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Khushboo Sharma

IWB Blogger

‘The Schizophrenist’ Reshma Valliappan Channelized The Voices Inside Her Head Into Profound Art

  • IWB Post
  •  February 19, 2019

Trigger warning: Mental health, Self-harm, Suicide

“They think I am stupid. I am not. I am crazy. There is a difference,” says artist and mental health advocate Reshma Valliappan.

Reshma ran off her house in Malaysia at the age of 14 because that’s what the “voices inside her head” bade. Thus, the family name was tarnished and the entire family found their way back to India in 1996.

For a past couple of years, a lot of conversation has been built around mental health, especially anxiety and depression. But how many of us can define schizophrenia today? Just a handful, right?  Now rewind back to 2002. Forget pronounce and comprehend terms like schizophrenia, back then even depression was something that wasn’t discussed beyond hushed voices.

The year 200s was when Reshma was diagnosed with schizophrenia. By then the family had already seen a lot of Reshma’s eccentric behaviour and the diagnosis just made it worse. Thus, she was put in the hospital and on a lot of medicines. “I could hardly talk, but I still heard the voices, I just couldn’t react to them. I just couldn’t function after the medicines, I felt like they made me stupid,” Reshma tells me.

After a while, she couldn’t take it and started quitting medication every three months which is a common practice among people with schizophrenia with highly developed personalities. Reshma shares, “I would smoke a lot, lock myself in rooms and resort to drugs. All this just made it worse.”

Reshma started self-harming too and attempted to kill herself on a number of occasions. There was no help or support from outside the family and people distanced themselves from Reshma’s family. Her father lost all hope and her mom began to think that her daughter was possessed or something.

“There came a point when my father thought of killing the entire family and killing me with it,” Reshma recollects.

It was Reshma’s voices that finally came to her rescue. “One day I was sitting in my room with my younger sister and I got up and collected all my art material and started painting. The voices inside my head asked me to paint, they were so loud I couldn’t refuse,” she shares.

Death has many names. Some call death a She some a He. People often remark to my faith or spiritual notions of life. But when you’ve transgressed through several lifetimes of suffering in one life – and returned from this place called death, there can be no other word for it – but faith. Faith isn’t God nor is it a religion. Faith is not just a blind believe. Faith is a very individualised personal response to something only you can ever experience. It does not need a herd complex or a mass following nor does it need prove or validation from another. To me death has been my faith and fate. It has struck me even before schizophrenia and so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that is definitely has influenced the kind of thoughts that begin surfacing with my experience of schizophrenia. In fact, schizophrenia was only my 2nd step of it…an initiation, not one but of many – as when one walks through the gate of death all doors are either illuminated or become an illusion. The process of my sequel is a long one mostly based on the fear of many things Women Unlimited/Kali for Women , though it’s going on. The pleasures of death Acrylic on canvas 30″ x 40″ (Not for bid) #vibrartz #schizophreniaartists #death #artistsoninstagram #acrylicsoncanvas #theschizophrenist #valresh #reshmavalliappan #visualhallucinations #faith #neardeathexperience #aghori #pleasures #fear #samsara is what #life seduces you into

76 Likes, 6 Comments – Val Resh (@valresh) on Instagram: “Death has many names. Some call death a She some a He. People often remark to my faith or…”


Reshma finished the painting, went to the kitchen, drank a glass and told her mom that she wanted something to eat. Her parents were left surprised. All this while Reshma had found it difficult to even walk and talk and fetching her own glass of water appeared like a big leap. Her father immediately rushed to the nearby stationary store, purchased lots of art material and said, “Paint if that’s what your voices ask.”

That was the first time after years that they spent two hours as a family. She didn’t fall asleep and could actually talk to them.

From there on Reshma started exploring the artwork. “The voices got stronger. The art material came as a rescue. I would tear them, break them, throw them but I would also create with them. The voices were like an irritating child. Once I started paying attention to them they stopped irritating me.”

When everything in life concerning my work around #mentalhealthadvocacy and #changemaking does not feel fulfilling at so many levels – I’m glad I’ve got my #art to fall back upon. Just knowing it is one thing I can say is over, finished, done with …as opposed to the never ending dilemma of #mentalhealthadvocacy being a constant initiative when living with #schizophrenia Trippy Giraffe (still looking for a better title)! Size A3 Gel pens on paper #gelpen #gelpenart #gelpenartwork #blackpaperart #giraffe #giraffeart #giraffeartwork #africacalling #dreamart #starrygiraffe #constellation #theschizophrenist #schizophreniaartists #dreamworld #holdingon #findingmeagain #mentalhealthartist #livinglifemyway #beinghappy #difficulties #invisibleillness #invisibleconditions #artforsale #artforsalebyartist #artforsaleonline

68 Likes, 2 Comments – Val Resh (@valresh) on Instagram: “When everything in life concerning my work around #mentalhealthadvocacy and #changemaking does not…”


Right from an inability to even control her bladder to creating something, the process of making art began healing her gradually. Reshma’s relationship with art actually dated back to her school days.

She was always a troublemaker and would carry knives to school which she used to carve images and draw on the school furniture. She’d often mess up and would get punished by her teachers. It was her art teacher who found a constructive way of channelizing Reshma’s energy. She would ask her to mend what she’d destroy and that helped her a lot but all of that stopped when they moved to India in 1996. Art again came back to her life after a difficult struggle with schizophrenia.

Art slowly started manifesting itself in all aspects of her life, her tattoos being one of them. I couldn’t help but ask the story behind her tattoos and Reshma was happy to share. “Most of them are manifestations of my voices. They are neither a gesture of rebellion or for fashion, and all of them are very metaphorical and symbolic. I have a lot of goddess Kali symbols on my body representing the female warrior.”

I wear the Goddess Ganeshnani again and this time on my hand. A lost female deity as it is with most of the divine feminine – this gives the middle finger an entirely new meaning. I call it “fuck your obstacles” 😎 The magic etched onto my skin is by @jarlathtourishtattoo #redefiningmadness #divinefeminine #hearingvoices #tattoos #ornamentaltattoo #jarlathtourishtattoo

123 Likes, 9 Comments – Val Resh (@valresh) on Instagram: “I wear the Goddess Ganeshnani again and this time on my hand. A lost female deity as it is with…”


While she cherishes them all, there are two tattoos which she calls her favourite. “One is the tattoo of Vigneshwari, which is the female version of Lord Ganesha. It stands for the goddess way of looking at things – finding out a solution and thinking what can I do about a situation instead of fretting about it. Plus the trunk right on my middle finger and comes in handy (laughs). The other one is my Pinocchio. That tattoo is like my alter ego. It represents the child in me. It being a puppet also symbolically represents the human truth: aren’t we all our own puppet masters?”

It is Reshma’s art which is both a way of expression as well as healing for her. What she did with the voices inside her head is indeed Reshma’s advice to everyone struggling with the same – “If you cannot fight them, join them!”

Working design for 2018 summer edition Tshirts . Quote specifically catered to #voicehearers #schizophrenia #mentaldisorder #psychosis and #redefiningmadness ! Signature quote used in all talks and published work under my legal name #reshmavalliappan :) Let me know what you think. I cannot print in bulk so limitations on range of products which will be made available however I’m open to creative enterprising suggestions ! #business #art #mentalhealth #schizophreniaawareness #shamanism #nature #workingdesign #valresh #new #tshirts #summertime #summer #tshirts #tshirtlovers

103 Likes, 11 Comments – Val Resh (@valresh) on Instagram: “Working design for 2018 summer edition Tshirts . Quote specifically catered to #voicehearers…”


Isn’t that very simple life logic? Then why didn’t the psychiatrists who were busy numbing her senses through medication come up with it is Reshma’s concern?

“Instead I was told that hearing voices is wrong, that it was a wrong experience, that perhaps it made me less of a human and why? You don’t tell that to someone suffering from cancer, right? I was continuously told that there was something wrong with me and I was delusional. What about our society? You worship a God with an elephant head! You worship nine goddesses but rape and abuse your women and I was the only delusional one. I was the one whose abilities were being questioned,” raises Reshma.

Reshma pinpoints the problem in the way mental health is approached in our country. “The history of mental health in our country is inspired from colonial mindsets. All that we read about it or know about it comes from Freud, Jung or similar sources. It is a system well wrought from Catholicism, consumerism and capitalism. Imagine all of us have decided to believe in some hypotheses made in 1920 or so!”

While the Western world has gradually started subscribing to practices like Yoga, Reiki, Buddhism etc., we are still stuck where we were a century ago.

My first introduction to Hinduism as a kid begin with Lord Ganesh or Vigneshwara. I wondered why it had to be a man with the elephant head and a pot belly. Why couldn’t it be a woman? But I was too young to know what I was questioning as a toddler. In an adult form, now I can create my own version of Her. Om Vignanaashnay Namaha Vigneshwari, the beginning. Pen on paper A3 For sale. USD 150. Inbox if interested :) #ganapatya #tantra #ganapatyas #ganeshpurana #ganesh #vigneshwara #artforsale #religion #hinduism #artistsoninstagram #artwork #art #schizophreniaartists #theschizophrenist #earlyyears #voices #mythology #cellogelpen #artonblackpaper #godsandgoddesses #hinduism #goldsilverpink #artistsoninstagram #artforsale #artforsalebyartist #artforsaleonline #artforsaleoninstagram #artforthesoul

91 Likes, 10 Comments – Val Resh (@valresh) on Instagram: “My first introduction to Hinduism as a kid begin with Lord Ganesh or Vigneshwara. I wondered why it…”


Reshma says, “We are like that stubborn modern kid who just wouldn’t listen to his mom till we find out that she indeed was the right all along. Social media today is busy preaching us about mental health. Recently came the idea from the Western world to teach about mental illness in schools. Everyone was like Oh wow! We must do it!”

“But imagine teaching 12-year-olds about the symptoms of ADHD or schizophrenia. They are going through changes and ought to be restless. They will continuously monitor their restlessness. That girl who loves to look out of the window during the class would stop doing that. They will start pathologizing everything. That kid speaking to himself would shut that voice. Even though it is now believed that kids with imaginary friends develop better social and problem-solving skills with heightened creativity. How is this going to help?”

Reshma believes that this feverish drive to create awareness about mental health is going to create another epidemic. With so many posts on social media about anxiety and depression don’t you often find yourself wondering if you have depression even when it’s a minor fallout and just that? Social media is selling it to us and we are subscribing to it ASAP.

Reshma, when she raises it all, does not dismiss the presence of depression and the need to address it. What she condemns is the need to categorize and segregate. Mental health, just like your physical health, can go astray and that is how it should be approached.

In schizophrenia’s case with just 200 years of documented history and no concrete and well-proved hypothesis how are we so fast to judge and categorize when we are not even sure of its foundations. This is what concerns Reshma.

This is why she founded The Red Door. The vision of the foundation goes like, “We wish to spread the message that life experiences, individual differences, spiritual believes, psychological make ups should not be classified as symptoms of a disease or illness that require treatment. We wish to see lay people as being the social change that accepts and nurtures anyone who is different in behaviour, thought and emotions, in turn reducing stigma and discrimination that exist.”

“When you are sitting on a chair, you think you are sitting on wood. I think you are sitting on a tree. I see the essence of it that’s how I see my schizophrenia,” Reshma says. She adds, “I think I was made to make sense of it, to get a different perspective of it and share it with the world. What if it is not a mental illness. What if it is something else? What if I have the voices for a reason?”


First published on Jun 27, 2018.

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