On Wednesday, 8 February, Namarita Kathait and I were invited to address a group called Sunny Siders, a group that meets every Wednesday at Anhad. Made up of a motley group of survivors and sufferers of bipolar disorder across ages, professions, and backgrounds, they have an interesting format. They start with checking in, just a few minutes to tell the group how their week was, and then choose a theme from any of the issues that came up, and then discuss it, as a group, come up with options and then each meeting ends with holding hands and a show of solidarity.
This meeting was different. They had asked me to share my experiences of bipolar disorder, how I live (and thrive) on no medication, and introduce the NGO I run with Namarita, Bhor Foundation, that does advocacy in the field of mental health and has started introducing poetry as therapy intro asylums and other spaces. Namarita also taught a small module on poetry and the ten attendees each wrote a poem in two ways, one, just by thinking of words, and two, using an image to see what ekphrastic verses flew. The results were startlingly good, and here is what Swati Agrawal, a Delhi based lawyer, wrote:
I came out so many times
from so many shadows
as a patient, as a survivor
as mentally ill physically sick
as someone abused mentally
physically sexually emotionally
as queer, as depressed
I gave so many words to
the storms inside me
So many labels
But I still don’t fit anywhere
I shared with them my own journey of an abusive marriage, sexual trauma and being labeled since 2002. What I initially thought was bipolar disorder was not, and as the marriage ended and the sexual trauma stopped, I came back to my utterly charming self! But to stop being facetious, those years of ill-health forced me to focus on my health, read about mental health and well-being, and I was always open about my said condition, gave interviews in magazines like India Today and more, and always had words of support for others suffering with bipolar disorder. I was never on medication and in 2007, I was forcibly and illegally incarcerated in Vimhans for 46 days. This was repeated in 2012 and I spent a week in IBHAS in a general ward.
Unfortunately, this practice of families colluding and having people locked up without proper checks with psychiatrists is all too common even though the new Mental Health Law claims to have advance directives and checks and balances in place. My story along with the stories of three other women who have faced being in mental hospitals in India is captured in a 2013 documentary made by Anjali Mental Health Rights in Kolkata and is titled Come With Me and is now on YouTube.
I shared with the group my strategy of self care, exercise, fitness, mindfulness and my opinion of Big Pharma and medication. I believe strongly that medication should be used as SOS for short durations and most other chronic illnesses and conditions like bipolar disorder can be managed through exercise, sleep, and more. But more importantly than this belief is my conviction in the right to be able to choose how you want to treat your own health condition, and if some people choose medication, great, if others choose therapy, perfect, and so on.
The meeting ended with a few of us strolling to the nearby Nizammudin Dargah area for a delicious dinner and over roomali roti and paalak goshtand kababs, new friendships were forged.