Call Out Each Cloud by its Silver Lining: Life with Depression & Anxiety in India
I wasn’t going to graduate.
If I didn’t get professional help, I wasn’t even going to make it past age nineteen, never mind college. I was drowning again, only this time wasn’t like the rest. This time, there would be no wall-papering over the internal fuck-up.
I’m not here to talk about why I was depressed. It’s not something I have the capacity to explain right now, both emotionally and quite literally. My words fall short in the face of something I’m still navigating. I am writing solely to communicate that only you can help yourself when you are depressed; and that you absolutely must. I want to impress upon you the importance of calling out your mental health problems by their name. Never ignore your depression; it only keeps building momentum until it completely flattens you to the floor.
I roamed through my high school and then my college halls looking like some anaemic, caffeine-fuelled zombie on auto-pilot because I didn’t have a name to call it, and IT was splintering me down to the bone. As far as everyone else was concerned, I was just a very sweet but dead-awkward teenager who preferred reading books to human interaction.
I now acknowledge that I was highly depressed between the ages of fourteen to twenty. My only problem was that I never believed I had a problem. I’ve always hated drawing attention to myself, and I spent most of my time back then alone in the library, like some clichéd high school social outcast. I didn’t believe I was depressed enough to have depression, or anxious enough to have anxiety, because no one else thought so either. Every breakdown was chalked up to me “just being a teenager.”
Throughout my childhood, my family kept moving around a lot due to the nature of my father’s job. As a result, I was never consistently in touch with old friends, or familiar faces who could point out the obvious: that I was only ever pretending to be alright. My family was constantly annoyed that I was “so emotional.” People don’t deal with emotions well in my family; mostly because they do not deal with them at all. Is this an Asian-parents thing?
It sounds so stupid, but it’s true; why do we wait for someone to validate our crisis? Maybe it’s because we think it makes our problems more real if other people notice us struggling or, god forbid, we hope they’ll help us in the way we desperately need to be helped.
But they won’t. So; what are you going to do? I can only share my story in the hope that it will make a difference to someone else going through a similar struggle.
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As much as I love living in India, it pains me to admit that our societal attitude towards mental health is shamefully regressive. You are either understood as having some extremely disturbing mental disorder or being 100% completely normal. There is a gaping grey area which goes purposefully unnoticed and unacknowledged in between. Having mental health problems in a typical Indian middle class family is like a luxury that only “useless” people with nothing better to do with their lives can afford. I got no help when I needed it, and I’ve seen way too many kids, myself included, suffer because our parents didn’t look after their own mental health. It’s a vicious cycle, one I’m determined not to perpetuate.
The usual happened, silently, as it does for many people with depression.
I lost my sleep,
I lost my appetite,
I lost the willpower to even pretend I was okay.
There was no end to the excuses I’d make to justify my increasingly erratic behaviour: I hardly showed up for classes, would always ditch plans to meet up with friends and usually missed all my deadlines when it came to assignments. I was just so tired of constantly feeling attacked whenever somebody asked me what was wrong. This paranoia was courtesy of the shame and guilt people with depression tend to accumulate over time. I had practically dropped out of college, with an average attendance of 40% during the last two years, and had no articulate defence to save myself from unforgiving criticism.
My parents are nice people but I don’t think they’ve ever forgiven me for choosing to pursue something creative with my life; something that wasn’t math or science or that could be bragged about in Indian society. Whenever I’d gone through stages of major depression or anxiety as a young teenager, all I’d hear was that I was stupid, lazy, and unambitious. Feeling bad for “no reason” was my fault because I couldn’t focus on more important things like my grades or my “future” or whatever.
Imagine being judged by your symptoms and not by your illness. There were weeks when I couldn’t step out of my house; just hearing the sharp traffic outside would somehow reduce me to a sobbing, nervous wreck. It hurts to even think about the times I’ve probably cried on the floor, unable to make it out my room even to submit my college assignments. I couldn’t even step out of my house for the fear that my depression would single me out as some sort of obvious freak. The inability to explain this nightmare will forever haunt me– especially as a writer, since I’ve always believed that words are my forte. And if my words don’t stand a chance, then how can I hope to conquer something I cannot yet define to others?
I remember seeking out counselors, and trying to sneak away from my house to meet them. I remember crying at the offices of these random strangers, trying to explain that I needed serious help or I felt that I was going to die. It was practically impossible to afford seeing a doctor with whatever was left of my college allowance. I would tell them up-front that I couldn’t afford to scrape enough money for more than one session a month if I were to continue counselling, and therefore requested them to not waste my time, or theirs. I had no money to pay for therapy sessions, nor could I ask my parents for it.
I was eventually referred to a proper psychiatrist after a year by my college counsellor. We only had a short session of about 20 minutes, and he put me on medication immediately.
Mental health is a topic of great taboo in our country, and all South-East Asian communities in general. You’re seen as damaged goods if you admit to having mental health problems. There is a stigmatizing attitude towards mental health issues in all personal, social and work environments: you are seen as an unfit employee, an unmarriageable prospect, and an unproductive cog in the societal mechanism.
One day, I had an argument with my sister, who was then seventeen, and she threw the fact that I was seeing a doctor in my face. She was the only one who knew that I was seeing a therapist and taking medication. “Not everyone has pills to fix their life,” were here exact words to me.She never apologized for it andI’ll never forgive her for it either. I told my doctor this in a short therapy session and we both surprisingly agreed that she was a bitch. You see, you have to be extremely protective of your recovery, and the new person you’re becoming. People who love you need not always be a part of your recovery.
Telling my mom that I was seeing a therapist was a nightmare. She was furious that I had decided to see a doctor “behind her back.” She didn’t speak to me for weeks. My mother seemed genuinely scandalised that I was making my doctor treat me for free (I asked her if she’d like to pay him for proper sessions, she didn’t reply). My mother was also worried that I’d become addicted to my anti-depressants. She kept on trying to get me to discontinue them, but thank god my resolve didn’t waver. I was determined to get better.
I could only visit the doctor three times over a span of nine months. The prescribed medicines helped greatly, in the sense that they allowed me to help myself. Although I could have never helped myself like that without them; just taking medicines without actually making the necessary changes won’t do you much good. My grades improved, (very slowly over the next three semesters), my attendance was good enough for me to sit my finals at college, and my personal life, which had greatly suffered from frequent bouts of depression and anxiety, now seems to be flowering.
Unfortunately, over time I grew greatly impatient. Taking out a whole day just to travel to the doctor and hear him tell me to continue my meds and see him again after another three months, left me extremely agitated. I haven’t seen my doctor in over six months now, and the next time I see him, I want to pay for a full session with the money I will (hopefully) make through writing.
It has currently been almost as month since I went off my meds. I was on them for about a year. It’s strange, but I woke up one day knowing instinctively that I didn’t need them anymore. It was risky trying to quit them cold turkey and going off them for nothing more than a gut feeling. I urge you to not go off your medication without consulting your doctor and in no way encourage you to experiment with your meds.
I had shifted from being an angsty English major to a chirpy ideas-girl pursuing advertising; and being on my feet all day did wonders for my anxiety. The depression had mostly been expunged from my system by then. It wasn’t easy: being on medication had side effects, and suddenly taking myself off them had its side effects as well.
I’d be lying if I said (even now) that I have it all figured mental-health wise. However, I am annoyingly optimistic, and believe in fighting for the things that you want out of life. I know it’s bloody hard to remember that these clouds have a silverlining when they descend upon you in your loneliest hours. But do yourself a favour and call out every struggle you go through by what it has to offer you. EVERYONE learns the hard way! Call out each cloud by its silver lining.