The body knows itself to be pure water or pure burning.
— Emmanuel Levinas, Proper Names
Content Note: Abuse, death, harm, mental illness and s*icidal ideation mentions
I navigate an illness that makes me a protagonist of clichés.
Sometimes, the thought of release is a dream of falling through clouds. My friend excitedly speaks about watching the northern lights from the cockpit of a plane — the whole kaleidoscopic spectacle; every inch of that cursive diffusion. I remember wondering if death was anything like that kind of calm yet intense speeding through varying degrees of colours. A plumed disappearance into a bird of light.
Light is what’s missing in the moments when I sink. The undertows are always thick with a darkness that is both velvet and ink. Its pulsating fabric wraps me, mummifies me alive. I am pulled into the mouth of a large, ravenous fish. I can feel my hair entangled in its jaws. I can hear the sharp, snapping urgency of its teeth. Soon, I am slick from the oil of its belly. I am doused and imprisoned in a slow consumption. At other times, it is an almost practical requirement to interrupt the welling that threatens to rupture the apparatus between my ears.
That is the worst part — the unclean bargaining with what would be a lesser shame because I know from experience that there is no lesser shame. That any threshold of shame where my knees crack against their own unhinged sockets, is always a ready punisher upon crossing.
The ease of certain kinds of sadness occupies me on a daily basis. I try to strategize the occurrences of migraines in the same Google calendar as appointments with my clients for therapy. I satirize the antithesis with doodles about “Would you like to book a dis-appointment today?”. I look forward to a good cry as a reward. A stubbornness to defeat Grief wills me to exist even as it weakens my existence constantly. Hours are blurred into tinnitus. I explode in combustion of routine sounds — stalled traffic, babies crying on the streets, a muezzin’s cry, temple bells deafening god and man alike, my mother’s rapid-fire prayers for my wellbeing.
Even from the earliest hour of childhood, I could only experience anything in a scattering of anachronisms. I felt someone sit within me with a balled up fist and drowsy eyes, pounding at every jagged edge of my consciousness with a slow but consistent knock. When my friends and I first saw Kill Bill, the scene with the Bride trying to escape after being buried alive in that coffin came so close to visually reproducing what I had felt forever. I could feel my stomach shrink. In the theater, I giggled with friends and shoved large handfuls of really terrible caramel popcorn into my mouth — inside, I could hardly state out loud that some kitschy Tarantino movie had just summarised so many years of my own psychological internment.
Depression is a schism between the mind and memory. Things fall through this gap quickly and with an irreversible gusto. A colouring book from 2nd grade. The first pair of silver anklets my grandmother bought me. My father’s suicide.
Politicization of memory exists. I am a woman of colour whose access to her own recollections is determined by a social ego. Trauma as radiant as a pulled tooth. Do not ask where the pain came from. Do not chant the repetition of these identity bracelets. Do not plant your instrument in my mouth’s swollen apogee after I have gargled with my own blood. I talk myself through dental extractions by reminding my body of the times it howled through consecutive depressive cycles without any Novocain to numb the crooked nerve.
I come from a long line of women who have bodies of silt and practice the grief of rivers. Except, these fluid dispatches are molten and erosive. We have been told not much can grow along these banks.
Once the sun was angled right above us as violent as abuse — a stepfather’s cowardly hand slapping its hard defeats into the soggy clay of my adolescence. I remember sitting under a canopy of rain, locked into a terrace full of rusted masonry equipment and rose plants, arms badly bruised from a beating — hallucinating that each rose had the face of Looney Tune’s cartoon character and it was talking to me. This is how I first learned that fiction triumphed experience. This is why I have to keep telling myself stories of survival.
Childhood: two birds, each the matted thickness of school bus yellow. Cassia flowers ripening inside the lungs of an Indian summer. I am confronted by the joy of a colour so unashamed of celebrating its own anaphora. I immediately decide against liking it because it is too happy, too wild and yet I can’t stop chasing the golden rasp of this colour. There is a woman from my childhood — hair the colour of dirty eggshells, left leg swollen to a bell as a reminder of untreated elephantiasis; her skin gleaming in the sun like a wet gunny bag. Gowda, I call her. Gowda Maiyya. I am too young to pronounce “r” fully. Technically, I want to call her Gowra Maiyya; Mother Gowra. Gowra is a deformed version of Gowri, one of the many names for the goddess Durga — protecting energy, mother goddess, my watcher. She helps us at the house and I love her because she brings me cassia flowers from a tree five houses away from mine. Every evening I stand by the gate and watch her climb up the thick torso of that tree. I watch her descend with arms full of canary-colored petals. This is happiness. This outlives the nights where my stepfather throws me at walls and my body becomes a bare echo.
In a house peopled with doctors, no one speaks about mental health. I hear dinner table conversations about lumbar punctures and meningitis symptoms but no one will explain to me why my mother cries in the bath, daily. We speak of visible, evident lacerations, injuries, fevers and a volley of diseases that are treatable through Band-Aids, Paracetamol or surgeries. In this sound universe, I haven’t yet been given the language to verbalise my corrosion. On certain days I am a stray limping, stalking every passerby in hopes of a single scrap that breaches the thin paper of their grocery bag, a bare piece of sustenance. Anything that tells me someone saw me and my hurt, someone cared even if it is a floating illusion, a sleight of hand. I want to stop apologising for this sadness. I want people to stop telling me how not to be sad as if it doesn’t occur to me on my own. I want to feel less ashamed of asking for help just because there is no physical proof that I am even going through this and I have been raised to believe that brown women don’t have the right to be depressed. I want what Peter Levine once recommended — an empathetic witness to my trauma
Except maybe there is but I have also taught myself to tuck it beneath a heavy layer of concealment as someone does an old photograph under a mattress. There are days yellowing between my thumbs, wet wounds, crusty along the edges. The kind I once got on my leg and my stepfather poked his finger into to prove to me what “real” pain is. There are days musty like piss-stained walls along Bombay’s local railway tracks where living is a placeholder for the right time to jump. There are days where 5am fades into 8pm without a whisper and I forget to eat breakfast. The days where I can’t switch on the light bulb in my room. I can’t finish half a toast without sobbing into a loud emptiness. These days exist and I am stunned to learn that this is not proof enough of my rapid disappearance.
I can’t explain the conditions of this experience. Almost everything I swear by exists as a hallucinatory surrogate for feeling. Whatever is entered, is altered. I feel the kind of anger that has its mouth wired shut. I walk through the length of a shit-littered beach and the dusk unveils itself against the horizon as if to remind me of the möbius strip of infinity and reality. I am trapped in this impossible diagram. I am being stretched through its flux. I have to pay rent and buy milk. I can’t bring my limbs to stop shaking. I am thinking of this Welsh word hiraeth which though mostly untranslatable means a kind of homesickness for a home you can’t return to. My whole life has been a burning hiraeth.
A few days ago, I spoke with a woman who runs a powerful and important project on sexual harassment and women’s rights in India, and she casually asked me — what is the most harrowing part of being a psychologist? My answer is akin a reflex action — to watch myself mirrored. I told her how homemakers from small towns could not even use the word depression because the snap response they received was : what are you “sad” about? You don’t even have go out and face the hardships of the world! You are nice and snug in a house. What is your unhappiness about? I can and can’t perceive the tonguelessness of this emergency. What is worse — to suffer or to be denied the right to speak of how you suffer?
In Bombay, trained psychiatrists tell me that depression is merely a western subterfuge. They tell me this despite knowing I am a clinical psychologist myself and work in the same field. I sit in an utter panic watching them invalidate me with a verbose confidence. Someone in the family once took a razor to her wrist and the guardians proposed electro-convulsive therapy in the very first session without batting an eyelid. This was to “cure” her since she was approaching the ‘marriageable’ age. In this country, women are more scared of admitting to a mental health condition than actually having to live with one.
In a poem, Mahmoud Darwish talks of shadows behind a dispossessed place. I take turns to be both — the shadow and the dispossessed place. I remember that in my boarding school, I felt free for the longest time. This thing — this automatic encroaching — didn’t really stop but somehow I gained more land, planted more gardens than at any other time in my life. We lived in a hill-station crowded with fragrant Eucalyptus trees.
At night, the girls in my dormitory tell each other ghost stories and laugh because each of us have met and lived with people far more violent and harmful than any poltergeist. We compare the collages of scar tissue, make shoddy lemonade, plot midnight adventures escaping stealthily from the backdoor in the common bathroom when the matron-in-charge is snoring as loudly as a pond frog. Once we do manage to sneak out only to have a chance encounter with a shimmering ghost peeking from a Eucalyptus tree. Frozen in our paths for 5 minutes, the moment the slightest of feeling returns to our feet, we buzz away like bees from a broken-into beehive. The next day, we realise that it was the incharge’s freshly washed zari-bordered saree that was flying its ghostflag from the skeletal Eucalyptus. On the phone, I tell my grandfather this and he chuckles — You should befriend your ghosts! They are lonely and want to share a sandwich!
The last time I thought of exiting the pain, I thought of my grandfather teaching me how to befriend my ghost. He would know — as a young wrestler who specialised in the Indian hand-to-hand combat martial art of Kushti, he would often go to a crematorium next to his training ground for nightly jogs. He said he felt like spirits kept him company as he trained in the old-fashioned open gym next door. He often said that the darkness could be worn like a talisman and its inhabitants knew how to see without the bias of light. Whenever I remember this conversation, I invoke Anna Kamienska and her brief proclamation —
‘I received the grace of shadows. The grace of remaining in the dark’.
I know that there will always be a dichotomy of days when my depression will cling to my hand like a lost child because I look safe enough for it and days where it hunts me slowly like a lazy predator. I can’t decide the order of days so when they do pass, I remind myself it is significant to unswallow, unconsume, unafford. This.
Psychoanalysis is my lipskin peeling in winter — I don’t like it but I also can’t resist tugging at it with my teeth. It alludes to the idea of The Real — that which is authentic, the unchangeable truth in reference both to being/the Self and the external dimension of experience, also referred to as the infinite and absolute — as opposed to a reality based on sense perception and the material order.
I sometimes absolve this term of all its academic infractions and simply hold it close to me so I can live inside it without constantly reducing my mind to some kind of dissonant hum. Urdu gifts me another word — Tabeer. The interpretation of the meaning of a dream. On days, I can’t emerge fully, I try to offer my life to Tabeer. A dream still unfolding, a rose unfurling the first of its many tongues. I teach myself a deepened vehemence for : chance, curiosities, pluralities. I don’t fight for space in the world. I build one of my own. Elsewhere that is also here.
Scherezade Siobhan is an award-winning psychologist, writer and a community catalyst who founded and runs Qureist— a therapeutic space dedicated to social health and wellness. Her work is published or forthocming in Medium, Berfrois, Quint, Vice, HuffPost, Feministing, Jubilat, The London Magazine among others. She is the author of “Bone Tongue” (Thought Catalog Books, 2015), “Father, Husband” (Salopress, 2016) and “The Bluest Kali” ( Lithic Press, 2018). Her first full length non fiction book is forthcoming with Harper Collins in 2023. Find her @zaharaesque on twitter. Send her chocolate and puppies — firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet at her @zaharaesque.