Interview | Scherezade Siobhan - “No human relationship is 100% a safe space” - Hindustan Times
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Interview | Scherezade Siobhan - “No human relationship is 100 per cent a safe space”

ByHuzan Tata
Nov 14, 2023 07:39 PM IST

The practising psychologist’s latest book, That Beautiful Elsewhere, is a moving collection of essays on challenges to mental health

What was the impetus behind writing about your own journey?

My entire journey to becoming a psychologist has been linked to my struggles with depression from a very early age. I grew up at a time where the amount of information and the openness wasn’t the same. Owing to my circumstances, I did not have a lot of external stability either. I struggled a lot with trying to understand what I was dealing with because I started experiencing signs of depression as a child. The structure of the system that I went through in India was very proscriptive – I could tell from my experience that it wasn’t a simple binary of illness and wellness. I struggled with these thoughts all through my growing years, and I think that’s where it comes from – the ability to distil what was happening, to experience it, to express it. Because there was no other empathetic witness, writing was the way for me. I’m very comfortable writing about my life. It has been my longstanding guardian to tackle what I’m dealing with, and that’s how the book came to be.

Psychologist and author Scherezade Siobhan (Courtesy the subject) PREMIUM
Psychologist and author Scherezade Siobhan (Courtesy the subject)

What was the impetus behind writing about your own journey?

My entire journey to becoming a psychologist has been linked to my struggles with depression from a very early age. I grew up at a time where the amount of information and the openness wasn’t the same. Owing to my circumstances, I did not have a lot of external stability either. I struggled a lot with trying to understand what I was dealing with because I started experiencing signs of depression as a child. The structure of the system that I went through in India was very proscriptive – I could tell from my experience that it wasn’t a simple binary of illness and wellness. I struggled with these thoughts all through my growing years, and I think that’s where it comes from – the ability to distil what was happening, to experience it, to express it. Because there was no other empathetic witness, writing was the way for me. I’m very comfortable writing about my life. It has been my longstanding guardian to tackle what I’m dealing with, and that’s how the book came to be.

You struggled with your mental health from a young age, dealing with your parents’ separation and more. What led you down the career path of psychology?

On one hand, I experienced a lot of isolation on this journey, but on the other I also found people who were empathetic in this framework of mental health. When I was living by myself in Mumbai at 17, I knew I needed to get some kind of help, so I found someone who was holding a support group in the city. I called this lady at 10pm and said I don’t know if you’re a therapist or if you can help me – but she heard me out. She shared that she’d dealt with paranoid schizophrenia and she was also a mental health activist. It felt like I was talking to someone who was on the same path – the fact that she was doing okay gave me some kind of light. Such experiences helped me pick this career. I don’t believe that therapy is a safe space – no human relationship is 100 per cent a safe space. What therapy helps you gain is a sense of aliveness, a sense of joy, curiosity, and vitality. I found that, and felt that if I am in the position to be a “wounded healer”, it’s not a bad idea. Then, of course, as subjects too the human mind and human behaviour are fascinating.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while writing this book?

Writing about mental health and therapy needs a level of authenticity. The biggest challenge was remaining authentic throughout. Do not position your experience or someone else’s experience in such a way that you truncate it or tie it in a neat bow and say “This was the struggle” and that’s it. That was the challenge – to not lose that sense of balance. I didn’t want to romanticise anything, but I wanted to present it. When talking about my experience with intimate partner violence, I wanted to present the facts, but didn’t want to give lurid details, because that ties into the believability politics around mental health – is it believable that you suffer from this? The challenge was to present the story but not make it into trauma porn or dry scientific analysis. It’s a delicate blend of science, storytelling and sentiment. In existential psychology, we learn that we’re so caught up in seeking heroes that we forget about the importance of surviving. I think that’s the challenge – of course, there are heroes in every story, but we must not forget to speak about the survival.

214 pp, ₹499; HarperCollins
214 pp, ₹499; HarperCollins

Is there a specific chapter you are really proud of?

One of my favourite parts is about a cisgender woman who has struggled with endometriosis – an invisible illness – finding an empathetic witness in a transperson. Simply because that person has also dealt with being invisible. People have not believed their stories either, so they have learnt how to listen to others without asking for evidence. I even like the story of the old people dealing with the empty nest. When we look at mental health on social media, their stories are not the ones we see. We don’t hear about geriatric mental health, or about anxiety or depression in older people. Even mental health of sex workers is a subject that’s absolutely not discussed in India. I’ve taken stories and anecdotes from many people to build a new person for each anecdote – as heartbreaking as it is, some painful tragedies are so common that they allow you to construct a single person out of different stories.

Now, more people are open to taking therapy. At the same time, a lot of older generations are still averse to even talking about mental health troubles – why is that so and how can one help that?

It’s ironic that we’re a collectivistic country – almost everything happens in community-oriented ways, and yet when it comes to mental health it becomes individualised. There’s a level of fear and shame attached to accepting someone else’s situation. If I’m a parent, and I have to accept that my child deals with clinical depression or anxiety as a disordered state, I have to accept or at least be open to introspecting if my parenting style contributed to that. That’s what parents don’t want to do, because it immediately makes them uncomfortable about their world view. In psychology, we call these schemas or mental models. Human beings don’t understand the world as singular or individual entities; we understand things as a pattern. I have a pattern of what I think is parenting, what I am as a person and a parent. Schemas are formed over time, and they get hard-wired. To disrupt this, you need openness to new information.

In terms of mental health conversations, we need to look at a community-oriented approach in India, at least, because of our population. It will take eternities to train enough people so as to have centralised access to mental health systems. We need to provide better resources and information options. Mental health literacy is important – that’s what will be a game-changer. If it surrounds you, you have to engage with it; you can’t escape it. And then subconsciously it changes your schemas. We need to target that as much as possible.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I think That Beautiful Elsewhere is linked to several things. It’s linked to my life, where I always looked to that beautiful elsewhere. It is both with hope and dejection, because you reach that “elsewhere” and then realise that’s not what I want – the goalpost has shifted. I would like for people to realise the fact that there is no hard and fast rule for recovery. There is no perfect way to exist in this world. Your life is handmade – you have to find the pieces. It’s not your job to love yourself, but you at least have to befriend yourself. It’s okay to not have some of the answers. If things are difficult now, just try to make it through the hour or the day. That Beautiful Elsewhere should be both an overarching leap from point A to point B, but I hope it’s also a shift in how you perceive yourself and your life.

Huzan Tata is an independent journalist. She lives in Mumbai.

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