Embracing identity: An inspirational journey with Bhavna Raithatha

20 December 2023
Chaithra MJ Written by Chaithra MJ
Chaithra MJ

Chaithra MJ

Chaithra is a freelance content writer with a love for existentialism. She is passionate about...

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In a world where diverse identities are still being understood and accepted, the experience of an LGBTQ+ individual in the field of psychotherapy and advocacy is both difficult and inspiring.

In our conversation, Bhavna Raithatha, a seasoned psychotherapist with an experience spanning more than 30 years, shares her personal journey of coming out, the impact of trauma, and the significance of mental health awareness within organizations. Bhavna is also a is an experienced Critical Incident Debriefer whose clients include genocide survivors, refugees, and organizations that have lost staff to terrorist attacks, suicides, and fatalities.

Bhavna’s transformation from a a difficult childhood touched by bereavement and racism in a new country to becoming a source of hope and change for many not only represents her own narrative but also mirrors the broader struggles and victories of the LGBTQ+ community. From facing personal challenges related to identity and societal norms to advocating for mental health and LGBTQ+ rights, Bhavna’s story demonstrates resilience and empowerment.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Can you tell us about your journey into psychotherapy and coaching? Where did all of this start? Was it always a childhood dream of yours or did you stumble upon it in your adulthood?

I was born in Tanzania, East Africa, and moved to the UK when I was eight and a half years old. The transition was challenging because of the racism and a significant culture shock. I was raised in a Tanzanian culture, attended a Catholic convent school, and grew up in a Hindu household.

When I was nine years old, there was a phone call early in the morning and all I remember is hearing my mom screaming – my dad had passed away due to a heart attack. 

As a child, I felt powerless but compelled to do something. I took on the role of a husband and a reliable support for my mother, even after my stepdad came into our lives.

I was driven by a subconscious fear that I might die young, like my father who passed away at 32. So I wanted to become a heart surgeon to prevent others from experiencing the loss. 

However, I switched to Psychology counseling training at 19, despite being told I was too young and lacked life experience, as I struggled with maths. I faced a terrifying experience with a stalker who threatened to douse me in petrol. This, along with other incidents of racism, bullying, and confusion about my sexual orientation, made me pursue Psychology.

How was your teaching experience?

Entering the teaching field was a bit of an unplanned journey for me. After college, I was given the chance to teach Psychology. My first experience was quite challenging. I walked into a room filled with three classes worth of students, all adult returners to education who were visibly angry. 

It’s incredibly rewarding to see people grow and that light of understanding in their eyes. The group I lectured, despite being older than me, taught me a great deal. They came from diverse, often challenging backgrounds. I stayed with this group for two years, helping them progress from struggling with literacy to achieving merits and distinctions, with many going on to university. 

My students would confide in me about things like having their third abortion or being abused and certain lessons would trigger memories for them. This was incredibly challenging for me, especially as I was still developing my skills as a therapist.

Fortunately, the courses I had completed equipped me to offer them support. I could signpost them to additional help and, most importantly, hold space for them.

Bhavna Raithatha

I learned the transformative power of simply being present and being a good listener. In these moments, my goal wasn’t to fix their problems but to be fully present and share in their grief. We grieved together for the loss of their innocence, their childhood, and the horrors they had faced. This experience was a profound lesson in the importance of empathy and support in the educational setting.

One memorable moment in my career was when I was returning final assessments to a class. There was one student who had struggled but managed to earn a distinction. She jumped on her chair and table, running around with her arms outstretched like an airplane, overwhelmed with excitement. This moment was significant, especially considering her background as a widowed mother who had been told she wouldn’t amount to anything. Witnessing her achievement and the impact of my work was profoundly rewarding.

Would you like to share any specific experience during your teaching career?

The year after I took on a new role, something quite bizarre happened. I was conducting interviews for new students, and to my surprise, a girl who had bullied me in the playground years ago was sitting in front of me, applying for the course. 

And I remember that inner child in me that was humiliated and shy coming up and feeling frightened again. But I was telling her nobody will ever touch you again, you are safe.

As I sat with her and I had a choice that day. I could have chosen revenge by denying her a place on the course, or I could deal with my own emotions and move forward.

And I said you know what? Let’s move on because I don’t know what has happened in their lives to have behaved that way. It allowed me to have empathy.

I decided to park my issues and take care of myself, recognizing that it was my responsibility to manage my reactions. Despite being in a position of power, I chose to accept her onto the course.

During the interview, she recognized me and apologized. She was visibly uncomfortable, but I assured her that everything would be alright and that we would do everything to support her. I can look back on that experience with pride. I had a choice and I made the right one because I can’t imagine destroying somebody’s life after they’d mustered the courage to apply and get her life back on track. I couldn’t bear the thought of having such a negative impact on someone’s life.

As a psychotherapist with a lot of experience, has your modality or philosophy changed or evolved over the years? Did you have to unlearn things?

Yes, my modality has changed. I trained as an integrative humanistic counselor and psychotherapist, and as I mentioned earlier, I have a deep passion for research. But I realized that I had to unlearn much of what I had been taught. I found that the conventional methods were constraining me, to the point where I felt like I was in chains. For a long time, I was plagued with fear – fear of making a mistake, fear of making a wrong intervention, and above all, fear that I might inadvertently traumatize a client.

So I had to unlearn a huge amount and actually learn how to be in communion with another human being.

We are not broken, we are all responding or reacting to the situation we find ourselves in in life in whatever role we play.

If you can connect heart to heart, not in a sexual or intimate way, but if you can connect with someone and see their person, that is huge. That is all we want. If you think about why people do what they do, they want to be seen. They want to know that you see them. They want to be able to say, “I see you, you see me, I am seen.”

I want to kind of tap into your journey into LGBTQ+ because I’m sure coming out was not so easy back in the day.

In school I was reprimanded by my headmistress about my sexuality which made me extremely ashamed. Later I was married to a wonderful young man but after a point I decided I will stop lying to myself. I was in therapy for two years to figure out. I realized I can’t hold on to him because of my fears. I have to free myself but I have to free him so that he can find somebody else and get on with his life. It was absolutely horrific.

Embracing identity: An inspirational journey with Bhavna Raithatha

My mother didn’t talk to me, my father was on the fence but my brothers were supportive. They were like  – “Bravo why did it take you so long. You know whatever you decide we’ve got your back and we love you.” At 32, my world completely wiped out and I had to start again, but I am glad I did.

As an Indian lesbian woman and as a psychotherapist I’m sure you and your patients have faced significant challenges and discrimination. Would you like to talk about it?

The challenges I face are primarily the difficulties in getting on the right platforms. The possibility for new blood in this area is tough but not impossible, as I’ve spoken at a lot of places. It’s important to be aware that advocating for the LGBTQ+ community involves significant work. I recall reading a post where a Muslim guy came out, and the comment section was filled with rude and horrible remarks. This shows that many people, especially men, have internalized homophobia and are filled with hate.

For those who are struggling and frightened about what others will say, remember that being LGBTQ+ is not a lifestyle choice. We are born this way.

The challenges are numerous, but what I want to celebrate today is the fact that I can sit here, in communion and conversation with you, and you feel free to ask me about my experience of being LGBTQ+. I can respond with pride, passion, and power, owning the fact that I love women.

Humans fear what they do not understand. Is it true in the case of LGBTQ+?

Of course. There’s a lack of understanding about the whole LGBTQ+ movement. Does it feel like a threat to others? Obviously. They’re different and different can be perceived as danger. 

If you’re not fitting the heterosexual, male-dominated norm, you’re seen as a threat to the tribe. And if you’re a threat, there’s a subconscious drive to excommunicate you, stemming from a primal fear that there’s not enough resources to go around. 

We need more educational movies on LGBTQ+ issues. There’s a scarcity of realistic content that reflects our experiences and how it feels to be who we are. We need more representation and a greater emphasis on kindness in our approach to these issues.

What philosophy do you live by?

I am incredibly passionate about mental health and well-being in organizations because it’s absolutely essential. Just last week, I attended a live session on LinkedIn, quite spontaneously. The coach there was addressing listeners from India, advising them to seek help if things get too overwhelming. As I listened, I found myself getting frustrated. My perspective is: don’t wait until it gets too much. Seek help the moment you realize something is wrong or you become aware of an issue. Waiting until you’re at breaking point is too late. By then, you’re often left as an empty vessel, without even the energy to seek the help you need.

This isn’t just a theoretical understanding for me; it’s lived experience, backed by a robust psychological foundation.

How does one do this when they feel lost in life?

We all want to search for hope but sometimes it becomes very bleak and you cannot rely on the outer strength you have to yourself so where do you find that strength?

The strength is within us. It always has been. It always will be.  Just stop for a second and and just pull that energy back into yourself and realize we’ve only got one life. Search for the hero inside yourself, just trusting yourself.

We may feel lost in relation to the world, but we are never lost. Because wherever you go, there you are. Even when the sun is above us, our shadow is around our feet.  So even if you feel lost, look for your shadow. It’ll remind you where you are. It’s important that we recognize who we are.

Embracing identity: An inspirational journey with Bhavna Raithatha

Pull your energy in and for a little while, just set up camp somewhere safe and focus on the bare essentials – eat, drink, rest, you know, look after yourself, go and get a nice massage. Run. Journal. Get creative.  Spend time with friends. 

When we forget who we are, when life beats us so much that we don’t recognize who we are, spend time with people you trust. 

Sing. Dance. Turn inwards to our faith in the loneliest days and it will be okay.

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