Flowers Of The Nerinji

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I was diagnosed with Bipolar- Disorder in 1991 December in New York City. I was a graduate student of Molecular Biology when I was admitted to a hospital (psychiatric ward) for three weeks. Subsequently, I moved to Waltham, Massachusetts where I had two admissions in the psychiatric ward of the same hospital. The admissions were at an interval of a year. The following is a free- flowing account of my third hospitalization for psychoses and mania. I write about it because it hurts even now, after all these years. Sharing this experience alleviates the pain. Being a foreigner studying in America I felt truly as it was at the time – an alien.

On my return to India, I pursued the study of languages especially, Sanskrit. I learnt the art of instrumental music and underwent vocal music lessons. Music is my panacea and it has saved me from even suicidal ideations. I am medically compliant in spite of the side effects which are many in my case. I’ve already developed tremors in my hands and show the beginning of memory loss.


NOVEMBER 1994 – Waltham, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

The street was bright, clear, the sun pierced the early morning crispness and the sky was a powdery blue. The clouds of November, the first week of November, were white as we walked, my companions easing, slowing down my pace every now and then. This was nearly twenty years ago and I was being taken for psychiatric admission by friends, who said they were not, at the registration desk. I don’t remember my state of mind except that I looked up at the sky ever so often. This was not my first evaluation leading to hospitalization. I had been here a year ago. I certainly had been around. I was on a first name basis with the art therapist. 

When we reached the hospital, the staff asked me to sit in a corner. I huddled the upper part of my body and bent into a crouch on an available bucket chair and to this day I am not aware of what they were asking my companions. Indian woman, 26, previous history of bipolar disorder, etc. etc. Perhaps it was only half an hour, or an hour but the next thing I remember is entering the ward, the double doors locked and they confiscated my cigarettes. I understood slowly as time went by, they would confiscate my privileges one by one and later restore them if I behaved. 

My companions left with the promise to return with clothes, toiletries and my diary. My acquaintance with them was only slight so I initially was suffused with gratefulness for their attention. Mine was an emergency admission probably triggered by insomnia and alcohol consumed during a dinner the previous night. I spent the afternoon refusing lunch and the nurses did not persuade me either. I was restless, impatient, angry bordering on the hysterical but they would still not give me a cigarette. My first privilege was thus officially taken away. 

I spent the evening in the dorm with Debbie, that was her real name. She was not very lucid and seemed to be under the impression that the social workers were harassing her, sexually, on evidence to the contrary. She kept up a steady chatter quizzing me about my other admissions, so far. I don’t remember the name or even the personality of my other room – mate. 

Dinner too I did not consume, since the salad was slapped right on top of the beef in spite of my companions informing the head nurse that I was vegetarian. Under lucid conditions, I would have simply moved the salad aside and eaten it. But now, my childhood and atavistic habits came to the fore. I refused dinner too. I hung out in the common watching T.V., watching the patients, trying to figure out who was closer to discharge. Some of these men and women had regained some of their privileges and though their faces were careworn, they appeared happy to be going out of the ward.

At 10p.m. the lights were switched off all over the ward, including the nurse’s station that was merely dimly lit. I lay in bed with the uppermost concern that I had been unfairly incarcerated, when I could not even sleep. I was far too manic to count sheep as Debbie suggested from the adjoining bed.  I got up and sat in a chair in the common foyer. I had hardly sat there for a minute when Galaxy, a social worker came charging down on me and ordered, no commanded me, to go back to the dorm.  I was upset and simply tried to rationalize my insomnia with him. But he would have none of my polite arguments. Then I did the unthinkable in a psychiatric ward. I lost my temper, cursing him, my life and the psychiatrist.

From there, it was a short step to the isolation room. I remember all 35kg, 5’2″, of my frame being carried, lifted and dumped on a restraining bed. Within minutes they gave me an injection in the gluteal region, that’s my bum. The name of this drug was not mentioned to my companions, nor to me, nor was it mentioned in the discharge summary.

I don’t remember the events of the next three days except that the food tray was pushed inside and the door shut forcibly, with a bang; I imagine. I lost body consciousness for the period of three days; I was in a deep hallucination that resembled a spiritual state. I know that psychiatric admissions sometimes bring on the feeling of God consciousness among other loony bin visions. I was ecstatic, different from the mania that I knew. But I was dead to the world outside. 

On waking on the third day, I found that I had menstruated, probably for two whole days. When I asked the social worker who brought in the food tray for hygiene products, I received a stony response. My thighs and legs were by now encrusted with dried blood and fresh blood flowed. Is this what women meant by flow? I was wearing a bottle green crepe cotton skirt and had on a sleeveless chic cotton top. It was altogether a most uncomfortable feeling to even say it at its mildest. My skirt was soaked with sweat and blood.

It was at this juncture, that my companions were allowed to see me. I was unsure, vulnerable. These people were not my friends. The fact that they gossiped shamelessly about my condition, my ‘shame’ proved that. I felt humongously obliged and obligated not to carp, find fault or criticize them. It was a pressure. As they stood in the cramped room, I was conscious that I was not yet fully lucid. The rhythm of Rudra the chanter, the howler reverberated in my mind. Rudra, the Vedic God, is the destroyer in the Hindu Trinity. He regenerates the dead things by howling. His is not an image or picture. I feel Rudra as an emotion of warning and hear his howls as an aural hallucination. He was stamping out the pain of all this mess of mania, depression and suicidal thoughts. At the same time, I tried to thank my companions, but failed because it was insincere, and they left with the promise of bringing more underwear. 

I watched the lights from the window of the isolation room, when the staff throwing aside the blinds, exposed the parking area of the hospital. In a way I found it cozy to be cocooned here, with only my own thoughts for human company. Humans I found inhuman, preferring as always, the company of animals and my own self. In the space time between my waking and being let out of the room, I communed internally with the dancer, the chanter who was tearing asunder the patterns of insane behavior. That was something they could not take away from me. I learned to be lucid, if not to prevaricate, and all the time Rudra whispered to me. His is a voice I have internalized and carry in the depths of my being, all the time. All the time. I was not particularly religious at the time so the voice of Rudra came out of the blue, out of a deep meditative state in the isolation room.  It set the tone for a change in the transformation in my life, for good or bad I don’t know but it was a transformation alright. I deeply missed my mother, who like me was also bipolar with a more checkered past in the recovery from hysteria and mania. 

The first time I entered the psychiatric ward in NYC I had been afraid, unsure, angry and resentful for the Haldol and Lithium but this time my third, my second in Waltham I was sure that what had happened to me was anything but psychiatric and that I did not deserve such rough handling and treatment. I took the news of my discharge and the actual discharge from Hospital with a measure of confidence that belied my position at the time. I was jobless. I had no money at the time of discharge. I was friendless. I had no family near me. My siblings were reluctant to use the word bipolar with me or discuss my medical condition. My parents were in India with no wherewithal to come meet me or what I secretly hoped, to take me home. In all my years in America, home was India, the little flat in Madras, my parents the anchor I so desperately needed in the days of over drinking, over smoking, isolation, and depression. 


1995 – Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

I met Markaret in my mother’s home in Chennai, previously Madras. By then, I had burned all my bridges in Boston. I had come running, scurrying back home, rather like a dog, running with its tail tucked between its legs. I first found Markaret a little strange, even weird, she was one odd combination of nervousness and courage. But who is she?

Markaret initially worked in my home as a maid, a domestic assistant. After a couple of years, my mother helped in creating the space for Markaret to put herself through teachers training school. This was a program run by the Tamil Nadu government. She qualified herself as a baby class teacher in a free school run by her church.

It was Markaret, who told me about the Nerinji flower. The Caltrops of India. The tiny yellow flower nestled among thorns swaying ever so lightly in the breeze, but getting that reprieve nevertheless. When I once searched for a flower to represent my life, she shook her head sadly saying our lives were like the nerinji. Lots of thorns with some breeze. I wasn’t offended but since then found my life to be nestled among thorns with little breeze. And what’s more, the dried flower stuck in my side, the thorn in my side.

My parents did not view our friendship adversely. My mother actively encouraged her visits. At first Markaret appeared rather afraid of my parents, especially my father, Appa; however, she seemed to share many secrets with my mother, Amma, much of which was not disclosed to Appa. At first Amma was happy that I had found a friend of sorts in her. But later as she began to confide in me, my mother felt that Markaret was making too many inroads into my time, meant for study. Study came easily to me and I was left with a lot of idle spare time.

This time I spent in rehashing my past ranting and raving insults meant and perceived in Waltham. My physician asked my parents to let me have it out for the experience to be cathartic. Her words. Even though my mother was also bipolar there was little talk at home about the disorder. When we were younger, my father would say “Your Amma is like a broken vase put together. Handle her gently or she’ll break.” This set the distance for us from our own mother. Appa was verbose, expressive about everything except my mother’s disorder. He simply did not know how to handle her in her hysteria. Others were always called to help, our relatives usually stepped in. The talk, the gossip. It was unimaginable. 

My mother was no broken vase. With every hospitalization she grew in maturity, she grew stronger. All of us came to admire the quiet presence, the grace under pressure or fire she exhibited from her early fifties. I can’t say what my siblings felt about her but she was a source of immense strength and support to me especially during my own manias and psychoses. Her strong quietness shielded me from my father’s anxiety neurosis. 

When I look back on those years of hyperventilation, I realize I was also productive. I worked for a doctoral degree, learnt French and music. All of it came at the price of personal relationships, came with scapegoating others, violence, physical violence at my father. If I had to reverse my life, I would have treated people in my past better, accepted blame where it rested on me and even in the face of provocation, not struck out at my Appa.

But that is not to be. Till today I’m smote with regret for every interaction I botched. I live with that conscious guilt and the knowledge that it’s because of this illness brings neither comfort nor freedom. My only source of comfort is the memory of my Amma with whom I shared unconditional love, acceptance and understanding.


JULY 2023 – Chennai, India

But that was nearly thirty to twenty – five years ago. Today when I hear of recovery it seems like a dream. My recovery has been dream-like. I was not able to create a niche either professional or personal in the past. The side effects of my meds made me drowsy, sedated, dizzy and nauseous on a daily basis. My diagnosis was defined as Schizoaffective (Bipolar) disorder. But it was not difficult to succeed given this medication load. I have a commitment to work as Assistant Professor in Linguistics and at fifty-five I am diligent. As I write this, I’ve resigned from my position in college but I am confident I will find work again.

I’ve taken care of my mother in her old age and so too my father. I don’t take credit for it but I feel I was normal enough to be a caregiver. My account shows the prejudice I faced as an Indian woman, in a foreign land.  My experience with psychiatry has been healing in Chennai, India. My psychiatric doctor is competent, qualified, and knows how to express empathy without being cloying. My hospitalization, mercifully only one, in Chennai was almost painless. Even though I face side effects of meds I am medicine compliant. Whenever I hide my diagnosis, I lose with the community. The community helps me win if they are informed of my condition.

Gayathri Ganesan

Gayathri Ganesan is a professor of Linguistics living in the city of Chennai in India. She is a scholar of Sanskrit language. She has trained in Indian Classical music.


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