[ Tongam Rina ]
I wonder how many of you suffer from mental health issues or know someone who does. I wonder how many of you have acknowledged that mental health requires the same attention as physical health.
As I share this deeply personal account of my struggle with depression, anxiety and panic attacks, I wonder whether some of you will pity me. That’s my biggest fear. I don’t mind being judged though.
It has taken me years to write this, and the reason I am putting out something so personal is because of the stigma around mental health.
I have lived with a mental health condition for more than two decades now.
“Why are you depressed”, “Isn’t everyone sad?”, “Isn’t everyone depressed?”, “People have been assaulted but they go on”, “Why are you so sensitive, antisocial and moody?”, “Why do you suffer from premenstrual syndrome half the month? Every woman gets their periods”, “Why don’t you meet people or go for dinners?”
These are questions that I have dealt with for years, till I decided to put a stop to it by not sharing anything. I used silence as my weapon.
I have let go of many members of my extended family and precious friends because I just don’t have the time to put up with those who sneer at me or tell me that they suffer too but I am the one overreacting. I wish I had the patience to explain, but I am not one of those lucky ones who are able to explain everything verbally.
That’s a weakness I have to accept because I prefer written words to spoken words.
Most of the time, depression, anxiety and panic attacks sneak in uninvited. There are triggers though. An unusual sound, or a bursting cracker, transforms me from a happy to a panicky, anxious person who locks every door and window in the house and office. My anxiety is made worse by panic attacks. And then I go into long hours and days of depression, when I usually lock myself in the room. Most days I stare at depression, anxiety and panic attacks; sometimes they wrap me up in their arms so badly that I am not able to have a negotiation. I often call my mother, sister, editor or teacher when it sets in. Sometimes, I just do not have the courage to pick up the phone. I just curl up in bed for days together. They are the ones who reach out to me, only to be told that they should just leave me alone.
I have slipped in and out of depression since 2002, when I was still a university student. I had no idea about depression, so when the doctor told me, I was clueless what it was about and whom to consult. I did not see a psychiatrist or a counsellor after the diagnosis, until I became increasingly suicidal.
With help from my family and friends in Delhi, I started on therapy, along with medications, in 2007. It’s still an ongoing process. I don’t know when anxiety or depression is going to grip me. Like fever, like that pain in my back.
“We know it hurts. Just hang on there,” say my parents when I get a bout of anxiety, at four in the morning. I am always so grateful that my loved ones pick up my call. Not many people take a 4 am call. Most of all, not many have people to call at 4 am.
For long, I have kept it hidden from others, not because I am ashamed of it but because not many understand that mental illness is like any other illness. I have no control over it.
In the last six years, my mental and physical health have hit rock bottom several times. I still lock myself up for days together. When I am okay, I like to keep myself active: reporting, reading, walking, being with nature, friends, colleagues and family, and, occasionally, cooking comes easy to me. But many days, I am not able to do something that sustains me and gives me a purpose in life.
There are days when I just don’t have the courage to face myself, forget about the world. I have stopped apologizing for feeling this helpless.
Part of my mental health illnesses is because of the physical illness that I suffer. Since 2012, after a gunshot that I survived, I have suffered constant physical pain. While I have accepted my physical pain and learnt to live with it, there are times when it upsets me and I slip into depression, often requiring medical attention.
Sometimes I am able to hold all of it together, maybe because I have a support system that works and adequate healthcare facilities that I am able to afford. Mental health issues need to be treated like physical health issues.
Perhaps one reason why I have not self-harmed again is because of a combination of medication, counselling and support from family members, colleagues and friends. I still default on medicines. When I feel okay, I discard them into the bin. And mental health medicines are expensive. I often find myself thinking about the cost of the medication. I wonder what happens to those who do not have families to fall back on.
I hope one day we will be able to discuss mental health issues without shame or inhibition. I hope there will be more understanding, and I hope the myths surrounding mental health will be busted. I hope there are psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors in each school and hospital. I hope there are no stigmas attached to mental health issues.
After years of being questioned why I can’t have a grip over my situation, I am left wondering whether the same questions are asked of those who suffer from various physical ailments. The degree may vary, but it still hurts.
Why should anyone be made to feel ashamed because of one’s mental health condition? Do we feel shame when we suffer from fever?
[ Tongam Rina ]