I first became aware of Reshma Valliappan (also known as Val Resh) from her blog here. She writes openly and honestly about mental illness, and offers online peer support via her Red Door initiative. She also raises awareness on issues of sexuality, and has spoken at several conferences.
Fallen Standing is a raw, personal account of the events leading up to her diagnosis, her experience of treatment, and her thoughts on how labels impact us in unseen ways.
When I read the introduction and note from the publisher, I expected this to be a lot more incoherent and without logical order. It takes the form of a series of e-mails, diary entries and letters written to a friend, mostly in first person but occasionally in third, but although the writing is a little rough in places I didn’t find it difficult to follow at all. The parts in which she simply writes down a stream of consciousness are among the most illustrative of the book, and are often very humourous too. There are also some wonderfully unique analogies and associations, showing that she is skilled with language but also prepared to be brutally honest.
‘(Voices in some cases only. Not necessarily applicable to all. Offer depends upon availability of dopamine stock.)’
The first part of Fallen Standing reads in the voice of an angsty 15 year old, hating her parents and deeming everything to be unfair. What I didn’t realise at first, is that is exactly what it is. In remembering uncomfortable and traumatic times, instead of recounting it with hindsight Reshma actually allows the hurt 15 year old inside to write how she feels in the supportive environment of her older self. In breaking down the barriers of her mind, her inner child can live through her, something which is shut out as a possibility to most adults.
People often say childhood is what they miss most dearly, but when we come across someone who is still able to live in a youthful mindset we tell them bitterly to grow up. Those who do not dare to rebel condemn those who do.
‘I think there is one thing that can be impossible. And that is being average, being normal.’
What Reshma has done here – intentionally or not I don’t know – is painted a picture of what is wrong with the expectations of developed society upon its youth. There is a particular focus on expected gender roles, and conforming to ‘appropriate’ interests and temperament. She writes of the tendency we have to label anyone who dances to their own drum as disturbed, mentally ill or inadequate; forcing them into correctional or medical treatment based on whichever diagnosis prevails. Her personal experiences scream the invisible need that adolescents have to feel wanted and accepted exactly as they are. Early teenage years are confusing at best as we try to find our place, our identity. If we are not nourished and supported, the effects on our mental health for the rest of our lives can be devastating.
In Reshma’s case, the breaking down of her mental state is obvious in the narrative as she dissociates and withdraws into herself. She describes very well the changes a psychotic episode brings about in a person, and their perceptions from the inside. She shows that mental illness is not just a list of symptoms that replace normality and sense, but that the sufferer is same person with a different way of viewing the world.
‘If I don’t agree it is not a symptom of non-compliance, I have my own capacity to make a better judgement about what I am feeling if you would stop treating me like a broken frame.’ – From a chapter entitled ‘Etiquette for practitioners when treating a person with mental illness’.
The description of events that followed her diagnosis demonstrate the frustrations a patient feels at losing control, and the difficulty in trying to ‘hold your own’ once labelled. With an extraordinary amount of resolve, Reshma found ways to understand her condition and to live with it. She replaced medications with art, a love of animals and an outlook in which she accepted herself and the things that had happened to her. She refused to see hallucinations and voices as devils, and seeked instead to understand what was behind them, what metaphor they held for her.
‘There are certain people who need to work their own ways out and no amount of therapy does any good. I am one of those.’
Although to me she appears to be an encouraging success story, Reshma reports coming under criticism and accusation for speaking out about methods of coping beyond psychiatry. She has been told she is a trouble-maker, that she has not recovered at all because everything she does is still ‘symptomatic’, and even that she is a fake who was never ill to begin with. It is upsetting to think that people are so phobic of the idea that they too could help themselves; that the concept of there being a solid line between sanity and insanity is so ingrained in us that many of us are simply unable to set our prejudices aside.
‘None of us is prepared for madness, we just learn to deal with it… either we succumb and live in it or we struggle and live with it. None of us is prepared to be cured either, because these are two sides of the same coin. None of us is prepared to be healed because we have a constructed idea of what healing should be.’
It doesn’t feel right to issue a rating to a collection of someone’s heartfelt memoirs, so I won’t. But I will say that Fallen Standing is a wonderful personal account of trouble with family dynamics, self-harm, schizophrenia and dissociative disorders. Reshma comes across as beautifully herself; full of energy and without boundary, which I believe to be an inspiration for others who want to take control of their own paths. I recommend this book to anyone who suffers mental health problems, not just schizophrenia, and to anyone who wants to understand how it really feels to be on the inside of a dehumanised label.