I remember when I first started going for therapy. I was in my early 20s and there was immense pressure on me to get married. My workplace offered me free sessions through an employment assistance programme and I jumped at the opportunity of not having to spend on it.
When signing up for my first session, I had to define my predicament. There was a helpful list of concerns that people in my age group approached them with. One of them was about being in a dilemma about choosing one’s partner. In some ways, this was a way to frame my experience of the time. In response, my therapist gave me a worksheet – it had a variety of probing questions.
What traits did I seek in my partner?
How would I rank these in order of priority?
Which combinations of those traits was a willing to compromise on?
On one hand, I was fighting off these marriage proposals that were being emailed to me on the regular. They were all profiles of men of a certain age group, and more specifically, from the caste (AND sub-caste) preferences dictated by… well, I would like to be systemically-myopic and say my parents, but when I questioned them about their choices, they had no rhyme nor reason for them. It’s just the way things were always done!
On the other hand, I was starting to realize that I didn’t quite know what marriage entailed. Was it the pledge of endless romance? Did it present the choice of a permanent activity buddy? Would it be a relationship about child-rearing and care-taking? Would we work together to build a business? Or would we just be joined at the hip, whispering secrets to one another that we would never reveal to the world?
Thus far, marriage had been presented to me as a menu. What would I like? 6’0 feet tall, an apartment of his own, lives in New York City, accommodates the ambitions of my early-20s, ‘good family’ – the last of which indicated that he would be a Brahmin. And yes, it would certainly have to be a man; who’s asking?
Oddly, neither my therapist’s worksheets nor her sessions ever helped me understand my sexuality. It was an elephant in the room, one that I could neither name nor recognize, thanks to unspoken, yet pervasive heteronormativity and misogyny. However, it made me realize that I was deeply dissatisfied with the kind of masculine traits that cis-het-brahmnical patriarchy glorified and presented to me like a buffet. Like any other human being, these were shaped by my experiences before I gained financial autonomy and control over my own life.
Throughout my childhood, I was relayed many a story about how women in my family navigated their contrived relationships with (or rather, around) men. I was told by my mother, about a distant grand-aunt who was just 12 when she was married to a man in his 20s. She had barely entered her teens when he tragically died. She stayed an unmarried widow until her death in her 80s. During those 7 odd decades, she was moved around from house to house as various relatives took turns hosting her. For all the time that I knew her (I assume she was about 70 when I met her as a toddler), she lived in an underfunded old age home.
I would wonder why she didn’t inherit the good fortune of her brothers, of whom she had several. When my mother and I reached her funeral, we were greeted by one of them in the cheeriest of moods. Her existence had been nothing but a burden to them. She had been ruthlessly perceived and fashioned like a marionette all her life. It then occurred to me that we rarely ran into her at weddings, baby showers or other ‘happy’ occasions. She was a curse in the form of a human, and the man to whom she was betrothed to belong with, had yielded to its evil. There was no more to her than this story. She was never presented the choice of remarriage or education or motherhood or travel or a community of any kind. Every time we met her, I wondered who she was beyond what she was told to be. I struggled with understanding why she did not have these choices, and it never occurred to me that it was probably because she was a woman.
And somehow, this pivotal anecdote has never come up in the therapy room till date. Neither did the social confines of gender and prescription of performing one’s sexuality. I only realized it when I began recording a series of interviews with people who identified as asexual. For the first time, I realized the element of attraction in relationships, and the various ways in which it presented itself. There was sexual attraction, which is always implied, never explicitly discussed. Romantic attraction was explained to me as an entirely different experience, thereby differentiating between aromantic and asexual people. Furthermore, there was the attraction of the intellect, emotion, platonic affection, aesthetic appeal and so on. A question that I had helplessly asked my peers since I was a teenager, had finally been addressed: “what do you mean when you say you like someone?”
Despite these explorations, my therapy sessions remained sterile as ever. I was probed about my childhood, the details of my parents’ marriage, and the chaos of my inner life as I grappled with the demands of my city life. Apparently, it induced great anxiety in me when I dreaded the growing distance with my friends who live in different cities, and whose choices fit in social structures better than mine; such as solemnized, heterosexual monogamy. My ruminations about the politics of gender, race and religion, were written off as thought spirals, not ‘restricted interests’. I have often been accused of being emotionally inaccessible, when really, I am just having very different responses to a situation than what people expect me to.
In all these years of therapy, I have never been suggested the diagnosis of autism. Earlier this year, as a mental health journalist, I sought an interview with somebody in their early 20s. They identified as being on the spectrum and as non-binary. For the first time, I heard an experience articulated similarly outside of my head. Like me, they had been assigned female at birth, and exposed to the rigmaroles of that gender without explanation.
What was accepted as unquestionable reality by most people had often been met with confusion by me. I found the simplest of social situations extremely hard to read because of myriad untold rules and unexplained rationale in these settings. I finally worked up the nerve to ask my psychiatrist to be considered for such a diagnosis. It came from recognizing the concessions that I needed at the workplace – something as simple as an audio-cum-visual presentation would leave me feeling frazzled. In the classroom, I’d rather look down at my notebook and doodle, because constantly observing the facilitator was exhausting. When I was told about the importance of eye contact in professional settings, I taught myself the hack of staring into the other person’s eye until I can see it for its different colours and shades.
And yet, she wrote it off as anxiety. What prompted my disbelief in her ability to see my experience for what it is, was her remark about how autism could not have possibly gone un-diagnosed in a child. In fact, it goes undiagnosed in several who are assigned as female at birth.
Now in my late 20s, I am armed with facts, figures and access to the academic deconstruction of gender over several decades. I now know how I am likely perceived after years of studying them as a journalist and researcher. In social situations, I am able to take an educated guess and better articulate my needs in the workplace (please don’t assume I’m not listening, just because I don’t hold your gaze).
I’m still without psychiatry’s certification (a tall order given the sociological blindness of the discipline), and still grappling with being written off as a quirky ingenue on first dates. Instead I found my healing in embracing the ways of relationship anarchy and the company of my peers who find themselves at the intersection of neurodiversity and queerness themselves.