February 5, 2021 5:30:07 pm
Mental health is still a difficult conversation in India, which allows an aggrieved person little space to release their pent-up emotions — if they are not dismissed first. The lack of acknowledgement, coupled with the fact that most Indians are unaware of available resources, make diagnosis and prognosis difficult. People, therefore, suffer in silence and in secret every day.
Author Ashish Bagrecha struggled with his mental health, too. Looking for a way to constructively let his feelings out, while also helping others in the process, led to him writing his book Dear Stranger, I Know How You Feel! A collection of 30 letters and poems, the book is also available in audio form on Audible.
In conversation with indianexpress.com, the writer discussed his process, his own journey, the stigma attached to mental illnesses, and how writing about it all and addressing it to a stranger helped with his own healing.
What was your frame of mind when you started writing this book? How long did it take for you to finish it?
I was going through depression, anxiety and panic attacks in 2018. I started writing poems and ‘dear stranger’ notes on Instagram as part of my therapy; I started acknowledging the pain and began embracing my vulnerabilities. A lot of people related to them and some of my poems went viral. That’s when I realised I needed to write a complete book detailing mental health issues and ways to cope. A book that will provide more context and perspective to these complex emotions and help my followers deal with them. It took me six months to complete ‘Dear Stranger…’ and it was released in November 2019.
Besides its hard copy, an audio version of the book is also available. How different was your narration experience?
Right from the beginning, I was sure I wanted to do an audiobook of it as well. The book has 30 letters addressed to a stranger — about 30 different emotions — and it’s written in a personal, intimate, and informal manner. When you listen to the audiobook, you will feel that you’re having a conversation with your best friend who understands you and knows how you’re feeling. I tried to maintain the same feel and emotions while narrating the book as I did while writing it. Back when I was a teenager, I dreamt of becoming a radio jockey, so narrating this book made my dream come true.
What are your thoughts on the power of audiobooks today?
One of the most amazing benefits of an audiobook is that the author can exactly explain a scene or story or a topic in the way they want the reader/listener to perceive/picture it. Audiobook gives more control on the tone of the book. With printed books, it is left to the reader’s imagination. For readers/listeners, it is easy to consume an audiobook because it requires less focus and concentration, but at the same time, has a deeper and powerful impact on their minds.
Mental health issues continue to be stigmatised — what do you have to say about it?
I think everyone around the world has slowly started to openly have conversations about mental health issues. I’m seeing growth of online support groups, helpline numbers and interesting start-ups trying to help with these issues. Things are way better than they were a few years ago and I’m sure, talking and tackling mental health issues will be normalised over the next few years. What I’m really hoping is that mental health education gets added to our school/college curriculums along with physical health.
Your book talks about dealing with anxiety, pain, self-harm and healing. Did writing about these feelings offer you some kind of outlet to deal with your own inner turmoil?
It certainly did. In 2018, there was no part of me left that recognised and loved me, and that could say, ‘Hold on, you can bounce back from this, you are worth it’. Paradoxically, that was also what eventually kept me going. I saw in myself, a reflection of a thousand pains from a thousand strangers, and I had managed to find a voice with which I could address them.
How did you come up with the name?
When a person is struggling with any kind of mental health issues, he closes himself to the world. He is not ready to listen to any motivational speeches. And that’s the mistake we all make — we give them all the inspiring talks or tell them to just forget all the emotions and nothing has happened. This makes things worse. That person needs someone who can feel how he feels. Someone who can understand what he is going through. No pep-talks, nothing. That’s the first step to healing. That’s why when I wrote this book, I simply wanted the reader to know I may not know their name or where they live or what they do, but dear stranger, I do know how they feel.
When you wrote and narrated the letters and the poems, did you really address them to a ‘stranger’, or were you healing yourself in the process?
The very reason I started writing strange letters was because I wanted to heal myself. So, the ‘stranger’ was no one but me. I felt I had no one who could make me feel understood and heard and tell me that it is going to be ‘okay’, and so I wrote all of that to myself. Only in the process did I realise there are millions out there who feel the same way and need a ‘stranger’ in their lives.
The lockdown in 2020 was understood to have exacerbated mental health issues. How did you cope with that?
I got a lot of time to introspect about the past few years of my life and how it has shaped me as a person. It gave me perspective and clarity about how I want my future to be. I indulged myself in reading and writing a lot of poems and I even released a poetry book called, ‘Love, Hope and Magic’ which is now a bestseller.
Besides writing and narrating, what other cathartic activities interest you?
I love to go for a late-night walk or run. Physical movement really helps in tackling mental and emotional problems. I also love listening to relaxing instrumental sounds.
What next for you?
I’m currently working on a Hindi podcast with Audible Suno around mental health and modern-day problems. It should be released in a few months.
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