Bullied but not broken: She fought suicidal thoughts, helps heal others
Trigger warning: Suicide, depression, abuse
This story was written in 2020
Towards the end of 2019, 23-year-old Avani Prasad revealed a secret to the world that she’d kept from almost everyone, except her parents. Starting from her late teens for a few years, she suffered physical and emotional abuse as well as severe neglect. This had significant consequences — her medical report stated that she suffered from anxiety, major depression, delusional disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoid personality disorder, along with features of dysthymia and borderline schizoid, apart from depressive and negative personality traits. During that phase, she also developed suicidal tendencies and tried to physically harm herself.
That phase, says the Ranchi resident, left her totally scarred. “I began to deliberately hurt myself, such as making cuts or scratches on the skin with sharp objects, to get over those thoughts. It was my way of channelizing the pain away from the mind to some other part of my body. Trying to end my life was the only way I found solace. For an entire year, I was suicidal. Due to the strong medication, more often than not, I also found myself doped for the most part of the day,” she says.
There was also a point of time when Avani felt that she had two different selves — her real self and a superficial, public persona cultivated for the rest of the world. “In 2019, I wanted to take a year’s break from my studies just to recuperate. Though my parents were very supportive, they told outsiders and relatives that I was preparing for civil services, hence the break. That made it worse. Whoever came to see me only spoke about the civil services exam and how I would make it because I was a very bright student.”
It was during this one-year break that Avani decided to come forward with her story. “I realised if physical abuse and mental harassment could do this to me, imagine the impact on a child who goes through sexual abuse. This was the catalyst that drove me to start a few projects for child abuse victims and those suffering from mental health issues,” she says.
In December 2019, Avani started two projects — Sparsh and We Care. “Every 15 minutes, a child is sexually abused. In 80% of the cases, the perpetrator is known to the child and is either a close family member or someone the child trusts. Under Sparsh, we visit various schools and Mahila Mandals in Ranchi (Jharkhand) and Siliguri (West Bengal), and hold workshops where we teach the kids about good touch and bad touch. We also counsel parents and tell them the importance of a heart-to-heart conversation with their kids, and ways to tell the child about boundaries to help them understand what is allowed and what is inappropriate. These conversations will help a kid know if something isn’t right and give them the power to speak up. With project ‘We Care’, we address the issue of mental illness. Its treatment is expensive in our country. Not everyone can afford that. We organize regular workshops where we teach people ways to unbottle their emotions and overcome self-doubts,” she says.
This apart, Avani manages two other projects, Inspire and Annapoorna, with the latter being a short-term project initiated during the COVID-19 lockdown to provide food to migrant workers and their families. Inspire, as the name suggests, is to inspire child sexual abuse victims to come forward. The victims are encouraged to talk to somebody and not be judged for what they have gone through.
Till she turned 18, Avani’s life revolved solely around academics and her career goals. “I was a very ambitious child. I was so absorbed and consumed in my own goals, that I never empathized with others. All that I wanted was to be the state topper, secure admission in Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC), Delhi, go to London School of Economics, join Indian Administrative Services. I secured 98% in my class 12 board exam and got admission in SRCC in 2015,” she shares.
Things began going downhill a year after she secured admission into SRCC. “In Delhi, people were not welcoming of someone from a small place like Ranchi. The students there began to ridicule me. If I sat somewhere close to others, they would just get up and walk away. I felt like a complete misfit. I even heard people calling me ‘behenji’. I was 18 then and wasn’t mature enough to take it all in my stride. To fit in, I began doing things that I hadn’t done earlier, like getting my hair coloured. Then I was bullied one day, which affected me a lot. I stopped going to college and confined myself to my room. I stopped talking to my parents. Soon, I was diagnosed with mild depression, which could have been cured through a few therapy sessions. But the bullying continued, and my grades began dipping.”
Then an incident took place where Avani was abused by a person who she thought cared for her. “A friend from college used to accompany me to the doctor and drop me back at my hostel. As he knew all about my psychiatrist visits, I became very dependent on him. But then soon I realized that he had been going around telling people that I was mad, that I see a psychiatrist, and so on. He became physically abusive too. Once he even pushed me out of a moving autorickshaw. But things took a turn for the worse after he tried to slit my hand with a knife one day. He left me bleeding at a construction site and fled,” she said, adding, “As it is, the bullying incidents had a deep impact. But this just left me numb. The visuals of my hand being slit, being abandoned in a lonely construction site just kept on flashing in front of my eyes. I had anxiety attacks, followed by uncontrollable trembling and shaking. That was the first time I began harbouring suicidal thoughts.”
Her professors took her to a corporate hospital in Delhi, where a doctor advised her to go back to Ranchi. And she did. In the second and third years of college, she didn’t attend classes at all. “Luckily, I had a professor, Priyanka Bhatia, who took great care of me. She assured my parents that no matter what, I will definitely get a degree from the college. My other teachers, too, were very supportive. Though I didn’t fulfil the attendance criteria, they allowed me to go back before every exam, and then return to Ranchi. Though I didn’t get any rank, I got a degree at least,” she says.
Avani emphasises the importance of a good support system while dealing with traumatic situations. Having said that, she also agrees that mental illnesses are still not universally accepted. “Despite having supportive parents, it took time for them to understand that mental illness is a real issue. My father, especially, didn’t believe in mental health issues initially. Though he realises today that it’s an issue and needs medical intervention, there are still moments when my parents don’t appreciate me being so vocal about my condition,” she avers.
This, coupled with the terrible level of stigma that people who have attempted self-harm face and the high costs of treating mental illnesses, made Avani launch her projects in December 2019. “Even after going back to Ranchi, I had to visit my doctor in Delhi at regular intervals. Those visits reminded me of everything that went wrong in that city. So, my parents opted for another doctor in Mumbai. I had to frequently visit Mumbai, meet the doctor, and return to Ranchi. I was lucky because my father had the money and could afford my airfare and treatment costs. A lot of people can’t do that,” she says.
Through Sparsh and We Care, Avani has reached out to around 10,000 students and counselled over 200 people, free of cost. “During my worst phase, so many people shut me out of their lives. If my endeavour keeps even one distressed person away from the emergency ward, I would believe that I have succeeded in doing what I set out to,” she signs off.