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Building Safe Spaces In Threatening Places

A white window on a grey wall opening up to a cobblestone street

I spent the first three months of the year 2022 at a rehab facility for folks with mental illnesses/mental disabilities. On the third day of my stay, amongst the many regulations that I was quickly trying to jot down in a notebook, there was one that clearly stated that residents were not allowed to share anything – food, clothes, personal items like soap, combs, and personal details like home addresses, phone numbers, and medical information including their clinical diagnoses. There were ‘logical’ reasons for this rule: you never knew what infections or skin conditions someone might have (and there were a fair number of those going around), if they had dietary restrictions (there was someone who was allergic to gluten, there were many people who had diabetes), the kind of mental illnesses they had (many people were prone to self-harm – if you gave them your soap to use, they might swallow it), and how it would affect them and you to exchange that information (several escape plans were made regularly). It seemed rational once you could look past the sheer injustice of it. I say sheer injustice because sharing builds connections. People with mental illnesses need to build connections because most often there is a feeling of alienation; the sense that one doesn’t fit into society because something is ‘wrong’ with them.

Just as sharing was prohibited, connections were forbidden. Men and women were not allowed to sit together in twos, or even in groups. If a male and female resident were found to be spending too much time together, which mostly meant walking around the facility, sitting and chatting in open areas, or it was observed they were getting ‘close’, they were separated. Each was told to stay away from the other and punitive actions were taken if they flouted these rules. Punitive action usually meant a scolding rolled in insults and anger or denying a privilege (for example, you wouldn’t be allowed outside your women-only residential building unless it was for meals or other compulsory things). Interestingly, the authorities didn’t take heterosexuality for granted. They were aware of people being ‘homo’ – these rules applied to same-sex relationships as well. The residential buildings were either women’s blocks or men’s blocks. You weren’t allowed in each other’s rooms. Women, as well as men, weren’t allowed to get close on a one-on-one basis. There was ‘logic’ here too because there had been ‘incidents’. So, friendships were either severed or for the more rebellious ones, they were held on to, in secret.

If sharing was a proverbial coin at the rehabilitation facility, connections were one side of it, and sexuality was the other. Women were told to not wear ‘revealing’ clothes or ‘show skin’. Men and women were not allowed to touch one another – no handshakes or hugs or an eager slap on the back. Women weren’t allowed to come into close physical contact with other women; the same applied to men. Music and dance were restricted to structured programmes and events. Journals were read and art was scrutinised. The therapist assigned to me asked what I meant when I said I identified as queer. She answered the question herself by saying that I meant I was bisexual. She also asked me if I was a ‘sex addict’. She did say that if I was ‘homosexual’ then I need not hide it and it was perfectly okay to be “like that” (I suppose it was part of the training the therapists received – to say it was ‘okay’ if someone said they were gay or lesbian.) Any expression of sexuality was crushed before it could happen. Retrospectively, they seemed to be working on a principle of isolation – the lonelier you were made to feel, the less space you would hold for sexuality, and by extension, desire and vulnerability.

Yet, human beings create communities wherever they go, and it was no different here. Connections were built, sexualities were expressed, and personal items were shared. In the months to come, I secretly shared books, sanitary napkins, food, clothes, my diagnosis, business ideas for new apps, cigarettes, plates and glasses and spoons, and more. I cried, sitting beside a fellow male resident, and afterward, shared a lightning-quick hug in the smoking zone where the cameras didn’t work. I ate from the same steel plate as a fellow female resident and almost got caught. Several evenings, we stole a second helping of tea from the dining hall and passed the glass among 3-4 of us. I draped a borrowed saree one festival morning, pinned it with safety pins that my roommate had lent me (telling me categorically that I was not allowed to name her if I got caught wearing the pins because sharp objects were not allowed), and wore a waistline-exposing T-shirt as a blouse. A friend (a male resident) lent me his jeans because mine kept slipping off my waist. I wore kajal on some days and people complimented me. I once walked into the smoking zone in a kurta and churidar, wearing a bindi and kajal, and a friend said, “You look beautiful, all dolled up.” I blushed and smiled not because of the compliment alone, but because of who had said it – a man I had grown fond of, a man I went on to date for a while after I left the rehab, a man twenty years older than me. I kissed a woman, a fellow resident, one night while the rest of the room slept. People found ways to be intimate without being noticed, they kept each other’s secrets most of the time. Ever so often, a letter would be passed along and go undiscovered by the authorities.

Things did go wrong at times. While I was there, a female resident and a male employee of the general staff had sex one night. For the resident, a twenty-year-old girl, (because she was that, a-girl-becoming-a-woman), this resulted in a pregnancy scare, restrictions on movement, no talking to male residents and restricted interaction with male staff, loss of privileges, and general slut shaming. For the employee, we heard he was merely transferred to another facility. It is ordinary for a 20-something woman to desire connection, seek care and affection, and take whatever attention she gets, despite the impermanence of the experience. Since she was denied these natural connections, the desire turned into impulsive craving. The said employee took advantage of her condition, her inability to understand her precarious position, and her resulting vulnerability. Not an ounce of kindness was extended to this young woman; instead, she was made to feel guilty.

Sometimes the residents would put others in the spotlight – reveal their secrets, spread rumours, and manipulate the re-telling of incidents. I do not think I can blame them – people wanted to have whatever little power they could because the whole system was rigged to make the residents helpless.

There is a deliberate negation of the sexualities of people with mental illnesses and disabilities. For mainstream society, they are incapable of desiring and being desirable. They are deemed unworthy of any emotional expression that enables individuals to feel connected to each other. There is a dominant collective consciousness that pushes such kinds of people to the margins where they deserve only the bare minimum to keep them functional. Alongside, institutionalisation ensures that mentally ill and disabled people do not cause disruptions to the smoothly moving conventional wheels of society. We were crazy, retarded, ‘mental’ patients, stripped of agency. We were bound in straitjackets of a time-specific regime and denied love, care, and empathy. We were made inhuman. A major chunk of the population had been there for years or had moved from one rehab to the other, with no hope of ever leaving the place. Most people woke up every morning with the knowledge that they would die within those walls but people held on because this was the beginning and the end of their world. They disrupted the clinical neatness of the rehab structures by resisting their dehumanisation and claiming their sexualities and humanity.