By Deborah Choo
After their first three dates, his girlfriend told him an astonishing piece of news that changed his life forever.
It was a "dark secret", 61-year old Raymond Anthony Fernando remembered of what his then-girlfriend Doris Lau Siew Lang told him almost three decades back.
I am schizophrenic, she had told him.
If that was not surprising enough, she also told him that she was a patient at the Institute of Mental Health, otherwise known as Woodbridge Hospital in the 60s.
Yet, the secret she guarded so carefully — one that scared away all her previous boyfriends upon hearing — finally stood the test of one man's faith and love for her.
Raymond, a Singaporean whose heritage is part Eurasian and part Sri Lankan, listened as Doris poured her heart out about her past and her condition.
Schizophrenia is a group of psychotic disorders characterised by disturbances in thought, perception, affectation, behaviour and communication lasting longer than six months.
At the onset, because there was little public awareness on schizophrenia, Doris' symptoms of headaches, insomnia, a loss of appetite and even being delusional sometimes worried her family.
They believed she was charmed, and brought her to a medium instead. The delay worsened her condition. It had escalated to a point when she harbored suicidal thoughts. Back then in the 60s, a relative who worked in IMH heard of her unexplainable illness and recommended Doris to be warded. Her condition finally stabilised.
Instead, after hearing what she said, the freelance television actor and motivational speaker asked her, "Will you marry me?"
"I was deeply moved by her sincerity and her caring nature. I had dated many girls, but Doris was very down to earth… Doris is a very timid person and I decided I wanted to give her a better life, so I asked for her hand in marriage," Raymond told this writer.
The couple tied the knot in 1974.
This year, the couple celebrate their 37-year anniversary.
Doris is still battling with schizophrenia and as of five years ago, arthritis as well. As for Raymond, he too has diabetes, high cholesterol and cataract.
Challenges of caring
Medical costs aside, Raymond revealed that the road is tough to say the least. He used to struggle between juggling work and caring for his wife.
In 1995, under tremendous amount of stress, he attempted suicide.
In retrospect, he said, "I deeply regret taking that route — imagine what would happen to Doris if I had not survived."
"It's still very tough," Raymond admitted. "But I have to stay and remain strong for Doris. She needs me badly."
The couple had unfortunately lost their only two children — one through a miscarriage and the other through an abortion. In the latter case, the couple made that decision as Doris would have to get off the drugs that would affect the foetus.
The devout Catholic relies on his faith to get by. He left his 31-year job as a public relations officer in October and is now working from home as a writer to earn income to pay their bills.
Caring for his wife turned him into an advocate for the mentally ill.
"It's been extremely tough for her as Doris' sole caregiver, especially when the support structure for caregivers of the mentally ill is clearly lacking — something which I have been fighting for, for decades."
But Raymond never regretted taking her as his wife.
"No, I will not ever walk away from taking care of Doris because of one simple reason — I love her deeply," he said
Raymond handles all the household chores and finances while maintaining his writing jobs and caring for his wife. The last job entails taking her to numerous medical appointments at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, IMH and polyclinics monthly and ensuring she religiously takes her medication — 52 tablets a daily. He visits the same hospital for his eye treatment.
Although her schizophrenia is now stabilised, Raymond reveals that it may relapse anytime. "The symptoms of her arthritis condition caused her to be in tremendous physical pain in all her joints that left her mobility severely impaired. In severe pain, it can trigger a relapse of her mental illness," he said.
Doris had suffered a relapse before so he and the doctors are carefully monitoring her condition.
Raymond reveals how the symptoms first develops. He usually first notices physical tell-tale signs such as the white of her eyes turning slightly blue, and much dandruff appearing on her scalp.
At the beginning, Doris would become uncannily quiet and fearful. "The slightest noise will affect her," Raymond said. Over time, she tends to become increasingly anxious and begins hallucinating. While she is not violent, her husband said, Doris cries when she hears buzzing in her ears and voices telling her to do "strange" things.
"There were occasions when I had to sleep with the house keys under my pillow as she would wake up in the middle of the night and attempt to go downstairs to the void deck. She believed that her mother was waiting for her downstairs. But her mother had already passed away," Raymond said sadly.
Traumatic experiences such as the loss of their children, Raymond's and the loss of her mother haunts her as well.
The breaking point is when Doris begins talking about suicide. That is when Raymond is left with no choice but to admit her into hospital.
"On most occasions, she would have to undergo ECT ( electro convulsive therapy). This is where mild current is applied to the brain every 4 seconds to stabilize her. Most of the time, she requires at least six shots of ECT. It is an extremely painful period for me," he said. She may require another knee operation should her medications fail.
Despite all these, while he acknowledges that it is an uphill task to care for her as her arthritis condition worsens, he is prepared to fight this battle for he and his beloved wife.
"If there's one thing you can say to your wife now, what would you say?" this reporter asked.
"If schizophrenia is part of your life, then it must certainly be part of my life. I don't necessarily like what the illness does to you, but it is you who I love. And that will always be the guiding, motivating force of my life, Doris."
Deborah Choo used to write for an array of websites such as Youth.SG and The Online Citizen. She now blogs in her free time.