"Deep within, I know I am the one who does not leave. I am the one who knows the honest answer to the question, ‘Where are you from?’ I am from them,” writes Urvashi Bahuguna in a chapter on family in her book No Straight Thing Was Ever Made: Essays On Mental Health. The theme of family, of how it shapes us, and the unending conflicts and resolutions that get woven into its very fabric, is a recurring one in this luminously beautiful book of essays. The title itself refers to Emmanuel Kant’s words: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” and it is at once forgiveness and an exculpation—I am not responsible, alone, for my illness, and neither are you. This is what we are.
At some moments, it’s a difficult book to read, especially for anyone who has struggled in any way with mental illness. Coming off a period of intense anxiety and self-doubt, I had to put it down several times as the burden of empathy got too much. But in many ways this book is a necessary addition to the resources we have to understand and engage better with mental health in India. As a memoir of mental health, it stands with Shreevatsa Nevatia’s memorable How To Travel Light: My Memories Of Madness And Melancholia. There are a thousand books on living with mental illness from across the world, easily available at the touch of a screen on your e-book reader, but there is something grounded and rooted, at once more difficult and more comforting, about experiences that share similar realities.
Bahuguna’s writing is filled with the stark beauty of poetry—she is a poet, after all, with a published collection called Terrarium—and the lovely, evocative prose helps to create a sense of distance from the experiences she is recounting, whether it’s that of being diagnosed for the first time, an account of a painful breakup, an examination of the fault-lines in her family, or the experience of being in therapy. “My therapist and I circled in a sort of stalemate, as I raged against why I could not help myself, why my temper raged like a child’s. We worked, exhaustingly, on conflicts that belonged to a handful of templates that repeated themselves…. I hated having to explain myself. It was suffocating to circle the stale cauldron of a single story,” she writes, and offers hope: “I saw how a narrative changes when I am forced to explain each bit.”
A term called “magical thinking” is often used in psychotherapy to describe the patterns a mentally ill person’s mind relentlessly seeks, rejects, and then seeks again—patterns of thought that often bolster their own belief in their inadequacy or lack of self-worth in a cycle of negativity. Therapy often helps us see this pattern, and in critically examining it, we may perhaps become free of it someday.
Bahuguna writes this book as a sort of travelogue of mental health, of a space navigated with the help of both emotion and reason—not one that leads to perfect well-being and happiness, but ends in deeper understanding and patience with oneself. Reading it may help people move a little further on their own journeys towards believing “I am enough”.