One of the most inhuman tragedies that can befall a normal family is for one of its members to be sick with mental illness. Some call it a curse.
I witnessed and lived with the angst and tension of how mental illness began and ended in a person when Gerry, the eldest son of Tio Ben and Tia Lily (not their real names), began a long drawn-out battle with mental illness.
Gerry was a normal bright 14-year-old kid who got high grades. At that time, I had just finished college and landed a job in Makati. We lived in a compound in Quezon City with several of my cousins, who were all studying high school and college.
In the late ’50s, a World Jamboree of Boy Scouts was held in Mt. Makiling, Los Baños. Hundreds of Boy Scouts from all over the world came for the event. Gerry and my other cousin Butch, both Boy Scouts from the University of Santo Tomas, attended the World Jamboree.
They came home with many souvenirs, the most prized of all being a collection of patches from the different countries. For the next few days Gerry laid out the patches on the dining table, admiring and arranging them for hours. At night, when everyone was asleep, he’d do the same thing. It seemed he never got tired admiring, fixing and arranging those patches again and again.
The following week, he did something strange with those patches. He cut the edges to eliminate any fiber. We all thought Gerry was just being a perfectionist in collecting things. What was queer about it was that he’d spend the whole night perfecting the edges of all the patches repeatedly.
He’d catch some sleep in the daytime. I was beginning to get worried about Gerry’s strange behavior, but I kept my feelings to myself. When I asked Tia Lily what was the matter with Gerry, she just gave me a puzzled look and a loud, “Ah ewan. Hindi ko nga maintindihan ang ikinikilos ng batang iyan.”
Then Gerry shifted his attention to something more queer than the trimming of the patches. He began to fix and arrange all the books on the shelf in a perfect straight line and according to identical sizes. He did this repeatedly at night, or when there were no classes.
He still went to school, but was acting very remote and noncommunicative with us. He hardly joined us for the usual jokes and bantering. Still, nobody suspected the beginnings of a psychological disorder. I myself thought that Gerry was just indulging in some form of fetish. When I asked him why he was obsessed with those patches and book arrangements, he just laughed and said, “Ah, wala lang!”
After months of indulging his fetish for patches and books, Gerry dropped out of school, spending more time locking himself in the room, night and day. Tia Lily was aghast and helpless.
Gerry didn’t listen to reason. He was in total withdrawal from the real world. His hours were confused, and he ate his breakfast late in the afternoon and the other meals at odd hours. His hygiene became bad. He didn’t take showers, didn’t change his clothes and looked dirty and shabby for weeks and months. By this time, his mother Tia Lily was worried sick. The whole household was also living in tension, but was unable to discuss what was happening to Gerry.
For the first time, the specter of mental illness was staring in everybody’s face. We all became scared of what was happening to Gerry. Still, lunacy was the farthest thing from our minds. We all thought that perhaps he had an uncontrolled emotional problem.
At about this time, Tio Ben, Gerry’s father, who was in training as a government pensionado in the US, arrived. He was not informed of Gerry’s problems, and seemed oblivious of Gerry’s change in behavior. He never scolded Gerry for quitting school or for acting weird. He didn’t express any negative opinion, either. I suspected Tio Ben was in big denial.
He listened to us when we spoke of Gerry’s isolation, but said nothing. Finally we said maybe it was about time to consult a psychologist, but Tio Ben didn’t do anything about it, even when Gerry was already throwing tantrums and hurting Tia Lily on certain days. Our neighbors were getting alarmed at the noises in the household, but Tio Ben still did nothing.
Then one day, Gerry, for no reason at all, created chaos in the whole household, screaming and throwing things around. He smashed the TV set and was uncontrollable in his rage, while holding a kitchen knife. His eyes were bloodshot. That was it. I knew Gerry had snapped.
We had to wrestle with him to get him under control, as he was screaming and throwing punches at us. Finally we subdued him, and I told Tio Ben that we had to bring him to the National Mental Hospital in Mandaluyong.
I saw the pain in his face at the mention of the mental hospital. We loaded Gerry in my Volkswagen and arrived at the hospital late at night.
Gerry quieted down during that trip, and was meek as a lamb. But when the big burly male nurses of the mental hospital came to pick him up, he put up a fight, and I could see fear in his eyes.
Tio Ben was crestfallen. He couldn’t say a word. The male nurses tied Gerry’s hands and feet to the iron bed, and we were told to leave him alone in the room. “The doctors will see him tomorrow morning,” the nurses said.
I took a long look at Gerry, who kept shaking his head but not saying anything. He wasn’t the same cousin of mine anymore, the brilliant 14-year-old kid who got high grades. There, in a room at the mental hospital, Gerry was gone forever in the dark, unknown world of mental illness. He was a lunatic at 21 years old. I pitied Tio Ben all the way home.