I had the opportunity to speak with the remarkable Gayathri Ramprasad, whose memoir Shadows in the Sun: Healing from Depression and Finding the Light Within (Hazelden)—called a “a cross-cultural lens to mental illness”—was recently published. Her harrowing experiences with depression, the social stigma depression sufferers endure, and her courage in helping herself and others bring a new perspective to an important issue. I was especially moved when she explained how doctors, therapies, and treatments weren’t enough—if she was going to begin to heal, the spark had to come from within.
GR: I believe that all of us, as human beings, are on a quest to get to know ourselves, our own inner light and not only to discover that but to share it with the world. By that I mean when we say Namaste in India, it literally means “the light in me honors the light in you.” And I was blind to my own light for many years. I was born and raised in India in a large extended family of 23 people—lots of love, lots of laughter. Both of my parents dreamed I was going to grow up and go to college, graduate, get married, have a couple of children, and live happily ever after. They hoped and prayed that they would find me a successful Indian man in America to marry.
Never in our worst nightmares did we imagine that I would one day get locked up in an isolation cell of a psychiatric ward in America.…But that’s exactly where my Indo-American odyssey through depression led me.
I had been struggling with anxiety, panic, and depression issues ever since I was an 18-year-old girl. Those were not terms that were part of our vocabulary growing up in India. I struggled every single day to keep up with the façade of being normal—went to school, kept up with chores at home. Some days I could barely function and some days I could just get by. But not knowing what was wrong with me, my parents blamed me for being a drama queen and physicians agreed with them, saying that I was just immature.
In that isolation cell, the choice became clear. I had struggled with chronic and suicidal depression for many years, and I hoped that I would find my salvation in the hospital. I would learn how to take care of myself. But when I was confined in the room, not once but twice within ten days—and lost a pregnancy in between—that night, the darkness in my womb and the world around me threatened to engulf me.
I had an awakening. I saw the choice very clearly: I could either die in the darkness or I could light a candle.
RC: So this was your Rewire Me moment? When you were transformed and you knew the pieces of the puzzle fit together in your life.
GR: Yes, absolutely. The isolation cell is a tiny, tiny room with a metal door and a little window and a camera that observes you 24/7. It’s a room devoid of love, of compassion, of humanity, of freedom, of hope, and yet I remember the second time I was confined, looking out that window that separated me from the rest of the world, or so I thought. It became crystal-clear. For all the years I had looked outward and thought that others could free me—whether it was my father, my mother, my husband, God, medications, doctors—it became really clear in this moment. The only person who had the key to free myself was me.
Growing up in India, my fondest memory was my mother chanting her prayers, lighting the lamps—the smell of jasmine and sandalwood swirling in the air. And that night, before I got rewired, I remember praying for my mother to come light the darkness away from my life. Yet in that moment, I understood that I was the one with the key to free myself.
RC: Getting locked up gave you your key.
GR: Yes. Interestingly, I needed to be confined. I needed to be locked up to come to that point of realization. The illness could confine my mind, the mental health system could confine my body, but there were no walls in this world that would ever again contain my spirit.
Ever since that day in that isolation cell, my life has been this constant quest….Education and knowledge have been phenomenally powerful in transforming fear into faith, ignorance into understanding and power.
RC: And how did this lead to ASHA International?
GR: To fulfill this burning passion of mine, I had to take all the knowledge and experience, all the love and compassion that I had in this world and transform it into global action. And so in 2006 I started ASHA International with a wonderful group of mental health advocates in Portland, Oregon.
ASHA literally means hope in Sanskrit.…Hope is yet another face of knowledge. You can’t have hope when you are immersed in ignorance. It’s only understanding, it’s only knowledge that gives you the power to not only have hope and to hold it but to share it with others. And so through ASHA International and our signature campaign “Healthy Minds, Healthy Lives,” we offer a wide variety of mental health education programs, workshops, cultural confidence training, peer mentoring, and other resources.
We have two specific goals in mind. The first is to empower people struggling with mental health issues and their families to overcome barriers to recovery and achieve wellness. That happens through knowledge; that happens through support. And the second goal is to engage communities. Part of the problem has been societal stigma, lack of understanding and compassion and inclusion within the communities we live in. No matter how hard I work at my own wellness, I live and exist only within the context of a family and a community.
The work I do is so meaningful and gratifying to me—every day and every moment of it. It’s worship, it’s love, it’s prayer. I’m grateful for every day that I have the chance to do what I do.
Click here for the eight keys and wellness plan that helped Gayathri recover and thrive.