“Perhaps it is good to have a beautiful mind, but an even greater gift is to discover a beautiful heart.” —John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind”
At the age of 11, in our fifth grade, my best friend Leah and I read “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” and “Sybil”—stories about two women afflicted with schizophrenia. Strange choices for adolescents, but we pored over every page and discussed the lead character’s travails during our lunch break and sometimes on the telephone for hours on end after school.
Fast forward 36 years later and, over the last few weeks, owing to a work-related project, I find myself both privileged and humbled to be given the rare opportunity to enter into the private worlds of schizophrenic patients and their family members.
By no coincidence, the Philippine Psychiatric Association holds its annual convention next week with the theme “Psychiatry and the Family.” The interesting lineup of speakers includes Jesuit Fr. Ted Gonzales, who will talk on the evolution of the Filipino family; Maribel Dionisio, on Family and Couples therapy; film director José Javier Reyes, on children and the entertainment industry; and clinical psychologist Honey Carandang, on the overseas Filipino workers phenomenon and how it has affected the fabric of the Filipino family.
Mental health, particularly the burden of schizophrenia, weighs heavily on families who have to live with a loved one afflicted by it. Family understanding and support is crucial to the schizophrenia patient’s healing. Though there is no cure for schizophrenia, it is a treatable disease if caught early on and managed well through medication and the solid support and love given by those who care for the patient.
Kevin, 19, is schizophrenic, but when you look at him you would never think this young man has had to go through some pretty harrowing nights where the voices in his head would terrify him and keep him up all night. I must admit I was a bit anxious when I rang the doorbell to his home, wondering how this young man would look and behave.
However, whatever anxiety I had was blown away by his bright smile and gentle demeanor, and I felt embarrassed at myself for even thinking otherwise. I thought, “If this is my thinking about patients like Kevin, how much more the general population?”
After a series of treatments that led him on a journey from one psychiatrist to another, from popping oral medication to his current long-acting treatment, Kevin has finally calmed down and is ready to return to school after a year’s leave of absence.
“Hindi ko po ito magagawa, kung hindi ko nakita na mahal na mahal ako ng aking pamilya. Malaking bagay po talaga ang suporta nila sa paggaling ko,” he told me during our interview.
Kevin’s father is an OFW, an engineer working in the Middle East. His mom, Chinky, is a homemaker and church worker, while one of his brothers is a nurse in a topnotch hospital in Metro Manila. According to Chinky, all family members accompany Kevin each month when he goes to see his psychiatrist, Dr. Carlo Banaag.
“The good thing about Doctor Banaag is that he patiently responds to all our questions, and explains Kevin’s illness,” said Chinky.
When I asked them why they agreed to speak up and share their story with the world, she said, “I agreed to do this because Kevin wanted to do this. If it means being able to help one other family, then it will be worth it. His illness then finds a higher purpose.”
Difficult family days
Kevin and Chinky’s story is very different from what my colleague Ricky had to go through as a child growing up in the ’80s. The son of a high-ranking Air Force officer who used to fly for a former Philippine president, he told me how difficult their family life was because of his mother’s schizophrenia.
“The problem was, my mom, like most schizophrenic patients, would go on and off her medicines, and sometimes there would be no way of knowing whether she took them or not. Because we did not have any house help, I would find them as I cleaned the house on weekends—under her mattress, or in between the ivory keys of the piano which she loved to play for hours,” he recalled.
In spite of not having a “normal” family life where one could bring home friends and have the usual family lunch or dinners on weekends, Ricky said there were many happy days, and the recollection brought a smile to his face when he shared them with me.
“She loved to garden or liked to eat out when the mood was good. So I would accompany her and we would just eat and trade stories for hours on end… We all did our best. My dad did his best. It’s just unfortunate that the medication available now was not yet available then.”
When I told him how brave he was to speak up about his mother’s illness, he said he thinks it is about time for people to help break the stigma of mental illness.
“There is really nothing to be ashamed of. It happens. Schizophrenia is treatable in the same way that diabetes and hypertension are. The key is to catch it early on, to support your loved one in the best way you can, and find the right treatment,” he said.
Studies have shown, in fact, that every relapse that occurs damages the brain further, and sometimes, the damage is irreparable. The crucial thing, therefore, is to prevent the relapse from taking place.
When I asked Ricky what the most important thing the family of a newly diagnosed patient could do for their loved one, he said, “Just love them. Love them unconditionally, and seek proper treatment. That’s all there really is to it.”
Mom at the movies
If you haven’t seen “The Dark Knight Rises” yet, make sure to place it on your must-see movie list. And with Cinemalaya running simultaneously, here are a few great ones to look out for: Julius Sotomayor Cena’s “Mga Dayo,” which tackles the Filipino migrant experience in Guam; Marie Jamora’s “Ang Nawawala,” a story about family secrets and loss; and José Javier Reyes’ “Mga Mumunting Lihim,” about the intricacies of the human heart and female friendship.
All three films have stellar casts, excellent storytelling and topics that resonate with wide audiences. See you at the movies!