Overcoming South Asian Taboos: A Q&A With the Keepin’-it-Real Guru Vasavi Kumar

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.

On Cultural Norms & Relationships


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.

On Therapy


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.

By Sofia Charania

Sofia is a medical student at Yale and currently spends her time between New Haven, CT and Manhattan. She is … Read more ›