My mother is a sharp, quick-witted woman who has an artistic temperament without being an artist. A child of two schoolteachers, she was full of energy with no real outlet. After she was married, she felt suffocated under the weight of societal expectations of the small town near Mumbai, India, where I grew up and where my family still lives.
Like many Indians, I grew up in a multigenerational household with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and pets. Even as young as 5, I could sense my mother was troubled. The other adults would allude to it often in dining table conversation, but never directly addressed the fact that my mother suffered from bouts of rage and depression ― even though there were many signs, even that I exhibited, of my mother’s mental illness.
“I observed helplessly as my mother’s struggles with addiction consumed our family life like a wildfire.”
I suffered from constant anxiety, had night terrors and wet the bed. We were a well-off family, and yet my clothes and underwear were quite often torn and dirty. My grandmother, who I was passionately fond of, never missed an opportunity to blame my mother (but not my father!) for my neglected appearance. Always starving for maternal affection, I used to follow my grandmother around the house like a puppy, holding the end of her sari. When I was ill, it was into her bed that I’d crawl at night. My father and my grandmother tried to make life as normal for me as possible, but regardless, anger and trauma can get passed down in families ― just like facial features. Without being conscious of it, I began mirroring my mother’s angry behavior, hitting and bullying my younger cousins. I became a loner with no real friends; parents who knew my mother, in a move straight out of a Jane Austen novel, warned their daughters that associating with me would ruin their reputations. Perhaps those parents were right. My instincts always tended towards self-destructive acts.
This was the 90s in India and the idea of therapy was still (and still is) considered a fanciful, self-indulgent, Western concept that only “crazy” people needed. In my town, there wasn’t a single person or place I could’ve turned to for help with my mental health; even our schools didn’t provide counselors. Without a safety net, I remained in psychological free-fall for more than two decades. I often think back on those years and wonder how my life would’ve been different if I’d gotten help or had resources.
As a child, I observed helplessly as my mother’s struggles with addiction consumed our family life like a wildfire. In India, a woman enjoying alcohol is a social taboo, and substance abuse is viewed as a private, moral failing. Female addicts are a shadow class of an already marginalized group. A recent study by the Indian ministry of social justice and empowerment showed that of the 398 drug rehab centers across the country, only three will admit women.
In May 2019, as part of their communities initiative, “Sesame Street” introduced a green, yellow-haired, 6.5-year-old Muppet in foster care named Karli. And last week, Karli revealed she was put in foster care because her mother was in recovery for addiction. While “Sesame Street” has a long-standing record of introducing difficult topics by expanding character storylines, Karli is the first to tackle the addiction epidemic affecting American families. According to Child Trends, one in three children entered foster care in 2017 because of parental drug abuse. Karli’s videos are available online as a resource to explain addiction to affected kids.
“I often think back on those years and wonder how my life would’ve been different if I’d gotten help or had resources.”
A highlight of my childhood in India was when a relative would return from a trip abroad with video tapes of shows. My cousins and I’d gather in someone’s living room to watch Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch sing and solve problems. “Sesame Street” stands out from that time because adults didn’t dismiss the kids’ questions as trivial. I remember being Karli’s age and watching my mother drink, often until she lost control or she had to be carried home. If only Karli existed then.
Once, at a party, my mother lit matches and flicked them to the ground. I stood close to her, fascinated. When the matchbox was empty, my mother hit me on the head and screamed, “Stop that!” And I remember feeling confused. I hadn’t been the one playing with the matches, and yet my mother thought I’d done something bad. A hazy but overarching sense of feeling guilty about things I had no control over followed me throughout my childhood.
I took parental behaviors that other children might’ve found frightening as a matter of course. As a result, I spent years internalizing my mother’s problems. My father was soft-hearted, and terrified of confrontation. He tried to hide the truth, and so became my mother’s enabler. But still, my mother was often enraged at him, for what she perceived was a lack of support.
In a video called “It’s Not Your Fault,” Karli says, “I used to feel like a lot of things are my fault, especially my mom’s problem. But she told me no. It was a grown-up problem, it wasn’t because of anything I did.” In “What’s Addiction,” Elmo’s father Louie explains to Elmo, “Karli’s mommy has a disease called ‘addiction.’ Addiction makes people feel like they need a grown-up drink called alcohol, or another kind of drug, to feel OK. That can make a person act strange in ways they can’t control.” When Elmo asks why she doesn’t stop, Louie replies, “It’s not something you can just stop doing, not without help from the right grown-ups.”
I understand the power of those words. If someone had spoken them to me, it would’ve helped me feel a lot less alone.
According to ”Sesame Street,” the online videos featuring Karli were created in consultation with experts to “help children overcome the trauma of parental addiction and build resilience, while providing age-appropriate messages and tools for those caring adults to help children cope.” We like to say that what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. We mistakenly valorize suffering. But trauma teaches nothing. It is linked to negative health and a shortened lifespan. Healing happens only when you find the people and places that make you feel safe, like a TV show, therapist or a supportive community, and you can embark on the arduous task of understanding a parent’s addiction’s long-term impact on your life.
“They say that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and I’m very grateful to 'Sesame Street' for shining a bright light on the complex problem of parental addiction.”
In my early 20s, I finally found and began working with a therapist in New Delhi, who helped me understand that I had to establish strong boundaries to separate myself from the reverberations of my mother’s mental illness. She also taught me how to dig under my feelings of worthlessness to uncover the sediments of trauma upon which they stood. A few years later, in 2012, I moved to New York with my spouse. Being far away from my family felt tough at first, but I relished the freedom and anonymity that comes with living in a big city.
It’s surprising what you find out about yourself, when there is no one around to tell you who you are. In 2014, I started an MFA program and began working on a novel. Assigning my trauma to a fictional character and having her work through it has proved remarkably therapeutic. I found support in the form of a community of writers, some of whom also write about their experiences with addiction and sexual assault. I still suffer from bouts of anger and panic ― living with a traumatic childhood is no different from living with high blood pressure or diabetes, it has to be managed ― but I’ve finally come to a place where I know how to look for help, and, more importantly, how to ask for it.
They say that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and I’m very grateful to “Sesame Street” for shining a bright light on the complex problem of parental addiction, as I know firsthand how devastating this disease can be to a child’s mental and emotional development.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.