The Bonds of Sisterhood In the Face of Mental Illness

Sisterhood for Priya and Sonia Jain started out as one might expect. Moments of tenderness, sandwiched between moments of bickering, tempered with moments of understanding. The type of back-and-forth that perhaps only sisters know.

When Sonia, the younger, was brought home—a little, rolly shock introduced to then four-year-old Priya’s life—Priya felt an instant protectiveness over her sister. A precious home video immortalizes this: their father setting Sonia down next to a sleeping Priya, Priya waking and whispering sweet comforts to her baby sister; words of love, affection. How she thought she was so cute. How much she loved her.

And despite the sisterly struggles that would emerge in the following years, this sentiment, this how-much-I-love-you, was the bond that tethered both to each other, over the age gap that seems like a canyon in tween years, the bridge over which they walked, stumbled, and helped each other when mental health struggles flowed beneath.

This photo is from Sonia and Priya’s personal archives.

This photo is from Sonia and Priya’s personal archives.

Ever since she can remember as a kid, Priya has “always felt off.” Deprived of the emotional support she needed from her hardworking but overworked parents and feeling the eldest-sibling responsibility on her shoulders, she would stick close to her room. She would lash out at Sonia, and idealize suicide so much that she thought it was just part of her character.

But her reservedness didn’t mean she was silent all the time. “She was radical with her thoughts,” Sonia recalls of Priya’s passion for social justice, issues which she would bring up around the rest of the family, discussions Sonia would resent for the uncomfortable waves they would make.

Priya’s experience of feeling different from those around her continued past the high school years and into her university years, which she started early, at the age of 16, at a rather unpredictable school for an outspoken Brown girl grappling with her identity and mental health: Western University. “The party residence, too,” Sonia adds.

“I just abused alcohol,” Priya says. “I had this freedom away from my parents, but then increasingly I started getting very depressed again, with the white supremacy there, I was emerging more as being queer, and I just found it really difficult connecting with people.” After a serious bike accident she ended up taking time off school and started seeing a therapist—a relationship that couldn’t be fully formed, she recounts, because of a lack of therapists of colour available.

Fast forward to a move to Montreal, and Priya found spaces she identified with more: the art scene, other activists. And yet, while she was forging connections, she lost sight of her boundaries, taking on a lot—too much—of other people’s energies. She became increasingly depressed again and, this time, began taking medication. But she decided she didn’t want to be on them forever, and weaned herself off.

Looking back, she thinks this is when her psychosis began.

I felt like I was being hunted down, which added to my psychosis.

When she was in psychosis, she was “living out of fear.” During a visit to a psychiatrist at Concordia University, a panic attack came on, resulting in psychosis. The psychiatrist, who was a white man, had her involuntarily hospitalized. “It was so overwhelming,” she says, “and felt like the military came in, and I thought maybe they think I’m a terrorist, and they’re coming to take me away.” At the hospital, accompanied by a friend and under the belief that she was free to go if she wished, Priya left “with no official discharge.”

A few hours later the police were knocking on her front door and the fear that had been taking over intensified. Her roommates, knowing the situation and how to help, informed the officers Priya wasn’t home and also reassured them of her safety—but that didn’t stop the police’s efforts.

They searched her Facebook profile, and, after seeing her posts about white supremacy and advocating for marginalized people, began knocking on the doors of the people Priya interacted with online.

“I felt like I was being hunted down, which added to my psychosis.” A fear that wasn’t helped by Priya’s past experiences with police brutality, at protests and in other incidents of racial discrimination. “Witnessing it, experiencing it... I was fearful of police.” Knocking on her door, knocking on the doors of her friends and colleagues—this only added to her paranoia.

The police contacted Sonia, too, and when she answered the phone, she wasn’t surprised. “They were rude, they said my sister ‘escaped’ the hospital.” Her answer to them, knowing her sister, was that she was most likely at home in bed, in need of sleep. Not an escapee, not on the loose. Just in need.

Looking back, the calls were so regular, Sonia wonders how they let it get so far, so normalized.

Sonia was already familiar with calls—not from the police about her sister, but from her sister herself. Priya often called Sonia (who was now also in Montreal, studying at McGill), saying she wasn’t feeling her greatest, and that she needed her sister. Looking back, the calls were so regular, Sonia wonders how they let it get so far, so normalized.

But Sonia took on the role of communicating to their parents what was happening, especially when Priya moved back home to Toronto—a difficult experience that left Priya feeling like she was moving backwards and toward a place she didn’t feel she belonged. “They had only seen Priya as a child,” Sonia explains, “but now [with Priya] as an adult, they needed to do more. I was always telling [them] I think she needs to go to CAMH.”

For their parents, both being in the medical field, it was difficult. They were of the generation that emigrated and delved into cultural assimilation, of being a model minority. “Maybe they didn’t want to admit their own kids were having difficulties, maybe they didn’t see that,” Priya says, of how her parents responded to her struggles. “[They] were workaholics, doing everything they could to support their kids, which I’m grateful for, but it also made for a disconnection in the…” she pauses, sighing, “intergenerational trauma sense. You know, it’s like, therapists should have their own therapists, right? I don’t think they were also at a place receiving the support they needed, and therefore their pain was bleeding onto their kids.”

Captured by Sharifa Campbell

Captured by Sharifa Campbell

Thinking a change of scenery and some nature would do some good, the family set out for a trip to Hawaii. Knowing the bond the two sisters already shared and hoping to ease the stress of travel, their parents placed Priya and Sonia together. The flight exacerbated the paranoia Priya had already experienced many times before when in psychosis, however. 

“The first flight,” Sonia recounts, “Priya left her body. She was whispering to herself, things that I was trying to make sense of.” And when a mix-up happened with the connecting flight, Priya’s paranoia grew. 

But Sonia continued doing what she knew helped sometimes. She held her sister, now frail after having lost weight over the past months, and told her to listen to her breath. “Let’s breathe together,” she would tell Priya. “I was just holding onto her, saying ‘We’re gonna get there.’”

I was just holding onto her, saying ‘We’re gonna get there.'"

“I was the one to put [Priya] into CAMH,” Sonia says. “It was very hard for me to leave her, she had these puppy eyes. I was the one trying to get my parents to put her in this institution which was so far from where she wanted to be, and I felt horrible and thought who am I as the younger sister to put her here? Leaving her was hard, knowing that she didn’t want to be there, but when I left her, she couldn’t even stand up by herself, she was so frail and so disoriented.”

Sonia would visit often, and as meaningful as seeing Priya was, her visits also exposed how poorly the in-patient facilities were run. Priya, going through episodes of psychosis, shared a room with two other patients, something Sonia tried to change by calling Priya’s doctors and asking for a private room. She knew Priya loved art therapy and yoga and outdoor activities, but there were no resources to offer such things. “I thought they could do so much better,” says Sonia, now herself working in a mental health lab at this point. “I can’t believe I’m in this field and I’m just seeing how bad it is.”

“The process of being admitted to a psychiatric hospital was in itself a traumatizing one,” Priya explains. “It brought me to a level of vulnerability that stripped away all privacy and agency. There were so many terrifying moments where I felt almost criminalized and crippled with shame. I remember thinking, ‘I have reached the end and it is most painful. I am no longer in control of my body and thoughts, so I must be put in permanent confinement where I will never burden anyone again.’ It took me many weeks of various therapy treatments, medical care, and trust- and support-system building before I got out of my psychotic state. It was a process that felt like an eternity, but I eventually did get out of it.”

When asked about her diagnosis, Priya tells us: “Diagnoses can be a complicated thing. While it may give more clarity on the particular symptoms and treatment of an illness, it is good to keep in mind that labels can be limiting of the unique and non-linear experience from person to person. As an advocate toward the destigmatization of mental illness, I am unashamed of my diagnoses while also recognizing that they do not solely define my ever-transforming identity, nor do they represent the fluid experiences that every person with the same diagnoses has.

Over the past ten years, I have received different diagnoses from dozens of psychiatrists. They have included clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, and schizoaffective disorder.”

More than ever, I believe that healing is always possible.

Over a year later, as Priya looks back, she knows now that she is a testament to surviving and overcoming mental illness. Sonia, after witnessing her sister’s experience at CAMH, pursued a career in social work and mental health. Just like Priya, Sonia is also adamant about making mental health treatment more accessible and destigmatizing mental illness through an anti-oppressive and social justice lens.

“More than ever, I believe that healing is always possible,” Priya reflects, even through everything she has felt, thought, and experienced. “The greatest impacts on my recovery to a healthier mental state were the emotional work I did to confront my own toxic habits, the educational tools I learned to better care for myself, and the supportive initiatives taken by people who love and believed in me.”

This photo is from Sonia and Priya’s personal archives.

This photo is from Sonia and Priya’s personal archives.

I believe that the sisterhood relationship can be the closest mirror to the relationship we have with ourselves.

The greatest example of this last one, perhaps, being the monumental support sisterhood has been, from being the eldest and caring for Sonia, to having that reciprocated by Sonia in her own times of need. 

“Sisterhood is about having a rooted connection with someone on a deeply intuitive, emotional, and perhaps even spiritual level. I believe that the sisterhood relationship can be the closest mirror to the relationship we have with ourselves,” says Priya.

And for Sonia: “To me, sisterhood is a relationship founded on respect, openness, and compassion, [where we can] constantly [learn] from each other and [cultivate] a space where we can both thrive and be ourselves. I think sisterhood just means that you are united in your values of wanting to be well, respected, and there for each other.

“The work still isn’t over for me,” Priya says. “It’s not over for anyone, really. That’s healing. It’s a lifetime process, but it’s so important, I realized, when you do feel good, when you can get to that place, to really reflect on it. And ask yourself, okay, what has been working, who is my support system right now. How do I persevere with the good feels, because that’s so much more infinite than when you’re in that low place, that abyss, and that state of just not being in your body. We all went through it together in our own ways, and it’s like, yeah, moments like these, let’s just pause. There’s always something worth fighting for here.”

With her knowledge and Priya’s experience, Sonia adds, “As much as it was traumatic, we can have these great discussions, and it’s almost empowering, in a way.”

They still fight about small things—”Bollywood drama”, they call it. But that’s it, small, so little in the face of what they’ve overcome together already. In fact, it may be that anything will shrink in the face of their sisterhood, the beautiful, terrifying sum of their true, lived lives, a moment in which your mirror identity, whom you once held as a baby and cooed over, holds you up and tells you, “We’re gonna get there.”

 

Trang Be is a writer based in Toronto. In the light of day, she cooks, she reads, and she introverts. When the sky gets dark and the world goes quiet, she’s mostly all up in her Piscean thoughts, trying to learn, unlearn, and to get it right (whatever that means).

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