Let’s Repaint Our Blank Canvas

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Person before a Woman

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“Disturbed” I feel,

Seeing not just a woman but a “person”

Acceptance is important

If not, equality remains, remains an empty word

Writing one’s own story, and placing it in front of everyone is very difficult, I feel. But I am trying it out. Currently, the phase that I am going through, as they say, is one of a struggle of oneself with oneself. There are a number of questions that keep roaming around, will I be rejected? Will I be accepted and recognized by people? Will I be able to create an identity of my own? I think these are the challenges ahead. Within these circumstances, I am struggling to find something that will remain with me for a long time, and where instead of fear I will feel confident, feel safe. Where I will feel independent not just in name but truly internally free. I would constantly wonder, why this happened to me (only), I would be distressed, and I would find it difficult to go out, but I keep remembering the words of my friend, “each of us has our own journey, one that is unique, that is different.” 

What do I want to do? I want to do something that will be useful to me and others, but how do I start? When do I start? There are a number of these questions. In all honesty, the thinking process about this is ongoing. In the beginning, I would find my story and experience very distressing, but I don’t anymore. On the contrary, if this ‘gondhal’ (गोंधळ), this confusion, this jumble, was not there then I would not have found the direction to move ahead. Our struggles teach us and give us the strength to go ahead, this is how I feel.   

I really feel that before calling someone a woman, giving them the value and acknowledgment of being a person is very important. After so many years of working, I am now venturing out to work independently as a mental health practitioner. I could never believe that I would be able to do this, and for this I have to work very hard, but I can do this now. After working as an employee in an organisation for more than 6 years, I have now started to work independently as a freelancer. Here I am using my experience and the skills learned to support people through the sessions I do with them. I am very happy about this, but it was not the case earlier. I too saw myself as a person with psychosocial distress, I do so today as well. I never openly acknowledged or spoke about my distress and my mental health struggles, for I feared, “would I be accepted by my family, my relatives, from people outside (friends and fellow workers)? Or will they judge me?” Or I would feel that people would show me that they have understood me on the surface but internally they would think of me as different, and because of that they would make fun of me, or they would not include me in their groups? Along with that, the kind of society that we live in, one that discriminates on the basis of gender, which demonstrates power, one that thinks less of women — while living in such a system, I have routinely seen reactions, labels, and blame attributed to people who experience mental distress. That in turn made them feel unsafe. All of this made it difficult for me to express my opinions, speak, and make my own decisions.

Around the time of my adolescence, these things would affect me a lot. I was constantly pressured to get married from the age of 17 yrs. I had asthma, I was sick most of the time, and because of this, I was constantly told to get married by my family and relatives. My father would keep fighting at home, he would hit my mother as well. At times he would hit me too. Because of this, I suffered a lot. I worried more than usual, I was constantly afraid, I was irritable, I used to get panic attacks, flashbacks of memories of the times I was unsafe, asthma, an increase in weight, and a host of problems. I was constantly reminded that I was not perfect as a woman. Every sentence, taunt, and instance of disrespect from my parents affected me deeply, they would say, “You can’t act like boys”, “If you speak back, you will be beaten”, “If you don’t listen, you will be beaten”, there are a lot of sentences like these that I clearly remember till today. From this, I later understood that when people around me accept me just as I am, just as I look, listen to me, respect me, and understand me without judging me, then I feel safe. When we are not accepted by people around us, and we are not shown understanding, then it is very difficult to believe in oneself. I kept feeling like a criminal like I had done something wrong. It took me a long time to find out what was happening to me, it took me years. When I started to work in the mental health sector, I started to understand. My work helped me understand myself. I struggle today too; I get angry, and feel scared- father shouting, he is running toward me (to beat me), taunts from relatives, the behavior of teachers and friends- I see it all suddenly and remember. At times while working, I suddenly freeze, feel stuck and my confidence feels broken. 

Come to think of it, I have come to understand that our struggle teaches us a lot, it teaches us how not to behave with others, how not to speak to someone, and that is extremely important: to respect others as they are and accept them. At home, my father and my grandfather would treat us unfairly only because we were women, and because of that mother was beaten a lot. They never accepted me or my sister. “Women” cannot be like “Men”, they cannot become men, they would keep saying. They say that now too! They insisted that my mother have a son because a son can live with them throughout their life, he can look after their financial needs, no one can trouble a son, no one can harm his “izzat” (respect/ character). This is how they felt, and feel now too. On the contrary, they had to constantly be careful about the respect/ character of women. If something happens to her the entire household will have to bear the brunt of it. They felt it was safer to have and raise boys. Father forced my mother to have a third child and insisted that the child had to be a boy. He gave her a lot of trouble, constantly fighting with her, taunting her, saying “You have to give birth to a boy”, “Everyone can (have a boy), why can’t you!”. Because of this mother has also suffered a lot. I was around 13-14 years old when these fights would take place. At the time we siblings would sit quietly in a corner, we would not be able to think at all. At times a question would arise, is this really our father? After these instances, I would feel disturbed for many days. Since childhood, I was made aware of what I should do, and what I cannot do as a woman. There was constant pressure and rules set by my parents: “Wear clothes that cover your entire body”, and “in the evening you should come home before 6 pm”. My brother was raised differently. He was pampered. My sister and I would be shouted at each time and told how we should live. We would not be allowed to go out, not even to a study tour because we were women. That was the only reason. This would affect us a lot, I would get angry then too, but I couldn’t do anything about my anger and because of that, my confidence began to dwindle. 

While pursuing my graduation and masters, and while working in the mental health sector I found some places where I could express myself and my opinions. In college, there was ‘Disha Peer Group’, where students from different backgrounds would come together and discuss their experiences. We would listen to and understand each other. Along with this, at the workspace there was a group of people, we would talk about and share different experiences about our lives, our realities, and our opinions about them. We would support each other from time to time. To have a space to share was truly very empowering for me, something that gave me strength. During this time I found a few mentors, teachers, and people who supported me in going forward. They always created a safe space for me, heard me, and understood me. They encouraged me to think differently and taught me how to stand up for myself, not just as a woman, but as a person. They helped me find what my opinions were, and what I feel is appropriate or true to my belief. They helped me understand that for myself. 

During my master’s degree, the experience of studying gender studies was an internally transformative experience for me. I started to understand how power relations, constraints, politics, family and social systems around gender affect everyday life. I got to study about this. From then I understood the differences and different perspectives. This helped me develop my own identity and my opinion about that identity. I developed a critical perspective to question every structure and discrimination in family and society. I began to question what I was experiencing around me. I started to see that what was happening to me was wrong, I realised that it was not according to what I want, and to understand that I was not being supported. After that I started to think a lot, I began to ask questions. I began to understand the many shades of masculinity, including that of my father. Father would always say that, “we are of the Chambar Caste, we are poor but above other lower castes.”, “We should only learn as much as we can, live in a small house, we should have only a few things”, he would keep saying this. We never liked these things nor did we agree with it. 

To be unable to express myself and often suppress the anger about the disparity made it difficult to have freedom to do what I wanted. From pursuing higher education to going out, to getting something for myself, everything was a struggle. Today I feel that these negotiations helped me believe in myself. They helped me identify my values and protect them. This is empowering for me. Because of this I found a way to get ahead in life, make choices, and gain confidence. I can think for myself, make decisions for myself, stand on my own feet, complete my education, earn money, and earn recognition. Because of this I am very proud of myself. 

It took a lot of time for me to create flexibility in myself, to disregard the obstacles that are placed in front of me because I am a woman, and to keep moving forward. It took a lot of effort. I feel that within our social surroundings, we should uphold the values of understanding others and empathizing with them. Instead of harassing or teasing people with psychosocial distress there should be an emphasis on respect, acceptance, and empathy. There should be no discrimination based on gender, and inclusion should be truly made possible. Listening, understanding and not imposing things on the person is very important for good mental health.

I am grateful to those who believed in me and made me feel that I mattered, made me believe that I could go forward. I have learned a lot from others and my own struggle, because of which I am inspired. Each person should get a safe and hope inspiring space, each person’s confidence should increase, they should get strong, that is what I feel. 

“The worst part of having a mental illness, is people expect you to behave as if you don’t” 

Arthur Fleck (Joker, 2019) from the script of the film Joker 
Deepali Kshirsagar

Deepali Kshirsagar is an Arts Based Therapist, facilitator, and content developer working at the intersection of mental health and disability. Deepali has worked in community mental health through a trauma-informed, gender and disability-inclusive framework. She currently works as an independent consultant under the banner of ‘Repaint. wellbeing’ as a therapist and facilitator with individuals and groups. She is passionate about questions surrounding gender-based constructs as they play out around her.

You can reach out to Deepali via E-mail: deepakshirsagar31@gmail.com

1 COMMENT

  1. So humbled to have read about your journey ma’am 🫶🏽🫶🏽🫂
    Thank you for sharing it.All aspects of documenting and expressing things throughout life, and since the adolescent inside me is so stuck in reading through the pain, the adult in me is shocked/resistant but accepting that we can overcome body shaking fear like that despite it being so tough.

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