Suppress it, Survive it – How Unresolved Grief can Lead to Depression
by Ananya Sahoo
As a child, I held on to one irrefutable fact: trauma was something that happened to other people. Till the day it happened to me.
My first experience with death happened when I was six years old. My beloved grandfather passed away after a massive heart attack. I was too young to comprehend the concept of loss at the time. The next time disaster struck, I was fourteen when my dad succumbed to liver cancer. My flight was delayed and I missed saying goodbye by a couple hours. All of a sudden, my sheltered, pampered childhood vanished in a flash as Mom and I were left to fend for ourselves. To say that I was overwhelmed would be an understatement.
My relationship with my mother changed and my entire personality transformed overnight. My teenage mind decided that the best way to deal with something this huge is to bury it deep in some dark corner of my brain. I began training my mind to shut out all the pain and the memories. I ignored all the symptoms—insomnia, lack of appetite, irritable bowel syndrome. Blocking the pain out helped me survive. I was so busy pushing things away that I forgot to do a very important thing: grieve.
Before I had a chance to fully recover from this loss, my grandmother passed away unexpectedly when I was twenty-one. It felt like a punch to the gut. The universe just would not stop. By this time, I had conditioned myself to not feel or process anything. So, I buried my grief and tried to move on with my life. Little did I know that internalizing things instead of processing them would be my undoing.
I was in college when I had my first panic attack. My roommate watched helplessly as I struggled to breathe, and my heart rate shot up. The flashbacks felt like a bad movie playing on TV as I struggled to find the remote. Yet, I stubbornly refused to get help. I refused to acknowledge the triggers or the effect my mental stress was having on my body. I refused to share my sorrows, vent, or process my grief. I felt like I was lugging around a huge load wherever I went. I hadn’t accepted the deaths yet I had accepted the fact that perhaps I was doomed to be The Girl with All the Baggage. As cliché as it sounds, I had begun believing that I should ruin all the good things in my life before the universe knocks on my door and ruins it for me.
The tipping point happened in the last year of college. It had been a year since I had begun dating a classmate’s friend. For a brief moment, it felt like I had a shot at this thing called happiness. I don’t remember the exact moment when things started to sour. In the initial honeymoon days, my boyfriend was sweet, kind, and irrevocably in love with me. I felt loved, special, and pampered. Over time, the mask began to slip. You don’t know you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship until after the relationship has ended. Slowly but steadily, he began taking apart my self-esteem, piece by piece. I was the center of his universe and the pressure was unbearable. I had never felt this suffocated—I wasn’t allowed to have my own opinions, all my free time belonged to him. My future belonged to him. My panic attacks had resumed and this time, they were worse. I would cry till I got nauseous and threw up. I couldn’t sleep, eat. The pattern continued for three months till I ended up cheating on him. When I told him, I begged him to end things, to put me out of misery but he wanted to make it work. I was back home for two months before I started my job. Now that he had all the power in the relationship, it took a turn for the worse. I was berated, emotionally blackmailed, made to feel guilty about my blunder every single day. I began sleeping for fourteen hours a day and refused to eat. Dragging myself out of bed became a terribly difficult task. ‘What’s the point?’, my brain whispered. My interest in life dwindled and I became a shadow of the person I used to be.
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Then came that one day when I decided I couldn’t live like this anymore. I sat Mom down and explained everything to her. I had friends with mental health issues who were berated and dismissed as weak by their parents. I had seen enough to know that the stigma around mental health was stifling—depression was equated to being a weak, sad person with zero willpower. I was terrified that my mother would be a perpetrator of this stigma. I had always been close to my mother but, since Dad’s death, we had never spoken about the real things—our feelings, fears, and problems. I was always careful about discussing my problems with her because I knew that she had been through enough and that I was her biggest source of moral support. The decision to tell her was difficult and it took all the courage I could muster.
To my surprise, she was incredibly supportive and proceeded to book an appointment with the psychiatrist. I was diagnosed with acute depression and prescribed anti-depressants. I was also diagnosed with hypothyroidism and PCOS. I started therapy where I was told that this might be a consequence of all the issues I had been burying in my head. I started taking the medicines and survived the first week of side-effects. I stopped therapy after a while. It felt like a futile process. Everybody recommends therapy but nobody tells you about the amount of mental effort it takes. I felt like I was taking one step forward and two steps backward. After a while, I realised that I wasn’t very comfortable with my therapist. I felt like she was suggesting quick and temporary ways of dealing with things. It took me while to figure out that finding a good therapist was absolutely crucial for my recovery. Meanwhile, my boyfriend decided to be ‘supportive’ by giving me tough love. While I was at my absolute rock bottom, he called me weak and asked me to ‘control’ my panic attacks. He told me to ‘get over’ my father’s and grandmother’s deaths. I didn’t have any energy left to argue with him.
I was making progress, albeit painfully slowly thanks to my incredibly ‘supportive’ boyfriend. After two months, I moved to a new city to start a new job. It was a fresh start—something I realised I needed urgently. My confidence started rising gradually and I began feeling normal again. One day, I finally had the courage to break things off with my boyfriend. It was long, painful yet somehow relieving. The huge weight had vanished from my shoulders and I could finally breathe again. But nobody had warned me that moving on from a toxic relationship wouldn’t be an easy task. I deployed my usual blocking method and resorted to any unhealthy coping mechanism that came my way. I began drinking, partying and casually flirting quite frequently. My life consisted of work, alcohol, and parties. The nightmares had started again, and I began surviving on three hours of sleep. The cycle continued till my friends got worried and pushed me to begin therapy.
This time, things were different. I was comfortable with my therapist. I began opening up to her about all the issues I had buried. For the first time in eight years, I started processing things and dealing with all pent up issues. It felt like ripping off a Band-Aid very slowly. My therapist began digging deep. She asked me questions about my issues which I had never thought of before. She questioned me about my relationship with my mother, which coping mechanisms I used, what does grief mean to me. She made me understand that processing grief is not an easy process—it’s an agonizingly slow process of two steps forward and one step backward with a net gain of one step forward. It’s letting the waves of grief hit you instead of blocking them out. She pointed out an extremely important fact: acknowledging my emotions was key. Soon, I began understanding my emotions better. I was able to identify triggers and prepare myself for what was coming. I realised the importance of taking care of my physical and mental health. I found a new psychiatrist who helped me get off the medicines and made me adopt different methods of managing my stress and anxiety. I learned how to incorporate healthy mechanisms into my life. I began practicing mindfulness, breathing exercises, sleep hygiene. I was told to do three types of activities every day—physical, social and pleasurable—for at least fifteen minutes and maintain an activity log. I was taught to channel my love for writing towards managing my anxiety. Every time I got anxious, I wrote about the following things in my ‘Worry Diary’—what was making me anxious, the possible reasons for the anxiety, and what remedial measures I had taken. I still carry my Worry Diary with me.
It’s been three months since I stopped my medication. I’m a regular at my therapist’s office—my issues still need some untangling. I still have bad days—days when the crushing weight of all the trauma comes crashing down on me. I still wake up in a sweat on some nights, shuddering from all the nightmares. But the most important lesson I’ve picked up along the way is to breathe. Two deep breaths go a long way when anxiety threatens to overwhelm you.
Today, after nine long years, I finally feel like I’m piecing my life back together. To all my friends out there, who are battling their demons every day, I hope my story serves as a reminder that you’re not alone. And remember, when catastrophe strikes—Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.