Reshma Valliappan was 22 when she was diagnosed with Schizophrenia.
It was the last thing her parents expected to hear about their gutsy, beautiful, albeit rebellious daughter. Well-educated and travelled though they were, having spent most of their lives in Malaysia, the Valliappans weren’t even sure what it meant. They were about to find out.
Schizophrenia, much of mainstream psychiatry (especially in India) believes, is a chemical imbalance in the head. That it is a disease, perhaps the worst, of the brain. That the Schizophrenic is ‘mad’ and unable to ever take decisions for herself. And that she need not be consulted, talked to or asked as to what she wants, and feels about her own condition. That patients of Schizophrenia rarely, if ever, recover from the condition. That they must depend on medicines all their lives.
A condition like Schizophrenia can only be diagnosed clinically. There are no scientific tests that can be conducted to verify the condition. Diagnosis of the condition, therefore, can vary, depending on the doctor one approaches. This also leaves the field wide open for abuse. Perhaps this wouldn’t be of such great concern were it not for the fact that the medicines themselves have great and grave side-effects.
It is this that has resulted in the ‘only-medicines’ model of treatment being critiqued across the world. Questions have been raised as to whether the current negative prognosis of Schizophrenia might not be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Quietly, a new movement is taking root across the world. Patients of mental illnesses are starting to come out and challenge the way in which psychiatry perceives them. They have started sharing their own narratives about their conditions, and the way in which developing their own understanding of their condition is what ultimately helped them recover and lead functional lives again. (Check out online: Hearing Voice Network, Mad Pride, Mind Freedom, The Icarus Project).
In India, the process of ‘coming out’ is fraught with danger. Under Indian laws, anyone declared to be ‘of unsound mind’ may find themselves bereft of civil, personal, legal and political rights. Their marriages may be held void, they may automatically be prevented from obtaining custody of their children, they may be barred from entering into contracts, heading organizations, they are barred from voting or even giving testimony for themselves in a court of law. More importantly, once termed ‘of unsound mind’, there is no legal recourse available to overturn such a ruling once the person feels, or is well again. Clearly, once declared ‘mad’, it is assumed that the person will never recover.
And yet, some voices are now emerging in India too. These are people who were once diagnosed with a psychiatric condition. Most continue to battle their symptoms. But they have also come to an understanding – unique in each case – for their condition. They have argued that it is that which has helped them recover and regain control over their own lives.
Reshma is one such person.
Many times, after the film has been screened, people ask whether Reshma ‘really’ ever had Schizophrenia. After all, they contend, she doesn’t ‘look’ Schizophrenic. She doesn’t talk like one either. In a recent screening for students of psychology and psychiatry, attended by her parents, the students refused to believe that she was once suicidal. Or that she was violent and tried to kill her parents. Or that she once believed that she was living with an English woman and her son, in a castle in England – when she was, in fact, living at home in Pune.
The Reshma in the film was too coherent and beautiful for their comfort. She didn’t look disoriented enough. Why wasn’t she vague, confused? How could she now look so good, and talk so well? How could she be mad if she cared so much about how she came across to others who watched her?
Perhaps she would have been more to their liking if her parents and psychiatrist had followed the usual line of treatment.
Instead, they adopted an approach that supplemented her medicines in an unconventional, indeed contrarian, manner. They encouraged Reshma to form her own understanding of her condition. Little by little, she came out of her world of imagined reality.
And then, she took charge. Of herself, and her healing. Little by little, she rebuilt her life and took her destiny into her own hands. It wasn’t easy – and she battled society, doctors, psychiatry, mainstream notions about Schizophrenia and even her own parents along the way. But Reshma now leads a fulfilling life, free of medicines.
Reshma is today an artist-activist, fighting for the right to being granted what for most others, is a given – full legal capacity. She works with the concept of ‘The Red Door’, first conceptualised by Mixed Media Productions, to create more awareness about issues of mental health in India. She has been supported by organisations like CREA (www.creaworld.org) and Bapu Trust (www.bapucamhindia.org) for the same. She is also the founder of Mindarcs, which plans to create a space for more user/survivors to come forward (www.mindarcs.com).
Reshma is available for talks and workshops. Please get in touch with her at email@example.com.