One thing this decade has taught us, like many decades before it: truth is dangerous. The quiet act of putting pen to paper, words on a page, releases tremors that travel far, and won’t be suppressed easily – even if the author himself is eliminated from the equation. Though this blog stands testament to my love for writing, I cannot say that I have the courage of some of the truly impactful writers of our time. It is a formidable thing to even speak of their names: individuals like Kate Adie, the veteran journalist who reported from warzones across the world in the 80s and 90s, or the indelible Jamal Khashoggi, who was targeted for his forthright critiques of the Saudi regime. It’s also about those who don’t fight on the front-line, but whose stories drape over their missiles of truth with the costume of metaphor. As Atwood puts it, their power lies in that they make us believe in an “imaginary garden”, while always remembering that the “toads in it” are all too real.
Most have heard of these names, celebrated martyrs as they are for the cause of justice and free expression. Their legacy has been discussed extensively elsewhere. Keeping them in the background, though, this post is a candle lit for the voices that are less commonly heard or understood – those people whose strength manifests on the grounds that hit closest to home, but whose stories are brushed under the carpet of stigma and shame.
Let me use the power of writing down the truth, then, in this end of year/end of decade post. This is for the literal few hundred million people suffering from mental illness around the world right now.
I dedicate this post especially to one among them who did not let her pain go to waste: Shaheen Bhatt. How do I do justice to her, or the sheer relevance of the struggle against depression that she has painstakingly recorded in her memoirs, the book ‘I’ve Never Been (Un) Happier’? I will say this – I am only capable of sharing what I do here because of people like her, who held up their lantern and walked into the unknown, lighting the way for others to follow.
It is like having heavy chains wrapped squeezing the muscles of your heart and snaking up your throat. It is a bottomless hole into which your body and mind as you know it is being sucked in. It is waking up and finding that every movement and thought feels like sandpaper on skin. This, with no exaggeration, has been more or less my experience of every day since some point in early October 2018. I prefer to keep away from labels; I don’t want to get too comfortable with this reality. However, for ease of reference in this article, I will refer to my symptoms as they are called in the Western medical world – I have severe generalised anxiety, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder, a subset of anxiety), and clinical depression.
I know I cannot be alone in feeling this. India, China and the United States, the most populous countries in the world, lose the greatest number of years of life to disability or death caused by mental illness (this metric has been adjusted for population size). You may not know the feeling I am talking about. I certainly didn’t for a long time – I was always a worrisome child, but I never knew the life-changing scale of what anxiety and depression could do to a person. This I discovered once most of my waking hours were spent crying or being tearful, feeling that something inside me was incredibly broken. Just around that time, fate would have that I met someone who made me feel a way that I had never felt before. I was consumed by unrequited love, at a juncture of my life when it was least welcome, with final exams coming up in June 2019 and a severe lack of self-esteem.
I trace it back to these stressors in hindsight, but ultimately, I cannot say that anyone save for myself was responsible. When I tried to focus on studying, the one place where I used to feel in my element, the words blurred, and anxiety stood between me and the work like a thick glass wall. For so long I had learnt that I could rely on my brain, to get good grades, comfort myself, accomplish my will – now it had turned against me, firing obsessive-compulsive thoughts that questioned the very core of my identity. There was a constant pang of guilt welling up in every cell of my body that something bad was about to happen because of me. I saw horrific, flashing images of the possibilities tumbling around my brain until I was begging for escape – through sleep, or through death, or by complying with the enemy in my head that was filled with pure self-loathing. Moreover, anyone experiencing depression and anxiety can tell you that mind and body are intensely linked; it wasn’t long before my jeans were too loose to fit me, my appetite having dwindled to nothing. I had somehow done this to myself and I did not know how to undo it – that was the bitter fact to swallow. For better or for worse, nobody else had the answer. I spent ages thinking, where did I go wrong?
I still don’t know the answer to that question; all I know is that these were my circumstances in the first three months I was diagnosed. The article truly begins here – its purpose is not to gather sympathy or attention but tell you about what happened when I stayed with that story and saw it through, even when I wanted to put down a big full stop.
I found it humiliating, explaining what was happening in my private life to a complete stranger who apparently thought themselves qualified to call themselves my psychiatrist. Taking medications to solve a problem of the mind was an alien concept to me, seeming like the first step towards me being fitted with a straitjacket and sent to an asylum. Then there was the round of therapists, some whom I struggled to connect to, others who were variable in how helpful they could be. My family was like the average family, only vaguely aware of mental illness happening to the odd sprinkling of celebrities – a tragedy of some sort that, like most problems of the world, didn’t affect us. My depression and anxiety came into the family like a whirlwind, wreaking chaos in its path. It was a long time before they could understand what put me in so much pain and why I couldn’t simply ‘snap out of it’.
I wouldn’t believe you if you said I would not only get an offer from Oxford in January of that year, but also come out with 4 A*s in my A-levels. For context, let me describe to you a scene from my last-minute revision in those days: my mother is sat next to me, repeating the same question once again. I’m sat next to her, unhearing, as if a body without a spirit. When I speak, my voice comes out weak, as if it had been locked for many years in a glass jar. She changes tactics, getting me to do some breathing exercises, for the third time in the same hour. Sometimes I answer her questions through tears, sometimes I’m doubled over like something has hit me in the stomach – this is my body in fight-or-flight as a result of a misfiring of neurons. It tightens my every muscle as if ready to run away from danger, even though there is none in my immediate circumstances. As you can imagine, forcing myself to study under the constant influence of these symptoms of anxiety had become almost unbearable.
But you know what? I hung on. I hung on because of my devoted and extremely caring family, who, despite their difficulties in coming to terms with what I was going through, never left my side. There were times, up until the last few days till I was due to be flying to Oxford, when I was ready to give up. I wanted to sit at home for the next year or so instead of going to university. I was settling for less. I believed I was not worth it. In those times my family had their doubts, of course – they wanted me to be safe – but they pushed me onwards, believing in me when I had stopped believing in myself. I hung on because I could speak to my teachers when my family were burned out from the effort of supporting me through an illness that changes not only the life of the one who is affected, but also that of their loved ones. They listened to me and showed that they genuinely cared about my wellbeing as a person, even though they may not have had all the solutions. I hung on because of those friends who made the effort to check that I was okay even while juggling their own countless responsibilities. I also hung on because of those complete strangers I was complaining about – my therapists and psychiatrist – who were my guides to this unknown and confusing world of mental illness. I hung on because of people who had stepped forward to share their stories virtually and in person – those who kept going even though every second of their day was a living nightmare in their heads. I hung on because of the kindness of strangers, which is not a small gift. I hung on, finally, to respect the lives we have lost to suicide, and to show depression that it cannot break us.
Do I have a solution? No. This is still my reality, though I have made some progress over the past two years through therapy and medication. Most importantly, I have found the willingness to recover. I now know how to calm myself when the anxiety hits and engage with life, even when depression makes me want to hide underneath the covers forever. In a way, this is a letter, addressed to myself, and to anyone who reads this and has ever felt something near it – and if there is anything it has to say, it is this: please keep going, no matter how hard it gets, simply for the sake of seeing the story to its natural end. Even if your only contribution to the world is to inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide for the plants. Even if, like me, you must remind yourself to live – out of awe and respect for the intelligence that causes even the smallest living being, no matter in how much pain, to fight for the next breath.