Imagine being handed a Sudoku problem to solve — an Expert level problem, and all you have are Intermediate level skills.
You’ll ostensibly mull over it. Perhaps the mulling will become obsessive. You may think about the Sudoku problem at regular intervals, pour over the numbers and other tiny details whenever your mind has a spare moment. And then, if in spite of your best efforts, you’re still left with an incomplete Sudoku puzzle, you may begin to despair over your inability to solve the damn thing.
That’s precisely what every episode of depression feels like.
A Sudoku problem that’s actually an episode of violence, trauma, or a history that’s too complex, too expansive. And I simply don’t have the skills, resources, help or know-how I need to figure it out.
I could be one neat trick away. A single clue may separate me from victory.
But until I unearth that trick, until that single moment of clarity hits me while I’m on the pot reading a trashy novel, my mind will dwell in misery and confusion, in not-understanding and self-blame. And there’s nothing I can do about it.
I've had one anxiety attack in my entire life. I've been diagnosed with clinical depression three times.
My therapist tells me that I should be really proud of the way I've turned out, considering my personal history.
"Considering my personal history."
That's the equivalent of a participation certificate you get at a fancy dress competition for wearing a sari and pretending it's a costume.
What she's really saying is that you never stood much of a chance, but you did well with what you've got.
But my therapist has also told me to be kinder to myself. So I will graciously accept her compliment. I should be proud of myself.
Most days, I am proud. And I have a long list of things to be proud of.
For starters, I'm not a drug addict. I can hold a steady job. I never miss therapy. Most nights I catalogue my thoughts in a Thought Diary.
This diary has four columns: date, situation, thought, feelings. Exactly like the game, Name-Place-Animal-Thing. At the end of every week, I go over those thoughts line-by-line with my therapist.
I swim when I suspect the onset of mania. I go for a walk when I find myself making too many bad jokes that no one is laughing at or when I can hear myself being the center of attention.
When I have bouts of insomnia, I walk up and down my living room for hours and yell at people who are not present, till I'm spent. Sometimes I'll compose an email and resist hitting send.
When I need happy hormones, I ask my husband to cuddle. We call it "choto-time"(choto roughly translates to cuddle in Gujarati). Often, I'll demand it at 2p.m. and he'll be on a conference call. But we find our ways around it.
I practice mindfulness. I do Progressive Muscle Relaxation when I’m angry. I colour. I stitch embroidery patterns. Twitter and Facebook sometimes make me feel manic, at which point I close those tabs.
If a nightmare recurs, I delve deep into the roots of the fear that caused it. Then I read up and dissect those fears and spend another hour discussing them with my therapist. I go to great pains to ensure that the particular nightmare doesn't come back again.
All of this is to say that a large portion of my conscious energy is expended trying to keep my subconscious and unconscious happy.
I'm always on the alert — hawkishly waiting to detect minor chinks in my thoughts that, unresolved, can become full-blown meltdowns or months wasted away in a cloud of misery.
It's like hide-and-seek. The depression hides. I seek. My task is to sniff it out and stamp all over it before it gets cozy in its hiding spot. Smell a Sudoku problem from a mile away, present it to my therapist, and go at it on war footing.
On most days, I win.
But it's always a task. I understand that I'm vulnerable to depression. (If I was a child I'd be described as "at-risk"). So I can't let my guard down. I cannot afford to ever not be conscientious about my mental health. I have to always, actively, keep the darkness at bay.
I cannot experiment with substances, because I will become an addict. I cannot guiltlessly spend a day binge-watching television, because one day might become two.
Then one more victory. Then one more.
And then a week. And a month. And if I'm not careful, it'll slip right back. And climbing out of the trenches after I've slipped in is very, very hard.
Some of us are dealt are more complex Sudokus than others. Some of us are more limited in our Sudoku-solving ability.
Where that gap in the complexity of problem and ability to solve it exists, depression may creep in.
Over time, I’ve cultivated in myself an appreciation for, if not the ability, at least the dedication with which I solve these puzzles. An acknowledgement of my own resilience. And on days I don't self-combust — victory.
Then one more victory. Then one more.
I’ve begun to look at my own Thought Diary with more love; to recognise the ingenuity in "choto-time"; and to see — in the deepest, truest way — that my therapist is right.
Considering my personal history, I should be proud of the way I've turned out. It’s taken a lot of work.
Sneha Vakharia is a Delhi-based journalist who writes about women's issues, mental health and literature.
Trijog is a 360-degree mental health wellness organisation that services individuals with mental health concerns across the spectrum, founded by Anureet Sethi and Arushi Sethi.
Awake and Beyond is Trijog's campaign celebrating the stories of seven individuals and their tryst with mental illness, in the hopes that their journey will educate, inspire and help people understand what living with mental illness is like. Together, mental illness can be fought, conquered and overcome.