By Debojit Dutta
‘There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.’
Leonard Cohen, ‘Anthem’
The safe spaces of my childhood were not in the rooms of my house, or any house for that matter. During regression therapy, when my former therapist asked me to find a particular room that made me feel safe, I could not. Lying on the therapist’s couch, in my mind I would walk down dark staircases, and always get stuck midway. Stairs would vanish with me standing, with one leg dangling midair. I did not know what I did not know. My therapist would tell me that there was something stopping me, and that that something had to be given a shape — a ghost, a ghost with unrequited feelings or, as I was often told during the course of therapy, my mother.
But my safe spaces were not rooms. They were in my palms joined together and held tightly over my eyes. They were my eyes firmly shut into a darkness so dark that I could see flashes of light. I could see a candle flame hanging in the air. When I was younger than I am now and more naïve, I tried tilting my head to see how much control I had over this light. As I got accustomed to these patterns of light, which I later discovered were called phosphenes, I could imagine the patterns to be various things — an arrangement of candle flames could be such that you could mistake it for a reindeer from Christmas decorations.
I could spend hours immersed in these visual puzzles as the world around me fell apart. They helped me survive my parents’ quarrels, fights, and serious threats of separation. From an early age, I knew I was blessed with a superpower: like Plath, I could shut my eyes and the world would drop dead. When I opened them much later, by evening, the world would sort its mess out and gather the semblance of a home. While for my parents it had already been a long day, from morning to evening, for me only an instant had passed, in the blink of an eye.
Over the years, as I tried to recover from a long phase of depression and anxiety, I went to various therapists. I spoke to them about my personal history — my mental health, my rage which I wore like a shield, its impact on people around me, and, of course, my family and my eternal search for home.
We spoke about the lovelessness that I experienced as a child, and the emptiness from there that never leaves. We spoke about my insecurities: what happens if I lose my romantic relationship? Why do I think I would not survive without it?
More often than not, the conclusion through the various gateways of regression would lead us to my mother. I cannot count the number of times we repeated the patterns: ‘Who does this insecurity belong to?’ ‘My mother’; ‘Who does this fear belong to?’ ‘My mother’.
These were questions I felt I had to come up with the correct answers for. I was rote learning the cause of my illness. I was told I needed emotional and physical distance from my mother. I did, for my well being, but not in a way in which I needed to stop existing or caring for her.
What was not taken into account was the socioeconomic and sociocultural realities that made my mother, her own ill-equipped battle with mental illness, and what, despite all these issues, she gave me.
Her always-ignored domestic labour throughout my childhood and early adulthood bought me the time now, to sit here and write this essay. I cannot think about how many times when it was all darkness, closed doors and lost hopes, she stuck around with clenched teeth, choosing to invest in me instead of her own clinical depression.
She could not teach me the idea of boundaries and space, which perhaps as a second generation Sylheti migrant in Assam, most of whom lived in unimaginably big joint families with one member feeding ten, was a concept never available for her. But she taught me that caring for people is a moral responsibility, which even if you think is problematic or conservative, is a belief I refuse to entirely give up.
She of course considered her emotional and physical labour her duty as a mother and a wife. Patriarchy, generations of patriarchal preaching, had made her believe a ‘good’ woman, an ideal wife and mother must tick certain boxes to be seen as ‘complete’. Social norms mandated that she even take pride in her world and identity being limited to her parents, in-laws, husband and me.
‘In South Asian culture mothers of particular generations become repositories for trauma and really have no access to support or help in raising children or even parenting,’ psychologist and author Scherezade Siobhan tells me. ‘What you then see are mother-child relationships fraught with gaslighting and abuse. Classical analysis fails to account for this…It is also woefully unequipped to handle or decipher aspects of inter-generational trauma at the root of mental health and wellness when it comes to people of colour, non-white/non-European/non-mainlanders.’
My mother too is an archive of everything that went past and is continuously happening to her. She is a woman, a mother, a wife, a daughter-in-law — and has to constantly navigate all kinds of emotional burdens that those roles carry. She is, of course, a survivor of her own trauma but her body and mind are also riven by the Partition, the experience of being a refugee, regular bombings which were common in Assam when I was growing up, the language movement where people were burnt alive in broad daylight, the fear of loss of land and of deportation.
When she calls me now to check if I have returned from office, she is as afraid as she was when she would call and check on everyone of us after an ULFA bombing. No therapy or healing can happen without addressing these realities.
My conundrum is if the relationship between my mother and me does not heal, can I heal without a brutal divorce from her? And, even if I convince myself to separate from her, how do I stand in front of the mirror the next night and talk about lofty ideas of ethics, historical oppression and intersectional understandings of politics?
Psychological practices that do not engage in larger political dialogues — on casteism, patriarchy, capitalism, heteronormativity, ableism — function in their own bubble. They tend to preach recovery as an individual goal divorced from the world that will continue to affect us.
In March 2016, the New York Times published an opinion piece by a US-based therapist called Richard Brouillette. The article. titled ‘Why Therapists Should Talk Politics’ raises pertinent questions about therapy’s need to engage in political dialogue.
‘Typically, therapists avoid discussing social and political issues in sessions. If the patient raises them, the therapist will direct the conversation toward a discussion of symptoms, coping skills, the relevant issues in a patient’s childhood and family life. But I am growing more and more convinced that this is inadequate. Psychotherapy, as a field, is not prepared to respond to the major social issues affecting our patients’ lives.’
Most of us seek therapy in deep crisis and pour ourselves in the four walls of the shrink’s room. That’s when we are most vulnerable and we expose ourselves because we believe this might be a space where we will learn how to breathe without choking.
When this space and person too makes you feel you do not belong, therapy can become a tool for furthering social ostracisation, as Rachelle Bharathi Chandran observes in zir essay for Skin Stories, narrating zir personal experience with therapists:
‘I only met upper caste psychologists and psychiatrists with whom I never felt comfortable discussing money or the general anxiety it brought, especially because I was constantly in and out of hospitals because I was ill.’
In my regression therapy sessions, we were spending too much time dealing with tangible persons and spaces that my therapist believed were the causes of my condition. Perhaps my therapist thought that a narrative made up of non-abstract characters would help me get a grip on the already slippery, faceless depression that was overwhelming me.
A villain? I did not need a person to put the blame on. What I needed was the understanding of how social structures oppress people in various ways. What I needed to understand was that if the world was unkind to me, it was even less kind to my mother.
In hindsight, so much could have been different. I could have been less lonely as a child. My parents could have been perceptive enough to get that my aloofness was my resistance against years of shaming me for my body and my emotions. When I feigned illness, it was a cry for attention that should not have been dismissed or pathologised by taking me for IQ tests where I was declared unintelligent, or to doctors who summarily dismissed me as ‘a maniac’.
Maybe then, I would have been able to tell them about the transphobic slurs that were hurled at me by neighbourhood bullies every time I walked out of the house, just because I had a protruding chest as a fat child. I would not have been a wobbly walker, who is still worried about being watched from behind. I would not have thought that by joining the gym and becoming lean, one could get back at society. I would not have, for the longest time, believed that sexual abuse cannot happen to men, even though it happened to me many times.
I have never asked my mother if she knew why when after a quarrel with a private tutor I once had, she decided to beat the crap out of me. I don’t know how to have a conversation with her about why she becomes uncomfortable and heartless with anyone new around me, be it a flatmate, a friend or a partner. I cannot even communicate my need for space to her, because we do not have the same language anymore.
Therapy did not teach me how to reach her. It did not give me the tools to even start my journey towards healthy intimacy. If the aim of therapy was to teach me how to navigate the world with compassion, it gave me no overt signal of its willingness to do so.
It perhaps has something to do with the fact that I tried regression therapy, which is obsessed with locating your trauma in the past, and if necessary stretching it to even an imagined past, and creating an interaction with the present through hypnosis.
Siobhan feels regression therapy ‘is so rooted in the abject force of determinism and being tied to a past one couldn’t have controlled that it renders itself ineffective.’
A practising psychologist, Sadaf Vidha, tells me that therapy must guide you beyond singular ideas of victimhood. Therapy, Vidha says, must help you answer, ‘Okay, this happened, and now what? How do I not re-traumatise somebody else?’
An awareness of our surroundings equips us to practise what is at the heart of our mental health discourses — empathy. Therapy practices that do not recognise this push us into a vicious cycle of victimisation, finding a way out of which is difficult.
Telling myself a thousand times that my problems are my mother’s is not going to rid me of them. If I believe depression is a person and pushing them away cures me, what will I do when the people are gone and I am still here with the living and breathing pain inside me? Does therapy make provisions for these concerns? If it does not, it should.
Debojit Dutta is a writer and editor based in New Delhi, from where he co-runs the literary webzine Antiserious. His works have appeared in Himal Southasian, Scroll.in, The Wire, The Bombay Literary Magazine and Aainanagar among other places.Featured image credit: Alia Sinha