By By tata ramon
About my Mother, part 2
posted 22-Aug-2012  ·  
2,698 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

As a tribute to my mother who passed away five years ago, I wrote of her vocation as a traditional healer in the first part of this series. Here, I elaborate on a particular condition that she was remarkably competent to offer a cure, an affliction called nerbiyos. It is commonly experienced by women going through mid-life.  How she acquired the know-how of this health problem and how eventually she became a healer of the nerbiyosas of Virac was a defining aspect of her entire being, a salient component of her life history that puts together all the other parts into a meaningful whole.

It all started in the late fifties when my mother had a particularly difficult pregnancy of her sixth child. After delivery, she went into extended post-partum blues that manifested as a physical debilitation like she did not feel before. Local doctors could not make anything out of it, psychological they said, so even with our meagre resources, my father decided to bring her to Manila. In the city, the doctors were as clueless. My parents were about to travel back when they got information that a healer from Las Pinas might be of help. So my father went to see the healer, a man, who impressed him by ramming through the symptoms even if he has not yet described it. So they postponed their trip back for a last attempt to get a cure. The healer ministered to my mother. She went home to Virac healed and ready to face again the tedium of motherhood.

Back in Virac, the news of the remarkable cure spread fast. It helped that my mother was in regular contact with an array of womenfolk through her trade as a beautician and seamstress. In no time at all, our pantaw where my mother serviced her clientele was always groaning with women seeking not just beauty but healing. It turned out that nerbiyos was a common condition among women typically of my mother’s age set. Taking after the method of Las Pinas healer and with her own added touch, my mother obliged to minister these women as a way to pay back for her healing from nerbiyos and as an expression of solidarity with her gender-kind, particularly mothers suffering the same affliction; she only knew too well the ordeal they were going through.

With rare exceptions, nerbiyos is a syndrome that has a strong gender dimension. Afflicting mostly child-bearing women, it is most likely physiological, perhaps something that involves hormones, but as it is with most sicknesses, it is also cultural. Health is not simply a biological phenomenon but a social one.  While doing research on medical anthropology for my Ph.D., it came as a surprise to know that this condition is widely reported in social science literature. In Latin America, it is known as nervios, the Greeks call it nervas, and it was also widely experience by English wives of the Victorian era. What is common in all these societies, including the Philippines, is that they are all operating under a feudal arrangement where women are relegated to a social position subservient to men, a patriarchy.  In such a social system women are mostly confined to the home to take charge of reproductive and domestic function and largely prevented from involving from taking part in the concerns of the world out there that is considered as men’s territory. One view that to me is plausible is that the enormous stress and anxiety creative chores, plus the fact that these women are inhibited from giving vent to self-expression and career fulfillment, lead to a reaction formation that is the nerbiyos syndrome.

Usually, this condition starts through a trigger, such as a specifically traumatic event. In others, it just creeps in. The onset of an attack is a feeling of weakness and coldness in the extremities. It might be accompanied by pain in the chest or gas pain (harabahab ning tikab), and dizziness. One also experiences shortness of breathing. It goes worse until the person gets the imminent feeling that he/she can die right then and there. The big problem is that it attacks any time and without apparent cause, so one develops fear of being alone or going out. It then affects one’s efficiency at home or at work. When a doctor is consulted, the sufferer is told that the problem is “psychological” as indeed the vital signs are usually normal and laboratory tests do not reveal anything. The patient resents it especially when advised to see a psychiatrist, “ay bako man akong bua!” It is even worse when told that dai ka man ning helang, as if one is making it up. For the nerbiyos victim the condition is real.

While doctors might give mood altering substances (such as tranquilizers), the cure that my mother offered consisted of a regimen of herbal applications, principal of which is a series of steaming with boiled taran-isog leaves and body hilot with panhangin concoction. The whole thing is capped with a pamasma, a delicious broth that is given to drain away, yes, the pasma, which my mother attribute to the usual ripas ning pagkaon by busy mothers, who sometimes because of poverty had to give up her own meal in favour of the children. It may be also due to the countless occasions that the mother is exposed to harmful conditions, such as init asin ripot in the course of doing chores because she would usually disregard her own well-being. Sometimes, it might be necessary to compliment the regimen in order to deal with aggravating conditions such as culebra and ponsada, in which case she applied physical therapy procedures such as kayod and bintusa.

But more than going through the motions, an important component of the cure is the social/relational one. My mother’s approach to healing had always been holistic, meaning that she considered the various interconnected facets of sickness. In the case of nerbiyos, the start of the healing process is that the condition is recognized and labeled, and not denied as “imaginary” (as in the way medical doctors dismiss it as merely “of the mind”).  It helped a lot that my mother knew of the condition as a sufferer herself and was able to describe clearly the symptoms. One gets the assurance that she is not alone in the predicament; others have experienced it.  The second point of the healing is to know that others have overcome it, as indeed my mother was an illustrative example of successful cure.

If it is granted that the feudal, patriarchal structure of society has bearing on nerbiyos, it would follow that unless this disappears, women will be prone to the affliction. In the case of my mother, nerbiyos attacks did not cease altogether and so it was with her clientele. So therefore, there was formed a group of women nerbiyos sufferers who regularly congregated in our pantaw. My mother was at the center of this group that had become a support enclave that talked about not only of their nerbiyos illness but of the various issues that motherhood brought forth. As I saw it, it was a space that these women created for themselves where they can ventilate their concerns. I suppose this mechanism was part of the package of cure for nerbiyos given that this infirmity is something that is connected with the difficult circumstances of the vocation of motherhood. 

So it happened then that the pantaw of my childhood bliss had become the space of my mother’s circle of sisters in vocation-and-affliction where they tried not only to draw healing from the wear-and-tear of motherhood but to generate energy to sustain the motherly mandate. It usually took place in the afternoon when the tasks at home had thinned out. But such sessions usually get into early evening and so the husbands, just home from work, would miss their wives at the time they were supposed to have the kitchen smoking for supper. So these men would appear at our place to claim back their women. Sometimes they lingered as the wives were in the mood to extend their empowering space-time. There would be some harmless bantering then, the husband chiding the wives about their nerbiyos as just their way of papansin. The wives, basking in women-power, would protest noisily and dare them to exchange places with them. Oh, it would be some kind of the battle of the sexes being staged in our pantaw!

      By the eighties my mother became quite sick with diabetes and so she had to frequently travel to Manila for medical attention. She had slowly retired from active healership but obliged on rare occasions to heed a request. Mostly, all she could give were advices and instructions, and even on her sick bed she would dictate a formula for a particular case brought to her attention. My own sisters came to know my mother’s formularies and applied it on their children. Particularly, my sister Genevieve (a dentist-nurse) had become the repository of my mother’s theory and practice of healing; she acquired not all the specifics of how-to but also the aptitude and the “spirit” as indeed there was something about my mother’s hands exuding “energy.” It was indeed a gift. 

But my mother did not really stop her healing vocation. She was able to live up to the ripe age of 81 because she was a fighter, still trying to cure not only other people by also herself. But I guess she knew when it was time to go. Within a few hours before she gave up the spirit, she instructed my sister Genevieve to prepare a combination of herbs that she wanted to be applied on her as a sponge bath. My sister obliged of course, but she was wondering if my mother was inventing a new formula: she knew of my mother’s entire repertoire of cures but had not heard of this particular application before. After the bath, my mother asked for a change of clothes, her favourite duster. Then she said “dai pa daw ako nag kaon” so they gave her rice broth, of which she was able to finish two spoonfuls, her first real solid intake in weeks. Then she slept and went peacefully. Later during the wake, we came to know from old folks that the strange herbal bath was really the traditional ritual of cleansing for the dying. My mother, knowing that she would be taking her final journey to her Lord, very calmly dictated her final healing formula, that which she needed at that singular moment of her life and something she had to pass on to those of us left behind: the cure of all cures, one that does not ward off death but embraces it.


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