Readers Write In #337: A diary of suffering

Posted on February 6, 2021

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(by G Waugh)

Never in my life had I ever imagined a time would come where I would be seeking treatment for something as terrible as– a mental illness. Whenever I used to call teasingly some of my friends “loosu”, “mental” it never waswithout a derogatory connotation that makes me wince today and those words are even being used today with such abandon, carelessness and impunity, by almost everyone, everywhere. And in such a society which looks down on its mentally ill people with such ruthless condescension and apathy, standing amid a crowd and asking the pharmacist for a strip of Sertraline is, take it from me, a tragedy of unimaginable proportions.

***

“You are an extremely jovial person and you say you have problems in the mind? It is all your imagination. Look at me I have multiple problems but I just go back, take a deep breath, listen to my favourite song and whoosh, everything goes away!”

“Hey, don’t forget you are a man! We gotta be bold and face things”

I have heard advice and “counselling” from people of almost all ages, social strata and there was not even one who could see that my mental illness was not something of my own making. It is easy to convince people that your knee is fractured or you have an upset stomach to snatch a day off for yourself , but when you say you are having “wild” thoughts emanating from a torn mind, there is not one soul around you that reacts sympathetically.

Having been subjected to this kind of apathy or what you call it, a string of “humiliating” encounters with people whom I thought would offer me some amount of “secret” help, I only kept delaying seeking professional ones. During a few crucial scenarios where I was supposed to be behaving in a responsible way at home but was mentally, completely incapacitated, I not only avoided telling my family about my problem but also was forced to hunt for “extra-terresterial” sources of energy in order to orchestrate physical “performances” that were real, effective and heart-felt at the same time. Those hours where I had to “act” like I was perfectly normal were the most difficult phases of this enervating disease and had God had a chance to observe me from a movie-hall wearing the hat of a ‘critic’, I would have been hailed in a magazine column for outcompeting Daniel Day Lewis in the race for that years’ Oscars.

Why did I have to undergo ordeals like that? Why can’t I tell my family members who surely love me more than I love them and who would go to any extent to help me out? What was at stake,was not only my “competence” as an able family man but also something that is considered as precious as female “modesty” in our semi-feudal society- my inviolable “male” ego. Pardon me feminists who consider patriarchy as something that troubles only people from the supposedly “weaker” sex. For males like me who don’t believe in feudal era values and who think a woman can take up any responsibility and discharge it as smartly as a man, patriarchy is without doubt, a terrible, terrible burden.

And for mentally ill people like me, women are of course, a great source of envy. Whenever I see women who easily break down for family issues or for those at their office, I have always felt a gushing sense of jealousy brimming over my forehead at how partial the society has been in entrusting only women with the most crucial privilege to be wielded at even the simplest provocation – the right to cry and express themselves. Men like me, even when a project is about to be snatched from our hands or our dear one is on the verge of breaking up with us, would be skewered publicly according to our “courts” of law if we ever try to record our anguish seasoned with tears.

“Be a man, for heaven sake!!”

***

I have had to endure an hour of lachrymal downpour inside a closed room, just three hours after my beautiful son was born, for no proper reason and not certainly with happiness. I have had to complete daily tasks at office with concentration and precision before midnight if I were to leave for the day and have a good night’s sleep, all the time when a relentless machine inside my head kept making horrible noises without a pause or break. I have had to settle issues between my mother and my wife when none of them had really made a “mistake” and return to my dinner with equanimity and poise, as though nothing had happened really, with a creaking mind that was going berserk with every passing minute. And these were not even the tip of the proverbial “iceberg” and as days passed I began to notice that my reluctance to seek professional help only began to exacerbate my illness even more.

To stop reducing the “sounds” in my brain, I had within months mastered the art of diverting it on other things. But soon, even that capacity had transformed into a terrible disease. For example, when someone was talking with me on a certain topic, to silence my brain I had grown the habit of noting down things of trivial nature say, the color of the dress they were wearing or the shape of the bindi their foreheads showed. From the color of the dress which was say, green, my mind used to lurch onto something as proximate as “Green Revolution” and then start examining how the supposed “revolution” had commercialized and destroyed agriculture. And from there a new thread would arise such as say, a Tamil movie like Bhoomi whose crudeness and terrible writing had made me forget even the core issue that it was talking. Soon the thread used to dovetail into the career of ‘Jayam’ Ravi and from there to the topic of nepotism in cinema. Within less than a year, I was shocked to learn that I not only was suffering from anxiety and depression but also from another disease horrifyingly titled “mania” or to name it specifically, a mind riddled with “a case of racing thoughts”.

***

On early morning around five a.m, it was the first time I had experienced something that I had seen only in the horror movies – a “panic” attack in the tranquility of a foggy dawn. Take it from me, if you want to condemn your sworn enemy to hell but you want it to happen during his own lifetime and not after his death, curse them with this incantation – “May you get a panic attack for five minutes every day during your office meetings”. I don’t want to describe it any further but suffice to say that it is worse than being caught inside an “Evil Dead” movie.

But thankfully, that was the last straw. I rushed to the nearest psychiatrist who bombarded me with a set of high-sounding pills without bothering to offer me even a modicum of what they call “professional counselling”. For more than a year I took the medicines cautiously and my only relief was a permanent escape from the disease’s most dreaded symptom, the panic attack. All other issues remained intact and for good or bad, all of a sudden, something as dreadful as my mania came to my rescue on one “front” that was completely non-existent all these years. Some five years of cultivated reading (which didn’t help my depression much) had sowed in me, a few robust seeds that were waiting underneath to germinate at any time and successfully transform the hitherto barren personality of mine into something as precious and productive as – a writer.

I successfully finished fifteen chapters on the narration of the history of a country which appeared on this blog to muted reception, over a period of eight months. I soon had a chance to compile them into a book and release it immediately. The response from my friends and family was really good and endearing which must have ideally, gone a long way towards reviving my spirits and restoring my mental health. But it did not.

One year of high-dose allopathic medication, eight months of intensive reading and relentless writing had, I had to admit, taken me virtually nowhere. I was still the same mentally ill fellow whose capacity for eliciting contempt from the society rivalled even rapists and scamsters. Added to that, I had also developed a tendency to sweat profusely the second the air-conditioner in the room or the vehicle was switched off, my memory had developed the habit of blacking out during crucial moments and the only secret joy that I was deriving out of my early marriagehood – my interest in sex, was also going down south quite rapidly.

I was soon introduced to a Siddha doctor who is still known by everyone as a quack who appears in television shows at midnight talking about men’s “secret” issues. Five months after being subjected to herbal oils and concoctions to improve mental health and overall well-being, I was surprised to notice that my anxiety had reduced by a few notches despite my initial cynicism and mistrust on this homegrown system of medicine. This was also the time I had started writing for Rangan’s blog at least one essay a week and within three months, I could note that I had finished writing close to forty essays. The man himself once took occasion to laud my “discipline” for keeping at “it” for such a long period but deep inside I was patting the furs on the back of my secret cat called “mania” which was purring with pride and insane energy all the time for its achievement.

But the best part of being “insanely” energetic ended right there. The reason why I was writing so much was not because I was a man capable of such prolificity and enterprise. Having endured so much strain and trauma for so many years on account of the disease, my mind had actually lost all its capacity for relaxation and fulfilment. And such a deranged mind had also developed an uncanny ability to detect only mistakes in every part of my proud essay which succeeded in serving in turn, as a sufficient provocation for me to gather all my energies towards churning out my next flawless “magnum opus”.

By November last year, the time had come for me to embark on an expedition into another uncharted medical territory – Homeopathy. Years of incurable anxiety had introduced some more internal deficiencies into my system along with frequent episodes of tremors induced by sustained hypertension. Whenever I sat down to write, my brain started triggering some other part in the left side of my torso and I had to shut down my laptop with trembling fingers and thumping heartbeats. The inability to write at will joined the list of complaints I already had with myself, bringing the most important possession of my life – my self-esteem, downward by one more notch.

***

Self-esteem, what a crucial role such an abstract, invisible part of you can play in building or destroying you! A hurtful, unfortunate episode that happened years ago succeeded in attacking my self-esteem once with overpowering ferocity leaving conspicuous bruises all over and a series of unexpected events that happened in my family almost at the same time only exacerbated my condition. From then on, alien elements such as anxiety, self-doubt, anhedonia (inability to feel happiness), depression, panic and mania came one after another to team up in burying me down further. That was how it all started.

***

It has been close to five years since I entered this hellhole and only one hope has kept me protected from embarking on other extremely tempting modes of escape such as alcohol and suicide.

“Some years later, I would be looking back into this phase of my life with pride and warmth. I know I will come out of this one day”.

I still cannot find out why I ventured out to write this essay but the learnings from this draining period has already been too immense, earth-shattering and enlightening at the same time to keep them under wraps. The fact that even a generally carefree person like me can be hit by depression to stay paralysed for not weeks, months but even for years is something that has never ceased to amaze me. You might sometimes be fooled into thinking that you have been through a lot for so many months and that your “sentence” is almost at an end but something else might happen to you and you might be handed the very next instant, the much dreaded order that authorizes your “extension”. You might have been struck by a huge setback today and that is no guarantee that the next pre-ordained one has been put off by a month (To know exactly how it works, you might consider watching Martin Scorsese’s After Hours). You might be subjected to two setbacks on different fronts at the very same time. And take it from me, under such circumstances, when you are reeling under pain, self-doubt and shock, a scenario might arise where you realize that nobody is completely with you, not even the dearest person in your life. And when all your problems congeal into a fully-formed mental illness, you are, without doubt, alone and in every sense of the word, literally marooned. The more often you come out openly with your manifested symptoms to your near and dear one, the more quickly you might end up getting hated by the same person. And that is not at all their fault. If you suffer from a case of stroke or even paralysis, your dear one would have no problems in serving you with a smile all the time, provided you co-operate with them and act in good faith, but the same cannot be said if you have a mental illness, more so when you are a man. It is very much like getting trapped inside a movable cage when all your family and friends are celebrating a party on your lawn assuming that you are with them but you in reality, are actually struggling with tears and sweat to tear the bars away, desperately to set yourself free.

All of this is not to give you a dark picture of mental illnesses and scare the wits out of you. All I want to say is this, there is no set “rule” according to which your destiny or even your society works. Your life is your responsibility and none else and if you are fan of “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, you will realize that every single friend or blood-relation of you has a limit beyond which they cannot help you, even if they want to, regardless of the gravity of your predicament. If you think you are just a block away from mental illness, make sure you engage in some physical activity or if it hasn’t worked already, seek professional help without delay. And don’t directly assume that the professionals out there are competent enough to save you from illnesses of any intensity. In contrast to physical illnesses where you can take a shot of Paracetamol and relax till your immune system does all the work of restoring yourself, a mental illness is something where only you have to act as your own immune system. You should do all the work of repairing your vitals while the medicines can just act as sentries or helpers guarding you in your effort. And one more thing, don’t ever reject a system of medicine based on conventional knowledge and hearsay. Of course there are quacks and unqualified doctors in every system of medicine and so please carry out due diligence before you throw yourself into their hands.

But here is the most important takeaway, a mental illness is as dangerous as say, a cancer. Take it seriously and I repeat, seek timely help. In the most likeliest case of a complete recovery, a mental illness could have the effect of a ten year intense physical workout at the gym or a long stint at a Zen monastery perched on a hill-top. On your deathbed, you might end up being more thankful to the illness than to your grandfather who bequeathed all those unknown rubber and tea estates to your name out of the blue.

It is time, my hands have started trembling and a gentle thump on my left chest is pushing me out of my chair. Thanks to a combination of allopathy, Siddha and homeopathy pills, at least I was able to write this much today.