Gayathri Ramprasad knows all the stereotypes about growing up in India: big families, big meals, big expectations. They’re all pretty much true. But here’s one you might not realize: no one talks about mental illness. No one. That’s the reality she grew up in. She writes about her early life in India and her move to Portland and her suicide attempts and hospitalizations in her remarkable memoir Shadows in the Sun: Healing From Depression and Finding the Light Within. And what a light she’s found. Today, she’s the mother of two, a holder of two undergraduate degrees and an MBA, and founder of ASHA International, a non-profit she created to advocate for people of all cultures who suffer from depression and anxiety. We spoke with her about her book and her life and how everything terrible that happened in the past is useful today.
TP: There are parts of your book that are painful to read, particularly your suicide attempts. How are you today?
GR: I just lost my father three months ago. It was sudden. I was not able to be there in India. I was in Washington, D.C. at the time when I heard the news and it was heartbreaking. The last three months has been a roller-coaster. The process of losing my father and grieving for him, while adjusting to this new reality and making peace with the fact that I’m in Portland and can’t be there in India for my mother, has been very difficult. It has been especially hard over the last week, and I am struggling to stay afloat. It has not set me back to when I had my first depressive episode, but when I’m in the throes of grief, it feels like I’ve never gained any ground. I feel like I’m back in that black hole and it feels terrible. The difference is now I have enough coping skills. I know that I have been in this place before and I have the skills to get back up on my feet. But it’s hard. It’s a daily battle.
TP: It’s heartening to hear that you’re able to lean on those skills, many of which you had to learn later in life. It was amazing to read that yours was the first book of this kind to come from an author from India.
GR: The book was historical in the sense that I come from a country with 1.2 billion people with one of the highest rates of depression in the world and one of the highest rates of suicide in the world and yet there was not a single book told from this perspective. It was an incredible opportunity and responsibility to share this story, not just my story but the story of my family. When you share not just your story but the story of your family there’s even more responsibility to do it right. Growing up in India one of our favorite national mottoes was “satyamev jayate,” which translates to “truth alone triumphs.” Yet my family and I believe the truth about my mental illness would destroy us all. Truthfully. Growing up in India one of our most famous theocracies that is on every rupee is a saying that in English says truth alone triumphs. Yet my experience was so difficult. My truth was going to be the truth about mental illness, which was going to destroy us all, or so we all believed. Millions of people throughout the world, and around the world, still believe that. And yet for me the only way to make meaning out of madness was to live my truth.
TP: How was the response to the book from your family?
GR: My family initially was very uncomfortable with me sharing our story, mostly because they were concerned with the consequences on my family. Mental illness is a taboo topic and they weren’t comfortable with me putting our story out there, sharing our so-called dirty laundry in front of the whole world. But all that completely changed once I shared the manuscript with them. I’ll never forget. We laughed, we cried, and at the end my mother said, “I really wish there was a book like this when I was raising you.” I told her that is why I’m sharing our story with the world, to let other children and parents struggling with mental health issues around the world to know they are not alone, and give them hope that recovery is possible.
TP: And how did it feel to you?
GR: Writing a book is a journey and a process and not just one thing or another. It was both traumatic and cathartic. Sometimes it felt like a never-ending pursuit, especially when it came to finding a publisher.
TP: How did the writing of the book come about?
GR: I had started to share my story as a speaker. I would go around the world and whether I had a half-hour or an hour to share my story, audience members often asked if I had written a book because they wanted to hear more of my story. They were my initial inspiration, the people around the world that I met in sharing my story. I was also motivated to write the book for my daughters. They’re young adults now and were born and raised here and so far away from my home country and the cultures of my extended family. For a long time, I felt terribly ashamed and afraid that my daughters would be marred by my experiences and I didn’t want my life to end with that. I wanted an opportunity to let my daughters know their mother in my own words. I wanted the opportunity to share with my daughters who I was, what my struggles were, and most important of all, my resilience, which they have in themselves and that they can rely on in their own journeys. In my family now, we talk about my father’s depression and how that was kept a secret and how angry I was when I finally found out about it. I didn’t want my daughters to find out about my life that way. They have every right to know the truth. Every child has a right to know their family history.
TP: It can be such a confusing experience when you’re struggling and not sure why.
GR: Having depression is such an incredibly complex experience. No matter how much you think you have the skills to manage it, there are times that sheer sense of loneliness and apathy and disconnect makes it very, very hard to reach out and ask for help, even though you know you should. That is always hard no matter how much experience you have. Do I always have enough strength in these times of difficulty to reach out? What I’m learning now is that in losing a parent is such a universal experience, and talking about losing a parent, sharing our experience, and how we grieve, is so much easier for me to ask for help than in asking for help for depression. With the grief, my experience of grieving my father is so different than what my husband and our daughters are going through with their loss. I’ve been finding the most comfort in talking to friends who have also lost a parent. They get it. They just get it. Unless you’ve gone through this process, you don’t know. There’s no timeline. You’ll be fine for a week or so and then something hits you and you are left lying on the floor trying to get up again. But it’s comforting to me reaching out to my friends who have gone through it so I don’t feel alone and I realize it’s perfectly normal how I feel.
TP: You write about the benefits of mediation and yoga to your emotional health.
GR: My meditation helps and spending time with my family and concentrating on my work as an advocate. It also helps in slowing down my thoughts and assessing what I need to do to be healthy in the moment. Like today I’ve decided to go see a movie, which I really haven’t done in a while in the middle of a weekday. But I will today just because I need to get away and get lost in somebody else’s story. It helps. Every little step helps.
TP: You struggled with perfectionism for much of your early life, trying to please everyone.
GR: On the one hand it can be a great trait because of your pursuit of excellence. But on the other hand it can hurt you because you’re trying to pursue an illusion of perfection, and that doesn’t work.
TP: It sounds like you greatly enjoy your life in Portland, which was such an unknown for you when you arrived to live with your husband.
GR: I feel right at home in Portland. There are things that I couldn’t as easily express when I was in India as I can in my life here. I have a flair for fashion. In India the girls in my social circle it was viewed as a huge detriment, starting with my own mother. In India, if I wanted to wear makeup and do my hair or wear a mini-skirt I would scolded. But here no one cares. I have a very independent streak and that’s something that is very much admired here in the United States but in India as a woman it’s very much looked down upon. In many ways I had no problems making a new life for myself here in America.
TP: You had to work to be comfortable with your true identity and fight for what you valued.
GR: My father and mother had very different ideals of what they held for me. But today my mother and I are in a great place and are accepting of each other for who we are. All the things that terrified my mother about me — my sense of style or wanting to be glamorous or wanting to be truthful and outright – she’s incredibly proud of me today. But even at 54, there’s a little girl in me who still needs her acceptance and approval. I could survive without it, which I couldn’t when I was younger, but it’s so much more beautiful now that we’re in sync. To want to be stylish doesn’t mean a person doesn’t have substance. They are two very different things. And for me to have the experiences I’ve had in America, to continue my education, to get an undergrad degree, to get an MBA, start my own non-profit, write, speak, and to live fully, the way I have, and still be a little girl who loves make-up and hair, I just so enjoy being able to express myself in any way that I choose to and feel fulfilled.
TP: Tell us about the work of your non-profit.
GR: I’m celebrating the 10-year anniversary of my non-profit on October 7. When I reflect on the last 10 years of our outreach, I ask myself the question about what has made the most impact, and it always comes back to the story. I’ve learned that when it comes to matters of mental health, personal stories have the power to save lives and create social change. My focus now is to train my peers, people living with mental health issues to become effective storytellers and advocates. Together, we can humanize mental health issues and empower people with hope on their road to recovery and wellness.
— This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.