In which the writer of ‘That Odd Apple’ tells us a bit more about Middle Apple and the need to openly discuss mental health issues…
If my short story ‘That Odd Apple’ had continued for a few more paragraphs, then we would’ve found out that ‘having a name for her hurricanes and tidal waves’ was the best thing that could’ve happened to Middle Apple; that her adolescent hostilities and fears were unfounded, and that she eventually discovered that some psychiatrists, even the old fuddy-duddy ones, are actually pretty awesome people. Also, the treatments definitely did not turn her head into a tasteless cabbage as she had earlier feared. That is how the story would’ve unfolded, and I wanted to clarify that for the readers since I find it very important.
With the World Mental Health Day ahead of us on the 10th of this month, my heartfelt plea to everyone reading this is ‘Let’s all try and do our bit to reduce the social stigma attached to mental illness.’ An important pre-requisite for this is to confront our own prejudices about mental illness, and work on them by educating ourselves and opening up our minds to learn (and unlearn) about the issue of mental health. Then we can progress to the next step of having open, empathic conversations on the issue.
I have struggled with mental health issues at various points in my adolescent and adult life. I am not ashamed of it, but it is not something that I bring up often. The thing about depression and other mental disorders is that they’re just not that easy to talk about, and for many of us, we have absolutely no clue WHY we have it. It can and will silently creep up on you even when everything in your life is going great, when you have a supportive family, a close knit group of loyal friends and an exciting fulfilling career. At least that’s how it happened for me. If you asked me to pinpoint any event, tragedy, or major setback that preceded the onset of my depression, I would just draw a blank. Zilch. Nothing. And yet, suffer I did; there were days when I couldn’t even say my own name. And my condition was compounded by feelings of guilt and shame. I felt like an ungrateful entitled asshole for being depressed. I felt that I had absolutely no right to be THAT sad when the Universe had blessed me so abundantly.
I share my experience here to underline how extremely isolating, confusing and lonely it can be for the sufferer. Hardly anyone talks about it, so you start to think that you must be the only weak one, or at least, one of the very few. But that could not be further from the truth, as global data reveals. According to data released by the WHO, more people are affected by depression than any other disease in the world. At a global level, over 300 million people are estimated to suffer from depression, equivalent to 4.4% of the world’s population. However, there is still a vast lacuna in our understanding and interpretation of this pivotal issue. Many still confuse and conflate mental illness with weakness, thinking that it is something that can be ‘toughed out’. And I find that this kind of oversimplification and misunderstanding of the issue is also widely prevalent in Mizoram, where I am living right now. The other day, someone close to me remarked “Depression nei inti nazawng hi chu an rilru a no vang mai mai a ni” which roughly translates to accusing those who have/’claim to have’ depression of just being weak minded and self indulgent. I was aghast!! NO ONE, I REPEAT, NO ONE has the right to make such irresponsible sweeping generalizations on an issue that concerns the life of other people, an issue that is at the very core of the life of millions of people in the world. (At the same time, I also believe that the semantics problem, that of the word depression being casually thrown around to describe our everyday minor disappointments, setbacks etc further complicates the issue and our understanding of it. But that’s an issue for another day.)
So, if anyone who is reading this feels that he/she needs help, then please please know that there is absolutely no shame in admitting it, and reaching out to family, friends and mental health professionals for help. Mental health issues are medical issues, and can be managed and treated. But the road to managing it (I hesitate to use the term ‘recovery’ here since it may not apply in the sense that we commonly use it) is often long and complicated, littered with many bumps, detours and stop signs along the way. And what works for one person may not work for you. The irony of depression, as far as I’ve experienced it is this –It is when you are at your lowest that you have to be the most perceptive and strongest for yourself. So you have to pay attention to yourself, to your mind and soul, nurture yourself and recognize the little things that bring you joy and can sustain you during your darkest hours. It could be meditation, having a safe person, writing, reading, crafting, going for long walks, music, psychotherapy, gardening, drawing, looking after a pet etc etc, any permutation and combination thereof. For me, it has always been reading, writing and gardening. And foremost among them is writing, journaling. It is my main coping mechanism. It is how I try and make sense of my world, especially when there are too many clouds on my horizon.
Sample below a few of my writings during various bouts over the years.
I debated quite a bit about sharing these snippets because I am not especially proud of them, and I also find them quite harrowing and a bit too personal to share, to be honest. But I share them to illustrate this point – WE NEED AN OUTLET. What would have happened if I hadn’t had that outlet, that coping mechanism? How and where would I have channeled all that energy? ….. Of course, as with any other illness, there is no such thing as a cure-all, and we have to definitely consult mental health professionals to chart out the best course of action/treatment for our specific case. One may also get to a point where one needs to take meds, but that’s for you and your Doc to decide. My knowledge of and experience with medication is limited and not very positive, so I will refrain from commenting on it. Stanford University’s Professor Sapolsky has a fascinating lecture on the biology of depression, which is available on YouTube, and I highly recommend it for someone trying to make sense of the biology and the WHY.
There is another related issue that I want to briefly touch upon – a different and equally serious problem – which is that of the increasing glamorization of depression; of equating depression with creativity, of thinking that the two must inevitably go together, of people wearing ‘depression’ like a badge of honor. There are so many song lyrics, movies, TV shows, books, poems, blogs etc etc. that romanticize mental illness and substance abuse. Because, you know, Art. It has been romanticized and glorified to an extent that it has become, in a way, perversely aspirational, especially for young adults. BUT that is all bullcrap. There is nothing ‘edgy’ about depression. It is not ‘beautiful’ and ‘deep.’ It is, in fact, incredibly debilitating, absolutely crippling and painful. Writers, artists, anyone in the creative field, heck anyone for that matter can be emotionally healthy, functional AND still be creative and do great work. Now, isn’t that just great?
So, in conclusion, let us all work together to destigmatize & demystify mental health issues and listen, talk, discuss, be open about it and seek treatment for it like we would for any other illness.
Take care of yourselves.
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