Trigger Warning: the following story discusses depression, self-harm, and a suicide attempt. Read with caution if you are one of those who may be vulnerable to a discussion of these topics.
Mela Cervantes had a bunch of pills in her hand: around 20 tablets of clonazepam, a drug that is used to treat seizure disorders (for example, epilepsy).
Clonazepam is also used to treat muscle spasms, insomnia, and anxiety disorder. In Mela’s case, she was taking clonazepam for her anxiety disorder and insomnia.
On that day (back in 2017), Mela had 20 pills in her hand because she wanted to overdose on them and die.
Fortunately, before she could put the pills in her mouth, her husband Aaron saw what was happening. He quickly ran to her and slapped her hand, knocking away the pills.
Realizing what happened, Mela flew into a rage; she kicked Aaron in the balls.
Several years ago, Mela had sought help from a psychiatrist after she began experiencing severe anxiety, agoraphobia, insomnia, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
Her symptoms started after she gave birth: she was diagnosed with post-partum depression with psychotic features. Luckily for her, she found a psychiatrist who helped provide her proper therapy and medication.
Most women who experience post-partum depression recover from the symptoms. In Mela’s case though, her symptoms became chronic.
Upon further treatment and assessment, she was diagnosed with Bipolar Type 1 (formerly called “manic-depression”), OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome). Until the present, Mela takes medications to control these conditions.
Survivor and advocate
Looking at Mela’s photos with Aaron and her kids — if you didn’t know her medical history — you would never think she has a mental illness.
Many, if not most, people with mental illness DO NOT look insane or “baliw”. Having a mental illness does not mean that you don’t look or act “normal”. Some are even rich and famous and are able to accomplish great things.
Mela is known and respected in mental health circles as an advocate. She’s guested in several TV shows over the years to spread correct knowledge about mental illness; she is active in helping others through mental health support groups.
Through the years, Mela has learned a lot of lessons on how to survive and manage her symptoms. Her life and example show that a diagnosis of mental illness may be life-changing or even devastating — but it’s not hopeless.
Spouses, parents, and children can learn to cope and thrive, even when mental illness is in the family. This is possible with proper knowledge, guidance, therapy, and medical help — and of course, lots of love and care.
Mela shares some tips on how a family can deal with mental illness effectively:
Mela knows that she can be hard to live with when she’s having symptoms or episodes. This is why she greatly appreciates the patience, love, and support that Aaron and the kids give to her. She realizes that she stresses them out with her symptoms.
“It hasn’t been so easy. I admit I can be sensitive and they aren’t always at fault but I get affected so easily. I try to stay away so they don’t always have to do the adjusting.
“I tell them that I need alone time or quiet time so they don’t bother me while I regroup and compartmentalize. When I’m depressed, I can’t cook or clean. I’m always crying.
“But when they see I’m having a tough time, they help out. I do hate that they have to worry about me.”
Work as partners
Having a supportive and understanding spouse like Aaron is really something that Mela is thankful for. Support, trust, and understanding are the basic requirements of a healthy relationship—and more are needed if one of the spouses has mental health problems.
“Aaron gives me space when I need it. He comforts me, lets me cry when I have to. He listens to me, gives his perspective on things. He’s known how to pacify me like making me watch cartoons, going out to dinner at places I like.
“He also makes sure to remove sharp objects when I’m suicidal because he knows I have a tendency to cut. He never lets me inside a locked room by myself. I’m allowed to be alone but not inside a locked room because I might try to hurt or kill myself.
“Not all partners are like that, which is sad. Instead of being understanding, they become judgmental, which doesn’t help.”
Seek professional help, do research, and practice self-care.
Mela does not allow herself to become overly dependent on her family for help. On her own, she does her research about her illness. She seeks medical help. In learning about and dealing with her mental illness, she involves both herself and Aaron.
Her suicidal episode in 2017 happened after weeks of worsening symptoms. Her failed attempt to overdose; and the fact that she hurt Aaron physically, made her realize that she needed medical help.
She asked him to have her confined to a hospital’s psychiatric facility for treatment.
“I was in a state of psychosis during my violent fits that year; about a couple of weeks prior to my confinement and a few days into it. I have very vague memories of those three weeks. So no, I’d say I had very little awareness.
“I only remembered wanting to die, and realizing that I love my kids; I told my husband to get me admitted [to the hospital] to keep me alive.”
Presently, Mela and Aaron are going strong in their relationship, and continue to face the challenges of her illness together. They are an inspiring example to all couples.
Important reminder: Mental illness is real. It’s not something a person imagines or pretends to have in order to “get attention”. It is not a character flaw nor a weakness. It is not something to be ashamed of.
Depression, bipolar, OCD, schizophrenia, etc. are real illnesses rooted in the brain. They are complex conditions that arise from a combination of organic, genetic, and societal factors. They may be triggered by traumatic experiences.
If you suspect you have symptoms, or if you are experiencing distress, trauma, or having suicidal thoughts, ask help from a family member or friend.
Having suicidal thoughts and a strong desire to act on them is considered a medical emergency. Go to the nearest emergency room or get an appointment with a psychiatrist.
You may also call the Philippines’ national suicide hotline at (02) 804-HOPE (4673); 0917 558 HOPE (4673); or dial 2919 (toll-free number for all GLOBE and TM subscribers).
You may also go to the website of the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation for more information: http://www.ngf-hope.org