I have had the pleasure of being contacted by Jhilmil Breckenridge - Poet, Writer & Activist.
This is her mental health story.
By Jhilmil Breckenridge
Being locked up in a psychiatric hospital is a concerted and systematic way of dehumanising you. Photo courtesy Gary Knight via Flickr by CC 2.0
This is not a scene from a science fiction book. Unfortunately, this happened to me in 2007, when my family colluded to have me incarcerated, committed, locked up, put away — take your pick — into a mental health facility, aka an asylum. I spent a gruelling 46 days there. And unfortunately, it’s still as simple as that – people are routinely put away in the course of divorce cases, property disputes, family feuds, while they are battling alcoholism, and oh, in some cases, for having mental illness.
This brings me to another question – the rights of people with mental illness to freedom, to choose their own means of healing, but we may have to save that for another article. For now, I will tell you my own story.
It began when I was 21 and met my ex-husband, then a dashing US Air Force officer. We got married in 1992 and everything seemed rosy. In hindsight, I can see there were red flags, but like many people, I ignored them. When he wanted to control all our money, even though we were both working. When he forced me to have sex. When he pouted and sulked for days if I refused, and I decided that it was best to perform just to keep the peace. When he kept me isolated from my friends and family because he claimed he did not like to go out. When he said let’s not employ a cleaner because he was an American and it was an invasion of his privacy. I tried. God knows I tried to comply, to change, to perform, to please.
But sometimes, things are not meant to be. When in 2002, desperate to save my marriage after ten years, a business together and three kids, I opted for therapy to cope with the stress, I was labelled as the ‘crazy’ one. Even though the therapist at the time suggested that we all get therapy, my husband and my parents refused. Their answer: ‘We are fine, you go.’ I continued with the therapy and hoped things would improve at home.
They did not. Things got so bad that I could not breathe. I would wake up at night, gasping for breath. I was routinely awakened from deep sleep for sex and I would comply. That I would vomit right after, and bleed from all my orifices, was a matter of concern only to me.
When I told my parents that I was being sexually abused, they tried to brush it under the carpet. This was very hard as I thought they were progressive and that they would support me when I said I wanted a divorce or some help. But under the veneer of sophistication, education and being able to say the right things about the rights of the marginalised, the patriarchy rules. They were as regressive as khap panchayats who want to control runaway and errant daughters.
And so it went. 2002 became 2006. I had another son. I tried some more to focus on my own health by doing exercise and yoga. I tried harder to focus on the marriage. I tried to be a ‘good’ wife. In the meantime, my family and ex-husband started floating the theory that I had mental illness because I was getting therapy. Words like bipolar disorder were flung around, although I was never officially diagnosed. On a trip to London, a Harley Street psychiatrist mentioned a possible treatment using psychiatric drugs, and although I never started (I was pregnant with my youngest), the shadow of that label loomed large. I was always judged through bipolar disorder coloured lenses.
In 2007, while having a meltdown in a large Delhi hospital where my ex was hospitalised for dengue, I found myself being thrown into the back of a white police gypsy and taken to a psychiatric facility. I was taken alone; my father and ex-husband had colluded to have me committed. That incident changed my life and I was locked up for 46 days, including two weeks in solitary, with guards present around the clock.
Every evening, the psychiatrist in charge of my case, a pretty high profile doctor, would come and ask me if I felt guilty. Guilty for what, I always asked. But it is almost as if holding spaces like these are places where people are ‘taught a lesson’ so that they change. When I was finally released, I was like a zombie because of all the medication and had become very, very quiet. In addition, I was so petrified about being locked up again that I just kept looking over my shoulder. I really tried to watch my own behaviour, and kept trying to be ‘good’.