By: Aparna Sanyal in Montreal, QC
We have yet to understand the impact of covert racism and misogyny on the mental health of Canadian citizens, particularly “ethnic” women. However eager they are to contribute to society, however skilled they may be, they face a unique combination of social isolation and career limitations that can trigger illness.
My personal story perhaps speaks to many women from ethnic backgrounds in Ontario and all over Canada. After all, mental illness accounts for about 10 per cent of the burden of disease in Ontario, yet receives just seven per cent of healthcare dollars. Relative to this burden, estimates show that it is underfunded by about $1.5 billion.
My journey to the depths of despair began somewhere around 2014, when after several years of untreated, chronic depression, I developed psychosis. I remember it as the “terror.” I lived alone, had no family in Canada (although I was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec) and had a precarious job as a freelance writer-editor. Somewhere along the way, I thought moving to Toronto might help, but that turned out to be a disaster as well.
The terror began when my editor at a national publication was promoted, and I could no longer expect regular work. The $250 dollars I received from them every month was significant. I made $500-600 a month in total, if I was lucky; I had looked for over a year for more secure and lucrative employment, to no avail.
But the terror I felt was, I realize, largely social. I feared marginalization more than I feared hunger. My former editor had been an encouraging man, one who made me feel valued as a writer. When I no longer had that monthly job, it was as though my only railing on a cliff fell away. I had already questioned my worth to myself, and the answer was now confirmed by the outside world. What value was there to me now? It was as though I had seized to exist.
After this, the terror came upon me, sudden and all-encompassing. Public Health Ontario estimates the disease burden of mental health at 1.5 times greater than that of all cancers put together and I was feeling every bit.
Finding a safe place
I lived in a sort of dormitory house near the University of Toronto, on Madison, a Victorian “bay-and-gable” mansion that had been cut into rickety, rented rooms. We did not have a personal letter box. Our letters were placed on a table near the entrance. I noticed my bank had not sent me the last monthly statement. I became certain my next-door neighbour, a young red-headed man who seemed to be in his room all the time, had stolen it. My problems began to proliferate. I could not find a toenail-clipper, and this only confirmed my suspicions about my neighbour; then I discovered I could not find an old sweater and a journal, and became convinced he had taken these too.
Around that time, I began to smell a strange odour. I thought it might be a noxious drug seeping from his room, but I could not identify it. At night I huddled under my comforter, hoping to protect my lungs from the fumes. As I heard my neighbour moving about restlessly at night, I imagined he was only waiting to do me harm. I also began to think I was being followed, by my neighbours or perhaps by the then-conservative government, whom I thought might have started tracking my strong political beliefs. I began to fret about being anywhere alone, especially in my room. I walked around the city and spent as much time in cafés and parks, as the homeless do. I was unable to sleep at night.
One night, convinced I was under imminent threat — for my neighbour seemed to have banged against my door— I fled the house and called the police. Little need be said about the fiasco that followed, except that one short, tired, blond sergeant shouted at me, and suggested to her two constables, one of Asian origin and one South Asian, that I might be drunk. (I did not drink.)
They had come up to the room with me, and had tried to stir up my neighbour, but he did not answer. At first, they listened to my story. After I told them about the possibility of my neighbour having made a wax key to break into my room, they lost patience. The sergeant threatened to have me charged. I still remember that she kept telling her colleagues, “After all, it’s not as though she works in an office!” My desk, laptop, books, and papers, which were before her, had no significance. I was illegitimate in her eyes because I did not work in an “office.”
The next morning I promptly moved into the Holiday Inn nearby. I called several women’s shelters around town. The sympathetic co-ordinators pointed out that their beds were full. The only one available was too far away, in another borough.
There was no one in the country of my birth for me to turn to. I had, over the previous years, alienated many people from my life. I had lost faith in the Montreal arts community I had worked in for eight years. I had developed an aversion to what I saw as its insular, largely white milieu, and sensed it could only abuse me. This sense, extreme as it was, was rooted in reality.
Overworked and under-paid
My depression had started a couple of years back, after I had left a debilitating job as an Editor and Executive Director of a well-known Montreal publication. The job, I think in retrospect, had been one often taken by women and minorities. It had been given an inflated title, but left one overworked and under-paid. The board of the organization that ran it was composed of local publishers, mainly old, male and white, who had created it as a para-governmental agency. With federal and provincial grants, they had created jobs that the government deemed necessary but refused to do itself or pay for adequately. I had made $18 an hour, a third of what I had made when working for the government a few years before. I had been paid for 30 hours a week, but worked 60.
For almost two years I had worked around the clock. My health had rapidly deteriorated. My employers had been unhelpful and unfriendly. They had rarely responded to my emails when I required information or a signature, and I often had to travel the city to find them. In spite of my difficulties, I had increased the budget and improved the magazine of the organization. Yet I had been invariably criticized by the board. I had begun to cry every night, and occasionally dreamt of suicide. My social skills had become jagged, unreliable. I had snapped at colleagues and clients. I had met a therapist, a European woman, to whom I did not mention my thoughts of suicide. She had suggested I quit my job. I had eventually fought with my board and resigned in a fit of anger, without first securing another job.
After this, I felt hopeless. Each time my mind turned to the people who shared my environment, my heart grew heavy. I could not help brooding on the daily racial slights I endured within an overwhelmingly white community: one well known director, introduced to me, turned away without speaking to me and asked the person introducing me whether I was her “bookkeeper”; that person was someone with whom I shared a large space, and who suggested to me, since I disliked using the air-conditioner in the summer, that my ethnicity made it easier for me to bear the heat. These “micro-aggressions” were little in themselves, but together, happening regularly, as I grew more depressed, they further intensified my sense of alienation.
I had enough money to isolate myself and devote myself to my own reading and writing. When the money began to run out, I made the huge leap to Toronto, where I could start afresh. It was a disastrous decision.
After two days in the Holiday Inn near the Madison house, feeling unsafe, I relocated to an International hostel in Kensington. My terror was so great now that I prepared to fly to Kolkata, India, where I had inherited a house, and would be surrounded by people familiar to me, of my own origin. One day, I spotted a red-headed panhandler near the hostel who looked eerily like my former next-door neighbour; seeing him triggered both my sense of alienation and intense fear of poverty. Inevitably, I felt the need to leave the hostel.
Identifying the Problem
I stayed, during these three weeks of terror, in five hotels. They cost me roughly $10,000 and I received no security from them; each successive place of sanctuary turned into a house of horror. I must have contacted the police five times, expressing my fears. I tried to tell many people about the “drugs” I could smell in my rooms — from policemen to maids to night-managers. But they smelt nothing and were puzzled that I could not specify what I smelt. Only one person told me I should see a doctor. A young, Asian constable in a police station I had run to one night, he said, “All I’m saying is that you should see your family doctor. Because if you are mentally ill, you will be the last person to know.”
I went to a hospital eventually, because I was so anxious I felt I could hardly breathe. The nurse suspected my illness, and asked if I saw things that others didn't see; I said no, for I smelt things others didn’t smell. The medics performed a brain CT on me. It was normal, and I was sent back to my hotel.
I was bitter. I felt I was being forced to flee the country of my birth, and somewhere in my pent-up mind I thought this was because I was a social threat. This happened to be somewhat true, but not in the way my sickness told me it was. Simply put, as a brown, thinking, writing woman, I was negligible in the society I had been born in. Its various attacks on my mind, from micro-aggression to economic hardship to isolation, caused my mental illness and my ejection from that society.
(*For those living in Ontario, the Mental Health Helpline is a free, confidential live service that is available 24/7 to provide callers with information about mental health services in this Province.)
Aparna Sanyal is a writer and journalist who has worked with the Globe and Mail, the Gazette, the Montreal Review of Books, and Rover. She has been an advocate of mental health awareness and is presently pursuing a Master’s degree in English at McGill University. This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.