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.

Lessons from Taare Zameen Par

Gyan Toh Gyan Hota Hai, Chahe Woh Zabaani Ho Ya Likhit…

I would be the first to admit that my Hindi vocabulary is extremely limited, so if you had randomly approached me for a translation of the above quote, I would have had to blink and stammer.

However, it so happens that this particular sentence has appeared in a movie, one I have watched over, and fallen in love with over, again. So let me tell you what it means.

‘Knowledge is knowledge, whether it is spoken or written.’

Let me ask you a question. When you hear or read the word knowledge, what or who is the first image appearing in your mind’s eye? For me, it’s Mrs. Vimala, my 9th grade English teacher. Having been one of the most influential people in my life, I will forever remember her playful smirk and chastising tone.

Now that I think about it, it’s actually rather interesting how we remember only particular teachers/professors and conveniently forget the rest. The ones you do remember, it’s because they’ve either made a huge positive impact on your life, or they’ve given you memories so bitter that you can’t forget!

I mean, don’t you remember that playschool teacher who looked so like a popular actress that it was funny?

Don’t you remember that high school teacher who gave you the chills when she so much as called your name?

Don’t you remember that college professor who helped you see the world clearly even through the lens of your depression?

Whatever they’ve meant to you and at whichever points of time you’ve met them, the fact remains that every teacher you’ve had in your life has shaped and changed you irrevocably.

On that note, let me get back to the movie that I have watched numerous times: Taare Zameen Par.

When I first watched the movie 8 years ago, I was impressed. When I watched the movie yesterday to prepare myself for this review, I was emotional. I mean, hats off to the entire team, man!

From Darsheel Safari’s perfect portrayal of an innocent 9-year old, to Shankar Mahadevan’s soulful voice singing ‘Meri Maa’.  Just beautiful.

And don’t even get me started on Aamir Khan or I will gush. For now, I’ll just say one word.

Inspirational.

But then again, I guess all teachers have that effect on people. Teachers inspire you to introspect, innovate, and improve yourselves; they make you want to be a better person. And this part has been played amazingly well by Aamir.

Would it have been more realistic if the character had been a little older? I would say ‘Yes’, because Nikumbh’s wisdom seems a little uncharacteristic of a youngster. But one part of what makes the movie so unique is its turning of prejudices and stereotypes on their head. The other part is its relatability. Like I mentioned earlier, all of us have had teachers like Tiwari Sir and George Sir, and all of us have been misunderstood kids at one point of our lives, and it is this nostalgia that the movie captures accurately.

With the growing need to pay attention to the delicate psychological and emotional health of a child, the responsibility has fallen on our very own lighthouses of knowledge – our teachers, to guide us through the rocky seas of life.

If there is one thing that TZP brought out very well, it is the importance of a strong support system for children and adults suffering from various disabilities. Emotional and moral support can come from your family, friends, and even your pets but teachers, being those we are most in contact with during our initial years, are the first to note and care for you, and form the best support system one can have.

Think about Ishaan’s attitude when he is in a situation where his teachers misunderstand him and compare the difference we see in him at the end of the movie. Drastic development, don’t you think? But that’s the truth; a misinformed teacher has the ability to break a child’s spirit, where a compassionate teacher can kindle happiness and motivation in the same child, as wonderfully shown in the movie.  

Yes, to some children, school is a nightmare and teachers are downright scary, but to some others, going to school and interacting with friends and teachers is a form of therapeutic release. I have experienced this, myself; those 8 hours I spent at school everyday served to save me from being alone with my thoughts. Apart from the purpose of education, going to school also establishes a very dependable long-term routine, which helps to ground yourself and feel secure. 

Your daily lessons also serve as a distraction when you need one, and the sports and extracurricular activities at school act as excellent stressbusters. And who is at the centre of all this? Our teachers.

But let’s face it, teachers don’t have it easy. Theirs is one of the most unwanted positions in terms of employment, because it takes herculean effort and endless patience to handle the job. And that’s what makes the difference between people who view teaching as a profession, and those who view it as a calling. And imagine this: in a world where you might be distracted from caring for your own family, teachers volunteer to come forward and take care of 30+ troublesome little people!

Jokes apart, I strongly believe that every child or young adult deserves an inspiration in the early years of their lives, be it someone like Ram Shankar Nikumbh who has gone through similar struggles, or someone like Mrs. Vimala who can simply be there through your bad days. And the most important thing that linked both Nikumbh and Mrs. Vimala? They both believed in their children.

Team LonePack salutes all the love, care and effort that teachers provide!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LonePack Conversations- The PRIDE Series: Chosen families, affirmative therapy and being Gaysi ft. Jo

Over a decade ago, when there were no queer Indian voices online and no safe spaces for queer people to connect offline, Sakshi Juneja and her friends decided that they would begin the conversation about what it meant to be gay and desi, in other words- ‘Gaysi’. What started as a simple blog for queer desis to share their stories, has grown into a community that exists not just online but offline too. In addition to its forum for people to share stories, Gaysi features articles from prominent voices in the LGBTQ+ community, hosts events and screenings, has its own magazine- the ‘Gaysi Zine’, collaborates with major brands and has been featured in several national and international mainstream media publications. Want to learn more about Gaysi and the queer community? Keep listening. 

https://soundcloud.com/lonepack-conversations/the-pride-series-chosen-families-affirmative-therapy-and-being-gaysi-ft-jo

 


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Ruchika- Welcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m your host, Ruchika. Today on the show, we have with us Jo- a doctoral student of Anthropology and the Digital Editor at Gaysi. Jo, tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you became a part of the queer community.

 

Jo- Hi, Ruchika. Thank you so much for having me here, firstly. I’m Jo. I’m a 25 year old research scholar in London. I study Anthropology and my area of work is Queer theory, sex work, lots of different things which I will not go into because it’s a different conversation. Well, I have comparatively been pretty new to the Indian queer community because I grew up in Gulf countries. I grew up in Riyadh and Sharjah for most of my life and it’s only when I got to India that I had so much more information to access that I could actually explore my sexuality and understand where I stand within the spectrums of sexuality and gender. So, I’m only about six years old within the community but those six years have been such a learning curve upwards, only upwards of learning and continuously seeing, doing, being part of the community, being very heavily involved with the community. 

 

So, I think the first time I was exposed to the existence of somebody who is not as hetero-normative as I had seen throughout my childhood would be a close friend, when I was in my journalism degree in Bombay. After that, it was quite obvious because there was the Pride Parade that was happening in Bombay and Bombay is a very queer city in terms of its queer history. So, I had access to a lot of people, a lot of stories, a lot of voices I could talk to and then I went to Bangalore for my Master’s degree and then I got introduced to the larger Bangalore queer community as well, which has a very different texture to the Bombay queer community. That’s how I learnt so much from them as well and that is when I joined Gaysi. 

 

So, I joined Gaysi as a writer initially and that’s how I had applied to Gaysi and they told me that I can do well as an editor as well and that’s how I sort of landed my dream job because for any queer young Indian to work with Gaysi has always been a dream because they have been such a solid pole star kind of a voice for so many of us for like the past ten or eleven years. So for me, working for Gaysi was something I didn’t expect, to be working in the close capacity that I’m working in right now. 

 

Ruchika- Yeah, I agree that working with Gaysi would be a dream for many in the queer community. So, Gaysi as an organization does not just go by the name ‘Gaysi’ but by the name ‘Gaysi Family’. So, could you elaborate on why and how the choice came about to name it this way and how do you extend this notion of being a family with the larger queer community through your online as well as offline events?

 

Jo- So, if you were to think about only the semantics of the name, Gaysi started as a space where-  Sakshi felt like there needs to be a space where- all kinds of people can speak about anything that they want as long as they’re queer and desi because there was no space for them to even share the most basic things. For example, when you go to a movie and you see some sort of a female friendship that looked as though it had a queer subtext, there’s no friend you could have told it to because you might be a closeted queer person. So, Gaysi was that space where you could just come and write, even if it’s just four lines. It didn’t have to be a heavily edited article, it didn’t have to be a long form seven thousand word article. It could just be five lines of why somebody felt ‘Fire’, as a movie in ‘95, was a great film to begin with. It could just be those four lines or five lines. 

 

I think Sakshi wanted to create that family and for us, within the queer community, the concept of chosen families is very very important and I think that’s something to do with most marginalized communities because in the case of whether it’s queer families or whether it is sex workers, it could be anybody. When I think of most marginalized communities, it’s very important to have external families. Most of us would call those families “friends” but it’s a lot more because in the case of queer folks, most of our biological families might have a lot of trouble wrapping their heads around the fact that our existence is completely normal because they’ve never been taught that our existence is normal. They’ve always been taught within hetero-normative structures, that being gay, being queer, being a lesbian, being asexual, not conforming to gender, is something that is deviant behavior and not something that is completely normal and that has been around for way more centuries than even colonialism has been in our country. 

 

Being queer is nothing new although that’s the common misconception and the stigma that is attached to being queer, which is why chosen families play such an important role because let’s say for example, I have a very close friend of mine who has an extremely difficult family right now. They are continuously triggered, they are continuously told that they don’t matter, that they’re not valid, that they’re thoughts don’t matter. They are constantly put in pressure to go and seek therapy to make them “normal”. They find peace when they talk to me and my partner, which is why they call us their parents, their pseudo-parents because that sort of parental help that we can give like for example, when this person had to write their IELTS exam, which is an English exam, I was there to walk them through the entire exam because I wrote it with them so it’s not only about a friendship but it’s something more as well because they can actually fall back on you and those friends who are more family than friends are very very very vital to the survival of queer folks because without them, it’s a very difficult world to live in. We all know about the rates of depression and suicide that affects the queer community or marginalized communities more than it affects those who are in a space of privilege. 

 

So, yeah, I hope that answers your question about why it’s called ‘Gaysi Family’ and not just ‘Gaysi’ although colloquially we just say ‘Gaysi’, nobody says ‘Gaysi Family’ but that was the idea and that segues into the fact that chosen families are super important.

 

Ruchika- Yeah. While the LGBTQ+ community on the whole still has a long way to go in India to find complete acceptance, the LBT individuals in particular do not have enough support. Gaysi, however, has made a special effort to be inclusive towards these individuals. How and why did this happen? Was it something that you did intentionally or did it come about organically?

 

Jo- It’s a very interesting question, first of all because it’s very central to Gaysi’s functioning, talking about LBT individuals. So, well, yes. Firstly, we do have a long way to go, specifically when we talk about the fact that we’re still not seem as equals even though because of the amendment of section 377, we can see that at least we can have sex equally, to heterosexual couples but that’s not enough because letting people have sex is obviously not the government’s purview but I guess that’s one thing to be grateful for because for a lot of us, we are more content with the privacy law rather than section 377 although section 377 is a very high-profile law which is why there was so much celebration around it but the Privacy law did a lot more for queer individuals because it very clearly started that sexual orientation and gender identity is a private matter, which is a very important step but of course, because of the Trans Bill right now, we have gone two centuries back because the Trans Bill is a horrendous bill that has come out and that’s the first thing we need to be solving. 

 

Then there is same-sex marriage acts that we have to talk about, we have to talk about the anti-trafficking bill, which convoluted all kinds of different groups- it affects trans sex workers, it affects cis queer sex workers as well so yeah, it is a very messy journey but none of our rights, whether it’s feminism, Black rights, any sort of rights in the World, none of it came easily, none of it came without tonnes of us fighting extremely hard but it has to happen because otherwise there is no freedom for all of us together so, yeah, that’s one part of the question. For the other part of the question, about the LBT community, firstly I want to clarify that when we say LBT, it would include everybody who is a gender, sexual and romantic minority, it does not only include Lesbians, bisexual people and trans people, so I just wanted to make that clear. 

 

Firstly, the fact that Gaysi was created by cis-gender queer women who identify themselves as lesbians already creates a space where the needs of those who are are not cis-gender gay men will be put forth more than the needs of cis-gender gay men, if I’m clear. So, I’ll make that clear in the next few sentences as I go. Gaysi was created because there was already some amount of a space for cis-gay men in the Bombay queer community for them to speak about, meet, stuff like that and I think one thing we forget is that patriarchy still allows for cis-gender heterosexual men and cis-gender gay men to access public space in a way that people who are not cis-gender gay men cannot access public space because for us, in most cases, let’s say cis women, will be shut off at home if somebody finds out that they are gay. They cannot ward of marriage in the same way that cis men might be able to, for example. There are lots of things we can’t do. So, keeping that in mind as well, the space that has to be built for people within LBT communities has to be different from the space that has always existed in public space for cis gay men, which is why when it comes to Gaysi as well, when we started doing our parties, our two-by-two parties, we wanted to specifically create a space that LBT people can access freely and as openly as possible, which does not have to be absolutely mixed with cis gay men because, because of the amount of spaces that are already available, I have been to parties where there were eight percent men and twenty percent, everybody else. 

 

That made me feel very uncomfortable because I was not able to enjoy the space in the same way that I would have enjoyed it in any other space and especially when it comes to non-binary people or trans people or people who like to cross-dress or people who have any sort of different gender identity than cis-gender, that space is not available even now, I would say. Even after Gaysi, not enough spaces are available for all minorities in public space and this is still something Gaysi has to work on. I’m not saying we’ve created this epitome of awesome space but it’s something that we have very purposely tried to do because we have to do that. Making of space and ensuring that all communities and minorities are centred and given space, does not always happen organically so it is very important that people purposely be allies to these communities, very purposely ensure that their space is valued and kept in the centre, especially if they’ve not had that access. So, I hope this answer wasn’t too academic. (laughs)

 

Ruchika- It’s great to hear that Gaysi is being proactive towards this cause but I’d like to ask you another question. Members of the gay community are often stereotyped into moulds that can be very problematic. For example, lesbian and bisexual women of the community are very largely fetishized in pop culture. In your life and in your work with Gaysi, have you come across such instances and how do you suggest that we tackle them?

 

Jo- Yes, of course! Fetishization is a major problem. I mean of course, one of the first things I came across when I was a child that had to do anything with the community was lesbian porn because I though people were only lesbians when it came to porn, I didn’t think it was a real thing because that’s the kind of stigma that we’ve been fed. That it’s a preference, it’s a choice that you make in bed and not that it’s an actual romantic sexual emotional feeling towards another person which is completely as normal as heterosexuality, So, of course that totally exists and it stems from the stigma that any sexuality other than heterosexuality is not real, which is why a woman on woman kind of relationship is very stigmatized, it’s a sexualized view and even the first time when we talk about bisexiality and how stigmatized it is, for most bisexual people, especially if they are assigned female at birth, if they go on Tinder and they’re trying to look for somebody, usually you get couples who ask for somebody for a threesome so that’s what most people are reduced to. So, again that’s another thing.

 

That’s part of the stigma that’s attached to the community that says that this is all bisexual people and lesbian people are worth and that is what their function is in life and it’s sad because while that’s what they might be interested in, you are not taking an effort to learn more about them, about their likes, their dislikes and you reduce an entire person to their sexuality, which is the problem, right? So that’s that about the stigma, that it does exist. You don’t see it as much in the case of gay men because I actually know a lot of  gay men who’ve asked me how I can like women and I’m like “just like how you can like men.” How does that make sense? So there is a lot of stigma within the community itself. 

 

Within the community there are homosexual people who think bisexuality is a just a path to homosexuality rather than a very valid sexual orientation and I mean there is a stigma within the homosexual and bisexual communities, there are people who think that asexuality is not valid and I identify as asexual and it’s my lived experience that I do not feel sexual attraction towards a person I love very much on an everyday basis or there is a certain way that I have understood my sexuality and I would say that all these things have always existed within us, we just have words and a language for it, that is it. 

 

All of us feel certain things. Human beings are very complex. If we can understand that our bodies are so complex and we can have five hundred organs doing five hundred things, why can we not understand that we have five hundred feelings and systems and this and that doing different functions for us? It’s as simple as that. I think this largely ties to the understanding also of mental health. If you cannot understand that mental health and physical health is very on par and should be taken care of on a serious level on par with each other, that is also why you cannot understand that emotions and feelings can be as diverse as your own bodily functions, if that makes sense.

 

Ruchika- Yeah, I completely agree with you about the continuum between mental and physical health. Speaking of that, there are studies that report that members of the queer community are at greater risk of developing mental health issues but for many members of this community, access to safe mental healthcare is a challenge. So can you elaborate for our listeners on this topic? What can we do to remove the barriers that the community faces?

 

Jo- Yes, I completely agree. There is a major issue with how much queer folks face mental health issues because the spaces that they live in and grew up in are extraordinarily different from how it is to live as a hetero-normative person who is adhering to most of society’s standards. For example, let’s say there will be a very clear difference in attitudes towards a heterosexual sibling and a homosexual sibling because the homosexual sibling is not seen as a normal part of the family at all. The family themselves have not learnt anything beyond hetero-normativity so the homosexual child will be treated differently. A child, for example, if they have been assigned male at birth and they are wearing a saree, they probably will be beaten up by their parents to sort of make them better or something, apparently. 

 

Yeah, I know abuse is a different thing to be talking about but a lot of children in families that are hetero-normative and if they are homosexual or if they are just not hetero-normative like the rest of the family, will go through some amount of abuse, whether it’s verbal, physical, emotional or will even just be said some things that are extremely scarring and sadly, because we don’t have queer affirmative mental heath practices enough in the country, and just generally also there is so much stigma around mental health that parents are not going to reach out to a psychologist or a therapist to talk to them about how they can support their kid. Instead, they will reach out to psychiatrists to put their kids into conversion therapy, for example. So, it’s a completely opposite way to be looking at it, instead of trying to understand why their child might be having these feelings or how we can support them better. 

 

So, that’s the kind of conversation that we should be having that we’re still not having, which leads to obvious mental health disorders, to illnesses, to just not very healthy practices at home and yeah, of course it ends up in young queer children having to take so much more therapy for all the nonsense that their parents have fed them, so it’s really sad. The statistics are right. A lot of us face a lot more depression and anxiety because we are closeted for most of our lives, so it is a very horrible space to be in- to continuously lead two lives- to continuously be inside the closet and outside the closet with some people but not with other people and not live our authentic lives, our true lives. That’s extremely tough.

 

Ruchika- I agree. I wanted you to elaborate a little bit more on the queer affirmative therapy. How does it help the members of the LGBTQ+ community?

 

Jo- So, the reason that we need to have queer affirmative therapy rather than just queer neutral therapy, very basically, we need to have therapists who have educated themselves on the community and who need to be affirmative to their LGBT clients. That is extremely important so that they don’t end up sitting over there saying something that further demonizes the community, that further stigmatizes the person sitting in front of them and makes them feel like they are of no significance to the Earth because that can really happen a lot. For example, something very basic like self harm and we have the person opposite just guilting them, that itself can make a person feel extremely horrible about themselves. Similarly, in the case of queer folks as well, if it’s not affirmative, if it’s not coming from a place where the therapist is well read, it can really have very negative side effects on the person who is seeking therapy and that can be extremely dangerous because we already don’t have many therapists in the country and we have more therapists in metropolitan cities than in any other place and that already is a big gap because smaller towns, tier I, tier II cities don’t have enough queer affirmative practices that work. So, there’s still a long way to go, that’s where I always end up. Such a long way to go but have I answered your question? Is there something else you wanted me to elaborate on? Because I’m not a therapist also.

 

Ruchika- Yeah, of course but I believe Gaysi has done something about this. They’ve compiled a list of practitioners.

 

Jo- Yes. So, first of all, we do have some really great organizations like the Mariwala Health Initiative and other tonnes of initiatives that try and push therapists to look at their practice and make it more queer affirmative. It’s something that’s coming into the mainstream right now and I’m glad that’s happening. More queer folks, thankfully, are becoming therapists and practitioners. So, we do need queer folks from the community itself to also take up counselling because I know trans men who are counsellors and who are amazing counsellors. It’s a different thing to be able to take from your lived experience and counsel a client, right? Because when a client sees someone who is exactly like them, it’s a different sort of affirmation than for example, a cis person telling them about gender dysphoria. So, when a trans person tells them about gender dysphoria, it’s a different sort of affirmation. 

 

So, I’m happy to see that so many more queer folks are engaging in therapy. I, myself, am planning to take a few counselling courses over the next few years because I figured that I’m doing that on a day-to-day basis anyway and I’d rather be more well-read while I do it and be a proper counsellor than be a person who is offering free therapy anyway. With regards to Gaysi, so Gaysi is technically a media platform. We do what we do through content and continuously creating content to read. So, the resource tab is something we had thought of like five to six months back when we are like okay, you know what? We need to have some sort of really easy resource guide kind of things which can be accessed by anybody and which sort of delves into these concepts that we don’t see in the Indian context. 

 

For example, the first resource guide we had put up was something about binders that are used by people across the spectrum- the non-binary spectrum, the trans spectrum- and we had not seen any information on binders that had anything to do with Indian queer people and we saw that gap and that’s another gap that we keep trying to fill. So, that’s how the resource section started coming up and within the resource section, we’ve had so many different articles, and within that we’ve had like for example, the ‘Gaysi guide to queer positive mental health’, under which we started publishing guides on whom to reach out to if you’re feeling depressed, some helplines that are queer affirmative, some practices or therapists who are queer affirmative and whom we can go to. So, that was the whole point of the guides that we’ve been trying to create because we figured that if a person is sad, if a person is depressed or anxious or not in a good space of mind, the last thing they want to do is go on Google and sift through tonnes and tonnes of material that is available. Instead, if we are able to streamline that and do that for them, maybe it might help, which is why we worked with our writers to do that research and there is this very cool database that we have created which I am personally proud of. 

 

It’s thanks to our writer, Anna, who put all of this together on a work-flowy flowchart kind of thing, like if you press “Kashmir”, you will get therapists who will help you, who are queer affirmative or if you press “Andaman”, you will get the same. That’s very necessary and thankfully yes, there are tonnes of lists that keep going around. So, that’s what we’ve tried to do with the different lists and most recently, we did a little chat with a therapist who was talking about borderline and bipolar disorder in the context of queer communities, which is also important. 

 

So, we’re trying to understand how most of these mental health issues work when it comes into a space where the person is also queer and thus, might have had a difficult family background or some kind of issue with their self and how they view themselves. That’s what we’re  doing in the mental health sort of thing but again, none of us are therapists so we try to push them to actual therapists if anybody needs help from us. But yeah, first-aid is something we definitely pay a lot of attention on because all of us need to know mental health first-aid just like we know physical health first-aid.

 

Ruchika- Yeah, so it’s great to hear that Gaysi is not just a media platform but also a resource hub for people when they want to access mental health help. So, it’s been over a decade that Gaysi has been around and has given people a platform to share their stories. What major trends and changes have you noticed in the kinds of stories that people have been submitting through the years?

 

Jo- Definitely one would be that the articles are getting a lot more nuanced. People are writing about things very critically. I think that’s just our time and I guess we’ve just grown as a community to talk beyond coming out. To talk beyond acceptance, because usually the most common thing for people to talk about is coming out of the closet and how people accept it. These are the two questions that people are continuously asking queer folks but that’s not the only thing that queer folks encounter. So, it’s amazing to see that people really engage with media nowadays and they really question where media comes from. 

 

The trends that I’ve noticed is earlier a lot of us would be completely okay with brands making Pride month all about themselves by putting a rainbow flag but now we are very critical about whether that brand is giving enough money into the queer community because at the end of the day, the queer community does not need more platforms. We have enough platforms. We’ve always had a voice, we’ve just been silenced. But what they do need, is jobs. What they do need is better policy. What they do need is anti-bullying policies, washrooms that can be accessible, spaces where the intersectionalities are visible because there are disabled queer people, there are people who have mental health issues and are queer. 

 

All sorts of intersectionalities- there are dalit queers, there are upper-class queers, upper-caste queers, middle-class queers, there are all kinds of intersectionalities that we need to talk about. There are queers in smaller towns and villages. How do we make our things more accessible to them? It cannot be continuously speaking in this vacuum of privilege, right? So, I think that is something that has grown in the past few years because there are people who come and talk to us. Recently, we had a really cool article written by one of our writers, Abhishek, who spoke about how the English language both, helps the queer community but also restricts the queer community because it’s not accessible to so many people. I wouldn’t even say Hindi is accessible to enough people because again, it’s a very small population that knows Hindi. The whole of South India is not interested in learning the language. I mean I am South Indian so, it should be in languages that are for us as well. 

 

So, thankfully the conversation has also moved forward to other things like I personally enjoy talking about and thinking about how localizing queer support is the way to move forward in the future because even though Gaysi or larger organizations exist in the country, we cannot provide support to everybody. It’s impossible in a country especially like India and Gaysi has a very clear population and there is only a certain amount of diversity that we can reach out to. We should be aware of that and we are aware of that, which is why supporting smaller organizations who can provide localized support is very important. For example, Yol in Manipur, they are looking after the Manipur community and the communities around there, and pushing in more money and more help and more resources there would make more sense than pushing more money and resources into larger organizations. Personally, I feel like money will come easier for us anyway so it’s important for us to push forward smaller, local community help and solidarity support systems that exist in smaller towns in Coimbatore, in Chennai, in Thrissur, whatever smaller spaces and pockets that exist. 

 

So, those queer groups should be pushed more, should be supported and put in solidarity with more because I think that’s the future of the queer movement in India. It is not having more Pride parades. I mean yes, that’s fun but that’s not it. It has to be as accessible as possible to all kinds of people as possible and that’s not going to happen with one streamlined movement. It’s going to only happen with an intersectional movement that looks at all kinds of people.

 

Ruchika- Absolutely so yeah, I agree because the smaller organizations are the ones that understand the needs of their communities the best as opposed to maybe the bigger ones.

 

Jo- Yes.
Ruchika- Jo, thank you so much for joining us on this show today and for giving us such valuable insights into the queer community.

The PRIDE Series: Empowering the queer identity within our society ft. Deepthi K

When you decide to be true to yourself and live life without hiding a significant part of your identity, it’s common for people to make you feel like you don’t belong and are not accepted. A safe space to share your story and know that there are others like you gives you a sense of connection and comfort.

https://soundcloud.com/lonepack-conversations/the-pride-series-empowering-the-queer-identity-within-our-society-ft-deepthi-k

 


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

Today we have with us Deepthi, one of the founders of Chennai Queer Cafe, an online and offline safe social space for anyone who is a cis woman and identifies as Queer or Questioning. She has been a member of the Orinam group and mailing list since 2011 and has been volunteering with the Queer community in Chennai since then. She has been a part of the organizing team at Reel Desires: Chennai International Queer Film Festival since 2013. She is passionate about movies, women in sports, mental health issues and intersectional feminism.

Welcome, Deepthi

Deepthi– Hi. Thank you, Valerie. Thanks for the introduction. One quick thing I would like to say about the introduction is that the group is not just for queer cis women, it’s actually for queer AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) individuals, which sort of includes anybody who is cis gender, identifies as bi, pan or lesbian, and who are assigned female at birth and are trans masculine, gender fluid, as well as non-binary.

 

Valerie- Thank you for the clarification. 

You were part of the core team that started Chennai Queer Cafe, about 3 years ago, in order to create a safe social space for queer cis women in and around Chennai. What was it that compelled you to start this initiative and how did people receive it?

Deepthi– So, since 2011, like you said, I’ve been a part of Orinam and other queer spaces in Chennai but there wasn’t really an exclusive AFAB space. When we started, there were very few, less than a handful queer women who were coming to the meeting. Not necessarily out in their own spaces but even coming to the meetings. So at that point, like I think around 2013 or so, I had a really bad breakup and I was in a really low point and there was a lot of marriage pressure from the family. At that point, I really needed a space like that, where I could talk to people who could relate to my issue. 

Not that there were not but then, it would have felt better, is what I had in mind and then in 2014-15, when I had the time, there were a little more people. Then we thought of a space like this and then we started an online space and slowly moved it to the offline space. So we meet once every month. Now because of the lockdown we are not able to, but before this, it’s been about three years, we started in September, three years back.

 

Valerie- So, how did people receive it when you started this initiative? I mean, from then to now, obviously we’ve probably had more people who are coming in and sharing their stories but at a time like then, what was it like?

Deepthi- So, the film festival is usually in June-July-August, early August or late July. So, we started sort of talking about this group around that time and quite a few people had come to the film festival and they were looking for a space like this as well. From them on, we’ve been associated with the film festival so we sort of put a word out during the film festival and the queer events. So, initially we had about 7-8 people, now we have roughly about 20 odd people that come for the offline meetings.

 

Valerie– Wow!

So just as you said, a lot of the reason you started the initiative draws from your own personal experience. When you realised you were queer, what was your initial reaction? How did you decide to come out to your loved ones and how did their reception to it impact your mental health?

Deepthi– There are a lot of layers in that question. I think I figured out and I knew I liked girls when I was around 16 or so but I never really understood the kind of impact that it had on my life or on my everyday stuff. I think it was only when I was 25 that I accepted my sexuality and slowly, I started talking to friends about it. Even at that point, I wasn’t a part of the queer community. So, slowly I started talking to friends. I knew it was a sort of taboo subject and I can’t just randomly come out at work or spaces like that. So, I was very careful as to whom I spoke to. 

I had come out to the family when there was a lot of marriage pressure and stuff. At that point, initially, they were pretty hesitant saying “You were in hostels, maybe it’s because of that” but then they took me to a counsellor in Chennai. That wasn’t a very good experience, that counsellor was pretty homophobic and the  they gave me some time and then they took me to another counsellor that was in Bangalore. So, the counsellor in Bangalore was pretty accepting and at the end of the session, she called in my family and she was like “She’s pretty clear about what she wants. She’s pretty clear as to what she is, so there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you should change about it. Just let her be.” Since then, there’s sort of been no discussion. 

So again, when you talk about the mental health aspect of it, I would say the first session that I had in Chennai was pretty traumatic. So, that put me in  a lot of pressure. At that point, I was in touch with the community but I never really was in a space to mix family and community yet. There was still a lot of pressure from family and the first experience I had with the counsellor didn’t help at all. I think at that point or even early on, when I knew I was queer, I think if there was right representation in the media or access to materials with which I could educate myself, I couldv’e guided myself better, guided my family better and have done away with a lot of trauma that I had to face. 

Even now, even in this day and age of social media, we have queer Pride events happening in cities, we have newspaper coverage, there are still people and parents who believe in this conversion therapy concept. I’m sure you would’ve recently heard that a girl from Kerala committed suicide because of all this. There’s still a lot of this happening and I would say that the solution for that would be on a certain level, educating these touch-points, whether it’s somebody who works in a school or somebody who is a mental health professional or people who are in the media to do the right representation. Even articles sometimes written in the media end up being homophobic. All that put together, a conversation in every space, is what would have helped me when I was 16 or when I was 20. That’s what would help parents normalize it or kids to not feel traumatized about what they are.

 

Valerie- Right. I liked that you said that right representation is important and access to material so that people can be educated, which makes it an easier conversation when you decide to come out and when you decide to talk to people. 

 

Deepthi– Right.

 

Valerie- So, you’ve been vocal about how queer women often lack access to the same benefits and legal rights compared to heterosexual cis women. This can have far-reaching consequences, especially impacting someone’s self-esteem and mental health. What are your views on this? Can you describe it for our listeners? 

 

Deepthi-  Sure. In my personal experience, I can talk about somebody who is queer cis but again, I would also like to talk about people on the AFAB spectrum because it’s quite different how the AFAB people experience discrimination or oppression. When it comes to me, I would say that queer relationships, especially, are not legally recognized so that has its own complications- whether it’s starting a bank account together or adding your partner as a beneficiary, say for example, on life insurance. Adoption is another huge challenge. Staying together isn’t always easy. People talk. There will be people that say “Oh, two girls are staying together.” Parents don’t make it easy. Even if you’re out to them, you’re not out to them. 

I think, far more traumatic will be situations like if your partner is in the hospital going through something very serious, you don’t have the kind of authority in those spaces. If there is a consent form that needs to be signed or something, they would want somebody who is a blood relative. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been living together for like six, seven or ten years, they would still ask you “How are you related?”. I would imagine that can be a pretty traumatic situation. 

When it comes to somebody who is AFAB and identifies as non-binary or gender fluid, I feel like since their gender expression is different in the sense that somebody who is gender fluid would want to dress up like the opposite sex one day, the societal opposite sex notion, that can cause a lot of judgement. That can cause a lot of judgment from people around in work spaces. Restrooms are again a messy situation when your gender expression doesn’t match what the society expects it to be. When it comes to documentation, it’s a huge challenge- whether it’s a government space or otherwise. So I think these can take a huge toll on especially gender fluid and non-binary people on an everyday basis.

 

Valerie– Right. So, we’ve talked about what it is like for queer women when it comes to benefits and legal rights but even when it comes to interacting with people in our own community, a lot of people have come out in support of the queer community but I think we’d all agree that we’ve got a long way to go when it comes to complete acceptance. What can we do, as individuals, to ensure we can be a support system to the community? 

Deepthi– Whether it’s individuals or brands or organizations, especially when it comes to brands, it’s sort of very triggering when it comes to the whole Pride month because some brands, all they do, is change the logo just for PR. The sensitivity that they show or all that they talk about does not reflect in their policy. Do they have samesex partner benefits in their policy? No. Do they have a gender neutral sexual harassment policy? Maybe not. 

So, similarly, for individuals as well, when it’s Pride month, everybody has a hashtag thing going on, everybody has these frames that they put up on Facebook but a lot of them are not very okay when it comes to starting the conversation around the community when it comes to their friends’ circle or family. I think that would be a huge change. It’s very hard for somebody to recognize and admit to biphobia, transphobia and homophobia. 

If you want to be the person who wants to help the community or be a support system, I think learning, educating, starting conversations and creating a safe space. If it’s the workplace, you want to create a safe space for queer people to come out. So, just compassion, just learning and being a bit sensitive as to what and how. Introspect. I think mainly, starting conversations is what it is but also, along with that, being sensitive and compassionate.

 

Valerie– So, what are the kinds of reactions that you’ve seen when people come out, that have been negative and can possibly impact people the wrong way? As you said, people do lack compassion and very often, people are insensitive to the whole thing, right? So, what have you seen?

 Deepthi– So, I’ve seen people say “Oh, it’s just a phase. You’ll get through it.” or even worse things like “Oh, you just didn’t find the right man.” Not a very good experience but this is really early on in life where I was like okay, you guys are not going to be very sensitive about it, let me just move myself away from spaces like this. I had the luxury to move away. Not everybody would.

 

Valerie– Right. So, from the experiences you’ve had, when it came to starting the Chennai Queer Cafe as well as your own personal experience-  because you’ve heard stories of people who come to you and talk about their own journeys- what would you like to say to the people who are struggling to come out? 

Deepthi– I would say that you don’t have to come out. It’s always a choice but then sometimes it’s not easy for a woman because of marriage pressure but there are usually work arounds. One thing I would like to say is- assess your situation because nobody knows it better than you do. You have to figure out if you come out to your parents, how receptive they are. Is there danger of violence? Is there a situation where you can be in like a house arrest situation? So, those are the things you first need to assess. 

I would say test waters. If you are somebody who identifies as non-binary or trans, just drop a word about some actor coming out as trans or some actor coming out as bisexual, just to test waters and see where they stand. I would say, after that, depending on the situation, either you move out of your house whether it’s to study or to work, get your own financial freedom, get your own social support system, like at least five or six friends. They don’t have to necessarily be from the community but some kind of support system that will help you stay sane in times like this, when you’re accidentally out to the family. If and when you choose to come out to the family, you need to have the financial confidence and the emotional support system for you to stay sane. 

So, I think these are the two things that I have pretty much told a lot of people who are like “I think I’ll come out.” Figure out what your situation is. Figure out how open your parents are to listening. Then you take a stand, if you choose to come out.

 

Valerie– Thank you for your insights on that. I think it’s very important, like you have mentioned in the past, for us as well, it’s important to start initiating conversation and not just turning a blind eye and being ignorant when somebody wants to speak to us. I think it’s very important for us to take part in creating a safe space and being supportive and compassionate towards people so that in turn, we can be a community that does become completely acceptive.

 

Deepthi– One last point I would like to add is that when I say conversations, it can be around anything. Whether it’s somebody talking about a policy in a workspace or whether they’re taking a domestic violence seminar, you have to understand that queer people exist everywhere so queer identity or queer conversations are as relevant in domestic violence cases as they are anywhere else. So, whether it’s a start-up culture, I am a queer person working in a start-up, so there’s like a two-layered pressure on me, when it comes to my mental health. So, in any space, I think these conversations need to be normalized and so they need to be started.

 

Valerie- Correct. It was a lot of information that you gave us today, a lot of insights when it came to the legal rights, when it came to how we accept and how we should be around people who decide to come out so that we can be there for them. So, thank you for all of the information and thank you for this conversation.

 

Deepthi– Thank you for the opportunity. Thanks, Valerie.

 

LonePack Conversations– The PRIDE Series: Living life with dignity ft. Anwesh Sahoo

Your teens are always a difficult time. We are trying to explore our rebellious natures, trying to find our identities, all the while trying to fit in with our peer group; and when we’re made to feel like we’re different and that we don’t belong – It’s challenging. It takes immense courage to stand up for ourselves and live our truth – even if that means we may not fully ‘fit in’. It’s okay to ‘fit out’.

 

https://soundcloud.com/lonepack-conversations/the-pride-series-living-life-with-dignity-ft-anwesh-sahoo

 


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

Today, we have with us Anwesh Sahoo, an artist, writer, model and a TEDx speaker who was crowned Mr. Gay World India, 2016. He is an activist for LGBTQ rights and has written extensively to dispel stereotypes people have about the LGBTQ community. His campaign “Fitting Out” aimed at connecting with NGOs, schools and communities to spread awareness about the simple fact that straight men and women are only a part of the rainbow spectrum of sexual orientations possible.

Welcome, Anwesh

Anwesh – Hi, Valerie. Thank you so much for having me. 

 

Valerie– It’s great to have you here today.

Anwesh– Thank you. I’m happy to be a part and I hope that I can actually give out something worthwhile during our conversation. I still believe that I think I’m too small a being to actually be here talking about such big issues today but thank you so much for having me. 

Valerie– I’m sure you will. I mean it’s been a very personal journey for you and I’m sure our listeners would love to hear about it and it will be very inspiring.

Anwesh- I hope so, I hope so. Perfect.

 

Valerie– – So, in a lot of the talks that you’ve given, you’ve shared your experiences about how you struggled to fit into the ‘typical masculine’ mould growing up. You’ve been vocal about the bullying and teasing that you faced in school. So, how did this impact your mental health and how much did it influence your decision to come out and tell the world how you really feel?

Anwesh– So, to be very honest, I think I was bullied almost all my childhood, especially at school. I think home was always like a safe space. My parents, while sometimes they would get a little annoyed with the fact that there were acquaintances who would always come and talk about, or mock me, or talk about how I should’ve been a girl but I’ve become a guy and I have such feminine traits which boys my age didn’t really have. I think all of this sort of aggravated by the time I turned sixteen. I remember I was actually going for a coaching class at that point in time. I was preparing for JEE and around that time, I was starting to realise that I was actually interested in boys and the fact that my interest in boys was not going to fade away. I think that was the point when I really started questioning everything around me.

I sort of went into this existential crisis perhaps because I think I was finding the education in that coaching centre extremely difficult and I think for any child who has grown up in India, around the time you’re in your eleventh and twelfth standard, it’s such a big leap from when you’re just fifteen and you’re in your tenth standard and I had done well and I was hoping that I would just ace everything that was coming my way but I did find everything in the eleventh standard perhaps a little difficult, also because there are already so many things that are going on in your head. Your body is going through massive changes. So, I do believe that I think the kids in my coaching centre, when they started teasing me, I think that is when it started affecting me because I felt like school was still a place where guys would tease and it didn’t really matter. I had been with those boys for a very long time now and I think that I had sort of trivialized their bullying. 

When the same bullying continued in my coaching centre, that’s when I started questioning that okay, maybe there is something wrong about me, maybe there is something different about me. The more I introspected, the more I realised that I was sort of going into this downward spiral and I do remember this very day when I was just sitting on my table, I was supposed to complete an assignment for my coaching centre. They had given us a lot of assignments and I was really bogged down. I had switched off my lights and I was just there in that darkness, with a pencil in my hand and I had my desk right in front of me, and I was just scribbling on it – like a crazy maniac. It was almost as if I could not take in the mess that was going around in my head. I could not even channelize any of this because of course, I’m talking about 2012, when mental health issues were still not very talked about and I wasn’t even very active on the Internet to even understand all of these very massive concepts, very complex concepts for that matter, for me back then, at least. I had just gone into that phase where I just did not want to live any more.

I had sort of started realising and understanding, and the more I questioned myself – thankfully, I was introspecting- I was questioning what was wrong about me because I could not live without having answers to these questions and the more I questioned myself, the more miserable I felt about the fact that perhaps I am gay and therefore, there is no hope in my life and I think this is it. I just felt that if I am not going to live a dignified life, then there is no point of me living this life because I am going to, perhaps, bring shame to both me as well as my parents. Above everything else, my parents might not even be there for me in the future but I will have to life with this body and the very fact that I am going to be gay all my life and therefore, it just didn’t seem like there was any meaning to my life anymore.

I remember going and standing right in front of my mirror, right above the sink. There was this phenyl bottle which was right below the sink and I would always look at it. After both my parents were asleep, I would go there and stand there for sometimes an hour and I would always be contemplating “Should I drink it? Should I not? Should I drink it? Should I not?” and then I remember once googling what are the easiest ways with which I can kill myself. Those were really dark times. Sometimes, maybe today when I think about it,  they do seem funny but back then, I sort of laughed them off. That’s perhaps the only way I sort of combat all those very difficult times. Back then, it was a very difficult time for me and I would often contemplate what if I just kill myself and just done with this because I cannot take this any more. 

But I do remember telling myself on one of those days when it had sort of become a cycle, you know sometimes when things become a cycle, you start questioning- Why is this becoming a cycle? This is not a good thing for my life, to have a cycle like this where every night I stand in front of the mirror and think about killing myself. Especially if I have exams coming up. Board exams are coming up and my parents were very particular that I should do well, and I was doing well in school so I didn’t want to lose out on my grades. So, I just told myself that if I die today, this is the end. There was nobody who was going to tell my story ever again and perhaps, there will be another Anwesh, if not today then maybe ten years down the line, five years down the line, who would probably go through the same dilemma that I am going through today and perhaps, that Anwesh does not deserve to die and so don’t I. I don’t deserve to die. I deserve to live. I deserve to tell my story, and I deserve to have access to every fundamental right and perhaps the most fundamental right there is, is dignity and happiness. I wanted all of those good things in my life like the way my straight counterparts did. 

Therefore, I just felt like if I would die, it would be the end of everything. I didn’t want that to be the end. I had such big aspirations. I was so hard-working all throughout my life. I didn’t want my hard work to go down the drain. So, I just told myself that. I came back to my room and I do remember that over the time, that night was kind of me reaching the lowest in my life. I came across this amazing book by Robin S Sharma called ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’. That book also changed a lot of my perspective about life. It made me value the time that I have, it made me value the education that I have and it made me value my parents a lot more and I realised that I didn’t want to lead a life where I simply wasn’t being treated like an equal and I think by then, I was just being treated like a garbage bin where people would come and say random and very negative things to me and it would just break my heart and therefore, I just didn’t want to lead that kind of life any more.

 

Valerie– That is indeed very inspiring and it’s amazing that despite going through so much, you decided that this is not how it’s going to be. You’re going to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and say that this is who I am and I’m going to live my life with dignity. I think it’s really amazing that you’ve made this decision despite all of the hard times that you’ve gone through and that people have put you through. 

Anwesh– Yeah, today when I sometimes look back at myself, if often breaks my heart when I think about those times but I’m very grateful that by eighteen year old self, my seventeen year old self, for that matter, had the maturity to understand that I deserved more and I think every great thing that has happened to me since, I feel so grateful for it because I know what it means to not have any of it. I know very well what it means to not have any hope at all and just go into that downward spiral and therefore I really value everything that I come across or everything that I experience, both good and bad, because they are why I am what I am today. 

 

Valerie- That is a wonderful way of looking at things.

So, you’ve also spoken about how society, in India especially, is unprepared to deal with those who do not conform to gender stereotypes. Many parents adopt a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. A lot of other parents who mean well and accept us, still advise us to not tell other people under the guise of ‘protecting us’. So, what is your perspective on this? And how did your parents react when you decided to tell them?

Anwesh– That’s a good question. I have come across, in fact, a lot of people, who are not just from India but also from – I’m talking about gay men – from around the world who often, in fact men who I’ve dated in the past, who would often tell me that I have this “don’t say, don’t share” policy with my parents, or with my mother and I’m trying to do this to protect them from going through that trauma that I’m going through their my life and to be very honest, I don’t think it really works out. I don’t think it, in any way, is helpful for either the person who happens to be queer or the parent because it sort of leads to a very miserable relationship between both of you, because you have already created such a block for yourself between your parent and you and obviously, you’re never going to be transparent to your parents and therefore, any relationship for that matter, not just a mother and child relationship or a father and child relationship, or a parent-child relationship in general but any relationship cannot be based on lies or it cannot be based on half-truths. 

Therefore, if you really want to build a healthy relationship with your parent, I would also suggest that you take your time, and see or examine when is the right time for you to really come out to your parents because perhaps in India, I have come across young sixteen-seventeen year olds who find it extremely difficult to talk to their parents because they’re culturally sometimes not a very accepting group of people. I mean, I have come across people where honor killing is still very much a big deal in parts of the country. There are parts where sometimes when kids come out to their parents, they come back to school or they come back to college with swollen faces and that’s not a very safe space to be in. In fact, acquaintances can sometimes be very mean and there is a reason why we still have corrective rape in India. There are still parents who perhaps take their kids to psychologists and sometimes psychiatrists to go through shock therapy, which is such an incredibly awful thing to let your child go through. 

So, I think at least in India, I would say that you take your time, and realise and examine when is the right time for you to really come out. More often than not, it’s better to take your time to empower yourself financially and when you can take a stance for yourself, that is when you actually even initiate a conversation with your parents. If you really think that your parents are extremely headstrong about stuff, then I would really suggest that it is better to not actually share sometimes and perhaps find a safe space somewhere else. As queer people, we always sort of learn to build a chosen family. I do have a chosen family as well in the queer community, which I’m extremely grateful for. They will always accept you the way you are and they will understand the pain that you have been through, which perhaps a lot of our parents find very difficult to understand. 

However, that said, if you can afford to come out, I would really recommend that you do come out because it really helps build a really healthy relationship between your parents and you over time, even if it does not lead to a very healthy conversation at that point in time, which is something that had happened to me. Both my parents were very shocked when I had come out to them. It was extremely difficult to even have a simple conversation with either of my parents when I came out to them. My mother would often say that “Oh my God Anwesh, I don’t know what I did wrong that I have to go through this”. It was no more about just me, it was also about her and the fact that she might have done something wrong which led me to being gay, which is something that I obviously didn’t agree with. I was born this way and therefore, I didn’t understand why I had to go through the negativity or all these very awkward conversations but I realised that I had to be extremely patient with both my parents and I’m grateful that I had that patience with them because now they are certainly a lot more accepting than they used to be.

I know that there is a part of them that still hopes that perhaps someday I would come back to them as their straight son, perhaps marry a woman and they would have a daughter-in-law and all of those aspirations that Indian parents usually have with their kids. But I think it’s a very unfair aspiration to have with your kids. I know that you invest a lot in your kids and therefore you have these dreams attached but your kid will eventually lead his or her own life and therefore it’s extremely important you let your child be and choose what the child thinks is the best for himself or herself. That is exactly where the parents will also eventually find happiness.

 

Valerie– Right. I’m assuming now that you said your parents also did find it difficult when you told them that you were gay and you said that they were not as accepting then as they probably are becoming now. What was it like for you when you to then, decide to then sign up for the Mr. Gay World pageant. I mean when you told them about it and when you aren’t feeling accepted, what was it like for you to decide to do this and take this step?

Anwesh– Well, there were many reasons why I decided to initially take part in the competition. One of the biggest reasons definitely was the fact that I just felt that the pageant was a platform where I would be able to represent myself and provide my voice with a bigger platform. Above everything else, I felt like it was going to give me a more dignified life, which I really felt was lacking massively in India. In fact, I still to a big extent feel that I’m unable to live my life to the fullest extent sometimes because I have to hide a part of myself while I live here, in India. 

There are times when I would like to wear very fancy clothes or a big pair of heels, which I love wearing. Sometimes I do feel like I don’t get to wear all of that because I have to also take care of my safety. I have been stalked in the past, I have been groped. There are things that I would not like to put myself through again and therefore I’m much more thoughtful, mindful and careful about how I carry myself in public today. I just wanted to have a way better life where I didn’t have to hide myself from anyone. 

Perhaps it was also a way for me to me to combat awkward conversations with my acquaintances because I knew that if I was going to win the pageant, I would never have to deal with awkward conversations with any of my acquaintances and they wouldn’t assume things like I’m going to marry a woman because that would often happen with most of my acquaintances. They would always ask me “What about your girlfriend?” or perhaps someday they would’ve also asked me “When are you getting married to a woman?” and all of that. I felt those questions to me were extremely uncomfortable. I felt like you know, I’m not attracted to a woman and you’ve already assumed that I’m attracted to a woman and therefore, I am going to have a girlfriend and I’m going to marry this person and they would often also do matchmaking for me with all these other girls my age. All of that was extremely awkward for me and I just felt like I don’t deserve to go through all of this. 

I should be able to have a life where people know about me and don’t judge me for who I am. Therefore, even if they judge me after knowing I’m gay, then it’s actually their fault and it’s not going to cost me anything. At least I have put my life out there in front of them, they know about my sexuality and they are not going to have stupid assumptions about who I am. Whether they accept me or not is a very far-fetched question. They should at least know who I am, to begin with. 

There was also one of the clauses in the Mr. Gay World pageant that in order for me to participate, I had to be out to my parents and that is usually done to that the organization doesn’t get into unnecessary fights with the parents of the participants later. I had to be nineteen and I had to be out to participate in Mr. Gay India. Therefore, I was like this is the right time for me to really come out to them and talk about my sexuality to them because I don’t see a reason why I should hide it. Straight people don’t have to hide their sexuality. So why should I have to hide it? 

And my father did say that “I accept you as you are but I don’t want you to talk about your sexuality with others. You don’t have to wear it on your sleeve and put it out there for everyone to know and discuss” and I was like “Papa, you are not asking yourself to do that and therefore why should I have to do it? You have to understand that while my sexuality is not everything about me, it is perhaps a very small part about me but it is a pertinent part about me and therefore, I don’t want to hide a part of myself. Nobody is going to ask me to put my gayness out there for everybody to know. They’re never going to ask any questions about my homosexuality until I initiate that conversation with them and I educate them about it because there is a lot more to it and people can be very insensitive about it and people have been very insensitive about it to me all throughout my childhood, all throughout my teenage years and people sometimes still continue to be very insensitive and ask me very insensitive questions and therefore, I do not want to combat any of this anymore. I have had enough of it and I am old enough to decide what is right for me and therefore, if my conscience is right and I know there’s nothing wrong about me being gay, then I am going to talk about it, no matter what”. And that’s what I did and I have no regrets today at all.

 

Valerie– That’s really great. 

So, the fact that we’ve got platforms like Mr. Gay World does show that ofcourse, we are making progress but as we can see, even many Indian movies and shows that we have, we are perpetuating certain stereotypes of the LGBTQ+ community or we’re using them as props for comic relief. So, considering the fact that there is a significant societal impact that movies have on people, especially in India- the Indian audience worships a lot of movie stars and you look at movies and you aspire to be like somebody there. What are your thoughts about this?

Anwesh– I think in popular media in particular, we have a massive lack of representation of the LGBTIQA+ community. We have of course had very problematic characters in the past, some of which have also affected me and my thought process about being gay. In fact, the very first time I actually came across the word “gay” was through Dostana. I think anybody who’s struggling to come out and is struggling with their sexuality should never be looking at a film like Dostana because it will only scar them further. 

The way, for example, the character of Abhishek Bachchan was caricaturized, his character was this effeminate character. Let’s also break this down- there is nothing wrong about him being effeminate. There are a lot of gay men who are effeminate. I happen to be on of them and I have absolutely no regrets about being a proud gay fem man. However, I have lived most of my life knowing that I am brown, gay and fem and all of these three things, when they come together, they sort of unfortunately strip you off of a lot of your privilege growing up. Therefore, I didn’t even know what privilege meant growing up because I was always looked down upon throughout my childhood for being all of these three things. 

Unfortunately, of course, when I looked at the film, I felt that the fem characters were not represented in a dignified way. I often come across a lot of conversation about how gay men are so much more than effeminate, there are also so many gay men who are not fem. They are like any other men. Well, that’s fine and we’ve had enough of that representation. There is a reason why people accept straight acting or masc, as they say, masc gay men very easily because somewhere down the line, they also fit into their hetero-normative mindset and it always becomes very problematic when people in general do not fit into the narrow, normative behavior that the society has sort of chalked out for us. 

Therefore, if a man is a little effeminate, that becomes very problematic because you’ve already been conditioned in a certain way that “This is what a man is supposed to be”. “This is what a woman is supposed to be”. And if you blur those lines, it suddenly becomes so problematic to this entire societal structure that we live in. I genuinely have a massive problem with the way fem gay men, or even trans people are represented in popular media. 

Therefore, I really feel that fem gay men also need representation, and dignified representation. Not all fem gay men are sex addicts or sex maniacs or sexual assaulters or side-kicks! They can be the central character of their own stories and they should be represented as strong dignified characters who have a job, who perhaps have all these jobs that we do not even know a lot of gay men have. A lot of the top leaders in our country happen to be LGBTIQA+ and therefore, I do hope that in the future, there is more equal representation and not the one-dimensional representation that has existed till date.

Valerie– Right. The fact that you said that the representation is not equal and obviously it polarizes people’s vision in the way that they now look at people in society. That is extremely wrong and there needs to be a massive change in the way people are represented on screen.

Anwesh– Yeah, absolutely. It’s high time.

 

Valerie- So for you, your journey from struggling with bullying to coming out and being crowned Mr. Gay World – I’m sure it’s been a rollercoaster journey for you. So what is the one thing you’d like to share with people who are struggling to come out? 

Anwesh– For me, there were two important things that I would often tell myself when I was struggling with my sexuality. In fact, this was something that I had come across during one of my school assembly sessions, when one of the teachers spoke about self-pitying. I completely agree with the fact that self-denial and self-pitying are two of the worst things that one could do to one’s self. You cannot deny yourself who you truly are and it is extremely important that you live an authentic life. You don’t have to live a life that is so high on ethics because honestly, all this protocol that has been given to us has been defined by someone and everybody’s right and wrong can be very different. 

Therefore, it’s more important that you invest in understanding your conscience and then truly live a more authentic life so that you also lead a more fulfilling life. It is extremely important that you also take yourself less seriously. Don’t get too involved in all the negativity that there is because there honestly is a lot of garbage, even on the Internet right now, at least on the social media platforms. There is a lot of noise on these platforms and I would want people to start investing in looking into themselves instead of indulging in these very meaningless conversations. Pick your conversations, pick your battles and you will lead a much more fulfilling life and that’s all that there is. Leading a peaceful life, leading a happy, fulfilling life. Yeah.

Valerie– Well, Anwesh, thank you for this conversation that I’ve had with you. It’s been lovely to listen to your journey, your experiences shared and I do hope that we become people that are more positive and receptive to other people and let them live their lives with dignity instead of judging and creating differences and all kinds of discrimination. I really hope that we become people who become more acceptive.

Anwesh- Absolutely. I hope so as well and thank you so much for having me again. It’s been incredible talking to you. It’s been a little emotionally actually, as well but yeah, thank you so much and I really hope that my words are able to make a positive impact in the audience listening to us today. Thank you. Thank you so much.

Valerie- I’m sure it will. Thank you.

LonePack Conversations—Rand Fishkin & fighting depression through an entrepreneurial journey

Putting one’s efforts, money, time, and passion into building a company is easier said than done. Not only does it give one the fame and glory of establishing big in the business world, but also drive them crazy over various step-stones in the process to stardom. 


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Aishwarya: Welcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m Aishwarya, your host, and today we’re speaking to Rand Fishkin, an established entrepreneur and leader in the start-up space. 

Hi Rand! Welcome to LonePack Conversations. It’s great to speak to you. 

Rand: Great to speak to you, as well! Thanks for having me.  

Aishwarya: Sure. Let’s begin with a little bit of a background. 

So, you’re just about to kickstart your second entrepreneurial venture. How is life and how are things? 

Rand: Exciting, yeah. I’ve been working on this new venture for a couple of years now; almost 2 years, exactly, and have a co-founder, we have raised a little bit of money, we’re just getting ready to launch our paid product, and so it’s busy, but in a good way. 

Aishwarya: That sounds exciting! So, as the founder of ‘Moz’ and currently ‘SparkToro’, if you had to pick a challenging and mentally exhausting moment in your life, what would it be? 

Rand: I have had many. Probably too many. I would say one of the most mentally taxing and frustrating parts of my career during my tenure as CEO of ‘Moz’, after we raised our $18 million funding round. And of course, you know lots of requirements around growth and exits come with that.  We had a team of about 50 people at the time, which was a wonderful size, I really enjoyed it, but we had to grow, right? We had to get much bigger, much faster, be able to do a lot more, produce a lot more software, delight a lot more customers. And so, over the next 18 months, we tripled the team size to nearly 150 people including contractors, and that process, those 18 months, from 2012 into 2013, those were one of the hardest, most difficult of my career. 

I think that building a team from the ground up is a hard thing, but scaling at a rapid rate, right; adding more people you have in a company is really really exhausting for the team , for the leadership, it’s really hard on your value and your culture; it’s hard on all the people who are there. That stands out in my mind as being a crazy difficult time. 

Aishwarya: Definitely, I think I’m able to imagine, the way you are describing, how it would be for somebody who has bigger aspirations and goals. At the same time, those 18 months would’ve been really taxing for you. And, I actually read about the fact that when Sarah came in as the CEO after you, how things were able to, you know, bring back into the picture; how there was a sort of unity in the team, and I really love that portion. 

Rand: I found it tremendously challenging to just maintain a culture; a company culture that I wanted to exist. I think that was a huge part of the problem. 

Another part of the problem, too, is this; the expectations that come from your existing team, right, from the people who’ve been there, and who’ve helped you along the way, and what they expect from a growing company, right, a lot of people who are individual contributors want to become managers. A lot of people who are managers expect their teams to grow, and their budgets to grow, and I think as a CEO, especially a first-time CEO, it’s really hard to say no. 

Aishwarya: True, yeah. 

Rand: You’re just not used to it; you don’t expect it, you know, you have all this money; people know you have all this money; expectations, and they say, ‘Hey, I want more budget, I want more people on my team, I wanna hire three more people. You’re expected to say yes, and it’s hard to say no. 

Aishwarya: Absolutely. Each company has its set of goals and expectations, and the people who make up the company again will have their expectations, and it’s important to sort of align these together, because everybody is definitely looking out for growth map and likewise with the company, and I think as the CEO, an important task, and the most contingent task for you would’ve been to align these two together. I can definitely understand that. 

Rand: Yeah, I think there’s this big challenge where people have multiple goals in mind, so obviously, the people who were working at ‘Moz’; they wanted the company to do well, but they also wanted their personal careers to do well. They wanted their personal careers to show growth. They want their title to get bigger, they want their pay to get more, they want more people reporting to them, because that looks more impressive to future employers. These are often at odds with what you should do as a CEO. The right thing to do as a CEO; your obligation to the shareholders, and your Board, and the company’s growth, is to say no to almost everything, except a few things. 

But the pressure in the moment feels the opposite.  When someone comes to you and says ‘Hey, I’ve done a loyal, great job over the last three or four years; I expect these things from my career; this is what I’m looking for,’ and you want to say “Yes, you deserve that, I want to give it to you.” But in fact what you’ve got to say is, “It’s not the right thing for the company, and if that’s not enough to keep you here, then good luck; let’s find you a new role somewhere else; I’m happy to make  introductions, or give a nice testimonial about you.” And if that’s not enough, here’s what you can expect from your career here over the next few years, and here’s how it gets changed. It gets really hard, right.  

Startups…startups are one thing, and as they get to middling stages of growth, they become another thing. People are really bad at change; people hate change. 

Aishwarya: Certainly, certainly. I think for people, as you grow, as you start up, as you try to grow that company big, the most important and most difficult task would be to prioritize and say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to things that really matter. Especially in this case, when an employee walks up to you and asks for, say, a pay raise or a change in role, and you know that he/she is still deserving, but at that point, you might have to say no because you have certain aspirations; certain paths for the company to go through. So that’s totally acceptable, and it’s time that people start thinking about this; how to say no, because that’s one of the most difficult tasks. 

Rand: Yeah, absolutely. Saying no and saying yes; these are the hard things. 

Aishwarya: So, did depression have an effect on your physical health? If so, how did you realize it and what were the measures you took to overcome that? 

Rand: Yeah, the bad news for me is, it did have a significant effect on my health and wellbeing, I think both physically and mentally. Over the course of my…I was in my late 20s and my early-mid 30s and I had degenerative disk disease, which affects your spine and made it very uncomfortable and difficult for me to sit for long stretches, which is very hard when you have to get on a lot of planes and travel overseas for conferences and events and those sort of things. 

And it also had a significant negative impact on my sleep. Which, of course, you know, sleep and stress are very well-coordinated, and I think that that cycle of having stress, compounding physical pain which made it hard to sleep, which made every day even more stressful; that cycle, that loop, was really really difficult to break through. 

And eventually, I think the answer for me ended up being pulling back from the quantity of work I was doing; I invested in physical therapy, and mental health therapy, right—seeing a counsellor, a therapist, and a coach, and I also stepped down from the CEO role, and took another role inside the company, although I think that probably did not have a great impact on my mental health and physical health for at least a number of years. 

And it wasn’t really until I left ‘Moz’ and started my new company, ‘SparkToro’, that I think I got to a really healthy place. And so nowadays, arguably the best shape of my life, both physically and mentally; but it is… it can be really hard, and I think that people have to choose. They have to choose what’s right for them, and whether they can prioritize their health over their company. I think what’s wrong is that it’s often a false dichotomy, where you think you need to be working all hours when, in fact, a few very productive hours are probably far better than 60 or 80 hours in a work week. 

But that’s just not the general belief. I think that the culture of tech is to overwork people and we need to end that. 

Aishwarya: Sure. I think that’s quite some stress and physical toll on you, and kudos to you because you’ve managed it really well. And, you know what, you’ve set an example to a lot of listeners today because I’m sure most of them have thoughts today about starting up or they are in the process of running a company, and they are handling a lot of pressure on a day-to-day basis. 

So, I guess what you told actually gives them a good idea to reflect upon, especially when you said ‘Choose’ because, you know, as Jeff Bezos says, at the end of the day, you’re made up of your choices. And you have to make those choices in a right way; good, bad, whatever it is, you just have to analyze and try to come over it. So I think that’s a very strong point that I, along with the listeners, are picking up today for our own lives, as well. 

Rand: Yeah, yeah, I mean, my hope is that in the future, more people choose to prioritize their health first, and I believe that it will actually lead; that will lead to more successful business outcomes. 

I think there’s a mythology that by sacrificing health, and making that choice, if you will, to devote yourself entirely to your work and your business, that somehow you’re going to benefit from that; that your business is going to benefit from that…I think that’s not true. 

I think that the CEOs’ job, fundamentally the CEO’s job is to make great decisions. And every piece of research we have shows that when you’re sleep-deprived, and when you’re in pain, and when you’re not taking care of your body, your decision-making is worse. 

So I would argue that you should work less, you should sleep more, you should exercise and eat and enjoy your social life so that you are mentally in a good place, to make great decisions. Because that is your core job. 

And I know I made a lot of bad decisions when I wasn’t sleeping, when I was working 60-80 hours a week; I know I did. 

Aishwarya: Spot on! I think it’s straight from a founder’s life, and you know, these are some gold points, and I’m sure that the listeners are just going to pick this up and try to relate this with their lives, and start practising them already. 

Rand: Yeah. 

Aishwarya: From a workplace front, do you think workers and peers can be supportive about your mental wellness at the times that you need? 

Rand: Yeah, absolutely! I think that you, as a founder, can craft a culture that reinforces and supports the idea that it’s results and quality of work that matter, and not the amount of work that matters, or hard work or the number of hours in the office or number of hours online; I think those are useless matrices. I would instead reward work that is high quality, and work that gets results. And I would recognise and reward people investing in their health. 

I think that if you do those two things, craft that type of a culture, you can do that from the bottom-up or the top-down, both, and you will get a workplace that delivers really good quality results. 

Aishwarya: Wonderful! I think a little bit of a praise and appreciative behaviour of one another would definitely help in succeeding. Not just sticking on what the results are, and how much time it took for the results to come in, but actually the quality work that comes in after somebody works on it; just a small appreciation would go a long way in building team spirit. 

Rand: Yeah, yeah, and I think recognising; I mean, somebody puts two hours into a project, and the results are high-quality; I think recognising and rewarding that, more so than if somebody puts 20 or 30 hours into the same project and gets the same quality of results; I think that’s an excellent thing. 

One of the things that’s definitely true, especially in most high-tech work, is that when you are well-rested, and well-fed and in a good place mentally, you tend to contribute far better quality work in much shorter amounts of time. 

A lot of times you get back from vacation, and you’ll find that, “Wow! I got so much done in one day after vacation, compared to a whole week when I’m in the middle of a slog.” 

Aishwarya: True that! I think these are some gestures that most of us should keep in mind, and a contribution of this kind can actually boost the morale of the team. 

You would’ve met a lot of C-suite leaders, venture capitalists and startup founders. Do you see a common pattern of depression or mental trauma among these leaders, simply because all of these roles demand much energy and pressure to deliver the best? 

Rand: Yeah, yeah, I’ve definitely seen many, many entrepreneurs, founders, executives;  folks tell that they are struggling, mentally and emotionally and often physically. And I hope that’s a culture we can change. 

Aishwarya: Mm-hmm. Definitely, I think the struggle is real, and it’s important that…Actually, I have discovered that somebody has to first recognize that there is a struggle and that there are these mental traumas that are happening because I feel at this time, most of us don’t recognize that. That is the first problem, rather than the mental issues being there as a problem. The major problem, I feel, is not accepting, or refusing to recognize that there is even a problem like this. 

So, what are your thoughts on this? What do you think about people who have to recognize that something is happening, which most of them don’t do?

Rand: Yeah, I would agree. I don’t think you can solve a problem until you recognize it’s there and come to consensus about the fact that it is a problem. It is only after that recognition that you can address it. And this is why I think a lot of this has to do with regards to representation. If you don’t have leaders in these companies talking about these issues, saying that they faced it, talking about how they fixed it, I think you will continue to get a culture that frankly, rewards sacrificing life for work instead of balancing. 

Aishwarya: Definitely. So have you invested and secured in the mental health benefits for your employees and company leaders, now that we’re talking about team benefits, and how we should be mindful of each other in the team?

Rand: Yeah, I think we did a number of things at ‘Moz’ while I was still there and I think the company is still continuing to invest in that. So I think that includes paying for counsellors and mental health, making sure it’s a part of the company’s healthcare packages and benefits, it includes wellness rooms, it includes being more flexible with time off for mental and emotional health days, it also includes trying to nudge people more towards taking their vacation.

For SparkToro, it’s just Cassy and I; there’s only the two of us, we’re founders. We have a very very healthy work-life balance, so I think we’re sort of in a lucky position to be able to invest upto what we can and want to do and in some weeks and yeah, that’s a ton of time put into business. And, some weeks, it’s like “Hey, Cassy has kids and is busy with the family one week and I have relatives that I’m responsible for and taking care of and sometimes that all overtakes the some of the work that I wish I could get done in a week, and that’s okay!” We allow ourselves the freedom and flexibility to do that and we know that every other hour of every day is not important; what’s important is doing quality work when we’re at the peak of our performance.

Aishwarya: Awesome. I love the fact that you mentioned work-life balance, and you and Casey set the right path for people who joined SparkToro. I’m sure they would look up to the founders to see what kind of goals, or what kind of objectives you’d have, and most of them get inspired from that.

So you and Casey setting that example of having a good work-life balance, taking some time off for some personal duties is important, and I’m glad that you guys are doing it, so congrats on that. 

Rand: Oh, thank you. Yeah, we really hope so. I expect to keep the company relatively small and remote only, which I think allows people to work from wherever is most comfortable for them.

Aishwarya: Oh, that’s nice.

Rand: Yeah, and work when it’s comfortable for them and I think that’s honestly the future of work. Yeah, I think the future of work is doing from wherever is most comfortable for you.

Aishwarya: Definitely, and I think that’s the first step on the path to being mindful. I’m sure if people are given that little freedom to do work at the time that they are intended to do, when they can actually contribute much to the team; I think that paves the way for better work to be done.

Rand: I agree 100 percent. 

Aishwarya: So, in your book ‘Lost and Founder’ which, I’d like to document, is one of my recent favourites, you’ve spoken about the ways to invest in behaviour, without trying to focus on the outcomes. Beautiful thought, I should say. Could you elaborate a bit on that and tell us how this act helped your mental wellness?

Rand: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So this comes from the idea of personal investment, and this works really well in the business world, as well. So this is essentially saying, “My focus is going to be on contributing the highest quality work that I can, rather than focusing on whether I immediately got the outcome that I was seeking.” 

And what happens in a lot of business practices is—marketing, for example; let’s say that I’m working on building up a great content marketing channel. And so, when you put up your first, say, blog posts, or articles, or newsletters, or content pieces of any kind, and when you see that they don’t perform the way that you want them to; when they don’t attract enough traffic, or the traffic that they do attract doesn’t convert, it’s not doing well on certain channels that you hoped it would; there’s a temptation to either give up, and stop making that investment, or to try and change the way that you’re doing things. 

And I think that you can, in fact, learn from your past experiences, and use that to form the future, but I think it’s a mistake to exclusively track results, as opposed to tracking high-quality work. If you put out a great post; great content piece, you’re proud of it, you know that the people who consumed it, it resonated with them; the answer could be that you need to keep doing that more, over time; you need to give it time to have serendipitous outcomes in the future. And a lot of the time, it’s about taking the shots and missing until one hits. I think unfortunately luck and timing are downplayed in the business world, when they probably shouldn’t be. And this is why I tell folks to invest in quality work rather than exclusively investing in results and outcome.

Aishwarya: Certainly. It comes down to enjoying the whole process of doing something because the journey is more important, and it’s important to stay connected to this journey. In fact, when you talked about how to use past references and how to tailor your future, that really made sense, both in professional and personal self; to constantly analyze the things that you’ve done, things that have really helped you achieve something, and sort of replicate that, or use some references from there in your future work. That doesn’t mean you’re dwelling in the past, but at the same time it also means you’re taking control of where you want to go in the future. 

So to invest in potentials is a very very good thought that you had put forth today. 

Rand: Oh, thanks, yeah. And I would also say that you have to be careful of small sample sizes. So one of the things I see people struggle with a lot is that they make a small number of investments, right. “Hey, we tried content marketing, we invested in ten content pieces, but they didn’t work for us, therefore we think that content marketing is not right for our audience.” And in fact, the problem is, ten is too small a sample. You might need a hundred pieces, before you can truly say how effective content can be. 

Alternatively, you may be making the investment, but not putting out quality work, and instead thinking like a check-list item, just to be published and pushed out. And that’s not wise, either.

Aishwarya: True, that! I think you shouldn’t be judgemental in the first place, and as you said, ten versus a hundred; it’s important that a lot of time and potential is invested into it, rather than just tying up with the short-term outcomes. It’s important to step aside and look at the longer run, and the bigger picture. 

Rand: And this is a really hard thing, right, I don’t want to downplay how difficult it is to make investments when you don’t have results to prove. I think one of the toughest things is to ask executives and leadership to make space for failures and investments that have long pay-off periods.  But when they do, when leadership embraces that, I think you can get the expected results over time. 

Aishwarya: Yeah, I think this mentality starts with leadership, and if it’s set right there, I’m sure the startup is going to really function well because tying up to results is a problem with the urges that tend to happen to companies. Obviously, you’d be questioned about the results, about what you have done to validate your work, but it’s also important to note the fact that failures are required for you to do some quality work in the future. 

Rand: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Aishwarya: So now that we’re towards the end of the conversation, I have a quick something to ask you. What’s the thing that seemed like the one; that would bring the world down for you, back then, but now brings a laugh at the very thought of it?

Rand: Oh, gosh. I’m not sure I had something around quite that stark. Hmm, you know, there was a time at ‘Moz’ when we were getting, I don’t know, sort of subtle threats, from Google. 

People who worked at Google, like, there’s this one guy who worked at Google who would occasionally email me or say something to me like in person about how they didn’t like what ‘Moz’ was doing, they didn’t like the blog posts that we were publishing, or who we invited to our conferences, or they didn’t like the experiments that we were running, and I remember being really scared; we had board meetings where we talked about how this was going to be a big threat to the company and what we did there. 

And then it really turned out to be nothing at all. I don’t even think it was Google’s policy at all. It was just this one person, or this one team at Google who sort of got annoyed and thought, “Well, maybe I’ll mention that I’m annoyed” and we just took it really really hard. 

I regret making concessions and changing our business tactics and strategies to please some far-off person from Google that we really didn’t have to. 

Aishwarya: I see, wow. It’s a little creepy to hear as well, right, somebody personally attacking you, and obviously as you said, it’s not going to be the other company’s terms for them to directly reach out to another person of another company, and this seems like more of a personal attack than it seems from the company. 

Rand: Yeah, and Google’s done this a bunch, right, use some combination of carrot and stick to gauge behavior, and now they’re powerful company, you know, now much more so than back then, but even then they were much more powerful in terms of the web, and web traffic, and people being able to find you and trust you, and especially for an SEO company, which ‘Moz’ was, you know, we thought it was so important to have good relationships there. Yeah, I wish I had been a little more mature. 

Aishwarya: You don’t have to regret much, Rand, because at that time it would’ve definitely taught you something, which you can pick up for the next couple of your ventures, as well. 

Rand: Right, I think one of the things I’d definitely do for my future companies, is not feel bullied by bigger players. 

Aishwarya: Yes, that’s such a strong part, actually, thanks for mentioning that.

Rand: Ah, it was my pleasure. 

Aishwarya: So thank you so much for your time today, Rand. It was such a pleasure to talk to you about dealing with depression through an entrepreneurial journey. I picked up a lot of lessons today, and I’m sure the listeners would also know about the struggles before starting up, and coping with everyday pressures at work, and shattering the stigmas while they function, or try to function as an organisation together.  

Rand: Well, thank you so much for having this great conversation with me, Aishwarya. I appreciate it. 

Aishwarya: All the best from LonePack for your SparkToro journey; I’m sure it is going to be really really interesting and exciting.  

LonePack Conversations—Ruchita Chandrashekar & Everything about mental wellness

Fred Rogers, a famous American TV personality once said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”  


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Aishwarya: Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Aishwarya, hosting this session today, along with Ms. Ruchita Chandrashekar, a licensed clinician, presently working for a federally funded program in the United States. She’s also a trauma therapist and a seasoned writer at some platforms like The Wire, HuffPost, and The Print. 

Ruchita: Hi, Aishwarya. I’m happy to be here.

Aishwarya: So, let’s get started with the interview. To start with, let us talk a little bit about your background. Can you tell us what motivated you to pursue a full-time career in a field related to mental health?

Ruchita: Sure. So, I worked in advertising before this; I was a copywriter with an agency. And, I think as I saw people my age go through a lot of stressors, and saw my friends have mental health concerns, saw myself have mental health concerns, I realized, or at least noticed, that we didn’t have as many resources or even as much knowledge or any kind of understanding. There was a lot of stigma in households to be able to talk about it. But then, my experience was just that, “Oh my god, there is no place to just go to, to understand, to know what is happening,” because physical health is always treated so separately from mental health.

Aishwarya: So true.

Ruchita: So, this was in 2015, and at 23 I realized that’s not something I wanted to do. That’s when I shifted to social work, where I worked with this organization called Prerana that strives to end inter-generational prostitution in the red-light areas of Bombay. So, I used to work there as a social worker and a research assistant for about six months just to understand if trauma work was something I was, 1) built for, 2) I enjoyed doing, and what really was my role in working with these populations, these severely traumatized populations. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I think I learnt a lot about systems, I learnt a lot about building communities, with healthcare and things like that. It was a very intersectional experience for me. And, by then was when I applied for my Master’s for my graduate school. So that was when I transitioned to the US once I got my admission, and then got trained, licensed, and have been practicing since.

Aishwarya: That’s great to know. I think what I really like about your journey is how you were able to map each step, because it’s more like this connecting-the-dots style where you were able to reason out why you wanted to get into doing it all through your personal experiences as well the experiences that shaped you around. So, that’s really interesting to know the thought.

Ruchita: One thing to also highlight is, because I was switching careers and how that is not necessarily normal in a lot of Indian households to be allowed to do, it was almost like I had to prove something to my parents, that this was something that would make sense, which is unfortunately also a kind of stress that a lot of young Indian folks go through – like they have to be stuck to one thing that they have to do and cannot transition to something else. So, a lot of that possibly just came from that. Thank you.

Aishwarya: I think you set an example this way. I mean, not only being a clinician. I think you set an example from the career path you’ve taken, and the story behind the whole career path. So that’s something that motivates others around to probably look up to you as an example.

So, a counseling psychologist – that’s very interesting. What does a day in the life of a clinician look like?

Ruchita: So, I’ve had multiple ways in which this has functioned. I work at a residential facility now, so I’m seeing folks all day. But I’ve also had places where I have worked at where people have set appointments and they come in. So, depending on the setting that you work in, you possibly have a case load that you set for the week, you see a number of folks in a day, you have your case notes to finish, you have your consultation meetings to do, so it’s usually pretty packed. A lot of times, because of how underfunded mental health can be, even in parts of the US, you’re just doing back-to-back sessions, often which tend to take a toll on you. But, yeah, that’s what it is – it’s just packed. And, I think what is important to highlight is that the role is so different from anything else that you do in the corporate world, because you are having interpersonal interactions about people’s pain, about people’s trauma, about people’s symptoms, as you are assessing and as you are being a source of support and treating them. So, it’s a lot of emotional labour that goes into each hour. So, that is what a usual day looks like.

Aishwarya: That’s nice. So, I think a majority of your work involves, or rather, revolves around meeting people and getting to know them and making an impact in their lives in a subtle way. That’s nice to know. There are many stereotypes about what therapy looks like. How accurate is it, and what’s really involved in a therapy session?

Ruchita: So, the one thing that it isn’t is that it’s not like talking to a friend. Often, it gets misconstrued for, “If you have a friend, why do you need a therapist?” Talking is a modality that is used, but that is not the only modality in the pathway to therapy. You have stuff like EMDR, you have other features to talk therapy, and you have other things that also get added to it to make it a treatment process, firstly. I think it is important to acknowledge that therapy is a treatment science and it is not like talking to your friend, it’s not like talking to your mom, it’s not similar to those aspects. The similar features of you talking to people in your life and you talking to a therapist is that you should feel supported, which should be features of most interpersonal relationships in your life, that you feel supported, you feel cared for, you feel important, you feel validated. What you feel from both of those relationships can be similar, but the methods and means with which they’re conducted is very different. Therapists are not giving you advice; they’re literally trained with how questions have to be asked to you, with open-ended and close-ended questions, with how we rephrase. Therapists are trained to, you know, not go into all of it—be able to strategically decide where someone might be at, and that’s something, and to pack it up again before the session is done. It is a very meticulous form of treatment that is done. Talking is a modality that is used, because it’s not like when you go to see your general physician and they just have a stethoscope to you and are able to check your eyes – that is their modality. Modality for therapy is you talk; you’re able to communicate. It is more reliant on you as a human being, as a patient to be able to deliver what is bothering you, and then to be able to receive, assess, and strategize what might be helpful to you. It is extremely intimate, because there are things you may sometimes share with your therapist that you might not share with anybody at all. Confidentiality is essential, which is not something interpersonal relationships in your life might guarantee, but a therapist-patient relationship should guarantee that. I know that doesn’t happen sometimes, but that doesn’t make it okay.

So, there are a lot of interpersonal relationships outside of therapy are, which I think are stereotypes which I just wanted to address. Secondly, it is something that will take time, because you’re literally working through parts of your life, you’re understanding the ways in which you’ve been conditioned. So, it is an intimate process that takes time for you to get by.

Aishwarya: Totally. I think those are two valid points that you’ve stated. I think everybody needs to understand that therapy is no longer a taboo, or it’s no longer a simple thing that you can do with any person you meet, or rather any friend or a family member. And, that point about getting to know what really goes through each other’s minds, and a therapist has all the tools and all the abilities to bring that out of people’s thoughts; that point is really valid and I feel people would now understand more because it’s coming right from a mental health clinician who’s actually practicing it. So, I think now people will really get to understand why it is important to actually consider therapy as an everyday activity. Thanks so much for shedding light on that.

So, moving on, not just a clinician, but you’re also a published writer and a columnist. How effective a tool is the pen in mental health and what inspired you to take it up?

Ruchita: I think it’s effective in creating conversations. I specifically write for India and I write with Indian publications. I also try to push it more in India, because my hope is to destigmatize mental health in South Asian communities, which is why I treat that as my audience whenever I put anything out. The way I started doing this is through Twitter threads that I would do, and the one thing that I noticed was people started talking to each other more than what they were asking me. So, it became like this community that they were building where they were like, “Oh, I’ve been through this,” or, “Oh, this has helped me.” Now, you also have to recognize that, systemically, India doesn’t have many resources right now – when it comes to mental health – that are accessible. It is extremely expensive and not something you get in all the cities, all the villages, and all the communities. And, we have an extremely high suicide rate, we have a lot of mental health concerns that you see across the age groups, and it’s an untreated population. So, a lot of times, people tend to turn to their friends and family for some kind of support. What I noticed under these threads that I used to do was strangers started turning to each other, like, “My family doesn’t understand, but, okay, you saying this doesn’t make me feel alone.” So, it started developing more conversation, and I went beyond, writing symptoms of panic attacks and everything also with the environments that will trigger you, like emotional abuse in South Asian households – things like that that I think are very normalized because of culture and can trigger a lot of symptoms. And, no one talks about it because it’s a shame for you to talk about anything in South Asian cultures.

Aishwarya: Totally.

Ruchita: So, I noticed that that was something that was picking up more. Then, I started doing long-form pieces on that front, also because I think there is value in someone writing from a field about the field. Like, you would rely more on a doctor telling you about symptoms for migraines, and telling you what to do for a migraine, or providing more education on migraines. So, as a mental health clinician, it started feeling like my responsibility to provide what we call psycho-education. So, if you turn to WebMD and you Google something, maybe there’s a part that brings up something I’m saying, that might provide some kind of insight, that might just be worthy in you showing it to someone, saying, “Hey, this is someone who treats people, and they’re saying this is happening, so maybe it is valid.”

Aishwarya: There is more credibility around it.

Ruchita: Exactly, which I, unfortunately, didn’t see a lot. A lot of times, I would see these panels and news channels on Mental Health Day, or this and that, and people were literally capitalizing on causes at this point. And, there are comedians on these panels, but you don’t see one psychologist, you don’t see one psychiatrist, you don’t see one person who is actually working with communities and actually working with folks and is able to be a credible resource. Why are comedians on this panel? Why are social media influencers here? Because then, what happens is, your sources of information become people who are literally capitalizing on these causes, and they’re not the most credible sources of information. Yes, there is validity in knowing that all these actors and actresses have anxiety, but what beyond that? How do you understand your anxiety now? How do you recognize that this is something that is happening to you and you need to do something about it? None of these panels and none of these mainstream areas are telling you that necessarily.

So, I think that is why I noticed that the stigmatization, yes there was benefit in exposure like that and it was breaking down a little, but there has to be actionable change. People have to know that they have strengths, that they have things that they can do, that they can try, that they can talk about to be able to help themselves. So, I think that is what became my driving force, which is what I still like to treat it as, so whether nor not I publish more with these areas, I still try to do more of those Twitter threads, I still like to do a poll every now and then asking people what they want to learn about so it’s not just me throwing jargon at them. Like, someone once told me, “I want to know how to help a friend going through things like that,” so I was like, “Okay, that makes sense, let’s do that.” So, I also often just use Twitter as a research tool to understand what people are looking for, what do they want to learn about, what are they trying to understand, and then just build it accordingly. It’s important that it helps them. It doesn’t necessarily help me.

Aishwarya: I absolutely love the motive behind the entire work that you’re doing, because this particular point about building a community; I think that is where the whole strength of social media, or be it any writing platform, is people themselves come in and then they use it as a tool to express their ideas and thoughts. And, the reason that you said, sometimes people are not supportive, sometimes family and friends are not supportive, but people are quite vulnerable, and that’s totally okay, they use these mediums as tools or as platforms to express their thoughts, and I think that’s a very, very valid point that you’ve mentioned.

So, according to you, how much of a connect do mental, sexual, and physical health have? When trauma affects one, do you think all the others get impacted as well?

Ruchita: Oh, definitely. Absolutely. They’re all interconnected. Health is very intersectional and, unfortunately, we need more conversation around that. Like, if you have persistent anxiety, and your Cortisol levels keep fluctuating that much with your brain getting overactive that many times, it can affect your immunity, which can then start affecting your physical health, which can then start making you weak. It’s in the smallest of ways. Like, why is it that when you look at middle-aged fathers, everyone has blood pressure and everyone is told that stress is the cause for this? Where does stress come from? That is your mental health. Stress is a natural bodily response that, unfortunately, when people are not trained to manage, it results in blood pressure, it results in diabetes. Like, look at so many of these physical health diagnoses and how many of them have stress as a major cause. It is extremely stupid to tell people, “Don’t get stressed,” because when has that worked? Now, you tell me—when someone comes and tells you, “Aishwarya, don’t get stressed,” has your stress just magically vanished? No, because stress is a natural bodily response to something. We have to be able to have tools that help us manage our stress, because it’s a response.

Like, you can’t control a sneeze; you will sneeze when you have to sneeze, but you will learn to manage a cold. So, it’s in things like that. And, I’m glad you brought up trauma, because trauma has a tendency to have debilitating effects on not only your mental health, your physical health, and your sexual health. Like, they all go together, depending on the type of trauma you’ve had, the age at which you’ve experienced it, the time in your lifespan that it has not gotten attention and not gotten treated, how much of that have you internalized, and how much of that has influenced the way you live your life which then gets attached to your lifestyle. A lot of times, say for example – it’s a very oversimplified example – sexual trauma, say childhood sexual trauma that a child has no awareness of, firstly, what is good touch and bad touch, to understand they’re getting traumatized and the powerlessness attached to that. Now, you have not said anything to anybody for years, so this is just an open wound that has influenced the way you grew up and started living your life.

And then, as you grow up, you start having more interpersonal relationships, which is when you start having sexual relations, as well, possibly. And, the nature of how you conduct yourself in those can get influenced, the way you conduct yourself in relationships, the way you treat yourself as a human being in relationships. It gets very relational after a point, because human beings are social beings. And then it also, because it has been an open untreated wound for so long, can start affecting your physical well-being, as well, with how you treat your body, how you have understood messages about that. You can lose sensation in parts of your body because of sexual trauma.

Aishwarya: Totally. Now I see a complete picture of how each of these realms are influencing each other. You don’t have to have a checklist and say, “Hey, I’ve done these five things, and still I don’t find my mental health to improve.” It’s not a factor of ticking the points and seeing where you are, but it’s acknowledgment, it’s about acceptance, and it is to ensure that you are okay with the things that you’re currently going through. So, thanks for that point, Ruchita.

Ruchita: Yeah, absolutely.

Aishwarya: Can you tell me, so far what has been the most common type of mental health issue occurring in your patients? Do you see any common pattern in any specific age group?

Ruchita: So, a lot of times, anxiety and depression can be diagnoses, but a lot of times they’re symptoms as well. I think, specifically, anxiety is a very common bodily response that happens because the human brain is designed to protect you. So, the minute it realizes that something’s going to hit the fan, even if it assumed and there’s no danger anyway, it becomes what we call an irrational thought that come in, like, “No, I have to be afraid of this!” and you’ll have anxiety. So, a lot of times anxiety in those aspects can be its own diagnosis, but often it’ll also be like a symptom to something else. So, I will often see features of anxiety, or mood symptoms – that’s how I would put it, instead of just putting it as “anxiety and depression.”

Every time I assess folks, I always ask them, “How has your sleep been? How has your appetite been? How has your mood been? Do you feel tired?” And, often, that’ll paint a picture. So, the presentation of things. The features of every diagnosis are going to be different, like I always tell you. But mood symptoms is something that you might be able to catch. And, even those mood symptoms might look very different, because sometimes people’s brains are so… oh, the human brain is so fascinating! Like, the people may be so high that the mood will also not be able to tell you anything? But their sleep patterns might, their appetite might tell you something, things like, “Am I able to concentrate on things or not, can I focus on things or not, have I lost interest in things?” So, you look for very specific features on that front, and you also look for functioning. So, that’s the way I am able to assess.

With younger folks, you’ll see more features of anxiety that come up, but a lot of that can also be just appropriate anxiety, because you’re afraid of what you’re going to do with your life in this world and everyone in your life is telling you that you have to excel tomorrow, and that’s going to give you anxiety. So, there’s also forms of appropriate presentations according to your developmental stage and age, and then other forms like, “You seem too calm, or too regulated,” and, “Is there something to catch here? Because you’re possible too tired to care.” So, it’s always individualized, but culture plays a huge role, as well, in people’s presentations. But what I’ve noticed across the board is that people’s environments tend to influence their symptoms highly, which then goes to inform their diagnosis. And that’ll also be because I’ve worked with very diverse communities; I’ve worked with undocumented immigrant minors who’re seeking refugee status now, which is very different from an urban population or something like that, right?

Aishwarya: Yeah.

Ruchita: But those features, people’s environments affecting their daily functioning, is big that I see.

Aishwarya: So, the way I see it is you look for a few common indicators and try to map a whole journey and, as you said, experiences, culture, and environment. All of these are contributing factors that play a role.

Ruchita: Yes.

Aishwarya: So, a larger goal of LonePack is also to work towards helping suicidal individuals. Have you dealt with such individuals with suicidal tendencies earlier? What would be the right kind of approach to help them?

Ruchita: Oh yes, I’ve dealt with a lot of suicidal folks – some with active suicidal ideation, some with passive suicidal ideation, active self-harm tendencies, and everything. Oh, how do I put this? What I’ve noticed, and I think this is something I will first address to the larger community, because at some point in time it’s possible people are going to come across someone who has suicidal tendencies.

Aishwarya: Yes.

Ruchita: The fact that they’re informing you of their suicidal tendencies itself is a big sign that they possibly want help, and they may or may not do something in the next moment, but it is a good sign. If someone is talking to you about, “I have thoughts of ending my life,” or, “I have tried this,” or something like that, you treat is as something they’re going through and allowing them that space to express themselves. “Why are you feeling that way? How can I help you?” I think often people jump to advice, which is dangerous because if you’re going to start telling them how to live their life, then you’re also questioning how they’ve already lived their life, thereby reinforcing this, “Oh, I don’t know how to live my life anyway, so I should die.”

So, it’s very important to come from a strength-space perspective, just allowing that space of, “Okay, everyone is going to die anyway, what makes you want to die right now? How can I help you? What is it that you need? I’m sorry you feel this way. Do you trust yourself to be around yourself for a while? I care about you. I love you.” Come from a strength space perspective like that, because I think one of the stupidest things people assume about suicide is that it’s an act of cowardice. No! It’s an act of exhaustion. There is nothing cowardly about attempting suicide or doing anything like that. It is a terrifying thing to go through, and they go through it.

So, to know that it comes from a place of exhaustion; if that has become your last resort, like, “Nothing is helping me anymore, nothing is working anymore,” you have reached your peak of exhaustion, you’re done. So, I think just acknowledging it like that, like that is their crisis and allowing them to just tell you what is happening, instead of you acting like this expert on suicide and things like that is important.

Aishwarya: Yes. So, in a way, it is approaching it in a more practical manner, and trying to be non-judgemental, and trying to say that you’re there for the person to listen to the person. And, it’s a good thing that the person chose the one they want to actually speak to and be open about their thoughts. So, that was a very good statement that you had told, and I’m sure that for the people who listen, I think now they understand how to deal with somebody who tries to come to them and speak about insecurities or suicidal thoughts or any mental health issues from now on.

Ruchita:  Yeah, and I think, more importantly, it is empathy.

Aishwarya: Totally.

Ruchita: I think it’s horrifying that people stigmatize suicide only with attention. Yes, there are some people who do it, but that comes from deeper mental health concerns, firstly. But to assume that everyone is just doing this for attention? There are other ways to get attention, people don’t want to be shamed to get attention, everyone’s not into that kind of masochism, which is stupid. To just come from a place of empathy, that, “Oh my God, my loved one, this person is talking to me and is so exhausted. And, more importantly, to acknowledge your boundaries, but to put them forth in a healthy, kind manner.

To be like, “Hey, it looks like you are going through a lot right now, and I am sorry, this is really bad. But I don’t think I am equipped to help you. You are worthy of help. You are worthy of support in a way that I’m not qualified in this moment to help you with.” But if you’re going to assert those boundaries to communicate that, don’t abandon them. Just let them know that, “I think I cannot provide this for you, and let’s work together on another channel for you to get it from.”

Aishwarya: Yes. Thanks for putting it that way, Ruchita. I think empathy is a powerful tool that all of us need to develop.

Ruchita: You cannot have, like, five textbook techniques to avoid anxiety or anything, because everyone’s anxiety looks different, everyone’s depression looks different, everyone’s bipolar disorder tendencies looks different, everyone’s schizophrenia looks different, everyone’s grief looks different. Everything. No two brains are the same, which is why I think it is important to maybe spend time, like ten minutes in a day.

Aishwarya: I mean those are really golden words. I see self-aware is over self-care, because you need to understand yourself better first to see what really is more caring and nurturing for you. And, as you said no two persons are the same. So, understanding each of us have on our own cycles, our own ways to indulge in, our own ways to develop is the first and the foremost thing we need to do.

Ruchita: Yeah, and you’re an expert on yourself. Nobody is an expert on you. You are the only expert on yourself, so you know, that’s it.

Aishwarya: People can be there to support you, can be there to help you find and discover your interests, your passion. But again, in the end, I think you should be there for yourself. You are your own master, so yeah.

Ruchita: Yeah, mmhm.

Aishwarya: Thank you very much, Ruchita. It was wonderful to hear your experiences in being with mental health victims, a couple of anecdotes that you shared, and I’m sure listeners might pick up some ways to both practice and promote mental well-being.

Ruchita: I hope so.

Aishwarya: Today’s episode was an example of how clinicians like Ruchita together with mental health organizations like LonePack can work together towards shattering the stigma on mental health issues. Thanks for listening to our session. To hear more such sorts of discussions, keep tabs on the next episode of LonePack Conversations. Until then, see you all. 

LonePack partners with Dunzo for LonePack Letters 2019

The new year is upon us and what better way to start off the next year than with an exciting announcement from our camp here at LonePack? We are very proud to unveil the start of our biggest campaign—The LonePack Letters.

LonePack Letters was started with the belief that something as small as a kind note with a few words could have the power to turn the worst of days into a better one. There is a saying that strangers are friends that you just haven’t met yet and we couldn’t agree more. Even though faces remain unknown, we are all connected by the same emotions, the same struggles, the same feelings and we will always find strength in solidarity. There is something beautiful in reading words that were written by someone, somewhere with no idea who you are, yet, written with the utmost care and positivity that will no doubt, bring subtle joy to your heart. And we, at LonePack, continue to do our best to make that happen. 

With over 25 thousand letters being written and delivered from major cities such as Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai and Bhubaneshwar, we only hope to grow to the rest of the country. With so many words travelling far and wide, it is our pleasure to also introduce our delivery partner for this year’s edition of LonePack Letters—Dunzo!

lonepack-dunzo.jpeg

Dunzo is an established company that provides 24×7 delivery services in Bengaluru, Delhi, Gurgaon, Noida, Pune, Chennai and Hyderabad. They deliver anything, anytime, anywhere and we couldn’t have found better partners to join our cause to spread joy. With Dunzo’s help, we’re sure to reach to every part of the city to surprise people with little notes of sparkling happiness to help make their day a bit better.

You can also now contribute to the campaign from anywhere in the world! LonePack letters are also now in the digital space where you can send in digital letters to us so that distance is now never a trouble to help spread positivity and joy! Head on over to our website to write your digital letter to send to us. We are also looking for active collaborators in the workspace and educational realm to help collect letters from so please do write to us if you think your organisation or institute would like to join us. We hope that this new year brings a lot more joy, a lot more self discovery and a lot more awareness to you and your mental health.

Here is wishing you and everyone you know a very Merry Christmas and a very warm New year 2020 from us at LonePack!

LonePack Conversations – Nirmala Mehendale & Kindness Unlimited

A quote by Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher says, ‘Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.’


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AishwaryaWelcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m Aishwarya, and I’ll be hosting the session today. And with me, I have Ms Nirmala Mehendale, the founder of Kindness Unlimited, an Indian non-profit aiming to create a movement that unifies the nation with kindness. Welcome, Nirmala!

Nirmala: Hi Aishwarya! I’m excited to be on this show.

Aishwarya: Yeah, I’m so excited as well. So, let’s begin with an introduction. 

We see that you’re a Postgraduate from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, serving for over three decades in the HR industry. And then you co-founded ‘Kindness Unlimited’, along with working with your HR firm, Mind Movers. Now, you spend more time and efforts in Kindness Unlimited, your non-profit organization. So what made you shift from a corporate working-for-profit world, to an NGO that is not for profit?

Nirmala: That’s a good question, and Aishwarya honestly, it happened very naturally for me.

Aishwarya: Mm-hmm?

Nirmala: I started Kindness Unlimited in 2005. At that time, I was in the thick of my professional work, but I could see the overlap between what I was doing professionally, that was in HR, and the philosophy that, I’ll say ‘KU’ for short for Kindness Unlimited, okay, so the philosophy that KU was promoting. And the philosophy and the definition of kindness was, ‘…balancing self-interest with the common good…’. Now, this philosophy really really appealed to me and I tried to do the little bit that I could, but as you know when you’re absolutely busy, working, you have less time to put into it. But it was always in the back of my mind that someday, I should make that shift to putting more time into this, the trust that we formed. So that’s the way, you know, it came and I won’t say suddenly it came and naturally, and I’m really happy to have made the plunge and spend more time with the movement now. 

Aishwarya: That’s so interesting! So, why do you think empathy, kindness and mental wellbeing are very important in today’s society? What makes you think that?

Nirmala: Oh, every single day I’m reminded, you know, honestly, how important this is because I keep meeting so many who somehow open up and really acknowledge, not to everybody else, but you know, to some of us that they are actually lonely, looking for validation, acceptance. And most of us are searching for compassion and love. 

Aishwarya: Yeah.

Nirmala: So, kindness is an act in compassion that helps us to show someone that we care. And so, it’s such an important role that I can’t even, you know, mention to people, somehow the word, ‘kind’ doesn’t come off very often; it has a very different connotations, but when you actually think of the number of times each of us has received kindness, given kindness, how – what an impact it makes in a small, small way. But it can really make someone’s day, someone’s moment, and help all of us live a little more joyfully in today’s world, which is so fast-paced and so digital, right? We just seem to lose that human connect.

Aishwarya: That is so true because, you know, sometimes kindness need not be outrightly shown; it’s something very subtle, actually, you receive it and you give it back in a very subtle manner, without you realising that you are doing it. 

Nirmala: Yeah, yeah, you’re right and it can become a habit, and that’s what, when I talked to educators and others, I say, it can become a habit because, like any other thing, the more we do it the more fulfilled we feel; we kind of do more of it. 

Aishwarya: Yeah.

Nirmala: Sometimes it’s unconscious, but if you make it conscious because you understand the joy that it brings to you and to the other. 

Aishwarya: Exactly, that’s so true. In fact, it transforms you and gives you, like, a channel or a platform to transform somebody else’s life as well. 

Nirmala: So that giving and receiving, right, so in a minute, I can become a receiver, and this is something most people don’t see. Like, I think, ‘Oh, maybe I’m this big giver’ but suppose I’m crossing the road and I have an accident. In that split second, with all the money and education I might have, I become a receiver because I’m dependent on other people to lift me up, to take me to a doctor, to treat me; it’s all strangers who then, you know, come up to my aid. We don’t realise how vulnerable we are; each of us, we’re givers, we’re receivers, givers, receivers. 

Aishwarya: Absolutely, yeah, that’s so nice to hear. 

So, Kindness Unlimited, you know, in short, ‘KU’; that’s a wonderful and a positive name. When and how did this organization, you know, come into action, and what was the motive behind it when you started?

Nirmala: So. Somewhere, in the mid 2000’s, you know, there was the late Mr Vasant Kalbag. He was a scientist; he had a great scientific temperament, and he deep-dived into the philosophy and the practical application of being kind. So he researched a lot about it, right from Darwin’s evolution of man, how cooperation and collaboration can actually help humans innovate and to prosper. I happened to find Mr. Kalbag and his loving wife, Shanti Kalbag, by pure chance. 

Aishwarya: Okay.

Nirmala: And, I never looked back. So, it was that— the conversations that I keep having with him, I mean, a total stranger met this person, and I took to the philosophy. It was he who suggested the name, and I thought it was beautiful, and then we decided, ‘Let’s formalize it.’ After many, many months of meeting and discussing, and so we are on the founding team. There’s another Trustee called Lopa Vyas, and that’s where, you know, in a small way, Kindness Unlimited—we said we’d all do our own little thing, in our own little way, but let’s kind of jump on. So that’s it! Today the vision is to make India a kinder nation. And, the platform we’re looking for is a platform that can enable interconnectedness among citizens, by encouraging acts of kindness and trying to build a supportive network.  

Aishwarya: Oh, so good. I mean, I just absolutely love the motive behind this, because it seems simple, but it takes so much effort and so much thinking from each of us to actually show that kindness out to people. It’s a very, very nice initiative, and congrats on that. 

Nirmala: Thank you.

Aishwarya: So, you’ve been working for empowering people with kindness and public interest, for about 15 years now. 

Nirmala: Yeah.

Aishwarya: So, did any specific, you know, life incident help you shift focus on spreading kindness and shattering the predominance of selfishness?

Nirmala: It’s a great thought, and I’ve been dwelling on this, myself. So maybe I’ll share one incident; it would be a couple of incidents, but I’ll surely share one. 

Aishwarya: Sure.

Nirmala: So, Aishwarya, as you know my work is with people, right? So I come from a domain which deals with people. And I used to see so many unhappy professionals. They just seemed to be outwardly happy, but inwardly they seemed to be stuck in jobs, and they just didn’t seem to be passionate about whatever role they had, and they just, you know, somehow were stuck.  

So I realised at that time, we all seem to be in a race; a kind of competition to reach somewhere. Heaven knows where! And in that mad race, rightly called a ‘rat race’, some of us have to sacrifice fulfilment for what the world and others perceive will give us a better life. While I was dwelling on this, I went through my own existential questions and dilemmas. As I was watching others, I was looking inwards, myself. And around that time, I lost three very close family members. And it was their passing away that hit me and made me-forced me to acknowledge that what I remember about them was everything good that they did to me and the joy they brought to me, right. Because when someone leaves you, you’re left with just memories, no? 

And it was that that said, “Oh god, in all this race and everything, hardly anyone remembers your gold medals and the million-dollar deals that you cracked and whatever else, right.” What people remember is how nice someone was to me, and that’s when I said, I think, you know, this is something I’d like to give more time for; it became a personal vision, and I tried to put a timeline in place when I would spend far more time in growing the organization. And building KU and taking this mission forward. And, you know, the work – in this movement I made many friends on the table, too. It was a very supportive environment when you realise there were other people in the world, and you were not alone like you really believed in.

Aishwarya: Yes. And you know, personally, though I am very sorry for the loss, I’m so glad that you were able to connect with like-minded people; with people who want to take this mission up with that positivity and happiness through kindness. I’m so glad that KU came into existence with a network and a community of such like-minded people. 

And it’s so positive to hear about the whole story.

Nirmala: Yeah, yeah.

Aishwarya: And the other point you mentioned about mental health, that’s very important; in fact, that’s exactly what LonePack works for, as well. People just run behind this rat’s race, and they are just there, fastened with a lot of things going on, with a lot of thoughts going on. But finally, what you said is so true; what matters, in the end, is, how did we treat each other, how were we to each other, and how good we were to each other, and the memories all lineup. 

Nirmala: Sure, sure, sure. And unfortunately, it’s pain that makes most of us reflect; it’s very ironical. It’s very, very ironical. 

Aishwarya: It is very ironic. In the end, you know, there has to be some inflicting pain that makes us count on all the blessings that we have. But I’m glad that somehow, somewhere, we get the chance to recount on all our happy moments, our memories, our blessings. 

Nirmala: And channelizing it in a positive manner, right.

Aishwarya: Yes

Nirmala: So, using that pain as learning to actually do some good, yeah. 

Aishwarya: True. Not getting very stagnant at that point and sticking to the pain, but going beyond that and trying to overcome that and achieving bigger things. 

Nirmala: I agree. 

Aishwarya: So according to you, what’s the impact of kindness, kinship and goodness on mental health?

Nirmala: So, we keep talking of the word, ‘well-being’ in our day-to-day lives, right? And so well-being is physical and it’s our mental well-being, no? So when I’ve been looking at the kindness philosophy, I’ve realised it’s so important to take care of ourselves first, and being kind to ourselves is the first step. And I remember this example, and I keep repeating it all the time; it’s the aeroplane example. So in times of turbulence, we’ve been told to take the oxygen masks, right, and we’ve always been told to take the mask first before we help children and seniors. So with that example, I share that once we accept and we become more forgiving, less harsh to ourselves; begin accepting the kindness of others. It’s not easy to accept the kindness of others, as well, okay. And this then can be very liberating, and the cycle of giving and receiving will happen. And it’s a great cycle of giving and receiving if we can acknowledge graciously that right through life, we bother givers and receivers. And in mental wellbeing, especially, you know,  a lot of people have said even one friend or one person can make a difference. And I see that happening, that those who have at least that one person accepting them for who they are, make such an impact. 

And, I’ll always remember the story of a young boy walking on a bridge across the sea, in the US, and contemplating jumping and ending his life. And this boy, as he was running on the bridge, was stopped by a couple who requested him to take their picture. And while they were requesting him to do that, they had a conversation with him. And later on, this boy says that if it were not that human connection on that day, he would have probably ended his life. 

Aishwarya: So true. I think it’s just being there for each other so that you can make a better world together.

Nirmala: Yeah, yeah. As I said earlier, Aishwarya, unless my glasses are at least half full, I cannot give to others, right?

Aishwarya: Exactly, exactly. It’s not like you are treating yourself very harsh, you go around and preach to others about how to be happy, because you have to practise it yourself first. Your glass has to be at least half full for you to think from there, and give it to others. 

And actually, I have to mention about this self-care point because over the last couple of months, you know, to whoever I speak to, especially people from the mental health background; all of them consider self-care to be a very important tool. So it’s not selfish to want self-care, and self-care is definitely not just about getting things for you, or doing something calming, no, it’s actually more than that. It’s fighting around challenges and trying to accept the person that you are, with all the flaws and imperfections. 

Nirmala: I agree, and a lot of people think, you know, that ‘I am such a giver’ and so, but they get burnt out, and they can’t then sustain that giving, right, because to give I must receive, accept that I am human and as you very rightly said, accept my flaws, and you know, and then feel that ‘I am now feeling a little fulfilled, so I can go out there and help others’. 

Aishwarya: So true, yes. It’s like, it has to be a cycle; it’s giving and taking back, and that continues in a loop. When you don’t have anything in your basket, you really can’t take something out and give it out to others, so I think it’s such a valid point that you stated. 

And so…just moving on to a little more about you, what were some hurdles and challenges that you had initially faced by running a non-profit?

Nirmala: So the biggest challenge is, Aishwarya, though we are a registered NGO, we actually function as a movement. 

Aishwarya: Okay.

Nirmala: So none of us get paid so far, and all of us are givers and volunteers, right. So everything is done through the pro bono methodology, and it is honestly miraculous, that’s the only word I can say. Because every time we have a project and then somebody comes and helps and people give up their time, talent and  I’m always amazed, because it takes me back to the barter system, and I remember debating, you know, the joys of possibly the barter system, and it does have its own role. But having said that, you know, I think the time has come now for us to slightly work on a structure, to create an organization so that we can spread faster, wider, and at the same time, be very mindful of attaining the beauty of an inclusive transparent and a very giving movement.

Aishwarya: I think that’s so true, because it’s like hearing me out, because that’s exactly the kind of thought we had with LonePack. Initially, we were also a pro bono society, and it was an important hurdle that we had, starting out; to have a structure and to impact more people in our journey. So I think it’s like hearing it out from me.

So, Kindness Unlimited is an executive member of the World Kindness Movement, a global body for kindness, with representations from 28 countries across the world. And that’s really big!

So, what impact does this create, and how do you all, as global leaders, work together, work for a common mission?

Nirmala: So, the World Kindness Movement plays the role of supporting and encouraging their members to keep spreading good, in their own corner of the world. So they’re not really very structured about ‘what’ because each country focuses on different areas, right. But today, and I would say, unfortunately, it’s terror, violence and hate that’s creeping its head and that’s something that the World Kindness family is seeing across all countries, right.

Aishwarya: Yes.

Nirmala: And so we’re strengthened in our belief that its love and kindness that will ultimately triumph. In many incidents, we’ve seen hate creates more hate, so we’re slowly building traction to enable us to put kindness on the global agenda, move to the UN and formalize things, so that’s the role and the route the World Kindness Movement sees itself playing. When we look at mission statements and agendas across corporations everywhere, we don’t see the word, ‘kind’ being there. So honestly, it is to put the word ‘kind’ and the act of kindness on the agenda for individuals, families, societies, schools, communities,  countries. 

Aishwarya: Perfect. So I think this is such a good initiative, and as you mentioned, it is those tiny little initiatives that each of us take as our own leaders; each of us from different nationalities takes and together, how we impact the wider world. 

So, a major part of what you do is related to the youth as a society, with the aim of spreading kindness among children, young adults in schools, colleges and institutions. So LonePack, also is a non-governmental organisation working for your mental health awareness and wellness. We share a common thread here.

So, what’s your reasoning behind working for the betterment of today’s youth?

Nirmala: So, as I mentioned earlier, when you have fast resources, it makes sense to invest your energies in the country’s future. 

Aishwarya: Yes.

Nirmala: And also behavioural changes are easier when one is younger, before fixed patterns and rigid mindsets and prejudices are formed, right?

And so we think its much better to invest with them. We’re also working with educators who work with the youth. So, you know, and I’m really always hoping that my generation especially can die with our prejudices rather than passing it on to the youth. How do we open the youth to see a world which has less prejudices and more acceptance, and to get them to see the benefits of collaboration. 

Aishwarya: That is very true, because I think the youth of today need to be empowered and feel empowered. You know, the world is full of opportunities, it’s full of changes,  and a lot of opportunities here and there, but finally its about telling the youth how they can make use of those opportunities; that is exactly what we’re working towards.

Nirmala: Right, right. And Aishwarya, the definition is ‘balancing self-interest with the common good’ right? And this definition, the youth are able to buy into.

Aishwarya: Yeah, yeah, true.

So the impact is more on them, because they’re able to comprehend what we are working towards, and we would be able to put in more effort and more meaning into what we do currently. So I think that’s a good reasoning behind the motive.

Nirmala: So when you talk about networking, right, the importance of networking, so I always remind them how networking starts with giving, right. 

Aishwarya: Yes.

Nirmala: So, that’s how you build a network; it’s not just for selfishness; you can be selfish, but you won’t have a connect for a longer period of time. Because the person will say you’re a taker; you’re using somebody, and so youth, once they see that it doesn’t even make this much sense really and you can’t build goodwill by just being a taker. 

Aishwarya: Yes, so true. So you have to show some amount of wanting to give back to the society, wanting to drive a change in the community, because that is where you earn a good set of like-minded people around, who will also help you in where you want to go and what you want to achieve. 

Nirmala: Such a small world today because of technology, right?

Aishwarya: Yes, yes.

Nirmala: And our reputation precedes us. 

Aishwarya: Yes. In fact, we think we are all connected, but then it is absolutely how do you make that network work for a longer time, work with good relationships and trust.

Nirmala: Yeah, yeah yeah.

Aishwarya: So, the next question I wanted to ask was, we heard about your new project called ‘Pooh Circles.’ So can you elaborate a bit more on what it is about, and who can benefit from it?

Nirmala: So, as we said earlier, you know Aishwarya, that LonePack is in that space as well, that we see so many lonely people, right, who on the front are seemingly seem all sorted out, but when you know that there are young people and people of all ages who seemingly are lonely and want to belong; with that in mind, I decided to do an experiment, and build a space of acceptance, sharing, active listening, and most of all, non-judgement.  Where whoever comes to the circle can benefit from this process. 

Sometimes, many of us are hesitant going to a counsellor. That’s because of the various kind of connotations this has, especially in our country. And so, I’ve seen firsthand that it takes a while for someone – you know, rather than go early,  people go when they are very, very late. And can’t really handle it well. So I thought, let’s create a first step, where we create a group process. And then possibly when people can come in and see the benefits and joys of this process.

So to give people an idea of group process, of non-judgement, acceptance, unconditional positive regard, respect; to get them to trust one another, and the kind of sharing that they do, in this kind of sacred space, so that was my idea. And then some of them want to go in later on for counselling and they understand the importance and the benefits. 

So I just wanted a first step, to give people that understanding that most of us are lonely, and we’re all searching for something, and there’s no harm in accepting that, and learning from each other, and then if required, moving on to going to a counsellor, if they think that could also help them. 

So it’s a first step circle; that’s what I’m trying to create. 

Aishwarya: Yes. This is incredible, and in fact, to add on, I was captivated by this term that you said, ‘being non-judgemental’. Because that’s exactly what I have been talking to people about, what I’ve been  hearing in the last couple of conversations I had with some people around.

So first step, we can do to people around us, is being non-judgemental, because I think that creates a fear in all of us, that when we are trying to be judgemental, or we are being judged by others, and to move past that fear, which hinders us from opening up, and you know, hinders us from speaking aloud our insecurities, and a couple of issues that we face mentally. 

 Nirmala: And also, we become very poor listeners, no Aishwarya?

Aishwarya: Oh, yes.

Nirmala: We’re always with our digital gadgets and seem so distracted. So to actually have two  hours of uninterrupted space where everyone is actively listening, I think for all of us, it can be very beneficial. 

Even online, we have become very less tolerant of other peoples’ views right? So we look at trolling and all these kinds of unkind bullying behaviour online; it’s a reflection of something that’s happening to all of us, right. 

Aishwarya: Yes. I think, after the impact of social media, with a lot of these social platforms growing, we are more into digital connect. But in fact, to lead to more positivity and more kinship and close feelings; rather it’s more bullying, and doing more abusive activities. It’s high time that we start taking the impact of social media very crucially. 

Nirmala: Right, and that’s why organizations like LonePack, Kindness, all of us are trying our best to put the positive voice out there, right. 

Aishwarya: Exactly! We use social media in a way to alert people to spread positivity and to remind people that they are worth it, and they can also spread the same message to others around. 

So how do you think we, as neighbours, relatives, or colleagues, can spread positivity everyday, in simple ways?

Nirmala: So I’ll share some very very simple ways; there are so many, Aishwarya. I’d say, you know, that whenever we smile and acknowledge a human being, that’s huge. We can lend a helping hand, like carrying a heavy load, holding the lift for someone who’s rushing to get in, checking when someone’ sick, sharing something handmade, like a card or food, even calling those who labour hard for us by their names, and not their caste names, or their occupation title. It seems very small, but it can make a huge difference in showing that you care and you’re concerned about, you know- small things. So it can really trigger change, no, once larger numbers start practising very small little acts of concern, I’m sure it would make a big difference for the greater good. Because all this will have a ripple effect, right. 

Aishwarya: Yes

Nirmala: So there’ll be more smiles to go around, more people who are nice to the other, so the whole random-acts-of-kindness ripple effect begins, and you have human connections that grow, and the small things actually are the big things in life, yeah, and it holds so much of space in our heart, sometimes, you know, such a small thing is done, and you say, ‘Oh someone remembered that I was travelling and wished me’ or ‘someone remembered that I had an exam’ and you know, so these little things make life so much worthwhile. And so if more of us did that and, you know, consciously helped, we’d start our days better, and maybe the person who’s receiving that kind act will go forth and be kind to another person, right. 

Aishwarya: Yes. In the end, it all matters about how good you were to yourself, and how you spread that goodness around to people. 

So little things really matter, and it’s not just words; it’s not just by words to say that, you know, these little things matter; you have to do it in actions. So as you said, these small acts of kindness that all of us can do everyday, if we multiply that, I think, as a community, it’s going to have more and more impact on more and more people. 

Nirmala: Yeah. In fact, this year, Aishwarya, 13th November is World Kindness Day every year. And in India it’s still not caught up, so we’re really trying to put that day on the agenda. So this year we’re having a huge event with music and with standup shows; and yeah, we’ve already booked the auditorium, and no one will have to buy a ticket. 

The ones who’re coming for the show is going to be given a list of kind acts; they pick a kind act, and they perform it, and they get a ticket to the show!

Aishwarya: Oh! That’s so good! Yeah, it’s such a good initiative; it’s interesting. I’m sure that people would love to do it, and this way, I think they’re all helping people remember those little acts of kindness that they should be doing. 

Nirmala: Sure. 

Aishwarya: So it’s a very good initiative, and all the best for the event. 

Nirmala: Thank you, thank you.

Aishwarya: So, Thank you so much, Nirmala, and it was wonderful speaking to you today about how kindness can be a magic wand, create positivity, and promote mental health. 

Nirmala: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed sharing with you, and I’m sure jointly all of us, you know, collaborating in this space, can together make a huge difference. 

Aishwarya: Yes, so true. 

So today’s episode was a clear example of how Kindness Unlimited and LonePack, along with people around, can work together towards spreading kindness. 

To listen to more such positive discussions, keep tabs on the next episode of LonePack Conversations. So until then, I’m signing off. Bubye!


 

LonePack Conversations – Ryan Bonnici & Bring Change to Mind


Workplace wellness is a phrase we’ve been hearing lately. While it’s common to see a lot of millennials falling prey to anxiety, trauma, tiredness, and exhaustion, the question is how well corporates and organizational leaders are heeding to this issue.

 


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Aishwarya: Welcome to Lonepack conversations. I’m Aishwarya, your host, and with me, I have Ryan Bonnici, a renowned leader in today’s marketing world. Hi Ryan, it’s great to have you in our session today. 

Ryan: Hey! It is nice to be here, thank you for having me!

Aishwarya: So, Ryan, you’re the Chief Marketing Officer at G2, one of the world’s leading review and app-listing platforms. You also serve on the Board of Directors for the mental-health non-profit, ‘Bring Change to Mind.’ How’s it to manage both nonprofit and revenue-based leadership roles at the same time?

Ryan: You know, it’s an interesting challenge, but it makes it really fun because I feel like a lot of the work I do at G2—which obviously is very revenue-focused is luckily in an area I really love. I’m super passionate about technology and software, and I love that role, and it pays me which is great. And then on the flip side, the work I do with ‘Bring Change to Mind’— well it doesn’t pay me in the same sense, but it’s a rounded area that is really important to me, and so yes, nice to kind of give back in a way that’s not revenue actually. So yeah, it’s quite fun but it definitely sometimes is a challenge of time for me to prioritize between the two.

Aishwarya: Oh yeah. I think the ‘giving-back-to-the-community’ part is extremely heart-warming and I can understand because I come from the same marketing background and I also ended up working in a non-profit as well. So I think, I sort of find a personal connection with you and I absolutely agree with the point that you mentioned right now. 

So, you are a CMO under 30! Congratulations on this, and I’m sure this is not an easy journey. How’s it to handle the pressures of your role, and have those pressures ever taken a toll on your mental health?

Ryan: Thanks, I appreciate it. Yeah, it’s definitely unusual—when I was really little, at the age of 10, for some reason knew I wanted to be a CMO, and I really wanted to be a CMO at the age of 30, so clearly I’ve been a bit of an unusual kid but it was very cool to finally reach that goal. I think I got there a couple months after my 29th birthday. I think I was not even necessarily trying, I think I kind of forgot about the ‘30 age’ component. Because I didn’t really care about getting there by 30 once I got older, but when it actually happened, it kind of reminded me! Anyway, thank you for that! In terms of how to handle the pressures of the role, the thing that helps me the most is a few, but I have a really amazing team at G2 that I built so when I joined the business, I had maybe five people on the team, and now kind of a year-and-a-half, and our marketing team is around 60-70 folks. It’s been a really crazy year so that was a lot of fun but it was also pretty stressful, and I definitely in the last two years have needed to do a lot of things that helped manage the pressure. For example, I get a sports massage once a week which is not fun but painful; If I get really scared I get acupuncture every week; I go to the kyro, and doing a lot of self-care activities, and seeing a therapist regularly—weekly or twice a week to help me work on my mind—keep working on my body and keep both of them as healthy as possible.

Aishwarya: Totally! To start off, I think you wanted to be a CMO right at the age of 10. I’ve read this short story where you were fancied by the emails that your father used to get and you really wanted to be a CMO right then. 

Ryan: Yes! My dad’s a business owner and I used to see him always on his phone getting emails, and I used to tell myself, “Oh my gosh that’s so cool. I can’t wait to have a phone and get mails and tell me I’m important and people need me.”

Aishwarya: I think that’s the best part as a child—seeing your father and getting inspired. Nice to know, Ryan. I love the way you brought the point about seeing therapists as a form of self-care and as a form of maintaining the body-and-mind balance. I really liked that point because most of the people today think going to a therapist is a sort of extra work and still many people think of it as a taboo. So I think this coming from you, from your experience, is a very good point that you stated. So, what are some ways you shattered the stigma around mental health within your organisation?

Ryan: I think shattering stigma is what ‘Bring Change to Mind’ is all about. When we did the research, we saw that there’s a lot of great services out there for people to become aware of their mental health and their mental health challenges and proactively seeing therapists.

We see great results. My wife actually is a clinical psychologist. We met in Psychology class, back in university, and what we understood in the world is that the problem wasn’t helping folks once they raise their hands because most people don’t ask for help. 80% of people who have a mental health condition don’t actually seek help and those who do seek help on an average do 10 years after when they are diagnosed with the symptoms and problems. 10 years is the average time that takes for someone to get help, and we researched and realised that the reason why people weren’t getting help was because there was this stigma around mental health. 

I don’t necessarily sit every day and think about how I’m going to shatter the stigma around mental health—but I guess I try to be really vulnerable and authentic and talk to people about my own challenges. And, I think by me doing that, I’ve noticed other people have come to me and shared with me their challenges, and have said to me that they are talking about that has helped get therapy. I think the best way to drive change in that space is ultimately is to just be open and tell people the truth about what you’re going through, good and bad. I think that helps them to start to realise that it is a safe space.

Aishwarya: So, coincidentally LonePack’s motive is also to shatter the stigma around mental health. And, that was a very valid statement that you said—people have to be vulnerable about the emotions that they go through. And I think impact needn’t always be a greater thing, it can be a small act of kindness that can actually go a long way. So, as you said get the impact done with a self-motive and get that out to people so more people get influenced by you and try to do the same thing, and I think impact spreads in that way. 

Ryan: Absolutely! 

Aishwarya: In a recent article, you spoke about how being bullied had a part in your success today. Could you elaborate more on that?

Ryan: Absolutely. Growing up as I mentioned earlier, I was odd and a bit different and shy. I was also an only-child, and I wasn’t guided on knowing how to make friends. I was still a pretty nice kid, but I don’t know how I was really an easy target for bullies. That was tough and that shook me in a certain way, some of them which were good—but I’ve been able to work on the trauma from that, and at the same time it’s hard for me to say that I wouldn’t want to have that not happen to me, because I really like the person I am today, and I don’t know what kind of person I would be, had I not have that happen to me. I had to work on myself. I do not regret any of that stuff, but I definitely regret not getting therapy earlier. 

Aishwarya: Yeah, I think recounting and getting back to childhood, and relating it to the present-day views is very important—and, it is good that all of us need to start doing that. 

You’re featured as one of the Most Authentic CMOs by Drift, another giant in the SaaS industry. How do you think ‘authenticity’ can help C-suite leaders contribute to the mental health of their team members, and on the whole, the entire workforce?

Ryan: Authenticity can help C-suite leaders contribute to the mental health of their team members, because I think it’s so different from standard and the traditional leadership kind-of model and the leadership role that most managers take. I think it’s important to kind of think about management and leadership as two very-different things, and even if you are a manager you might not be able to lead in, so yeah and I think by the old-school way of management really was keeping control—not sharing everything with the team, keeping people in the dark, only telling them the minimum they need to know. If I think of a recent example for me was I had to let two people go on my team this week because they had really bad attitudes and you know we had given a lot of feedback on developing on these things, and they just didn’t, and I’m just simplifying obviously because I don’t want to get into the details.  

Aishwarya: I understand.   

Ryan: I was really proud when we had to tell this to the team—the bigger team—and when they asked questions, we were able to be really authentic with them about what we expect from them and why they shouldn’t be afraid about their own jobs, and I got 70 pieces of feedback and small notes saying that by being so authentic about the situation and telling around place that it does suck, it isn’t a fun experience for the folks to let go but also for us as a team we will grow stronger from it, etc. I think by opening up and by being authentic, it means that you get that back from your employees, and so now they are being more authentic with you which means as a leader you can do your job because you know where the problems or opportunities or difficulties faster because people are coming to you more quickly. So, that’s how it has impacted me.

Aishwarya: I think from your words I can sense that a ‘great’ team actually needs more transparency because it’s not just called a great team because they do great work or they do something really big. I think it’s more about how they treat the fellow people and what kind of attitude they have with the fellow people. And yeah, to identify the limitations, and to identify the strengths and addressing the issues good or bad—I think that forms the strength of the team and that actually grows to an organisation level as well the top management or the C-suite. 

You wrote in your recent article for Harvard Business Review on how as a boss you encourage your employees to consider outside job offers. That’s interesting. Does it have anything to do with the mental health concept? Or, was it something else that drove you to pick this thought. 

Ryan: So, I think where this came from for me in this concept wasn’t tied in with mental health, really, I was kind of examining my own career and I am often asked by my PAs and my employees the questions on career and growing and it reflects on the past decade of marketing, and how I have gotten to where I have got. And I think to be part of it for me was always being happy to chat with people if they talked to me about a role that is interesting or the company that is doing interesting things. And, I probably only reply and set up a call maybe with 5% of the people that actually reach out to me. Lot of them are maybe not the right roles or their companies aren’t the right fit for what I’d be interested in. I am always interested in learning about the roles out there and what my value or worth is. Being involved in those conversations just reactively helped me work on myself. Companies said they will pay me a certain amount to do this job at their companies—I didn’t want to work there. I love where I am working right now. Maybe, I have to speak to my boss that I am not at the right market pay right. Again, that allows me to have a simple and professional discussion like, “Hey! I like staying here but I’m getting offers that are 20% more than what I am currently on and I don’t want to leave but I am considering these offers at the moment just because of the fact that the extra 20% will be really helpful for me and my family situation.” Maybe I’ll have to do it, I haven’t done many times maybe once or twice in my career and my bosses have always been able to come back to me and offer me more responsibility and compensation. My message here is that you shouldn’t just go and try to, you know, blackmail your boss. In reality, you must do this only when you’re well aware of your path and are actually willing to leave, because it could go wrong and your boss might not want you on the team. So, you should never have that conversation unless you are going to leave if there isn’t a change at work. But it is also important to have that conversation. In my experience, my employees will come to me and chat with me when they are interviewing with a company and it is weird to say that I don’t find that weird at all. If they are on my team, I would love to coach them in terms of how they get their next job because they are going to leave  being a total advocate for our company, me and their career. They might be referred by well-known people in Chicago, looking for jobs. It is not a bad thing, you don’t want the same people on you team, the same CMO forever and mix things up. I am realistic with my team about either being here forever nor do I expect them to pretend that they are. 

Aishwarya: Yes, true, it’s a perfect analysis. Corporates work on this format. Most of the employees today want to work with more valued, proactive, empathetic and realistic leader so that they can be confident discussing issues, about their future growth opportunities that they get from outside; And, the way you mentioned that the people who are addressing this should be confident and have solid thoughts before talking about this to their bosses—I think on both sides having certain amount of realistic attitude, transparency and candidness really helps. It is wonderful to know that you’ve been a leader who does that. 

What’s your view on employees taking days off for mental health, popularly known as the “mental health day?

Ryan: I think it’s great. More employees must do this and employers must openly talk about this as well as an options for folks to take. I genuinely think that the only way to make people realistically take these things seriously is for leadership teams to actually do that themselves and show that it’s an ‘OKAY’ thing to do. I have had days that I’ve cancelled on all my meetings in the morning just because I haven’t been in the right frame of mind for that day. I have told my employees that I’m taking a “mental health day” and that has encouraged them to know that they can do the same. 

Aishwarya: Certainly. I think that the leaders set the right example, and the people who are hearing this right now, know that it’s okay to take a day off for mental issues; for their mental health. 

How important is mental health from a workspace angle and what are some simple steps that a team can take to ensure emotional wellness? 

Ryan: I don’t think your mental health at workplace is different from that of your home. Everything is connected—how you’re sleeping, how stressed you’re, and how you’re at work with all these things. I think some really simple things folks can do is get better at identifying when they have a low mental health score. For example, they wake up and have the lowest score for their mental health for a certain day so instead of having lots of coffee and sugary drinks, sit with your emotions and try to work out on what is making you feel down. I turn off most notifications from my apps on my phone—it doesn’t buzz unless someone is calling or sending me an SMS. My screen also is completely muted so the only way I see a notification is when I go into the app itself. That was a really conscious thing I needed to, I was getting overwhelmed and anxious that day my phone was just ringing every second. Putting about a few intentional change in notifications was one big way to help. Finally, identifying if your work is a safe space, looking at how you can have conversations like that with your boss and your employees around mental health. That doesn’t mean the boss has to ask, “how is your mental health today,” although asking questions might help employees open up but they answer in work-related terms. Instead of asking questions like “How are you doing?” for which most employees answer, I ask “How are you doing outside of work?” or “How are you doing as a person?” That is showing my employee that this one-on-one, this conversation and relationship, is a safe space for them to open up. 

Aishwarya: Yes, great. I see three things that you’ve mentioned—dealing with your emotions, muting your notifications, retrospection and having a proper conversation with your boss or anyone you feel like talking at workplace. I think coming to the closure, I have one last question that is the most debatable and important one that most corporates need to look into.

As a top-tier management leader, do you think every company should invest more on providing mental wellness support in the form of therapy sessions, relaxation benefits and so on?

Ryan: Absolutely, I really think that for any company to be successful, it’s because of their employees. So, you need to hire the best employees, run the best training for them to become better and keep learning. You need to support them in their journey and just as you’d allow someone get extra training in their job area to make them better. I don’t think there is any difference in terms of training around how we function in our health. Businesses today are very comfortable today in giving gym compensations for employees by having internal gyms. More companies now are creating really amazing cultures and motivating employers are doing the same with mental health too. Yes, I’m a big fan and I’m excited that more and more businesses and some of the world’s best leaders are realising that it’s not just about the work, it’s about the person that gets the work done too. 

Aishwarya: Yes, certainly. 

Thank you, Ryan, I think it was a great opportunity for me to speak to you about how mental health is perceived in the corporate front, especially coming from a C-suite leader, and what your honest experiences are being a CMO of a world-renowned company. We are immensely pleased and we extend our hearty congratulations to you on behalf of Lonepack for all the amazing work that you are doing. Thank you once again!

Ryan: Thank you for having me, really had a lot of fun.