A destigmatising dialogue

Minu Budhia talks about her scrapbook-size richly illustrated memoir ‘Death of a Caterpillar’ which offers readers a sneak peek into her challenging journey with a special child. Edited excerpts:

A destigmatising dialogue

Tell us about the genesis of the book, ‘Death of a Caterpillar’.

Back in 2018 I had written an essay, which grew into a TEDx talk, and eventually my story has now found a home between the pages of a book. The essay and the talk both chronicle my journey with my younger daughter Prachi, who is a special child with Low IQ, ADHD, and bipolar disorder and my personal battle to overcome depression. I was met with such an overwhelming response to both — flooded with warm wishes, encouragement, queries, requests for guidance, that I began wondering how to reach out to more people. During one of these conversations in 2021, a colleague of mine said she believed I had a story that should be told, and told in-depth, and here we are today.

What kind of research did you have to do to write the book?

Since the book is literally my life, I didn’t really have to do much research. For the tips sections on parenting, all the courses, workshops, the mountains of books I devoured, and of course my life itself has been the background work or homework necessary. I am a student of life and my life is my research.

As you have often said, you got into the field of mental health from your personal experience with your daughter. Didn’t you ever feel uncomfortable about sharing your personal life in a book that will be out in the public domain?

When I decided to share my story, I knew I wanted to do it to help every single person with a mental health issue, every mother facing parenting challenges, every person struggling to hold on. Hence, I never felt uncomfortable. It is something for the greater good. If my story can help, then I don’t care about “Log Kya Kahenge”. It’s actually a pet peeve and a stigma I work to break every single day.

Just like the body can hurt from physical injuries, the mind can hurt from emotional trauma. Just like the body can be exhausted from overwork, the mind too can get exhausted from overthinking. Just like your body needs rest, so does your mind. And just like we go to the doctor for physical health related issues, we need to go to a psychologist or psychiatrist when we are struggling with our emotional or mental health. But we don’t.

Labelling people with mental health issues as ‘paagal’ or brushing the issue under the carpet because you don’t want to admit it is no longer an option. Just because our mental health is invisible, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

If we’re okay to share physical ailments with friends and family, why is it all ‘hush-hush’ when it comes to mental health? It’s because of the cloud of guilt, shame and fear surrounding mental healthcare that has persisted over generations. This is what makes sharing our personal mental health journeys so important. We should not feel any shame in asking for help — it is actually the most courageous action we can take to improve our lives.

I’ve also actually answered this question in the book itself.

Why am I sharing my journey?

Because it is okay.

Because I shouldn’t have to hide who I am or what I’m dealing with.

Because every time I share my experience, I help another person open up about their own struggles.

Please share with us an example of challenges you have faced in your journey to break the stigma surrounding mental healthcare.

During my journey to get Prachi the help she needed through treatments and assessments, I had to run pillar to post, across states and across the globe. I realised the need for a multi-speciality mental healthcare facility that would provide international yet affordable one-stop psychological solutions under one roof. That’s how I thought of Caring Minds, my Institute of Mental Health.

However, I was met with a challenge almost immediately.

Right at the beginning of the Caring Minds journey, I was shocked to find out that residents in the area in which our clinic was to open were protesting. Why? Because they had objections to mad or ‘paagal’ people coming to that location every day. They had even gone to court and obtained a stay order! This happened right before the inauguration was to take place. All preparations were done & staff had been hired. Everything had stalled, but I did not want to get into a long-drawn litigation. The solution? We started the initiative from a single room in our house itself. With some office furniture, a part of my home became the first Caring Minds office and we began our journey. Soon after, we shifted to our present premises.

Who is your target reader? How do you see readers benefiting from this book?

There’s something for everyone…

Ideally, I would say this book is for anyone looking to add a touch of positivity to their life or a moment of joy to their day. The reason is that while the book speaks of issues I have faced, it also shows how I have overcome them. This can not only provide a blueprint of sorts, but also serve as motivation to hold on, to not give up. This especially applies to anyone who is facing or has gone through life-altering events or challenges. In terms of age, the book is suitable for 15+ onwards. I would encourage teachers too to pick up a copy of the book as certain chapters will help them to identify the children who need help, and then get them the help they need. When my daughter was in her Montessori school, the teachers and principal were unable to recognise that she needed help. Every day was a complaints day, and she was the talk of the staff room. By reading this book, I think they will be able to recognise and understand red flags and behaviours that should be met with compassion and help instead of punishment.

Beyond gender…

And while it is the journey of a woman, I would not relegate my memoir for the eyes of one gender only. While women will be able to read inbetween the lines of many anecdotes, men, I think, will look at the women in their lives differently after reading this book. Sometimes men have a difficult time seeing what’s right in front of them — maybe reading through my lenses will give them a fresh perspective and encourage them to start new conversations with their spouses.

Modern Parents…

This book is also for parents of all children, not just those raising individuals with special needs. Modern parenting and the reality of life’s rat race has made most of us quite hyper. We want our children to come first in all the fields —academics, sports, drama, dance etc. We want them to excel at life in general and don’t realise how it is affecting their general mental health. On top of this emotional burden, children have to deal with a lot of peer pressure and the expectations of their teachers at school. From school to home, to tuitions, to extracurricular hobby classes — there’s barely any me-time left for them to just be kids. Even kids as young as 2-3 years of age are busy trying to fulfil our dreams, doing many things we wanted to do as kids, but could not, or did not have the chance to. And sometimes we push them to turn into reality a fantasy life we have dreamt up for them — a life in which they may have no interest, a life they may not be equipped for.

And even those parents who do not actively pressurise their children need to understand that children can watch, observe and learn. If you say you’re okay with them not being first or winning a medal, and then constantly talk to friends and family about how worried you are about their future, they will pick up on your anxiety. Children, however young, can sense their moods. As a parent I have done this too. I would not tell her that you have to study or play well, but anytime I was present during her sports practices, Prachi would fail. My younger daughter went through a lot because of this and I can still feel and see the emotional scars that have been left behind.

There is a rising number of teen suicides, of which many can be stopped if only they didn’t have to live in a mental pressure cooker. While getting admission to good institutes, colleges, schools is important, it isn’t everything. I haven’t studied at any fancy schools or colleges, but I think I’m doing fine, don’t you? My command over the English language isn’t perfect, but I’m still here, talking to you as an author. When I talk to audiences, I have no feelings of shame or low self-esteem. I am totally okay with it. English is neither my mother tongue nor my first language. And I’m happy being imperfectly perfect.

Mental health is a very heavy topic and not everyone would be interested to pick up a book on it for a casual read. What have you done to make it attractive to readers?

Throughout the process of writing the book, this is one thought that was always at the back of my mind. This, and the fact that the majority have an attention span shorter than that of a goldfish. I wondered so many times whether people would read a whole book, especially casual readers who may think the topic is too heavy. Two things that I did to make sure to connect with the readers, to make them want to pick it up, were these:

Firstly, I was sure I didn’t want a typical paperback or hardback format, i.e., it needed to stand out. So, we chose the square size, a scrapbook feel for the pages, lots of watercolour illustrations, photographs and added pops of colour on every single page. The other thing was to format the text into bite-size pieces. There are lots of headings, subheadings, quotes, and a lot of typography too to ensure a visual vibrance. The result was a memoir-meets-coffee-table-book. I think I may have started a new sub-genre!

The story is told chronologically, but you can pick up any chapter at any time, read from start to finish or read only one or two pages to get a peek into the life and times of Minu Budhia. It’s also written with piercing honesty, humour, and peppered with self-help tips, so there’s something for everyone. And while mental health is one of the pillars of the book, a theme that runs through the pages, the memoir is much more than that. In fact, those who don’t like the heavy stuff can just skip those chapters and move on to the fun parts. Also, the first chapter has been kept very very short — it’s just about four pages. This has intentionally been done to help the reader dip their toes into the book, wade in a little, and see if they’d like to explore more.

Do you plan to write more books on the subject in the future?

We evolve every day, every minute, every hour. Everything I have done in life in terms of my endeavours haven’t been based on long-term plans. Once I get an idea, I’m very quick to research and implement and I tackle issues and challenges during the implementation stage as they come. I don’t believe in overthinking; I believe in making it happen. So, when the idea pops into my head, I may just write another one.

I’ve had a great response to my column Mind Matters — it’s been a wonderful way to reach out to the general public and for them to reach me. Responding to their queries and writing on their most requested topics has given me a window into the mind of the nation’s everyday mental health challenges and emotional issues — I may just write another book based on that.

What I’m certain of is that through my thought leadership focused on outreach and awareness, I want to keep evolving,

moving, and making an impact. As an author, I’ve found writing I’d love to keep people curious and guessing.

Death of a Caterpillar’ retails for 399/- and is available at Caring Minds, Cafe ICanFlyy, Amazon, and Starmark. Follow Minu

Budhia @psychotherapist.minu on Instagram for more about the book.

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