Sometimes I like to reflect on eight-year-old Niharika’s dreams.
From what I remember, she dreamt of helping people. She had seen her grandfather advocate tirelessly for marginalised folk back in her rural home town of Hospet, in the Indian state of Karnataka. Later, I learnt that he - to the chagrin of my grandmother - would often do this from his own pocket, travelling to neighboring cities to fight cases for those without the financial and legal means to do so.
Eight-year old Niharika also saw the selfless way in which her father would put others - family or not - in front of him. He was the first to be of aid, to be accommodating to anyone. In some ways, you could say that she grew up with the notion of giving in her blood. And yet, this complex notion of altruism and its accompanying conditionings ended up taking more from her than she could possibly/comfortably give.
Memory of eight-year-old Niharika. Image credit: supplied
I grew up around family who were doctors and spent much of my early childhood in and around my grand uncle’s medical clinic in Hospet. So naturally my first and strongest idea of helping others - of giving in the best way I could - was in this profession. This played convenient into the prevailing cultural mindset at the time - that certain professions were more renowned, more valued than others. But we will come back to that.
Life has a funny way of derailing you - of making you question what you value the most. And on what assumptions those valuations are built. One day you are living your life, happy in the decisions you’ve made and the person that you are - and the next your entire world and sense of self comes crashing down.
My sense of self was something that I thought I had defined for myself. I was the funny, talented fob (fresh-off-the-boat - an insult to some; a personality trait to me) girl who had been in the country for more than ten years.
However, I still had strong links to culture, tradition and my Indian-ness. I was the people pleaser - the perfect and quintessentially ‘good’ daughter; the smart learner and student; someone that my parents could brag about. Someone who got into a selective school after months of self-driven deep preparation. The sweet sister who cared so much about her younger brother (by nearly 12 years) and all of the other kids in her direct family and friend groups. The impromptu babysitter and children’s entertainer - both in personal settings but also on public stages. The singer who had been studying classical Carnatic music since she was seven and was the first to put her hand up (or volunteered) for gigs at local cultural events.
A flurry of activity and talent - I was always moving, always climbing, always ‘overachieving’.
You see, the funny thing about ‘overachieving’ is - when you drop down to just ‘achieving’; nobody really notices. They call it ‘high-functioning’, I think. Even you don’t really notice.
I was tired all the time - but I could still get my university assessments when needed - so was there actually anything wrong?
Internally - constantly on the verge of tears, but externally - everyone was still complimenting me on the latest award I had won or the latest performance I had done. So what was the problem?
It felt like the world was gradually going out of focus as I moved my glasses away from my face till I couldn’t see anymore - it was hard to know how I got there. And then the crash.
For me, that part is still a bit fuzzy and drawn out. The crash. People describe crashes as everything happening at once. They say that car crashes seem like they are stretched out but actually so much happens within the space of less than five minutes. My hypothetical car crash lasted over five years.
Looking back, I could logically rearrange all of the puzzle pieces that had to come together for me to hit my lowest point. But as it was happening, there was just one struggle after another to get through. This ended up being a pattern that I carried right through - and my memory continued to worsen for it. All I knew was that the pillars of sand started crumbling without me having little sense as to how, or why.
The foundation of wanting to help others that I had built for myself in my earlier years was put to the test for the first time when I was 17 years old.
My only grandmother from one side of the family passed away two weeks before my final year 12 high school exams, leaving behind a complex and unresolved relationship with the rest of the family. A core role model for me was thrust into a darker light.
Suddenly, the bed I had made - in being a people pleaser, more emotionally attuned than others and unabashedly loving - had to be slept in.
Looking back, I realise that these were roles I took onto myself. Roles that I had conditioned myself to believe that I ought to perform; and in some self-righteous way; roles that I could do justice to. I could - and should - repair the family bonds that had been frayed long before I was conscious of them. I carried the responsibility of tending to deep wounds that I had no hand in causing; nor did I have the medical skills to look after them in a way that was going to be helpful. Not at 17 years old. But I had to try right? Who else would? And if I did not - well that made me a bad daughter.
The storm was nigh, and everything was cloudy.
And as they say, when it rains - it pours. I found myself seeking out company that mirrored so many of the traits, behaviours and feelings that were familiar to me.
I stumbled into what turned out to be the most toxic and co-dependent relationship I would experience to date.
Robin Norwood, author of Women Who Love Too Much, speaks about the tendency of women who experience adversity within their family settings to subconsciously look for these fractured relationships elsewhere as a means of then finding a satisfying ending. I sought my satisfying ending in the arms of a boy who did not have the strength to carry himself, let alone me. And yet, this was another thing to add to the long list of righteousness - another thing to complain about.
Looking back, I think another element of why I stayed for as long as I did in that relationship was because that was easier than looking inward.
Wait, no! Looking inward was not even an option right? Why should it be? Clearly the issues and the problems were with the external. The family. The broken relationship. The hardships. Ever the victim, because that was easier than accepting an inner, more complicated truth.
If there is one thing I have learnt over the years - inward is the only place to search for answers worth finding - especially to the most difficult questions. And beginning to look inward, I have started to learn things that have changed the course of my life.
Things that have meant I now get to do what I love every day; in my work and in my life. That I can proudly say I have made decisions; doing the internal work; to get to a point where I can more easily ask - demand - for what I deserve.
I have started learning things that have made my relationships healthier, and true to who I am and my needs...I learnt I have needs! And I can talk about them in a way that doesn’t immediately make me selfish or conceited. I can question myself and the things that are happening around me - in a way that does not allow them to define who I am.
Agency and self-determination - these words hold different meanings for me now and they continue to actively shape how I view my life. I hold hope - and see difficulties as opportunities to lean into discomfort and pain in a way that determines how I grow. I am encouraging myself to grow in all different directions; to walk willfully toward the beautiful life and journey I want to take for myself. And that this is simply the start.
I whole-heartedly believe that although people may say ‘all things happen for a reason’ - it is entirely up to me to decide that reason.
And I have decided. I have decided that recounting my story - my learnings - is a love story to myself and to every other idealistic eight-year-old who lost their way.
Not because I think I deserve any more or any less than anyone else. But because for too long I betrayed myself.
I believed that the assumptions I made about myself were from a morally superior place when really they were the conditionings of my background, my upbringing and my environment. Of migrating and of the subsequent displacement and microaggressions that I and the generations before me faced. And that for too long, too many eight-years-olds are conditioned to learn that this fooling of the self is ok.
That is what led me down the path of pain and that is what I am now unlearning, day in and day out.
And I am ready to tell my story.
Niharika Hiremath is a mental health advocate and member of the National Mental Health Commission's Independent Advisory Board. For more information about her and to see her Culture and Mental Health Toolkit, visit her website. And watch out for the next part of Niharika's story coming soon to SAARI!