“Meri Parvarish Mein Kya Kami Reh Gayi Thi?” How to Talk About Therapy With Your Very Desi Family


“Meri Parvarish Mein Kya Kami Reh Gayi Thi?” How to Talk About Therapy With Your Very Desi Family

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

I’ve known that I need therapy for a long time.

It’s a peaceful Thursday night when I write this, huddled under my sheets, sobbing away. The sobs aren’t surprising – I’m a mostly unemployed 23-year-old constantly trying to figure out what she wants from life. The past couple of months, however, have been tougher than ever, even though lockdown life is not that different from my “life” life. My uneventful lockdown life has given me no real grief except for my constant battle with utensils and the dishwash bar… and anxiety.

You know, that jittery feeling you have after a big test while you await the results? The palpitations when you see a stranger walking toward you at a bar. The overwhelming panic when a thousand tabs open in front of you and you have no idea where the music is coming from. Anxiety is feeling tired after an amazing day but not being able to cherish the happiness because the jaw clenching does not stop.

My anxiety and I have been friends for years now. However, I only started acknowledging this friendship a couple of years ago.

Talking therapy with parents

I had a moderately troubled childhood: Cliff Notes version is that I was bullied as a kid and saw my mother battle cancer (she kicked cancer’s ass, by the way). At 20, I’d known for a while now that I wanted to go to therapy sooner or later but also I knew that the conversation with my parents would not be easy.

Things blew up when I lost a close friend three years ago. When I finally told my parents about the decision to seek therapy, they were supportive like the good parents that they are. It was very hard for them, however, to mask the terrified looks on their faces. I only managed to get an “okay” out of my otherwise very opinionated father and if “meri parvarish mein kya kami reh gayi thi” had a face, it was my mother’s.

My parents are not run-of-the-mill regular parents. They are the parents that throw burger parties for your friends, drink with them and discuss relationships, too. They’re cool parents but I don’t think any amount of cool can ignore years’ worth of stereotyping and name-calling.

The older generation grew up in a toxic culture where your mental well-being was viewed only through the prism of judgment.

My parents had the same questions about therapy as any desi parent: “Why can’t you talk to us about these things?” “How often do you think you’ll have to go?” “Why isn’t talking to your friends enough? And we are also like your friends only na?” and “What are we going to tell Kimmi aunty?”

Once I started going to the emotionally draining sessions, it didn’t take long for me to see that my seeking therapy had been interpreted as a personal failure by my parents.

“Log kya kahenge?”

I was told not to mention therapy to our cousins or relatives. So, I zipped it and went about my life. I didn’t suggest therapy if a relative was having a hard time. I sat at gatherings as I heard folks much older than me talk about therapy in demeaning ways, while my parents kept their head down. In our desi families, hiding the fact that you go to therapy is more important than hiding your sparkly bra straps.

I wasn’t alone in feeling alienated by the ones dearest to me. Turns out, my friends were going through this too. Several of them never even told their parents about needing therapy, not for a lack of courage but for the expected aftermath of the conversation. The obvious generation gap has left us lost, wondering how to tell the older generation that they grew up in a toxic culture they’re not yet aware of.

A culture where your mental well-being was viewed only through the prism of judgment. A culture that held you entirely responsible for your mental health without looking at your circumstances. A culture where it is easier to demean and gossip about something you don’t really understand.

There’s only so much you can hold your parents responsible for. After all, when you grow up being told that men don’t cry or that women don’t have a place outside the four walls of their home, I doubt it’s easy to understand that words hurt and your feelings aren’t in your control anymore.

Writer Sophie Cousins, in an article on The Tempest points out that parents often use their hardships as parameters to judge their child’s mental health concerns. “We lived through war/famine and you are having trouble in getting over a break-up?” she says, adding that, “If you’re acutely aware of what your parents have been through, you’re less likely to speak up.”

But every once in a while, my house is filled with enlightening conversations around mental health and therapy.

All of this pressure had made me suffer. I’d just graduated and thought I was going to conquer the world. Then, life happened. I lost three of my grandparents. Sometime between the loss, the grieving, and trying to adult, some douche at work thought it’d be okay to kiss me because he was in a senior position. A few days after the fact, I was convinced that life was seriously going to shit and began questioning everything. So I did the only thing that seemed right in my head: I started going to therapy a lot more, I started reading about my condition, and I started educating myself.

When family just doesn’t get it…

It took three years, three different therapists and countless late-night calls to my friends for me to be able to come to terms with my anxiety and the general apathy in the older generation toward mental health. It’s been a slow process of talking and educating and acceptance, and I still don’t think we are on the same page yet. But every once in a while, my house is filled with enlightening conversations around mental health and therapy.

India has over 10 million cases of anxiety disorder per year. That’s 1 with 7 whole zeroes. Yet, here we are, letting Kimmi aunty stop us from talking about it or seeking therapy. Maybe that’s exactly what we need, for aunties and uncles to talk about it and hope that one day, one of them will tell their own story and know that things can get better. Because if it is normal to see a doctor when your body isn’t functioning the way you want it to, it is perfectly alright to see a doctor when your mind isn’t doing the same.

I know my mental health will soon be fodder for gossip for the Kimmi aunties in my circle. And that’s OK, even if the post-pandemic kitty party is all about therapy. Because we sure are going to need tons of it.

If you or someone you know needs help, reach out to a professional. Mail icall@tiss.edu or dial 9152987821 (Monday-Saturday, 8am-10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.