6 Indians Open Up About Living With Mental Illness

6 Indians Open Up About Living With Mental Illness

Two years ago, when a family friend’s son jumped to his death from their seventh floor balcony, my parents’ entire network of friends was left shaken. But it wasn’t in the way that I had expected, and at a dinner party a month or so after the incident I got to overhear statements that sum up India’s stance on mental illness pretty well. The general thoughts thrown around followed the “Oh the poor boy was depressed, what a shame, we had no idea!” to the more stark “What a coward, it was just a phase that would have passed, how could he do this to his parents!” and even “But he was from such a well-to-do, good family.”

What many seem to forget is that having a mental illness is not a choice someone makes, nor is it always a result of their circumstances. Nobody chooses to have Clinical Depression, Anorexia Nervosa or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and yet, it is made to seem that people might have a certain control over these matters.

As per a recent survey, 60 million Indians suffer from mental illness. Considering that’s a larger number than some countries’ entire population, why then is the mere mention of Mental Illness in our country met with stony silence even in 2017? While surveys show numbers skew higher for urban populations, few things cut across barriers of caste, class and gender as our disdain for those suffering from mental health issues. Why has it becomes a topic riddled with stigma and shame? Anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and depression are just a few of the terms on the spectrum of illnesses that are little acknowledged or even known of by society at large. And in today’s digital age, it hasn’t gotten any easier.

While the easy access to information and resources has been a boon to young people too afraid to ask the questions of their parents and guardians it comes with its own set of drawbacks. As social media usage rises on a daily basis, so has the constant need and pressure to please an audience that has little-to-nothing to do with our lives. We’re drawn to create an ideal false image of ourselves or our live, but this only leads to further isolation and alienation from people who may be in the same position as us, but you can never see what’s actually going on behind the dog-eared photo filters. India is a country of so many paradoxes it’s becoming hard to keep track - while our history is rich with sexual exploration, we condemn sexuality; the family-oriented society prides itself on its close-knit homogeneous nature, while family members stay tight-lipped on too many topics that are just just swept under the rug, fearing what your next-door Aunty would say. Saying mental illness has had a terrible portrayal in pop culture and the media would be a massive understatement too. And although this has started to change with a few realistic gems popping up in recent times, rarely do we talk about personal stories and experiences off the silver screen.

Here in India, there’s​ always an attitude that assumes a quick fix - exercise, yoga, or ‘it’s all in your head/control’ are merely useful tools to cope with mental illness. It is when they start being treated as cures, things get complicated. It needs to be clearly understood that mental health can be a long battle, one in which pity, judgment and accusations have no place. For so many suffering on a daily basis the greatest fear comes from an uneducated society who believe mental illness inconsequential in the face of physical illness.

Times have changed, as more and more courageous people speak up about living with mental illness, raising awareness of its mere existence and breaking the long remained ‘crazy’ and ‘paagal’ stigma it has been stuck with. This is all, of course, easier said than done, and when we put out a call to speak to people living with mental illness, the fact that only women reached out to us was particularly telling. It left us deliberating the absent voice of men when it comes to anything perceived as ‘weak’ in our patriarchal society.

Since May has been Mental Health Awareness Month, we wanted to provide a safe space for young Indians who survive, work, live, love and more with mental illness or disorders to take control of their own narrative in a country where it’s hard to put your hand up and talk about an issue without fear of judgement. As one of our contributors put it best, “going to seek professional help does not mean that one is ‘crazy’ or inadequate for a job involving a high skill set. There is nothing demeaning about seeking help if you think you need it.”

[The following is in no order of preference, you can read the second volume of the series here.]

I. Amaan | 25 | Conceptual Fashion Designer

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder - Depression - Borderline Eating Disorder

“I was diagnosed in September 2014, right after my graduation. I got diagnosed in a brief meeting. Expecting one label, I was given three. Unable to comprehend, I was rushed to attend the funeral of my grandfather and uncle the very next day (both unexpected deaths within an hour from each other), hence, giving me very less time to understand what was happening in my physical environment. My thoughts increased rapidly in both numbers as well as intensity, not able to comprehend everyday moments at a conscious level. Questioning my psychiatrist and psychologist on various aspects of the illnesses I was labelled with, I slowly began to recognise my symptoms and understanding/ accepting the so called chemical imbalance in my brain. It took me around two years to accept the third label, when the illness started progressing into periods of insomnia and other restraints.

I think I always knew something was perverse (dark) about the way I thought and felt from a very young age. I strongly believe that all of us have the same set of emotions, but for some people, certain emotions can be more dominant in nature, hence taking control over one’s mind, than the other way round. The process of learning and training myself to react to them (emotionally and mentally) was understood and practised from a young age. The process of filtering my uncountable number of thoughts at the same time came easy to me. However, things took a turn for me when I returned to Delhi after completing my studies. The various ‘restrictions’ and feelings of ‘not fitting in’ brought back previous struggles with thoughts and feelings of being ‘caged’.

Since I have a co-morbid condition, sometimes it’s hard for me to distinguish something positive from something that can be considered self destructive. It amplifies my insecurities, leading to a whirlwind of thoughts that end in a negative and impulsive frame of mind, within a fraction of a second. The leap into the ‘darkness’ of one’s mind and getting comfortable in it slowly starts becoming like second nature. A cycle which is hard, not only to identify, but to consciously act upon as well. I feel the most comfortable when I’m with nature (mountains, near a water body) - free from societal norms, in situations of adrenaline (skydiving, scuba diving) as well being in the creative field of conceptual garment design. The ‘inability ‘ of being able to filter multiple thoughts heeds my impulsive/ adventurous human nature, in turn aiding to the ability to take risks. I have been blessed by being given the opportunity to work and learn from some of the most creative, distinct minds in the industry of luxury fashion. Inhabiting a creative and stimulating environment has definitely helped me in becoming more comfortable with who I am, as well as aiding to my constant need to learn and be challenged. It’s difficult to live in a society full of rules and regulations, while having an experimental approach towards situations and other things is definitely something that comes easy to me.”

What do you love about yourself?

“I don’t believe in giving up.”

A misconception about your illness that bothers you?

“Lack of knowledge resulting into comments such as ‘It is all in your mind’ and ‘You can control it if you want.’ Like I said before, I strongly believe that all of us have the same set of emotions, but for some people, certain emotions can be more dominant in nature, hence taking control over one’s mind, than the other way round. One can never fully understand what is going on in someone else’s mind, so instead of trying to understand the speaker’s perspective, one should not try to guess or pin point on why the person could have that illness. A person should not be made to feel like they have to justify their illness (or why they feel ‘crazy’) in order to make someone understand that they’re just going through a difficult time. I believe that it takes a lot of courage when someone is blatantly trying to understand their own mind and asking for some sort of guidance.”

II. Ashwini Sanchez* | 31


“I was always a happy-go-lucky person and took things in my stride. I never cried unless I was extremely hurt or sad. I realised something was wrong when I found been crying for everything and was not able to handle simple things like getting through a day at work without getting anxious about something or the other and crying in the bathroom.

When I found out I didn’t have a choice but to accept my diagnosis. That I wasn’t good enough. The feelings of loneliness were hard to battle. But I did get help, in more ways than just a therapist. I had my friends who understood and were by my side always. I was never alone because of them and accepted the help without feeling ashamed about it

It helps that not too many people know about my condition. And I am lucky to have people who know how to treat me. My partner is used to my outbursts of emotions and is able to handle them with care. One time when my partner was out of town. And I was having a bad evening. I called him and I just ended up crying. My conversation began with hiccuping sobs, and I just cried for about 20 minutes. He just listened to me and didn’t say a word. Nothing. And when I had calmed down, he asked me to breathe. When I had finally gotten over the bout of crying and felt a bit better, he started to talk to me in calm tones. Asking me what happened and why I felt this way. It was easy for me to talk to him because I knew he wouldn’t judge me for whatever I was saying or going to say. It is easy to be open and honest when you know you’re not going to be judged.

Making friends is very easy, keeping them is difficult. But I do have a few who’ve stuck around, only because they’ve made an effort to understand me.”

What do you love about yourself?

“As of now? I love that I can be myself. And that I don’t have to worry if I have a mood swing, because I am surrounded by people that understand. I am blessed to have people in my life who make me feel loved and that I deserve to be loved and that I don’t have to go through life feeling like a miserable failure. It’s still hard on some days to love any thing, but it is easier to deal with now.”

A misconception about your illness that bothers you?

“I find it frustrating that people believe it’s easy to get over it. Like it’s an infection and that if you take antibiotics, it will go away. Or that it’s something so drastic that you are basically shunned and that you should be in a loony bin. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to deal with that directly.”

III. Kavita Sarmah | 21 | Artist

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - Schizoid Personality Disorder

“A bisexual artist living in Bombay, I was born in Assam to an abusive father and a schizophrenic mother. My parents separated when I was three years old when my mother was pregnant with my little sister; and because my elder sister and I were in my father’s custody — I never got to know my mother or my baby sister until recently, when I saw them after fourteen years on a short trip to Assam. I had a caretaker growing up, who is the only person I have ever loved besides my sister. Watching her being beaten, sexually exploited, tortured and mentally abused, and also being subjected to mental abuse myself — I developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, along with Schizoid Personality Disorder and a couple other things were/are taken into consideration; as mental illness is more grey than black and white, in 2015. 10/10 for a dramatic childhood, eh?

I was already quite aware that I had issues that I needed help with; even before being diagnosed. So when my psychiatrist with my therapist finally gave a name to it; validating it and assuring me that there is a way through this — I just felt really, really relieved. And so, acceptance came easily to me. When I finally knew what it was, suddenly there was hope; suddenly there was room for solutions and betterment... and oh, how badly was I looking for solutions! When you have lived most of your life in a hazy chaos of scribble-thoughts that has only built you a negative perspective of the world and yourself, and then one day someone tells you ‘Hey, the world is actually really wonderful, and you are magnificent! I can help you dull your scribbles and rewrite these beliefs you have. Do you want to come?’ You blissfully go.

So many times I feel, that my mental illness is treated like this insignificant thing that deserves no serious consideration. I have a hard time making strong, meaningful relationships (friendship or otherwise.) I have certain symptoms of SPD (Schizoid Personality Disorder), one of which is effortless detachment. I have always had a hard time bonding and forming real attachments to the people in my life, even though a part of me longs for such fulfilling relationships.

I think what comes easy to me now is compassion. I have come to realize that judgement comes naturally to us, but to have the awareness of saying ‘no’ to an initial judgement is necessary. It is one of those things that we slowly have to unlearn. From dealing with mental abuse, bullying, mental illness and just utter helplessness, I have found peace in empowering the next person going through similar things, or be of any little help possible.”

What do you love about yourself?

“The thing that I love the most about myself is the one that also trouble me at times; it’s that I am unpredictable. There is so much that I learn about myself everyday; I am a very exciting roommate to myself! I travel alone to beautifully different cities, impulsively buy an ukulele online at midnight, make charcoal drawings of strangers, make passionate love, cry at compliments, say awkward things in public and cringe, get art etched on my skin and just so much that makes me a very, fascinating life. I am thankful for exactly the person I am.”

Do you find that certain insecurities are amplified because of your diagnosis?

“I have always been a weird person (and very insecure about it). I was often bullied in school for being too quiet, or just existing as I naturally did. I have always had my guards up and never made strong, successful friendships or lived a day without mind-numbing anxiety. In fact on the last day of tenth grade, a handful of my classmates made these paper-badges for each student in the class based on their personalities, and I was given ‘Ms. Mysterious’. So when I was diagnosed with PTSD, I thought ‘Oh my god, Kavita. It is true — You are a weirdo!’ But the thing is: as I have started to understand my mental illness, I am gradually learning to treat myself with compassion. I have grown to accept and absolutely love the weirdness in me.”

Click here to read Kavita’s poignant article ‘My Mother, The Schizophrenic Who Shaped My Life’

IV. Bhakti | 29

Depression - Anxiety

Before I was officially diagnosed around 3 years ago I had often gone through ‘bad and low phases’, ‘problems’ and ‘lost interest in things.’ I had recognized them as signs of having depression but I wasn’t willing to seek professional help. Most of these problems, I dealt with them on my own, totally depending on my willpower and determination to get through them.

When it got too much, I took sabbaticals and breaks from work to ‘recharge’, often hoping that the next stint/work project would feel less stressful. I took one such break after a period of some extremely complicated personal problems and a highly stressful agency job. During this break, I fell physically ill. After a long duration of medication, I felt better and decided to return to work. I found a job and decided to join while recuperating. I joined, stayed at work for one day and returned home unable to stop crying. It was the trigger. It was at this point that I realized that I wasn’t just unwell physically, it was this time that I sought professional help.

Reaching out for help and telling my family was perhaps one of the hardest parts of this journey. I have been blessed with a family that has always been supportive and has no negativity or prejudice regarding mental illnesses. But as I was never the person who said that I need help, saying it aloud was the hardest task.

Acceptance and awareness of having mental illnesses helped me a make sense of things that wouldn’t make sense otherwise - things that I had always thought as my weaknesses much easier. As an introvert I have very few friends. There are handful of friends who have always been supportive irrespective of whether they were aware of my struggles. I cannot stress on how much family’s acceptance has helped me. The ability to say that ‘I am not feeling like myself right now, please let me be’ or just generally asking for space or help without fear is the only source of unconditional comfort in my life. And this unconditional comfort is especially important as I had to take medication, which itself is a turbulent long process.

If I feel someone around me struggling, I am always ready to share my experiences no matter how difficult it is to talk about it. It always helps to talk to someone who can relate.

For me, explaining things can be difficult. Even the most sympathetic people cannot always understand what it means to live with these illnesses. There is a ton of literature out there to educate people but the fact is that each person has a different story, a different experience. Not being able to describe or explain can have a lot of adverse effects. It can lead to misunderstandings or a rift in relationships.

Humor comes easily to me. Humor is also comforting. I often crack jokes sitting in front of the psychiatrist or people I am comfortable with. Taking everything too seriously can take a toll.”

What do you love about yourself?

“I love that I have been resilient through all this time and that I have never given up or doubted my decisions to seek professional help or take medication. This entire process not only involves strength and resilience, but it also means going through a lot of situations and experiences that may be painful or embarrassing. I also feel fortunate that I am able to differentiate - this entire rollercoaster ride of finding medications that work is probably one of the most difficult things that one has to go through. Sometimes, it can make things worse. In these situations, I have had to be very aware of who I am without the disease. It is extremely essential to know in these moments that it is your disease talking or your medication’s side effects and that you are not your negative thoughts.”

Advice you’d give someone who has just been diagnosed with a mental illness

“Be patient. It isn’t an easy ride but it won’t be as bad as where you’ve been. Don’t look at your psychiatrist or counsellor or therapist as professionals but think of them as a support system. This especially holds true for the people who seek help without their friends or family’s knowledge. If you don’t find a support from them, find the support here and use it to get better.

Know yourself and always remember it. There will be days when you will need to remember how you were before all of this started. Even if you fail, keep attempting to do the things you like or try new things that you think you might like. Find the things you find comfort in. Learn to recognize between your own thoughts/feelings and the disease.

There will be loss. Friends will become distant, you might lose opportunities, you might lose lovers. It is best to accept it. Don’t let anything that holds you back return to your life.

Believe that you will get over it, even when it seems impossible.”

V. Poulami Seal | 22 | PG Student

Clinical Depression

“In January last year, I was diagnosed with moderate clinical depression. I was told that though it’s just been diagnosed, I have had it for quite a few years. It became evident during protests for Rohit Vemula and I found that I could do nothing but cry and sleep, which is when I sought help from my university counsellor. I already kind of knew, so when my it was confirmed I was relieved to know why I was behaving so strangely and I was ready to fight it then and there.

I have a lot of insecurities. I am fat, I was abused when I was a child, I can’t trust people, I feel like a black hole which just sucks in everything that comes its way. I can’t think straight. I cry most of the time. I am scared to suffer all my life. I don’t even know what I am writing. It just comes back every time you want to evade it. It’s tiring. I try to be fine. But sadly I can’t. There were times in my life when I felt like killing myself. But sometimes there are moments which pull me out of that depressed whole. When someone appreciates my work, or me or anything associated with me. A little love from people. When I feel better I start engaging myself in different art forms. I start to doodle and paint again.

I haven’t felt alienated by my disorder. In University, my friends and I always try to discuss depression with people who don’t understand it. My parents are still skeptical about my situation and they don’t know how to help me. People think that depression is nothing. It is we who are overthinking. At least my parents made that assumption. I don’t know how to explain it to them. Maybe they should be around when I am having an anxiety attack to show them how brutal it is.

It is always very difficult for one thing to hold my interest. I am scared of relationships, even friendships. I always feel that they will hurt me and go away.”

What do you love about yourself?

“I started engaging myself in different art forms. I started to doodle and paint again. Whenever I go through one such phase I try to calm myself down by doing that. I draw for people. I read. I actually started reading and writing again. I am still trying to figure myself out, But the one thing that I love is that I am trying to fight it.”

A misconception about your illness that bothers you?

“The misconception people have is that they think depression is nothing - it is we who are overthinking. At least my parents made that assumption. I don’t know how to explain it to them. Maybe they should be around when I am having an anxiety attack to show them how brutal it is.”

VI. Sheena Malhotra | 32 | Educationalist with an NGO

Anorexia Nervosa

“I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa when I was 18 years old. I was always aware that I was doing something different but I didn’t realize how far I had taken it or that it was necessarily ‘not ok’ for me to behave like I was. Even when I continued losing weight I knew that weighing so little was not particularly normal, however when one suffers from such an illness the numbers and scales don’t matter. What matters is how you see yourself in the mirror and what I saw I didn’t like. You sort of become a perfectionist in trying to accomplish something that perhaps doesn’t exist.

I was in such a mindframe that nothing at that moment could make me realize that something was not ok or ok for me. It took me an extremely long time to accept the diagnosis. Actually, I would say that I accepted my diagnosis only a few years after my recovery and treatment was completed. There wasn’t a sudden moment that I feel I came to accept it. But over time I just realized that I was open to talk about my history as something that happened to me as opposed to it being a shameful topic.

Initially, the concept of body image and my food habits was something that I was insecure with. Today, I am aware that my relationship with food and my body is something that I always will have to pay attention to but I wouldn’t say that I am insecure about it anymore. Till today what I do find difficult to do is the regularity of eating meals. It’s not rare for me to skip a meal unintentionally. But, I am aware that it is something that I need to work on and continue doing so on regular basis.

Initially when I tell people about my disorder, most people feel that I am fragile and are nervous to ask me questions in relation to my past. However, once they start talking to me they realize it’s a topic that does not affect me anymore and I am happy to speak about it.”

What do you love about yourself?

“I love the way that I have evolved as a person. I think that I would be a selfish, insensitive person if it weren’t for my eating disorder.”

A misconception about your illness that bothers you?

“People think that you cannot truly recover from an eating disorder especially as severe as anorexia nervosa. I do agree that it is hard and takes a lot of time and commitment. However, with the correct professionals and support, it can easily be achieved. Furthermore, today I would say that I have a much better relationship with my body than most of my peers around me.”

*****Name has been changed to protect the identity of the contributor as per their request

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Featured illustration by Raul Miranda

If you would like the join the conversation and share your story, write in to editor@homegrown.co.in with the subject line ‘MENTAL HEALTH’.