Trigger warning: Mentions of emotional, physical and sexual abuse in the family, suicide
It’s the weekend, and I’m surfing the net well into the wee hours of the morning. I scroll through job listings, desperately searching for something that’ll pay a basic stipend. Most of the offers online claim to give valuable ‘work experience’, provide an environment for ‘optimum growth’ and open the gateway to ‘learning opportunities’. But let’s be honest, that’s just code for ‘come work and stay broke’.
The panic is dull for now, although there are moments when it returns with a vengeance and I am gripped by a sense of helplessness. I need to find a job. Any job.
No, it’s not for me.
If you look carefully at the heading in the search bar, you’ll see that I’m primarily looking for part-time jobs, paid internships and volunteer work for undergraduate students. I am not an undergraduate. I have a double degree in arts and law. I have a diploma in family counselling. I’m currently pursuing my master’s in education and running a consultancy business. So it’s not me that I’m worried about, it’s my client.
21-year-old Annarea* came to me last year when she started suffering from anxiety attacks during the first wave of the pandemic. When the lockdown was declared, she went back to her home which she shared with her stepmother, her father and her older brother. She started attending lectures online along with the rest of her batch, trying to keep up with virtual classrooms, homework assignments, projects, internal evaluation, short-tempered teachers, isolation from her peers and doubts about her final exams.
At first, it was exhilarating that everything had come to a full stop. Schools and colleges were closed. Companies announced the WFH policy. Take-out dinners were popular. Netflix binges were the norm. Board games were set on the table. Yoga, Zumba and Pilates classes were fully booked. Baby shark songs were played on a loop. Families were brought closer during a period fraught with grief, illness and death.
But not every family is the same.
Annarea comes from a tragic family. Her birth mother died by suicide when she was an infant. Her father is a raging alcoholic. Her stepmother is emotionally abusive. Her brother is extremely volatile. Annarea considers herself the only sane one in the family and after hearing her story, I have to agree.
When she was little, she was sexually abused by her uncle for two years. Given that my client is a survivor, I’d love to give her narrative a heroic spin. But the truth is, she’s scared. After the lockdown measures were lifted, she went back to college and went through two separate but brutal bouts of COVID. As if that were not enough, her father’s business is going under and she may not be able to pay the fee for her final year. I’m afraid that she will not even make it to graduation.
Hence the frantic web search.
To support herself, Annarea is doing everything under the sun so she doesn’t have to drop out of college. A bright, active and vivacious girl, her future prospects are brilliant. But without a graduate degree, it will not mean anything. Every time she reminds her father to pay her fee, he yells at her, telling her that she does not understand the amount of stress he’s under or that his request for a loan has been denied by the bank or that he’s fallen into debt.
Sometimes, she listens to the tirade quietly, other times, she retaliates. Whatever her reaction, there is never any resolution. The family has never had a meeting where the kids are reassured about their future. If anything, their father’s health is in decline what with the substance abuse, the failed endeavour to enliven a dying business and their financial woes.
In one session, I had to guide Annarea about what to do in a medical crisis. Her anxiety was so off the charts that she couldn’t sleep at night and spent all day cleaning obsessively, cooking, smoking, exercising and chatting with friends. When she crashed, she crashed hard, unable to get out of bed for days. Her greatest source of fear is actually a very rational one: what happens to her if her father dies?
I’ve spent hours talking to her about medical emergencies and how to stay calm and take decisive action. Where are her father’s medical records? What are the local ambulance helplines and where are the nearest pharmacies, clinics and hospitals? Does her father have health insurance? If so, where does he keep his health insurance card? What is the passcode to his phone so that she can access the phone numbers of family members, friends and coworkers?
How much is his life insurance for? How much is there in savings and how much is invested in fixed deposits, bonds and funds? When will her older brother start working and will his income be enough to tide them over? Do they own the house they live in and will their relatives be ready to take them in, help them out or even assist them financially?
These are questions of apocalyptic proportions for a young girl who never imagined this day would ever come. After asking the Dean of her college to grant her a delay to pay her fee, Annarea is seeking every available opportunity to become financially viable.
So here I am, at 4 am on a Saturday morning, sending messages to friends, clicking on job offer links and generally racking my brains. To be honest, I am furious. Why does it have to be so hard for students to make rent and pay their college fees? Why can’t we do more for them? How are we letting them down so badly?
Human Resource, that’s what the government calls the youth of our country. What about our girls? Are they a resource? Young girls have enough going on right now. Annarea has struggled with a severe anxiety disorder, gynaecological issues, unpaid care work and even an isolated but traumatic incident of attempted sexual assault since the pandemic started. Young girls are unsafe, unsure and uncertain.
I like to call myself an activist because I can come up with a safety plan for any victim. But how can I help students who can’t pay their fees, who can’t make rent, who can’t afford gas for their two-wheelers, who can’t pay their bills, who can’t get temporary work, who can’t feel safe at home? Where are my activist/artist/educator/journalist/social influencer friends and what are they doing about it? Where are the Instagram hashtags, the reels and the live chats? When are we going to talk about school and college drop out rates, unemployment and the current mental health crisis?
What do I do the next time Annarea has an anxiety attack? Tell her to roll over and go back to sleep?
This is where the youth of our country inspires me every day; they give me hope and they bring me joy. Within an hour of sending her resumé to my friends, my iPhone is vibrating with replies. Young people from all walks of life- lawyers, psychologists, event planners, engineers, management executives and scientists are chiming in and making offers.
I’ve just wrapped up my pro bono case with a sense of victory: after referring my client to a therapist who will see her free of charge for her anxiety disorder, I have finally delivered some good news to her. There is hope, things can change, it can get better. Here’s who to call, take down this number, talk to so-and-so, apply for this or that, just keep hustling.
I have to admit, sometimes I want to quit my job. The kind of suffering I see every week makes it hard to feel normal again. To enjoy the little things like reading a book or taking a walk or eating a bowl of pasta. But then I get another distress call; another young girl fighting for her rights and I wonder, if I’m struggling with battle fatigue after two years of being on the job, imagine spending your whole life being denied something so simple like education, health or safety.
To the friends who got in touch with me and graciously helped Annarea, thank you. You’ve restored my faith in humanity. And to those who didn’t, I have only one question: What if Annarea were your daughter?
Would you ignore my message then?
*Name has been changed for privacy reasons