Interview in Kungumam Thozhi

50-53 Reshma Valliappan 50-53 Reshma Valliappan2

The above is in Tamil. Transcript of my interview is as below. It might include/exclude certain stuff from the above. I wouldn’t know 🙂

1. About yourself… Native… Parents… Studies….

My father’s ancestral roots are from South India. He is a Tamil. He met my mother in Pune when he came here to study. My siblings and I were all born and raised in Malaysia however we always made frequent trips back and forth to India. Like many Indian families who have settled outside of India my folks always wanted us to learn more about the traditions, culture, and norms.

I completed my 9th grade (equivalent to 10th in India) and was brought here in the beginning of my 10th grade science major (11th standard India) which was very upsetting for me as I had to repeat 2 years because of the difference in the education system and medium of language. I had to learn subjects like math, biology, chemistry and others in English instead of Malay. After completing my 10th here, we returned and I was doing a Diploma in Economics from the London School of Economics to which I had to leave half way again as my father wanted to come here.

I then had to complete my 12th grade in Arts externally as colleges here were only willing to take me in the 11th grade and I could not lose another year. I did my B.A in Philosophy major, Psychology and Economics through Fergusson College, Pune. I was to complete by 2003 but since I was undergoing my treatment and dealing with my diagnosis, I completed it in 2005. I did a local course in counselling psychology after that to help me meet others and build my long term focus as I wanted to further my studies. Upon completion, my doctor, counsellors and the support group I was in encouraged me to pursue a Masters in Psychology as they thought I would have a lot to contribute and learn. I was in my 2nd year of Clinical Psychology when I begun developing severe mood swings. I had 2 papers pending to complete the course to which I did get permission to take a short break and return. However, the new HOD had issues with my label and refused to let me sit for my papers.

I am currently enrolled in a Master’s in Philosophy and another Master’s in Science and Religion which I was to finish in March 2014 however, I am taking a little longer due to my other physical health complications. (scar epilepsy caused by a brain tumour). I have completed a certificate course through CREA on Disability & Sexuality and I am now one of their course guides in the area of Mental Health and Sexuality.

2. How was your life till your 14th birthday? What kind of a kid you were?

Life for me was always a thrilling roller coaster. I was a mischief and trouble maker but always adored by everyone. Studies were not something I could focus on but I was excellent in sports as I started learning martial arts since age 7. Played tennis, basketball, and swam. When I was not doing either of these I was practicing my musical instrument, piano and trumpet or making money without my father’s knowledge.

I never really looked at life but just lived it. It wasn’t until recently that many memories of my past have been coming back as I am writing my book. My memory till age 14 was only positive because another part of me was dealing with memories I could not handle.

My parents have always been a lot more over protective with me compared to my other siblings perhaps because they have lost me before. I was 1 ½ years of age when I was in coma for nearly a month as I had Reye’s syndrome. The doctors said there was no hope to get me back on the third day but my parents didn’t want them to pull the plug. A strange combination of all kinds of faith is what my parents believe got me back. My father has always called me a fighter since then in everything and anything I did because I would literally fight for it. I never knew what he meant by that until they told me the entire story when I was 30.

3. What happened at your 15th birthday? How did it start? How did your parents react?

(before my 15th birthday). As a teen I was going through my own set of experiences, emotions, and issues. School was always an escape for me as I was constantly getting into arguments with my parents at home. I was quite a rebel (like my dad). There was no one to talk to or ask questions about my already confused teenage mind. Sport was the only outlet but I was a different kind of teenager – instead of looking for someone to talk to I would look at doing things. Talking to someone was not something I could do. I would steal cigarettes and beer cans from the local shop. I guess as a kid I was ignored in this department (as were my older siblings) who were parents to me. Dinner talk was only about my father. It was either his work issues, his stress, his plans, his friends. I got so used to it that it felt normal.

I ran away (upon hearing a voice) because I could not live with a lot of things that were going on. I was already self-harming, withdrawing and having difficulties sleeping. When my mom first saw my cut, she slapped me and called me mad. This went on for a while until both my parents confronted me after finding out about my smoking. That very night, I concluded I would be better off without them and they would be better off without me.

They were certainly glad I returned home after running away. I just didn’t have to tell them the rest of the story. There was enough rumours around our town regarding ‘Valliappan’s granddaughter who ran away’ as a police report was already made since I was gone more than 24 hours.

4. Were you aware of your strange behaviour?

No. I was too young to even understand what I was supposed to feel. I thought that all families are alike and whatever I am experiencing must be the same with others, so never looked at it any differently. I only beginning questioning all of it after I returned home – because almost all kids feel like running away from home at some point in their lives, but very few really do it. I realized I was indeed the odd one out even in my family.

5. In one of your interview, you had mentioned that the unhappy childhood and the cultural differences between your parents was one of the main reason which made you vulnerable to schizophrenia.  Is that true?

There are many overlapping areas in my case. Many people have unhappy childhood and cultural differences but not all have schizophrenia as my siblings don’t have it given we are from the same family. Some people are just more sensitive than others which make them vulnerable to things that can overwhelm their psyche. My personal understanding of schizophrenia is that it is a combination of many experiences rolled into one gigantic label. I believe what has made me vulnerable to this ‘illness’ called schizophrenia is the fact that somewhere deep within my spirit still wants to live. This so called ‘madness’ is an actual form of survival to many things we cannot accept or fathom. Society is only a construction of many boxes each one of us have to fit in. I don’t find schizophrenia strange. I think society’s preconceived notion of everything is strange.

6. You had also mentioned about your fathers alcoholism and his violent behaviour towards you and your siblings….Do you think that could also be a reason for your strange behaviour?

My father’s ways have been an issue for us. In my case, it probably became too much of a reflection because I share a lot of traits similar to him. I was another son for him though yet I had to be their pretty daughter. He wasn’t violent towards me or my sister physically. I can’t speak for my siblings but only myself. He was verbally very aggressive with us and there were many things as a 7 year old I could not make sense of. Some of these images still flood my mind and at 34 I can now make sense of it.

7. When did the doctors confirmed that you were schizophrenic? What was your reaction at that time?

My diagnosis was not known to me until I found my hospital discharge card one day and got very violent reacting to it. When I met my psychiatrist that week he explained it to me. Before meeting him I had seen different psychiatrist but the diagnosis was not made yet as it took time to rule out other things.

8. Few words about the treatment and medication….?

14 pills a day and I slept all the time because it sedated me. I had too many side-effects and was yet seeing things but just could not react to them. My doctor knew this but he couldn’t and did not want to over medicate me as I was already given the largest dose for someone my size. My parents and I reached a burn out ourselves and my father asked him if ECT was an option. But given my other overlapping issues, my doctor said ECT in my case could worsen me. That was when we needed some other intervention.

9. Did you face sexual harassment during your childhood days and also during your teen age?


10. How did you come out from the suicidal thoughts?

I gave in to them honestly and then came out from them. I always buried myself in books and did my own research to understand what was happening to me. In time, I could pinpoint why I was having suicidal thoughts and connect them to my reality. Making this connection helped me address my issues and face them. Unfortunately, everyone is in a rat race with no time for anything including facing their nightmares and stressors. All of this gets swept under a carpet but over time that carpet itself starts gathering layers of dirt and smell. One day when you need to wash that carpet and find all these buried stuff – it will get difficult to breathe. This is what all our lives comprise off – suicidal or not.

11. How was your life as a bartender? How did you feel when your were asked to leave the job?

I worked as many things not just bartending. I worked in a bookstore before that. I didn’t pay attention to what I felt when I was asked to leave as I had issues arising at home to deal with and bartending was an issue in itself as a woman bartender is looked at very negatively in our culture. I can’t pinpoint what I exactly I felt but I guess just the unfairness of the entire situation not from being asked to leave but everything else that made it easier to leave.

12. When and How did you get interest in painting?

As kids, painting was a part of our education and every child in Malaysia was sent for art classes. My older siblings could sit for hours on the table painting and sketching and trying to get me to focus but I could not sit more than 20 minutes before I start getting restless. I never liked the idea of painting to be honest as I couldn’t understand anything about it that was taught in school. Art itself was constructed. But I did secretly sketch and doodle all the time. I had one notebook and one pen for everything. More than taking notes down I would sketch them out. Sometimes my friends would be paying attention in class and I would trouble them so they would give me their hand and I would sketch on them. I did engrave tables and benches around school and drew on toilet walls. What was called vandalism back then is called graffiti today. I just didn’t know there was a word for it.

My discipline teacher once caught me sketching on my exam paper and noticed the similarities of the work and knew I was the culprit who carved silly faces on the tables. Instead of punishing me which was often the case, she spoke to my art teacher. (In Malaysia) My art teacher put some of us on an Art Project. We were allowed to paint the walls, the staircases and colour the school. As I was not even paying attention in detention nor was I listening to the discipline teacher, this became a good distraction for me. I guess everyone was relieved that I was not troubling or distracting anyone – including the teachers and I found something to keep myself busy with even if I was not studying. This was my first instance of actually liking the process of painting.

It disappeared after high school and showed up later after my treatment.

13. Your role as a mime and martial artist?

As a martial artist, it’s not about the aggression or beating someone up as we think it means. There is a lot of self-control first, breathing exercises, meditating and focus involved. I’ve always been in a hurry to learn everything especially if something interested me. I once insisted to spar and did not listen to the rules. My aim was to hurt my opponent. But my master removed me from any sparring lessons that day onwards and made sit and observe more than anything else. I believe this was one of the most important life lessons that got ingrained in me.

Mime came much later. I picked it up when I started travelling and would meet street artist and watch theatre alone. It’s a silent art that requires a lot of discipline to remain silent for long hours and yet be able to communicate to others through facial expressions and body language. When I picked it up, I grasped it easily as it helped me deal with hidden emotions and express myself in all possible ways which would otherwise appear crazy or strange if I didn’t have my makeup and costume. I mime when I am undergoing severe depression or suicidal thoughts. I become a different person all together and my friends can recognize that. Both mime and martial arts complement each other.

14. Could you pls share few words about THE RED DOOR?

The Red Door started as a personal space where I could paint and interact with others. As it grew, storytelling and human connections just came along and it opened more doors for me. It is now a space that addresses the issues of normalcy and that of madness and that perhaps each one of us are just unique in our own ways. We lack ‘safe spaces’ where anyone can share their fears and their stories without being judged, called names or stigmatized. TRD constantly works towards advocating for such spaces where we can all just be ourselves.

15. Do you have any ideas of getting married?

My ideas of marriage are not traditional or ‘normal’ in itself. In matters concerning the heart, I believe things will happen when they need to. But I otherwise have no plans to get married as I took an oath of abstinence 3 years ago. And come what may, my work and The Red Door will always come first. Helping others find their way and building human connections for hope is my first priority.

16. What are your future plans?

Well I do have plans to have kids. I just don’t know how given I have no plans to get married. Completing my book, writing more, holding an art exhibition, doing more mime, and my growing thirst to study everything on earth are always on my list of things to do. With creativity I believe we can change the world because it automatically heals the person who engages in it. And most importantly I need to find a way to live with my scar epilepsy and rid myself of those medications. I think I’ve had enough health issues to last me several life times.

17. Any advice to the people affected by schizophrenia…….

Schizophrenia is just a label, a stamp put on us for experiences no one can make sense of or understand. People with schizophrenia or any other labels should be encouraged to search for their own meaning of their experiences because it is very easy for others to pass comments and give advices without walking in the same shoes to really know what it is like from the inside. Schizophrenia is a huge knock on our souls telling us to wake up and smell the roses and know it also has thorns that will make you bleed. It is okay to smell something beautiful and it is okay to also bleed from it. It is just a different experience.

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