Content Note : Suicide, Mental Illness Mentions
Dear Ms. K,
I am writing to tell you that your daughter loves you and right now she needs your help because she is not ok. I don’t mean this to rouse a cowing alarm in your face and I wish I could say she is ok but we both know that the feeble veneer constructed around not acknowledging her mental disability can no longer hedge any bets for all those who are close to her. If the beginning of this letter seems abrupt, it is only in service to an urgency that knocks from inside my skull and asks me repeatedly — how can we ever make love tangible enough to let it guide us away from our worst impulses towards what is better within ourselves?
Paul Celan — a favourite poet of mine for whom your daughter has developed a recently finespun tenderness — once wrote — “Who is invisible enough to see you?”
I urge you to let me address your invisibility for once.
I am your daughter’s therapist. You and I have spoken a few times over the phone and met twice in person. R mentions your enviable collection of Bengal silk saris, your penchant for chilly pickles and your casual humming in the kitchen when you made her late night coffees and sandwiches during her 12th standard board exams. She giggles when narrating your aphorisms for finding comfort in desi soap operas and their implausible histrionics. Those are the good days and the yellow walls of my clinic are more bumblebee bright on those days.
However, there are other days and they have been stacking up in numbers. Days that are lengthened to an untenable rift. Days when she totters in as if her body is a rudderless dinghy assembled entirely by panicked hands. On those days, she speaks in jumbled sentences and her moods shift gears every five minutes. She goes from ember to arson and back in 0 to 30. She breaks down tracing the previous night she spent colouring mandalas to calm her nerves and yet all she could see was the face of a brutally murdered young girl, currently being flashed across every news channel in this country. She tells me that whenever she finds an easy breath to remove her from the chaos behind her own eyes, a bulldozing desperation for a permanent escape returns with its vicious current.
“How do I feel ok in this world when it doesn’t seem ok with me in it?” — She begs me for an answer even as her own gaze is fixed on some invisible succubus in the distance. A thing she can’t obliterate or extract from her memory.
You have known about R’s encounters with the difficult hours of her bipolar condition for at least as long as she has been coming to therapy. You probably experience the daily struggles and their riotous tempo a lot closer than I ever could in my weekly sessions. I know that her father still finds the fact of her disability erroneous despite sufficient evidence both towards her struggle and survival in its purview. I know this because she sometimes plummets to the bottom of a very barbed sorrow that emanates not only from being bipolar and the accompanying conflicts but also camouflages itself in a glitchy hypothesis where she believes her mental illness makes her unworthy of care and in a furious loop for that catch 22, not receiving care is what makes her mentally ill.
Bipolar depression in young women is an often ignored yet widely prevalent reality. In India, we don’t like to speak of mental wellness or illness out of fear for being perceived “mad”. The very “stamp” of madness is anathema to our archaic conjectures about community-approved belonging. When I brave a hairline fracture, I am surrounded by a coterie of friends, co-workers, family members offering me everything—from syrupy affirmations about my resilience to overwhelming encouragement through physiotherapy and even oversized baskets of fruits I don’t much like. On the other hand, when a sudden turn of inescapable depression casts me ashore me for days on end, I am left to starve in the grip of my loneliness without a single helicopter attending to my SOS. It is ironic that the mind is a door towards embodying the whole territory of life and yet when the mind is addled by its own breakdowns, all that it has tried to preserve and treasure seem to tap out on it so easily.
Everything isn’t as interred under debris and cinder, thankfully. We have a substantial set of resources and professionals who can come to the aid of those dealing with psychological and emotional dissoance.Yet, on a few occasions even now, I hear the ruffled slurs of “crazy” or “psycho” in my own clinic’s waiting area. Our popular media continues to box mentally ill people in convenient binaries of unrepentant sociopaths or unlikely & reluctant yet inspirational heroes. Fact is : the largest group of mentally disabled people in this country are forced to uphold traditional definitions of a functional living in order to survive without destabilizing their familes, workplaces and/or social in-groups. I have clients who diligently rise at 6 am and ready their kids for school, leaf through recipe books to find new desserts for their dinner parties, run businesses, manage offices, write exams, drive cabs, garden succulents, volunteer at senior citizen homes; participate in a plethora of activities where creative, intellectual, physical and emotional labours are mandatorily demanded from them. And they give, often without demanding much in return. A young mother remarks how she has finds the “perfect time” between her husband leaving for work & her mother-in-law engrossed in morning prayers when she locks herself up in the bathroom for a long cry because she is dealing with unspoken post-partum depression and no one at her home takes this seriously. A middle-aged man recently diagnosed with clinical depression details the Friday detours he takes to an abandoned park where he can drink in isolation followed by crying & a raging desire to drive his car onwards in the direction of a speeding train. This ritual he has set for himself is how he survives the reductive slang of his own peers who find the very idea of admitting to a “mental weakness” a form of emasculation.
What I mean to share with you through these examples is the collective nature of your daughter’s struggle with mental health. The concealed reality of R’s experience isn’t merely a personal aberration and considering it so dilutes the variegated and multi-layered sensitivity that accompanies her emotional and behavioural modes. R’s personal trials are very unqiue to her but they don’t exist in a vacuum. Mental health is often misconstrued as a function of ipsiety — something purely singular and innate with psychological schisms depicted like odd gylphs on a known alphabet. The mind is as much an extension of the environment that fosters it as the environment is a foundry for the mind. Your daughter often finds her mind either far too withdrawn from her environment or overwrought by it and it makes her experience a lack of control or awareness in matters concerning her own feelings especially in relationship to others.
Approximately 8.7 million people in India live with bipolar disorder/s. A lot of them suffer challenging repercussions on account of undetected symptoms or worse; a misdiagnosis. A lot of them don’t have access to psychiatric help on a consistent basis. Tragically, some of them are forced into involuntary psychiatric confinement. So many among them are unable to disclose to their own spouses, parents or colleagues the heavy exigencies that mark even the most quotidian of their chores. Imagine living with an unsparing mix of fear, shame, guilt and anger congealing in a filthy petri dish of stigma. That’s how R details the indignity of some of her episodes. Now imagine not being able to confide about this in her own parents because they prefer to sidestep her ache in favour of some imagined and utterly impossible normative standards they expect her to be constricted in including the formidable burden of marriage.
Every time a sly comment is made about her “laziness” when she is unable to get out of bed because depression has steamrolled her senses, her will to prevail takes an ax to its sapling. It is no small injury. The slights are no longer trivial, the criticism never salutary. I doubt it ever can be because I have sat many an hour with a young girl—your young girl — who almost seems separated from her own body when she recollects the ways in which she has learned to disown it. A child trying to translate her pain is not always fluent in the language of its expression. I know parenting is a skill that can never reach a perfect crescendo; parents do what they can learn best but for R’s sake, I implore you and your husband to recognize how ignoring her pain won’t automatically make it evanesce.
When a child reveals their distress, it can be tempting to use that confession as a mirror for your own life choices and their forked roads but right now, R needs your compass to point solely in her direction. At least till a compassionate awareness threads itself through each individual’ s acknowledgement in this shared responsibility. Yes, you couldn’t have predicted this nor could you have prepared for it in advance but right now, we have all been aimed in the same charge — your daughter’s right to have a full life.
Yes, there will be a continuation of periodic turbulence when incidents of mania slam into seemingly elastic spells of depression. Yes, it will be hard to forecast any of this to an unmarred precision. Yes, you might blame yourself and sometimes blame herself and yes she might do the same but through all of it, she will remain your child; the disease can’t take that away from her or you.
No, you won’t be alone in this journey. There are remarkable support systems in place for you as well. Yes, you would need tremendous space for selfcare as well as the elbowroom to make a few mistakes that are not only imminent but also necessary for the learning curve to establish itself.
There are many labels and almost an equal number of disputes against those labels when we discuss mental health. I don’t want for you to ever reach a stage where you reduce your child to a label. She should be allowed space as any of us to be our own a sundial for emotions. Yes, she has a classification, a name she — and you — can use as a pathfinder through the contrasted energies of ferocity and ambiguity that are the hallmark of this thing she is trying to navigate. It is not her definition, just an arrow that points towards the direction her mind tends to take in its inconstant moments.
In all of this, never lose sight of the soft light that renders her shape. This world sometimes moulds our need for protection into making pervasive demands of strengths from people who are just waiting to hear how much they are loved at their weakest. She is the same girl who likes to play gully cricket with the neighborhood kids, who adores stray, mangy kittens, who makes melodramatic pleas to be the sole inheritor of your pearl necklaces and pashmina, who used the prize money from winning an art competition to take you and her father out for a movie. Yes, sometimes it is hard to see that girl in this girl but she is very present — a possibility and an incompleteness, an integration in progress.
Our personhoods are often crated and shelved in convenient binaries of “wellness” and “illness”. Existence is a far greater degree of abstraction; a locus that frequently repositions itself in relationship to its internal and external habitats.
“Confusion is a sign of vast embracing. Don’t be anxious about it. Later, you will make the synthesis. First take in, understand, love everything. It’s good.”
(Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer, quoted by Anaïs Nin, from a letter c. August 1933)
Let there be your embrace as vast as the possibility of her—well, just Her.
You have my number and my email. I shall await your first and next steps.
Scherezade Siobhan is a psychologist, writer and a community catalyst who founded and runs The Talking Compass — a therapeutic space dedicated to providing mental counseling services and decolonizing mental health care. She is an award-winning author and poet whose work is published or forthocming in Berfrois, Feministing, Jubilat, DATABLEED, Nat Brut, Winter Tangerine, Cordite among others. She is the author of “Bone Tongue” (Thought Catalog Books, 2015), “Father, Husband” (Salopress, 2016) and “The Blues Kali” (Forthcoming, Lithic Press). Send her chocolate and puppies — firstname.lastname@example.org