LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: An Introduction ft. Beth Donahue

In recent times, various forms complementary and alternative therapies have been adopted by people going through mental health issues, owing to therapeutic benefits. Let’s introduce ourselves to alternative therapy and learn how it can aid mental health.


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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we have Elizabeth Donahue, Associate Chair of the Art Therapy Program at Antioch University, Seattle. She is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a Registered and Board Certified Art Therapist. She enjoys working with her clients to find their voice through artistic expression.

Welcome, Beth.

Beth- Thank you, Valerie.

Valerie- Thank you so much for taking out the time to talk to us today. 

Beth- Oh, I’m happy to be here.

Valerie- Let’s start with you telling us what Alternative Therapy for mental health is and how it compares to conventional psychotherapy.

Beth- Yeah, so I think many people are familiar with how conventional psychotherapy works. You go to see your therapist and you sit in your office and you talk with them and they listen and maybe they would give you some feedback or some advice. And that works really well for a lot of people but other people maybe don’t have the words to express their emotions, or maybe the things that they need to talk about are a little too hard to talk about, maybe too traumatic. So that’s where alternative therapies can come into play. Art Therapy, Drama Therapy, Clay Therapy, Music Therapy- these are all ways for people to rest their thoughts and emotions through different media rather than through just talking.

Valerie- Right. You said that you can express yourself through different media apart from just talking. Is that the only reason that one would consider Alternative Therapy or could there be other reasons as well?

Beth- There could be other reasons! Some people might find that they enjoy creative expression, that the simple act of art making or music making is therapeutic in itself. They might find that being guided through their creative activities by an art therapist or a music therapist might be beneficial. 

Valerie- Okay. Like you just told us, there are various forms of alternative therapy for mental health. There’s art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy, and a lot more. How would we know which form would help us best express ourselves? 

Beth- I think one option might be to consider which one you enjoy engaging in media. If you are a person that likes to draw or paint, then Art Therapy might be a good fit for you. If you enjoy using your body and movements to express yourself, something like Dance Movement Therapy or Drama Therapy might be more appropriate for you. I think the best way to choose is based on what you’re already interested in.

Valerie- Right. So I consider myself to be somebody who does not draw, who does not dance, who does not sing very well either. So taking all of this into consideration and if you want to try out Alternative Therapy, is it necessary for you to have an inclination towards one of these specific things or can you try it out regardless?

Beth- Such a good question! Yeah, of course. The job of an art therapist or a drama therapist, the alternative therapist, is to help you express yourself through these different mediums and they can assist you. Say maybe you want to express yourself through dance but you’re not a dancer. You’ve never taken a dance class and you don’t know anything about it. Their job is to help you obtain the skills that you need to express yourself. They might show you a couple of dance moves or a few poses, to help you express yourself. It’s the same with art or drama therapy. 

For example, to be an Art Therapist, you must be a trained artist yourself. So you know how to use the different art supplies that might be present and you can teach the person who’s with you, your client, to use those supplies as well. So you don’t need to do anything! The other cool thing is that art therapy or music therapy, these aren’t about creating fine works of art that might hang in a museum. Their purpose is the journey itself so the creation of the artwork is what’s important and not really the end result. You don’t have to worry about not making something that looks beautiful, you just worry about making something that expresses yourself. 

Valerie- Right. I love that you said that the purpose is the journey. It’s not about what you create or the quality of the stuff that you’re doing but it’s about the process of doing it.

Beth- Yes, exactly. That’s totally true.

Valerie- So you are a registered mental health counselor. You chose to take an alternative form of therapy and work as an Art Therapist. What made you make this decision? 

Beth- Well, there are a couple of reasons that I decided to be both, a mental health counselor and an Art Therapist. One of them is that I want to be able to support my clients in whatever way they want to express themselves and so sometimes that means through art, and sometimes that means they do just want to just talk, and I want to be able to support them in doing both things. The other thing is that there’s a little bit of a technical issue in the United States. In most places, you can’t be licensed as an Art Therapist, you need to also be licensed as a mental health counsellor in order to work with people. So I thought it’s a good idea to have that background as well in case I want to work in various settings. So really, I wanted to make sure that I was able to support and help the largest number of people and I didn’t want to limit myself to only doing alternative therapy. I wanted to be able to do both.

Valerie- That’s beautiful, that you wanted to help as many people as you could and also take the interest that you have in art and use that to help people.

Beth- Well, thank you! Yeah, it’s been amazing. It’s been wonderful.

Valerie- Could you give us an insight into what happens in an Art Therapy session?

Beth- Sure! A number of different things might happen. A person might come into my art therapy room and just sit down at the desk and just pick up some supplies and start expressing themselves that way, right away. Sometimes I am just a compassionate witness to the art-making and we don’t really talk at all. They make art and they find that therapeutic and maybe we’ll talk a little bit at the end of the session. Another way though can be that a person comes down in my office and they sit down and they’re really struggling to tell me about something. They really feel like there’s something they want me to know but they don’t have the right words and they’re kind of frustrated that way. And so I might ask them to pick a colour and draw whatever shape comes to mind first. Then we start there with something really simple, and then we might move on to a far more detailed picture that helps us both understand that they’re trying to say. Is that helpful?

Valerie- Yes but this actually made me think of another thing- the tasks that you’re talking about like trying to ask them to draw a shape, it’s all so abstract that I don’t understand how you can actually make sense of stuff like that and help people. How do you do that? Or is that something you’ve been trained to understand?

Beth- That’s a really good question! So no, say I ask somebody to pick a colour and draw a shape. They picked green and they drew a square. I’m not going to know what that means just by looking at it but what I would do is ask the person who drew it to explain it to me. I might say- Well, I noticed you chose a bright colour of green. Can you tell me what this reminds you of? When you look at this colour of green, what else do you think about? And then I might ask- I notice you drew this shape. What does this shape remind you of? What do you think of when you use this shape? When’s the first time you saw that shape? – And so by association, the client starts to explain why they chose the colour and shape and then we might get to something deeper, something more about the issue that they want to talk about. One thing people think art therapists might do is find meaning in other people’s artwork and be able to read their minds by looking at the art but we don’t do that at all. We ask the clients questions.

Valerie- So it’s really digging deep into what and why your client has chosen something and trying to understand it from their perspective, taking into account what they’ve drawn or what they’ve chosen to draw.

Beth- Exactly. That’s exactly right.

Valerie- That’s interesting. So in your life, you are an Art Therapist to all of your clients but when you feel low or when you need help, is art something you turn to as well?

Beth- It is something that I turn to as well. I find art-making to be really soothing. I do two kinds of art- I do textile work, which is about repetitive motion, so embroidery or cross-stitch, something that is really concrete and takes a lot of the same motion over and over, and I find that doing that kind of activity can be really relaxing. In the other kind, I don’t need to relax, I actually need to get energy out and so I draw on really big canvases and make really big artwork so that I’m moving my limbs a lot to express myself and that helps me release some emotion, when I need to do that. 

Valerie- Right. So is a lot of Alternative Therapy engaging in repetitive motions that can try to calm and soothe you? 

Beth- It is for some people. That’s a thing that works for me. For other people, it can be more about engaging with the materials itself. I’m thinking about a little girl that I worked with years ago- she liked to work with clay and she really liked to just grab the clay and squish it between her fingers and have that experience of just feeling the clay, and that’s how she releases tension. She just really squished that clay, tore it to pieces and then she felt relieved from that, she felt better. 

Valerie- Right. Another question I want to ask you is that you’ve introduced us to Alternative Therapy, what it is, when one should consider using Alternative Therapy but can it replace conventional psychotherapy or does it work as something that complements it?

Beth- I think it depends on the client. Yes, it can absolutely be the only therapy that people are using, it can replace conventional psychotherapy for a lot of people. For some other people, maybe depending on the diagnosis, they might need both kinds. They might need both talk therapy and an alternative therapy to support that.

Valerie- So when we talk about Alternative Therapy, we have music, art, dance, drama, there’s so much. Is it something that somebody can try at home or is that different from actual alternative therapy?

Beth- You have so many good questions! Yes, absolutely. People can engage in alternative therapies at home. They can engage in art-making, dance, music, clay therapy, they can do all of this at home and they are therapeutic. But what makes it Art Therapy or Drama Therapy is having a trained alternative therapist, somebody trained with you in the room, because that is what takes it to the next level and makes it a therapy rather than just therapeutic. Am I making sense?

Valerie- Yup. That makes sense. Another question I wanted to ask you is that with the Pandemic and so much going on, I’m sure you must have a lot more clients coming to you because there’ just so much going on in the World that’s making everyone so uncomfortable. At the end of it all, I’m sure you must be going through a lot of long days right now but how do you unwind? How do you take care of your own mental health to make sure that you’re not burning out and you can still help the clients that come to you?

Beth- That’s a lovely question. Well, the first thing is that I see an Art Therapist myself. I have an Art Therapist that I see and work with and I think it’s really important for all therapists, counsellors, healers to have their own person that they can talk to and make art with, if that’s how they express themselves. So that’s one way. Another thing that I do is try to engage in activities that are totally different from art therapy. So I’ve really gotten into cooking in the last six months or so. I was a person who ordered takeout a lot but now I have cooked things from scratch in my own home and it’s good! It’s a soothing activity and then I have nourishment at the end, I have something to eat. 

Valerie- Right. Well, Beth thank you so much for talking to us today about Alternative Therapy because it’s something that we’re going to try to explore now with every episode that we have and we’re going to try to get in-depth into the therapies that we discussed today. Thank you so much for actually coming here and spreading light about Alternative Therapy and how it can be used. Also, a very nice thing I liked that you said at the end was that you have your own therapist as well. We always need someone to talk to and share our burden with and I think that was an absolutely beautiful note to end this on. Thank you so much for coming today.

Beth- Thank you so much. I look forward to hearing the rest of the episodes in the podcast.
Valerie- Sure, thank you.

Taking on Food and Festivities

Tis the season to be jolly, isn’t it? The lights, the revelry, the joyous air and the endless delicacies define the holiday season. The sheer excess is a welcoming bliss for most of us, to flag off yet another hectic year. Everything, from the bright advertisements to the sweet rom-coms to the upbeat music, tells us that this is the most magical time of the year and we should be extremely excited about it. But it is also an undeniable fact that this excess comes with plenty of baggage. It pressures one to look happy, put-together and be sociable- a fair trade-off for the average person. Unfortunately, many individuals, specifically those battling eating disorders cannot afford that luxury.

While food has always been a central aspect of social festivities, the consumerism of the holiday season has further accentuated this. One cannot waft past Diwali, Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years without stumbling upon some signature dishes. Thus, from the stress associated with the holiday season, to the food centrism of it, the whole thing is a terrifying affair for those with eating disorders. In an article by Deseret News, personal experiences of eating disorder patients during the holidays were chronicled (Click here to see the article). One patient summarized the troubles of the holiday season-

I always hated it when the holiday season would roll around. It meant that I would have to face my two worst enemies – food and people – and a lot of them.”

There is a plethora of eating disorders, each characterized by very specific behaviours. The most well-known disorders are Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. Let us explore them in greater detail. 

According to The National Eating Disorder Association , Anorexia Nervosa is “a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self starvation and excessive weight loss”

(https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/what-are-eating-disorders). These behaviors are guided by an intense fear of gaining weight, or of becoming fat, and an accompanying need to look thin. Similar goals steer the behaviors of those with Bulimia Nervosa, which is characterized by “a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting, designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating” 

Besides the guiding principles, many symptoms are common to both disorders. They include continuous weight checking; regularly surveying how some clothes fit; comparison of one’s own body to that of others; having unrealistic and far-reaching benchmarks; body dysmorphia and so on. Such disorders are triggered by much more than the desire to look thin and feel empty. Emotional upheavals and downward spirals also contribute to eating disorders, since the adoption of such eating routines give one a sense of control over their body, as observed by Dr. Hilde Burch (Click here to learn more about her observations). Furthermore, disordered eating habits also sometimes make for routes of escape from a tumultuous reality. Such coping mechanisms, however, end up being counter-productive, as they intensify feelings of guilt and self-hatred (sci-hub.se/10.1037/h0079241).

How do the holidays pose a threat to those with eating disorders? The food centrism of holidays ensures that such occasions are filled with stressors and triggers. Having anorexia, on one hand, can make one feel cornered at the idea of consuming any food, especially in the presence of other people. Dr. Randy Hardman, a doctor at Center for Change, offered some perspective (https://journals.psu.edu/ne/article/view/59255/58982, pp.8)-

I have had patients describe that they would rather jump off a cliff without a parachute than to have somebody watch them eat food.”

Those with bulimia may have ample opportunity to indulge in binge sessions. One patient told Deseret News-

“So much food, so much love and so much joy, but I could not feel the love or joy, so I indulged in the food as a replacement.”

Thus, fear sets in- those with anorexia find themselves trying to avoid food without raising eyebrows; those with bulimia find themselves surrounded by opportunities to binge eat. Such scenarios end up emotionally wrecking one’s state of mind. Shame, guilt and self-loathe sets in.

While most of us casually speak of “packing on holiday weight”, this looms as a matter of life and death for someone with an eating disorder. Festivities may derail them from their usual routine of maintaining strict vigil on their food intake and weight. This in turn may lead compensatory behaviors such as over-exercising, purging and so on to take  a whole new significance in their lives. In this context, Dr. Timothy Walsh points out that “For people with eating disorders, guilt feelings become so distorted they lose all perspective” (https://journals.psu.edu/ne/article/view/59255/58982, pp.8). To illustrate this point, Kaitlin Dannibale explains, “The destructive thoughts consume every inch of their brain and the meal becomes the only thing they can obsess over for a fixed period of time. This is when the compensatory behaviors will most likely begin. For those with anorexia, they may restrict dramatically over the next day, week or month. Those who over exercise will try to compensate by participating in vigorous physical activity. People with bulimia will attempt to purge their meals immediately after completion” (https://journals.psu.edu/ne/article/view/59255/58982, pp.8)  

Another key trigger during the holidays can be resurfacing of negative emotions and trauma, particularly with respect to family. Oftentimes, unsupportive familial environments are where eating disorders begin. This is particularly significant in the Indian context, where weight shaming is common. In a blogpost, Gwen details into how the weight shaming culture proved to be detrimental for her body-image-

I know calling someone “fat” in India is not the same as in the US. But it doesn’t change years of baggage I am carrying with me.” (read the full blog-post here)

Thus, the rehashing of past trauma may intensify the need to use disordered eating habits as a coping mechanism. This is further accentuated by the lack of understanding or awareness on part of the family about eating disorders.

Dr. Hardman explains, “most family members think it is about food and weight, but it is about self-rejection”(https://journals.psu.edu/ne/article/view/59255/58982, pp.9).  Hence, the family environment isn’t conducive for one to feel secure in the midst of a stress-filled situation. Oftentimes, the family isn’t even aware of one’s eating disorder.

Unfortunately, such obstacles make even survivors of eating disorders stumble. As Ginean Crawford explains, eating disorders are different from other addictive disorders, in that one cannot completely abstain from food, as can be done in the case of alcohol (https://journals.psu.edu/ne/article/view/59255/58982, pp. 8) . Thus, they encounter stressors and triggers on the daily, more so during the holidays.

How can one help someone cope with an eating disorder during the holidays?

  • Make sure that the person battling such a disorder has a support group. This ensures that they are able to communicate how they feel about the triggers around them, and can help alleviate feelings of guilt. A supportive family setting would be ideal. If the individual has even a single friend or family member to rely on during arduous festivities, it would make a huge difference.
  • Restrict the disruption of routine as much as possible. If meal times can be close to that of the individual’s schedule, it will be less stressful for them.
  • It is also worth noting that celebrations with few loved ones won’t be as overwhelming as large gatherings.

Overall, helping the sufferer of the eating disorder to plan ahead, encouraging them to voice their concerns, letting them indulge in the festivities at their own pace will help them tackle the holidays.

A pivotal concern specific to the Indian context, is the startling lack of discourse and awareness, which has further fuelled the ‘weight-shaming’ culture. Oftentimes, remarks about appearance and weight are hardly driven by malicious intent, given the lack of understanding about body image. There are very few studies documenting the prevalence of eating disorders in India, most of them confined to relatively small regions. The larger picture is unknown. Moreover, the scanty discourse that does exist, purports the notion that it is mainly a result of ‘western import’. In one study in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, it is said that “The process of admixture of western attitudes and behaviour now occurring at a rapid rate in India may soon lead to emergence of severe eating disorders in the vulnerable populations” (sci-hub.se/10.1177/002076409804400305, pp. 196).

This brings to the forefront, the individual responsibility of each and every one of us, to educate ourselves as well as those around us. We can take it upon ourselves to contribute to the scanty discourse and mend the environment which enables eating disorders. Let us all strive to inspire such conversations and be more mindful of the not-so-jolly aspects of the holiday season.

Navigating Intense Emotions

Try as we might to always have a Zen state of mind, we fail miserably when emotions rise to the surface and sometimes boil over. We can feel overwhelmed by them if we do not learn how to manage them correctly. As a result, we might end up being plunged in sadness, anger, or even in the best of cases, intense euphoria that can leave us feeling as if something were missing after it subsides. It is important to learn to identify, process, and navigate through intense emotions.

Emotions are valid

Different people feel different emotions even when they are put in the exact same situation. Emotions stem from thoughts and sometimes, preconceived notions. For instance, the Holidays can make some people happy, while others feel sad, angry, or even afraid. These feelings cumulatively influence our thoughts, enabling us to form split-second opinions about various situations and guide our decision making through intuition. 

Even though emotions form the cornerstone of the eventual development of intuition and gut instinct, they get a bad rep and people who carry their emotions right on the surface are often viewed as somehow inferior. In men, this social conditioning can cause toxic masculinity, where men tend to project a stoic personality and suppress their emotions to meet the expectations from society. 

“…Teach him there is no shame in tears…” -Abraham Lincoln

We need to collectively realize that we mustn’t censor emotions within us or others. Instead, we must hone and develop this tool that evolution has bestowed upon us into a life skill.

Processing Intense Emotions

As we go through life, we might face situations which can stir emotions stronger than we are generally used to. The untrained response to such situations can be a complete shutdown or feeling overwhelmed. Though most of us recover quickly and completely after the situation passes, it might still leave a lasting adverse impact if it was improperly processed. These events can seed a negative connotation to the experience itself, which almost always never stops with the experience itself but goes on to chip away at our self-confidence.

In order to learn to navigate intense emotions, we must first practice identifying our emotions with focussed intention and mindfulness. Some experiences can leave us feeling a lot of mixed emotions and as a result can sometimes impair our critical thinking. A useful practice can be to maintain a journal and track the emotions that one goes through throughout the day. Each entry can contain an event and how this event inspired a specific emotion or a group of emotions. If you cannot find words to describe the emotion, you can even use emojis or caricatures to identify them. This exercise is to consciously connect the dots between thought, feeling, and back to thought as a result of the feelings. Identifying emotions as we go through a ‘normal’ day can sharpen our ability to swiftly discern specific emotions in case of a sudden outburst of intense emotions. 

Once we identify our emotions, the task is to mindfully allow it to run its course without hindering or intensifying it based on our snap judgement. A personal tip is to use breathing as a focal point from which we shift our attention to the emotion and back to the breathing, the moment we realize our interference. Some things that you can notice are physical manifestations (for example, sweating, flushing or tearing up) or change in mental state (maybe, memories and thoughts that surface and how this affects our current actions). Emotions often play a crucial role in helping us through an experience and it is our mind’s response which in turn triggers a wide variety of bodily functions. So, it is important that we don’t shirk away even as they build up to a hot white intensity.

Finally, as the emotions subside, take your time to retreat within yourself and sit with the thoughts and feelings and consciously bring them to a close. Some might feel that reacting quickly is of the essence, however, more often than not, actions taken when we aren’t thinking straight are regrettable when we look back at them. So, it is wiser to be patient when coming up with a decision or response, verbal, or otherwise. 

Shifting our Locus

It is important to reiterate again and again that we needn’t be rigid in our thoughts and must broaden our perspective to the possibilities. Our views regarding an experience can change and will change for the better, if we learn to process our emotions in a healthier way . We must make a sincere attempt to refrain from consciously or subconsciously passing blanket statements, such as, “I can never learn to socialize properly.”, “I will always have a short temper.” or “No one will ever love me for me.” This can always change. We only need to shift our locus. 

We might also consider talking about these experiences and feelings with close friends and family. They can offer a different perspective to the situation and can even help transform your thought process completely. It might be helpful to preface this conversation by communicating your expectations and that this is a serious discussion so that you can avoid judgement for opening up.

Emotions are a part of our minds and might even have provided an evolutionary advantage to building strong social bonds. They are vital to living a mentally healthy life and there are no good or bad emotions since each and every one of these complex feelings help us navigate life on a constant basis. So, instead of fearing or hiding them, we must embrace them. 

Establishing Boundaries and sticking to them

The Holidays can be a great opportunity to spend quality time with family and friends but what happens when this is forced on you? How do you navigate this tricky conversation with people who love you and genuinely care about you and let them know that you need your personal space and time, without hurting their feelings? I had the same questions and miserably failed at communicating my needs and having them respected for many years before learning to successfully establish boundaries and sticking to them. 

Knowing when you’ve hit your limit

The first problem was understanding my own limits. I am an introverted person and I tend to feel exhausted after spending time with a group of friends or family. But, for fear of offending loved ones, I have stifled my yawns and rubbed my eyes red to be ‘present’ through long conversations. Afterwards, I feel drained and need a nap to invigorate myself back into action. Not knowing when to say ‘No’ or ‘Enough’ is another way in which I have often over-committed myself and end up feeling overwhelmed. I cannot count the number of times I’ve got a stomach ache because of overeating at a relative’s place because I didn’t want to disappoint them. Mental health is no different. The impact, though less acutely pronounced, is on a long-term, chronic basis.

The key is to identify symptoms and patterns of exhaustion in yourself and over time become a better judge of your limits. People might try to make you feel guilty, saying that you’re too rigid and boxed in, but you should never feel bad about respecting yourself and your mental health. One way in which I have learnt to enforce this limit to myself, is through my smartphone. I have set it to automatically turn on sleep mode at bedtime. This silences notifications and provides a gentle nudge to wind down. Yes, I have spent time surfing YouTube and Instagram, after it is my bedtime, but providing this hard physical limit, means that you are now explicitly aware that you’ve crossed your own limits.

Communicating your boundaries

The view on being in your comfort zone is a two-faced one. On one hand, we need to respect ourselves enough to say, “Enough is enough”, but on the other, if we don’t force ourselves into unfamiliar territory, how will we ever grow? This is a slippery slope and only you can be a good judge and honest evaluator of when you are recognizing that the situation is beyond your ability and when you’re just being lazy. And, you only need to be honest with yourself and mindful about these mannerisms, because only through conscious recognition will you be able to even begin to communicate your limits effectively to others. That is because most people can tell when you lie, this might not even be conscious, but they might make this judgement about you and use this as a basis to subconsciously mark your words to be lies every other time.

Once this fact sinks in, next comes the more difficult part – being polite but firm. This is a skill that is so useful in life that there must be complete courses on this taught at school. But alas! Where our school curriculum falls short, the school of life must step in. I am not great at this skill but I have seen people who are particularly well versed in effective but courteous communication. One of my recollections takes me back to the Resident Services at my apartments. I was there only for the latter part of the conversation, so, I didn’t know what the resident’s issue was. This was part of what the agent said to the resident,

“I understand that the maintenance team had missed the appointment at your place. The email must’ve slipped through our notice. I am sorry about that. But, we cannot reschedule your appointment on the coming Thursday. It is a Holiday and we don’t work that day. I can always look into my calendar and see which time after the Holidays works for both of us, but that is the best I can do right now.”

Delivered without a pause, this effectively conveyed that the service agent was sincerely apologetic, was willing to work towards a solution while also firmly denying the resident’s demand to work during a holiday. It takes a little bit of knack and patience to convey our limits and personal boundaries to people who aren’t the most understanding but this saves us a lot of pain in the future if we’re being open right up front.

Respecting your boundaries – yourself!

This could be the most difficult and yet the most important step in your journey to set proper boundaries and enforce them – respecting your boundaries yourself. The reason why this is so important might not be what you’re thinking. It is the most crucial step, primarily because humans are generally narcissistic (not to be confused with Narcissistic Personality disorder). Most people are so in their own heads that your own convictions and beliefs about yourself, might become the yardstick by which we measure how others perceive us. 

Simply put, you are either your biggest cheerleader or your harshest critic. Once we become aware of our limits, and have communicated them to others, we must learn to enforce them. This does not come naturally to us. Ironically, we are often left feeling guilty or sometimes too strict when we are on our own side. The trick (or not really) to moving through the guilt is to go back to the foundation, the reasons why you started this journey and reinforce the bitter memories of when you were a pushover and allowed people to walk all over you. While the current situation might not be as serious as your original foundational memories, you must always use them as a big red warning sign to what it might turn into. So, through this repeated process of reinforcement of ‘why’ and ‘what’ your limits are, you can begin to see a world of difference in how other people treat you.

Finally, sometimes, even after taking the necessary steps to communicate and enforce your boundaries to others, this could be a hard pill for them to swallow. For instance, a friend might be constantly dumping their troubles on you, while you are already enervated and are having a rough time. In this scenario, it feels wrong to ask them to stop complaining and even if we had previously communicated this to that person, we end up making excuses for them and do not respect the fact that trying to heal them is eating away at yourself. In my personal experience, this generally happens when there is an inherent imbalance in the dynamic of the relationship. One is always playing the role of the listener, the healer and the giver while the other always complains, is the only one with issues and constantly consumes. Due to non-verbal communication, this dynamic slowly crystallizes into permanency and becomes the norm. And the earlier you try to wean the other off this feeling, the better. But even after years of knowing someone, it is never too late to completely re-evaluate your relationship and communicate your boundaries to them.

Coming back to the most jolly time of the year – the Holidays, it can be particularly tricky to enforce these limits. This can be of greater significance to someone going through a serious mental health issue, like depression, anorexia or bulimia. Forcing yourself to conform to the society’s dictation of the “correct” way of spending your Holidays might mean that you might have to undergo some seriously stressful situations and for some, it might be the final straw that shoves them deeper into their crisis. For many of us, things might not be as serious but having this thought at the back of your mind might help you be on the watch for stress in your loved ones. You can be that person who would respect their boundaries and allow them to flourish without reservations in your company. 

The Kingdom of Dreams

When I was younger,
I dreamed of being Cinderella,
The beautiful, distressed, princess
Who would be saved by her Prince Charming
From the big, ugly, ogre.
If only I had understood then 
That beauty is in the eye of the beholder
And the ogres and demons existed inside my head.

When I was a little older,
I dreamed of being Jackie Chan
(From the cartoon, duh!)
And tour the world with Uncle and Jade
And Toru and El Toro and all the others. 
If only I had known then
That no number of magic stones
Could help me to fight the battles of the real world.

When I was older still,
I dreamed of being Hermione Granger,
(Because a brilliant witch is way cooler than a brave wizard, IMO)
Wise, loyal, but fierce if need be,
I wanted to fight evil with Harry and Ron by my side.
If only I had known then
That true evil exists in the heart and head
And it takes more than a cloak, a wand and a stone to vanquish it.

Fast forward a decade,
I’m too old for my own good.
And all I want to do now,
Is to go back to the Kingdom of Dreams,
A time when 9.00 AM was Popeye and 9.00 PM was shuteye.
A time when bingeing on Cheetos was the norm.
A time when having imaginary friends was considered cool.
A time when anything was possible…

LonePack Conversations – Child Sexual Abuse and its impact on Mental Health ft. Viji Ganesh

In our country, safety has always been a major public health concern. While it’s disheartening to see cases of abuse almost constantly flashed on our television screens, stigma around the issue prevents us from talking about it or discussing the personal trauma that one battles.


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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m Valerie. 

Today, we have Viji Ganesh, Personal Safety Coach and Educator.  She volunteers and works as a freelancer promoting awareness and prevention education about Child Sexual Abuse and imparting sexuality education. She is here talk to us about the impact that child sexual abuse has on one’s mental health and how we can help contribute to a safe space for children.

Welcome, Viji. 

Viji- Thank you, Valerie. It’s such an appropriate time to do this because just yesterday, Child Safety Week ended. November 14th being Children’s Day in India, November 19th being International Day of Abuse Prevention and November 20th being International Children’s Day. We had a week-long session on creating awareness about this particular topic. It’s so apt that we’re doing this today. Thank you for this opportunity.

 Valerie- Thank you. It’s amazing that you spent the entire last week and actually, most of what you do is to promote a safe space for children and create awareness about child sexual abuse. 

Viji- That’s right. I’m mostly into primary prevention, which is to get people to talk about it more and help child children and empower them to get into protective behaviours- to protect themselves from abuse and also to not become abusive. 

Valerie- So, when we look at statistics in India, it shows that around 110 children are sexually abused every single day. You can see around us that a lot of people may not even be aware of the fact that such acts are committed, or we choose not to talk about them because we find ourselves in uncomfortable positions. When you look at the people affected by it, it is so difficult for them to talk about it because of so much stigma that’s associated with it, or sometimes it happens at such a young age that they don’t even understand what’s happening to them. What are your views on this?

Viji- Child sexual abuse is rather disturbing, abhorrent and most often an unimaginable crime for most of us but the unfortunate reality is that it exists and does keep happening. Many people say that only of late, the incidences have increased but I wouldn’t agree with that because it is only now that the reporting has increased. It has always been happening but thanks to social media, the reporting has increased now. As you said, there is a lot of stigma around this, most of us are in denial. Most of us are also uncomfortable and inhibited from talking about this. That is where primary prevention comes in. The response to child sexual abuse should be handled with a view to increase awareness rather than to be in denial. It may seem very daunting and we can get overwhelmed by it but let me assure you, the fears, concerns and inhibitions are all very relevant and cannot be wished away. We have to deal with it so that we can empower our children effectively, address this issue to prevent it and help survivors heal. 

You are very right when you say there is so much stigma around this, mostly because when a survivor speaks up, they are most often not believed or are shamed. They are blamed and asked questions about what they were wearing, till what time they were out, and other typical questions. So most often, they prefer to keep quiet and suffer in silence. But we need to speak up about this. Not only the affected or the survivors, those who are not affected should also have the same amount of empathy towards it and only then can this issue be addressed in its totality. It starts with the community. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a community to address this issue. All of us have a role and responsibility in addressing this issue, is what I feel.

Valerie- Very true. When you spoke about the amount of stigma that’s associated with it that so many children prefer to suffer in silence as opposed to being questioned and shamed, in relation to this I wanted to ask you that people who face child sexual abuse often battle psychiatric disorders mostly because of stigma, suffering in silence and the after-effects of trauma. This may extend and reflect largely on their adult lives too, at times. Could you elaborate on this for us? 

Viji- Yeah, sure. Most often, ninety percent of child sexual abuse cases are by people known to the child. Stranger danger is no longer a real danger. Not all strangers are dangerous and not all known people are safe. In most CSA cases, it is a known person that commits this crime. That is the first difficulty that a child faces- not being able to accept that it has happened by someone they trust, like and have to live with in the same house, sometimes. That’s where it all starts. The confusion and emotional conflict that they have with the person. As a child, they suffer a lot. It can lead to a fall in academics, eating disorders, bed-wetting, sexualized behavior or becoming introverted. It could manifest in many ways but these should not be looked at in isolation, they have to be seen together. 

But as an adult, it can manifest in varied complex ways. There could be physical symptoms which disappear after a while which could be treated and medically addressed but there are a lot of emotional aspects that an adult survivor could go through- anxiety, depression, PTSD and emotional distress. Some of them could even suffer from eating disorders. They could even have externalizing behaviours such as substance abuse, alcoholism and in some cases, can also become abusive themselves, but not all abusers have a history of being abused so it has to be seen in isolation. The fact that ninety percent of these cases are of abuse by trusted adults leads them to trust issues, issues in interpersonal relationships and may also become revictimized in several relationships. They may be in a self-blame mode thinking that they did something which is why this happened to them. The system doesn’t respond to tell them that it’s not their fault, that it was never their fault. We always tell parents that to encourage disclosure, first listen and listen actively. In fact, we tell the parents that if they suspect that some child is on the threshold of disclosure, the first words that you should say is “It’s not your fault”. Once we start from there, the healing journey becomes easier. That’s how it manifests. The effect of CSA could be very complex and long lasting. 

I would like to quote a particular incident that happened in my workshop- a 63 year old grandmother had brought her granddaughter for my workshop in Hyderabad, around 8 years ago. After the session, I was quite overwhelmed listening to her tell me that she wished she had these kinds of workshops and education when she was growing up because she was also abused as a child and at 63 years old, this was the first time she was talking about it. That kind of jolted me, to realise that somebody could live uncompromisingly as an adult, with this in the background. One of the ways they deal with it is to push it to the back-burner, but you never know when it will erupt. Broadly, these are the effects that it can have on a functional adult. Sometimes, there could be a compromise on adult functionalities- they could appear to be normal but you don’t know what they are going through within. There is so much more to it than what I can tell you during this brief podcast.

Valerie- Right, but thank you for spreading light on this for us. You are someone who is deeply involved in the cause of child sexual abuse awareness and prevention, like you said, you host plenty workshops to spread awareness about this. How important would you say reaching out is for those affected by it? When you come across someone affected by child sexual abuse, what is your approach and interaction like? 

Viji- In nature, everything is resilient with an attitude to bear with all to heal and spring back to life. The first thing a survivor should have is the bravery to ask for help. That’s the bravest thing that one can do and it opens up a floodgate of options for them to start their healing journey. Which is why we keep reminding them that it’s not their fault and that they should ask for help. You do not have to define yourself by what happened when you were a child, when things were out of your control. It’s just like if you meet with an accident on the road, if you break your knee, you get surgery. You do not define yourself by the accident or what your knee has undergone. If you have the same perspective about abuse as well, it is easier to heal but even as I say that, I am aware that the two are not comparable situations but what’s important is that we do not define ourselves by what happened to us as we were a child, when things were out of our control. It is very difficult but it is not impossible to start our healing journey towards closure. 

This is where our society comes in to work on the stigma attached to it. In newspaper headlines, when they report incidents of abuse, it is always the victim that’s highlighted and not the abuser. We need to change that narrative. The blame needs to shift from the victim to the abuser. That in itself gives acceptance and can help start the path to healing. There are many ways to deal with the trauma from sexual abuse, there is no one solution that would fit all. Some people could spring back to action soon, some people could put it on the back-burner and live a normal life, some people could do things positively and help heal others. There are various ways to heal and that journey starts with the bravery to ask for help. That would be my message to all survivors- ask for help.

Valerie- I think it’s beautiful that you said don’t define yourself by what happened. You don’t centre your life around one incident. I thought that was beautiful.

Viji- Thank you.

Valerie- How do you approach people when they come to you and show bravery to talk about what they have been through? How do you approach and interact with them?

Viji- Basically, it all comes down to listening. Abuse is all about power inequity. It’s never about a sexual act but about somebody more powerful doing something that you have no control over. That is the stage they are in which is why even a grown adult gets into patterns of revictimization and self-blame, and always look for validation in others. This is one of the manifestations. We try to tell them that now you are in a safe position, it is over and done with. We may even take them back to that memory or place or time and relive it at their level of comfort and get over the lack of power that they felt at that time, and feel more powerful about their current empowering situations. They say that even now, it is a child that’s trapped in an adult’s mind even now. When they think about the abuse, they think of themselves as the child which was abused then and not as an adult now. That is why we have to start the journey from there and overcome their limitations. Also create safe spaces now, surround yourself with positivity, positive people and safe people.

Valerie- Okay. Talking about the importance of safe spaces, could you elaborate on some personal safety lessons that one can learn at schools?

Viji- Schools are a great place for transformation. It is where every child spends two-thirds of their waitful hours. Be it disclosures or learning about safety measures, it all happens majorly in schools. Their resources for disclosure are peers and teachers. We advocate personal safety education for children right from kindergarten till the end of their school years. It’s a holistic life skill approach that we follow, that gives them the education that empowers them to take part in their own protection, with knowledge, assertive skills, and information. The basic problem with most children when it comes to child sexual abuse is the lack of vocabulary, we do not name our body parts correctly. To children, a hand, a forehead and a penis are all body parts when they are just two or three years old. It is the adult mind which thinks of these parts as reproductive organs to use for sexualized behaviours. To a child, a vagina or a penis is just another part like a hand or a leg. Our education proceeds by giving them the correct names of their body parts, teaching them their functionality and slowly, as they grow into adolescence, discuss sexuality education. 

We teach them assertive skills by telling them that they are unique and special and have full body autonomy and they have every right to say “no” to any unwanted touch. It is not “who” that matters but the action. It could be anybody, it doesn’t matter but what matters is what they do, whether you like it and whether you want it. The commonly used terms of “bad” and “good” touch are not recommended, instead we should teach children about “safe” and “unsafe” touches. I would like to quote from one of my workshops- a small boy asked me “What if I feel good about a bad touch?”. Some of these touches could make them feel good even though they are intentionally wrong because these are all places filled with nerve centres and a lot of blood flow so it could make them feel good and pleasurable but they do not have the perception to know that the act itself is wrong so they could just stop with feeling that it makes them feel good. 

We want to teach children that they have absolute body autonomy and the full right to say “no” to any touch that they do not like. Any form of physical affection should always be at the behest of the child and not the calling of an adult. We cannot make our children responsible for an adult’s emotion. We educate the parents to accept a “no” every now and then so that the children know that it all starts from home and that the significant people in their lives will accept it when they say “no”. Once you give them the confidence that they can say “no” and that it will be accepted in the right spirit, they will do it outside as well. Whereas if you tell them that they have to respect adults and listen to whatever they say, they will remember that and even if it is a wrong touch, they may think about it and stay silent. 

We also teach them to build a robust support system of adults and communities by choosing their trusted adults, possibly parents, family and teachers, and also how to handle emotions like fear and anger, which are normally seen as negative emotions but we tell them that fear and anger are very positive emotions, which are like red flags. If you fear something, it means that you need to do something about it. It is an action point. If you feel angry, you need to act on that anger in the right way. We teach them conflict resolution and how to handle their emotions. Before telling them how to handle their emotions, we tell them to recognize and talk about their feelings. We do not know how to put a label on our emotions. Only when we know what we’re feeling will we be able to address and handle it. We also help build empathy because while every care is taken to prevent abuse from happening to them, we also need to ensure that they do not become abusive and that’s where empathy comes into play. The most important thing we teach them is that despite all this, if it still happens, do not blame yourself because it was never your fault. This is our personal safety education in a nutshell.

Valerie- Thank you for talking to us about this, it was very informative. Especially the part where you said that you’re supposed to understand your emotions and channel it correctly. Also not to blame yourself for anything that happens, if it does.

Viji- That’s the most important, yes.

Valerie- Also, when we talk about the current situation in the World, there is so much darkness when it comes to sexual abuse. There is so much talk about it and it’s because it keeps happening. I wanted to ask you- How do you see things getting brighter in the future? How do we become part of the solution? 

Viji- That’s a very good question. We have to be a part of the solution and not stay in the problem forever. There are many knee-jerk reactions whenever a case is reported- there is media bashing and a lot of blogs being written but after that, nothing happens. Do we do anything to make sure that it doesn’t happen again? We are all in denial that it is happening to someone else, it may not happen to me. Prevention and healing require an equal amount of sensitivity, care, positivity, optimism and being practical. 

When it comes to care, you teach personal safety education to children, start a conversation about it, make note of the vulnerable points in your community and the possibility of abuse happening. Adults need to sit and talk about it and not live in denial. It is very difficult and daunting but we need to work positively and believe that things can be changed. A lot of people are creating awareness now. Earlier men never used to talk about it but now there are a lot of men rooting for this cause and talking about it. A lot of survivors are now bold enough to open up and talk about their journey, and not define themselves by it. 

Practically, we have to translate prevention and healing into an actionable blueprint. That’s where practical tips on personal safety education in all schools and resources for survivors need to happen. So it is possible and to be a part of the solution, the first thing we can do is to start a conversation around it. It can be a dinner table conversation at home or even a conversation with the children while travelling in the car. If the parents need more information, there are plenty of resources available on the internet. It’s not rocket science and you don’t need a professional to come and talk about it but a little training and research certainly helps to not teach the children a wrong lesson because un-learning is very difficult here. It’s better to always give the right message by reading up, doing your own research and there are professionals working in this area. 

That’s how you can start a conversation around it and address the issue, and be a part of the solution. In fact, a lot of people took part in this week-long child safety week and I had interviewed four or five people from various walks of life who are rooting for this cause. The first thing is to get people to talk about it and normalize it just like a fire safety drill or a road safety drill. That is how it has to be taught to a child, like another life skill. 

Valerie- Thank you so much for talking to us about this. I hope that through this conversation that we’ve had, we could help raise more awareness on child sexual abuse. I really appreciate everything that you said to us about the importance of starting conversations and normalizing them for children so that it’s not looked at as such a taboo thing to talk about or something that’s associated with shame. Also, more importantly, not to live in denial of the fact that it will not happen to us but in turn to do some research, to start reading up on it and to handle situations with empathy, sensitivity and optimism, and empower people. There’s so much that we got to learn from you today and I’m really grateful that you took out the time to talk to us about this. Thank you so much, Viji.

Viji- My pleasure. Awareness is the key to all this and it’s the only sustainable solution to end this social malady, I would think. Thank you so much for this opportunity, Valerie. My life’s motive is that if I can save one child from abuse, I will have lived my life well.

Valerie- Yeah. Thank you so much.

You can learn more about Viji Ganesh’s work on YouTube

The Lessons that the Men’s Mental Health Movement can Learn from Feminism

In recent years, many women and men have increasingly rallied behind the feminist movement, which fights for equality in opportunities and rights between men and women. The idea is to eradicate gender stereotypes, the age-old argument that ‘men and women are not the same’, at its rotten core. Being ‘same’ is not the same as being ‘equal’. Proponents of the women’s rights movement have made progress in finding the words to convey this stance and drive the wider public to their cause. This is apparent from the growing attendance at marches and protests across the world that mark important milestones in the movement.

Destigmatisation through dialogue and demonstrations

An intentional yet subtle outcome of the movement has been the growing change in perspective and the consequent destigmatisation of conventionally taboo topics of rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence. The normalization of discussion of these issues in the widespread media through the sharing of stories by influencers and stars (the ‘Me Too’ movement is a prime example) has given strength to the common public to come forth with their own life stories. As the dialogue surrounding these topics grows louder, awareness increases, allowing development of sensitization to these issues.

This outcome is exactly what is expected when it comes to men’s mental health. We need to shatter the stigma surrounding the issue and engage the media, thus reinforcing the fact that it is okay to discuss these issues which are also considered taboo. The measures that were effective in the Feminist movement can help the men’s mental health movement too. November is men’s health month, also called Movember, as men grow mustaches to raise awareness for issues such as prostate and testicular cancer and also mental health of men. While on one hand, men dominate professionally and politically, they’re also more susceptible to suffering from a wide range of mental health issues such as suicide. This article by the American Psychological Association outlines the guidelines for psychological practice with men and boys. Organizing events surrounding this month’s theme and engagement by widespread media can grow the movement by leaps and bounds. 

Enemy Number One

The women’s movement has a clear Enemy Number One – The Patriarchy. So protests and marches were led targeting this common foe. There is no single person who represents this enemy – it is rather the idea that there is something to fight against, which inspires people to rally and come together. It lifts the haze of incoherence and provides a focal point around which the entire ideal can be constructed. In terms of men’s mental health, such an adversary is absent, which is because clarity can be scarcely afforded on a deeper investigation of the subject. This should be a primary goal of the movement as it is stories which instill passion in the public rather than just a bulletin of goals. We need to ask the question, ‘What is stopping men from discussing their mental health?’ and we might find our rallying cry in its answer.

Equity not Equality

Finally, the solution to women’s rights being equity rather than equality to the whole cacophony of ‘men are not the same as women’ has a profound lesson for the men’s mental health sphere. We are all different and unique in our own way. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to destigmatizing men’s mental health issues. We need to approach the problem in a different way, by creating additional opportunity for the severely-disadvantaged in a disproportionate fashion so as to bring them on equal footing. This might mean that we need to research heavily on what bolsters chances of men seeking therapy and what undermines these efforts. We may also come up with innovative and unique therapeutic methodologies to sensitively address the issues so as to build trust in male patients. 

We need innovative solutions to tackling the difficult challenge of destigmatizing men’s mental health and inspiration is abundant for those who look for it. We may need to look no further than to women in their fight and learn from their struggles and victories to build a better tomorrow for men, too.

Grow Up, Or Don’t

When I was a kid, there were;

Purple skies and pink rivers,

Paper cranes and wooden toys.

The world was only as big as,

The candy shop around the corner.

The big blue ocean,

Fit itself into the sound of a seashell, 

And hide and seek was only a game. 

But today, I hide behind the solace of my words,

As the same big blue ocean threatens to sink me.

My skies and rivers are both blue, too. 

There are no cranes or toys. 

And my world hasn’t grown any bigger. 

It all fits into a tiny smartphone. 

I realise it’s all a hoax;

To grow up.

So today, maybe;

I didn’t walk around the puddle, 

I remembered to colour outside the lines, 

And all my little paper boats,

Slowly sailed back to me.

LonePack Conversations- Mindfulness and honing one’s craft ft. Krishna Trilok

While the word categorizes writers as people who seek loneliness and silence, it fails to see them as they truly are- a diverse group of individuals, who have mastery over the most powerful human sense, imagination.

 


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Pooja- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Pooja, your host. Today we have with us Krishna Trilok, master storyteller and best-selling author of the biography of our beloved composer, Mr. A.R. Rahman.  

Welcome to LonePack Conversations, Krishna. Having you here with us is an absolute pleasure. 

Krishna- Hello, it’s a pleasure to be here. Hello, everyone.

Pooja- Hi, so how’s it going during the quarantine?

Krishna- It’s going great. I mean, we need to be positive so I’m going to say that it’s going great. Yes, could things be better? Do I miss going out, seeing people doing all the things we took for granted? Yes, but I think this is a fantastic time to introspect and to value and appreciate what we have and look forward to when things go back and be very grateful when they do.

 

Pooja- That’s so nice. I wish I was as positive as you. So, let’s start off with a little perspective. What prompted you to write ‘Sharikrida’, your first book? I mean, how did a student of commerce become so interested in mythology?

 

Krishna- So, I actually grew up in a household of storytellers. I don’t mean that in the sense that coming from a family of storytellers, generally, but even the people who worked in the house, so on and so forth, they were great storytellers. My grandmother was a big influence, she used to tell me stories when I was a child. You know, stories from Indian mythology and Indian folk plays and I loved those. She used to go to the theatres and watch movies and I was too young to go and she would come back and tell me the stories. So, a lot of classic movies, actually, much before I actually saw them, I heard them as stories, so that was an informative experience. Then I actually had a cook in the house. She used to come and cook for us and she was a fantastic storyteller, in the sense that she would actually make it a series. She would tell a little bit of the story every day, so I guess she would prepare and then come and tell everyday. You would be waiting to hear what happened next. So, she would tell me a little bit of the story for fifteen minutes everyday and I would be waiting to hear what happened next. 

 

So, all of that, I think really got me into storytelling and Indian mythology in general and I was also a big fan of all your ‘Amarchitrakatha’ and the books on Greek mythology and so on and so forth. So, I always knew, I think when I was around thirteen, I decided that I wanted to tell stories. That’s what I wanted to do with my life and at that age, the only avenue available to explore this interest was pen and paper. We did not really have the camera technology and all of that, as it is available today. So, I just decided that I would go and start writing. I got a notebook from a nearby store and I started writing and that’s how it happened. I studied business on the side and all of that but I was always writing whenever I got the time and thankfully by the time I finished college, my undergrad, I managed to find an agent and then a publisher who would be interested in putting out my work. 

 

It was a long process, it did take time, it did not happen the way I thought it would happen. Like when you’re thirteen, you start writing, you think everything is going to go your way and everything is going to be perfect but it doesn’t happen and part of life is figuring out how to deal with things not going your way. When something doesn’t go your way, you learn to say “Okay now, this hasn’t happened, what do I do with the situation?” and it was a great learning experience as well. That’s how it started and I’m still on the journey, and it’s been fantastic. Everyday has been fantastic and I’m grateful for it.

 

Pooja- Okay, so can you share with us one of your mythological stories that had you so interested? A small type of story, maybe?  

 

Krishna- I think one of my favorite stories that I used to hear when I was a kid was not actually a mythological story but it was those folk tale stories, you know, of the crow and the snake and the old lady and the crow and then the fox. I think the one that I’m most fond of is the one where there’s a hungry fox and it sees the grapes and it tries to get them but then they’re too high up and then finally the fox just says “You know what? Those grapes are probably sour” and goes away. I mean, contrast that against the story of the crow, that is very thirsty and finds a jar of water but the water is too low and it goes on putting stones until the water level is higher and it can finally drink it. I think those two stories just taught me more about life than anything ever since. You can either say that a situation is not working out for you, blame the situation and walk away, or you can see the situation and see what you can do to make it better and make it work for you. So, those were two stories that really really shaped my looking at the World. 

Of course, I didn’t learn the lessons until I was much older but now I try to work and apply it in life in every way because I think you have to make mistakes. Unless you make mistakes, you don’t learn. So, definitely, I have walked away from a lot of situations which I could’ve handled differently and changed and so on and so forth but I’ve learnt over time. Including things like this quarantine, you know? I mean, we can either say that this is the worst time in our lives and we can’t wait for things to get better and we’re going to sit and crib about what governments are doing, what everybody is doing and how awful everything is or we can choose to take it as a gift and say that this is time that we have been given. 

Literally, we have been given time to not do anything and just enjoy ourselves, watch movies and all of that, if you have that privilege, which I do. I’m not going to lie about that. I know there are a lot of people who are struggling right now. They are struggling with lack of employment, they are struggling with uncertainty, they are struggling with a lot of issues but I think if you are a person who doesn’t need to worry about where your first meal is going to come from, you should count yourself as fortunate and use the time to be grateful and enjoy yourself rather than think about everything that’s not working out because trust me, there’s someone out there who is suffering way more than you are so it’s good to remember that.

 

Pooja- Very true, very true. It’s always about perspective? You look at yourself and you think you’re the worst person. Yeah. So, from what you’ve said so far, I take you to be kind of like a very inspiring person. May I say that? So, do you have any lessons from your life?

 

Krishna- I wouldn’t be as presumptuous or I wouldn’t use that. I think I make as many mistakes as anybody else and I don’t mean to be an inspiration to anybody or anything like that but I believe in one line which is, if you are going to spend time talking to me, if somebody is going to be with me, at the end of that experience, they need to walk away saying “Okay, I’m glad I did that. I feel better having talked to him and spent time with him”. If they’re going to walk away saying “Oh my God, now I feel even worse and I feel like now I am thinking about things and worrying about things which I wasn’t worrying about earlier”, then I’ve failed because you’re spending your time with me. You’re giving me your attention, your time. You’re investing in me so if that investment isn’t going to pay off for you, or if I’m not going to try and make that investment pay off for you then it’s a problem, the way I see it. So, I just try and make sure that anybody I’m with just has a good time there. If they can walk away feeling better about themselves or a situation, then I’m very happy about it.

 

Pooja- But a lot of people don’t admit that they make mistakes, right? Yeah, I understand it’s a learning curve but it takes a lot to own upto your mistakes and I can see that you’re doing that, so I’m very proud of you for that.

Krishna- It’s something that I think just frees you. Once you realise that you’ve made a mistake and admit to that and say sorry, say sorry to whoever that mistake has affected, including yourself, I think it frees you to see how you can move forward and make things better rather than try to cover it up or lie or hide or blame others. It just creates more problems. The laziest way to deal with something you’ve done wrong is to admit it, say sorry and move on and I’m a very lazy person so I just do that.

 

Pooja- Okay, that’s nice. As with any art form, writing is a way of expressing your feelings, right? And expressing your feelings is a very hard thing. How do you know that they are reciprocated?

 

Krishna- Exactly. I think even in a friendship or in a relationship or with your family, when something is not okay, the most difficult thing to do is sit down and tell the other person what you’re feeling. You know while you’re doing that, that the other person may have a completely different point of view or that they may have a different take on what you’re saying or you could be misunderstood. A hundred things could happen. I think creating a piece of art is doing that every single day, every single minute. You are trying to express yourself, which is a very very difficult thing to do. It’s because you need to understand things about yourself that you may not want to face, you have to sometimes say things that you’re embarrassed to say. You say those things and there’s no guarantee that those things are going to make the impact that you want. It’s just like that. Sitting down with your boyfriend or girlfriend at the end of a relationship which has not been going very well saying “Listen, this is what the problem is and this is what I think we should do to fix it”, it’s tough to do that, look the person in the eye and do that and knowing that the other person may just disagree with you. So, that’s what it’s like.

Pooja- Yes. Very true, very true. But talking about expressing your feelings, right? We’ve known that a lot of writers speak when they face mental illnesses, right? Like depression, anxiety, and like you said, it’s very hard to cope with. But on the other hand, writing can also help to maintain mental health. How do you think that dynamic works?

 

Krishna- Okay, let me give you a very simple analogy, I think it’s going to tie into my point about being as mentally strong as you can. There are two steps, I think- The first step, even more so than writers, the people who really face a lot of this problem where their creativity sort of gets out of hand are actors, comedians, you know. They really can lose sight of reality because of their craft and also because of the recognition that comes with it, and I think what you need to realise, first of all, is that you need to be in control of your craft, you can’t let your craft control you. So, this is something I do to make myself feel better and because it gives me joy. It’s not something I’m doing so that it can overwhelm me. 

 

So, I think having that distinction of making sure you’re the one in charge really really helps, and secondly- if things are going well, don’t get carried away by the praise. Like if someone tells you “Oh, you’re fantastic. You can do this, you can do that.. You were so amazing in this, you were so amazing in that.. This piece was amazing”, just nod your head, be gracious about it, politely smile but don’t let it get to you and don’t make yourself out to be anything more than you are, which is just a human being, with problems and failings and all of that. Similarly, when someone comes and tells you “Listen, this was absolute crap”, don’t take it to heart and say “I’m useless, I’m this, I’m that” and get overwhelmed and sad and all of that. Your art is not you. Keep it distant from you. In that distance, make sure that you are controlling it, and don’t let it overwhelm you. Those are the things I would definitely say would help make sure that you are getting the best out of your craft and not getting the worst out of it.

 

Pooja- So, what do you have to say to artists around the world who are struggling for inspiration?

 

Krishna- Understand what makes you excited. For example, I know that I see a lot of books, paintings, films, series, music- I hear a lot of music- and it’s very popular, it’s very acclaimed but just because it’s popular or acclaimed, I say “Okay, I’m going to do something like this”, it’s not going to work out. Rather, you can experience as much stuff as you can and say that “Okay, for some reason, this strikes a chord with me. There’s something about this that I relate very deeply to”. Sometimes, it could be something that’s not successful. It could be something that nobody knows about and some of the things that people actively dislike but you say there’s something about it that I can relate to, and from there your inspiration will come. 

 

When you find what is exciting you, you will find your inspiration because you will say “Okay, I understand a little bit more about who I am. This is making me understand who I am.” The more you understand about who you are, the more easily you will be able to create art that is unique to you and that you are excited about creating. As long as you are living the life of someone else or trying to be someone else, it’s going to be tough for you to try and come up with inspiration and create anything that truly resonates with who you are. When you realise who you are, and that comes from identifying the things you like, you are able to create a lot more content which is more original and which you are more interested in creating as well. 

 

Pooja- So, hats off to you! I understand why people loved ‘Notes of a Dream’. I have one last thing to ask you- if there is one word you would like to say to artists, artists all over the world, maybe writers, painters, sculptors, just one word- what would you say to them?

Krishna- Believe.

Pooja- Okay, any reason behind that?

 

Krishna- It’s because unless you’re going to believe in what you’re creating, it’s going to be hollow. I’ll give you an explanation about how it works for me. When I first started writing something, for a long time, I would just be like okay, I can’t show people this. I can’t show people this. It’s not yet ready. It’s not yet good enough. But suddenly comes a moment when that changes to “I can’t wait for people to see this”. I’m so excited to show people this. The moment that changes is when you start believing. 

When you start believing that your concept, your idea, your writing, your language, whatever you want to say, suddenly something happens that makes you believe that it is working for you and it resonates with who you are, that is when it is possible for you to take the next step. Trust me, there are a lot of times when I’ve said “Okay, it’s not ready, it’s not ready, I need more time” and I’ve never come to believe in it and I’ve never finished it. It didn’t happen because I’ve never fully believed in it. Of course, then again, I go back to it after some months or sometimes, after some years, and then I suddenly say “Okay, this is actually quite good” and I start believing in it and the story changes but until you believe in what you’re saying, don’t expect anybody else to believe in it. Also, until you can see something happening, again, how can the Universe or God make anything happen for you until you can see it clearly? And for you to see it clearly, you have to believe in it. 

Let’s move onto art. You see someone who you think is really attractive. You think they could be your boyfriend/girlfriend. Until you want them to be your boyfriend/girlfriend, until you believe that you are good enough to be with them, are you even going to start talking to them? Until you believe that the situation is possible, how can anything happen? You won’t even go and say “Hello”, you won’t even go and say “Listen, I feel this way about you” or if you’re applying for a job or you’re applying to a University, until you think you’re good enough, you’re not going to want to apply to it. 

I have been told this repeatedly in pitches, they have been like “Listen, we don’t know what you are seeing in your head right now..” I sold ‘Notes of a Dream ‘ on this. Before I had written a single word but I knew the concept, I believed in the concept, I went to them and said “Listen, this is what I want to do”. And they didn’t ask me for a sample or anything. They just said “Listen, you clearly believe in this concept. We can see that you’re passionate about it. Go ahead with it. We’ll support you”. So, I think until you can see yourself in a certain situation, the Universe cannot make it happen. So, when I say “believe,” all I’m saying is, see the situation that you’re dreaming of because dreams without belief cannot become reality. It’s dreams plus belief that equal reality. It’s very simple math. So, if you’re just going to believe in yourself without a dream, then nothing can happen. But again, if you have a dream without belief, it can’t happen either. So, it needs to be a balance of both.

 

Pooja- Wow, that was so nice. Thank you so much for your time, Krishna. It was such a pleasure to talk to you and I picked up a lot of lessons today, actually. I learnt about perspective, I learnt about how to believe in yourself, as we just discussed and I learnt about the struggles that one might face in life, not just about writing, not about just with an artist but general life, right? It was very enlightening for me. Thank you so much.

 

Krishna- Thank you, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you as well!

 

Pooja- All the best from LonePack for your journey forward and I’m sure it’s going to be a really

wonderful one. Especially your love for experimenting and your love for life, I can tell.


Krishna- Thank you.

Journeys of Hope: Part 3: Depression – Battling College Days

Trigger warning: Mentions of self-harm, depression and suicide

It was the first day of college, and I was freaking – a full-blown panic-attack. Was what I was wearing okay? Would I be asked to talk in front of everyone? Would everyone make fun of my figure? Would I even make any friends? A million different questions were zapping through my head at the speed of light, even as I stood there in front of the mirror, trying desperately to put on kajal without poking my eyes out. After a few (painful) attempts, I gave up on the act as tears started streaming down my eyes. Despair engulfed me as depression, my old friend, reared its ugly head.

College is a place to reinvent yourself, they say. You can find yourself, or create a whole new identity, they say. Well, I lost a little bit of myself every day for those three years. Each night that I went to sleep, I did not thank God, but prayed that I would not wake up the next morning. Each morning that I woke up was filled not with expectation or excitement, but with dread of what the following hours would bring.

To give you a little background, I studied at a wonderful place with extremely supportive staff and students, some of whom still check in with me from time to time, but it was not always joy and smiles. In fact, I can now reveal without any shame that most of my time at college was spent inside a bathroom stall while I desperately tried to control my tears.

So what, then, was my problem?

I didn’t understand it back when I was an extremely confused 18 year-old, and I’m not sure I understand it now. All I knew was that I was feeling sad and tired and so, so hopeless all the time, but I didn’t know what to call it. I didn’t know whom to open up to, and even when I did, neither my friend nor my family took me seriously. That was, until they found me one day with a plastic cover tied over my head.

Of course, like the whole world thinks, my parents were of the opinion that therapy would ‘fix’ me, that it was a one-stop solution to all my problems. Of course, I love my family, and I could never, ever blame them for what happened to me, but they didn’t understand that sometimes, there’s nothing to fix.

My therapists throughout the years have had quite colorful adjectives to describe my ‘issues’. ‘Depressed’, ‘Hallucinates’, ‘Self-harms’, ‘Suicidal’, ‘Mercurial’, and ‘Unpredictable’ were some of the labels used on me. They poked and they prodded and they dug and they dug until there was nothing left of me. Did I experience any abuse? No. Did I lose someone close to me? No. Did I hate everyone? Absolutely not, I actually bent over backwards to please them all and be like them. So why was I like this? No one knew, so they sent me to the doctors, who put me on pills that made me sleepy 20 hours of the day and made me fail several tests.

College was a nightmare, because I could neither keep up with my peers nor hold a decent conversation without breaking down/having an anxiety attack. I looked at all the other girls, and was filled with self-loathing because I didn’t know how to be one of them. No amount of lipstick, perfume, or kajal could make me feel beautiful. I hated life, and I constantly searched for ways to escape my situation, most of which were unhealthy. While everyone I knew was out flirting and partying and having fun with their significant other, I was shut up in my room mooning over my unrequited love. While they were all engaging in extracurricular activities like singing and dancing and debates, I was writing depressive and frankly scary stuff and then tearing up the pages to destroy the evidence, all because I couldn’t bear to face it, to face myself.

But this is not a rant about how awful my life was, whatever impression I might have given you so far. This is an account to assure those who are suffering like I did, that it will all change. You will make it to the other side. The day will come when breathing won’t be so difficult, when your smiles will feel that much less forced. The day will come when you will no longer have to worry about the future and shed tears about it. And the key to effecting that change? Falling in love.

Falling in love with people, with all their imperfections and faults. Falling in love with life, with all its difficulties and trials. Falling in love with the world, with all its ugliness and wars.

And most importantly, falling in love with yourself, with all your bitterness and scars.

I’m not saying that everything will be fine and dandy one day as you wake up, and you will no longer feel bad. On the contrary, living with depression is like an obstacle race that never ends. You have to face insurmountable odds, and the ground will be smooth for a little while, but the difficulties will rise again, and the cycle will continue. What I’m asking you to do, is to look forward to landing on level ground, to living those relatively peaceful days. Live for today and hope for a better tomorrow, because what do we have left, if not hope?