‘It’s just a chemical imbalance’

August 14, 2016 12:00 am | Updated 05:36 am IST

We don’t talk much about mental illness, but it’s time we began, says author Jerry Pinto, who has recently edited a collection of real-life accounts

lifetime is not enough to understand the human mind. Any time we think we have understood its complexities, it throws another surprise, reminding us of our limited capacities. And what if that mind is ‘different’ and suffers from a mental condition?

Jerry Pinto raises this question in the latest volume he has edited, A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind , published by Speaking Tiger. The last time he delved into this subject was in the personal, compelling story of his bipolar mother in the award-winning Em and the Big Hoom .

A Book of Light is a collection of stories from people who recount their experiences of living with loved ones with a mental illness. In a society where the subject is rarely discussed openly, even among family, the book reminds us that we need many more such personal accounts.

Being a good editor need not always necessarily involve emotional distancing from the subject. One can be caught in the eye of the storm and yet feel its magnitude. Pinto talks of this and more in this interview. Edited excerpts:

How would you describe your experience of editing this collection?

I think every book produces a new set of challenges but here the toughest part was asking friends, “Will you write for this book?” For many of these stories had been told to me in moments of vulnerability. Now I had to go back and say, “Do you remember the time you told me about the man you were about to marry who had a schizophrenic episode. Do you want to write about that?” And I have to say that my friends — almost all — came through brilliantly, writing and rewriting. I want to also say to all of them, if I hurt you in any way with something clumsy I said, I am sorry.

As you say in your introduction, some narrators have used distancing techniques... “To each his or her own distance, to each his or her own device.” Being so close to the subject yourself, as an editor, to what extent did you distance yourself?

Thankfully, the pieces came in over months, some people responding with alacrity, others working their way past their pasts, slowly turning their worlds into narratives. But almost always, the first reading was the toughest. I would be reduced to tears often by the ordinary heroism of those who must live with a person who has a different mind. One of the stories I was told, one that didn’t make the book, was about this woman, a secretary, who was caring for her brother who had, in a psychotic rage, tried to strangle their mother and left her partially paralysed. The secretary runs between the home where her brother is and the home where her mother is; she does a job and finds time to help out in the parish church. When she told me about her parish work, about finding time for those less fortunate than herself, I was humbled.

What were some of the initial responses of the readers you showed the manuscript to?

I think you can’t help but think: I just got lucky, that didn’t happen to me. That’s probably the first reaction everyone has when they read something like this. But so often, so very often, there was an element of recognition, of ‘I’ve-been-there, this-is-what-I-went-through too.’ That’s why there’s an email in the book because we must keep telling these stories. (Pinto’s introduction includes an email address to which people can send similar accounts.)

Your illustrations on the book cover are striking. To me, they seemed like the mind reaching out...

Those illustrations began when I was doing Em and the Big Hoom and something was being drawn out of me, something was unloosening and unfreezing and at the same time, I was also terrified of how I could not often say what I was feeling. I have always wanted to be able to parse my emotions, to say: “I am not feeling happy today because I have not finished grading all the work I have assigned my students.” I want to be able to say: “This surge of happiness is because I have just done the Tibetan rites that Jehangir Palkhivala taught me.” But what if you’re not feeling anything, just a hollow where there was once a ball of emotion? What if you realise that all along you had some unrecognised emotion somewhere and it’s not there now? The illustrations began then on ordinary paper and then suddenly I was taking them seriously and buying good acid-free paper and a nice set of fine line pens and drawing. I don’t interpret them though some of the early ones even had names… Now I don’t name, don’t interpret, but there’s a new blankness when I’m doing them that I am getting addicted to. There’s no words here… (just) my cells.

It is not easy recounting experiences of living with loved ones who suffer from mental conditions. Yet we need more such stories. How do we draw these experiences into the open?

I hope A Book of Light will start a hundred different conversations. I hope it will persuade people to talk about their encounters with difference in other ways. We’re so invested in presenting images of ourselves and our families as perfect that we don’t even realise how much energy it takes to keep that going and what a relief it is to be able to say, “My son is bipolar and he’s going through a bad phase and so he’s not going to be able to come to your party, thank you.” The more people say it, the more we will get used to thinking it’s just about a chemical imbalance.

Would you agree that mental illness does not receive as much acknowledgement as it should, whether in life or literature?

The literature is considerable because the mentally-ill person is such a fascinating subject but often it is pathologised: the mad woman who skins the family pet, the sociopath who fries a human brain and eats it, and, of course, there is what we still think of as ‘sexual deviance’. But as for careful, caring, nuanced examinations of the dysfunctions and differences of the mind, those are still rare.

There’s still very little knowledge about mental illness in India in the cities. I wonder about the women in the countryside; how do they cope with postpartum depression, say? What happens to the obsessive compulsive in a small town? Who does a young woman confused about her sexuality in a village talk to? If you think too hard about that, you won’t sleep at night.

Anupama Raju is a poet, literary journalist and translator. She is the author of Nine , a collection of poems.

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