By Amrita Tripathi
Do check out an interview with the multi-talented author of Fallen, Standing: My Life as a Schizophrenist, Reshma Valliappan. You can read an excerpt of her book here. Highly recommend the book (in case that’s in doubt!)
1) You write very powerfully about your experiences, your life pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis… very personally about family issues, as well as what drove you to run away, or self-harm. You also write very eloquently — through these emails to your publisher — about what each recollection dredges up. It’s not just a question of putting pen to paper.
Can you share a little bit about your unique process?
Reshma Valliappan: I don’t consider it a unique process really. Writing and art has been what entered my life during recovery or a better word be healing. I could find words for the chaos in my mind and write them down. Honestly I just call it verbal diarrhea transmitted through my fingers onto my keyboard. I write exactly what I would speak or think…it’s really quite natural for me. But to explain what is happening in my head while I do it – it’s more of a trance really. I always do feel I am going into my laptop standing in the midst of it and the words are just all there. Often I also feel like I’ve been ‘taken over’ by something else or someone else who is just guiding me into writing it. Who these people inside me, my head or outside of it are is irrelevant to me at that point. Spiritual speaking I’d like to say I am embodying the female version of Ganesh that is Goddess Vinayaki and someone is dictating all of it for me to write much like how Ganesh had to write nonstop while Vyasa dictated the Mahabharata to him. But that’ll make me sound delusional…nevertheless I have schizophrenia and everyone knows it so well…:P
1a) What it did for you to write this? What it was like to allow different voices, including your 15-year-old self to take over?
Reshma Valliappan: Hmm…It broke me down all the time. I could only write after my parents were sleeping, that is post-11pm as I would find myself sobbing silently while trying to get it all out and waking up the next morning to deal with the time fluctuations in my heart and memories.
I’ve yelled at my parents while writing since the memories presented themselves as something new to me. It was a challenge for me to learn to accept the adolescent(s) inside me and another challenge to learn to live with them now that I brought them out. My obedient socially abiding adult didn’t want to share many things but the kids inside me insisted. I’m glad I’ve listened to my voices…internal and external. No therapy could have ‘united’ the people inside of me or outside of me but the process of writing this book brought it all together. It forced me to let go of my Ego and allow others to exist with me. I consider it a spiritual process and not a therapeutic one.
2) What were some of the reactions that have stayed with you? From strangers? From siblings/ your parents?
Reshma Valliappan: Reactions…well…my parents haven’t read the book but our relationship has changed incredibly since then as 3 of us (my dad, mom and me) share a more spiritual bond than a parent child bond. I’ve sent them (a) few blog posts on the same, which in the beginning was difficult for them to digest as they felt very guilty after knowing the contents of my past. However, we’ve moved away from the past as a whole. My siblings haven’t read the book either as none of us think it is necessary since as a family we’re all really quite a bunch of nutcrackers 🙂 But they’ve been a lot of support in their own ways in organising talks, get-togethers and more importantly just being there with no judgments.
As for strangers, it’s been a mixed bag. I’ve had positive reactions and feedback from those who are not professionals from the sector of mental health. Lay people who don’t come with preconceptions of schizophrenia and knowledge of mental illness could relate to my book at many levels. Some could identify the multiple themes: parenting, teenagers, letting go, acceptance, family, racism, bullying, assaults, alcohol and drugs, love, relationships. My best reactions were from 16 year olds as they’re so honest with their understanding and read of it.
Persons living with other diagnosed conditions have also been highly appreciative of it and been very encouraging towards me as I really needed it right after my launch because I got a lot of hostile, insulting, demeaning and judgmental reactions from a lot of others. Some have said ‘Reshma’s father must have paid someone to write the book for her’.
Another: ‘How can she be so articulate in her writing…she can’t possibly have schizophrenia’, ‘The family has lied about her having schizophrenia’, ‘The book is so incoherent and confusing…wish the publisher did a better job’, ‘How she can write about her parents like this’, ‘Does she not have any shame for calling out on her past?’ … These are just a few, plus having received newer diagnoses by the medical profession who have stumbled across my writings.
The good reactions from the medical profession or those in the mental health sector are less than the numbers on one palm of my hand.
3) What are two or three misconceptions you wish people would just do away with, when it comes to schizophrenia?
1. That we might be crazy but we’re not stupid. We are not our labels.
2. That they might be crazy and stupid at the same time. There’s a person behind every label.
3. That the whole world is a schizophrenia in itself and people need to look in the mirror before assuming they are in a better state of existence than those like me.
4) You do allude to a suicide attempt, and the thoughts that run through your mind on what people will say, given the documentary and the fact that you decide to go off medication. Can you share some of that in this interview — what would you tell a younger self?
Reshma Valliappan: I’ve understood that almost all of my suicide attempts or ideations had nothing directly coming in from within me but were reactions to the world outside of me. You know, they just don’t give you a break even when you decide to tell your story. Who will not feel suicidal when the system can be so hostile towards you and then blame your so called symptoms for everything. We are told to tell our stories and talk about it but when we do it is called out.
The documentary was quite a target and was name-called by many. The film-maker and me were both judged and many spaces didn’t want to screen it or even wanted anything to do with me because I might influence other ‘schizophrenics’ to stop taking their meds (as if I’ve got superpowers to do that…what a funny irony).
After the documentary, it was obvious that everyone suddenly wanted to be my friend after having rejected me at so many levels. A lot of people thought my life was made and that I got paid a large sum for it when the truth is far from it. I was still struggling since I wasn’t employed. I was 30 and had no clue what I was doing in my life as I only just got it back. I still had a lot of issues with my parents and family. Then I had to undergo a brain surgery for a tumour 6 months right after. So when people told me ‘Why would you of all people think of suicide and self-harm yourself…’ I could only roll my eyes in disbelief and call them mad to amuse myself.
I’d tell my younger self: Don’t do anything any differently! In fact, instead of self-harming so much you should just throw people off the cliff and tell them to fuck off more often. But keep your mouth shut more often if you were to do that. Some people aren’t good listeners and some people aren’t ready for what you have to say.
Learn to expect rejection, it’s an art.
4b) What would you say to someone else who might be feeling alone, misunderstood and as if that private hell won’t ever end?
Reshma Valliappan: Throw a tantrum to the universe and tell it to help you 🙂 Unfortunately, we’ve learnt to feel okay in being alone when deep inside none of us truly want to be feel that way. So it’s okay to say we don’t want to feel alone and that we need someone. That’s the starting point of our private hell opening it’s gate for a friend to walk in and sit with us. We share good memories and moments so why not share the bad ones too…it is what makes us human. We are our own devils…;)
4c) How do loved ones encourage them to hold on, through the night – day by day?
Reshma Valliappan: Stop seeing your family member as a label or a condition that can only be helped or saved through medications or a treatment. Love does heal but time and space is necessary for anyone to heal. Accept them for who they are and the way they exist. Stop expecting them to go back into doing the things they did before. We don’t expect someone with a broken leg or a heart disease to be jumping about do we? Every illness or condition or disorder changes the person.
Allow them to be who they are and who they are to become with the schizophrenia. Don’t wish it to go away. Teach and nurture them to accept it too.
5) It’s not a prescriptive book, clearly some of what ‘works’ for you wouldn’t necessarily ‘work’ for others but … insofar as you could give advice to others living with schizophrenia or other mental health conditions, what would you say?
Reshma Valliappan: Schizophrenia to me is not a mental illness nor are other mental health conditions illnesses that need to be ‘treated’ and done away with. We don’t need to be ‘fixed’. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with us but we’ve only lacked the ability to communicate our inner fears and needs. These are human conditions that smack us in the face to show us how vulnerable, fragile and emotionally screwed up we’ve become (much like the rest of the human species). These are mirrors from within us reminding us that all it takes to be human is to open ourselves up and be okay with what it shows as it is part of what makes life what it is. Schizophrenia is a storm and it doesn’t cause harm unless we stand close to it or things are in it’s way. But if we were to witness it much like a real storm, we would find it intriguing, beautiful, strong, brilliant and always a wonder. Perhaps…it isn’t schizophrenia but just a matter of changing our perspective and finding our vision. Isn’t that why we hallucinate in the first place? 😀 Some men call it madness some men call it prophetic and some men call it visionary. We need to ask women what they would call it. 😉
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. Material on The Health Collective cannot substitute for professional mental health advice from a trained professional.