By Neha Kirpal
When one reads about Aparna Piramal Raje’s professional journey – MBA from Harvard Business School, Bachelor’s from Oxford University, entrepreneur, former executive director of one of India’s largest modular office furniture companies, author, columnist with financial dailies, faculty member, and thought leader – the last thing one expects is that she struggles with mental-health issues.
This is precisely the point of her new part-memoir and part self-help guide, Chemical Khichdi: How I Hacked My Mental Health (Penguin India, Rs 399), which outlines seven therapies that have enabled her to ‘hack’ her mental health and find equilibrium over the years. With this book, Raje normalises talking about mental illness and brings home the point that the best of us struggle from time to time, and seeking help is a sign of strength not weakness.
A mother of two boys, Raje talks to us in this exclusive interview about the process of writing something so intensely personal, myths and misconceptions that the book hopes to debunk, and how society can be made more conducive towards those suffering from mental-health issues.
As a well-known public figure, what was the process of writing something personal – your journey of dealing with bipolar disorder?
Writing is always how I make sense of the world, and especially of my condition. But the book itself was a start-stop process. I was officially diagnosed with being bipolar in early 2013. In late 2014, I wrote a note called ‘10 Things I’ve Learnt about Being Bipolar’ for my family, friends and mental health professionals. They liked it and I then shared it with my book club in 2015, who thought it could serve as a template for a book.
But I kept having mood swings at the time and wasn’t sufficiently detached from the material to write a book. When I decided in 2020 to write the book, I was able to focus it on it during the lockdown and completed it. The hardest part is not necessarily sharing my story in public because I was always determined to do that, but having sufficient distance from the material to be able to write it.
Looking back, do you feel that your path – and those of others with similar challenges –would have been easier had there been more awareness about mental health back then?
Definitely. And that’s the main reason why I’m writing the book. To share my learnings of living with this disorder for over 20 years and making it easier for others to seek help, whether from their loved ones, colleagues or mental health professionals. Bipolarity may affect less than 1 percent of the population, but mental health and wellness affects 100 percent of us, and that’s who this book is for.
What are some of the myths, misconceptions and stigmas around mental health that the book hopes to debunk?
First, to debunk the myth that a mental-health condition is a life sentence that stops you from leading the life you want to lead. I hope it inspires one to find a pathway into living a fulfilling life, and shows that mental-health conditions can be manageable and not limiting. In my experience, it comes and it goes, and one has to learn to manage the triggers.
Second, to show that there is a difference between personality and illness. Just like cancer or diabetes doesn’t define us as individuals, I believe that a mental-health condition is not our identity; it is part of who we are, but not our personality. Personality and illness are distinct. I have a normal personality, but I also have chemical imbalances that result in mood swings from time to time.
Third, to show that it affects all of us. I’m getting responses from men and from women, from different age groups, different parts of India and the book has only recently released.
How can workplaces and society in general be made more conducive towards those suffering from mental-health issues?
I think the idea that ‘mental health is a team sport’ is one that I would like workplaces and society in general to adopt. Even if we don’t have a mental-health condition ourselves, we are all allies to someone around us who are dealing with them. And if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to heal a mind. That’s been my experience.
If workplaces, including colleagues, juniors and bosses are accommodating of individuals with mental-health conditions, and of their caregivers too, then it is a win-win situation for everyone. It allows individuals to bring their whole self to work in a psychologically safe environment where they can perform to their fullest potential, which is good for organisations and leadership too.
What have been some of your biggest learnings in this journey of overcoming your own mental-health challenges, and then sharing these lessons through your writing?
Writing this book has given me a lot of purpose, brought self-awareness and clarity, and filled me with gratitude for everyone who has helped me on this journey.
Learning to live and thrive with a mental-health condition brings with it a lot of illumination because of self-examination, which might otherwise not have happened. I am in a very different place than what I was two decades ago.
Some of those changes might have happened as one grows and matures over time, but I think a lot of it is because of the conversations I’ve had with myself and the people around me about important issues such as success, happiness, fulfilment, purpose, meaning, dharma and more.
Over the past two years, the Covid-19 pandemic once again put the focus on mental-health issues. Do you feel that mental health issues have become more and more acceptable and talked about, particularly in popular culture, of late?
It has been a really difficult two years, with personal losses, job losses, financial impact and more. It is sad that it took a pandemic for us to focus on mental-health issues, but it is good that they are being talked about more openly than before.
Sometimes, these issues are discussed in a very casual way – when someone might say, I’m depressed or I have ADHD or I’m bipolar – without a clinical diagnosis. I don’t think that necessarily helps or makes it easier for people actually tackling these issues to talk about them.
There are many books and some movies I really admire, including A Beautiful Mind and the new version of A Star is Born, which tackle these issues with both rigour and empathy.
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