Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Chains and Stigma



In the early eighties in my grandmother's village in Himachal, every winter vacation, one subject of curiosity for me besides village life was a man who used to be tied to a wooden pillar on the ground floor of his house with thick ropes.
At times he used to be very calm and smile at us kids and at others extremely charged up and would throw pebbles and mud on us at the slightest hint of noise or movement. Some villagers believed that he was possessed but in plain terms he was the 'village mad man.'

Recently his widow visited my mum and me after my father's death and all the memories came back, of how he would howl and howl for food or water, while his wife worked to support their three kids. How he would be taken inside after sunset like a chained animal.

Its only now that when I look back at it ,I realise he was a schizophrenic who was not only denied treatment but also compassion and basic human rights. He passed away a few years later.

His wife said ," We realise the importance of sanity only after we have lost it."

She talked about how they were isolated by the extended family and the villagers. How he was treated like a menace ,like an animal and she had to give in to the panchayat's demand to chain him.

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Several years later when I was a teenager , a neighbour lost her only son on his maiden journey aboard a merchant navy ship. Overnight this sailor's wife, well-educated, well-dressed lady became someone else, she would keep talking to herself loudly, roam in the neighbourhood alone at odd hours, attempted suicide twice. Finally her husband put their other two kids in a boarding and her in an asylum while he sailed.

Met her daughter after almost a decade, and I came to know she was institutionalised for many years and finally committed suicide.

Her daughter said, " I still can't forget how she suffered and how helpless we were."

She also talked about the stigma both she and her sister faced because of their mother's illness for jobs and marriages and how it left their father also in chronic depression.

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These are two of the thousands of mental health tragedies around us. We would accept criminals back into the society but even those mental health patients who recover fully or partially after treatment are not accepted in families , in society.

Mental illness even something as regular as depression is a taboo.

A little more compassion and acceptance that ailments which do not manifest physical symptoms are real too can go a long way in supporting patients and families challenged with mental illnesses.

In the "connected but lonely" world of today we need to be even more sensitive to people who need a shoulder to rest their head on, a listening ear, a sympathetic gesture and professional help.

Sometimes a little effort could save a life, could save a family.

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Animal Farm
The Alchemist
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Romeo and Juliet
Frankenstein
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The Count of Monte Cristo
Eat, Pray, Love
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The Diary of a Young Girl
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Jane Eyre
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