No one I’ve ever interacted with in my 23 years of life has ever been warmly invited into a family secret; most tumble into it in the dark, head first, sustaining scars and wounds that follow them around for the rest of their lives. As I listen to two 20-something Indians recount their parents’ struggle with mental health, I find myself taking large gulps of water to drown a rising lump in my throat. Tanmaya and Arjun* are strangers to me, but their stories of family conflict and mental illness are awfully familiar.
“She was diagnosed with schizophrenia when I was really young — maybe when I was in the 4th or 5th standard. But, I didn’t really ‘find out’ until I was in the 10th standard when she had an episode,” Tanmaya tells me about her mother without meeting my eye. Like Tanmaya, Arjun also chanced upon his mother’s bouts of depression as a young boy of 15 or 16 after overhearing a conversation between his parents about medications. Unsurprisingly, Tanmaya’s older brother and Arjun’s older sister were clued in to their mother’s struggles with mental illness, leaving them, the youngest members of their families, to make their own accidental discoveries.
“My sister would visit my parents every weekend, so she was around more. I was away in boarding school so, it was easier not to tell me,” says Arjun, gazing absent-mindedly at the tiled floor in the space between us, a space that feels much smaller than it is because every Indian child can relate to a lack of communication in the family. Even so, Tanmaya and Arjun’s perceptiveness saw them through. Both speak of a noticeable change in their mothers’ behaviour, from increased paranoia and worry to a lack of enthusiasm. But, unfortunately, their individual journeys of suspicion did not end there.
Tanmaya recalls a traumatic experience that has shadowed her ever since it took place when she was in the 10th grade. “I told my mom I was going out with my friend and needed some money. She refused to give me money, told my friend to leave, and locked the house from the inside… Then, we had a bad physical fight. She pinned me down to the floor and tried to choke me… She only let me go when my brother came home,” she narrates teary-eyed.
Arjun tells me of the aggressive, verbal arguments he has had with both his parents. He says that his father struggled to keep the family afloat amidst failing finances and household tension stemming from his mother’s battle with depression. Arjun says, “One day when my father took his anger out on me, my sister said something that has stuck with me since then… She said, ‘Ek saal se papa badal gaye.’”
Tanmaya and Arjun’s stories are unique in that their parents addressed mental illness (however surreptitiously) and embraced medications to correct their chemical imbalances. But, what is far more universal about their stories is that their families waded through years of stigma and internalised shame and inevitably shielded them from vital medical information. Now, neither Tanmaya nor Arjun talk about the experience freely and painlessly.
When asked if he’s ever discussed his mother’s episodic depression with her, Arjun shrugs and says defensively, “No, I haven’t. I don’t have a problem talking about it, but she’s fine now. So, I don’t.” Tanmaya’s response is similar: she doesn’t discuss the day to day of her mother’s life or caregiving with any close friends or loved ones. She tells me that although all her relatives know of her mother’s struggle with schizophrenia, they have never once offered to help. “My mother has two brothers and my father has nine siblings. When my dad was in the army, everyone would come to visit us. Now, no one does,” she says softly with a bowed head. “She was and is a beautiful human being, she worked really hard in her life and always, always helped others in need. But, life has been so unfair to her. She lost herself and it’s sad to see that every single day,” she says.
Arjun and Tanmaya tell me how their families have avoided confronting mental illness directly. Arjun’s father worked tirelessly to bring some semblance of normalcy to the family instead of taking time off to deal with a life-changing situation. “Family quality time was replaced with work-related stuff... He was away a lot,” recalls Arjun. Tanmaya tells me that her father first hesitated to share the news of her mother’s illness with other relatives and even took an early retirement from the army because of a fear of stigma and judgement.
In the midst of this heaviness, I wanted to know how love blossoms between parent and child when the roles of caregiving are reversed.
“My happiest memory with my mother was on 25th July, her birthday,” Tanmaya begins. “We decorated the house with balloons, got her champagne, and played her favourite songs on the guitar… That’s why I love music so much; even when my mother doesn’t remember who she is, she remembers her guitar chords,” Tanmaya smiles. She tells me of another cherished moment, one that is so private and raw that I feel like I’m invading her privacy — the last time her mother was lucid, two years ago. Tanmaya describes being caught off guard when her mother addressed her by her name and feeling unadulterated joy and relief when her mother asked her about her job and college and talked fondly about her childhood. This moment of lucidity was fleeting but so powerful that Tanmaya revisits it often for comfort when her bond with her mother is strained and tested, especially when it comes to cajoling her mother to take medication or managing her hallucinations.
Arjun talks fondly of his mother’s persistence and desire to want nothing but the best for his father. “She always pushes him to work hard and wants him to succeed,” he says. His mother’s depressive episodes are now few and far between, making his relationship with her more consistently positive; so much so that he finds it difficult to choose only one positive memory. When he finally tells me that hugging his mother is the “most amazing feeling,” I feel the lump rising in my throat again because hardly have I witnessed the most common display of affection described so intimately and innocently.
After describing their moments of happiness, Arjun and Tanmaya both settle into a silence and look into the distance as if they’ve travelled to a different time. The feelings of isolation and abandonment Tanmaya and Arjun’s mothers have felt aren’t limited to them: their children too experience a similar frustration that’s especially tinged with helplessness and fear because a parent, the source of their security and stability, is suffering. When Tanmaya searched high and low for people with similar experiences, she came up empty. So, she took matters into her own hands and now runs Supriyaa, a support group named after her mother that is slowly growing with over 15 members. Arjun’s dealing with his past is more micro as its limited to confiding in his girlfriend of over 2 years, but this coping mechanism works equally effectively for him.
Harbouring anger and resentment are easy choices for Arjun and Tanmaya who, like any child, would crave unconditional love and protection from the one person they can expect it from the most. But, they choose otherwise –– they choose to maintain loving relationships with their mothers and mature into adults who project empathy and kindness into their surroundings; choices that are difficult to make every day regardless of one’s circumstance.
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