– A hopeful survivor
April 2007. I had finished my XIIth Board exams and was trying to figure out my career move post the results. I had topped in my state with the proverbial halo around my head, that follows the declaration of results, a deluge of phone calls and interviews and a rejoicing family in the backdrop.
The three preceding years had been not so pleasant: I had developed an eating disorder, which lasted for an entire year and after recuperating, went through occasional bouts of anxiety attacks. Junior college, teen years and a series of juvenile delinquencies did not allow me to ponder much about those occasional bouts of feeling ‘empty’ and detached. Given the general lack of awareness regarding mind-related disorders, no one in my family, including me, had the slightest idea that I was going through anxiety and related depression.
No, I had not undergone any tragic experience, as is conventionally believed to be the trigger for depression (often confused with mood swings, pre-exam jitters and dismissed as deliberate over thinking as well). Why would a 16-year-old go through depression? Especially a fun-loving, spirited teenager, who is also a good student? Maybe a fight with friends? Or some issues with assignments and marks?
Fortunate enough to have a doting family, which extended to a greater network of indulgent grandparents, uncles and aunts, I tried reaching out to them, albeit rarely, being the extreme introvert that I was and still am. I still remember sitting for hours in the washroom and trying to figure out what that gnawing feeling of emptiness could possibly mean. I would weep and do some compassionate self-talk and then rehearse as to how I could possibly explain and make sense to anybody from the family and let them know that I was not alright. Days, months and years passed.
I graduated from one of the best colleges in the country and by the end of those three seemingly glorious years, had suffered two major bouts of depression, to which neither my family nor friends were privy to. My battle was a lonely one in those initial years. My occasional references to a blank state of mind were usually dismissed as temporary stress and career/performance-centric in nature. Eventually, my coping strategies had grown stronger and somewhere along the journey, I had become a product of the clichéd belief, that there was something inherently wrong with me and that if it was ‘mind-related’, it was definitely abnormal and avoidable.
The silent, at times subconscious battle with myself and the resulting cycle of doubt and reassurance went on.
Until, my life took an unexpected turn in February 2013. One of my closest friends was getting married and the wedding revelry ended with my digestive system going for a toss, a seemingly innocuous bout of acidity. Little did I know that my worst nightmare was drawing closer. In a span of 2-3 days, a bad stomach and fluctuating blood pressure snowballed into an excruciating bout of depression, the worst attack so far. And, that was when I almost gave up. But reaching the threshold of pain, both physically and emotionally, awakened me to the jaundiced perception I had held on to. My mother left no stone unturned to seek medical help and consult a doctor (read psychiatrist). Every member of my family proved to be a fantastic support system. To my utter surprise, even my grandparents were immune from the ‘Log Kya Kahenge’ syndrome. The society, the stigma attached to mental health and its problems and the appalling low levels of awareness: nothing deterred them from standing by my side, rock solid.
Incidentally, Deepika Padukone, one of Bollywood’s most coveted actors, went public with her story of battling depression. Barkha Dutt’s deeply engaging talk show, on mental health, was compelling enough to bust a series of myths. My father, after years of reeling under the impression that depression and emotional lows could be handled and that one has to be strong enough to be emotionally intelligent, had his share of myths busted. My road to recovery had begun but what I realised along the way was far more enlightening.
The realisation had a larger context and was, to a conspicuous extent, generic. We, as a middle class family were (relatively), unfazed by societal norms. The candour with which my mother made regular visits to the doctor and talked about it, (as she would have in case of any other physical ailment) reaffirmed it. But my family’s was a case like any other parents’; dreading the word ‘psychiatrist/psychologist’, wondering about people’s reactions and if they could handle the issue without any kind of professional help.
I was fortunate enough to have a strong support system. But most people don’t. Moreover, in a country like ours, steeped in deep-rooted beliefs, it took a celebrity to come out in public and share her story of battling a mind ailment, to make it acceptable to a layman’s perception of what mental well-being encompasses. For the first time, the awareness level of the public has reached a new high in defining ‘good heath’. The openness of experiences and discussions abound now, are encouraging. But, we have a long way to go.
For example, in Odisha, there are some people who seek the help of exorcists (gunias) instead of psychologists. Others are left in the lurch as medical facilities are inadequate due to shortage of doctors or even medications.
This week is earmarked for spreading mental health awareness by the WHO, with the theme ‘Dignity in Mental Health’. The theme is testimony to the severity of how cynical our view is, when it comes to being healthy. One person out of four is fighting a lonely battle with some kind of a mind-related disorder. Let us do our bit in redefining a healthy state of being, in spreading compassion and giving support to someone who is struggling with the demons within. All it takes is just a phone call, a conversation or some empathy (not sympathy!). And, at times, just a reassuring hug that there’s hope—hope for a better tomorrow.
I sailed through it with dignity. So can you.