‘Gila’, frank accounts of the hellish world of mental illness

‘Gila: A journey through moods and madness’ is a compilation of short stories by Hanna Alkaf.

PETALING JAYA: “It can be a nice hell sometimes but usually it is painful”

Despite its frivolous title, this book is not for the faint of heart. It covers suicide, abuse, neglect, isolation and that very specific exhaustion that mental illness brings to all it touches.

The book contains fourteen loaded chapters covering the four major mental illnesses in Malaysia – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression.

The disclaimer leaves the readers with a gentle yet heavy reminder that all the individuals featured in the book are real. And that their stories are achingly true.

At age 11, one girl tries to take her life in the prayer room of her school; the only other person there tells her, “God will send you to hell for this.”

With its 141 pages, each chapter grabs at the heartstrings with a small, desperate hand.

The readers are introduced to a psychiatrist who learns the true meaning of “being sane” after treating an Iranian couple at the end of their rope.

In the chapter “Who Cares for the Caregiver?”, readers share the predicament and exasperation of a mother of a schizophrenic girl, who has to endure “helpful” advice from well-meaning, but ultimately misguided relatives who recommend everything from flower baths to exorcisms.

Conversely, readers are shown the power of just having “faith” when all else seems to crumble around those battling mental illness.

Meet university student Veera, who suffers constant headaches (“Is it a tumour?” she worries), struggles to keep her meals down (“Do I have cancer?” she thinks to herself) and is afraid to wander too far from her home just in case she faints or drops dead with no hospitals nearby.

Despite the unrelenting insomnia and creeping numbness in her hands and feet, Veera never doubts that God loves her. And it is this faith that ultimately keeps Veera grounded – when just before she had to literally hold on to the walls to keep from feeling like she was “flying away”.

The testimonies read without pretence, and one almost gets the sense that the person suffering is someone you know, like a neighbour or an old classmate – familiar, but also distant.

Author Hanna Alkaf gives it to the readers straight, as the horror of the situation unveils itself slowly and honestly. Hanna has over 10 years of experience as a journalist, and in 2014, tackled the issue of postpartum depression.

During Hanna’s research, a new mother confessed to her that along with depression, irritability and stress, she had delusions about her baby girl. The mother recalled matter-of-factly that she would wake up in the middle of the night convinced that her daughter had three eyes, and heard voices in her head telling her to kill the child.

More baffling still is that this woman and her husband never considered seeking professional help.

This set Hanna on a journey of investigating why certain people seek help and others do not, even in clearly dangerous situations.

Gila reveals what community looks like to some, the limits of love without science, and what not to say to a mentally ill person. (“Dia gila, kan?”)

This book almost goes right out and begs society to be more considerate of the words carelessly uttered in everyday life. Why is a movie never described as “leukemia bad” or mentally ill patients as “cancer people”?

This compilation of eye-opening stories will make you think twice the next time you want to utter statements like “really depressed” or “bipolar much”.

From the padded cells of Tanjung Rambutan to the glossy apartments of Petaling Jaya, Hanna’s “Gila” reads not as an academic work (as stated in the introduction), but rather as an exercise in human empathy.

The book offers no easy solutions. Hanna makes the issue of mental illness no less complex. However, readers can expect a haunting and hopeful experience and a whole new way of looking at the issue of mental illness and the very people who plod through life weighed down by it.

“Gila: A journey through moods and madness” by Gerakbudaya Enterprise, retails at RM25 and is available in all major bookstores nationwide.