"BoJack Horseman has been great for my mental health," a friend announced the other day.
I couldn't help but marvel at how a defeatist (albeit genius) show like BoJack... was helping someone feel better (it's a rather dark show about a washed-up actor " an anthropomorphic horse " who battles depression, addiction and self-destructive behaviour). Was it the fact that collective trauma makes an individual feel less embarrassed or shamed about their experiences? Are you more accepting of your mental bruises knowing there are other people who relate?
These questions couldn't be more relevant now that we're bang in the middle of the second wave of #MeToo in India, and stories of harassment and sexual assault are tumbling out by the minute.
Women are wearing their trauma on their sleeves, hoping to change the narrative on consent. Some will call this a revolution, and some will say this has been a long time coming. But there is a flip-side: Many friends, acquaintances and co-workers I have spoken to have narrated a rise in their anxiety levels by merely following the news, which triggers their own memories of harassment. Some have found catharsis in sharing their stories, while some have retreated into a shell, unable to deal with the backlash to their confessions.
It's been a tough few days for women in India. Just following the news cycle " whether as a reader or as a journalist " is enough to trigger panic and anxiety.
But first, disclaimers: This is not a complaint. This is a wake-up call for those claiming women are only speaking out now to gain publicity (as if talking about assault and sexual misconduct will get actresses film offers, or journalists a promotion at the workplace). We stand to gain nothing by speaking about our trauma; instead we have to deal with acute restlessness, insomnia, self-doubt, and paranoia " among so many other displaced emotions.
I've been molested twice by complete strangers while using public transport. I was repeatedly groped and felt up in DTC buses in Delhi for six months in 2006. Finally, I started carrying a safety pin, stabbing anyone who attempted to touch me. But not everyone can detach themselves from traumatising situations. Not everyone is privileged enough to conjure swift action. Not everyone is dealing with an abuser who is a stranger.
Counselors and therapists I spoke to off the record confirmed that a public acceptance of something so debilitating " or incidents that one considers to be assault, harassment or otherwise discomfiting " can often result in lifelong PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), among other psychological issues.
A journalist with a leading publication, who has been actively covering the #Metoo movement, revealed (on condition of anonymity) that she still can't find the courage to speak about her story of sexual abuse. She's a brave girl who has been leading the coverage around MeToo in India, and doesn't flinch before calling a person who has been accused, to ask them confrontational questions. And yet, she's too scared of the repercussions of her confession, because her abuser is within her family.
"When I was about four or five years old, an older cousin " he was 23 " had taken an immense liking to me. He would follow me around, call himself my 'protector' (which at the time my parents found very cute), and soon that turned into touching, groping and molesting. I was made to perform oral sex on him, when I didn't even know what the function of a penis is. He would perform oral sex on me, a child. He would tell me not to say anything to my parents because they love him, and won't believe me. And as a child, I believed him. I thought this was just something all children do. This went on for a while, before he moved away to another country. I only realised what had happened when I turned 13. As the years passed by, I realised that this was abuse. More specifically, child sexual abuse. I've since buried this memory. I don't talk about it. I don't mention it when my friends talk about their experiences. I haven't told anyone about this because I'm afraid of how my adult mind will process it, since I have never allowed myself to be emotional about this. I'm most afraid of my parents finding out. The last thing I want is for them to feel helpless and guilty at this age," she says.
This is a journalist who has spent the last two weeks only reading accounts of sexual harassment and assault, day-in, day-out. "My mind's not in the right place. I'm going through the motions like I always do, but I fear something is going to burst in me one day, and I don't know what will happen. I feel like I'm sitting on a volcano," she says.
Mahima Kukreja, the writer-comic who outed AIB collaborator Utsav Chakraborty on Twitter, following which there was an outpouring of accusations from the comedy and entertainment industries, said this entire episode has acutely affected her mental health. "I have PTSD from this ordeal. This has been a long time coming for a lot of women and there's a sense of relief. At the same time, this has been traumatic and triggering for everyone affected by a patriarchal system that is violent to women. For me, reading and sharing the stories has been reliving that hurt over and over again. The panic attacks have been constant and there is a baseline of anxiety that just never recedes," she said.
However, she believes that we're on the precipice of change " which offers some respite.
"There is introspection. There is a change coming. The way we look at consent is evolving and we are finally having nuanced conversations around it," she added.
Support can move mountains, and can compel you to share your story in the hope of finding resonance, and spreading awareness. But what happens after? How many stories do we know about what happens to these women after their story is made public? Do they feel relieved or additionally stressed? How do they cope?
A young girl who outed her harasser on Twitter told me that she was overjoyed and in awe of the strength that other women showed, but felt emotionally drained. "The few hours after I outed my harasser were immensely traumatic for me, considering how you're forced to relive not just the incident, but also the guilt and humiliation that accompanies it. In fact, that whole day I couldn't concentrate on anything and just sat in a corner refreshing my timeline. My mental health went for a toss and so I consciously tried logging out, keeping my phone away and indulged in self-care: I ate ice-cream, went to see my parents, and shopped. It helped, although nothing can compare to the innumerable supportive messages I've gotten from my former female batch-mates, friends, and random strangers," she confessed.
It may be easy to attach yourself to a movement based on your ideological beliefs, but when happens when you see someone you were romantically involved with outed for harassment?
One of the most emotionally mature people in my friend circle recently found out a guy she dated in the past was being outed on Twitter. "I'm not in touch with him, but it was still a shock seeing his name on the list. I read the testimony and all I could think was 'Yup, sounds like him all right'. Although non-consensual sex was not the issue I had with him, I can see how a manipulative, dismissive and deeply narcissistic individual could extend this behaviour to all aspects of life. I felt really complicit and responsible somehow, after seeing his name. But it's taken me a lot of work to remember that a deeply selfish human being is not the responsibility of the women in his life," she revealed.
What was her next course of action? "When I found out about my ex, I messaged every mutual friend we had about this. I needed the shock to be absorbed and I couldn't do it alone, at 4 am. This person has since deleted his account, and it is hilarious (not really) because up until he was called out, he'd profess to being the most woke fellow on the planet," she said.
There's been a huge wave of support from women by women and for women, in the last few days. As I was speaking to these women about their experiences and their mental health, I couldn't help but rave about this sisterhood. It's been a harrowing few weeks but it has resulted in a Union Minister resigning from his post following misconduct allegations.
Our stories have not been in vain.
I reached out to Ruchita Chandrashekar, a mental health professional who has opened her Twitter DMs to help survivors wade through their issues pro-bono, to ask her a fundamental question in these trying times: How do we survive this news cycle? Is there light at the end of this tunnel?
"Vicarious trauma is being experienced by numerous women right now because of the consistent exposure to traumatic narratives. The brain starts to have a post-traumatic response, even if the traumatic event (they're reading/hearing about) isn't their own. This would explain the degree of emotional exhaustion and mental distress that has come to light, especially with journalists, women exposing predatory behaviour, lawyers and mental health clinicians. It is very valid and very real. Since the absolute avoidance of traumatic narratives isn't a matter of choice for some folks, drawing boundaries around periodic consumption and reserving time for self-care can help in management. It is okay to disconnect. In fact, it is important to disconnect for short periods of time because you cannot pour from an empty cup," she says.
"Vicarious trauma can cause short-term PTSD-like symptoms, so journalists and lawyers will have to strategise their well-being or it can affect their work too. Having a reserve of self-care practices can be useful in those moments of disconnection, and it does not have to be anything elaborate. Making a simple list of 20 things that spark a relaxing or positive response, like listening to a favourite playlist, eating dessert, a warm shower, playing a video game, painting nails and more also qualifies as self care. Simpler activities are easier to do in times of exhaustion too, and having a list allows individuals to choose one or two things to do in that break time to keep the focus on the self and increase the energy reserve," Ruchita advises.
Just as I was writing this piece, it hit me why BoJack Horseman is, indeed, great for your mental health. It's not because of BoJack himself " it's the wonderful characters around him: Princess Carolyn, who almost always lands on her feet, no matter what life throws her way; Diane Nyugen and Todd Chavez, who always look out for BoJack, even when he's given up on himself; and everybody's favourite, Mr Peanut Butter, who is the personification of positivity.
We're in this together " and together we shall rise.