It has been just about two years since the ‘diagnosis’. Anxiety disorder and mild depression, I was told. At that time, mild could have been termed apocalyptic and I would have still believed it. You see, it is difficult to find context and grounding when your mind is telling you lies. Even if they are mild lies.
A few weeks before the diagnosis was the episode in my life titled ‘the one with the first panic attack’. It was the day before my proposal presentation. It was a month of snatched sleep, because, procrastination. When the panic attack happened, I believed it was just fatigue and old age which had just exaggerated the regular stress I have before every exam/interview/presentation.
The proposal presentation is actually pretty routine. But try telling your mind that during a panic attack. I was beyond incredibly lucky that my jigar ka tukda was there to take care of me. She stepped out of a meeting, took me to her house, gave me green tea, put me to sleep, cooked dinner, worked on my presentation with me and generally let me be.
This happened a few days after I watched Deepika Padukone’s interview on NDTV in which she spoke about her struggle with mental health. So I even tried to convince myself that I was just in some strange and very, very twisted way trying to subconsciously mirror her mental health issues. I have to be mental to even come up with something so twisted. Wait a minute, I am…oh never mind. Heh.
The first professional I sought help from post the wildly swinging panic attack told me that academic stress can only be a reason if you are a teenager giving your boards. I tried to explain that it was not simply a fear of failing in a presentation and that it was much beyond. I struggled to articulate it then because I did not understand it myself.
It is difficult to find a therapist who understands that depression is political. That I am depressed because the world is patriarchal, casteist, racist and cruel. That the personal is political. That I am depressed because capitalism values productivity and competition and narrow ideas of success. That I am depressed because the neoliberal world has permeated your blood stream and you are constantly given shitty platitudes about ‘even if you are just a sweeper, make sure you are the best sweeper there is’ (the disdain associated with any ‘menial’ labour deserves another post altogether).
Have you noticed how much of your life around you is measured in milestones? That even if you are not a competitive person, you suddenly find yourself comparing yourself to some peer? That if you are consciously someone who wants to avoid the competitive framework, you have to put so much effort to do that?
Living with mental illness is essentially living with an abusive person. Where you are the abuser and the abused. Your ticker of thoughts will constantly throw up everything you have done wrong since you are 2 years old. Self-harm is not just about cutting yourself. The breadth and depth of the ways you learn to harass yourself is rather baffling.
You see, anxiety is a sneaky shape shifter which crawls into your fortress through the cracks. The fortress and defences you have so carefully built. The cracks are your insecurities, your fears, your deep discomforts. Anxiety then shape shifts into a giant magnifying spotlight. For greater visibility, of course.
Anxiety transforms every mirror you look at into the carnival mirrors which distort you. You don’t laugh, you believe it to be true. Your hair is disgusting. You are dripping fat. Your pores are craters. Your eyes are… oh, well, even anxiety can’t do much about me not loving my eyes.
While anxiety is doing its work, depression sneaks in and makes itself comfortable. Depression is a fine powder. It layers everything and yet only you can see it.
Depression covers yours books. You can’t get by a page. Depression covers your sense of humour. Depression makes your bed your best friend and your worst enemy. Because it has sprinkled itself over your bed, too. Except it is the opposite of what the sandman does. Instead of putting you to sleep, it makes you lie awake when you are desperate to sleep. In the dark of the night. Your own personal hell.
Depression is a fine powder. It coats all your memories. You remember the worst of yourself. That time when you were mean to the friend of a friend at the birthday party when you were 6? Prepare to watch that scene in your mind’s HD screen.
The powder and the shape shifter blend together till you cannot often tell one from the other. Both feed off each other. Both want you to do different things. Depression switches off the lights and anxiety runs around screaming while it clicks every light on. On some days though, one of them becomes the boss of you. You can clearly tell.
There are many ways to heal. Suffering alone and willing it to go away hopefully should never be anyone’s way. But I can see why that is an option many people choose to take.
The most common way of healing is therapy. But finding a good therapist – one who doesn’t believe the answer is marriage, weight loss, or your bank balance - is much more difficult than finding true love through Tinder.
I was incredibly lucky (sadly it comes down to luck), to find a therapist who did get all of this. I found a therapist who is kind, who taught me to be kind to myself, who believed in the revolutionary power of kindness, while recognizing (and sharing) my anguish with the world. She helped me heal.
But then healing of course is not linear which is why there will be days even now when I hide myself in the office bathroom and cry for no real reason. In despair I told my therapist that after years of work on myself, I still feel I am going around in circles. I seem to be saying hello and having shouting matches with the exact same issues. I had an epiphany that maybe I am not running around in circles but actually in spirals.
My therapist further pointed out how this spiral is not flat like how I envisioned but also had depth. So you are meeting the same issue but with varying degrees of perspective and depth. You are not really at the exact same point where you started, even if it may seem that way.
Early on in my diagnosis, I started medication to control my serotonin levels. When I tell people that I am on medication, I often get wide eyed concern about how I must not mess with my brain chemistry. This is also something I have smugly told other people pre mental health issues.
Medication is feared because psychiatrists often prescribe these happy pills as a quick solution. Medication often has side effects. Medication may also interfere with your body’s way of healing. But really, medication also helps.
It helps when your psychiatrist has spent enough time with you, understands your history and is looking for a holistic long term management of your mental health. Also one who closely monitors how you respond to medication. (Fun fact. When you go to a medical shop, the uncle behind the counter looks at your prescription, gives you a judging look and says he doesn’t have the medicine. One pharmacist even told me scornfully ‘hum aisi dawaaiya rakhte hi nahi hain’. Anti-depressants are the new condoms, people.)
Then there are the dreaded ‘why don’t you’ statements from people around you. Why don’t you just think positive thoughts or meditate? Why don’t you try yoga? Why don’t you get some sun? Why don’t you just make yourself get out of bed? Let me take a pause here to sigh.
While these suggestions may have even worked for some people, they are not a helpful thing to tell someone living with depression unless she has expressly asked you for help. What this does is put the pressure back on the person. It sends the message that IF you do these things, you WILL get better and since you are not doing these things, you actually are just choosing to be sad and lazy.
But hey, if I could just go for a walk and have this powder and shape shifter leave me, I would. Except that on most days, the singular achievement of my day is getting out of bed long enough to brush my teeth.
So if you really want to suggest something which you know of and think it will work for a person dealing with mental health issues, I have a simple piece of advice. Don’t.
Dealing with mental health is perhaps the toughest thing I have ever done. I won’t say it has made me stronger. But it has made me more comfortable about my vulnerabilities.
It still continues to lurk around the shadows. Like the pesky relative who turns up unannounced. A friend in her infinite wisdom wished me on a birthday hoping that the year would be bearable. And when you are living with mental health, bearable is a great place to be in. Here’s to walking towards bearable sunsets.
(Views expressed are author's own.)