When I was at rock bottom, I’d joke that Dementors were trailing me. It was the only explanation for my waning ability to feel. I carried around bars of Dairy Milk like pocket-sized Patronuses. It was easier to joke about it than to name it.
But the symptoms were there all along.
Seven years ago, I sat on the floor of my bathroom with a kitchen knife. I didn’t want to off myself or anything. Just a jab here, a cut there. I only wanted to feel pain again. I was 19, and sinking in the kind of acute numbness that makes you feel like your human parts are fading. I felt see-through, a veneer melting into streets and sofas, only incidental to my own life.
That night, my fear of blood held out strong. I left the bathroom unscathed.
I blamed PMS. I blamed the bad days. I blamed myself. But I was careful not to throw around the D-word too easily. I had friends who depended on Prozac just to make it through the day, classmates who turned up to college with bandaged wrists and scarred arms. I read about a teenage girl who killed herself because she was transgender and forced to conform to the gender assigned to her at birth. I watched stories of starving farmers ending their lives. Their troubles were greater than mine, of course. I never allowed myself to forget that I was fortunate.
That’s what my culture taught me. Count your blessings. Consider your luck. And don’t bitch about the cut in your finger because amputees exist in the world. Throw some mud in it.
Years later, I was a chronic misfit at job after job. Simultaneously, The Major Transformative Heartbreak Of My Life – you know which one I mean, the big one – had arrived. Basic stuff. Everyone goes through it. Normal, normal, more normal.
I didn’t have trouble getting out of bed, getting ready, or having breakfast. Trouble would kick in as soon as I left home. The sight of elevator doors parting made me well up and I’d stare at the digital numbers with water in my eyes. In the rickshaw, I’d cry through my entire commute. But the moment I got into the office, I’d wash my face, and get to work.
(On particularly bad days, I’d weep-rinse-repeat in the office bathroom with a fist in my mouth. It was a small office.)
I decided I’d mark crosses on the calendar for each day I got through without tears. All of February went by cross-free. I had become the opposite of numb, oozing in every direction, draining myself to the point where none of me was left.
I spent my free time analysing my own mind, trying to find the thing that had broken it.
My family thought I was being over-sensitive, that I needed a thicker skin. Like thick skin was cash-on-delivery on Flipkart.
Elders earnestly asked if it was some sort of fad for kids these days to be unhappy. We didn’t have all this during our time. We found joy in the little things. Have you ever tried swabbing the floor, on all fours? No exercise like it!
Friends swapped stories that almost always began with Yeh toh kuch bhi nahi hai... You should hear how badly I got jacked. Some thought I was being entitled.
Others thought it was my own doing. Oh God, you think too much.
Meanwhile, that insignificant cut in my finger continued to bleed and fester.
When I missed my period three months in a row, I saw a doctor.
“It’s all down to this in the end,” she said, tapping my head. “Stress is making your hormones go haywire.”
She advised exercise and a diet. Because the best way to deal with the problems in your head, apparently, is to eliminate carbs.
“Work is hard on her,” Ma told her while I dressed behind the curtain.
“It’s a good thing,” said the doctor, quoting an over-used Marathi idiom. “The cuts and bruises are what make you smarter and stronger as a person.”
If you, like me, have grown up watching Wile E. Coyote get his ass handed to him by the Roadrunner, you know that’s some bullshit.
My diet and exercise changed, but I continued to despise myself. I filled the pages of my journal with messages of hate for my body and my brain and my heart.
I knew it wasn’t the job or the heartbreak. It was a sustained sadness at how everything I touched seemed to wither. It felt physical – like dragging around a lead stormcloud. Like it would take industrial cranes to lift the muscles in my mouth to smile.
I spent my waking hours being phobic about the future. I wondered if George R. R. Martin was writing my life and these small joys everyone told me to appreciate were actually red herrings.
Every time I even considered seeking professional help, I worried about finding the right words to explain what was wrong with me. What if they sent me back saying I was perfectly fine? Seven years ago, my grandfather’s bloodwork came back completely normal. He ached and hurt everywhere in his body and it felt like he was begging doctors to just validate his pain with a diagnosis. A month later, he died anyway.
Finally, the physical symptom, the hard evidence of my curious case arrived. I began to feel stabbing pains down my the side of my head and neck, behind my ears and on either side under the chin. I had involuntary spasms in my eyelids that lasted hours at a time. A quick web search suggested these could indicate anything from a tumor or a stroke to stress and (surprise!) depression.
When C for cancer became a real possibility, depression sounded like it could be D for dealt with.
I saw a therapist.
Some of my fears turned out to be real. She did not offer me the name of a disease to fight with. She did not refer me to a psychiatrist or suggest medication. What she offered was hours of talk. Of questions.
When this happened, what did you say to yourself? She would wait in silence while I made shapes with my hands, straining to pluck down the right words for her.
I spent time apologizing for my privilege out loud. She tossed me the notion that privilege was not some sort of mental health armor. That, privilege or not, my fears and despair were valid. The funny thing is, she didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know. Just lots and lots of things I had forgotten.
She asked me to make a list of all the things I liked about myself and put it someplace accessible. It felt indulgent but I did it anyway.
It’s been two years now since I last saw my therapist. I’ve made some tough life choices and I still have to work hard every single day at liking myself. I didn’t magically grow that thick skin and I clearly haven’t stopped thinking too much.
Recently, I was travelling somewhere late at night. At my destination, I realized I had forgotten to withdraw cash from the ATM.
The mental self-loathing began immediately. Export-quality idiot you are, I said to myself. You want to pay the bloody cabbie with a debit card? I continued cursing myself and looking through my purse until I finally found a folded up post-it in a hidden flap. It had an embarrassingly small number of good qualities I seemed to have attributed to myself.
Resourceful! Hah. I rolled my eyes and tucked the thing back in its flap. Except, there was something in there already.
I pushed a finger in and pulled out a 500-rupee note. Hidden away for a day just like this.
Note: If you think you might be suffering from symptoms of depression, please consult your doctor or follow this link for active helplines in India.