Some people say Raymond Anthony Fernando is pushy and dresses loudly. Others feel his sometimes abrasive manners is conditioned by his extremely difficult situation. There are those who feel he is doing a wonderful job caring for his schizophrenic wife and is very courageous to open up their lives to public scrutiny to help destigmatise mental illness. What is the true story? Read Daniel Tay's report below. 

I FIRST MET Raymond Anthony Fernando at a workshop on "Pastoral Care for the Mentally Ill" conducted by the Singapore Pastoral Institute on Oct 8, 2005. As a fellow local author, I approached the author of "Loving A Schizophrenic" to find out more about him. Our first encounter, coupled with hearsay of his character, left me with mixed feelings. I had heard from reliable sources that he could be demanding and pushy.

However, as the weeks went by, his letters to various newspapers including Today and The Straits Times showed that he was serious about destigmatising mental health.

During my interviews with Mr Fernando, I gradually came to see him in a new light. Here was a man whose personality has been forged by the trials in his still ongoing difficult life. Mr Fernando's image as a "demanding and pushy character" seems to be gradually changing to one of "a persistent person".

Whether the transformation is due to perception or, as Mr Fernando attributes, to "a religious experience", is hard to say. But this trait of daring to do what is necessary even if it does not please everyone, is what has enabled him to care for his schizophrenic wife for over 30 years.

It is also what makes him an ideal advocate to speak up for the needs of both sufferers of mental illness and their caregivers. Indeed when asked to describe himself, Mr Fernando said, "I am a caregiver to my wife, who is the greatest inspiration to me."

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When he was younger, his father left home for another woman and never returned. His mother never remarried because she was a "one-man woman", and single-handedly brought up her six children. In spite of the difficult times, Mr Fernando, now 55, recalls his mother's generosity. "She would give food to all the poor she meets, including rubbish collectors," he said. "I have inherited the caring virtues from my mother, which have helped me to care for my own wife."

Mr Fernando's wife, Doris, has suffered from schizophrenia since she was 17. She has been warded in the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) more than ten times during their 30-year marriage. Her symptoms are fearfulness, feelings of being persecuted, having delusions that people are talking about her, and depression leading to suicidal thoughts.

Mr Fernando writes in his book, "I am troubled that there is no cure for schizophrenia. But I'm more troubled by the attitude of people towards those with mental illness - avoiding them and stigmatising them - when we should be helping them."

The author of five books began his writing career with poetry. "When I was working in broadcasting, I used to write poems and send them to my colleagues. They were very well received."

But he encountered many obstacles along his journey towards becoming an author. Following one of Doris' relapses, he faced an unsympathetic boss at work, who continued to put pressure on him to meet his work deadlines. This resulted in Mr Fernando falling into depression.

Encouraged by Doris, he sought professional help and was able to overcome the depression through medication, counselling, support from his wife and "the help of God, through prayers to the Sacred Heart of Jesus," he confided.

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"When I resigned from my job of 31 years to take care of my wife, I was forced to write for a living," he told me. "At that time, we were receiving rations from the St. Vincent de Paul Society."

Fortunately, he came across a website for the Central Singapore Community Development Council which prompted him to apply for an arts grant of $6,000. He got it, because of several factors, including his creativity and his financial condition. "The power of God is so wonderful, I tell you," was how Mr Fernando explained that episode.

It was only after his second book of poetry that someone suggested that he should write a book. "That turned out to be my wife's story," he said.

Undaunted by comments that a book on mental health will not be in demand, Mr Fernando went ahead with "Loving A Schizophrenic" "because there are many people who suffer from mental illness". He has already sold more than 1,000 copies of his book. Its reprint has been sponsored by the Lee Foundation with the support of the Singapore Association for Mental Health.

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"ONE OTHER PROBLEM I face is prejudice," he explained. Mr Fernando shared an experience where several junior college students passed his booth. "They saw my sign and one of them immediately said, 'Oh, this one, ah, split personality.' That is not what schizophrenia is."

Mr Fernando believes that the media holds great potential in educating the public on schizophrenia, so it is important that the correct messages are disseminated.

"Schizophrenia is a most distressing mental disorder," he explained. "It is still treatable with medication, counselling and very strong emotional support. We also need strong government and community support."

"In the beginning, my wife didn't want me to write because she was afraid that people will know about her condition and difficulties she went through such as abortion and miscarriage, and that they will start 'boxing us off'.

"But I told her that when you tell the story, you bring out strong emotions that will touch people and strike a chord with them. I later realised that there were many people who were coming to me for help for their friends and relatives, or even themselves."

The crusading husband strives to encourage others to speak up about mental illness by leading the way because he feels that this illness has been around for many years and that "this is one of the best ways to destigmatise mental illness".

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"I personally feel it is a calling from God to help these people," he revealed, "if I can create a pathway for others to write their stories." Already, Mr Fernando has been instrumental in helping at least one other sufferer of mental illness tell her story in the form of a book.

"Writing or telling our stories is also a way to release the pain inside us, the pain that has been bottled up," he continued. "The people who really need a lot of help are the caregivers."

Teresa Cheong, from the Catholic Nurses Guild, has met Mr Fernando on several occasions. She too is supportive of what he is doing. "Whatever he is sharing is a lived experience, and from the carer's perspective ... he will encourage people who are in the same boat. It is one way to encourage people to be supportive," she told CatholicNews. Ms Cheong also plans to bring Mr Fernando in as a speaker for a future workshop on mental illness that she is organising.

As a full-time author, Mr Fernando gives talks about being a caregiver to patients, teaching them how to identify symptoms of schizophrenia as well as providing tips, always using his experiences with his wife to illustrate his points. His talks are often encouraging, and he reminds his audience not to lose hope because mental illness can be overcome with regular medication, counselling and strong emotional support from loved ones.

In addition, Mr Fernando's letters to the local newspapers have alerted many people to the need to fight against job discrimination for those who have previously suffered mental illness. Although he did not start the project, his letters have helped to create the support needed to launch an ongoing campaign called the Silver Ribbon Singapore project to fight the stigma and help the patients find work.

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For many years, he had actually given up on his Catholic faith. He had refused to go to church for a long time because "I felt that God had abandoned me to suffer so much."

During the SARS period in 2003, his wife, Doris, suffered a relapse and was confi ned in IMH where he was not allowed to visit. He fell into depression again and, out of desperation, and in need of financial assistance and spiritual help, he went to see a priest.

"I asked him for blessed candles," said the lapsed Catholic, explaining that his mother had told him before that if he ever needed anything, he was to light a candle and pray to Our Lady.

"Father gave me a small blessed candle, which I took home and lit before turning in for the night. At around 3am, I woke up because of a bright light, and I found my house lit up as though there were floodlights," he recalled. "How could it be, when there was only that one small candle that lit the house? It was a light that I had never before seen."

The next day, the perplexed man received a call from IMH informing him that his wife was making a recovery. "Then I knew that my experience the previous night was a sign of God's eyes watching over me," he said. "There and then, I wrote a poem expressing my gratitude." See "The Eyes Of Jesus".)

"It was truly the power of God through the action of his priest that brought me back to church," he remarked and, in his mind, transformed him. "My message to people is that if you're suffering in life, if you feel you're down, don't give up on life, but look to God."

When asked how religion helps him in dealing with mental illness, Mr Fernando answered: "I can say that prayer does help. In fact, it was my psychiatrist who asked me if I went to church, and encouraged me to return to prayer as it helped during my depression."

In his book, Mr Fernando has a wish list. #1 is that more people realise that psychiatric patients are human too, and that they need love, support and treatment. They shouldn't be isolated, feared or neglected. In addition to talks, he has been actively promoting the cause in Singapore newspapers and on radio.

(Raymond Anthony Fernando's book "Loving A Schizophrenic" is on sale at the Catholic News Book and Media, at the Catholic Archdiocesan Education Centre, 2 Highland Road, #01-02. It is also available for online purchase at http://www.rankbooks.com/. It is priced at $15.)

Top, Raymond Anthony Fernando (right) with his wife of 30 years, Doris. Behind them is a framed poem (see below) penned by Mr Fernando which reminds them of Jesus' constant presence.

THE EYES OF JESUS

Hung on the corner walls of my home

With Jesus watching over me, I am not alone

His picture is on the right and on the left

Here is where many times, I have wept

The eyes of Jesus follow me in every direction I go

He is telling me that he loves me

And it is a virtue I should know

On Good Friday, the eyes of Jesus seem to say

The eyes of Jesus is sincere and does not lie

During Christmas, the eyes of Jesus bring good cheer

With Jesus with us, my wife and I have no fear

The eyes of Jesus, in our home, will always have a place

For the eyes of Jesus has so much grace

 

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