"Ella’s Choice is a children’s mental book about consent and boundaries, that allows parents to discuss these topics with their children at a very young age (3+). The book guides parent through these discussions and instills a sense of responsibility to practice what they read together. It allows kids to think about emotional and physical boundaries, how to ask for permission around touch, and also learn about empathy. The book helps families answer questions that children bring up, with the help of a reader’s guide at the end of the book and start thinking about new ways of behaving at home. "
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What made you decide to become a psychiatrist?
My curiosity was always to understand the human body inside out, which is why I went into medicine. Ultimately I was drawn into understanding the mind and the human psyche. I have been exposed to so much intergenerational trauma from a very young age, so it is impossible to pinpoint when exactly my curiosity was sparked. As a child I was left confused by the unimaginable ways the war affected us as refugees. I was terrified by the domestic violence and suffering I witnessed. My curiosity deepened with the psychology courses I took in university and during my medical school year. That was just the start of understanding mental illness.
Why did you decide to focus on PTSD & Trauma Therapy?
This relates to the previous question. As I started to specialize in psychiatry, I starting focusing on PTSD because of the stories I heard about civil war in Sri Lanka since I was a little girl. My mother always said that we as the diaspora have the responsibility to give back to those that are caught in the war. She instilled a sense of responsibility in me at an early age. I want to help women and children because they are disproportionately more affected by interpersonal trauma (i.e. trauma caused by one human to another, instead of the trauma of a natural disaster or accidents). Risk factors for trauma really start in childhood and it is important to remember that we need to intervene at an early age.
Congrats on the launch of your book “Ella’s Choice”! What made you decide to write this book?
In both in my professional and personal life, I have had to support children and adults that were victims of childhood abuse. So after spending years treating trauma patients, and seeing how trauma affects people’s ability to trust and attach to others, I really started to think about how to intervene at an early stage, and at a larger scale. Working on a preventative model is so important. That’s how Ella’s Choice came together.
Ella’s Choice is a children’s mental book about consent and boundaries, that allows parents to discuss these topics with their children at a very young age (3+). The book guides parent through these discussions and instills a sense of responsibility to practice what they read together. It allows kids to think about emotional and physical boundaries, how to ask for permission around touch, and also learn about empathy. The book helps families answer questions that children bring up, with the help of a reader’s guide at the end of the book and start thinking about new ways of behaving at home.
I am very fortunate to be able to combine my personal experience, my understanding of attachment and trauma and my desire to help children and pour it all into this book. But truly, motherhood and my little girl’s boundless personality, is what gave me the confidence and motivation to finally make it come alive.
What kind of feedback have you heard from readers? What kind of impact are you hoping that it has?
The feedback has been really touching. Many parents find that this is a good way to introduce this very difficult topic to really young children. Readers are becoming more aware of giving their children choices with the day to day thing such as getting dressed, awareness around their bodies, and modelling good boundaries at home. The age old request to be asked to hug people we don’t know is being broken down. The book is about inclusivity and diversity.
Readers have told me that having a brown protagonist really helps their children. It is important to have characters that look like you represented in all forms of media. In addition, one parent told me I empowered her child to think she can be a writer. BIPOC writers are really important because again representation and the sense that we aren’t limited to a single career path is important.
I am donating the book to hospital units, foster homes, children with developmental delays, schools, libraries and children under the supervision of Children’s Aid society so even the most vulnerable children can be reached. One of the teachers in Sri Lanka who received the donated books told me that her students are struggling financially and that she does storytelling as part of her lessons so that they have access to literature.
When children experience abuse or bullying, they tend to feel shame and self-blame, and the perpetrators often threaten them to keep silent. This often results in repeated and long-term trauma, and as adults the question “Why didn’t you tell me right away” always comes up. This can often lead to resentment in relationships and let alone all the consequential disruptions in mental health.
The goal of Ella’s Choice is to raise children that are aware of their boundaries and that of others, and learn to be respectful. At the same time if someone crosses those boundaries, they would be more comfortable reaching out for help from their parents because they would have already established these discussions through the book.
How long did it take you to write this book? What was the most challenging part about the journey?
It took me ten months to get it published. The most challenging part was to make it inclusive and appealing to a broad age range 3-12 (perhaps even younger). It had to be simple enough for a young child, but also engaging and valuable to an older child. In addition, I had to address parents/care providers in the reader’s guide and foreword without using language that could be considered triggering, so children could read it on their own as well. At the same time, the language used has to explain trauma language without using medical jargon.
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What advice would you give to someone out there considering writing a book?
One of my favourite quote is ‘“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” By Maya Angelou. So my advice would be “Just do it BUT don’t skimp on a professional EDITOR!!!”
Do you feel like social media is a necessary “evil” in the line of work that you do? Has it been useful as a networking tool or generating opportunities for you?
Social media is not a necessary evil for psychiatry, I had a private profile with just friends and family for many years. It’s a choice I made to reach more people with the knowledge I have, and my love to create things, that has now been converted into social medical content that is more digestible. It has been especially helpful to reach the Tamil Community who really appreciate having another psychiatrist that speaks Tamil in our community. I have been able to connect people to resources in the GTA when they reach out to me.
As an author, it absolutely is a necessary evil. It has been incredibly powerful, I have met amazing people, and continue to do so. Many people in the Tamil community have come forward to support me a Tamil author, which has been so humbling and such a wonderful way to connect. And so yes, it has created a lot of opportunities in term of getting the word about the book out there and people reaching out to have books donated to their organization/ vulnerable children.
What role has your family played in the choices that you’ve made in your life so far?
My family is pretty much my driving force behind everything; certainly my sense of family, love and also really supporting me through my career. I have a very large family (5 siblings) and as we grow our bond just keeps getting stronger and they are the people I can always fall back on. They cheer me on tirelessly, and are so proud of me. My sisters are my best friends.
What do you do outside of work for fun?
I love keeping up with current fashion, dolling up my sisters or my daughter, going for drinks with my girl friends, play soccer, skiing, running, hiking, swimming, really anything active, travelling (sigh before the pandemic), reading, always curious to try new things.
What is an insecurity you have?
Imposter syndrome. Being part of the medical community as a person from an ethnic minority, while being raised with a fear of authority, leaves me vulnerable. I believe in my work to the very core, yet despite my best intentions being on social media does make me feel at times like I am tooting my own horn.
In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?
I want to be remembered as someone who made others feel seen and loved.
What do you think you would tell 16-year Gaiathry looking back?
“Everything is going to be OK” and “Be nicer to yourself!”
If you work hard, love hard and have integrity, life will be good, despite it’s ups and downs.
How would you describe your dream life?
The life I live now is something I have always dreamed of. I can’t think of much more than perhaps a larger family and a pet. My career dreams are endless (e.g. to keep growing, keep teaching, and keep writing more, etc.).
What is your favourite book(s) you’ve read recently and why?
“What happened to you” by Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Perry. I love reading books on trauma and PTSD that are not necessary text books. It gives me ideas on how to create digestible content for my Instagram account. I feel that making PTSD/ trauma information accessible and understandable is a key ingredient to create awareness and get people on the right treatment course, early on.
What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?
Meditation has improved my life more than anything. I have been practicing meditation for almost a decade now, but I had to mention it because it is just so important. A newer skill would be completing tasks that take less than 2 minutes, immediately. It has really helped me with procrastination.
If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?
Children: Love them, feed them, house them, educate them! I truly believe in the saying “Children are our future”, and for me there is no better investment. I would probably create my own Ashram and work at it hands on in improving children’s life trajectory and teach yoga & meditation as if they were essential life skills.
What kind of impact has the Canadian Tamil community had on you professionally and personally?
I feel very connected to my community, and I think without realizing it, they are the ones that motivated me to become a psychiatrist and eventually focus on PTSD. I have met so many amazing and talented people, that are so driven, and dream for a better life for the community as a whole. I think that seeing how the war contributed to intergenerational trauma, really drove me to write Ella’s Choice so that the next generation of Tamil Children have a true chance at better mental health than the preceding generations.
What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?
My mom’s crab curry.
What is your favourite Tamil movie?
What does Tamil culture mean to you?
Tamil culture to me means family, community, art, tradition, progress, rich culture, grief, trauma, loss of identity, and re-building.
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