The Gift of Unknowing: Why Heterogeneous Narratives are Important

Author’s Note: I draw from an idea put forth by Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who speaks of the dangers of a single story. In short, she warns us of the repercussions of showing a group of people repeatedly as one thing. She says that doing so will forge stereotypes and therefore we need more than one narrative to represent a group. 

The lives of people living with psychosocial disabilities are, likewise, not homogeneous. The stories of our lives, thus need to be varied, to represent the heterogeneity of our lives.

Below is a part of the story of a woman I interviewed to study madness for a research paper. It has been reproduced here with her consent.

“She used to compare me with my sister,” was how she began her narrative of herself. “I was dark, skinny and ugly and my sister was the fair and pretty one. And she ensured I felt it. Down to the clothes that were made for me; my sister was given dresses made of fine cloth, and for me, the remaining little scraps. But you know what”, her voice inflects, “in the end, the mosaic of prints that were used to stitch my garments together, ended up more beautiful than hers.”

She is Shanthi, a forty-something woman, a widow and a mother of three, but two have passed away. She was diagnosed with….. what exactly? I ask. “I don’t know. The doctors said I have a manasika roghaya meaning mental illness, but I don’t know the name.”

“Anyway,” Shanthi says, ignoring my interjections, “she used to say such horrible things to me, I used to question if she really was my mother. But I would go and speak to myself in the mirror, usually fighting a torrent of tears, I would tell myself you WILL overcome this, you WILL pass all your exams and you WILL show them all that you made it; the runt of the pack, the sickly ugly one, made it.”

Her story bounces along something like a linear structure, as she traces the years of her life. Now she is sixteen, living with her parents, in love with a boy boarded at her home.

“They didn’t want me to marry him. He wasn’t a rich “salli karaya” – moneyed man. But he had more humanity in him than anyone I had ever known.” She described him in one Sinhala word “manusakama” which loosely translates to ‘the milk of human kindness.’ “He was from a village, so no one approved of him because of his poor background. I was determined to marry him,” she said in a firm voice, drawing strength from all that past anger.

“Our wedding was a beautiful one.. I made the cake myself,” she added joyously.

“Tell me more about your ‘manasika roghaya,’” I ask, trying to get the most out of our interview.

“Well,” she says in a distant voice. “Once, during an argument with my family, my brother, who I loved very much, slapped me and no one defended me. They all took his side and I felt a drowning sense of loneliness. Then, I started speaking incoherently and would get angry at people for no reason. I was carted to churches, and the pastors said I had an illness. The treatment cost a lot of money so they wanted to put me in the dreaded asylum. I refused, but eventually got on medication..” she skips over the details of her encounter, which I could tell from my own experience, must have been horrific.

For her, living with a mental disability was like winning a school race in comparison to other Olympian tragedies she overcame.

“Was it difficult to keep a job?” I ask in desperation to hear more about her struggle with her unnamed illness.

“I lost my husband a while back so I had to make up my mind to raise my three children. I couldn’t make my illness a crutch or an excuse, so I worked, somehow. I cleaned houses, companies but I kept losing work because the drugs made me really drowsy. Sometimes, the headaches were unbearable. Losing my husband was very difficult,” she grieves.

Here was a man who knew me so well, knew my conditions, helped me with my chores and spearheaded my family, a man who loved me. A good man and I lost him.”

I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in ‘The Danger of a Single Story

She pauses for reflection, while I am busy taking notes. “Do you know what the illness makes you do?” I ask, interrupting her reflection, rather insensitively.

She responds mechanically, “I get headaches and I can’t govern myself well.”

“After I lost my daughters last Christmas, I made my peace with the fact that God has taken them to be with him at the right time, according to his will. You know how when you thrust a rubber ball into the deep water, it bounces back higher than one can imagine! I always envisioned myself as such a ball. I kept telling myself, no matter what comes my way, I will overcome and be victorious. I hope someone finds strength in my story,” she says as she ends it.

“Wait a minute. I saw a handkerchief at the shop and thought you may like it, so I bought it for you. Let me pray over it and give it to you so you can take this story to a place where it was meant to go. Do you like the handkerchief?” She asks me, smiling.

Shanthi recollected parts of her past with pain and wonder, and how most of her life was spent vacillating between these extremes. She rarely mentioned her illness. It was not her focal point, point of reference or a sieve, through which all her memories were sifted.

It’s not even important for her to know her diagnosis!, I think to myself incredulously. But such is the gift of unknowing. She does not know of things that were meant to define her.

Then it occurs to me that her pain points are universal—an unloved child, a teenager in love facing opposition, a woman married to a good man only to be turned a widow, and then, above all, losing her children—she had countless pain points that may or may not have contributed to her condition.

Shanthi did not have a single story for her life. She had many. She did not start her version with I have a diagnosis.” It is then that I realized that pain is both absolute and relative.

All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in ‘The Danger of a Single Story‘

So, this is my reminder for everyone struggling with a mental disability, you do not have a single story. You are not your illness, and you are not defined by a diagnosis or by the stumbling blocks that threw you off. You are the sum of all your experiences, not just one.

Manishka is a Sri Lankan writer. She has a BA Hons. in English and works as a teacher. To say she lives with or suffers from, schizophrenia is an inadequate description of who she is. Yes, she has schizophrenia, but this is just one part of her, as is her awesome sense of humour, feigned modesty or excessive anxiety. She is foremost a candid woman who is fiercely passionate about teaching children loves learning German and tries really hard to exercise! She is also a founding member of the Spectrum – a support group for those on the bipolar- schizophrenic spectrum. 

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