Her lips are constantly stretched into a smile, and there’s a hearty laughter always ready to burst out of her belly at someone’s hilarious story. She seems to enjoy hugging, chatting, clinking glasses, swaying to the rhythm of the music. Funny and full of energy, people tend to gravitate towards her.
She is the proverbial life of the party.
But when the music stops, when the lights are dimmed, when people start to take their leave – she is left alone.
Alone with her thoughts.
Her very dark thoughts.
In the deafening silence, her mind instantly turns into an abyss of fears, worries, doubts, and guilt. She becomes trapped in a quicksand of emotions, and, the more she struggles, the faster she sinks. She feels lost and drowning.
Then, as fast as lightning, the screaming loneliness is gone and, on its stead, is a sense of hollowness. Her confusion turns into numbness. She becomes an unfeeling, uncaring, non-functioning zombie. An empty shell. She is, once again, trapped – this time, in a prison of apathy and indifference.
Feeling detached and disconnected from the world around her, she then realizes that her life is inconsequential. Anger starts to boil inside her until her entire being is consumed by it. She hates her situation, she hates her thoughts, she hates herself. She is both hopeless and helpless. Trapped in isolation and despair, she figures that the best way to escape from it all is to simply stop. To endure defeat, knowing that she is fighting a battle that she can never win.
To accept the fact that she doesn’t deserve to live.
A Warrior Named Zena
Zena Bernardo has a mental health condition that is sweeping the world at an alarming rate. She has what professionals call “clinical depression.”
Unlike the kind of depression or severe sadness that one finds himself suffering from due to a loss (especially of a loved one), a major setback (like failing the bar exam), or a medical condition (such as a thyroid disorder), clinical depression is the lingering, persistent, or chronic loneliness and hollowness that plague a person for extended periods of time. It is the kind of depression that one cannot easily snap out of despite earnest attempts and great efforts. Worse, it can take complete control over one’s life, debilitating or paralyzing it.
Like a ticking time bomb, the depression can go off anytime without any prior warning. And once it recurs, Zena feels like she is living in her personal hell, haunted and tortured by her personal demons.
The First Generation of Bernardos
Zena’s father, Mang Romy, was the ideal family man. He was a loving son to his parents, a sweet and supportive kuya to his five younger siblings, a dedicated husband to his wife, and a nurturing Tatay to his children.
They were not financially well-off, but he and his wife made sure that their children would have a good childhood.
He exposed them to different kinds of people, acquainted them with various visual and classical arts, treated them to out-of-town trips, taught them how to ride horses, and brought them to picnics in the park. On better days, he would cook them steak, his culinary specialty.
He raised his children with science and the arts, wisdom and kindness. He let them experience life.
A liberal and patriot, he was Ka Romy to his comrades and fellow activists who knew him for his kindness and generosity. He became friends with like-minded personalities such as Butz Aquino, Fr. Joe Dizon, Lino Brocka, Behn Servantes, Maita Gomez, Nelia Sancho, Nathaniel Santiago, Lean Alejandro, and many others. Those who are still around speak fondly and very highly of him.
Tatay Romy was an engineer and, in 1966, he worked in Vietnam for five years to support his growing family. When he eventually decided to stay in the country, he opened a dental equipment manufacturing plant after his wife, Zena Sr., started a business operating a dental laboratory in Manila. He was refurbishing and servicing imported dental equipment in established dental clinics (even the clinic in Malacaňang) until he ventured in designing and manufacturing his own line. Mang Romy’s business was doing quite well for a time. However, while he was a genius as an engineer and inventor, he was not a good businessman. After he was later awarded the contract to supply the dental equipment in the UP College of Dentistry and secured a bank loan to finance the said project, and the government delayed the payments it owed to Tatay Romy’s company, the latter’s business suffered a serious and irrevocable blow. With the decision to terminate the operations of the laboratory to concentrate on equipment manufacturing, it had been difficult financially for the family.
So in 1985, his wife was forced to leave his family behind to work for a government hospital in the Middle East as a member of the administrative staff.
The business back home was barely surviving to make both ends meet; it was practically bankrupt. Coupled with his apparent feeling of inadequacy as the family’s provider, his friend Lean Alejandro’s death in 1987, and his sneaking suspicion that Zena, his then-19-year-old bunso, was pregnant, had taken their toll on Tatay Romy.
In December 22, 1988, just three days before Christmas, Tatay Romy committed suicide.
His family had always known that Tatay Romy was suffering from depression. However, as he was his siblings’ “one-man support system,” they didn’t think that he would, one day, succumb to the same silent killer that was taking his brothers and sisters one by one.
Yes, before his death, three of his other siblings who also had depression had likewise died of suicide. Less than two months after his death, another one followed suit. The lone surviving sibling has been on medication for more than three decades now.
The Second Generation of Bernardos
When Zena and her two siblings were younger, their parents would try to shield them from the harsh realities of depression. And since, during that time, it was a taboo subject for most people, nobody really talked openly about it. But whenever they would hear that a relative had committed suicide due to depression, or when their own father would break or throw things one minute then hole up in his room for days the next, it became increasingly difficult to ignore.
Pretending that everything was normal became impossible.
When her mother left them to work abroad and her siblings became preoccupied with either studies or friends, Zena, who was inherently a homebody, came to be her father’s constant companion and confidant. She heard about all his frustrations, and bore witness to all his episodes of depression. Fixing was also intrinsic to her so she was inclined to bridge existing gaps and to mend whatever was broken.
She became the family’s shock absorber.
She had many insecurities growing up, and she became a victim of bullying, sexual harassment, and physical abuse. She got pregnant at 19, and was blamed by everybody as the reason behind her father’s suicide. She was forced to drop out of college due to her delicate condition. Her marital life soon became problematic and toxic, so an abusive relationship and four children after, she decided to separate with her husband.
Through it all, she was silently suffering from and battling depression and Bipolar condition. To make matters worse, she felt that she had nowhere to turn to for help when she left her husband. Working overseas, her mother was not made aware of her condition, while her two siblings were also fighting the same illness that plagued the Bernardos.
She tried everything to single-handedly support her children –from running a sari-sari store and selling virtually anything she could put her hands on, to direct selling, networking, tutoring and, later on, working for a call center. However, she realized that she could not possibly get a decent-paying job without a college diploma. So, when her two oldest kids were in high school, Zena saw an opportunity to go back to college and finish her education.
After she graduated (as the class valedictorian, no less!), she worked for various companies and foundations, and actively supported countless advocacies. She can only work for short-term projects and on short-term employments, though, as she tends to get overwhelmed when she has to stay long in a single place or be deeply immersed in the same kind of work. But once she starts, she is unstoppable — pretty much like the Energizer bunny that just keeps on moving and moving and moving.
She can also be brutally frank. One of her friends said that “she speaks her mind regardless of how weak or how powerful the enemy is, and would fight to the death if she has to.” She is passionate, empowered, strong, fearless, patriotic, and fiercely loyal. She has a heart for the oppressed, the poor, and the downtrodden.
However, like many others who have depression (even the high-functioning type), she faces each day as if she is walking in a landmine. She has to tread carefully by guarding her thoughts every single minute of every single day. On the outside, she may seem happy, ecstatic even. But, on the inside, she is a shivering child scared of her own thoughts and of where those thoughts will take her.
For the countless of people that Zena was able to help and empower, for the people she was able to stand and speak for, and for the people she was able to inspire and motivate with her story of strength, grit and courage, she will always be their hero. Or an angel in disguise.
But, more than that, Zena is a warrior – a warrior who has to incessantly fight her inner demons to survive.
The Third Generation of Bernardos
Mox is one of Zena’s four children and is her only son. Like his mother and father, and most of his relatives from both sides of their family, he has a mental health condition, too. He was likewise diagnosed with clinical depression.
Asked how it is like when he has an episode of depression, this is what he had to say.
“I don’t know with others, but with me, I don’t think there’s a trigger, or if there is, it’s something I am not aware of. Most of the time, it just comes from nowhere. I can feel it, though, — there are signs when it’s about to hit. I lose my appetite, my interest in almost all things, generally I start to feel bored. Then, when it’s finally there, that’s when I kind of shut off from the world. I have no interest in talking with people, going out (even just outside my room), I watch movies over and over again, just a single movie several times a day. I don’t sleep as much, I think I’ve been awake for about 3 days during one of my episodes. I call it severe boredom. I am bored with life itself, like everything is overrated, and you can’t fathom the thought of still existing the next day. I just want to disappear. I didn’t want to die, not at first, I just want my body to dissipate into thin air or merge with the wall or get buried in the ground. I just want to not exist anymore. That lasts for two weeks, then everything goes back to normal again, like nothing happened.”
Mox is now living on his own. He cannot live under one roof with his mother or his sisters as they all trigger each other’s depressive episodes.
Yes, all his sisters are also suffering from variations of “ups and downs”, their family’s silent killer.
To those who are suffering from depression right now, Mox has these pieces of valuable advice. “Seek professional help. Listen to and love yourself more. Those who know and have survived through those moments have a special responsibility to help others who suffer the same condition. We’ve been through the void, we know how to help people endure nothingness. To families and friends, we’re not f*****g sad; we don’t need uplifting words. (What we need) is help in getting through each day, one task at a time. It doesn’t help when people try to comfort us and force us to speak about our pain.”
Love, understanding and kindness — these are the things that every person battling mental illness needs from us. Not judgment, not pity and, definitely, not cruelty.