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Edition #10
Other Voices, Other Rooms
Interviewed by Sanobar Sabah 
Editor: Anastasia Baklushina

Writing as self-care; as a safe container for emotions

Have you ever found yourself invited to a grand party by family or friends, only to feel like a lone outsider?

Are my clothes alright, am I wearing the right shoes? Does my phone look outdated? What if nobody enjoys my company? Gosh, this is embarrassing! I knew I should have just called in sick. But then, they might not have invited me again…

Have you ever spent time in school, college, university, work, or public gatherings wondering if there's something wrong with you?

Here is a thought though: What if there’s nothing wrong with you? What if you were meant to be in this vibrant, lively party to discover how wonderfully unique you are?

I have decided June is for Joy. And, as cheesy as it may sound, my joy lies in finally coming to terms with my uniqueness and owning it publicly at the age of 44.

My father passed away nearly two years ago in July 2022. Since he passed away, I have seen a therapist for suspected ADHD, a Self-Sabotage coach, and, until a few weeks  ago, a therapist for BrainWorking Recursive Therapy.

I have dedicated hours to attending numerous writing workshops, where I found myself a beautiful writing tribe that vibes with my ‘madness’ and energy. Through my published essays, I have openly shared my experiences with mental health, navigating the complexities of being a woman, mother, wife, full-time employee, and, proudly, a writer.

Nothing has provided me with the clarity and healing that writing has. In my effort to give back, allow me to introduce you to two incredibly brave female artists, who have harnessed their neurodivergence and mental health experiences to destigmatize conditions that never should have been shrouded in shame in the first place.

Firstly, we have Reema Ahmad, a jack-of-all-trades-renowned author, poet, trauma counsellor, and mental space psychologist, who also indulges in being a part-time beaver and octopus. With a bustling household including a seventeen-year-old son, three cats, and a dog, Reema's life experiences as a single mom and trauma survivor bring a unique perspective to her insights and experiences.

We are also very fortunate to have a maverick in our midst - Raju Tai – a versatile wizard who’s a writer, creativity coach, and educator - I’m convinced if you raid Raju Tai’s office, you may find her hiding a wand somewhere! Raju Tai’s poems and essays have graced the pages of Muse India, Wales Haiku Journal, Gulmohur Quarterly, Scroll, Buzzfeed India, and more. She co-facilitates Ochre Sky Memoir Workshops with Natasha Badhwar, leveraging her expertise to ignite the creative spark in others.

Journal d’Ambroisie: How has your experience with mental health issues influenced your writing process and the themes you explore in your work?

 

Reema Ahmad: When we delve into what challenges us, what hurts us or what feels forbidden and dark in the mind, it can be hard to give these experiences a shape or form that makes them less daunting. In that sense, playing with language, imagery, and metaphor helped me to flow with whatever I have experienced. The fact that there’s no one judging your writing or that it doesn’t have to fulfil a purpose except as an expression has been incredibly freeing for me. 

    At the same time, writing, especially poetry, has also functioned as a safe container for thoughts and feelings. So when I write, it is to explore what I feel or sense. Poetry expands on sensation for me and with that, whatever troubles me, eases without much effort. And because I write mostly for myself, no area of struggle is forbidden. I can express anything freely. That is so relieving and liberating. Over time this practice has given me enough courage to write about my body, my sexuality,

depression, and my deepest fears or desires publicly. With time, a private thing has lent itself to open expression and mental health challenges have acted as a conduit for language itself.

Raju Tai: My mental health issues make sure writing is a daily practice for me. Without writing, I find the world inside and outside me to be quite baffling. Daily creativity empowers me to play with my anxiety, soothing it in the process. I find myself writing for people like me who are sensitive and vulnerable, whose minds are brilliant but also delicate and restless, who want to recreate the world but are still gathering their own exiled selves.

Journal d’Ambroisie: What is the biggest challenge or two that you face when you sit down to write? How do you balance your full-time employment/job with your desire to write and publish?

 

Reema Ahmad: My biggest challenge when I sit down to write is the sitting down part! It’s incredibly hard for me to take my writing seriously enough to practise it regularly or to invest in honing the craft. Maybe that comes from a hesitation to ‘reign in’ writing which has mostly been a wild, untethered experience for me. The challenge is not the writing, it is scheduling it or applying to be published or seen.  There is a desire to do that but it is mild. I feel quite fulfilled writing for myself but I know it’s not enough. That’s something I need to examine. 

      I balance my work with writing mostly through writing in group sessions which are scheduled regularly. I work better spontaneously but it also makes writing sporadic, so groups help tremendously. The Ochre Sky Stories group has been a godsend.

    When I have a deadline, I dedicate a day in the week to writing and schedule appointments accordingly. Working on my own helps with that. 

Raju Tai: Every phase of creative life brings a new challenge. At one point, it was self-censorship and eye-wrestling a blank page. Currently, my pages are full but they are spread everywhere and my scattered brain is struggling with ‘drafts, drafts everywhere, not a single draft to publish’ syndrome. 

To balance full-time employment with writing, it took me years to find work that is not just very close to my writing practice but nourishes it. As a teacher, I feel guilty while prioritising my own writing over that of my students, but, once a day, I give myself permission to do just that. That’s the only way to keep up with their brilliance. 

Journal d’Ambroisie:  Can you share some strategies/tips or coping mechanisms you have learned to navigate the challenges posed by your mental health while pursuing writing?

 

Reema Ahmad: Strangely for me, I struggle to write when I am in a relatively better space mentally. Writing is easiest when I am mentally struggling. Perhaps because it has unconsciously been a coping mechanism since childhood. It is ironic that I have to use strategies to get into a flow when I am actually feeling better! Just sitting down with a brief and exploring it helps at such times. Nudging by friends helps a lot. That’s how I finished my book. I asked two friends to regularly check in with me and nudge me weekly. It was like a buddy system and it worked for me. Asking an authority figure to really tell me off also helps me. Being physically sick for most of my adult life has been more challenging for me in terms of writing. But then, our physical state affects us mentally too. No clear answers here.

Raju Tai: The biggest gift I have ever given myself is a four-year break from social media. I rewired my brain and found better reasons, themes, and sources of encouragement for writing. After coming back last year, I see myself using it differently. I hate doing this — but I lower my expectations of myself whenever I find myself anxious about writing. To look at my writing as an evolving body of work is a powerful shift in perspective. It helps me see myself, less as an inefficient ball of anxiety, refreshing her notifications

Journal d’Ambroisie: In what ways do you believe your unique perspective, shaped by your experiences, contributes to the diversity of voices in literature?

 

Reema Ahmad: I feel that when you’ve been given a second or third lease of life and have tried to honour them as best as you could, you arrive at a place that is both at the edges of human social experience and also at its very core. That gives you a vantage point both as an observer of how life shapes us as well as the language with which to name the pulsating quality of those experiences. In a way, you’re both at the centre of things and still able to look at them through the lens of long time, history, and evolution. 

    At forty-one, after emerging from a lot of trauma and suffering and coming to a place where I am now supporting people in pain, that is the way my voice has changed - is both inwards and outwards. And I think that is beautiful, even useful when we write. So writing then is not just about us or our lives, it is also about the undercurrents of our complex experience as one species in a world teeming with other life forms. 

    It’s an interesting space to inhabit when you’re contributing in any way to literature or oral storytelling. I think it tends to go beyond literature, at least for me. It has become the way I live; both inside and out. This space or voice allows for so much flexibility in writing. It allows you to shapeshift and at least imagine beyond the constraints of gender, class, caste, and religion in writing. 

Raju Tai: Honestly, I don’t yet. But I am learning from writers like you that our voices matter. I understand my privileges, my pain points, and my shame triggers. Beyond all of this fog, I do see a horizon where my writing aspires to be a voice adding to diversity rather than taking away from it. I do know that I haven’t read anyone like me, and if I stopped writing, I would miss that sincere and imaginative voice that is critical of society, and yet relentlessly loving of the people that were embedded in it. So, I keep going.

Journal d’Ambroisie: Have you encountered any stigmas or misconceptions surrounding mental health and/or ADHD, and, if so, how do you address or challenge them?

Reema Ahmad:  There have always been stigmas surrounding mental health, especially around abuse, suicide, and neurodiversity. Around anything that is different from what is socially acceptable or appropriate. I don’t think there is any one way to challenge them. I was labelled lazy and slow all my adult life. I didn’t know till two years ago that I was suffering from a very complex illness that limited me physically and neurologically. With time and awareness, a lot has changed. 

    One of the things that has helped me is learning to inhabit the contrariness of experience in life and work. So if I am an abuse survivor, I am not just that, I am also a speaker and a writer. If I am slow, I am also an intense thinker who requires slowness. That kind of multiplicity of identity is a beautiful challenge to people and systems who typecast suffering. It is not easy and it may not be available to everyone but I believe it can be practised. We can try to hold the stories of our pain or struggle lightly enough to be seen as more than them. That is a live response to shaming. 

    Then there are other ways - to be vocal about stigma, to write about it when possible, and to create safe spaces for others with complex experiences so they can express themselves freely. All of that is a challenge to stereotype and bias and none of it has to be in your face. It is more for us than for others.

Raju Tai: I am lucky to have found spaces like Ochre Sky Workshops founded by Natasha Badhwar, and strengthened by sensitive writers. Here, neurodiversity is celebrated and mental health issues are seen as the clay of life, to be shaped into something beautiful. 

Yet it is hard to convince myself that it is okay to not perform the way a neurotypical, non-anxious, non-sensitive, non-woman person would. Conversations on mental health have strengthened in the last decade, but still, it is some of us holding the weight a lot more than others, some of our bodies bearing the sickness of society. While I wish more people to own their share of ‘crazy’, I want the ‘crazy’ amongst us to own our gifts. I aspire to be kinder to myself. 

Journal d’Ambroisie: What advice would you give to other aspiring writers who may also be managing mental health issues, based on your own journey?

Reema Ahmad: I’d say lean into your pain. Allow it to be the vessel and window to your particular challenges. I don’t think any one thing works for anyone but if we can try and be less afraid of our voice and simply let it out and observe it, it can be a beautiful opening to seeing ourselves differently; both as people struggling with mental health issues and as writers.

    And if you have very strong fears or anxieties, seeking a good coach or therapist who accompanies you as you discover your challenges helps a lot. It is also less lonely and daunting. I know it has helped me a lot. I’d say our mental health issues hold a lot of invisible wisdom. They carry a lot of light too. We have to learn to trust ourselves. 

Raju Tai: Spoil yourself, honey. Just buy the best stationery you can afford, a desk and chair that loves your bum and back. If you’re short like me, get a footrest so your feet are well-rested. Also, get some sneakers. Spoil yourself with therapy and plants and long leisurely walks. When you are struggling financially, like most of us will at some point, for the sake of our sanity or creativity, spoil yourself with love. Say the cutest things to yourself when you can’t write what you desperately yearn to write.

And on days when you do write, spoil yourself with shameless kisses on your arms and palms. You did it! You created when the world is being made to choke on consumption. You braved the beautiful risk of sharing your work. You slept well that day.

                                  Journal d’Ambroisie:  What's the most unusual or unexpected place you've found inspiration for your

                                      writing?

Reema Ahmad: In a courtroom! When I was going through a very messy divorce a decade ago, I’d carry a book, some oranges, and a notebook. And I’d just allow myself to feel and note down whatever came up. It could be sights, sounds, smells, or memories. I’d just write it as I waited. I think that was the beginning of my observation practice. It helped me write what I feel are my best poems. It felt strange and weird but it was so cathartic. 

Raju Tai: I have rarely found inspiration in usual or expected places. I recently wrote a poem that was partly inspired by an episode of the superhit Indian sitcom “Sarabhai Vs. Sarabhai”. Nobody who reads that poem will be able to guess it. I have a poem on Coke Studio Pakistan, a series of nine poems inspired by a vegetable market called “Shanivaar Bazaar poems”, and a poem on Candid antifungal dusting powder. 

[Coke Studio Pakistan features studio-recorded music performances by established and emerging artists, since 2008.]

                                     Journal d’Ambroisie:  Do you have any quirky writing habits or rituals that you swear by?

Reema Ahmad: I write a lot on my phone and I take my phone everywhere, even in the loo. That's hardly weird though. I tend to write after sex when the body is relaxed and feels free. I don’t know if that’s weird. Sometimes I like to sit outside with my dog right before bed and just write on the phone and go to bed right after. No processing or editing or revising. Just write and let it be. My friends have to put up with my grammatical errors!

Raju Tai: Apart from drawing and dancing, I’ve found plant-watering, tea-making, and body-stretching to be fantastic foreplay to writing sessions.

                                      Journal d’Ambroisie:  What book or author has had the biggest influence on your writing style?

Reema Ahmad: Just too many to name, honestly. I don’t even know if I have a distinct style. I know that I write a lot from the body and reading a lot of poetry has helped with that. Mary Oliver, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Anne Sexton, Naguib Mahfouz, Margaret Atwood made lasting impressions. I remember reading Ismat Chughtai and Virginia Woolf in college and being blown away. To see people write so freely, that was moving. My teacher Bhavana Nissima’s style, which is often rule-bending, has really shaped my thoughts. I don’t know if any of this comes out in how I write. I need to write more to find out. My first book was nonfiction and I just relied on how I wanted to be read (as a friendly co-traveller just sharing experiences) to guide me.

Raju Tai: So many, it’s a galaxy of authors, poets, comedians, and rappers. But who can forget the first people who make words feel enchanted and capable of magic? For me, it was the poets Arun Kolatkar and Meena Kandasamy. I read them in college with my friends and was stunned by the games they played in their multilingual poetic imagination, entangling the city, feminism, caste, and love in what felt like a unique Indian English writing. Since last year, I've been obsessed with the poetry of Melissa Studdard and the rap of Srushti Tawade for their incredible soundscapes and images. 

…………..

As an educator and an advocate for Inclusion, I often told my little learners, “Imagine how boring the world would be if we only had one flavour of ice cream?”

Imagine.

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Reema Ahmad - top

Raju Tai- bottom

Bio. (Sanobar Sabah) 

 

Sanobar Sabah, a marketing and communications specialist, found her love for writing personal essays in her early 40s. Besides Journal D'Ambroisie, her essays have been featured in Newsweek, Memoir Land, Ochre Sky Stories, FemAsia, Fiery Scribe Review, and RIC Journal. She is frequently found challenging patriarchy and the idea of perfection on Substack and Instagram.

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