The first thing that I noticed about Reshma Valliappan is her sense of irony; she laughs often and tries to keep her discourse on the funny side. Since 2004 she has been advocating for issues related to mental health, disability, sexuality and human rights and she has often talked and written about her journey with schizophrenia.
She brings herself in a pretty funky fashion. Pink hair, tattooed arms, dark-Gothic style and a piercing on her chin have led several people who see her for the first time to define her ‘crazy’. When this happens she laughs to her tears, “because that’s exactly the way I want people to think about me” she says, “Crazy just for the way I look.” Reshma tells us that since she was a child she has been outspoken, opinionated, and striving for independence. She has never been a quiet person; but it is common that when she is angry or worried people attribute her behaviour to schizophrenia rather than her personality, mood, or actual facts.
“In my story of recovery the hardest thing was to get people to see me as an individual and not as a schizophrenic. Great part of the work I’ve done so far has focussed on telling people that my behaviour is not determined only by schizophrenia. I’ve got a personality like everybody else.”
What follows is a conversation with a normal person who talks about non-normal things like if they were normal, because they are part of her life. Trust me there is no contradiction here.
“The problem with schizophrenia is that nobody knows we exist, nobody knows who we are because many are kept into asylum, in rehabs, at home, or in our heads. Psychiatrists are virtually the only people who talk about us” she says. “We [people diagnosed with schizophrenia] are crazy but we’re not stupid. Sometimes we’re in a different world, of course, and in those moments we might not be able to understand what you’re saying, but when we’re ok we’re actually pretty pretty pretty ok” she laughs.
In fact, the name schizophrenia sounds familiar to many, but very few people have idea of what it is. One of the primary sources of such ignorance is precisely its definition. “I don’t think there is one definition of schizophrenia because they say it is a cluster of all kinds of symptoms of overlapping and comorbid existences” points out Reshma.
She was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was 22. She started following a psychiatric therapy and few years later she decided to quit the medications she was prescribed. It was not easy for her doctor and relatives to accept her choice, but they did not stop her. This decision, after all, came after the consideration that in order to come back to normal Reshma had to live like a normal person.
“My doctor and my dad have been very supportive because they have always recognised my personality in what I do. You know, my father has seen me growing up. I was the wild child, the rebel, climbing trees and running around. I share my genes with him and for this reason crazy and wild things I do are not weird to him because… he is also crazy!”
Reshma was born in Malaysia and now lives in Puna with her younger sister and four cats. “My mum and dad moved to Indonesia because my father had to get another job – even though he is 65. We had our share of health issues, you know, my mum had cancer in 2008 and I have had a brain tumour.”
Like a plait, negative events, learning, strength and positivity keep crossing in Reashma’s life. Her schedule is never empty: she teaches martial arts, she paints, she gives mime performances, she meditates, she does yoga, she speaks at conferences, she writes for academic papers, engages in other advocacy activities, and probably does something else I haven’t managed to know.
“I would like to have a routine but I can’t have one” she smiles. The first reason is that she has too many things to do; the second is that sometimes the voices and visions in her head prevent her from functioning normally, “when this happens I’m in bad for three days because visions cause present memory loss. So, I can be completely disoriented, tired, exhausted, and not able to recognise people. It takes me time to readjust and when I’m back to normal I try to paint or read or listen to music (and my cats help!)”
In any case, more than a routine Reshma says that the most important thing for her is sleep. “What I noticed with myself is that when I don’t sleep I get high and that high puts me on another high and I work extra, I do everything in a complete mania and then I crash. And this lack of sleep can affect my visions” she explains. “Also it is very important to keep my phone away when I go to bed. When people call me after I sleep I get so angry I want to throw the phone out of the window” she laughs and adds, “People think they need to know if I’m alive, if I’m ok. But for me, between 10pm and 10 am they don’t need to know!”
So, between long nights of sleep, meditations, Thai Chi classes, mimes and painting, Reshma writes and talks about mental disorders and their perception in society. “In Indian you’ve got over 2000 national laws and 200 of them have the quote ‘unsound mind’. This term appears frequently in the Mental Health Act 1987, which draws its terminology directly from the Lunacy Asylum Act 1858” she explains and goes on to show that this label is present in several other legal documents “One of my favourite clause I like to talk about is part 3, section 24a of the India Aircraft Rules 1937. It basically states that people with mental disorders or epilepsy cannot fly unless they are accompanied by ‘registered medical practitioner and adequate escort’.” Laughing she adds, “think if the pilot stops a passenger saying that he looks mentally unsound and cannot get onboard!”
However, although the Indian government is struggling to update these laws, Reshma adds that they have adhered to the United Nations Convention for Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2006 and it has become obligatory to revise outdated laws on mental health.
Government decisions play a big role in life improvement for people diagnosed with mental health, but they are not the only determining element. Another factor is the lack of spaces for being heard. “Many people say that schizophrenic people don’t want to talk about themselves, but it’s not true. We just don’t have any platform; and when we do talk about ourselves we are told to shut up because we’re talking about something that is crazy and people think we’re crazy.”
She refers to an episode that happened at her book launch conference, when a guy with schizophrenia made an intervention which was not directly related with the topic of discussion. “The publisher kept looking at me because we had time limitations and we had to rush it up. But I wanted to wait because nobody waits for a person to share. That person wanted to say something that even if was not connected to the topic made perfect sense to everybody.”
In Reshma’s case being the protagonist of the documentary on schizophrenia ‘A Drop of Sunshine’ by Aparna Sanyal, made a huge difference in her life. “Such a documentary is not screened only in NGOs or conferences about mental issues, but in festivals where people are not the regular folks I speak to during my talks, and who are already familiar with schizophrenia. If the world I live is limited to the social world, how am I supposed to function in the broader reality? The movie opened my story to the world and that started new connections” she adds.
The lack of debate on mental health is an object truth and many agree that this is the case. However, Reshma adds, “See, the problem is not only with mental issues. The problem is much earlier. People are not happy and they don’t say that. I wonder how many people would come up and say ‘I’m unhappy with my life and my job’. How many people would say that and how many people would be allowed to say that? That’s a question in itself because one has to study, one has to run a family, one has to bring money home etc. But the point is that our health –mental, physical, spiritual, and of any other kind – is our own responsibility. People sometimes forget this when they think that the life they lead is the only possible thing they can do.
I think we should be very careful when we speak about mental health because when we do that we automatically box it as being depression or being anxiety and being suicidal. Mental health might be about something simpler, but we just go to doctors – like they were gods – instead of opening up, lift the carpet of our life and remove all the s**t we put underneath.”
To conclude with an encouragement to look at our own mental health, this is how Reshma defines schizophrenia, “In my dictionary schizophrenia exists outside the person in a world that is already crazy. We have only mimicked it and internalised it so much the word has become our state. Or more so we experience everything in the world that it becomes us. An existential crisis where we are not ourselves but mirror images of everything.”
To read more about Reshma and checking out her 1000+ hair styles check her website