There used to be a woman who lived in my Aai’s wada. She often fondly remembers this woman for her beautiful feet, the most beautiful Aai had ever seen. She had a beauty routine for them: dip them in warm water, clean them with cotton and milk, and then soap. She’d moisturise them and adorn them with aalta. Then the woman would do her hair, wear some kajal and go out. She was extraordinarily beautiful. A mother of five children, but you couldn’t tell that by looking at her. One day, she killed herself.
Aai is often puzzled by that. Why would someone so beautiful and popular, who has five children to take care of, kill herself?
A few months ago, an acquaintance, another beautiful woman, swallowed a bottle of rat poison and died. Before doing that, though, she cleaned her entire house. Put out clothes for drying. Cooked dinner for her husband and child. They told us she was a follower of a guru, who had recently died in an accident, and since then, the woman had not been herself.
Whenever I ask Aai about what she thinks must have happened to her neighbour, she doesn’t have answers. She must have been depressed, I say. But she seemed happy, she says.
Why is it that so many people slip away from our lives like sand? Why is it that we don’t know enough about them? Why is it that while we share our victories, we forget to share our sorrows with each other? Why don’t we ask more questions, teach our children to speak up when in trouble?
I often tell my friends I come from a family that communicates a lot. I would come back from school and talk to my mother about all that had happened during the day. Aai knew about my friends. Who won what competition, who said what to the teacher and got into trouble — if it was news, I shared it with her. This is why it often surprises me how awful I was at communicating my problems with her.
I was a beloved child of kind parents, and, yet, I didn’t, not once, tell anyone that I was a victim of child sexual abuse. I don’t think I was afraid of any consequences. So why didn’t I tell them about it? I believe that I have spent a lifetime protecting my mother from emotional harm. Aai, who’d cry if I got high fever, who would drop work and sit by my bedside if I was hurt, always felt like someone too fragile. Once, I was badly hurt during a game, my face injured to the point of disfigurement. I kept crying about how I didn’t want Aai to know. I would have done anything to avoid it.
The abuse I went through led me to grow up into an anxious and depressed person. I often wonder how much of that I would have avoided if I had allowed myself to heal. I still struggle with talking about this, in fact, my parents are still in the dark about my experiences, and it is a major cause of anxiety in my life, especially now that I am writing a book on my mental health journey.
According to a recent report by the World Health Organisation, India sits at the top of the list of world’s most depressed nations — 6.5 per cent of our population is afflicted by one form of mental illness or another, but the number is likely to be a lot higher given how most people don’t ever seek help. There is a lack of awareness; we simply don’t understand how important our mental health is. We think sadness and depression are interchangeable terms. We think anxiety is just worry. We all are products of a culture that believes in denying a problem. Even when we talk, we don’t really communicate. I am often asked, what is wrong with your life? You are young, doing well, you don’t have many responsibilities. So, why the depression? And I want to rip my hair off. While my parents didn’t ever silence me, this culture did that job.
My parents didn’t exactly encourage communication either. Most parents don’t want to believe there is anything wrong with their child. Any harm that befalls the child is taken as a personal failure — people would rather live in the dark. When you don’t know it, you don’t have it. I don’t think the words “child sexual abuse” and “mental health” existed in their dictionary. Not before Aamir Khan, in his weepy-eyed glory, told all of India on his television show that every second child in the country has been sexually assaulted. My parents didn’t quite understand what mental health is till, one day, out of frustration of dealing with my situation alone, I told them I was seeing a therapist, that I need help.
I was met with resistance. Who is this therapist and what all is he filling your head with? What exactly went wrong? But you were such a happy child! Children who hide things learn to do it well. There is no other option. We lead dual lives. And in one of those two lives, I truly was happy. There was also this other side to me in which I was lonely. I blame the whole world for doing that to me. But I don’t take it so easily anymore. I talk about my mental health.
Whenever I see a window of opportunity, I tell stories about my friends and how they are struggling and winning, every day. I talk about trauma and all the things it brings with itself. I keep talking. And I have seen progress. Aai has a friend whose daughter is severely ill. Both her kidneys have given up on her. The girl, Aai tells me, has grown very withdrawn. And then, Aai tells me, she told her friend she needs a community’s support: “‘Take her to a therapist,’ I told her. Asked her to look up communities and support groups on Facebook.”
This is a thing she would never have said, had I not started speaking. There’s a lot she still doesn’t get. But I see a change. I know it isn’t easy for her to accept her daughter has depression, but she is making the effort. And that makes me feel less alone. I know the burden of this labour should not be on those already struggling, but those of us who can, should keep talking in whatever way we can.
As for the neurotypicals, instead of asking us questions that send us into murderous rage, start reading, and more importantly, start listening. The least you can do is be there for us. Check up on your friends. Don’t push them too hard. Let them know you are around and you love them. Educate your children about possibilities of abuse, look out for changes in their behaviour. No one should suffer alone and this is something we can fix. Just let go of your barriers, and let the light in.