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World Mental Health Day | Working towards a more whole me

I have come to understand, quite late, that mental health, like physical health, is a basic right

A detail from ‘Muzzle’ (2020), by Dhruvi Acharya; Image credit: Dhruvi Acharya/Nature Morte
A detail from ‘Muzzle’ (2020), by Dhruvi Acharya; Image credit: Dhruvi Acharya/Nature Morte

“You don’t get over it that easily. It doesn’t work like that. Rape is no different from any other human trauma in that way—you can’t make it unhappen. No matter how much you heal, you can never be unraped, any more than you can be undead. I mean that is one of the patchworks of events that have made me the person I am. Sometimes it’s upsetting; usually it’s just there. I have made my peace with it— mostly.”

—Sohaila Abdulali, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape

As a survivor of child abuse, this line by Sohaila really helped me understand why the experience continued to haunt me into my adulthood. It also helped explain why all my attempts to forget, and to run away, have not been successful. Lurking just beneath the surface, the abuse made its insidious way into my relationships with people, with men, with faith, with trust, with my body, and manifested in physical illnesses that plague me, even more intensely as I grow older. That last bit about making peace with it—”mostly” niggled at me, I began to ask myself where I was on that “mostly” scale.

I have come to understand that this peace can be achieved, and is directly proportionate to how much acknowledgement, support, love, validation, processing and reparation we have had.

As I am writing this today, I have an image of the brutalized body of a young Dalit girl—a teenager, unceremoniously cremated in my mind. I think of all the brutal ways in which she was violated by the four rapists, and long before that by the caste system, and after her death, by the system. Did she ever stand a chance? If she had survived, would she have had a chance to heal?

As a rape survivor, I have tried to heal—learning martial arts, practising yoga and meditation, learning movement and dancing. I turned to art—books, films, installations that explored the realms of sexual violence. I also tried to find healing in spirituality and philosophy—Sufism, Buddhism, Freud, Jung…. All of it impacted me in various ways.

Mary Therese Kurkalang; Photographed by Elyon Blah
Mary Therese Kurkalang; Photographed by Elyon Blah

I grew up poor, I was brought up by a single mother who earned her living as a street vendor. To a certain extent, I have been able to work my way up in the arts and publishing sector, but as a freelance consultant in a sector that is not well funded, staying afloat financially is a continuous struggle.

For those who live in poverty, the very concept of mental health is non-existent. For most of us, regardless of class, mental health is too taboo a subject to even begin to talk about. I mention this because I have come to understand, quite late, that mental health, like physical health, is a basic right, and should be made accessible and affordable to everyone. In the middle of a pandemic, what we are each going through, whether we would like to label it as such or not, is trauma. The vaccine, when it comes, will not prevent the mental trauma.

For the longest time, seeing a therapist was not an option. I did not want to be branded “mad” or admit openly to the darkness I felt sucked into every now and then. And later, when I started feeling it might just be my last resort, I was afraid of what it might cost. I didn’t really know anyone who was seeing a therapist, and I had no idea where to begin looking. In my late 30s, I finally mustered the courage to seek help and found an NGO that offered counselling. My sessions over three months shifted the way in which I viewed the role I played in my abuse. Even though as an adult I understood and could differentiate that I was not responsible, it is hard to really feel and live that knowledge. The relief I felt as we worked through the guilt and shame and letting go, was life- changing. It felt like someone had lifted the huge boulder lodged in my chest since I was five years old, and for the first time I could breathe easy. I could not have done this without professional help.

I began the testimony of my abuse on this note when I joined the #metoo movement in 2018. Now, long after the spotlight of the media and other public forums has died out, I continue to deal with the repercussions of going public, dealing with different issues that have come up, in both personal and professional spheres, as well as engaging with long drawn out and largely belligerent investigative processes. Alongside, offering support and listening space to countless victims and survivors who continue to reach out. It has been a lonely and nerve-wracking journey.

I had reached rock bottom when I sought, and found, a therapist last year. It has been, and is, a slow and deeply painful journey, I think of it as sometimes like tackling cancer, you have to find a specialist, you go through all the stages of treatment and its side effects, until you are cancer free, or sometimes not, or even when you are, you go back every now and then for a checkup. But you don’t need to beat the last stage of cancer before you tackle it. Much like going to any other doctor for physical illnesses, a therapist can diagnose and treat at different stages; the earlier we go, the greater the chance of healing.

I do recommend that you do your homework before you zero in on a therapist who is right for you. Look for someone with experience for the set of circumstances and issues that you come from, don’t be afraid to ask questions at the first meeting. There are independent practitioners, institutions and NGOs that provide counselling and therapy at different price points; some, pro bono.

You should also budget and view it with the same lens as you would when seeking treatment for physical illnesses. Long before the pandemic, I had cut down considerably on eating out and many other expenses to be able to afford therapy. I truly believe it’s the only worthy investment I have made on myself. An act of self-love, an act also of love for the people in my world. Because a more whole me makes me more whole for others, and enables me to continue the work of raising awareness, providing a listening space, and building partnerships and alliances for creating access to healing spaces for fellow survivors.

I am quite vocal about the impact therapy has on me and hope it will resonate with people who need it. Sadly, as most studies and statistics show, this sector greatly lacks professionals at the moment. I can only hope that this will change, and very soon.

Mary Therese Kurkalang is a cultural and communications consultant working in the social sector. She currently divides her time between Delhi and Guwahati.

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