I killed myself when I was 14, unpinning my school dupatta to hang from a ceiling fan in an empty classroom after everyone had left home. My best friend at the time intervened, and she never spoke to me again until last year.
I killed myself at 16, when I naively scampered for a strip of ibuprofen to overdose on because I was nervous for an accountancy test.
I killed myself at 21, when I returned to my Delhi apartment, drunk on gin to forget my abruptly quitting a job that wasn't meant for me, and battling an alcohol dependency at the same time.
I cut myself through 21 and 22, when I discovered self-harm on the outside was far less painful and deafening than the voices in my head and the heaviness of my heart.
At 22, I sprinted to the terrace and was caught by my mother. The next day, I had a perfectly normal morning and chided myself for such silly thoughts. I laughed at the right jokes on TV, I greeted neighbours as they passed by and thanked my mother for a great breakfast. There was a spring in my step, a glint in my eyes.
I skipped to our guest bedroom and found myself suddenly grazing my fingers along a red dupatta and in an impulse, hung it from the ceiling and almost choked to death.
It was working, finally. I was at the cusp. My throbbing brain came with a gush of relief. But when it was time to kick the chair, I grabbed on to the dupatta and wrung it off, throwing it and breaking into sobs.
I pulled my dupatta free, threw it and crawled into the lightless space between my bed and the wall, where I cowered for comfort. What stopped me from going through, when I was so close? Was this cowardice? Another strike on the wall, confirming my failure at a simple, quick task - that I steadfastly believed my family and friends would cry and heave and shudder over, but they'd move on. Doesn't everyone?
I lived at 22. There were people who understood and people who didn't. There were triggering responses and heartwarming hugs. There were phrases straight from the rule book of "Things not to say to a mentally ill person" which I wish were circulated in every educational institution and workplace.
Sometimes, we have to do hard things. Cut off people who trigger us, unhealthy and toxic relationships that we have endured as martyrs, forgive and forget old habits, and most importantly, drag ourselves to a psychiatrist.
My family was concerned about my dips and highs in moods - manic and restless from working myself to exhaustion, and wrapping myself into a quilt and sobbing and shivering in my nook. My parents booked an appointment with a psychiatrist. I've been to therapists, slapped with labels of self-esteem issues and nothing more. But I wasn't prepared for what I was going to hear. The din of "bipolar tendencies, lithium, cutting out drinking" swirled in the air of the pasty green office, being told I had no choice but to go through with an intensive treatment.
I was repulsed by her compulsion and changed psychiatrists, but remained on mild anti-depressants and anti-psychotics.
My second psychiatrist, highly-acclaimed with decades of experience, promised not to knock me out and allowed me to work. But every time I made mistakes, as we all do, I was plonked into my nook again. My psychiatrist asked me to stop doing absurd things like slitting my wrists and not bother my parents with suicidal tendencies. I blamed my medication, my lifestyle. I was told I have a bad attitude. The voices in my head told me I was attention-seeking, self-indulgent and a burden to my loved ones. After a cheery morning, I broke down the day of my final suicide attempt.
I was rushed to another psychiatrist who was highly supportive and convinced me of hospitalisation because my life was under threat. Hospitalisation, therapy and the break I am on was probably the best combination of treatment I am currently receiving.
We don't often talk about how it is difficult to receive the best combination of medication and the right psychiatrist, and it's a real challenge in India, worse for the lower strata of society. I had to switch and experiment a lot. For some it works smoothly on the get go, for some it takes 10 years until they find what works for them.
"Try to be happy" or "You're worrying about nothing" is not substitute for counselling or medication. Mental illness isn't considered a disability and that doesn't really help our country's case.
I told my boss and people at work. They have been extremely supportive, and having said that, this is dicey territory. To reveal your mental health condition to people at work or your superiors means you need to be prepared to hear myriad responses. But when it gets to sick days and breaks, and sudden attacks and breakdowns, it can be a strain on the company or your colleagues. Much discretion needed here.
I guilted myself more, feeling more depressed by the day. I made more mistakes, sometimes career breaking blunders because I battled 50 thoughts a minute aside from working on a mentally, and occasionally physically, exhausting project. I finally took a break. It may not work out for anyone, so finding a job that works with your pace and allows leeway for health leaves or breaks is always best. It doesn't mean you're any lesser. Depression is not an excuse. Bipolar is not an excuse. It is a legitimate illness that can hamper cognition and judgment.
Societally, manic phases are celebrated. They are moments of productivity, burning the midnight oil, taking risks, striving for perfection and doing brilliant work. Your bosses and superiors will love you for it, and associate your professional identity with it.
But with it comes sleep deprivation, starvation, migraines and an identity that is often tied to work or personal relationships, which isn't the best anchor for stability. And when they don't work out, or when you make a mistake, it feels like your whole little world has collapsed. But it hasn't, far from it, in fact.
Your identity is not tied to your work life, sex life, love life, body, intellect or productivity. You are intrinsically worthy. You deserve to take up space in this world and can reclaim it whenever you want if you feel like you've lost it.
I'll revisit my last suicide attempt.
At that instant of the tightening dupatta leaving lacerations, I let out a whimper in awareness of my body distancing itself from my life force.
That whimper reminded me of the one thing that no one can take away from me, or from any human being.
Voice that transcended physicality or tangibility. Not the sound that accompanies the exhalation of breath. Not the full-frontal scream that accompanies rage, not the sound of a pretty, sweet song that lingers and dances in the air, not the moan that accompanies an orgasm, not the open-throated laughter that accompanies a rib tickling joke, not the sound that doesn't accompany the lives of orally impaired people.
It's intrinsic, immeasurable and distinctive, and helps waltz and falter and stumble and dust off and waltz again through the ups and downs of life. No one lives without voice.
That said, we sometimes speak from a point of privilege. Voices are sometimes broken, stifled, swallowed whole, dulled, tampered with, bullied, forced and distorted, and in some cases, to benefit another class of people. We cannot discount this, and it's worth the fight to protect, preserve and allow for a fluidity in voice. That's a fight no one can fight alone.
Now, relapse. Sometimes you find yourself cutting in the bathroom or having a panic attack after a streak of stability and feeling good about yourself that you haven't felt sad or depressed in a while. Here's the deal. It is completely okay to relapse. Depression does not disappear overnight, and depression lies. Depression cripples you and makes getting out of your bed and taking a shower a Herculean task. Depression lurks like a dark shadow and sometimes all we can do is manage it and not wish it away with a clap. But remember, you are not your depression. It is a separate entity and does not belong to or in you. It may have made its home in you, but you have the power and strength to manage it and not feed into its wily charms.
When you find someone depressed or needing help, talk to them. Get them professional help, accompany them to the doctor. Do a little research. Physical touch that isn't intrusive helps. Listen without judgment. Encourage them to write and pursue a long-forgotten hobby. Help them chalk out a routine and a healthy diet. Take them out for a walk or a dinner. Remind them to take their medication. Tell them they're not alone, but they aren't a statistic either.
When you encounter someone suicidal or with strong mood swings or frequent depressed states, confront them. You don't just save a body, you save a voice. And that voice is important for our collective consciousness in this world.
Identity of the writer withheld on request.