… the wind will rise,
We can only close the shutters.
from Adrienne Rich’s Storm Warnings
Many years ago, I went to a psychiatrist to help myself get out of a terrible bout of depression. It had lasted several days, and by then I was really scared I’d do something to myself. The only thing that gave me some relief was to sit in the beach and read P.G.Wodehouse. But it really alarmed me that I could not laugh at all. Once, reading about some antics of Bertram Wooster’s, I found myself just smiling. I did not break out into my signature laughter, a cross between a horse’s neigh and the sound of an automobile engine trying to resurrect itself. No, all I could do was smile. I decided to force myself to laugh. My theatre director had taught me how to laugh on demand. I summoned all my reserve energies and I faked a laugh. I succeeded, but very soon I was sobbing.
Anyway. I wanted my dad to be with me when I spoke to the shrink. After about forty five minutes of his chatting me up, the doctor asked if my dad could wait outside. Then he asked me, “Do you have anything to share about your sexuality?” I said I was gay. For a moment, he sat back in his chair with an air of triumph. Ooooh, he has put his finger on the very source of my mental health issues, my sexual deviance! Then he leaned forward and said to me, “Does your dad know?” “Not yet,” I replied. He shot me a warning glance and said, “It will devastate him.”
Well, in the months that followed, nothing devastated me more than that comment and his piercing glance that pinned me to the pages of some medical book somewhere that said I was sick. But, for then, he sent me home with some anti-depressants. I never took them. When my dad gave them to me every night, I hid them in my bag and threw them out on my way to college.
I know some of you have suffered a lot more in the hands of shrinks. I am not interested in calibrating and ranking degrees of suffering. I just want to share what it has been to live and cope with some form of mental illness.
I think I have paid a heavy emotional and social price since childhood because of my sharp mood swings and the associated unpredictability. Like it is not bad enough to be tossed about like a tennis ball between emotional states, you also have to clean up the mess when you get out of the game. You will have to make up for the classes you missed, exams you failed to appear for, assignments you never got to finish, etc.
I really enjoyed going to school despite the taunts and jibes about my glorious sissiness, because my teachers were wonderful. My way of coping with the cruelty of fellow children was to ingratiate myself to the teachers, become their pet and position myself as someone the boys could not pick on with impunity. Some of you are familiar with this strategy, aren’t you? Don’t you think it is all exhausting work? But I made things hard even for these loving teachers when I simply did not go to school on many days. Whenever I woke up feeling like I was alone and hunted in the world, I refused to go to school. Or I invented some ailment to convince my parents not to send me to school. And it usually happened that I missed school for three or four days in a row. This was a pattern. Even the teachers who adored me found it hard to justify to others my absences. It came be seen that I was either taking undue advantage of the goodwill I had earned from the school, or I was a total hypochondriac.
Believe me or not, this continued into my university days. To add to my depression woes, I also had chronic migraines which tormented me like evil ghosts sucking the life out of me. And every time I returned to school/ college/ university, everyone thought I was just a weak-willed hypochondriac and not to be taken seriously. I don’t think I want to blame them. We had no framework then to think about mental health; we still don’t. If you felt low, you just picked yourself up, motivated yourself somehow and marched on like an intrepid warrior. The scores of self-help books on my shelf, which were all bought during that time of my life, bear testimony to this view.
I will tell you where I have lost most. People. My terrible mood swings and my sudden withdrawals perplexed the best of my friends. They did not know how to be with me. They did not know what the boundaries were. And I was not helping. I couldn’t. But it was not fair to them. Those who had a sense that I was suffering hung around patiently. Others simply thought I was blowing hot and cold. The way I saw it, well, why should they complicate their lives by having to deal with my ups and downs? ‘Drama queen’ was a label. ‘Intense’ was the adjective used often. All of it scared boyfriends away – prospective ones as well as actual ones.
One of the important decisions I had to make was to separate my sexuality from my mental health issues. I chose not to attribute any causal link between them. But to this day I am scared that people will make some such simplistic connection and pathologize my queerness. Why else do you think I am writing this under a pseudonym? I imagine terrible situations. I have been carefully peeping out of this closet for a while now, but I am not ready to fling it open yet. Also, for me, the whole closet analogy is getting very jaded. But that’s for another day.
I had to get creative with my life. I knew I could not do a nine-to-five job, because my sleep and diet patterns have always been askew. Unless I am on medication, I cannot sleep most nights. I read all night, and I am total bitch to everyone the next day.
I had to fashion myself into a freelancer. I saw that the art I practiced was a good antidote to my bipolarity, so I started finding the right opportunities to do just that. One thing I still have not mastered is how to let at least very close friends know when I am withdrawing. Often, I don’t see them coming. I am walking, turning around a corner, and there they are. I am doing fine, and then suddenly something cuts me down.
Also, very few people take your problem seriously unless it is of some extreme kind. People say things like, “Oh, depression is very common. I read this statistic somewhere….” True. But, as the African American writer and teacher bell hooks has put it in the context of dysfunctional families, just because we are all dysfunctional in some way or another, it does not mean dysfunctionality has to be a norm. But then it seems to be a larger cultural problem: we don’t acknowledge violence as violence unless it is absolutely gory and terrible; we don’t count emotional violence as violence at all; and you don’t have a mental illness unless it is the kind that calls for institutionalization or some other kind of drastic intervention. Ironically, those who accuse you of creating drama often don’t take you seriously unless there is some drama!
As I write this, I am grappling with the question of which tense to use! Now that I have been helping myself with therapy, medication, meditation and reading, should I speak of my problems in the past tense? On the other hand, I wonder if it is really such a wonderful thing to be such a function of medication. But you know what? I am going to be at it as long as I need. I work with trusted people.
One day at a time. That’s what I tell myself.
See you soon
Orinam Editor’s note: Vinodhan writes more about how he copes with depression in Spells and Charms.