On being a fellow and role-modeling

Working in an Ashoka Changemakers school has been a dream come true yet to remain true to the identity of an Ashoka India Fellow every day is another ballgame. I don’t think many people even know what or who makes an Ashoka India fellow.

In 2014, I became an Ashoka India & INKtalks Fellow through recommendations. From then on I met many individuals, friends and families who ‘questioned’ my fellowship from a place of charitable judgement. Almost each one of them thought I was a fellow because I had schizophrenia and that was the selling point. That the people behind both Fellow groups picked me since I was this selling ‘mad’ thing.

When I was asked what Ashoka/Ink does and why I got there, I had several individuals ask me if I could tell them more about it and if they could apply. I was thrilled at such approaches since it would mean more fellows to turn the world around together. More crazy cooler people on this planet to make it a better place. Isn’t that what the ideas or visions behind both these fellowship are, or at least that’s what I’ve concluded! I could be entirely wrong though.

However, as I sat through listening to them and where they were coming from there were subtle hints from their statements to ‘If Resh could be a fellow why can’t they?’ This statement had a comparative mark and I wasn’t flattered or complimented by it.

It was Shivani Gupta who was the first person who told me ‘Look them up. What you do with The Red Door sounds like something for it’. Then it wasMeenakshi Balasubramanian who planted the same thing in my head while narrating to her what I was doing.

Through both of their suggestions I found out that the awesome individuals in the cross disability sector I was and have been so attached to are Ashoka Fellows themselves : Javed Abidi, Gabor Gombos ,Ratnaboli Ray Bhargavi Davar (not an attachment disorder but I get drawn to big hearts). I ignored both their suggestions because I thought to myself ‘Wow…these are serious deals and I don’t think I am where they are. How can I apply for it? I’ve not done half of what they have!’

Once one of my bosses Janaki Visvanath replied to my complaint: ‘Resh that’s cause you don’t come across as being serious so nobody takes you seriously’.

I thought for a while but wondered ‘She is right but must I change myself to be taken seriously for my work and life to be accepted by the same society filled with expectations placed on to a person to be a certain way?’ Why can’t a childlike clown be a changemaker in his/her own way? Those who can see it will see beyond it. Besides isn’t it because of all this seriousness that people forget to love and accept others for who they are?
Isn’t that why I’ve been advocating for Mental Health by redefining all this madness that makes it difficult for anyone to live and grow in this society.

The worst part of this particular society are these are individuals known to you. Some don’t even state it, but I do and can read your ‘energy mind’. I don’t need to be psychic to know you have judged me. I feel it in my bones literally and I will fight with you in order to protect my child self.

Often I’ve asked Ashoka staff themselves as to what makes a fellow and why/how do you choose a fellow. I’ve sat with them ( Trina TalukdarSupriya Sankaran Olina Banerji Kanika Bhandari Darshan Mundada Sanjana Jana to name a few ) often interrupting their work hours through emails, personal messages or showing up in their office – trying to answer my own questions of self-doubt that were indirectly surfacing in my conscious mind everytime I had to advocate for Ashoka India themselves. I had to say ‘They aren’t giving me a stipend just because I’ve got schizophrenia and they feel bad about it. I’m not an Ashoka India Fellow or INKtalks Fellow because I am the new selling charity.’

In my restless, childlike manners I do observe a lot of things and take in a lot of sensory understanding of people and places. In doing so, my brain processes the world very differently and more so in images, pictures and feelings. Images and feelings convey a lot to one’s mind than words. Therefore, when I need to speak or translate my understanding it takes time since I can’t speak as fast as all the sensory perceptions I have received. Because of this, I don’t react or respond to situations immediately. I won’t be able to tell if you have insulted, flattered, ridiculed or complimented me, until my body starts getting jumpy as a combined reaction to an overload of stimulus. I do need at least 3 days to even realize someone was hitting on me despite my come backs being flirtatious in themselves. BUT THIS ISN’T WHY I AM AN ASHOKA OR INK FELLOW.
I have sat for long hours with a fellow Ashoka Fellow Arjun Venkatraman where both of us spoke in length about what it means being a fellow, our individual experiences in the process of being one along with our future identities of it.
So this #WorldMentalHealth week, I am here to let others know that I did not receive the few accolades because I am schizophrenic. I am not a fellow because I am schizophrenic. Articles and interviews were not written about me just because I had schizophrenia. Everything about me comes with a story of me as a person behind the label. The label has come much after when I decided to use it in order to advocate for the same irony of discrimination. There are many other ‘schizophrenics’ in the world. They too have stories to tell. But none of us are the same person.
Why don’t you find out why some people are not a certain fellow? There are many fellowships out there that one can apply for directly. Everyone’s chasing some or the other ‘fellow’ to gain recognition of themselves and their work. It’s a natural part of being a human person. But my schizophrenia isn’t the criteria for being one. It became a bonus in my case for what I do and stand for. I learnt to use it in my favour but I don’t get called to places just because I have schizophrenia. Why don’t you write to the individuals who call me and ask them directly why they picked me? There are other ‘schizophrenics’ in the world you know whom they can choose.
Much like every person can go to the moon but only one did it; I do not receive these ‘titles’ or ‘awards’ merely based on being schizophrenic. I would appreciate if individuals grew more awareness and recognition of themselves when they choose to make comparative notes in their minds about me. You are reducing me to a label and I am a person first and always no matter what terms I use on myself which is my individual right to begin with. Only I have the right to name call myself and not anyone else.
People say that as a public figure and role model I must be careful with everything I say and do. Well, that’s patriarchal and social bull shit.  The same ‘be careful’ social expectations placed on to a person. A never ending irony because you underestimate other people and overestimate yourself for being a ‘role model’.
I agree that I might have a lot of influence over others and they look up to me. But this does not mean these ‘others’ are stupid people. These youth or kids or individuals who read my status and post are not fools. They have access to a space where they can seek out answers on their own and challenge me on it. By placing this ‘role model’ title, we are undermining every one else as being a changemaker. We are assuming that those who read my blogs, status, rants or messages are stupid people who will like everything on social media. I don’t think they are! I am very picky about my list of friends and acquaintances – because I always say my schizophrenia is a reflection. The people I  surround myself with will reflect the same to me.
Maybe they are ignorant, not widely read or researched about certain things I speak of. Which is why I write so they can find a space to access my reference points. However, each human being has their own individual capacity, ability and intelligence to follow someone or not. To me, this ‘role model’ title is meant for those who need to prove they are at a higher space than others. For me, I rather be in the same space with others because my disability is the lack of human connection. And any social rule than undermines that human connection, underestimates it or overrides it – is the first and very reason for me to keep mentioning why I do what I do.
No one chooses to be a role model. It is something just placed on you. But you do have a choice to not own this role model title. For me, I’ve never had a role model. When I work with my kids in school, they don’t have a role model they can look up to in their own lives.
I remind them that they can look up to anyone they choose but don’t aim to be them or me because we are all a different person. [ Familiarity breeds contempt ]
I remind them to build an image of their future selves and be their own role models. This is what we need. This is what empowers each one of us without being dependent on an image of someone else we formed.
This is important if you are person who is different at many different levels and cannot fit in anywhere, including around your closest of friends, colleagues, lovers, partners, or family. I only feel I ‘fit in’ when I am alone or when around nature. And to keep myself company in this strange world, I’d like to safely assume and know that there are many others who feel the same as I do. And if they do too then why the heck would I would want to be their roles models. I know the irritation I’ve felt as a kid when others try to ‘role model’ me to another person. I wouldn’t want to reflect that onto another person clearly knowing how irritating that can be.
No human being is more or less than the other. Social awards and recognitions are to inspire and empower others in finding their own way in life not for them to become you. I should be able to complain and rant about the bad things in my life when I want to because I want society and those who ‘follow’ me to see that I am a person. I have issues and I have difficulties managing them but I can do something about it or even maybe not. Maybe I want them to know I am no different than them and I have many distressing moments which I would like to talk about. Isn’t this what being human is about?
Most people share all the good stuff and paint themselves as Gods with a ‘despite of’ moments. But in my process of connecting with every person on social media, I find how they help and support me when I am having confusing moments. Or if I’m feeling lost. They see me being no different than them. That is beyond the awards or titles or stories I have, I do live the same life of decisions, having to make choices and live around stressful moments. That in doing so, we can as a community enable the other. That even if you are a stranger who stumbled across a tweet or fb post of mine, I know that somewhere across the matrix universe and real world, I got heard. Someone knows and relates. And we don’t have to know everything about the other to act as a human support. Someone knows and that already takes care of 90% of the invisible emotional crisis that we don’t really want to talk about.
To me being a fellow in context to my work and identity means having one hand out in case someone needs to hold on to it or in case someone needs to hold me when I am in need. This is also the invisibility of my schizophrenia and I put it out there in the open for those who wish to hold space with me. Words are actually the only method I have to tell the world about schizophrenia, and it never is enough.
As for other ‘schizophrenics’ – none of them get influenced by what I say or do because these are individuals with their own ideas and thoughts. Why in God’s name will they do as I do and say? Why will anyone underestimate those of us with schizophrenia in the first place? When you judge me and my schizophrenia, you are also judging the every 100th person who would have it. The very nature of schizophrenia tells you that each one of us come with our strong self-beliefs and ideas of the world that cannot be influenced and changed by another person. So to assume that my schizophrenic believe can influence another ‘schizophrenic’ person in how they see the world is the dumbest assumption on earth.
God does not want to be the Devil nor does a Vampire want to be a unicorn. Get it?
© Reshma Valliappan 2016

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