‘Mental health’ was an alien concept when I was growing up back in the 80s and 90s in Indonesia. The only socialized message I knew was that there are a group of people who were sent to mental institutions when they did ‘strange’ things or were starting to harm self or others.
What was real though in primary & secondary school was the intense worry in the gut when the teachers were fierce or when the elders at home would quarrel. The knots in the stomach and the sweat was a memory that never quite left. Over time the knots were starting to feel permanent and the doctor said it was chronic gastritis.
What was also real was the loneliness in feeling excruciating sadness when I was called “fat” by others. The knots would come back when I had to step on the weighing scale for others to check on what the number on those scales would be. By then I had developed a pretty good imagination to escape realities at times. The fantasies was about a better life which had people in it who would stay a while until I felt better.
And then the 20s came and life started to get very real because it is time to prove to myself and to the world that I can live a put together life, somehow. I figured I also needed to be successful and attractive for my potential partner. The corrosive effect of the knots and the biting loneliness had crept in by then and my body seemed to be giving way. After one whole year of unexplained muscle pain & fatigue, I was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia in Singapore. I was prescribed medication and told to keep my stress low and my exercise level high.
Good suggestions but by then I didn’t know we could talk about stress, about knots and biting loneliness; I mean how do you suddenly know how to do that? So I did what I knew best: power through and pretend like it doesn’t exist and took the medication as instructed. It worked for 3 years before life took a toll once again.
By this time, I decided that I was still a nobody so I needed to do my Master degree (in the field of mental health interestingly), keep my job, keep my relationship steady and I needed to make it all work while I live with chronic pain.
I woke up sweating at night for an entire week convinced that my body is going to give way this time and that there is no more recovery. I was also convinced I was on the brink of failing permanently. The knots were intense and the tears plenty. I wasn’t quite ready to give it all up and it felt like no one would allow it so I went to the doctor and I kept going back to school.
It was in school that I learned over time that I had no language for the knots, the biting loneliness, and the pain. No one ever said you could safely say you need the time out and you can even get help because the sensations are a real experience of being human.
I am glad to learn that I can say it loud and clear now. What has also become obvious is that with some openness and effort, my childhood fantasies are real possibilities if I want it to be.
The dream continues to propose the notion that if we continue to cultivate empathy and openness at the heart of each space we find ourselves in, the next man, woman, and child shouldn’t have to feel like their pain is beyond the reach of others. This is when ‘Mental Health’ moves from being a subject to talk about and discuss to a reality we can all get used to and be ok with.
Written by Deepika NJ Mulchandani