Love, in a special way

“Mental illness struck close to my heart. And the next logical thing was to advocate for better rights for psychiatric patients and their caregivers.” – Raymond Anthony Fernando, Mental Health Champion and Model Caregiver 2010.

Unlike the many girls whom I dated, Doris Lau, my late wife was very down-to-earth. I found her to be sincere and caring. This was the woman who would change my life – dramatically. Doris passed away on 17th April 2014 after she was stricken with pneumonia. She died within a week that she was hospitalised in Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

Undoubtedly, Good Friday has special significance to both my wife and I. Why? Because this is the most painful day of the year as we remember how Jesus suffered and was put to death for the sins of all of us. Despite being tortured and humiliated, Jesus who displayed enormous strength was able to show compassion and forgiveness.

When Doris first met Raymond

By some strange coincidence, 12th April 1974 was the day that I first met Doris. And it happened to be on Good Friday. And though it is an arduous and painful journey for me to manage my wife’s dreaded schizophrenia for more than three decades, I often draw my strength and compassion from Jesus. He gives me the strength to endure suffering all year round. And each time that I suffer from burnout, Jesus is always there to carry me on His shoulders. His pictures are in our home; and He is very much alive in our hearts.

Doris has battled schizophrenia for forty years. Schizophrenia is the most distressing of all mental disorders. It is an illness that is often camouflaged and many people who are inexperienced in managing this illness may at first believe that the sufferer showing irritable, moody and suspicious behaviour has a bad personality or is ill behaved.

The disease first struck Doris at the tender age of 17. Many people find it very hard to believe that I married her despite her mental illness. In caring for Doris for four decades, I had grown to love her more and more each day. I have seen this illness ravage more than half her life and the journey, though very difficult, was so rewarding when I saw her enjoy and live life to the fullest.

Seeing the ‘demons’ in her mind

My wife was hospitalised in the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) ¬– Singapore’s biggest public psychiatric hospital twelve times during our 40 years’ marriage and I have witnessed all her delusions, hallucinations, depression and fears. Seeing Doris struggling with the “demons in her mind” has been extremely painful for me.

My long hours at work in broadcasting saw Doris spending many days and nights all alone. The loneliness and the isolation saw her missing out on her medications, resulting in relapses.

When Doris was in a stable condition, she is a loving and kind-hearted person. But during her relapses, I become her emotional punching bag. I have taken all her emotional outbursts quietly, allowing her to scold, shout and nag at me because I fully understand how this illness torments her, how it frustrates her. Over the years, I have learnt to forgive my wife as I fully understand that it is the illness, and not her. Through my experience in caring for Doris, I have learnt to completely separate the two. Many people, including family members do not really understand the specialised care that the mentally ill need or the unremitting emotional wear and tear that caregivers have to endure everyday of their lives. This illness is terrifying because it is unpredictable. It requires 24-hour, minute-to- minute care.

But Doris was a very giving person. Because of her deep affection for me, many a time she would do anything to please me, sometimes at the risk of increasing her own stress levels. In the past, during the Christmas seasons, I would invite friends and colleagues to our home to have meals cooked by her. I didn’t realise that she was quietly harbouring her stress during the run up to the celebrations. Years later, I discovered that when Doris has too much housework, her anxiety would build up and she would not be able to cope. This has resulted in her falling into relapses – most of it which required hospitalisation.

Yet, if nobody visits us during Christmas or the Lunar New Year seasons, Doris would feel unloved. Therefore, it is important to strike the right balance.

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The beauty from within

What struck me most about Doris was the beauty of her heart. She had also touched me with her sincerity. She taught me how to be prudent with spending, advising me not to waste money on taxis, but to travel by buses. When I was courting Doris, her salary was doubled mine, and often when we dated, she would pay for our meals. Most certainly, she has always had my best interest at heart. This is one of the primary reasons why I took her to be my life-long partner even though I knew I would face huge obstacles during this part of my life.

During the 60s ,70s and 80s, marrying out of one’s own race in Singapore was rare, often unheard of, unlike these days when mixed marriages are pretty common. Doris and I were from different cultures and religions. Doris, back then, was a Buddhist. Her father hailed from China, and I being a Catholic and a Eurasian by race, there were strong objections from her family’s side. Doris’ mother – a Teochew Peranakan was more easy going.

I was worried that the objections to our relationship would see us go separate ways, and I didn’t want that to happen because I was bent on taking Doris as my wife – to love her, to protect her and to care for her unconditionally. It was as if God had destined that we must be united as one.

We actually got married three times; the first was at the Registry of Marriages, the second was the formal customary wedding in which we had to offer Chinese Tea to Doris’ parents and the last one was when we were married off in church after Doris was officially baptized as a Catholic.

After our marriage, we lived with my mother and her other children – 4 of them as my eldest brother had relocated after he got married.

When the relapse comes on, the nightmare begins

Shortly afterwards my family members and I were shocked to witness the torment Doris went through when the relapse of schizophrenia reared its ugly head. The enormous stress she went through during the run-up to our marriage took a heavy toll on my wife. These were the symptoms she displayed when the relapse came on:

– She complained of headaches – She could not sleep at night – She became very nervous; frightened like a rabbit – Many thoughts ran through her troubled mind – She became restless – She became confused – She was deep in thought; preoccupied – She had overwhelming sadness – She had difficulty concentrating – She started recalling unpleasant memories – She experienced a loss of appetite – She believed that people were talking about her – She became fearful, suspicious and argumentative – Dandruff started appearing on her forehead and on her hair despite shampooing – Finally, she had suicidal thoughts and hospitalization was the only way out

Doris was eventually hospitalised at the old Woodbridge Hospital (now known as IMH) for about two weeks, and my daily visits helped a great deal in her recovery. This is why I have always emphasised that emotional support is vital in helping patients in their recovery.

The trigger factors include: Loss of a loved one, excessive noise, financial difficulties, job stress that included office politics, negative environment such as SARS and most recently, a physical illness that causes immense pain. Indeed, a physical illness can affect the mind, and caregivers need to stay alert during such instances. The physical illness that hit Doris about 8 years ago was arthritis and the pain she experienced has twice caused a relapse of schizophrenia. Which is why I had to stay fully alert and rush her down to IMH whenever I spotted the early warning signs of a relapse coming on. Before she passed way Doris was taking a total of 53 tablets to manage her schizophrenia, arthritis and 3 other chronic illnesses. So medication compliance alone took up a lot of my time. Added to this, the structural support for caregivers of the mentally ill here in Singapore is very weak.

Caregiving – a noble task

I’ve always felt that caregiving is a noble task; and it must be promoted as such. Though it often takes the wind out of you, it will be such a joy when you see first-hand the smiles on their faces, their creativity and their happiness when they are in their full recovery stage. Sure, there will be times when you feel like just throwing in the towel, but if you are able to walk with them with your head up, God will bless you in more ways than one – as He has done for me.

In managing a loved one with mental illness, practice the 3Ps – Patience, Perseverance and Prayer. Not always the easiest task, but I assure you that if you can find the strength to do that – God will bless you in more ways than one as He has done for me and my wife.

Today, I have authored 26 books and in the process I have gone on to become a motivational speaker, a songwriter and even a TV actor. I am also Singapore’s leading advocate for the mentally ill and volunteer my time with the Institute of Mental Health

In producing my books, I also managed to “infect” my wife with the power of the pen. And before she died, Doris became an author of 8 successful books because she fully understood that writing is healing. Many people have asked me why I willingly married Doris despite knowing of her mental illness. My answer to them is simple: “If schizophrenia and arthritis was part of the life of the woman I love, then it must surely have been part of mine too. I did not necessarily like what the illnesses did to her, but it is her that I love. And that had, and will always be, the guiding, motivating force of my life.”

RAYMOND ANTHONY FERNANDO

PROFILE OF THE WRITER

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Raymond Anthony Fernando is a motivational speaker, poet, author, trainer, songwriter, freelance television actor, ghostwriter, media celebrity, regular newspaper forum page writer and an advocate for the mentally ill.

He is a volunteer with the Institute of Mental Health. The author of 32 books was married to Doris Lau Siew Lang, herself an author of 8 books. Doris was called to the Lord in April 2014. This Model Caregiver 2007 and Mental Health Champion 2010, who is born on Valentine’s Day, has contributed 31 years of service to the public sector, 15 years of experience in public relations work, and received several awards and commendations from government organisations.

Raymond attributes his success to his beloved wife, Doris, who has always been his greatest inspiration.