Why I call myself a schizophrenist

A person with black cropped hair sits at a table painting. On the canvas is a painted moth. In the background, more moths flutter around them and we see a bed, a lamp, paintings on the wall and the night sky through a large window.

I have to remind even my loved ones sometimes that I had skills, talents, knowledge and a range of experiences before schizophrenia showed up. I have had to tell them that stimulation can affect me, that my issues are invisible but still very present.

Once upon a social media post, thousands of humans responded with love, likes, shares and comments on a video of a monkey rescuing a stray pup. One comment in particular got my attention: ‘Wow, even a human won’t do it. If only people did this for each other.’

This got me thinking about the hypocrisy of human responses.

Once, on a stroll I was taking by myself fifteen years ago, I came across a moth flapping her broken wings and stopped to have a conversation with her. Gently moving her in my palm I brought her close to my cheek to be able to feel what her wings conveyed about the universe before her last moment. As I placed her next to a tree I kissed her and said, see you around again. Be at peace now.

A lot of people stared and called me mad. A lot of young cool college-going students snickered. I would have graduated that year, just like them, but I was ‘engaged’ to many moths. If a Buddhist monk had done what I did, it would have been called divine love. How I wish social media existed then or that I had at least had the sense to dress in an orange robe. Imagine the hordes of followers I would have gotten. But I was no monk, nor did I want people following me. I had enough paranoia to deal with on my own.

My encounters with moths taught me interesting things that one can only learn from a High Priestess, or some guru. One of this included other dimensional travels. I’d often wake up in Italy and have breakfast with my husband before I returned home. My father would think it odd that I already had breakfast as I had locked myself up in my room for 36 hours. It was not possible for me to have been in Italy.

I’m sure if I had a long beard and the required necessities of proven knowledge hanging between my legs, I’d have millions of disciples based on this experience alone. However, I got myself a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia instead. This, because I am a woman, and women’s bodies are always shamed, blamed and have to be tamed. This taming came in several forms for me as a teenager.

I was taken to a psychiatrist at age 15. He managed to convince me and my parents that I was trans and needed to have gender affirmation surgery, even though this was not true. My mother called me names that stemmed from her obsessed thoughts around what the psychiatrist had said. In the aftermath of this encounter, I grew to hate my parents and each passing day we only grew apart. Decades later, we made peace after I made them aware of my pain and helped them understand my identity. However, the children inside of me have only recently learnt self-love.

All of that heartache and family pain started only because I was asked by that psychiatrist whether I liked girls, and I said yes. He couldn’t fathom that someone who identifies as a girl could desire other girls. I flirted with him and said I also liked old men with a lot of money. I was only a teenager. My adolescence was lit up in sparks of mischief, vandalism and an inability to sit still because I could not focus like everyone else. Patterns and energies disturbed me from a young age but I did not have the words to point them out, so I reacted with rebellion.

Then came that day when I couldn’t bear life and obeyed a voice that commanded me to run away. It was a month before my 15th birthday. I returned 36 hours later. Nine months after, I was told we were going to India for a holiday from our home in Malaysia, but we stayed back — against my wishes — for two years. That move had to be made as word went around town that ‘Valliappan’s granddaughter had run away because she was pregnant’ and this was getting difficult for my parents to hear.

In India, I had tremendous difficulties in my studies. I lived with insomnia while volunteering for youth chat rooms on mIRC. I also discovered another world of sexual predators and so another set of alter egos was born to help me survive the strain of life at home and life on the Internet.

We returned to Malaysia briefly in 1998 when I enrolled in college, but were forced to return to Pune as my parents could not deal with the female identity I was building for myself, which was quite the opposite of the ‘tomboy’ they saw when I was growing up.

This constant moving spoke of their inability to accept me for myself. I found comfort in cigarettes, alcohol and, eventually, drugs. I began self-medicating, but failed miserably. This failure marked the beginning of my relationship with the mental healthcare sector.

From then on, life became a series of breakdowns, suicide attempts, violent outbursts, hospitalisations, and struggles with reality, until one day I could no longer fight the voices and visions I had despite being put on medications. I gave in to the voices and began painting as per their command. This act gave my parents their first sign of hope, where hope does not exist for those with schizophrenia.

After this, I began showing basic life improvements, like asking for water, going to shower without having to be coaxed, changing more often, forming full sentences and being around family members for longer durations of time than I could before. I joined a support group, became vocal about what I was living with, came out to the public and indefinitely opened the closet of stigma and discrimination in which my parents had fought along with me.

Description: A collage that includes an image of a bluebird, an anatomical drawing of a heart, two images of eyes, bright flowers, some thread and strokes of paint in reds and blues.

Credit: Mariana Fossatti via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

I became an activist — I founded my own initiative, advocated for rights, and worked for differences to be accepted. Someone made a documentary about my story, and I wrote a memoir. But even after all this survival and striving, I unfortunately received more misunderstanding than support.

I have had to remind even my loved ones sometimes that I had skills, talents, knowledge and a range of experiences before schizophrenia showed up. I have had to tell them that stimulation can affect me, that my issues are invisible but still very present. In anger, I’ve wished for a more visible condition so that they can see that I can’t do certain things or be in certain spaces, and that I need them to slow down for me. In frustration, I’ve pushed them away.

A psychologist I once dated set a lot of store by diagnosis, by the fact that telling parents that their child had a certain disorder made it easier for them to understand and accept their child. But isn’t it their job to accept their loved one just the way they are, instead of doing it through a label?

Ludwig Wittgenstein said, ‘Suppose you say of a schizophrenic: he does not love, he cannot love, he refuses to love — what is the difference?’ But I ask, ‘How many regular non-schizophrenics love, know how to love and want to love? How many regular non-schizophrenics have not divorced, had not had failed affairs and relationships, cheated or betrayed one another? Yet, the system and society has easily concluded that people like me can’t function or maintain relationships. I was not born incapacitated, but the system sees people like me as ‘incapable.’

This disdain was unfortunately expressed even by people within the mental health sector. A few people even urged me to consider a different diagnosis because they felt I did not have schizophrenia. This is because I stopped taking medications, which had not stopped me from hearing voices and having visions. So they could not fathom how I could still be so articulate. Benign things such as pictures of me dancing with a woman that appeared on social media were received as evidence of a ‘relapse.’

Alarms were sounded to get my dad’s attention regarding his schizophrenic daughter’s midnight post of a profile picture resembling the late pop star Prince. My alter ego won a lot of hearts that night but the mental health sector grew more hostile towards me. It appeared that I was a bad influence on other ‘schizophrenics.’

For a long time in my life I used to call myself an alien sent to earth to spread love through madness. This was only because I had felt alienated all my life. But now I understand that actual aliens are those who walk this planet using and abusing each other in the name of love.

I am not an alien. I am human and this is my planet.

Reshma Valliappan is ‘The Schizophrenist’: ‘I practice schizophrenistry — the art of turning multiple realities into words, pictures, and actions without any social constraints to enable those with lesser realities an access into mine.’ (re-quoted from Todd Murphy)

Featured image credit: Alia Sinha