By Jhilmil Breckenridge
He is advancing towards me with a huge injection. In my peripheral vision, I am aware of a cage in the corner of the room, painted dark green. It is the sort they may lock an animal into? My eyes shift to his pocket, to the words Dr Atul* monogrammed in red on a white coat. The injection is coming closer. As if mesmerised, I watch as he slides my sleeve up. I feel the sting and I close my eyes. Everything starts swimming.
This is not a scene from a science fiction book. Unfortunately, this happened to me in 2007, when my family colluded to have me incarcerated, committed, locked up, put away — take your pick — into a mental health facility, aka an asylum. I spent a gruelling 46 days there. And unfortunately, it’s still as simple as that – people are routinely put away in the course of divorce cases, property disputes, family feuds, while they are battling alcoholism, and oh, in some cases, for having mental illness.
This brings me to another question – the rights of people with mental illness to freedom, to choose their own means of healing, but we may have to save that for another article. For now, I will tell you my own story.
It began when I was 21 and met my ex-husband, then a dashing US Air Force officer. We got married in 1992 and everything seemed rosy. In hindsight, I can see there were red flags, but like many people, I ignored them. When he wanted to control all our money, even though we were both working. When he forced me to have sex. When he pouted and sulked for days if I refused, and I decided that it was best to perform just to keep the peace. When he kept me isolated from my friends and family because he claimed he did not like to go out. When he said let’s not employ a cleaner because he was an American and it was an invasion of his privacy. I tried. God knows I tried to comply, to change, to perform, to please.
But sometimes, things are not meant to be. When in 2002, desperate to save my marriage after ten years, a business together and three kids, I opted for therapy to cope with the stress, I was labelled as the ‘crazy’ one. Even though the therapist at the time suggested that we all get therapy, my husband and my parents refused. Their answer: ‘We are fine, you go.’ I continued with the therapy and hoped things would improve at home.
They did not. Things got so bad that I could not breathe. I would wake up at night, gasping for breath. I was routinely awakened from deep sleep for sex and I would comply. That I would vomit right after, and bleed from all my orifices, was a matter of concern only to me.
When I told my parents that I was being sexually abused, they tried to brush it under the carpet. This was very hard as I thought they were progressive and that they would support me when I said I wanted a divorce or some help. But under the veneer of sophistication, education and being able to say the right things about the rights of the marginalised, the patriarchy rules. They were as regressive as khap panchayats who want to control runaway and errant daughters.
And so it went. 2002 became 2006. I had another son. I tried some more to focus on my own health by doing exercise and yoga. I tried harder to focus on the marriage. I tried to be a ‘good’ wife. In the meantime, my family and ex-husband started floating the theory that I had mental illness because I was getting therapy. Words like bipolar disorder were flung around, although I was never officially diagnosed. On a trip to London, a Harley Street psychiatrist mentioned a possible treatment using psychiatric drugs, and although I never started (I was pregnant with my youngest), the shadow of that label loomed large. I was always judged through bipolar disorder coloured lenses.
In 2007, while having a meltdown in a large Delhi hospital where my ex was hospitalised for dengue, I found myself being thrown into the back of a white police gypsy and taken to a psychiatric facility. I was taken alone; my father and ex-husband had colluded to have me committed. That incident changed my life and I was locked up for 46 days, including two weeks in solitary, with guards present around the clock.
When you are locked up in a psychiatric hospital, the whole process is a concerted and systematic way of dehumanising you – from the hospital gowns they make you wear, to the shackles around your feet (I was not shackled, but a young tour operator I befriended was), from the force feeding of medicine and routine injections if you dare to dissent, to the cruelty of the nurses and orderlies who have you at their mercy. The place broke my spirit. And it is designed to do just that.
Every evening, the psychiatrist in charge of my case, a pretty high profile doctor, would come and ask me if I felt guilty. Guilty for what, I always asked. But it is almost as if holding spaces like these are places where people are ‘taught a lesson’ so that they change. When I was finally released, I was like a zombie because of all the medication and had become very, very quiet. In addition, I was so petrified about being locked up again that I just kept looking over my shoulder. I really tried to watch my own behaviour, and kept trying to be ‘good’.
It is now 2017. In 2012, almost five years ago, my ex-husband, in the middle of a very messy divorce case, managed to kidnap my four sons, then aged 16, 14, 11 and 6, and move to America without court permission or informing me. I lived in poverty for two years in a ghetto in Delhi. There were days I picked up food from the streets.
There was violence, rape, robbery, maligning… but sometimes I think, when all you can do is focus on where the next meal is coming from, and when you realise that however much grief you are feeling, if your belly is hungry and you have to feed your dogs (I had three dogs who I lived with then, they kept me loved and sane), you realise you want to live. And so I lived. I learned to depend on my skills and became very resourceful. If I had to go anywhere, I cycled. I became self-reliant. I sold jewellery to pay lawyer’s bills. I taught yoga and earned money. I did some editing. I did some short-term consulting. I fell in love. I learned to cherish dawn. Flowers. Fresh food. And life.
Today, I am reconciled with my parents. Although it is difficult to say whether I have forgiven them completely, I just accept things at face value. My older two sons are in touch with me and the oldest is coming to visit soon. Life comes full circle and I am happy with my new calling as a writer and a poet and an activist; I have just launched my own NGO, Bhor Foundation, which does advocacy and grassroots work in the field of mental health, and we are currently involved in a very exciting project of taking poetry as therapy into psychiatric hospitals.
My advice for anyone reading: this could happen to any of you. Focus on your own health. It is paramount. Have your own bank accounts. And take time every day to smell the flowers.
*Names have been changed