Update: The article ‘”Nobody Affirmed My Queerness”: Experience Of Childhood Counselling Sessions‘ by Sudipta Das Das won the 2021 SCARF Media for Mental Health Award for excellence in reporting on mental health. Read more here.
I share a very intimate relationship with this word – identity. Growing up, there has been a constant conflict between my authentic identity and the identity that was posed/imposed on me. Now, after many years I often wonder who I would have been if I wasn’t shaped by anger, rejection, and grief from my childhood.
I vividly remember many instances from the past where I was gradually being stripped out of my authentic self. Let me take you to the time when I was 12. In a room full of relatives and maternal cousins, my cousin brother cracked a joke – Sejo masi (my mother) apparently has one and a half daughter and half a son (me and my sister). I didn’t know how to respond to this apart from laughing with all the other people, except I wanted to slap him and run out of the room. I was also anxious thinking about how this was going to hurt my parents.
It wasn’t very late in my life, I realised my queerness has to exist in cohesion with an unconditional apology and shame—shaming was the only way the world could police and censor our personhood. Bewildered and lonely, I reached out to steady myself and found comfort in teenage magazines. The Q&A sections particularly used to be my favourite. One day, amongst the sultry and sexually tickling phrases, I found that one question that raised my heartbeat. A person was asking about their attraction to the same gender/sex, and how they were clueless about processing their feelings around it. I realised there are other teenagers like me in the world. The columnist suggested that the person goes to a psychologist.
This was also the time, the outside world and the world inside me didn’t know how to make sense of my desires. When you feel lonely and scared, you tend to trust the people who are supposed to protect you. Except they don’t. I wrote a long letter to my dad, narrating how I feel—somehow the onus of making sense of my marginalisation, their disappointment, and ‘what to do next’ fell on me. I requested them to take me to a therapist.
Childhood Experience of Accessing Therapy
I was 15. We went to a giant private hospital in Kolkata. I don’t exactly know why I wanted to go to the psychiatrist but my parents convinced that I need to cure my queerness. The doctor spoke to my parents as I waited outside grappling my anxiety and shrunken throat. Now, I was not very sure if I was comfortable coming out to a stranger, but it was too late—I no longer held the right to my privacy and agency.
As I entered the room, a mid-aged pleasant man, the psychiatrist, chuckled at me, asked me my name and what I aspire to be in the future, and offered me candies. That’s all for that day.
The ‘well-intentioned’ psychiatrist wanted the best for my family’s ‘finances’ and referred me to his personal mental health clinic to perform psychiatric tests and counselling. The faces of my parents were rattled in fear.
In July or August of 2011, the city was uncomfortably hot and humid. We went to the referred mental-health clinic in an old north Kolkata building with a low ceiling, a long air-conditioned shabby corridor, and small wooden compartments with sliding doors. They send me to one of those compartments with ‘scary-looking’ big equipment and a lot of electric wares. They applied a gooey thing on my scalp to perform EEG, they took my blood for some other tests, they asked me to open my shirt to ‘check’ my body (apparently to examine secondary sexual characteristics), and many other procedures. I was supposed to feel humiliated, but I was tired.
Having spent more than a decade just fighting against my mind to keep myself coherent, those tests were, in one word, a relief. I too wanted to know if my queerness is my illness. Finding the fault in my body would at least excuse me from the constant claims that everything is in my head. It would have all went away the moment if I would have decided not to be queer.
We got the reports, everything seemed normal except that we were paying chunks of money for those procedures and counselling. On the first day of the therapy, the counsellor didn’t seem to care much about what I wanted to talk about. He tried to respond to my parent’s concerns, only to end up perplexing them more. There was no affirmation or acknowledgment or stating facts. He kept silent when my parents told him I am ill, brain-washed, stubborn. He kept silent when I asked him if I was really ill. The only thing he did is refer me to the next session.
On the way back home from one of such sessions, my dad asked me if I am cured? I did not know how to respond to that. He started screaming at me as we sat in a crowded evening train, as everyone staring at us by this time I somehow knew how to ignore what my parents say, and the shame they put me through. I looked outside the running train, leaving stations after stations, people after people, thoughts after thoughts. My tiredness had transcended to numbness.
‘Hope’ is a Terrible Thing
By this time I was not very sure if the columnist’s advice in the magazine is at all reliable. The counselling was neither helping me nor my family. But I still went to my fifth counselling session.
This was September. The shabby air-conditioned corridor was particularly crowded today. We paid money at the counter and waited with the receipt for our turn. He wanted to talk about my experiences of desire, intimacy, and affection. I was uncomfortable with his poor choice of words and expressions. I did not want to share anything with him but I was not sure if I was allowed to say no. I wanted to talk about the conflicts at home, the bullying at school, but he insisted on understanding my sexuality. He pulled the last string asking me ‘If I have ever had anal sex,’ with a smirk on his face. I froze in shame, embarrassment, and feelings of being violated.
When I was 15. I told my parents, I am cured now and hence I don’t need to go to the therapist anymore. They were immediately elated, assuring me that they knew the illness would go away. I don’t exactly know if they could catch me lying, I could catch them.
After that day my queerness existed in the house in perpetual silence – the age-old coping tool of Indian families. The elephant in the room became my permanent pet.
When I was 23. I left the city I grew up in. I always thought I would be happiest in an alien city, far from the memories of childhood, except I had a breakdown. I could not separate my identity from my childhood experiences, heartbreak, and low self-esteem. I did not want to go to therapy again, but the organisation I am placed as a fellow, offered a mental health allowance. I reached out to a therapist on and off. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
Are Indian Mental Health Practitioners Equipped to counsel Trans-Queer People/Children?
In my childhood, neither I nor my family was equipped with vocabulary or information to comprehend queerness, the crisis it created in our lives, but when you reach out to people promising expertise on healing and they fail you, then the scars become permanent. Still today I can’t make sense of all those tests, medication, hiding information from me, absence of affirmative attitude, violating my boundaries.
Even after a decade, though now I have the vocabulary to describe or debate with my therapists, I often also have to break down deeper nuances around gender, sexuality, non-heteronormative family structures, and much more. The Indian mental health space is largely occupied by cis-het therapists whose expertise is often based on heteronormative experiences and practices.
I finally found a queer affirmative therapist last year. Just the fact that this person is also non-binary, queer, and trained in providing therapy to queer-trans people, is affirming. I don’t have to break down all my feelings and experiences in tangible statements anymore for the perusal of people, who lack knowledge, practice, or lived experience. It saves so much of my energy and I can concentrate more on parts that need healing.
Queer-affirmative therapy should be a default practice and not only a specialisation.
These experiences are part of my childhood, not my entire childhood. There were also smaller pockets of queer euphoria, hope, and thrill of daring to differ. Joy and hurt can exist together.
But still, I wish I could go back in the past to communicate what I really wanted and didn’t want to my therapist and parents. I can’t do that. Instead, I can request you, if you are a parent, or in any position of guardian, affirm the identity and desires of queer-trans children. Be that one affirmative adult in their life who assures hope, possibilities, and joy.
It might not always be possible for children to verbalise their discomfort around queer non-affirmative counselling or find queer affirmative therapists. So the onus of actively putting in labour to educate themselves, taking that extra step, is with adults. If you are a school counsellor, child-therapist, or work in any position of healing children, make sure you are trained in queer affirmative counselling and actively practice that. If you feel inadequate, refer queer-trans children to queer affirmative therapists. Find the QACP course and information curated by Mariwala Health Initiative, a list of queer-inclusive mental health practitioners can be accessed here. In an ideal world queer affirmative therapy practice should be the default practice of every therapist and not only a specialisation.
I don’t exactly know what healing from those counseling experiences from childhood looks like, but writing this, feels a bit closer to that.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India