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I Write Because My Story Is Yours And Everyone Else’s

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Editor's note: Youth Ki Awaaz has turned 12, and this post is a part of #WhyIWrite, a campaign to celebrate Youth Ki Awaaz users who have spoken up about issues that matter to them. If you'd like to share what motivates you to write, publish your story here!

This is my story.

I need to tell it to you before my voice gets muffled or permanently silenced. I’m afraid, though, that you might start thinking I’m calling you the villain of my story.  

I promise, however, no matter what it begins to sound like, you are not the villain. Because you will start seeing, a little over a few sentences in, that this isn’t my story, it’s yours.

No one should have to be the villain of their own story. Hopefully, you don’t think you are.

Shall we begin?

I first fell in love with dancing when I was a three-year-old. Fifteen years later, as a student and performer, I have been consistently enraptured every powerful stance, every flying graceful leap, and twirl. There have been too many times when I have spent over nine to ten hours a day just dancing.

I don’t know whether I started with weak knees or if it was ten years of stringent practice and falling over and over again that did it. When I was 14, the pain in my right knee got so bad, grit wasn’t helping me in class anymore. First I couldn’t kneel, my leg work became weak, and then one day, I could no longer walk. The first and second set of doctors told me it was nothing, just a simple hairline fracture that would heal itself. “Do yoga,” they said.

The third set of doctors I went to charged me a royalty, nothing close to anything I could afford continuously for treatment. And well, after that, I had run out of doctors.

My inability to walk, dance or function properly made people around me annoyed. I was not the same person I used to be, I was clearly stunted.

Some days, when I’d had the time to really rest my knees well, I was able to function almost as well as I used to — but the moment I did exert myself, the pain came back. The injury got worse.

Nobody around me believed it actually hurt though; it was but a hairline fracture after all. One day, one friend picked up an iron rod and smashed my knee in. “You’ve got to get over this, and this is the only way you will learn how,” she said, while others agreed. I screamed, cried and rolled on the floor in pain. They did not flinch. “Everybody gets a few aches here and there all the time,” another said, “so you’re not special.”

“Stop making a big deal out of this.”

My knee was broken. It wasn’t a hairline fracture anymore. It was ground into sharp protruding pieces of bone. It grew blue and was swollen up to the size of a melon. Soon enough, it got torn and bloody, septic and fraying fragments of skin barely hanging on. By then, I had lost almost all of my friends and I was failing at almost anything I attempted. Desperate, I still tried dancing, I still tried walking. Believe me, I tried.

I tumbled and crashed, my legs wobbled and gave way every three seconds. Every time my facade of steely grit faded ever so slightly, someone would hit me again with iron rods, with sharp, splintered wooden planks. They would kick me, obviously out of the best intentions. I began wearing long skirts, the kind that wouldn’t hurt my knee too much but would also hide the injury as much as possible. I became afraid that if people saw the injury, they would hurt me, they would think I was incompetent and delusional.

I needed to learn this wasn’t real, it was all in my control and I simply needed to snap out of it.

Now, I have altogether stopped walking or dancing. The pain and injury are making it impossible. Ignoring it, wishing it to go away instead of treating it, has left me nearly dead.

The story I’m telling you sounds inhumane and dystopic, doesn’t it? Even outlandish and unrealistically cruel. Unfortunately, it isn’t. What if I told you that a version of this story happens almost in every household in this country?

You have been the harmful friend, a passerby that does nothing, or the friend that has been harmed. Or perhaps all three, in this culture that conditions you and me to stigmatise mental health.  

That’s what this is really about.

I admit I changed the facts of the story ever so slightly. Instead of a physical knee injury, what I have been diagnosed with is an anxiety disorder.

Traits of it had been found in my family before and the incidents of sexual assault, bullying, and marginalisation in my childhood have likely been fairly instrumental in the development of the disorder.

It began with minor panic attacks, one after every few days, particularly during stressful times. My chest would tighten up, my heart-rate would increase and it felt like there were hammers going hard at my ribs, from the inside. My vision used to become blurry, the world around me would swim and sway. My knees would turn to jelly, and I would fall with a thud on the floor. I would often break into a cold sweat, knowing that something disastrous was about to happen. I never knew what, and nothing ever happened.

During the worst of these times, I ended up helplessly crying for hours straight, my nausea made me throw up. I considered self-harm and I almost attempted suicide once. I started to think I was irreparably mad and then I would black out and slip out of consciousness.

It worsened and I would have at least nine or ten attacks, every single day. It didn’t matter whether something happened externally to trigger it. Eventually, I started noticing that I was worried almost all the time and afraid of everything. I stopped talking to people. I was afraid they would hate me and hurt me if I did. I couldn’t hide it anymore, you see. They stopped talking to me too. I stopped trying new things at work. I was afraid I’d fail at anything new, I was already failing at the old.

I soon lost the will to wake up, because if I woke up, I’d be afraid. If I got too afraid, I’d go through an experience where I would either think I was dying or I would want to kill myself.

Let’s have this conversation.

Mental health disorders aren’t about crazy people being possessed by evil spirits or controlled, elaborate schemes privileged people unravel to garner attention.

These are medical conditions, biological and psychological — imbalanced hormones, trauma in the past, ineffective cognitive functioning — that need medical help like any other physical illness. Whoever has heard snapping out of a broken bone? They are ailments that affect several people, anxiety alone affects 1 out of every 4 persons in this country. 10% of the people in this country have at least one mental disorder that needs to be treated through therapy and medication.

There is added guilt, detrimental self-doubt and painful triggers that come with the culture that is largely ignorant of psychological functioning and that stigmatises mental health.

Unless we collectively begin de-stigmatising mental health, there never is going to be a culture that prioritises its care. By ridiculing or not believing people who do seek out help, you are doing an incredible amount of harm. By perpetuating conversations that stigmatise mental health, you are silencing even those that may be seeking help. The country is culturally, socially, systematically making mentally ill persons head towards a life with devastating days and numbing nights. A slow painful death or a quick bloody, self-engineered one.

In the wake of mental health awareness week that begins from May 14, be curious. Learn about mental health like you would brush up your general knowledge on common colds or cancer, so you can treat it similarly.

Don’t call them pagal (mad). Don’t make them think what they’re going through is unrealistic. Tell them you are listening. Offer any help you can.

Refer your friends to psychiatric clinics and hospitals, be supportive of them. Don’t break their legs.

Know that if you have a broken leg and you are suffering, what you’re going through is not nonsense and untreatable. You should visit a doctor and we’re all here building a society that will support you. Things will get better, just seek help.

Share this, tell it like it’s your story. In fact, tell everyone your story. Make them hear their story in yours. If you know your friend won’t read this, then tell it to them. No, really. Grab their arm, sit them down and tell them you’re going to tell them a story.

Don’t make us live in a dystopian world.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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