Every family has its secrets. They appear in those silent moments of conversation, the extended pause followed by the hasty explanation. History is written, then rewritten, and even the present revised, all to try to preserve a semblance of normalcy for the future.
For years, Gayathri Ramprasad was her family’s secret, the symptoms of the undiagnosed depression that struck in her late teens hidden from public view or passed off as a variety of other physical afflictions. In her memoir, Shadows in the Sun: Healing from Depression and Finding the Light Within, Ramprasad shares with us the ups and downs of her struggles as she seeks to overcome not just her own mental illness but the prejudice and misconceptions of her family and society, ultimately taking her message global.
Anyone who has had their lives turned upside-down by mental illness — whether their own or that of a friend or family member — will appreciate the rawness of her story and the resilience of her character.
Ramprasad begins by weaving a rich tapestry of her early life. We are dropped into her youth, experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of her childhood in India. We meet her doting parents and charming siblings. We watch her navigate the conflict between her mother’s more traditional ambitions for her daughter and her father’s more modern ones while she displays what would appear to be typical teenage angst. But then it all begins to unravel when a failing grade in school sends her into a tailspin of depression, anxiety, and panic.
Her family responds as generations of families have before them. “Buck up and be strong, Gayu,” her father tells her, adding, “You can’t be weak and hypersensitive. You can’t give up on life just because you failed once. You have to force yourself to eat so you can get your strength back.”
While her father admonishes her — “get a grip over your mind or it will destroy you” — and relates stories of heroic veterans of the Second World War with the message you are stronger than you imagine, Ramprasad’s mother takes a spiritual approach, bringing in traditional healers and extolling prayer as the path to wellness.
Despite trips to a physician, no one recognizes the characteristic signs of generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and depression. Thus, instead of receiving the treatment she needs, Ramprasad and her family “become experts at the dance of denial” as she conceals her “fears and tears behind a mask of makeup and smiles.”
Having dealt with the specter of mental illness in my own family, I found that the description of her family’s dance resonated with me. While she and I come from different cultures, Ramprasad’s memoir highlights the universal struggles families have when dealing with these issues. In the end, we are all hurt by silence, as you cannot heal what you cannot acknowledge.
Ramprasad’s family learns to perform the dance of denial so well that she is successfully chosen for an arranged marriage to an eligible bachelor and is soon waiting to join him for a new life in America. Her husband knows nothing of her illness, and she continues to fight with her tempestuous moods, noting that “nobody believes my pain, not my parents nor the doctors. They tell me it is all in my head and insist I can will myself to wellness.”
Ramprasad details her long journey to wellness that spans continents, cultures, and decades. She struggles both to find the treatment that works as well as to overcome her family’s perception of depression, not to mention her own feelings of shame and disappointment.
When she becomes a new mother she is struck down by postpartum depression, and those feelings of shame and isolation increase as she fears losing her daughter. With her story, we see evidence of her incredible resilience — resilience that leads not only to her own recovery, but to halting the familial dance of denial and exchanging it for an embrace of acceptance.
The book is well-written and compelling, an enjoyable and moving read. Ramprasad illustrates that there is a life beyond mental illness. Yet she is not satisfied with merely her own personal recovery. Determined to share her story and make change in society’s perceptions of those with mental illness, she founds ASHA International. Its mission is to “promote personal, organizational and community wellness through mental health education, training and support.”
ASHA means hope in Sanskrit. And that is the message of Shadows in the Sun — a message of hope for those dealing with their own mental illness, as well as for their families.
Shadows in the Sun: Healing from Depression and Finding the Light Within
Hazelden, March, 2014
Paperback, 240 pages