Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Shadows in the Sun by Gayathri Ramprasad

I'm going to go about this backwards and start with why I read Shadows in the Sun.
  • In the 1990s, I had a friend who told me about the time of her life when she had two small children and was suicidal.  She considered drowning the children and then killing herself because she thought the children would be better off dead than living without a mother.
  • Two of my friends have lost a child to suicide.
  • My mother suffered from depression most of her adult life. I inherited her tendency to depression.
  • About a year-and-a-half ago, one of my physical therapists took his own life.
And, then there's the reaction from those who don't understand, which only goes to show that there is still a serious lack of understanding about depression and a stigma attached to it.  Again, examples from my own life.
  • After my physical therapist killed himself, his business partner responded in anger.  "That's just stupid!" he said.  "He was depressed for years.  Why didn't he do something about it?"  
  • A depressed character came up in discussion at my book group and one of the women said, "Oh, most people just try to kill themselves to get back at other folks, to say 'I'll show them!'" 
  • When the subject of depression came up while I was talking to one of my friends, she gleefully told me she'd never been depressed because, "I won't let myself!" 
  • A few years ago, one of my friends simply disappeared for a few months. Every time I called to see if she was home yet, her husband would make some excuse. "She's taking a break," he said at first. Eventually, he told me she'd been hospitalized to treat a vitamin imbalance. Two years passed before I wormed the truth out of her -- that she'd attempted suicide and been put into the local mental facility for observation and treatment. Both my friend and her husband were still too embarrassed to talk about her experience in any detail. 
It's because of all of the people I know and love who have fought depression, lost someone they love or   made ignorant comments -- and because of my own experience -- that I occasionally read books about depression.

Back to the subject . . . the book:

Shadows in the Sun is a memoir about Gayathri Ramprasad's journey through depression and how she found the path to healing.  I added the lengthy asides above because in Shadows in the Sun, Gayathri addresses things like the stigma still attached to depression (and other mental illnesses), the misunderstanding of those who have never experienced mental illness and the lack of affordable, readily available treatment options. The idea, for example, that you can just will away depression is a really nice thought but mental illness simply doesn't work that way. Depression is caused by chemical activity in the brain. Sure, there can be a triggering incident that sends you spiraling into depression. But, you can also become depressed for no reason, whatsoever.  And, it's because the author went through so much that it has become her mission to raise awareness that mental illness is an illness, not a defect or something that can be wished away.

In the author's case, growing up in India contributed to her difficulty with diagnosis and treatment.  It's worse in India by far, but regardless of where you go there is still a stigma attached to depression. Gayathri rightly compares mental illness to other illnesses.  If you had a deadly virus, people wouldn't tell you to pray harder or pull up your bootstraps and get over yourself. But that's often true of mental illness.  The fact that it's not always easily treatable with medication or therapy alone makes it an especially tricky kind of illness, as well.

Gayathri's struggle to find the help she needs and her battle with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts comprise the bulk of the book and I loved reading her story -- the pages flew -- but one of the things I loved best about Shadows in the Sun was the unique cultural perspective. I learned a lot about India; there's even a glossary of Indian terms in the back of the book.  Because the traditions and religious beliefs were a part of why it took so long for the author to receive treatment, you actually come away from Shadows in the Sun with a new understanding about India and its people.  I really loved that.

In general, the story was very well-written. I found Shadows in the Sun incredibly gripping. Gayathri has a combination of conditions - depression and anxiety along with anxiety-induced panic attacks, which made her symptoms more dramatic than the perhaps more typical quietly-depressed individual who puts up a good front and suffers in silence.  Gayathri was often physically ill - vomiting, disinterested in eating, sometimes collapsing publicly. While she did eventually recover from a lengthy depression that caused her to lose a great deal of weight (recovery was hastened by marriage; the change of environment made a difference), she became severely depressed again after the birth of her first child. It was then that she finally began to get the help she needed.

I was unaware of how hospitalization for depression works and found the description of the author's experience eye-opening. When Gayathri went in to talk to a psychiatrist for admission to the hospital with severe depression and he asked her if she was suicidal, the response to her affirmative reply stunned me.  The doctor immediately stopped asking questions and had Gayathri led to a room to change into a gown. Then she was placed in isolation.  By that, I mean she was locked into a room alone in a flimsy robe with a camera watching her every move.

When I read that part, I was so shocked that I turned to my husband and said, "I can't believe they do such an uncivilized thing in our country!" I told him I thought it would make a whole lot more sense to take someone for an emergency therapy session -- one that involved putting him or her in a room with 20 people who are there just to hug them and share their own stories of hope.  Doesn't that make more sense than locking someone up all alone when he or she is in despair? The woman I mentioned -- the one who considered drowning her own children -- responded best to group therapy; that's a part of where I'm coming from, the idea that knowing you're not alone can be one of the biggest factors in recovery.  But, maybe I'm oversimplifying the dangers, too.

At any rate, you will get a full perspective of what it's like to live with depression, fight the negative thoughts and feel so desperate that you want to end it all, if you read Shadows in the Sun.  You will get a fascinating glimpse into the culture in India and see how treatment both there and in the rest of the world doesn't create a big enough net to catch and save the million people who died at their own hands, each year.  And, you will learn what finally turned Gayathri Ramprasad's life around.

My only complaint is that the part about her healing was too short.  I wanted the author to go a little deeper into the healing process and what she did to turn her life around. Although she does go into how she eventually discovered what worked for her, Shadows in the Sun is more a tale of one person's struggle than a how-to on recovery.

Highly recommended - You don't have to be depressed or have experienced depression or mental illness to read Shadows in the Sun.  It is an utterly fascinating, compelling, passionate memoir that also offers a great cultural perspective on life in India and what it's like to be an immigrant.

Link to the organization founded by Gayathri Ramprasad:

ASHA International

My thanks to Hazelden and TLC Tours for the review copy of Shadows in the Sun.

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  1. It makes me angry that people don't believe depression is real. Mostly because who are they to say? I just get frustrated that everyone judges everyone else. Isn't there enough misery in the world already? This one sounds like a good read but I would like to have more of her healing if she talks so much about the pain. Just for balance.

    1. Yeah, same here. It's wild that depression is so common and yet so many people don't get it at all.

      Exactly! More on the healing aspect for balance would have been great. She eventually gave up medication and went for the exercise - meditation - healthy eating method but that's really glossed over by comparison with the lengthy descriptions of her bad experiences.

    2. Any book that illuminates this illness is well worth reading. Because it is an illness, no different from cancer or any other diagnosed disease. Just because the physical symptoms aren't visible to the naked eye doesn't mean the disease isn't deadly.

    3. Yep, absolutely. And it's unfortunate that there are so many people who don't get that and/or have strange misconceptions like the woman at my book group or the physical therapist who didn't understand that maybe his partner wasn't willing or able to talk himself into getting help because of the stigma that goes along with depression (or the fact that he was shy -- he was definitely not a people person). Or, maybe he did seek help and it didn't work. It's a tricky illness and it can kill.

  2. Wow this sounds powerful. Definitely getting my hands on it! Just an aside, not everyone handles suicidal behavior that way. I think the hospital I work at has a LOT that could be improved on but we would never put someone in isolation or restraints or anything like that unless it's the very very last option...in other words unless that patient is actively trying to harm themselves or others and we've tried talking with them, de-escalating them, offering them meds, physically holding them until they can stop hurting themselves, etc. Then when there's no other options, that's when someone goes into locked seclusion. But it wouldn't surprise me at all if other places do it differently.

    I've been lucky enough to get the depression gene too and it's hit me harder recently than it ever has before. Nowhere near how you describe here, but enough to get aggravated when people say "just smile more!" "focus on the happy!" It really isn't that easy. I have a client who's had suicidal ideations and her mother's response when she confided in her was "why would you do that to your family??" It upsets me too when other people just. don't. get it. We just need more education in this country on mental illness.

    I'm getting better though....partly because I ADOPTED A KITTY NANCY!!!!!!! Go look on my blog :D There are pictures! His name is Maxwell and he's precious :) Quite loveable too! He likes his cuddles.

    1. Oh, Chris, thanks so much for chiming in on the hospitalization. That really freaked me out. I hated to think that anyone I know went through that and even fleetingly thought that may have *contributed* to one of the teen suicides because I know one of them was hospitalized repeatedly. I would think something so demeaning as to be isolated and watched would throw me off the deep end. So glad to hear that's not always the case -- or maybe things have changed since the author's experience.

      I have been thinking about you a *lot* lately. So glad you dropped by to comment. Yeah, the "get over yourself" response basically is a dismissal and to expect someone to think of others when they're in despair . . . well, you know depression is not a logical thing. I can't even begin to fathom thinking one's children would be better off dead than living without a parent but it was that friend who helped me to understand that whacked-up brain chemistry and logic don't go together. So agree with you and that's the author's purpose - to educate people and prevent suicide.

      Ohmygosh!!! I'm dashing off to see your kitty RIGHT NOW!!!!! I'm so excited for you!!!! Squeeeeeee!

  3. I am fascinated with any book that illuminates the social stigma of mental illness and shoots it down. My mother has been depressed for 5 years since my father passed away and is not getting any better. I struggled with it briefly as a teenager. People think that you can choose to be happy, which to a certain extent you can, but you have to be in a more balanced position to see that the choice is even an option.

    I am also fascinated by the stigma of it in India. My BIL and his family are from there and they barely understand my fibromyalgia, let alone a mental illness. And I don't think it is because they don't want to, but because it is just not discussed so they don't know anything about it and don't understand.

    I think this would be a very interesting read for me and I thank you for bringing it to my attention!

    1. My mother had a terrible time with widowhood, too, and since she was diagnosed with cancer 2 months after my dad died she was pretty much on anti-depressants for the rest of her life. It helped a lot and there were things she enjoyed about being on her own but she never really adjusted to not having a man in her life. Her house was so, so painfully quiet after my noisy, cheerful dad's sudden death.

      It's true, there are things you can do to help yourself but just choosing to be happy and expecting magical results is such a misnomer. I think all the, "You can be happy if you want to!" books often overlook the heart of the depression issue, the chemical imbalance.

      Ooooh, sounds like this is the perfect book for you because of your connection to India through your BIL. Very cool! I'm glad I helped bring it to your attention, Becca! Hope it's helpful. :)

  4. This certainly sounds like a powerful and revealing read. I hope that many readers will take your advice and pick this one up!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

    1. It is definitely both powerful and revealing, Heather. Thanks for letting me join in on the tour. I found this book incredibly meaningful and important.


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