Ernest Istook once said, “Education begins at home… (sic)”.
At thirty-three years of age, you know this to be true. It wasn’t the case at the ages of nine or 13 or 20. Back then, the reigning belief was—your family had taught you nothing.
Nothing other than self-hate, self-doubt, and self-harm.
If your parents wrote this piece, the title would have been—How to Fuck Up Children So They Can Never Become Fully Functioning, Independent Adults.
It feels funny when it’s spelt out like that, doesn’t it? Funny, in a sad sort of way. Because even as you are gearing up to deny this by listing down everything that makes you a fully functioning adult, there’s a little part that knows it’s true.
Your parents have fucked you up. Big time.
Now, the first thing that needs to be done in the context of this piece is to be born into a lower-middle-class Indian family. Have a father who has undiagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) with a heavy dose of Narcissism and a mother who is too kind and good for her own good.
They belong to the generation who believed in the institution of marriage. They got who they got, and that was it.
Come rain or shine, in sickness and in health.
Till death do us part.
Well, bully for them. Sucks for you.
It is a known fact that people who suffer parental abuse in their childhood develop a keen sense of observation later in life.
Contrary to what others believe, you know this is a bad thing.
You are always on edge around people—known and unknown. Be it a gathering of your closest friends, people you have known for ages, cousins, relatives, or in-laws; you can never let your guard down. There’s this clamouring need to stay sober, awake, un-high because every fibre of your being constantly nags at you to be ready.
Ready for the mood to change.
Ready for tempers to flare.
Ready to stave off the next blow—verbal or physical, intended or unintended.
Ready for the argument, the telling to, the fight, or the flight.
How can you be sure there is no need for this rush of adrenaline, at least not amongst friends or loved ones, when all you can remember is walking on eggshells around the two people who should have loved and protected you. The two people in this universe of billions with whom you should have felt protected.
Safe. Warm. Happy.
All you can remember is the uncertainty of what the next moment would bring. The heart-pounding screams of your mother that grew louder and louder and eventually lapsed into a continuum of bitter silences and regret.
All you can remember is the confusing mess of the thoughts that never found purchase on your lips.
Fear. Shame. Guilt.
It’s hard to describe how it feels to have lived a life ridden with those three emotions at the forefront of one’s psyche.
You understand it because you have experienced it firsthand.
Even as you read this (or are you the one writing?), your body and soul shake with fear, wondering what would happen if anyone else reads this. It is ironic because that’s the whole point of telling this story.
Still, you know it needs to be told. For yourself and anyone out there who might find solace in knowing they are not alone in their miseries.
One of the earliest memories you have of your father is when your family lived in Bombay. The time and place are hazy in your mind because you moved so much that everything from before is a blur. Wherever you were, you lived in a single bedroom cramped apartment. Which is laughably unspecific cause Mumbai has nothing but cramped apartments.
So, in your memory, you are at home. Your father, your older brother, and you. You cannot remember where mom is or whether your younger sister has been born yet. It’s just the three of you there.
You and your brother are lying on the floor of the bedroom, your hands and feet bound with a couple of mom’s dupattas. Your father sits beside you holding a sewing needle. There’s a manic gleam in his eyes as he repeatedly pricks the two of you on your hands and the soles of your feet.
You howl in pain, but the only expression on his face is happiness. A dark, nasty sort of pleasure so completely at odds with the situation that you are baffled by it.
You scream for him to let you go.
And he is happy.
Years have passed and as a fully functioning adult, marriage is on the cards! You managed to find a partner you would die for. How did you get so lucky?
It wasn’t easy—coming together, being together.
‘Twas a battle to remember!
The newlyweds-to-be fought tooth and nail. There were times when, amid this battle, giving up felt so much easier than fighting on. Doesn’t there always come a time in one’s life when one has had too much of fighting? How long can one keep up the charade of being the strong one?
Everything breaks, and so did you.
But out of the blue came a blinding revelation—you were not alone anymore! Your partner stood by you and kept you upright.
They became the strong one. And it happened.
Togetherness. Trust. Love.
Now, every day you sleep beside them, and wake up next to them, feels like an undeserved blessing. At last, you have built a home of your own, a place that’s nothing like the house you grew up in.
It’s time. Time to move on.
Is it though?
“Why do your parents expect me to do all their errands? You’d think this house never functioned before I joined your family.” You huff in frustration. “Don’t they realise I have to work!”
“What happened? What did they say?”
“They don’t have to say anything. It’s clear by their behaviour.”
“I am sure they will understand if you just tell them you have work. Did you tell them?”
“I shouldn’t have to!”
“Let’s go to the doctor today, babe. I don’t feel so good. I think I sprained my shoulder cleaning out that clogged toilet,” you say.
“Sure, let me call Jiju and see if he is free. He can take us to the clinic.”
“Why? We can take the rickshaw. No need to trouble him.”
“It’s no trouble. You’ll be much more comfortable in the car, trust me. It’s too cold outside to go by a rick.”
“No! Let’s just take the rick. It’s not his job to ferry us around the city. You call him to go to the market, for God’s sake. It’s like a hundred steps to the grocery shop. Why should he be on our beck and call all the time?”
“It’s not like that, Love. He doesn’t mind it. In fact, he would be angry if we didn’t call him. We do stuff for each other. That’s what family is for, isn’t it? I mean, who else are we gonna call?”
It’s a punch to the gut.
Weird how the same word can mean two totally different things to two people.
“Go by yourself! You know where the school is. It’s not my responsibility to walk you to school every day. You are old enough. Stop pestering me!”
You shrink into the overlarge school bag as your father yells into your face. At 5 years old, you are deathly afraid to cross the road. The cars and the buses seem to loom over your diminutive frame like colossal giants from folklore.
Silent tears fall down your face as your older brother, older by only a year, takes hold of your hand and guides you out of the house.
“It’s okay. I will take you. Don’t worry, Mummy. I know the way. You take care of Chutki.” He smiles reassuredly as your mother struggles to contain your 1-year-old baby sister, who wails at the top of her lungs.
“Are you sure, beta?” she asks, concern writ large in her eyes.
“Yes, Mummy, how will you manage all three of us? And, see, we are holding hands. We will not get lost. It’s okay.”
Silent tears, much like yours, stream down your mother’s face.
“Love? You okay?”
“Yeah?… Yes, I am okay.”
“Come, sit here. You are shivering. Let’s check your temperature. And, we will take the rick. Alright?”
“No. No. Please call Jiju. You are right, I will be more comfortable in the car.”
“Stop reading too much into other people’s behaviour, Love. There doesn’t need to be an ulterior motive behind every word or action. Sometimes people just do or say things. There are good people and bad people and sometimes what you see is what you get. Not everyone is a criminal mastermind.”
“Like my father?”
“I just did it again, haina?”
“If something’s bothering you, please talk to me. Hi, I am your life partner. It’s kind of in the job description to hear each other out.”
“I can’t talk to you.”
Why not, indeed.
How do you tell your partner you hate it when their sister, her kids and her husband come over every other day? That she spends more time at her mother’s place than at her own.
How do you tell them it irks you she calls her mother (your mother-in-law) at least three times a day when she’s not here?
Deep down, it’s not your sister-in-law who you hate. It’s the fact that phone conversations with your own mother are limited to once a fortnight, because your father is always listening.
Visitation is limited to once in six months or probably once a year because visiting your parents is a painful reminder of everything that went wrong. It’s because every time you go, it hurts to see your mother standing by that monster—unhappy, regretful and weak.
Each visit is an opportunity for your father to rehash the past. He demeans and insults you and your choices, disrespects your partner, and your mother. All you do is sit there and try to restrain yourself from throttling him because your mother cannot handle any more violence. Because she wants to keep up the facade of normalcy for which she has sacrificed everything.
You want to see her happy but are helpless to do anything to change her circumstances because she refuses to leave the monster.
“Because it will complicate things,” you say out loud. “It needs to be someone other than close family relations—a third party.”
The answer emerges in a flash. “I need to see a psychiatrist. Whatever happened in our family, all the pain and trauma is so deeply embedded in my psyche that it affects my interactions with your family.“
Your partner looks at you, eyes full of concern. “I wish you’d talk to me. It isn’t easy for me to see you so stressed out. I am here for you.”
“I wish it were that simple, babe.”
The days that follow are busy with research about mental health. You bookmark articles about the impact of abuse on children. The Kindle device is full of freshly bought books like ‘Your Body Keeps the Score’, ‘Almond’, ‘Heaven’, ‘Character Disturbance’, and ‘Narcissistic Father’.
But you don’t read any of them.
The browser history shows bookmarked pages of BetterHealth.com and YourDost.
But you don’t book an appointment.
The chat boxes buzz with incoming messages.
‘Hello, with regards to your inquiry about a psychiatric consultation. As per the results of the initial assessment, we have paired you with our resident psychiatrist, Dr Garima Taneja. Revert for payment details and book the session.’
‘Hello, please call us at the number listed on the website to proceed with the assessment.’
‘Hi, this is Dr Charmi Dand Tiwari. This is to check if you wish to book a session with me this Thursday?’
‘Hi, we noticed you did not proceed with the registration for the consultation session. Did something go wrong? Help us help you better. Get in touch at the below-mentioned number in case of any queries. We are available 24×7.’
But you don’t revert to anyone.
I’ll do it later, you tell yourself.
You are in the middle of this insanely time-constrictive project. Now is not the right time.
You’ll be travelling a lot in the next couple of months. You’ll do it later. Now is not the right time.
Your relatives are about to visit. You can’t just be absent from the house when guests are over. You’ll do it later.
“Hey, Love! My company has organised a virtual seminar on mental health. Do you want to join in? Would be good to know what they say before you go for the session.”
“No, babe, I am swamped with work right now. I don’t think I will join the seminar. You go ahead. Tell me what they say later.”
“Did you book a session?”
“No. Haven’t been able to find the right doctor.”
“Love, stop procrastinating and just pick one. At least get the first session over with. You will get a better idea of what might help after that.”
“I know, I know! It’s just that I am so busy with everything else. Now is not the right time, babe. I’ll do it later.”
But you won’t.
You fear what might come out during those sessions. Terrified to open the door that has been closed for so long, and what it might lead to.
To have another person walk amidst the graveyard of memories.
To admit that most of your childhood you dreamt of the day your father would die. To utter aloud all the different ways you devised to be the one who killed him.
To accept the horrifying truth of how, sometimes, as an adult, you thought if your mother died, it would all be over. You wouldn’t have to speak to your father ever again. Not have to endure his abhorrent, detestable gaze ever again.
That once she was gone, you could move on with your life.
What would they think?
Which absolute worm of a child wishes their own parents to be dead?
Who are you? What are you?
More importantly, who would you be once the swirling abyss of darkness is out, in the open? What sort of person would you become without it?
Another couple of years have flown by. You’ve switched cities and jobs. After years of frugal living you have bought your own house—a roof over your head that’s your very own.
As the pounding in your head reaches a crescendo, you remember something you read a long time ago.
“I have a new name for pain. (…) The Obliterator. Because when you’re in pain, nothing else can exist. Not thought. Not emotion. Only the drive to escape the pain. When it’s strong enough, the Obliterator strips us of everything that makes us who we are, until we’re reduced to creatures less than animals, creatures with a single desire and goal: escape.”
You screw up your eyes in an attempt to stave off The Obliterator, and try to remember the name of the book.
Ah! Yes! Eldest by Christopher Paolini.
The headache had started at the clinic.
“Oh, I am sorry to tell you this, but your partner has severe jaundice. See how his eyes and gums are all yellow? And as far as I can tell, his liver is in a terrible condition. We have to start treatment ASAP. Otherwise, he will not make it.”
You stood there, open-mouthed, unable to comprehend the doctor’s words.
Not going to make it? What?
“We need to admit him to the hospital ICU. Fill out the paperwork. In the meantime, I will see what I can do to hasten the admission process.”
Now, as the rickshaw shudders over another speed-breaker, your head throbs and you feel it all over your body. Tears escape from your closed eyelids, a few drops at first and then a relentless stream.
Pretty soon, you are bawling, your arms wrapped around yourself, rocking forward and backwards.
You cannot lose them. After everything you have been through, this is the one thing that is supposed to be safe.
Protected. Untouchable. Your family. Your home.
The one person in your whole life who loves you in the way you are supposed to be loved. The only one who was strong for you, the one you lean on.
Now, helplessness is your only companion.
The rickshawallah panicks. He stops the vehicle and turns around to stare at his passenger.
“Arrey! Are you okay? What happened?”
You don’t answer him. There’s an odd release in howling with abandon. Everything comes to a standstill. Everything that seemed like a world-ending catastrophe just a moment ago has ceased to matter.
The only thing that matters now is the all-consuming grief.
No one has died. Why are you mourning? What are you mourning?
“Here, please drink this. It’s water,” the rickshawallah has conjured a bottle of water out of thin air.
You gulp it down.
When the film of tears dries out you notice the throng of people surrounding the vehicle.
What are they looking at? Then realisation dawns.
“Are you okay? Doctor ke pass jana hai kya?” the rickshawallah trembles with restrained panic.
“I… I am okay.” Blinking away the tears, you wipe the wetness from your cheeks. When your vision clears, you smile at the gathered crowd. As if they need reassurance. Eventually, they retreat to their own vehicles and roadside stalls.
The traffic police whistle at the rickshawallah to move.
Wait, what’s that?
A blue-coloured signboard catches your eye. It stands at the side of the road behind the traffic police, and tilts slightly to the left. There’s nothing special about the board. The colour is faded, and the board itself is rusted.
Why are you looking at it?
Dr Renu Sutariya
Your heart stops for a second. The red arrow pointing to the clinic seems to beckon you.
This is the way, it says.
The sign could not be clearer, it insists.
“Bhaiya, ruko,” you tell the rickshawallah to stop.
He’s perplexed as you pay the fare and alight from his vehicle.
“You want to get down here? We haven’t reached the destination yet.”
“Yes, bhaiya. I think I have reached my destination. Thank you for your help.”
You turn towards the signboard and follow the path dictated by the glowing red arrow.
It’s time. It is the right time.
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