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On being ‘normal’

Reshma Valliappan
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I remember my first instance of discrimination, which took place in the very place that existed to understand people like me. I was 21 and had gone in for a psychological test that was being conducted by senior students of psychology.

There was a range of experiments they wanted me to participate in, in order to measure my abilities at problem solving, my memory, my attention span, and so on. I completed the experiments before the minimum time limit and came out. The report said: “We can’t use her scores, they are not normal.”

Then I had one of the psychology students come up to me and ask, “Are you mad?” I said “Huh?” Before realising what she meant by that statement, a very close friend who was around rushed up to me and said, “Ignore that, let’s go chill.”

Today, I realise what that student meant and what my friend did. I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 22, at the very peak of my education and youth. It certainly was not at all a comfort — I could hardly even pronounce the word.

Years went by. I was given treatment, attended support groups and yet was caught in a vicious circle. Not only was I discriminated against, my entire family faced discrimination. The very fact that there is a schizophrenic in the family disentitled us from being invited to functions and gatherings. Many friends no longer wanted to associate with my family or have anything to do with us. I then asked, “Am I that bad and horrible a person? Why won’t they talk to me?”

In time I improved. Through counselling sessions and various therapies, I was encouraged to further my studies in Clinical Psychology, because I had tremendous insight into the ‘illness’ I had. This I did. But, then again, the same place that is part of this vicious systematic madness did not favour me. I was asked for a fitness certificate and letters from my treating psychiatrist, counsellor, support group, and caregiver that stated that ‘I won’t be a threat to myself and to others’.

I was given admission on these grounds, along with a ‘donation’ from my dad. It took me time to understand the politics. Today I ask: How many of the others considered ‘normal’ had had to give such a certificate and letters of undertaking? I was never violent towards any outsider. Like everyone else I too had my frustrations—– the first of which was accepting the label of madness. Why did they make it even more difficult for me to seek an education, just like everyone else?

I dropped out of the course due to another discrimination I faced when I approached the Head of Department. He refused to let me sit for my pending papers even though I had permission for a six-month break and the course had another year to be completed. Being who I am — a hardcore rebel — I could not accept the terms and conditions that were being set. I found my voice back. So I told him to keep the degree for himself and walked out of the office, wondering again, “What is wrong with me? Am I really crazy that I have to subscribe to the various ‘terms’ they had? Why didn’t any of my other classmates have to go through the same procedure?”

Years went by; I grew and evolved as a person. I learnt more about my label, accepted it and continued living with it. Then again, remarks are still thrown at me. “You don’t look schizophrenic,” someone says. I wonder to myself, “What is a schizophrenic supposed to look like?” It reminded me of the case of a woman with cerebral palsy who was offloaded from a flight not too long ago, because she looked ‘mentally ill’.

Now I live a life without medication, which is another highly controversial stand to take for the psychiatric system that firmly believes that a schizophrenic cannot live without medication or psychiatry treatment.

I don’t ‘look’ schizophrenic. I am articulate, I can be bold and opinionated, and can certainly express myself. But it didn’t happen overnight. When I seek employment, I am discriminated against, because it only takes a simple Google search to find out who I am. So my existential question of ‘Who am I?’ is replaced by what the world thinks of me: ‘What are you?’

The system says, “You must accept your condition and come out with your stories. Share them with others so that discrimination and stigma can be fought”. But, I wonder, in what way has the system helped me at all? It has denied me the basic fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India. It has taken away my legal capacity by deploying a simple label. I cannot vote, I cannot sign a contract, I cannot hold office, I have no right to the same education as others, I have no say in my treatment, I can be held against my own will. Even though I now stand on my own feet, have other means of making a living, pay taxes. Why must I be paying taxes, anyway, when they have taken away my legal capacity and there are laws that consider a person like me to be as good as dead?

I owe my recovery to many good, compassionate, caring practitioners and people. They too are a part of a system, but I wonder why they are not seen or heard off. I hear voices...but I can only hope for mine to ever be heard.

(Women's Feature Service)



A young woman diagnosed with schizophrenia recounts the discrimination she faced and the stigma attached to the medical condition in public psyche

I remember my first instance of discrimination, which took place in the very place that existed to understand people like me. I was 21 and had gone in for a psychological test that was being conducted by senior students of psychology.

There was a range of experiments they wanted me to participate in, in order to measure my abilities at problem solving, my memory, my attention span, and so on. I completed the experiments before the minimum time limit and came out. The report said: “We can’t use her scores, they are not normal.”

Then I had one of the psychology students come up to me and ask, “Are you mad?” I said “Huh?” Before realising what she meant by that statement, a very close friend who was around rushed up to me and said, “Ignore that, let’s go chill.”

Today, I realise what that student meant and what my friend did. I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 22, at the very peak of my education and youth. It certainly was not at all a comfort — I could hardly even pronounce the word.

Years went by. I was given treatment, attended support groups and yet was caught in a vicious circle. Not only was I discriminated against, my entire family faced discrimination. The very fact that there is a schizophrenic in the family disentitled us from being invited to functions and gatherings. Many friends no longer wanted to associate with my family or have anything to do with us. I then asked, “Am I that bad and horrible a person? Why won’t they talk to me?”

In time I improved. Through counselling sessions and various therapies, I was encouraged to further my studies in Clinical Psychology, because I had tremendous insight into the ‘illness’ I had. This I did. But, then again, the same place that is part of this vicious systematic madness did not favour me. I was asked for a fitness certificate and letters from my treating psychiatrist, counsellor, support group, and caregiver that stated that ‘I won’t be a threat to myself and to others’.

I was given admission on these grounds, along with a ‘donation’ from my dad. It took me time to understand the politics. Today I ask: How many of the others considered ‘normal’ had had to give such a certificate and letters of undertaking? I was never violent towards any outsider. Like everyone else I too had my frustrations—– the first of which was accepting the label of madness. Why did they make it even more difficult for me to seek an education, just like everyone else?

I dropped out of the course due to another discrimination I faced when I approached the Head of Department. He refused to let me sit for my pending papers even though I had permission for a six-month break and the course had another year to be completed. Being who I am — a hardcore rebel — I could not accept the terms and conditions that were being set. I found my voice back. So I told him to keep the degree for himself and walked out of the office, wondering again, “What is wrong with me? Am I really crazy that I have to subscribe to the various ‘terms’ they had? Why didn’t any of my other classmates have to go through the same procedure?”

Years went by; I grew and evolved as a person. I learnt more about my label, accepted it and continued living with it. Then again, remarks are still thrown at me. “You don’t look schizophrenic,” someone says. I wonder to myself, “What is a schizophrenic supposed to look like?” It reminded me of the case of a woman with cerebral palsy who was offloaded from a flight not too long ago, because she looked ‘mentally ill’.

Now I live a life without medication, which is another highly controversial stand to take for the psychiatric system that firmly believes that a schizophrenic cannot live without medication or psychiatry treatment.

I don’t ‘look’ schizophrenic. I am articulate, I can be bold and opinionated, and can certainly express myself. But it didn’t happen overnight. When I seek employment, I am discriminated against, because it only takes a simple Google search to find out who I am. So my existential question of ‘Who am I?’ is replaced by what the world thinks of me: ‘What are you?’

The system says, “You must accept your condition and come out with your stories. Share them with others so that discrimination and stigma can be fought”. But, I wonder, in what way has the system helped me at all? It has denied me the basic fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India. It has taken away my legal capacity by deploying a simple label. I cannot vote, I cannot sign a contract, I cannot hold office, I have no right to the same education as others, I have no say in my treatment, I can be held against my own will. Even though I now stand on my own feet, have other means of making a living, pay taxes. Why must I be paying taxes, anyway, when they have taken away my legal capacity and there are laws that consider a person like me to be as good as dead?

I owe my recovery to many good, compassionate, caring practitioners and people. They too are a part of a system, but I wonder why they are not seen or heard off. I hear voices...but I can only hope for mine to ever be heard.

(Women's Feature Service)

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