Words by Reetaza Chatterjee. Illustration by Valerie Yeo.
In 1950, the U.S. Air Force took physical measurements of 4,000 pilots across 140 dimensions of size such as arm length and torso length in order to determine the dimensions of “the average pilot”. The plan was to use that average to inform the placement of the cockpit seat. However, when the entire pool of 4,000 pilots tried to match the dimensions of “the average pilot”, not a single one made the cut. In reality, “the average pilot” did not exist. No individual pilot could conform to the artificially constructed idea of “normal”.
A lot of the time, thinking about mental illness gets me thinking about the idea of normalcy. What is a mentally well person? What does it take for a person to cross over into neurodivergence? How much pain does one have to go through for it to be pathologised? Whose pain is considered legitimate?
Growing up, I learnt about mental health from rumours of teachers patrolling the corridors of the higher floors of the school building when exam results were released, in case someone threw themselves off it. Girls calling each other “ano” when they skipped meals in school. My parents’ hushed whispers about mentally ill relatives, which would abruptly stop once they caught my sister and I eavesdropping.
Over time, mental illness became a boogeyman. Some kind of malfunction of the brain that no one really seemed to understand but one that somehow everyone knew the solution to. And that solution was resilience. I was told over and over again that people who struggle with mental illness just don’t have what it takes to suck it up and be strong. How they just needed to “stop thinking so much” or “being overly sensitive” or “being too soft” because they supposedly had such good lives.
Growing up, watching people be open with their vulnerability made me feel shame. I had learnt that vulnerability was weakness and that weakness was shameful.
A few weeks ago, I found my private tumblr that I used to write in regularly throughout my time in Junior College and the first year of university. There I found eighteen-year old Reetz going through an eating disorder and thinking she would get better through the sheer force of will. Berating herself when she was not able to, when she failed over and over again. I couldn’t accept the fact that I was ill because being ill would have meant admitting defeat, succumbing to weakness. I was better than that.
I let myself sink for a long time before finally accepting that whatever I was doing, I could no longer do it by myself. I needed to tell someone about the pain that I was living with every single day. Even then, I didn’t think I was “ill enough” to seek professional help. Maybe I just wasn’t trying hard enough? While some days seemed impossible, there were others that were a little more manageable so maybe I was just making it all up in my head? It took so much to muster up the courage to reach out and ask for help. It took even more to believe that I deserved to.
Even when I did reach out, I didn’t know what asking for help looked like. I didn’t know how to confront the shame of admitting that I was hurting. I didn’t know how much fighting for myself I’d have to do. I didn’t know how difficult and painful and terrifying healing was going to be.
Truth is, I still don’t know, most of the time. I’m still figuring it out.
Our first feature on Looking In is for those of us who’re still figuring it out. The ones among us who are still afraid of admitting that we’re hurting. The ones who are terrified of our pain. Those of us who are ashamed, angry, exhausted and everything in between. Those of us who think of it as a personal failing. Those of us who fight to exist every single day, in a world that constantly tries to diminish us.
By Looking In, I was hoping we could figure it out together.