A South Asian, East African, Middle Eastern perspective on mental illness, abuse and family
Reprinted from "Families" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2(3), pp. 24-26
With culture comes thousands of unwritten rules and regulations that other cultures are bound to be confused by. I have seen all kinds of cultures and customs. I have pulled all-nighters at clubs in Knightsbridge. I can say my prayers in Arabic and English. I speak three languages. I have stayed in group homes and women's crisis centres and I have stayed at a shelter on Hastings Street in one of the seediest areas of Vancouver's downtown core. I have smoked pot to relieve the pain of my past and taken wake-up pills to study for exams at university. I have had a Muslim friend commit suicide because she was not accepted by her community and I have many times almost been that Muslim girl.
Many articles about mental illness are written from the outsider's perspective, looking in. I would like to go beyond the scientific and clinical perspectives made by the medical health professionals and offer the reader a chance to explore the clashing, contradictory, cultural expectations of one East African born, Indo-Canadian, 'mentally ill' Muslim woman.
Welcome to my mind. It's a bit crowded in here, but you'll get used to it.
My name is Farah Tejani, and I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder seven years ago at the University of British Columbia's Detweiller Pavilion Mood Disorder Clinic. In the same year, this very same university awarded me my Master of Fine Arts degree with High Honours. Interesting? I think so. Here, on the one hand, I was being commended for my skills in English, writing and the creative arts, while just blocks away on the other side of campus, I was being diagnosed as mentally ill - technically insane.
Now, you may never truly understand what it was like for me, but I can tell you that after those nine years of diligently educating myself with my peers and honing my skills to hopefully one day be an inspirational and dedicated professor of the creative arts, I never imagined that I would one day be sitting here, inside my house for days, sometimes even for weeks, riddled with anxiety and pain, fear and anger. I was sure I knew where I was going in life, but in 1997, my life started going on without me.
I have been locked up by my own family 36 times over the last seven years for being different. Or shall I say, for not being quite what they wanted me to be. I was a westernized Indian girl. I have never before revealed my story to anyone. But today, for my Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh sisters everywhere, the time is now. Someone has to say something, and I'm not going to wait for that someone.
Sexual and physical abuse towards South Asian girls and women runs rampant. I believe that a large percentage of women with mental illness have been exposed to one or the other, or like me, to both. It is quite common in my community for a father's friend to be called 'uncle.' This creation of 'insta-uncles' is one of the leading factors leading to young girls being abused by so-called family members (not to mention the real ones).
And it is this insta-uncle umbrella that South Asian families ignorantly provide that protects and safeguards Indian men from being caught. A certain amount of trust comes with the word 'uncle,' and when this title is given out freely, with no discretion, this leaves young Indian women vulnerable and defenceless at the hands of strangers.
I dedicate this article to the brave families who will read on from here. I realize that this might be difficult and that some will choose to perpetuate the illusion that 'Indian girls don't get sexually abused or mentally ill.' I also believe that there are a large number of people who are suffering or know of others who are suffering, who will read on to help find some answers as to what we can do from here.
Let's start with some of the most serious misconceptions about mental illness in the South Asian community. Mental illness is not caused by spirits possessing your body or by the Nazr (the evil eye) from jealous relatives or friends. It is not curable by holy water or special prayers. And mental illness is most definitely not the punishment for ill deeds of a past life.
I was nine years old when the first 'friend' of my dad tried to rape me. (There were more to follow). I had called this man Amin (Uncle) for many years because that is what I was told to do. My own real uncles and cousins have sexually abused me, and although the family knows about it, to this day nothing has been done. I never spoke of the first abuse until six years later, at age fifteen, and instead of being protected and consoled, I was severely beaten in front of my mother, brother and cousin for making up such a story. No one helped. I then learned to keep things to myself.
Many years later, it was discovered that I was, in fact, abused. But by this time it was too late and so much easier to lock me away every time I tried to speak about it. It was so much easier to discredit me in order to protect the name of the family. I was branded 'pagal' (crazy), and most likely unfit for marriage. This is another common response made by Indian culture: 'Quick! Find a husband for her, or you'll be stuck with her.' Nonetheless, I did my own searching, and after boyfriends and betrayals, I was always left in the same place . . . with a family and community that have chosen to disrespect and discredit me, rather than coming to terms with the severe damage my upbringing might have caused me.
My family hand-picked a Muslim psychiatrist who did his best to convince me that I was being melodramatic and dishonest about what happened to me when I was young. He assigned me zombifying medications that made me feel confused, unclear and unresponsive.
It wasn't until a few years ago, when I realized that I could see another psychiatrist, that I was finally set free. After taking the time to know my story, she held a family meeting where all the members were asked if I had been abused in the way in which I claimed - and they confessed. And that was it ... so many years later. I just needed to be believed. Many South Asian girls feel that they will be blamed or not believed at all. This has got to change. There are more and more support services for us these days, and I only hope that they are used.
Today, I humbly but happily live (with my black dog, Sabbath) in a basement suite that is a small castle to me. These days I write and do comedy. It's ironic how easily I can perform in front of a large group of strangers who adore me, while I can barely sit in a room with my relatives. I go out rarely and usually only when I am with someone or have a performance. I live with the much-appreciated assistance of the Canadian Mental Health Supported Housing program and I receive some financial assistance from disability benefits. In appreciation for what the CMHA has done for me, I sell copies of my self-published collection of short stories (Make Your Own Chai, Mama's Boy!) and give a portion of the money to the CMHA. I have always been blessed. No matter what, I've learned to never give up on me.
In the meantime, I take life day by day, and I have found an excellent psychiatrist who knows of other cases like mine and who has found the perfect chemical cocktail to help stabilize me and ease the pain of all that I have been through. I take the medication and I do my part. But most importantly, I live my truth.
I offer my story to other South Asian women like me who are in similar circumstances. Reach out and don't be scared—you will find the help you need. People can be cruel. They will come to the hospital when you break your leg, but no one comes to the hospital with flowers or cards when your mind is broken. Mental illness is not contagious, and stigma kills. Please speak up, or help someone you know and do something about it. We have to come together.
About the author
Farah is a writer, teacher, singer, and comedian. She performs at literary cafes and bookstores at the heart of Vancouver's art scene. She is compiling a collection of short stories titled Make Your Own Chai, Mama's Boy! and has a novel in progress: Raw Angel: Diary of a Real Live Madwoman. Farah sells her books by donation, and gives half of the proceeds to the CMHA's Pathways Clubhouse in Richmond