ateneo, a very expensive school, only to leave me paying for it later on on my own when we broke up. But if he wasn’t in that school, then we wouldn’t have met the people there who helped direct us to the right doctors.”
Tracy took in some teaching jobs pro-bono. “But what came back to me was a hundred-fold. And that made me realize I met the right people during the right time.”
When asked what lesson she learned after all the struggle, Tracy answers, “Kindness. Kindness chooses no one. Even the people who think they have nothing left to give, has something to offer. And it’s that.”
Now 14, Atreyu just won an Award of Excellence for his entry in the World Youth Essay Competition titled “How I Survived Brain Cancer,” and he ends his essay as if echoing the lessons his mother learned:
Atreyu, 2018 | Photo by Dar San Agustin
“People are kinder than you think. Have faith in mankind. Take it from a guy who lives with his single mother and has experienced what happens when your life is on the line. Believe in the little miracles. And if you think you’ve lost this battle, I’ll be the first to stand up and say that you are not alone.”