World Mental Health Day Health

How literature and love helped me deal with loss

Representational image.  

Trigger warning: The following article mentions suicide, and may be disturbing for some

Tu paagal toh nahi hai (Are you mad)?” The ragpicker said, not angrily, but then proceeded to thrash me.

Solitude, a soulmate

Sadness has been an integral part of my life: the sadness of losing loved ones, friends, family members. I would read of a stranger’s death and skip a meal, brood. I loved it, this being alone, being sad. I was surrounded by family and friends, all of whom loved me, yet I revelled in solitude. I don’t know when I began to love melancholy in cinema, and dreamt of being Rajesh Khanna from Anand or Guru Dutt in Kaagaz ke Phool.

Why would anyone feel alone amidst so many people? It is hard to explain, but easy to understand if you are in depression — a condition I was diagnosed with only later in life, but probably had even as a boy — where you want to shut yourself off from the world and just disappear.

The first time it came to the fore was when I was 12 years old. I was emotionally attached to my sister-in-law. She was a friend, sister, mother, and I drew inspiration from her. One day, she scolded me for something silly and my world seemed to have crashed. I slipped out of her home in Delhi and wandered around, looking for ways to end my sadness. Over the next few days, I contemplated suicide many times over, showing up at a spot in the city often.

This one time, a ragpicker had been observing me, and that day, two strong hands pulled me back from the brink. He dragged me to the police station nearby, and I pleaded with them to let me go. They took pity on me, and did. I returned to my sister-in-law’s arms and just broke down.

That was my first brush with death. I grew up with the guilt of having caused suffering to my vahini (Marathi for sister-in-law). I also grew up avoiding people, not turning up for social events, because I wanted to stay in my room. I never understood why; my family thought it was the anger that goes with teenage years. It wasn’t.

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Working at it

As a sports journalist travelling around the world, I have walked around both strange and familiar cities alone, not wanting to communicate with people. Many have misunderstood this to mean that I call only when I want something.

Playing football and cricket, and my sports writing kept me afloat, but I did not have the courage to confide in anyone that there was something wrong inside. What would they think of me?

I had the best parents. They pampered me, and then I lost them in quick succession when I was 30. Much before they took leave of this world, they had come to understand what some of my friends thought were my “weird” ways. Being alone was weird.

Then 15 years ago, my family doctor confirmed I was suffering from acute depression, when I repeated the suicidal episode. This time, I had my wonderful wife and son — Sunanda and Akshay — and office colleague C Rajshekhar Rao to look after me. They hijacked me from my work, and sent me off to the mountains — 15 days of bliss. I came to terms with myself and settled into a routine, looking to make new friends, basically to convince everyone that I was normal.

Only a few knew. Kadambari Murali Wade, a fellow journalist at the time, was one, and would speak to me for hours on end over the phone.

Books, my saviour

I looked for refuge in books and for peace by forging new friendships. In fact, I excelled at striking up conversations with strangers of all ages, mainly because they wouldn’t ask me, “Tu paagal toh nahi hai?” I wasn’t sure if it was written on my face, this sadness. I dreaded the mirror because it reflected a sorrowful image. I decided to fight it by immersing myself in work.

My coping mechanisms also lay in writings on spirituality. The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda became a companion and I loved it when Virat Kohli tweeted a selfie with that book a few years ago. Not that he had my mental health condition. Swami Vivekananda also became my new friend.

Of course, I was ravaged time and again by painful memories of losing the people I loved, one by one — in just four years, I had lost three close friends. The realisation that I wouldn’t see them again would leave me acutely depressed. It would become worse when seeking help from friends — as grateful I am for them, at the time, I felt they all had their own worlds and could not always spare time for me.

During the lockdown

My low moods were becoming more frequent and damaging, and worsened after the lockdown. My diabetes and hypertension forced me to stay home for months.

I began to read literature online about battling depression. I was never convinced that counselling would heal my mental state. I believed in facing it on my own. But a few online counselling workshops during this period gave me the strength to come to terms with life and my condition again.

Then I got this priceless recommendation from a friend. I ordered Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari and slowly accepted that depression was a condition that could be dealt with, and that the stigma attached to it should be broken — hence I am writing this.

I realised that your best friends are at home: my family, and my childhood friend Ghaus Mohammad. They have all the time for you. I have learnt to smile again, thanks to them. I have acquired the courage to accept my condition and look for ways to conquer it, rather than deny it or pretend it isn’t there: a daily walk, reading a variety of literature, and writing that often gives me an escape. I have learnt to enjoy my life in the moment.

To the question, ‘Tu paagal toh nahi hai?’ I would say, I am seeking help, not attention.

The writer is a veteran sports journalist

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Printable version | Oct 29, 2020 12:26:46 PM |

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