No one will know about my family’s struggle with mental illness because no one will talk about it. Generations have lost this knowledge and now I have only my mother’s half-hearted attempts at storytelling to help me understand my own mind. A slim recount of my grandmother’s breakdown and other such stories. God forbid I repeat them here. It’s not the fault of my family, so I don’t say this with anger. Secrets are expectations passed down over silent years.
My first experience with anxiety was throwing up before preschool and in my kindergarten class. I’ve thrown up at every school I’ve been to in my life so far, including university. Each time it happened I told myself I must have an illness, a physical one, because anything else meant I could not be saved. My mother took me to a psychologist when I was around eight years old because my stomach aches were constant. I was passive then, as I can sometimes be now, silent and spacey before I learned the term “dissociation.” The doctor was the kind who kept Rorschach blots on her desks. She asked my mother if I had a fear of my parents dying, to which my mother shook a confused head. Then she explained I had anxiety and I would probably grow out of it, like most kids do.
In my Muslim family, prayer seemed like the only solution. For years, I struggled with selective mutism and a racing heartbeat that I prayed would slow down before I went to sleep. “Oh Allah, please let me sleep well tonight. Please make my heart beat slower.” My selective mutism deemed me shamefaced to my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, but they all tried to speak to me just the same. I couldn’t find words to tell my family I loved them so I prayed for them to be safe. I prayed for cleanses of the mind and heart.
When I entered eighth grade, I learned from predominantly white friends what depression and anxiety were. Like it would any child, this knowledge frightened me. I began to see things in myself I never recognized before. Sometimes I prayed for my friends, but other times I wanted to be like them. I wanted to express my pain the way they did: cutting, hitting, pulling hard at themselves and each other. Shake myself alive and show myself a jagged pain only I could ogle at. But my pain was buried deep and voiceless with my ancestors. I stopped praying as genuinely because I figured maybe God’s ego was more important to him than the human soul.
In high school I was introduced to the concept of self-care by social media and my peers. I joined a mental health awareness group called Wellness, talked to guidance counselors, and discovered ways in which people took care of their minds and bodies. It was novel. It was very, very uncomfortable. My body didn’t understand its connection to my mind.
Where I took care of myself mindlessly, my mother did so thoughtfully—right down to my hair, skin, and teeth. But a few months ago, I took it upon myself to see a therapist to help me sort through my emotions. My mother agreed and I was thankful because most Guyanese parents would not. We figured I was old enough now to make the decision to go on my own, to open up to a stranger. It was harder than I expected. When my therapist asked me to describe my sadness, I was lost, sedated into a space outside my body. She asked me if I felt like screaming. I give off an air of internal tantrums because I never learned to translate wreckage into words. I don’t know any Guyanese child who has learned self-care from their family or parents. Most of it is learned from blogs and mental health websites and friends who have had similar experiences.
The closest my family has come to talking about mental illness is when my mother disclosed my anxiety disorder to my aunt at an Eid get-together. My aunt revealed that my cousin suffered from the same. My other aunt jumped in and revealed she experienced panic attacks while showering. I felt so close to my family. I wanted to sob but the moment passed quickly, as moments like that do. And the men are never a part of them. That conversation with my aunts could only take place when my uncles weren’t in the room.
Moments of real vulnerability are fleeting in the Indo-Guyanese world. It has something to do with the way we value hard work and suffering. Suffering is valiant. Sleepless nights are okay, if they pay off in money or clout later. An auntie who endures years of domestic abuse is an admirable example. The burn scars on my mother’s arms, the ones I ran my fingers over when I was little, are not injuries. Like my grandmother’s aching fingers, they are a sign of a dutiful, hardworking woman.
This culture of silence has been systemically learned through gendered colonization and indentured labor. My grandmother is unable to read and write because of it. Maybe that is why, during her breakdown, she could only scream and scream and tear at her housedress. The systems that tied great-grandmother’s hands and told us only white struggles mattered are the ones we must now break out of. Schools are such a system. Hospitals are such a system. Nuclear families are such a system.
I don’t want burn scars and leave blue and purple marks on my body because of what I cannot control. I want my fingers to ache from making art and grabbing at the marvelous stuff and people I love. There is hope for this generation of kids inside the diaspora. I believe good communication is the softest but most powerful weapon. Hugs and eye contact and nods of understanding are just as important as oration. We are still learning this way of life. We are learning how to shift our energy away from duty and work and to look inward at ourselves. Maybe we will invent our own self-care paradigm—one that doesn’t depend on our parents and decolonizes the oppression of our ancestors.
A few years ago, I checked in with a paternal cousin who’s around my same age. We’ve both been victims of aggression, of divorced parents, of aunts who guilted us into spending more time with our respective single parent, and of imposter syndrome from attending predominantly white schools. Basically, we are the same.
We sat on rocks separating Lake Ontario from the regular, solid world and I asked him how he was feeling. We talked for a while and paid attention to each other. I studied the way he laced his fingers over his mouth as he spoke. I made a half-joke about dying and he proposed that inside our bodies and under our skin there are several living earths, and maybe the people in these earths are unaware they belong to a larger body, as if unknowingly trapped inside a snow globe made of cells and tissues. I said, “That’s like… a reason to live.” We laughed. “It is,” he said quite seriously, which meant, You must care for your body so that those people do not die. Self-attention carries the latent effect of attention to others. It creates empathy. My cousin stared at me and I knew we’d reached something deeper than cousin-humor.
Now, in my darkest moments, I dream up earths inside my skin. Societies of organisms and people living and breathing, considering each of my cells a world. I am not just biology; I am a human made of other humans. What is in the outside world can also be within me. I will never meet these people; they only exist inside my dream world. When I cry, it rains on them. When I laugh, maybe there are rainbows. Looking up, all they see is the shimmering blue underside of my skin and assume it is sky and that is enough for them.
I stare deep at my skin sometimes when I am anxious or sad, holding on to the feeling of affection for the molecular countries and cell earths within me. It’s the same surge of tenderness I feel when I stand high up on a building and watch innocent passersby living their lives. When they call the public “innocent” on the news—as in innocent bystanders or innocent masses—they mean before any disruption, people are living everywhere, trying to survive. That is the purest, surest thing our bodies and minds can do.
I press my lips against my wrist and hope the sun will shine in there. Who knows, maybe someone else is doing the same thing for me. Let the innocent strangers have a nice day. Let me have this love for myself, too.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick