Depression is not a choice, it is not a phase, or a mood, or a personality flaw – it is the experience of being unable to come up for air.
I grew up believing that asking for help was an admission of weakness. My house was an unhappy place, and in-between endless emails and empty whiskey glasses, I found my parents really didn’t have that much time to raise their children.
So, I raised myself – on wisdom hidden in the lingering smell of an old bookcase, a world in which you could ride on the backs of dragons in the evening and still make it home for dinner. Where friends would hold your place in line while you tied your shoelaces and the disgruntled neighbourhood uncle would eventually return your cricket ball.
The real world, it turned out, was governed by laws and codes that weren’t always built on the foundations of kindness, and I learnt quickly that self-sufficiency was a requirement for survival, not a choice. I moved from empty dinner tables at home to unwelcoming social ladders in school, and somewhere amid this constant shuffling back and forth, I tripped – I had forgotten to tie my shoelaces, and the line moved forward without me.
Depression is a failed lesson in swimming – your arms burn with the effort it takes to stay afloat, but you can’t quite figure out why the water keeps pulling you down. It’s drowning, inside yourself, till the light of the sun is only a distant idea you remember seeing once.
That’s the tragic beauty of it all – nobody around you can see the weights tied to your ankles. Often, neither can you. So, everyone reaches the same logical conclusion – that maybe you’re just a bad swimmer. That maybe you’re not trying hard enough. That maybe, you’re just a weak person, a lazy student, an inefficient time manager, a bad friend, a selfish daughter.
I remember breaking my foot in the 10th grade, and receiving three cards and free ice creams for the tragic accident I had just survived. When I had bronchitis, friends brought me chocolate. When I spent a month at home recently because of typhoid, five of my friends came to visit, bringing Netflix and stories from the world outside my window. When I told them, “I think I’m going through another depressive episode”, they asked me to look harder in my drawers for a positive attitude. When I said I may need “therapy”, they said “therapy therapy? Or like physio-therapy?”
Society denied me a vocabulary to talk about the mind as a crumbling building, so I made up my own. I describe kindness like an object – a tangible shape of the soul you can touch, it’s smooth, soft, with rounded edges, like the outline of a dog’s snout – I call it ‘fluffy’. I call the days I can’t get out of bed, bad days, weeks I forget how to love myself ‘sad bubbles’ – because the air gets stuck at the base of my throat, my lungs expand and freeze with an anxiety that, I promise you, feels as real as a fracture, as debilitating as asthma, as lonely as a month of typhoid.
A close friend told me that my negativity annoys him; I could just about muster a whispered apology. We spend vast amounts of our energy criticising those that need help, but not questioning the levels of empathy of those that refuse to provide it. The country has only 0.301 psychiatrists for every 100,000 people suffering from mental illness, and instead of directing our efforts to make substantial institutional changes, we ask our boys to “man up” and our girls to “get over your PMS”.
More than 58 million people in India are struggling to swim, and yet we never wonder if there’s something wrong with the water, or the instructor, or the age at which we’re thrown in at the deep end. It’s easier to believe there isn’t a problem than admit that you might be complicit.
The act of silencing works through internalised shame. Whose shame are we hiding – is it our own, or is it actually the world’s? More people die from suicide every year than they do from war. Depression is not a choice, it is not a phase, or a mood, or a personality flaw – it is the experience of being unable to come up for air, of suffocating in the ebb and flow of your own brainwaves.
Passing the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, is a legislative step in the right direction, but access to healthcare is only one side of the story if your child will come home with signs that say ‘freak’ or ‘crazy’ stuck to her backpack. The government’s intentions seem pure, but only a meagre one or two per cent of the Union Budget is dedicated to the entire health sector, out of which 0.06 per cent is spent on mental healthcare.
If, someday, the overworked computer analyst is able to cite ‘sad bubble’ as a legitimate reason to call in sick, then I think we would have made some progress.