In this interview, Val Resh gives us an insight into her world, what it is like to live in our society with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, where she finds hope and support and things and attitudes about mental health that anger her. Val is the author of Fallen Standing and is Founder-CEO of the Red Door Project, which helps build connections among people.
1. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Well I’m a cross between an alien and vampire race sent to Earth to spread hope through madness. But since people of this planet don’t believe in possibilities I got diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia for believing that I am here to make that change. I am now an artist, author, martial artist, pantomime, teacher, counsellor, activist, self-advocate, shaman and healer. I’m a changemaker.
2. If you are comfortable sharing, can you talk about your experiences with mental health, what are some of the impacts you have felt, where do your biggest challenges come from, and coping skills and support networks you have tried to build.
Though most people know my story of diagnosis beginning at age 22, my first experience with a professional was at age 15 when I had run away from home. He convinced my parents that I had a gender disorder and required sex change – which freaked my parents out and further had me sent to all sorts of camps that tried to fix me. Challenges have been all too many even till date and they mostly come from the very system itself. Professionals have discriminated my education. Psychiatrist have given me all kinds of labels. Politicians consider me an invalid. Psychology students have mocked and laughed at me. When I was hospitalized for physical issues arising from my brain tumor surgery, the nurses and intern doctors are more interested in asking questions about my schizophrenia.
Laws of all countries can question the possibility of me being a threat. Each time I travel I always carry a small amount of fear for being found that I have schizophrenia and that I can be stopped from flying, be forced into an institution and be denied visa or entry into countries. When I wrote an open letter to Deepika Padukone I received a newer diagnosis through one professional while another even questioned my knowledge of human rights. I felt more humiliated, insulted and disrespected by them and by the silence and ignorance of society to have not seen how incapacitating the very system of professionals are towards those like me who ‘recover’. I was told to suck it up and look at the bright side that my article reached a lot of others who found hope. Of course that itself was the biggest support I got through other strangers who wrote in to me, but it doesn’t erase the fact that more than 50 people who called me psycho versus the patronizing comments professionals make instead of simply being encouraging towards me coming out widely.
The BIGGEST challenge in all of this is for me to continue to find some hope and love in the few professionals that I know personally and not let my judgment be clouded by those who are still doing very bad jobs. I’m letting them in but the question is if they can do it too. The very fact that children as young as 4 are being treated for being hyperactive and 12 year old boys are being treated for anger is a sad truth which has shook me in the past few years. There are other mental health advocates who take medications who advocate the same for kids which to me is very dangerous because I know what it feels like to have seen a shrink as a teenager. It’s a terrible loss of childhood and I’m surprised that adults can be so selfish to take another person’s childhood away.
My imaginary friends and voices truly do help me deal with everything else. Along with them I do have a growing list of real friends, the few fans and followers whom I interact with and they constantly serve as a reminder to me. I don’t talk much to real people or share my worries with friends but each one always tell me something that serves as a reminder to who I believe myself to be: ‘Don’t go back to your planet. We need someone with brutal honesty. We need someone like you to remind us. Keep doing what you do’
Support for me varies all the time and I see it being the same as others like me. Pets especially are my biggest and best support. Followed by kids. My online community serves as a support to me too as it does for others.
3. Can you tell us about what motivated you to write Fallen Standing, how was the experience of putting your life into words?
My article ‘On Being Normal’ was spotted by Ritu Menon of Woman Unlimited/Kali for Women and she sent me an email asking me if I would like to be published by them. I didn’t know if it was a spam email so I had to google her out and then forwarded her email to my co-founder and a mentor silently screaming about it (I don’t have the ability to express excitement like how most people do). Normally one has to have a full manuscript ready and then hunt for a publisher. In my case, it was clearly not normal! It was pretty disturbing in itself to write all that I did as a lot of memories came back, many of which I never recollected as a part of ‘my’ life. However, the writing served as therapy for me – because it did force me to confront my parents, fights broke out at home, I broke into fits of rage and tears throughout every email sent to Ritu and she wouldn’t hear from me for weeks or months after. But the writing served as a therapeutic purge. The entire process itself drew me closer to Ritu as I was writing letters to her and not to the world.
4. How did you get involved in the Red Door project and what was your motivation? How have you seen this evolve over time and what do you think it serves for people?
The Red Door draws its motivation from many layers. I’ve been in support groups and therapy and all kinds of help. I’ve also lost the only friend I first had since my diagnosis to the same system who threw her inside. I don’t know what has become of her but she too was an artist and was only looking for a place to feel belonged. She was much older but like her I’ve never felt belonged in a space and always disappeared from other groups and even my own home. I realized that this feeling of belonging was shared among other friends with schizophrenia too. There was something important in our symptoms of ‘withdrawal’ or ‘social isolation’ that was speaking from the insides of our hearts. A constant search to feel wanted, validated, recognized, not-judged, to be different yet accepted, to feel at home. In my attempt to fill my own void and need for such, I wanted to create the same for others. With that feeling and memory I looked at The Red Door as a possibility. I thought that if I just got more people like me who are in search of this space come together – we might just create that feeling for each other naturally.
Simultaneously, I wanted to know if people heard voices when they paint – as I do. I wanted to see if others would be able to experience the same – and if they did would it be possible that they would perhaps unconsciously understand someone like me. I believe that the only way to change the way people understood schizophrenia and remove the stigma and discrimination that comes with it is to give them a safe experience of it. And perhaps they just don’t know how to help someone like me and thus carry the fear of their inability. If I were to give them the right tool to help me – it is likely they will change their entire response and ideas of those like me.
In doing so, human connections with perfect strangers were made. Where I wasn’t a disorder but a facilitator and expert who were helping others understand people like me. They were open to engaging in dialogues and spoke about their own issues. It served both ways as it took care of the high social anxiety and paranoia I otherwise tend to feel when I am in crowds. It’s evolved as a spirit that many people have identified too as a spiritual journey which has been one of the central ideas behind the documentary A Drop of Sunshine – where both the movie maker and me believe that mental illness are not necessarily illnesses to be treated but a spiritual awakening that needs to be allowed to happen for true healing to occur.
The Red Door today can easily be described as a space that draw influences from many different schools of thoughts and practice but mostly that of shamanism. Where we simply ‘hold space’ for others and in turn they do it for another. Where each member nurtures their inner spirit through creativity allowing them to remain empowered where they are their own agent of support and care.
There is a lot The Red Door does in terms of work and hence it can’t be described in a few paragraphs.
5. Is there anything else related to mental health or your work that you’d like to share with us for inclusion.
My mental illness and the never ending labels I can have and get is not a product of a biological abnormality or a chemical imbalance. It’s a product of society. It’s a product of culture. It’s a product of economy. It’s a product of degrees. It’s a product for permanency.
You’ve created it. All of you.
I’m a product of change. I’m a product of a million types of human responses. I’m a product of energy transformation. I’m a product that is and always will be temporary. I’m a product of differences. I’m a reminder to your never ending set of constructions.
When you hurt or reject me you are only rejecting the truth of what you have made.
When you abuse and discriminate me you are validating your hypocrisy.
When you judge and condemn me you are looking right into a mirror.
I understand my label and existence has given you the right to feel good about yourself.
You can spit at me and no one would question you.
You can ridicule me in public and no one would expect you to be any less.
You can exploit me and turn me into an entertainment and no one will lodge a complaint against you.
Do what makes you feel happy..
Because the day you ask me to teach you how to live with madness, I’m still going to open my door and let you in….cause that’s how big it’s existence is. There’s always room for anyone.
Stop making us feel like third grade citizens of this planet – because tomorrow I could be your child.
Featured Image Credit: Val Resh