Everybody calls her Bambi, and the name fits her well: soft-spoken, fragile and shy. She is the youngest of four sisters, just as pretty, smart and accomplished. A Bachelor in Science in Economics graduate from the University of the Philippines, she later found she loved teaching more. She taught Math at Brent and took a Masters in order to become principal of then newly opened Everest Academy. I remember visiting her at that impressive school.
Just the other day, Bambi texted me for my address. She usually communicated on instructions from her sister Cheryl, who happens to be a daughter-in-law, who, despite the breakup with my son, Vittorio, has kept in touch with me all these years. It was always through Bambi that she sent me flowers or cakes on special occasions and whenever I got sick.
Bambi was texting me now intending to send me a copy of her memoir of sorts, a coming to terms, in which she bravely shares her “spiritual journey through bipolar disorder.” It is called “A Cross and a Blessing” (by Bambi Rodriguez Fernandez de Castro).
Cheryl’s son, Carlo, from her brief marriage to my son, has been a character in Bambi’s life, as naturally he has been in all our lives, but in a particular way in Bambi’s. Carlo was, after all, the first grandchild in both his paternal Suter and maternal Rodriguez families. If Bambi was especially fond of him, no one thought anything of it—we all felt the same way. Smart, handsome, funny, Carlo seemed to have that effect on all of us.
But Bambi actually regarded him as her own son. Did that indicate an inordinate attachment? Again, how could I have known? I was crazy about Carlo myself, so much so that I moved house to be nearer to him—I visited him every day.
I didn’t realize how deep and irreconcilable the issue was between Cheryl and my son until she left for the States with Carlo. It was all too sudden for me, happening the very next day after I had thrown a children’s party for his third birthday in my home, itself the site of many milestones a grandmother can count in her life with her first grandchild—it was there that Carlo took his first steps unaided. I would not see Carlo again until he was 8.
Needless to say, I was heartbroken, but I hadn’t the slightest inkling how Bambi felt. As it happened, she lost not only Carlo, but a long love. Bambi marked the experience as her first “episode.” It sent her into a depression alternating with a manic high.
In her book she shares seven such episodes—breakdowns. If she pulled through each time it was thanks to a combination of supports—family, husband and professionals for treatment and medication. A very religious mom put herself in the thick of her struggle, battling with prayer, something Bambi, otherwise prayerful herself, could scarcely manage at the height of depression.
Episodes, in forms from mild to severe, can still come even after 13 years when she thought she had finally licked them. That was when professional help was most needed, for comfort and trust.
Bambi was 26 when she was diagnosed as bipolar, and she is luckier than most. The condition, in the absence of professional intervention and spiritual anchors can lead to dementia, alcohol abuse and the most tragic of all—suicide.
Her book is a must read not only for those already diagnosed but for anyone in contact or lives with someone showing the symptoms—in fact, for anyone who feels they can identify with Bambi even in the vaguest ways.
Fifty million people all over the world suffer from a similar condition. According to the World Health Organization, the most common cause of all disabilities is mental health disorders. Bambi knows she could be exposing herself to ridicule and harsh judgment by the self-revelation, but it should be all worth it even if only one or two with the same affliction felt reassured by it—they have not lost their sanity, and, with help, they could lead normal lives.
Lifting the stigma
It is most important to note that her condition did not render Bambi incapable of holding a responsible job, or take on a Master’s degree, and be a good wife or a devoted mother. She, in fact, adopted and raised two children. But of course when an episode comes the sufferer requires rest, professional help, and, of course, understanding from those around her. Bambi most of all credits religious devotion, which, on pinpoint recognition, she says she began to develop on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, during her formative years, with her mother.
Her doctor likening her condition to one found with a heart problem struck home. I’ve had two stents planted in me to avert a heart attack waiting to happen. In Bambi’s own case, the comparison lifted the stigma that she imagined marked her as different from others. As a heart patient, I also needed to change my lifestyle and diet, do prescribed exercises daily, have regular checkups, take maintenance medication, rest and take a break when needed and avoid stress. I am just as vulnerable as Bambi, although, not to minimize her condition, she has survived the equivalent of seven heart attacks.
Is there anyone among us who can escape life’s surprises? As I read Bambi’s book what came through to me was that it was Bambi’s childlike innocence, innate goodness and deep spiritual roots that, like a magnet, attracted the right people to her side at the right time.
Putting aside privacy and pride, she bravely shares with everyone her inspiring, resonant story: “It is through this disorder that I encountered Jesus and experienced His great love for me. Because of my malady, I learned the redemptive value of suffering.”
There lay, with her cross, her blessing.