Shelja Sen’s Reclaim Your Life, Going Beyond Silence, Shame and Stigma in Mental Health talks about standing up to the forces of shame, stigma and silence in mental health. An excerpt: 

Depression has a loud voice and it has a tendency to drown out the voice of the person till the time the person starts internalizing the voice of Depression and thinking, “This is me”.

For Trisha, recognising her Dementor began with my subtle shift of language. We started by understanding the workings of Depression – the nuts and bolts of it – since when it had been around, how it spoke, its typical dialogue, the tone, how it made her feel about herself, what time of the day it was strongest, what made it become louder, what reduced the volume. We talked about its typical best friends – guilt, numbness, hopelessness, worthlessness, helplessness and all the other lessnesses.

The separation and “unpacking” of Depression is essential. Another therapy client once told me that getting to know the workings of Depression really helped – “I got to understand what it looks like, how it smells, how it sounds, what it tastes like, what it feels like and of course, how it makes me feel.”

Another therapy client once told me that getting to know the workings of Depression really helped – “I got to understand what it looks like, how it smells, how it sounds, what it tastes like, what it feels like and of course, how it makes me feel.”

Trisha and I found a common interest in History, so I used this as a way to ‘unpack’ and separate Depression. We discussed how oppressors throughout History had used the same mechanisms as Depression to colonize and subjugate people, where the oppressed completely started identifying with the oppressor or internalizing the oppression.

As the Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, put it, “The best way to keep a prisoner from escaping is to make sure he never knows he’s in prison.”

It was fascinating to see that when it came to discussing History, Trisha became really alive and participative. The use of oppression as a metaphor resonated with her deeply. She could draw parallels and see how important it was to understand the Internalized Oppression and stand up to Depression as an oppressor. Not in a violent coup, but in a more compassionate Gandhigiri (a Gandhian way made famous in the Bollywood movie Lage Raho Munna Bhai) as hatred would make us more reactive and stuck. We started using Gandhi’s peaceful boycott as a way to stand up to the imperialistic forces of Depression and the repressive messages it kept shooting at Trisha.

She could draw parallels and see how important it was to understand the Internalized Oppression and stand up to Depression as an oppressor.

Trisha was sexually abused by her twenty-year-old cousin when she was eleven. She tried talking to her mother about it but was immediately shushed, as speaking about it would go against “family tradition and values” and cause rifts in relationships and break up the family. The parents were extremely pained by the abuse but did not take any step towards addressing the issue within the family. This was roughly at the same time that she joined a boarding school, as per ‘family tradition’.

In the boarding, Trisha was bullied through the initial years where there was extreme shaming for her dark skin and body structure. The only way she learned to cope with all this was by putting all her energy into academics and basketball. However, the hatred towards herself, especially her body, grew very strong. It was in Grade 10, when she was 16, that Depression started seeping into her life. She slowly started moving away from people, spending time on her own and losing weight. That was the year her parents decided to bring her back from the boarding, as they thought she needed to get extra tuition for her preparation for medical school. This was another ‘family tradition’.
In Grade 11, her days became a blur of school, tuitions and preparation for med school. There was no time for basketball, drama, dance or art. By the time Grade 12 started, she had started missing school, losing complete interest in everything and talking about killing herself. It was her younger brother who insisted that she needed to seek help and forced his parents to take the first step.

She slowly started moving away from people, spending time on her own and losing weight. That was the year her parents decided to bring her back from the boarding, as they thought she needed to get extra tuition for her preparation for medical school. This was another ‘family tradition’.

On the surface of it, Trisha was a picture of success. Tall, slim, beautiful, studying in a top school, excelling in studies and sports. However, underneath it all, Depression had worn away her sense of worthiness and hope. in her journey of navigating her Depression and Internalized Oppression, Trisha learned to pan for gold within herself and finally own her light.

Excerpted from Reclaim Your Life, Going Beyond Silence, Shame and Stigma in Mental Health by Shelja Sen, published with permission from Westland Books,  Price: Rs 299.

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