A Plea To Indian Parents: I'm Unwell, I Need Your Help Not Your Judgment
Mental illness is so stigmatised in India that some parents would rather ignore their children's difficulties than diagnose them and deal with them. Here's a note to mine.
Editor’s note: The writer of this story asked to remain anonymous.
According to the internet, I suffer from symptoms of depression, social anxiety, ADHD, and anger management difficulties. According to my parents, I’m distracted, lazy, and picking fights for no reason.
When I was 12, my parents and I moved from a small town to Mumbai. Almost instantly, my grades in school began to suffer. My parents and I started having more arguments with one another. I don’t know the direction of causality but as our quarrels intensified, my performance at school got worse.
When I finished my board exams, I had my heart set on pursuing arts but my mother insisted I choose science. Fearing another family breakdown, I didn't question her. The next two years were spent trying to wrap my head around subjects I didn't believe I had the aptitude to comprehend.
Through these years, my parents lamented how "distracted" I'd been.
While my confidence took blow after blow, I turned to Google. A few Wiki pages and YouTube videos later, I held in my hand a list of symptoms: a sudden lack of motivation, the inability to concentrate on one thing at a time, zoning out without even realising it. I related to every word I found written about ADHD.
Then the thought crept in that I was simply looking for excuses instead of admitting I was lazy and negligent. It made me feel terrible about the whole thing. I put the list away.
The results of my 12th grade board exams convinced my folks that the only way I'd be allowed to enter IIT was as a visitor. I enrolled in a media college, and was finally surrounded by subjects of my choice. But as relieved as I was, I still couldn't absorb myself in classes. If anything, my listlessness got worse. By my final year, I found myself struggling to maintain relationships with my batchmates. I found it convenient to keep to myself. I stopped going to parties, stopped saying hello to familiar faces.
Back in my room, I opened a new tab. Typed in my new symptoms. Added “social anxiety” to my growing list of self-diagnoses.
After scraping through graduation, I joined a social media firm. I found it impossible to complete my daily tasks on time, and often found myself staying late at the office. Eventually, my inability to focus got so bad that I quit the job. Back at home with my mother, the disputes resumed. She wasn't happy with the fact that I was now a sit-at-home freelancer. I crumbled under my own lack of motivation.
As always, I went online. I read hundreds of articles, watched several hours worth of videos, and found first-person accounts written by people all over the world which felt like they could’ve been written by me. There was a word for the way I felt. Depression.
The well-meaning scattered strangers of the world wide web had one piece of advice: ask for help. So I did. I talked to my parents. I asked for help.
Initially, my mother was completely opposed to the notion, but we eventually reached a compromise. I would be allowed to visit her friend, who worked as a counsellor in a nearby school. When we got there, the counsellor sat me down at her table and my mother positioned herself on the sofa a few feet away. She picked up a magazine and pretended not to listen. All my hopes of a personal session were instantly diminished. The plans I’d had – to unload my burdens, to divulge the billion secret disappointments I could never share with my parents, to walk out feeling relieved – all fell away. Instead, I fumbled through my talking points, constantly aware that my mother was there. Listening.
Eventually, the counsellor brushed aside my suggestion that I be checked for ADHD, told me to “stop thinking so negatively”, and suggested I call her whenever I needed help.
The only time I called was when I was trying to work up the nerve to ask my mother whether I could go for an outstation trip with my friend. The counsellor told me not to worry about a fight, and to talk to my mother. The moment I told my mother I had called the counsellor, she flew into an unprecedented rage. She yelled at me because I’d had the cheek to call her friend and complain about my own mother behind her back. I never even brought up the trip. And I never contacted the counsellor again.
My parents aren’t bad people. They're not inflexible or narrow-minded. They’re just used to observing complete, non-negotiable silence about some issues. I don’t blame them for it either. Their parents were the same. And the parents before that. And before that. And before that, reaching back to some indeterminable point in history when Indian culture made it unacceptable to be unwell.
Mental illness has always been sandwiched somewhere between sexuality and religion on the long list of topics that are tacitly banned in our living room. It’s euphemised in umbrella terms like "sick" and “sad” and “paagal”. And that’s that.
Under more pressure to appear “normal” than to be it, we stay quiet about the many things society has deemed taboo. Under that pressure, kids like me grow into adults like me, suffering quietly, afraid to ask for help, telling our stories anonymously. Flailing through the world (or the world wide web) in search of something – anything – to relate to.
I haven't been to see another psychologist yet. I haven’t even been diagnosed. I can’t say with certainty that I suffer from any of the ailments I feel crippled by. I still have difficult days when I can't do a single thing on my to-do list and I don't want to see a soul.
But in the absence of a support network to fall onto, the internet has been my own personal treatment. I’ve made a habit of taking my questions online. Less by choice, more from a lack of it. Websites like 7 Cups of Tea connected me to like-minded people around the world, who understood how difficult it is to open up to someone. Apps like Pacifica helped me relieve my anxiety levels and helped me break down my goals so that I wouldn't fall to pieces on a day-to-day basis. It helps, but it’s still lonely.
If I could speak openly to my parents about my anxieties, without fear of upsetting them or getting an earful, here’s what I’d say:
I believe I'm unwell. And I believe I’m normal. And I know those identities can coexist.
I don’t want to spend the rest of my days hopped up on medication. More than pills and doctors, I want your support. Your understanding. I don’t need you to pay for years of therapy. I need you to listen.
I know you’re afraid of your remarkably normal life being upturned. I know you’re afraid of being talked about, being judged, being pushed away. I know you’re afraid of what people will say. I am too. But I need you to put me first. I need us to put us first.
If I could speak openly to my parents, I would say: I'm not perfect. And I'm not always happy. But I've learned to reach out and ask for help when I need it, and I’m not going to stop. I’m holding on the hope that someday you’ll listen.
I’d say: I might be unwell, I don’t know for sure. Let’s find out together. Let’s deal with it together. I know I could get through this alone. I’d rather get through it with you.