Giants Among Us
What if we lived in a world where people literally grew in stature from experiencing tough moments in life? Imagine a place where we couldn’t look down on men and women struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, where we couldn’t frown upon suicidal thoughts or therapy or vulnerability – because we’d be looking up in admiration at giants among us. I’d like to live in that kind of world. A world where we stood in awe of people who carried pain, indeed gave way when they walked in the room, whispering to each other: “hey, there goes a giant. Damn, I respect them.” I caught a glimpse of such a world a few weeks ago at our first annual MannMukti retreat.
MannMukti (“mental liberation”) has been live as an organization for a year now. I’ve been working on it since even earlier – pulling together thoughts and ideas into a tangible avenue for change since summer of 2016. We’ve grown from a staff of 4 to 23, added volunteers, and garnered thousands of followers online. But perhaps the most impactful moment of this journey to-date has been a weekend we shared in April together. About 17 of MannMukti’s members stayed together at a rented house in Austin, TX. We shared laughs and meals, but more importantly we shared experiences in safe spaces. Comforted by the knowledge that everyone present acknowledged the validity and normalcy of mental health experiences, I believe we opened up in unprecedented ways to each other over the course of a weekend. It started on Saturday evening.
As part of the weekend, we hosted MannMukti’s first major event, titled Slam the Stigma, where we brought in 5 speakers with diverse personal and professional experiences with mental illness to share their story. The speeches were followed by a panel and an incredible open mic portion where audience members spoke, through poetry and through the heart, about what they had experienced that connected them forever to mental health. I initially started MannMukti because I lost a friend to mental illness issues, and I had my own struggles with bulimic behavior throughout the years, but I always felt I was privileged with my mental wellness. On that day, I truly realized that privilege.
I sat gripped to my seat in awe during the final portion as people grabbed mics in confident fists and moved mouths that told jarring stories. I saw giants rise up in front of my eyes as they spoke of pain abuse struggle strength pain. They grew in stature with each sentence until there was no space left in the room for judgement – so we simply respected them for their truth instead. I closed my eyes and fell into darkness, grasping for handholds of peace amongst all the pain I heard, but the giants didn’t need that. They had learned long ago to walk along the Earth pacifying pain and penalizing peace, holding those two impostors in the same hand.
We returned to the house after an emotional evening of tears, and I expected to come back to a quiet home, shaken by the stories of stigma we’d just lived through. When I stepped in the house music was blaring. People were laughing and dancing. I was dumbstruck by how we as a group had put aside the wounds and vulnerability of the past three hours for a typical Desi song and dance affair. My respect only grew. As the night outside grew darker, I stared out from the kitchen at a living room lit by the sheer brilliance of humans who were choosing to be happy despite fate’s attempts to steer them otherwise. I wished in that moment that the world could see us, could know that people who seek therapy or take medication laugh, even sing, like everyone else.
At brunch the next morning, we started to debrief about the previous night’s event. Every time someone said they wished that such a safe space/ event existed when they were in college, a profound doubt swelled up inside me: Could this have prevented my friend from passing away? Was he proud of what we were doing down here? Eventually, a banner was brought out from the previous night’s event, where people had written down an answer to the question: If You Could Go Back… what would you say to yourself or your friend that was dealing with mental illness? As we read through the answers slowly, memories of last night and last life poured out as the floodgates opened – no, prose won’t do our feelings justice:
Tears not from our eyes, taps
Direct connect to project
Hurt, with so much history
From the soul out to the sun
Rivers flow – words waiting for release
If we could only make this stigma cease
We swim through the tears
To meet with our fears
Know that on this day we are
We simply are
No designations of disorders
Nor shame from judgmental orders
When I was born, my eyes
They looked like this
It curved like this
That pounded like this
Know me for these or know me not at all
Either way, I just
Long after others had left the table, I remained there crying unstoppably. All this time, we had been running this organization to reduce the stigma of mental health in the South Asian community. I hadn’t realized that stigma existed on two levels. We had been talking all this time about the external level, a dark cloud of silence that had settled over the South Asian community. We thought our job was to use MannMukti as a pair of scissors to cut through this inescapable net and free people from stigma. But stigma exists at another level – it exists within each one of us as we internalize the attitudes of the external community. A devilish little specter deep inside that whispers in the weak moments: you’re not normal, you don’t deserve happiness the same way, you’ll never be understood. As I cried that day, I felt this little specter had been banished from within each of us who came together to be truly understood and seen over that weekend. Doing good by just one person makes a life worth living, and I felt like we all had done good by many that weekend.
As we started packing and settling into cars so we could leave Austin, I circled outside in the bright light, gazing at the people I had shared this weekend with. Giants I had looked up to for the past 48 hours went back to their regular sizes. Out of courtesy for the world outside, they confined their strength and power to a singular glint in their eyes. So the next time you speak with someone who shares their mental illness experience with you, treat them with respect and support because if you look closely, you’ll see the glint in their eyes. You’re walking among giants.
This post is in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, MannMukti’s one-year anniversary, our first annual retreat, and all the people who’ve engaged with MannMukti in the past year – you’ve changed my life and many others with your support.
Go to MannMukti.org today and take the pledge here to help end mental health stigma! Help us change minds to better our world!
*Views expressed are entirely my own and do not constitute an official MannMukti statement