Confessions of a Bipolar Indo-Caribbean Lady

4th min read

I grew up at a young age and spent the summers in Trinidad. It was important for our family to get a feel for where we come from and for my mother to experience the environment in which she grew up.

I loved this vacation. They weren’t like the clichéd Caribbean cruises and resorts that my school friends enjoyed on break. There was a lot of activity. Summers in Trinidad were passed with sweet breezes, doubles ate, and cousins ​​and distant relatives met. In these few weeks I have embraced my culture, enjoyed the people and soaked up the environment around me.

Fast forward to high school and I was 16 and younger when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I had no understanding of mental health, let alone what it meant to be bipolar. Not once have I heard anyone in my family talk about mental health, let alone their own health. I knew there was some form of mental illness, but it was often dismissed as “Pagli”. Only in the most severe cases have I heard anyone refer to it, and often it has been condescending – “she’s crazy” or “she’s got no head,” as Indo-Caribbean people would describe it.

I had heard of a place called Berbice Mad House in Guyana once, but only in the way that it was labeled a historic monument. Years later, I had the chance to see the infamous building on my first visit to Guyana with my father. I never went in. Now that I think about it, it’s amazing that they actually say the word angry in the name of.

Photo courtesy Subrina Singh

I didn’t grow up in a religious Hindu home, but my parents were traditional. After my diagnosis, they sought advice from religious elders who suggested that I might be cursed or possessed and that religious treatments could help.

My parents, concerned and not knowing much about bipolar disorder, took this traditional advice. And then it started. My weekly visits to a pundit (a Hindu priest). As much as my parents wanted these sessions to work, I wanted to be “cured” too. My diagnosis weighed on me and held me back in every way. I had panic attacks, full of screams and tears. My sessions often ended that way.

[Read Related: 3 Indo-Caribbean Mental Health Counselors Talk About Community’s Stigma]

I have had many sleepless nights. I woke up with immense fear and paranoia, which prevented me from going to school. I wondered where God was in all of this. I used these prayer sessions as a time to utter my cries and question his motives.

Eventually my parents realized that the visits did not help because my symptoms were getting worse. I continued to miss school and couldn’t pretend to get through the day. My illness prevented me from functioning. I was ashamed and embarrassed.

I got mad and asked the age-old question God why me ?!

My parents then resorted to another pandit. My patra reading (a religious reading based on astrology) with him was full of empty promises to heal me. This time the treatment included weekly offers that culminated with a puja (religious ceremony) and a ritual bath. I fasted every Friday in honor of Bhagwan (God). But until now I still don’t know why I did this.

At night I offered water, prayed for healing and to become “normal”. Weeks later, the pundit conducted a puja. My mother took the ashes and petals of the Hawan (sacred fire) and bathed me in these sacraments with my grandmother and aunts. It never worked. I would wake up in a full panic attack.

Once again I was not cured. My parents began to lose hope in the power of God. I too began to question my beliefs. It dawned on me that maybe God wouldn’t heal me directly, but maybe He could lead me to the right tools.

[Read Related: ‘Get Up Aisha’: A Wake-Up Call for Mental Illness & South Asian Youth]

Get in therapy. My parents were skeptical about the therapy. Therapy is heavily stigmatized in the Indo-Caribbean community. In previous years, they didn’t want me to “air my dirty laundry”. They couldn’t understand why I couldn’t confide in them and instead talked to a stranger.

After all, they had no choice but to seek professional help. While my mental illness was hard to bear for her, doctor’s appointments, medication and therapy were now part of our everyday lives. It was a new world for her and she took its toll on me.

I felt misunderstood. I felt inferior and defective. I knew I wasn’t the daughter they hoped for, and I felt guilty for that. Were my parents bad people? No. But they came from a culture that had little training in dealing with mental health problems. I know that now.

Today I am happy to say that you have a better understanding of mental health. You don’t say “bipolar” with shame. They don’t hide my condition from family or friends. It was a process, but we got there. We have grown and with this growth acceptance has developed. When people can change, communities can change, and when communities change, negative cultural beliefs and stigmas are challenged.

But there is still a lot to be done. The reality is that we still live in a world where the stigma exists. Indo-Caribbean culture is guilty of upholding these beliefs. Still, there is hope for the future. I can proudly say that I am part of a new wave of Indo-Caribbean families working to challenge the stigma. Perpetuate that!

Subrina Singh |

Subrina Singh holds a bachelor’s degree in Asian and Asian-American Studies from Stony Brook University and a master’s degree in South Asian religion and philosophy from Columbia University. She is a co-author of the anthology of Sikh love stories, her name is Kaur. Since its release, she has committed to using her experiences with mental illness to raise awareness of mental health in the South Asian community. Subrina was a key guest on TV Asia’s Shades of Shakti and has worked with organizations such as SAMHAJ NAMI, NYC Department of Mental Health & Hygiene: THRIVE NYC & The Humanology Project. She takes pride in her journey and is determined to use her own experiences with bipolar disorder to help others with mental health. In her free time, you can find her 90s TV series, sing Bollywood songs from the golden era and find out about Barbie & Disney.