In the wake of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, mental health as a topic needs to be addressed by desi society, both here in America and back in the subcontinent. Mental health and everything that goes along with it is a topic that culturally, we have ignored and kept “hush-hush” but that is precisely the root of the problem.
Today we have Vasavi Kumar, a licensed therapist and mindset coach (among other things) who is sharing her personal story and her experience in social work. She has overcome addiction, a toxic relationship, and perhaps most insidious of all- the “what will people say?” mentality that exists within Desi culture.
Can you share a quick background about you for our readers?
Professionally, I’m a licensed therapist and a mindset coach and business strategist and I’ve been in business for 10 years. Culturally, I’m a first-generation Indian-American, and I was raised in a Hindu, Tamil, Brahmin household in New York. I have two Masters degrees. I did the whole “Indian thing” – I got married to a nice Indian boy and then got divorced 4 years later.
I then immediately got into a relationship with a man who was much younger than me, not Indian, and who was a recovering addict. My unaddressed issues with needing to fix and save and help people really surfaced because I lost myself in that relationship; I really felt I needed a relationship to make me whole and complete. And that’s something that we as women are trained to believe – in all cultures, but especially in the Indian culture. It’s all about “settle down and get married, have kids” and so I did that. My parents never put pressure on me, but I felt this need to get married and I wanted to be ‘picked’ and feel wanted and feel important, and my sense of importance came from being a wife. And in the Indian culture, we focus a lot on external success and it’s all about keeping up with the Joneses, so that [getting married] was very important to me.
You mentioned that you felt your value and importance came from being a wife. Can you pinpoint where specifically that came from for you? Movies? TV? The way people in your family talked?
I think definitely movies, especially Bollywood and Disney movies. Also, in my family, my mom played the role of bad cop, while my dad gave me all the attention and coddled me. So I wanted that love from a man romantically also. But I think we get these messages all the time from a young age – we see the damsel in distress who needs to be saved OR we see women taking care of men – cooking, cleaning. I have no problem with cooking but I also want to be with someone who can give the same back to me. If you gotta eat, you gotta learn how to cook too! My mother is a retired cardiologist, so she did teach me to be financially independent from a very young age, but I still received all those messages from movies too.
How do you imagine how girls who DON’T have such a strong female presence are impacted by these messages?
If you don’t have a strong female role model as a girl, you’re probably getting your messages from your friends who are saying “I just wanna get married” and the movies and TV which give us these expectations. I’m not telling anyone to get divorced or not to get married. But we really need to start asking ourselves WHY the end all be all is getting married and having kids! I think too often we settle for somebody for companionship and comfort but we aren’t fulfilled in our own lives and we think this man will save us and then it’s two unfulfilled people coming together who aren’t happy as a unit.
What can you tell us about self-fulfillment, not just from your work but also your own experiences and struggles?
I started going to therapy at 12 years old. I grew up in an all-white town and I wanted to be accepted by kids at school and I started doing things like smoking cigarettes and hanging out with a ‘fast’ crowd. My parents didn’t know how to deal with this, so I said to my parents “I think I need to see a therapist” and I worked with that therapist from age 12 to 28. I’ve learned to express my feelings and talk about things; I don’t keep things inside and because of that I was almost the black sheep of the family. My mother would rather have not talked about things and I think that’s common in the Indian culture – the idea that If you don’t talk about it it’s not really a problem.
They were involved in the process, but I will say they didn’t go to therapy themselves. It was more of “I’m the one with the issue” but the thing is, when there’s a problem with one family member, it affects the whole family and it’s important that everyone in the family has someone to talk to. There’s a lot of pride and ego and things that prevent people from getting help – they think “I can handle this on my own.”
On Recognizing Unfulfillment
Many people have a hard time identifying that they’re unhappy. Did you realize in retrospect after the divorce that you were unhappy, or did you know all along?
I was so busy being busy—hustling, building my business. I mistook a lot of my success as happiness. It was a hit of dopamine every time I got published somewhere or got interviewed somewhere. But when I didn’t have those things I felt bad. After my divorce, I started dating someone and I began using cocaine and alcohol. It started as a once a week thing but then got out of hand. But I was still able to keep working so I was able to tell myself I didn’t have a problem. But the problem I had manifested as an addiction to cocaine and alcohol and I was in denial that I was unhappy because I was numbing it with drugs. Many people are constantly running after things or they bury themselves in their work or their relationship so they don’t even have to address the hole inside of them. For me, the hole inside of me was apparent because I lost everything and I had to go to rehab. For me, everything burned to the ground. For most people, their lives don’t burn to the ground. I had no choice but to address my inside.
If you had to describe it, what does unhappiness feel like?
When I was unhappy, it was hard to be alone with the thoughts in my head. Those thoughts would be telling me “you’re not enough” and “you should be busy.” My mind didn’t leave me alone. I chose to be in a toxic relationship rather than being alone. I remember one time I found out my ex cheated on me and my thought was “it’s gonna be worse if you have to be alone so you may as well work it out with him.” Being alone was scarier than being with someone who broke my trust.
I think a lot of what we do and say is complicit. At the end of the day, on a deep level, people’s worst fear is that we’re going to be alone and we’re going to die. The idea of being lonely feels like death. We stick around in shitty relationships and jobs and we do things because other people want us to. We think “if I make people upset, then they won’t love me and I’m going to be alone and then I may as well be dead.” We need other people to validate us in order to feel alive.
The worst thing you can do is leave a man alone with the thoughts in his head. It reminds me of when I was younger and I did anything awesome, I always had to call my mom or my dad because me acknowledging what I did wasn’t enough. We need that external validation. And because of that, we’re so worried about what other people think that we don’t care what we think about ourselves.
On Mental Illness and the desi Community
How did the South Asian community shape who you are?
I love being Indian and Hindu. I wouldn’t change that for the world. Being Indian comes with its own sense of devotion towards God. Everything has meaning and I love that. What I don’t love are the societal and cultural expectations placed on people. It has shaped me to be a more devout and understanding person. But part of that is my parental upbringing too. But there’s also a lot of ‘what will people think’ and ‘settling down.’
How does your South Asian background affect the way you practice as a therapist and coach?
I bring a lot of mindfulness into the work. Meditation and awareness and becoming mindful of your thoughts is an important part of my work and I credit that to my South Asian heritage.
What were your parents worried about regarding your bipolar disorder diagnosis; did they think it was their fault?
I am currently medication free. But at the time, they were worried no one would want to marry me. When I was getting married, the first thing my parents asked was if he knew about my diagnosis. And I said “Yeah he accepts me” and my parents thought it was a good match based solely on that. A month before my wedding I said to my dad “I don’t think I should be getting married’ and he said “But you have bipolar disorder, who else is going to marry you?”
My mom was a doctor and she knew the stigma that existed and she wanted to protect me, also. And then there was a component of shame that she might have done something wrong in parenting, also.
Which battle do you think was harder for your parents-your overcoming mental illness and addiction or the divorce?
The addiction and the toxic relationship was harder to handle. It was unhealthy and I could have died from an overdose. So that was harder to handle. They were very supportive of me going to rehab.
Can you tell us how you were able to bring your experiences with addiction and the challenges you’ve faced in your career?
I went from having it all to hitting my rock bottom, and then building it back up after aligning my life with my values. Now everything I do is aligned with MY values and how I want to live my life, not the expectations of others. I am in charge of my reality. I’ve learned to trust myself rather than making decisions based on what people will think. And now I help my clients with that too. I am not just speaking from “I went to Columbia and I’m smart” it’s me bringing the first-hand experience to you. It’s not theoretical stuff, it’s experience. There’s a big difference between wisdom or lived experience and book knowledge.
Any advice for people who are struggling with mental illness in the desi community?
First and foremost you have to admit to yourself that you aren’t feeling good. Admit you don’t feel happy and fulfilled. Then get help. Find someone who has walked a similar path and get help. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. You don’t need to tell your parents everything and consult with people who don’t understand. If you’re financially independent, talk to a professional first. Don’t talk to people who have never gone through what you’re going through. People who don’t understand will tell you not to. They’ll project their own fears and insecurities on you and they’ll try to talk you out of it. And if you’re already vulnerable, you might think “oh okay maybe I don’t need help.” Get the help you need from a professional before anything else.
Vasavi Kumar leads the therapy industry with 10 years of experience and has helped thousands of women overcome major life obstacles to create new heights of success. Her work is known internationally from speaking engagements in India and across the USA. Vasavi is recognized for getting to the bottom of the intersection of self and business roadblocks and her methods teach clients how to master the art of getting what you want. Vasavi holds dual Masters degrees in Special Education from Hofstra University and Social Work from Columbia University. She’s the host of the Being Human with Vasavi Podcast and Former Co-Host of Studio 512, a lifestyle and entertainment morning show in Austin, TX. She’s been featured in The Wall Street Journal, FOX, VH1, and was a regular on NBC’s Kansas City Live as the “Keepin’ It Real Guru.” She believes that when you cultivate a solid relationship with yourself, you can be, do, and have anything you want. Be sure to check out Vasavi’s free guide and join her MIND Your Own Business community here.
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.
July 7, 2023September 10, 2023 11min readBy Ushma Shah
BGM literary editor Nimarta Narang is honored to work with author Ushma Shah in this utterly creative and novel, pun not intended, story about a young woman who has just moved to the United States with her husband, and her trusted diary. Ushma is a short story writer and an aspiring novelist. She has her short stories published in a few anthologies and online literary magazines like Kitaab and The Chakkar. She was born in Mumbai and raised in Mumbai and Cochin. She has an MBA and works in the corporate world. Work and life have given her the opportunity to live in multiple cities in India. She currently resides in Seattle and goes by the handle @penthythoughts on Instagram.
She is the kind of person who doesn’t like to go into stores without a purpose. But she sometimes does. And that’s how she becomes a hoarder. She also prefers only tried and tested places. The kind where she doesn’t have to go out empty-handed. The urge to not disappoint people is strong. So she ends up buying useless things. Like a snow globe with a turnkey. Or 12. She loves the tiny magical people and animals in it. Rotating. Glowing. Musical. But I am deviating from the point. Who am I, you ask? I am her. A piece of her. She takes me everywhere. Writes down her thoughts in me. Writes how her day was. That’s why I know her so well. Why am I telling you all this? Because she hasn’t written for a week now. Longest she has gone in half a decade. I don’t understand it. She won’t tell me anything anymore and I am just so curious. No, curious is the wrong word. The intensity is just not right. I am impatient. Restless. Maybe even hurt, too? I see what she does. How she looks. But that’s just not enough. Not for me. Her confidante for five years and suddenly it’s all poof.
Human addiction is a true addiction. I was superior for those glorious thoughts that nobody knew about her. She doesn’t look happy. She opens and shuts me, picks me up and then back down. In her new Michael Kors bag she bought recently at a premium outlet mall. She always wanted to see a new country. 32-years-old and she had never visited any country other than the one she was born in — India. She should be happy she is finally here. She couldn’t stop chirping about it when they got their visas approved. She and her husband. She has been here for three months now. Initially, she was happy. But then the euphoria died down and anxiety kicked in. The last thing she wrote was: “I haven’t had a bath for a week now.” Her husband is too busy with work to notice. The new project takes up most of his time. Plus navigating life in a new country is a project in itself. I hear him not understanding why an appointment is required for a self-guided tour of the apartments. And that they have appointments only till 5 p.m. which means they have to go house hunting during his office hours. Downtown Bellevue mostly has apartments for rent that are managed by corporations rather than individuals. But at least he is okay with the cold, having survived Delhi weather all throughout his life. It also doesn’t help that she is not used to the cold, having lived in Mumbai all her life. It only needed to turn 22 degrees Celsius in Mumbai when she used to set off; removing her sweaters and jackets from the untouched-for-a-year cupboard. So house hunting is a major bummer, painstaking process even for her. In a place where it always drizzles but doesn’t bring the smell of wet mud. Everything around her is concrete. Asphalt. Sterile.
One day on their way back, they visited the Meydenbauer Beach Park along Lake Washington. I saw a hint of a smile. The first one in a week. The pine trees are a solace. They stand strong, holding their ground at maybe a 100 feet. She cranes her neck back and tries to catch a look at the tip. Making her feel dizzy. She feels like she is falling back. Tilting her five feet frame. She removes her feet from the shoes. She looks at the rounded stones. Big stones. The size of an ottoman big enough to comfortably sit on but hard enough to not sit for long.
But by the end of the visit, she looked worse. That night she wrote and I was thankful for the visit. The first sentence read: I feel claustrophobic. She has lived in Mumbai all her life and never knew that subconsciously the sea made such a big impact on her psyche. The sea, unending in its view. Its waves crashing and rebelling against the rocks gave her a sense of space even though she lived in a one-room kitchen apartment. The warmth. She missed the warmth, although sometimes too stifling. The sweat, and the saltwater smell. There was much to be thankful for here in Bellevue, even though there were no crashing waves and it was 45 degrees Fahrenheit today. The sand, too cold. But there was peace, there was calm. But what about the sounds that she craved, the feeling that stimulated her senses? That accompanied her every morning: the ‘tring tring’ of the cycles, the ‘tip tip’ of the water overflowing from the tank after it was filled. The daily TV news her Ma watched. The smell of her morning chai with grated ginger. The ting ting of her small bell during pooja. These are the things that she does not write but I know her. I know how to read between the lines.
But somewhere I have failed her. I must have. If she did not find comfort in writing. For how could she have gone on without it for a week? How could she? She is as used to me as I am to her. Or at least I thought that.
But now is not the time to feel irritated. She has started writing again. I was overjoyed; I thought everything would be back to normal now. How naive was I? A few lines in, and I am worried. I am also worried that my annoyance will seep through the pages and into her hands. She writes: I miss my place where the duration of the days and nights are almost the same throughout the year. A place where I don’t have to see a 4:30 pm sunset. Or a sunrise after 7:30 am. Nobody prepared me for less than 10 hours of daytime. I feel like I took the sun for granted. When I first came here in October, the sun set at around 7 p.m. Every day, the sun set a little early from then on. 6:50, 6:43, 6:22, 6 p.m., 5:54 p.m. And then on November 6 came the thing I was least prepared for. The Daylight Savings. I would gain an hour, they said! What I gained was a sense of doom. Because the clocks were set back by an hour, the sun set before 5 p.m. every day from then on.
The seasons are what make me. Why then, am I afraid of the seasons? No matter what the weather, the weather is constant. It is constantly too hot, or too cold or just not warm enough or just not cool enough. Every day in itself brings a new season.
“Oh, there is a heavy rain forecast for the whole day today.”
“Do you know it’s going to snow today?”
“Amazing weather! Isn’t it a perfect day to travel?”
Seasons are a universal language, everyone understands it. It transcends manmade boundaries. Just as I am feeling the cold under the layers of clothes I wear. A breeze rippling through the surface of the lake water makes me shiver. If the seasons are what make me, why do I feel cold and sad. Maybe because I long for a different weather. Having grown up in a tropical city, my body is not used to the cold. But is that all? The great reason for the hollow? It can’t be. And I am restless because I can’t figure it out. If not this, then what else? What else could it possibly be?
When she writes this I figure it out. I am always able to figure her out. Her mind does not want to go there. Because after all, this is the life she chose. Of course, how could I have been so blind?
Around two weeks ago I observed her. Observed and observed for a few hours. A few days. Even then I knew something was amiss. She was writing but her heart wasn’t in it. It was dwindling. She doodled and dawdled. A sentence here. A sentence there. Then I was discarded on the coffee table in front of her. My observations, you ask? She scrolls through LinkedIn, going through a series of posts about the looming recession. She searches and applies obsessively to 50 job openings every day. And day after day, her laptop or phone chimes in with a rejection email. She refreshes. Refreshes. Refreshes. Every 10 minutes. Whatever she is doing. No matter if she is in the kitchen or the washroom or the living room. She is glued to her phone checking for a new email. A new job opening. She set her filters to relevant job openings… And then goes on to the painstaking process of filling her details out on different company portals. When she reached the USA, she was hopeful. Of finding a new job. Was very optimistic. She had worked with global companies in India after all. Surely that had to account for something. But with each passing day, the light within her dimmed just a little. Bit by bit. I hate to admit it but I didn’t come to this conclusion when I observed her. It struck me when I stopped and she wrote again. Sometimes I need a macro perspective after micro is too much. She is so inside her head and not on paper that she cannot understand. But I also don’t think it is as easy to pinpoint. It’s a combination of things in her life, culminating in a single point of paralysis. Even now, who knows? It’s just my opinion of a subject I don’t understand completely. She is talented enough to fool everyone around her. Her friends and family also do not know this about her. They think she is enjoying her break from work. They think she is immensely enjoying the exploration of a new country without a worry in the world. She hates admitting that she is miserable. She wants them to feel that she has got it all together. That her life is perfect. When they go through her social media profile, they find her happy pictures. Ecstatic even.
A couple of months ago when she was leaving for the USA, her office colleagues had warned her: “One of my sisters lives in the States. She is miserable there. Wants to come back but her husband doesn’t.”
“He has a high-paying tech job and all so he is okay. But he is on an H1-B visa without an I-140.”
“So? What does that mean?”
“Which means the spouse can’t work. So she can’t work.”
“I am surprised you didn’t know this.”
“I haven’t started my research yet on the visa types and job search. But I intend to.”
“It is very important to understand your options. It is not always as picture-perfect as it seems. My sister is busy doing all the household chores. And she is not happy. Her social life was here. She has no friends there. Only his work friends they mingle with.”
“I know about my visa type though. I can still work there.”
“Oh, honey,” she gives a sympathetic smile, “but everyone wants to convert into an H1-B once they go there. So there could be a brief period where you might have to be unemployed.”
“But that doesn’t matter. Because we intend to come back in a few years. We just want to experience a different work environment and culture and to have that thrill of living in a new country. But only for a few years.”
“Honey, they all say that. As I said, consider your options once you are there before you decide anything. Okay?”
“I will, thanks. I am sure my husband would also check about these things. It is a major decision after all.”
“Oh, I am sure he would.”
She was very emotional on the last day of her job. She had worked there straight out of B-school. She had met some people who would become close friends and some who were toxic. But on the last day, she knew she would miss them all. She didn’t think that saying goodbye would be this difficult. Her name on the desk and chair in bright white letters with a black background came alive with memories. Memories of birthdays celebrated, lunches ordered, huddles and meetings, apprehension of deadlines, the adrenaline rush of getting it done just in time, the accolades. It felt empty by itself if not for the people she surrounded herself with. Her friends.
Her colleagues. They motivated her and pushed her to give her best. Her manager was always an inspiration. Solving problems and giving solutions in a way she herself didn’t think was possible. She learned a lot from each of them. But she was excited to begin a new chapter. But the isolation in a new country was what she hadn’t counted on.
Her husband noticed when she hadn’t had a bath for a couple of days. He thought it could be laziness. When he asked her about it, she said she would. Her reply was curt, and tone grumpy, so he left it at that. After a week of the whole no-bath scenario, her husband thought it was time to have a talk. This wasn’t one of those phases she would overcome on her own. A little push. A little nudge would maybe do her some good. When he saw her refreshing her Gmail inbox for the umpteenth time that day, he said,
“You know, we came to this country to experience a new place, a new city.”
“Hmm.” Eyes glued to the screen.
“Don’t you think it’s time to do that?”
He places his hand in front of her phone.
“What are you so worried about?”
She looked at him for a moment before answering. “That I won’t find another job. Every day on LinkedIn, there is a new company that’s laying off or announcing a hiring freeze and I am worried that my career break will just go on longer.”
“But weren’t you always saying that you needed some time off to pursue your passion of writing?”
“All that’s good to talk about. But I need to focus on my career too.”
“I understand that, but the recession is not your fault. You are doing everything you can.”
“I need to do more.”
“You need to get the bigger picture. Zoom out. You have a glorious opportunity to work on your writings. You have notebooks filled with stories. Don’t you think it is time you polished the pieces and submitted them somewhere?”
“What I need to do is get a job.”
“You will get it but the time that you have right now, in between jobs, is hard to come by. Think about it. You can try to do what you always talked about doing. Or was all that just big talk?” I could see, she took the bait.
She considered. “Hmm,” was all she said.
“I also found something for you.”
He had searched for a public library nearby. A magnificent three-storied red brick building standing beside a park. Just a mile away from their home. She could get herself a membership there. I thought this was an amazing idea. She had always wanted a house near a library. I could tell that this piqued her interest even if she feigned indifference to her husband. She wanted to see it first. I could see it in her eyes. And here I thought that the husband was too busy to notice her worries. I guess he was letting her be. Well, I couldn’t have guessed it. I can’t read his thoughts.
The next morning, she woke up to her alarm at 7:30 a.m. and had a shower. She was ready by 8:30 a.m., in time for the library to be open by 9 a.m. She was armed with her warmest winter jacket and a beanie. Wandered around the streets on her way to the Bellevue library. Taking in the strollers with their prams and pets. Warm coffees in their hands. In 10 minutes, she was standing in front of the library and was not disappointed. Covered with floor-to-ceiling glass panes, she could peer inside as she walked to the front door. She was also pleasantly surprised at a life-sized bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi just outside the library; in the midst of now barren trees. There was ample seating space inside. Aisles and aisles of books: classics, romance, historical fiction, new interesting fiction and non-fiction sections, choice reads, monthly picks, and a dedicated holds section for reserved books.
Her husband was right. Isn’t this what she always wanted to explore? Read and write. Write and read. Surround herself with books and pages. She had found her place. She touched her fingers in reverence to the cracked paperbacks, reminding her of the piles of books she left behind at her place in India. She borrowed a few novels and set off with them and me in her backpack. Couldn’t resist a warm cup of coffee from a cafe she spotted. Picked a window-facing table overlooking a park. She read as she finished her coffee. A good girl’s guide to murder was a page-turner. It was the first time in months that she had ventured out on her own. She felt at ease. At peace. Her breath, a little lighter. A little deeper. She saw two dogs playing outside. Free and wild. She picked up her phone and googled bookstores and art galleries around. She found that a couple of independent bookstores nearby also host monthly book clubs and writing clubs. She signed up for them and started off in the direction of the art gallery.
I was happy. She was bouncing back. One step at a time.
Mental health is quite the subject these days, its troubles affect everyone; it knows no gender, orientation, race — it strikes upon one’s inner journey. But specifically, what have not been put in the same sentence are men, mental health and vulnerability. Too often it is seen that men are not allowed to show their emotions. But the aftermath shows that this repression of emotions bleeds into relationships, substance abuse, domestic violence, and more. It is seen time and time again in films, books, art — it’s all too familiar.
And it is beyond the point of “let’s talk about it.”
Time for action.
Mental health hits close to home for me. As a filmmaker, I will always share my journey with others. – Jacquile Singh Kambo
Men, mental health and vulnerability often aren’t talked about enough. “Embrace” is a short film that seeks to change that. It is a short animated film about Arty, a well-dressed man who has no face, gets ready for his date until he meets a younger version of himself. Arty and this younger version of himself delve into a surreal world where he learns to embrace himself. It’s him versus himself.
The façade self; the feeling of wanting to be somebody — are all things people are dealing with especially in adult life. From the dating world to the social media world — it feels like different masks are worn only to make us feel faceless, feel numb or a nobody. Too many masks could make people feel like a lost identity amidst everything that is going on in this crazy world. Out of touch, and out of life — with others and with themselves. The masks are metaphorical, the story is internally about men and mental health. Arty learns to ’embrace’ himself and to overcome his internal struggles.
Not often is it discussed that men should have a safe environment to be vulnerable, amongst others or even other men. Perhaps this is because men are wired to put on a façade when things go wrong, when things get difficult, or when true emotions are not expressed. If these are not dealt with, it can lead to other relationships, including romantic relationships. Further it becomes a cycle: suppression could lead to aggression, substance abuse or self-sabotaging behaviors and could create a toxic environment. Many of these arise from childhood trauma. Quite often childhood is repressed or ignored, and one may take their troubles along with them into adulthood. Perhaps revisiting the roots of the past can help one become successful in a better tomorrow. “Embrace” is an example of how important it is for men to embrace their past.
“Embrace” was meant to be a live-action film — until animation was considered. Seven years of re-writing, re-working, and digging down deep with the characters for the story to better fit the message at its core. Animation is an underrated avenue for a universal story that became the key pillar for “Embrace”. What many do not know about animation is that you can create a serious subject matter in a light-hearted way that is universally acceptable. Men and mental health are heavy subjects for some, but animation allows the exploration to become innovative, creative and fun. Animation allows the experimentation of entering surreal worlds.
For example, in “Embrace” Arty enters a surreal world where he has to go up against a younger version of himself — to unmask the root cause of his internal struggles and give himself the “big hug” he needs. This heart-throbbing metaphor is captured in animation that a live-action film couldn’t have captured. The freedom of animation helps tackle tough subject matters about self-love, and how we must embrace the soul, the child, the person within.
The Story Behind The Story
There are many inspirations behind “Embrace”. Film noir, the silent film era, surrealism and the works of Christopher Nolan and David Lynch — the film is able to articulate something far more special. This is more than just a mental health piece for educational purposes. This is a classical narrative from beginning to end; a story of important themes and beloved characters that needed to be shared with the world.
It is not often the words mental health and men and vulnerability are discussed under the same umbrella — especially with growing hypermasculinity, and the likes of social media where facades are put up and the vulnerable parts of ourselves aren’t as expressed. It is here where the film encourages men to look within themselves, and allows them to be vulnerable to themselves. Perhaps this is an important step to better themselves on the journey to have successes (whatever success means to them), and to enlighten and lift those around them. The first step should always begin with “you.”
It’s tough to find places where men have access in ways of improving their mental health without feeling like a patient or a victim in the institutionalized realm. It’s tough to find places where men can talk to other men about their struggles among peer groups, educational groups, and more.
The “Let’s Talk” phase and awareness is long overdue; it is indeed time for action. Perhaps creating seminars or group-related events and activities to help create vulnerable environments. Art or art therapy can be a great way of producing something stemming from the inner journey. Or maybe it is time to look at “sick days” as “mental health days” as well. Perhaps more can be done to simply just talk about it. It’s time to give ‘doing’ a chance to start in our close-knit communities.
Maybe if one learns to ’embrace’ themselves, only then, perhaps one can fully understand others and their pain — and have the vision of empathy for others. “Embrace” took seven years to write and a year of animation for a four-and-a-half-minute short film. The film is about self-love, embracing one’s self before one can see empathy for others. It is produced by Raman K Fenty and Jayesh Kodwani and his team, directed and written by Jacquile Singh Kambo, co- written by Sidartha Murjani and stars Jenna Berman. “Embrace” has received numerous international accolades including Best Audience choice at the Emerging Lens Cultural Film Festival of Halifax, Nova Scotia, as well as acceptances in hometown Vancouver, Canada; Goa, India and Chicago, United States.
If you are struggling with your mental health, please call your regional crisis hotline. These are a few non-crisis mental health resources for men’s mental health.