The Geopolitics of Indigenous Trauma

Isolation and loneliness are central causes of depression and despair. Yet they are the outcome of life in a culture where things matter more than people. Materialism creates a world of narcissism in which the focus of life is solely on acquisition and consumption. A culture of narcissism is not a place where love can flourish.

bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions

Whoever said an idle mind is the Devil’s workshop was probably someone who puts profits over people under the assumption that a state of stillness is unproductive and disastrous to one’s wellbeing. That is, any action unaccompanied by the pursuit of money or social currency is expendable. The quintessence of modern life is a form of psychological warfare aimed at encouraging overworked, underpaid and unfulfilled people to tranquilise themselves through an endless cycle of overproduction and overconsumption while believing that the measure of one’s success is through the failures of others.

Advertisers, marketers, family, friends, peers and politicians are constantly drowning us in the din of propaganda. Buying is being. Good roads and malls may be the indicators of progress but neither provides last-mile connectivity to healthcare nor paves the way to inner engineering. An eviscerating fact considering we are the most depressed country in the world, facing a staggering mental health crisis where one in seven Indians suffers from poor mental health and where surveys suggest that India has only about 9,000 psychiatrists for its 1.3 billion people. The obvious question then should be to ask why access to mental healthcare isn’t as easy as going out to buy Crocin? Why is an effective system of management aimed at well being denied to a population as big and diverse as ours when we are clearly in desperate need of it? Providing instead fertile ground for godmen and slippery life coaches who sense a business opportunity in preying on people, further aggravating their mental health concerns. A situation as ridiculous as allowing a butcher to perform cardiovascular surgery.

The answer lies in the phrase, “the personal is political.” The privileged yet constantly overworked, mentally fatigued person is most likely to be a profoundly ignorant person who can’t question the status quo and the dystopia that is explained away as the “new normal”. The apathy shown towards others and the othered is reflective of the same apathy reserved for oneself. Often, instant gratification becomes a form of self-soothing and self-care. It is these privileged caste and class groups that in turn project their fragility, frustrations and violence on the oppressed Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi population whose levels of access and affordability to wellness and healing is further inhibited by the State; a State that is wholly made up of the upper caste in whose best interests it is to sustain the supremacy of the existing class and caste structures by giving the historically traumatized blunt tools with which to self-sabotage even in their absence.

Therapy for the outliers then not only becomes a route to understand personal dysfunction but also political, social and environmental ones. Self-awareness through therapy would be a particularly lethal form of armament for those at the receiving end of structural and ongoing physical and psychological violence as racial, sexual, religious minorities; as a sharp tool to understand the aspects of their colonization and structural roots of their trauma, eventually helping them cope, heal and resist their oppression.

2020, we can all agree, has been a watershed year for humanity in this theatre of the absurd. A year marked by learning new ways to work and be, punctuated by doomscrolling and Dalgona coffee. But most importantly, by teaching us how to be alone together. No better time than now to find calm within, when Mother Nature is showing us the finger while the economy crumbles and we’re forced to get creative amid this desperation in how we choose to babysit ourselves between the urge to fight, fly and freeze. As always, I turn to my shaman James Baldwin in times of despair, “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”

I’ve had much time to think about that. Enough time anyway in these months to eventually run out of ways to escape through overeating, overthinking, over scrolling and overreacting. As a woman, I realise how much of a privilege even that is. This gift of being able to think and be idle when women, in particular, must pay their taxes to patriarchy and society by exchanging labour for safety and sanity. Though that is not always the case since the location of violence and trauma is more often domestic and at the hands of an intimate partner.

My intent for seeking therapy viewed against the backdrop of my geopolitical location as a woman of indigenous heritage is nothing short of political warfare, an act of overthrowing the tyranny of the prescribed “normal.” The grounds for my healing lie both in the structural as well as the cellular location of my trauma. By decoding the psychological underpinnings and hardwiring of my gender, class and indigenous culture, I hope to gain a better understanding of my triggers and the psychological boundaries imposed on me by society and culture; against which I hope to get a deeper, wider understanding of my boundaries.

The Palaeontology of Indigenous Trauma

Artist: Alyse Ruriani (@ALYSERUIANI on Instagram)

Like most others, I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell-raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top. At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles – a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going.

Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary

In digging through the pile of expectations both personal and public, the ones I had for myself and the ones I had been given, I discovered many kindred spirits. In this journey of self-realization, my alcohol-fuelled friendships have slowly given way to co-conspirators on a similar path of healing, resistance and change through moral and intellectual growth. That is my privilege. To be joined in my study of the world and myself by a group of self-actualized, sentient, sensuous beings. In knowing that in the aloneness of my being, I am not alone. And so to me a therapist was someone who I knew had to be an ally. Someone who could understand the matrix of my existence and the nature of my trauma where I could communicate my fears and anxieties without fear of judgment.

Whether the seat of that trauma was structural, in the prejudice I had faced for looking different, or as a cultural token I was reduced to; in having to navigate my exasperation and exhaustion at being stereotyped or as someone constantly at war with patriarchy, I was being defined by these very people and their inherent casteism, sexism and racism.

That was the outside. On the inside, in the domestic location, I was navigating my father’s patriarchal ideas of power and control as someone who himself had been brutally suppressed by his upper-caste bosses in the masochistic Brahmanical supremacist world of the Indian civil services. A world where the officer’s career graph is in direct relation to how many he can kick his way down and lick on his way up; while being followed by a retinue of same caste flunkies and relying on the labour of lower caste men from his native village to keep his domestic affairs in order, luring them with the promise of a government job, only to abandon them after he gets his transfer orders. This machismo and caste pride is often the reason most officers who are not part of the varna system keep to themselves socially, refusing to let the professional abusers enter the personal and social arena, thereby only increasing their isolation and risk of demotions for not showing deference to their upper-caste boss by continuing to grovel outside office hours.

In my mother’s case, I was navigating internalized misogyny and neurosis born of a diminished sense of self, the location of which is “ghar sansar” and her inability to understand the external pressures rooted in my work and gender. In her frustrations at my refusal to tolerate and compromise instead of doing what is expected of a good daughter and respectable woman, who participates joyously in her self erasure. In my nonlinear life paths where I refused to settle down and be consumed by a man’s needs and have children and be a primary caregiver for the rest of my life. A life of despair and what was, in my book, slow death caused by resentment at being taken for granted.

Children might be the product of conformity but that does not mean they have to conform to their parents’ ideas of it. My parents, though from different cultures, are the product of their generational trauma but the pressures on multicultural marriages are unique, especially when one partner comes from a disadvantaged community. This means the person who is relatively privileged has to pay it forward to their extended family and community putting pressures on the spouse and as a consequence, on the marriage. In tribal cultures, the concept of a nuclear family is often relegated to a secondary position with the wellbeing of the extended family often taking precedence.

The contents of my emotional baggage, therefore, needed to be addressed keeping in mind all of the above, seen against these structural inequalities of caste, patriarchy and race, and as the product of a system that is meant to keep me ‘stupid’ and desperate, reliant on the philanthropy of others.

It is no surprise that this hierarchy of trauma often results in self-loathing and an extremely negative view of the world, further pushing the already marginalized over the edge. It is not uncommon to find an epidemic of mental illness being accompanied by rampant alcoholism and substance abuse, domestic violence and social disorder. Therapy and access to it then become crucial for the upliftment of the marginalized and terrified.

Safety is relative. How can one feel happy when they feel unsafe? Who makes us feel safe and how we mark safe spaces leads to the spatial ghettoisation of the other, further impeding their assimilation into the mainstream, keeping them in a constant state of alienation and isolation. Where the interaction between the marginalised and mainstream becomes purely transactional, seen through the prism of landlord-tenant relationships or as a gateway to a particular cuisine or service. These prefabricated relationships do little to break down prejudices. This explains why students and professionals from North East India continue to form strong bonds only within their community or regions preferring to live in the same areas in metros and urban spaces huddled close together for fear of judgment and worse, attacks on their bodies and minds.

Emotional Illiteracy: Personal Barriers to Therapy

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

Feelings are data we rely on as a form of personal GPS to navigate the world and yet a patriarchal society places little significance on emotions, encouraging apathy in people towards each other and themselves. Modern life, while launching its twin missiles of distraction and indulgence as a means to control a largely ignorant population, is particularly devastating to the oppressed and disadvantaged.

Apart from making therapy either too unaffordable or linguistically inaccessible, structural inequalities compound the existing problems of lack of opportunity by placing mental obstacles to one’s personal growth and self-determination.

The abuse is twofold, by keeping us not only intellectually illiterate but also emotionally illiterate, the oppressed are prevented from even being able to identify and articulate our trauma. This continues in the form of systemically denying and gaslighting our lived reality and by gatekeeping the ways and means through which we can cope with the institutional, intergenerational and personal abuse heaped on us. By keeping us emotionally vacant, the dominant castes and classes get to mark their territory by preventing us from developing a vocabulary with which to describe our trauma. To be able to see the dysfunction and even acknowledge it needs years of intellectual growth with structural inequalities acting as barriers. It is, therefore, in the interests of those on top of the social order to maintain a state of emotional hibernation in which the oppressed continue their self-cancellation.

The values of the white colonizers and the neoliberal aspirations of the upper caste bourgeoisie from the mainland have destabilized traditionally harmonious systems of living in alliance with Nature, as opposed to defiance of it. The invasion and colonization of the mind by foreign cultures has meant that tribal society which took its cues from the land and the natural world has become as destructive, extractive and masochistic as its colonizers. Today, it is a culture that pays little heed to its ancestral and intuitive systems of wellbeing; replicating and reproducing the same self-destructive instincts as the Brahmanical order which relies on the subjugation of man and Nature to maintain its supremacy and profit, where people are seen only in terms of their inferiority or superiority status and not as different and linked.

The Anatomy of a Smart Therapist

We do not escape into philosophy, psychology, and art–we go there to restore our shattered selves into whole ones.

Anaïs Nin, In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays

How does one begin to even search for a therapist who will address and understand the implications and intersections of race, religion, violence, and politics on the psyche? The whole point of therapy is to break the cycles and language of shame we have internalised. As a person of indigenous origin, the road to restoration and repatriation begins with a renewed commitment to myself, through sincerity, integrity and understanding. I may have inherited trauma but I have also inherited resilience. For now, that is a good place to start.

Zehra Mehdi, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist (M.Phil), Religious Studies (M.Phil), PhD. Candidate, Columbia University, New York whose doctoral research is based on the study of religious and political violence, and the role it plays in forming who we are, provides some key insights and red flags while seeking a therapist.

  1. They haven’t trained adequately: Given that there is no centralized body that regulates psychotherapy license in India allows people with inadequate training to practice. Further still because there is a lack of awareness about the different branches within mental health in the larger public discourse, several people seeking therapy are simply not aware of the qualifications to look out for. This leads to several poorly trained therapists to take on people with severe mental health conditions and be unable to render them any help, worse till make things deepen their despair.
  1. Therapists do not prescribe medication: One must understand that therapists are not trained to prescribe medications for mental health conditions, it is the work of the psychiatrist. However, there are several therapists who routinely (say, causally) write medication for anxiety and depression, especially the ones that can be procured over the counter. Any therapist that writes any prescription of ANY medication is a bad therapist—and a fraud!
  1. They don’t fully understand the premise of therapy: While there may be a vague idea that therapy doesn’t mean advice, several therapists extend advice, and many people seek it from them. This goes against the basic premise of therapy where the therapist listens to the client and leads them to find patterns in their behaviours, without instruction or advice. Different therapies use their premise differently such as psychoanalysis works on the affect, which eludes the client and shapes their lives through resistance and defences while cognitive behavioural therapy works with identifying irrational thoughts that perpetuate maladaptive behaviours. The premise that focuses on not giving advice recognises how the therapist does not operate from the position of an expert lending their wisdom to the client. On the contrary, it includes the person in their recovery process by implicitly saying that they have the answers within themselves, the work of the therapist becomes to help people uncover them. Steer clear of any therapist who sets out to give advice.
  1. Unable to maintain boundaries: Several therapists discuss their personal life frequently with their clients, or are unable to maintain confidentiality. Both these factors contribute to the weakening of therapeutic boundaries between the therapist and the client. While the client’s curiosities are intense about the therapist, the work becomes to use those curiosities to help them focus on themselves instead of drawing them into the lives of the therapists or reveal confidential information to them about another client. Your therapist should not be a gossip-monger. Beware!
  1. Narcissistic therapists with altruistic intentions: In our society, therapy falls in the domain of ‘helping behaviours’, which are seen as altruistic; done purely to help people, often at one’s own cost. It is extremely important to recognise therapy as a profession just like other professions where the therapist also learns something from the client, besides, of course, earning their fee. Any therapist who believes that they have all the answers, and can cure the client of their distress, because of the goodness of their heart, or because they are unable to bear the agony of human beings, should be cautioned against.
  1. Apart from these fundamental aspects, good therapy rests on how well the two people in it are able to form a relationship that allows the client to be able to share difficult, and disturbing, mostly, shameful aspects of their lives. A rule I follow in sessions–sessions are not the place for the therapist to be smart, to show off, to be intellectual, we have conferences and academic papers for that. In the session, the therapist needs to be able to simply (deceptively) listen without judgment, without contempt, and without bias. Constant supervision and personal therapy of the therapist helps in engaging in this difficult task.
  1. Good therapy in this context would be with someone who is not only empathetic to the person’s issues and aware of the existing social and political concerns but in my opinion, who is psychologically political–this can be someone who can engage with the interplay between psychology and politics, i.e, they are someone who can understand how politics not only impacts the psyche of the person but also shapes it in a very fundamental way. Someone who has been discriminated against because of caste, religion, sexuality, not only by their peers but also the larger structures of society, and the State, they are bound to lie somewhere on the spectrum of aggression, and depression. One can expect them to have a certain level of bitterness, some defences, some way of coping with the intense othering that has come their way. If the therapist is unable to recognize the role the political has played in their personality development, then perhaps therapy won’t be very useful. Several therapists who might be empathetic to the issues of minorities remain clueless about the complexity inherent in the nature of their discussion when they manifest in real life. For example, how does the therapist engage when women from minority groups share experiences of being invisible in the larger struggle of minority right assertion?
  1. More importantly, anyone who works with trauma needs to be ready to work with absences and gaps since the narrative of trauma is often identified not in speech but manifest behaviour, or interruptions. Trauma fractures the linearity of narrative; a traumatised person is rarely able to give you a coherent account of ‘what happened’. This question becomes more important in the case of minorities because the spatial-temporal evenness of the trauma is suspended in the face of the routine othering they are subjected to. The question of working with trauma in minority groups needs to address how to work with the trauma that has not ended, and is ongoing; one that doesn’t fit into the otherwise popular psychiatric category of ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ because it is not ‘post’.
  1. Often therapists from the same community identify ‘too much’ with the clients, and hence are unable to provide the necessary distance for therapy to be able to work–working here means for therapy to explore the contradictions, and conflicts of the client. While therapists from the same community are indeed able to understand the contexts of discrimination and the resulting trauma from the same, they might not always be automatically useful; If/when the client and the therapist belong to the same community, there are already some preconceived notions about the therapist. These notions could be about thinking that since the therapist belongs to the same community they automatically understand the client. These notions and their specific relationship with their identity shape the way the clients react to the therapist. For example, several Muslim clients assume that Muslim therapists are their allies and support their political positions because of their shared Muslim identity, while it may not be the case. The client identifies with the therapist almost immediately and projects onto the therapist their views, such as a deep-seated critique of the current regime. Such projections need to be interrogated and explored by the therapist because these assumptions erase the possibility of difference of experience, the therapist may harbour a different critique of the regime, or not have one at all; by assuming that there is an agreement between the therapist and the client, there is no exploration of why the client holds such opinions, where they come from, and how they affect their lived reality. Sometimes the client needs to be able to be angry at us, and see that we can bear their attack so that they can express their rage without being terrified of it themselves.

Free/affordable psychotherapy for Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi folk can be accessed at The Blue Dawn here.

Some organisations that offer a free or sliding fee structure for all are:
1. Sanjivini Society for Mental Health
2. The Hank Nunn Institute

Nina Sangma is an independent writer who writes on gender and its intersections with mental health, labour, culture, film and technology. She also designs content marketing campaigns for brands. She has worked as copywriter, television news producer, editor and brand strategist for over 14 years in radio, TV and digital media. She is a storyteller at heart.

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