I think I was in Grade 3 then. I guess I was around 9 years old then. My mom was having her worst clinical depression episode yet— I can’t quite remember if she was already undergoing therapy or if she had already been diagnosed with such. But I remember those days, weeks where my father had to hide us from our mother in her madness.
She had forced my eldest sister to study in Metro Manila against my sister’s wishes almost year before; my sister Alyn— I heard about the story of my mom literally dragging her by the hair from her classroom, to be brought God knows where. It was only a matter of time before she came for me. Our house, no longer a home— was already emptied of its furnitures; an empty shell, befitting the hollowed resemblance of our family. It was here that father hid me for days when he had to go to work: a silent bungalow filled with bittersweet memories. I had to stay away from the windows, not answer the door, not even allowed to turn on any light, in order not to give away my presence inside the empty house. My mother would occasionally drop by the neighbor’s home— the Sulit family, who lived just beside our house and were very intimate with our family.
I can’t recall how many days I lived like that: being dropped off in the morning or afternoon, left with some food, picked up again at dusk. My only consolation was having some broken toys to play with, and two books to pass the time: a KJV version of the Bible, and graphic novel version of The Pilgrim’s Progress. I’ve practically memorized the books of 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings and Revelations; the rest I found a bit boring.
I used to be a strongly optimistic child; during those days, I kept believing that everything will be back to normal. My mom will be normal again. My family will be normal again. I tried to collect random objects from the house to add to my collection of unorthodox toys: an empty matchbox, some bent nails, a door hinge, and other junk. My father had seen me playing with these several times when he came to pick me up, which was probably why he bought me a costly Lego set (priced at P6,000± in 1995) as a possible atonement for that memory. But that’s just my retrospective speculation.
My mom eventually got to me at school. My ever-trusting teachers in Saint Joseph School didn’t ask any questions when she suddenly had me drop out (it was around October, right around the semestral break). I couldn’t speak out; she was still my mother, and I was still praying, hoping that everything will work out. On the other hand, I was also hoping and praying that my father would come and rescue me. My mother immediately brought us to a DLTB bus bound for Gumaca, Quezon Province.
It took several days before my father managed to locate me and bring me back to Naga City. I was promptly re-enrolled back in Saint Joseph School. My classmates teased me about my sudden, unexplained disappearance for days. Yet still, I wondered then: who was with Mama back in Gumaca? Would it have helped her if I had decided to stay with her after all?
I was a freshman in college. I had to learn to live alone: My father would send me a monthly budget (sometimes delayed). I had to overcome the temptations of solo living: the over-indulgence of food, the thought of inviting female friends over (thank God for my timidity), or simply acting on my crazy scientific ideas. I almost had an perfect grade in Chemistry; imagine the freedom of mixing solutions and compounds without anyone asking what I’m thinking.
I had to look after myself, take care of myself. I had no one to turn to but myself when I had fever or worse. Twice, I almost died from electrocution— my own fault and clumsiness, and something I would never forget. During a storm in 1998, I had to deal with the stressful process of preparing all my household belongings for the flood, and the more stressful process of cleaning up everything after the flood. Not to mention being worried all-night: mobile communication was not available during that time. Not that I could have afforded one, anyway.
2001. It was a crazy decision: to stay in Naga City, with no clear hope of finishing my college degree; or take my chances in Metro Manila. I left without telling my father or siblings — except Alyn, whose home I stayed in for several months. The next few years, I was isolated from my family. I didn’t have any news from them, nor did they have any news about me. We eventually made contact again sometime in 2005. But communication remained awkward, strained, painful.
When my sister and I finally got in touch again, it was because my mother had a stroke while travelling from Metro Manila to Naga City. I rushed to Bicol. And every time I visited my family afterwards, I couldn’t help but feel like a stranger. A stranger to my own home, family. And as much as I wanted to stay, I can’t. Because it was more painful.
• • •
I often wonder how isolation really happens— is it really the fault of the ones who chose to isolate themselves? Or do people create situations to isolate us from them? Why do we want to stay away? Why do they want us to stay away? There’s a saying that ‘no man is an island’— but here we are, an entire archipelago of it, in this wide ocean of imperfect human interaction. And I guess the physical pain of isolation is one that a lot of people are most familiar with: being separated from one’s family due to overseas work, living apart from one another without communication, or even being physically isolated, even when you’re among friends and family. Yes, it happens; just because you’re physically with people doesn’t automatically mean you are with them, a part of their group.
But what if it’s your own fault for isolating your own self? What if it was your own decision, and everyone else is just respecting your space? What then?
I can’t honestly answer that myself, because I am guilty of it.
One thing I do know, is that people don’t go away without reason. And one’s physical isolation is just the first symptom of a bigger problem.