Saturday, August 8, 2009

To hell and back — twice

It’s only human to feel alone and, at times, lonely. It doesn’t mean people in your life don’t love you enough. Or there is something seriously wrong with you.

Everyone has some ups and downs, and sadness is a natural emotion. The normal stresses of life can lead anyone to feel sad every once in a while. Things like an argument with a friend, a breakup, doing poorly on a test, not being chosen for a team, or a best friend moving out of town can lead to feelings of sadness, hurt, disappointment, or grief. These reactions are usually brief and go away with a little time and care.

At times, it’s more than occasionally feeling blue, sad, or down in the dumps. It is a strong mood involving sadness, discouragement, despair, or hopelessness lasting for months. You know it will help to open up to your parents but you cannot.

In 1996, it was quite miserable and, surprisingly, I did not have a reason to blame for the kind of mental state I was in then. I was in school when it happened to me first. I felt terribly depressed and, worse, I could not share my feelings with anyone. No one took my problems seriously as no one thought I could suffer from depression at the age of 16 even as I wept in isolation. That was scary especially because I did not have anyone to tell me that it was a passing phase and it would get over soon. The fact that I never understood what caused me to feel so low is a mystery even till date.

I remember watching cricket matches while continuously thinking what I would do once the match ended, where I would go, who I would talk to and how I would spend time. There was an inexplicable sense of insecurity killing me bit by bit. Film songs which I liked once now began making me feel depressed. At times, the problem seemed a bit physical too as I found it difficult to stand properly. My head would begin reeling and I would feel like lying down immediately. That was the only way I would get relief from that scary thing. Doctors associated my problem with physical weakness. Then, things were different — the problem got sorted out soon and I did not think of any particular thing, no specific memory kept haunting me.

But what happened in 2006 was bigger. It almost killed me and I almost killed myself too. On reaching home from my convocation in Delhi and before leaving for Patna to join HT, Mummy noticed I was not behaving properly, seeking isolation and avoiding any kind of food and entertainment. There was only one relief, I could sleep properly but as and when I got up I had to face that same demon. I prayed to god it got over but it did not. I told her I was feeling a bit low after leaving the campus and saying good bye to so many friends and there was nothing seriously wrong. I knew I was lying.

I contacted Ataul and told him I would come to Patna and stay with him for the time being. I also told him about my illness. He asked me not to worry. He stayed in Patna in a small, dingy room built on the roof of a dilapidated house located in Sabjibagh — a crowded and unclean Muslim-dominated locality. The reason why he opted for that accommodation were the difficulties he faced in impressing Hindu landlords and his small budget. The whole ambience and the filthy toilet could have made even a healthy person feel terribly depressed.

While catching a train to Patna, I felt week, low and was drenched with perspiration. I once thought I could not make it. Once inside the train, I closed my eyes and tried hard to get some sleep that was the only way I could have saved myself from that agony and suffering. Raju — whom I helped become the Buxar correspondent before leaving for Orissa — accompanied me and tried his best to make me feel relaxed. But it just did not help. I could not stand, could not talk.

I was not sure if I thought of something because I was depressed or I was depressed because I constantly thought of something. But I was depressed and I kept thinking of certain things. I did not know how I would work in office. At his room, Ataul tried to comfort me to the best of his abilities. He said he too had gone through the same kind of situation and, quite strangely, attributed the same to an upset lever. He got me a syrup which did not help.

I informed my office that I was in Patna but could join only a couple of days later as I was not well. I must appreciate Ataul’s patience as he heard me out all the time even as I kept discussing the problem I was facing. I could not take an auto while going to office. I took a rickshaw instead as I sought to avoid crowd. During the first couple of weeks, Ataul always accompanied me till the place from where I usually got a rickshaw. He would talk to me, listen to all the crap I had to offer and cook for me too. He would wake up on my return from office late in the night and serve food. I do not think I would have survived those days in Patna if it was not for him.

There was some relief in office as I did not feel that low while working. Sanjay Sir noticed my situation and assured me it was just a passing phase. He told me about people who had suffered badly from depression. He told me about one of his family members who had the same problem and ultimately died. It was all very scary. But he asked me not to worry. He too helped me a lot.

When I returned from work, I was the happiest, most cheerful. I would have food and sleep, only to have the traumatic experience on getting up. Rakesh Singh, who worked on the desk, looked surprised on knowing I was depressed. He asked me to do some puja-paath, which I could not. SS told me a whole lot of things causing depression and how to get rid of the problem. He said, “Secretion of endorphins — the mother of all feel-good hormones — is affected due to lack of physical activity. Staying in a dark and dingy ambience helps release melatonin in the body which makes you feel even more depressed.” This helped me a lot in identifying the problem and in trying to combat it. He said, “Get a pair of running shoes and start jogging in the morning. This will help a great deal.” He also got me an article on depression which also had a few lines which went something to this effect: “Cheer up do. Who else will for you? Brad Pit? Think of Jennifer Anniston and get on with life.” I began jogging around in the Gandhi Maidan at 7 in the morning.

The zahir

Even as the misery continued, I tried my best to collect myself and focus on work while in office. And I must admit I did not let my mental and psychological state affect my performance much. But things refused to change every single morning when I got up and found myself thinking why things went haywire and how I could get myself back to normal. I almost bored Ataul to death by talking about how things seemed to improve once I was in office.

Once I concluded that since there was almost no physical activity during the internship and I never exposed myself to sunlight and hardly ate properly, I got very weak both physically and mentally. So there was nothing seriously wrong with me. I began eating well, increased the intake of fruits and other nutritious stuff not to feel low!

When things did not improve even a wee bit, Ataul took me to a doctor he knew. He said no drugs could get me out of the depressed state of mind I was in. I had to do it for myself. Drugs could only tranquillise me and help me sleep and, at one point of time, I had to stop being dependent on them. He said, “The idea is to stop thinking of things which cause you to feel low. You have to motivate yourself. It happens to the best of them. Most people today suffer from this.” I was surprised and maybe a bit relieved too when he said he was himself suffering from depression. He said, “I feel depressed when I get up. But things improve as I come to the clinic and start seeing patients.” I was not sure if said what he said to make me feel good or it was actually a fact.

I told MM too about my condition and he thought I was finding it difficult to adjust to the new working hours. SS warned me against sharing what I was feeling with just everyone. He said it never helped. I began taking pills prescribed by the doctor. The drugs really helped, but only temporarily. Every evening while working, I would suddenly feel lonely and depressed. I would down an anti-depressant and feel somewhat good.

I soon thought of changing the place of stay. I thought this might help change things a bit. I and Ataul did a bit of house hunting and chose a two-room house right besides the Gol Ghar. I went home to get utensils and other stuff. I asked Daddy to come along and be with me in Patna for sometime. Ataul was to stay with me. Though the landlord had issues with him moving in as he was a Muslim, I persuaded him into changing his mind.

Daddy and Ataul used to cook and handle the kitchen. Daddy helped me a lot — from washing my cloths, giving me a massage, pressing my head to being subjected to my harsh and erratic behaviour. Ataul left for his college — he was doing masters in Urdu from Patna University — and library in the morning, while I kept sleeping. I went to office — now, I began using autos — in the evening.

SS gave me a few books to read. He said to be able to survive on the desk, it was imperative to read 50-60 pages a day. A read a few books by Earnest Hemingway and liked them too. I remember these lines from The Zahir: “One fine morning, I will wake and I will not think of that and I will know the worst is over… stop being what you were, try and be what you are.”
And if I could think of getting on with life, it was mainly because of Amrita and her frequent phone calls. Every time I spoke to her, things looked up a bit. I think, she spent a lot of time and money talking to me, trying to cheer me up on phone. She could not get anything worthwhile in Delhi and chose to work for some travel magazine. I wanted to help her but did not know how.
to hell and back

Vivek once told me thinking about hurting yourself or about suicide needed help as soon as possible. When depression is this severe, it is a very real medical emergency.

My friends and family members did not totally recognize that I was depressed. They could not respond with love, kindness, or support I needed, hoping that the sadness will soon pass. They offered to listen when I wanted to talk. When the depressed feeling did not pass soon, Ataul encouraged me to get help from that doctor. Some people don't really understand depression. For example, Kamlesh Bhaiya reacted to my low energy with a little bit of sarcasm, taking a dig at me for acting lazy or not trying harder.

People like him mistakenly believed that my problem was just an attitude or a mood that I could easily shake off. It's not that easy. Sometimes, even I did not take my condition seriously enough. Some people around me felt I was weak in some way simply because I was depressed. This is wrong — and it caused me to hide my depression and avoid getting help as much as I could. They reacted only to the physical symptoms.

At times, it was intense and occurred in bouts that lasted for weeks. Otherwise, it was less severe but lingered at a low level for longer durations. I felt lack of energy and tired all the time. I could not enjoy things that used to bring pleasure once upon a time. I sensed a strange sense of withdrawal from friends and family. I always felt irritated, angry and anxious and could not concentrate. Even as I struggled, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, pessimism and indifference got the better of me. I even thought of death and suicide. It interfered with my ability to participate in normal activities. It affected my thoughts, outlook, and behavior as well as mood. I tended to have negative and self-critical thoughts.

Sometimes, despite my true value, I felt worthless and unlovable. I pulled away from those around me and activities I once enjoyed. This usually made me feel lonelier and isolated, making the depression and negative thinking worse. At times, I would try extremely hard to get some sleep without success.

When I finally met that doctor, I began having a better quality of life — I felt better and enjoyed myself in a way that I was not able to before. The treatment included talk therapy and medication. Though the doctor was not a mental health professional, his talks proved very effective. Therapy sessions helped me understand more about why I felt depressed, and ways to combat it. He prescribed medicine for me and monitored me to make sure I got the right dose. It took a few weeks before I felt the medicine working.

That my appointment letter also came in the meanwhile, was also a factor. I received a phone call from MM informing me that my papers had arrived and I could collect them. I went to office with daddy and the melancholy did lessen a bit. I had understood I shouldn't wait and hope it would go away on its own. For me, it has taken a lot of time for the pain to go away.

It was to be a long mourning process.

It just had to run its course.