Over the past few months, with much of the world in lockdown, thanks to the coronavirus, the conversation around mental health has grown louder. Besides the bits we hear about “nature healing” with humans confined to their homes, this is probably the best outcome of the pandemic. And I have something to add to this conversation, a story that many would be able to understand and relate to.
When India first declared a 21-day lockdown back in March, I didn’t react well. I anticipated what was going to happen in the coming weeks. Tickets to get home to Kolkata from Mumbai were either unavailable or too exorbitant to consider. And I knew: it’s going to be a tough couple of months.
As someone with a mix of anxiety, monophobia and on and off battles with depression, the thought of getting through this period by myself sent me into a frenzy, triggering a panic attack. I called my partner in an effort to calm myself down. It worked then, but I knew that wasn’t the last of it. I knew it. And I had to warn him.
“Come home. Just book a flight for tonight and come home.”
My father’s words echoed in my mind over the next few weeks whenever I tried to get my breathing and heart rate under control. I kicked myself at times, and on others, I told myself it was the right decision. I had made the right choice by staying back, not putting my elderly parents at risk by going through airports, though that didn’t suppress the longing for home.
The consequences I knew there would be of spending weeks and months in isolation—I lived in an apartment by myself—began to manifest, taking a toll on my relationship, only for us to have a huge blow-up one day. “I’m done,” he said. I had to take a pause for what he said to sink in. “I’m done,” he repeated. I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I had let it come to this. (Though I know it takes two to tango.) Knowing what was at stake, what I could lose, I knew I had to try harder and work on myself. And so began what turned out to be yet another battle with acute anxiety and depression.
There’s a backstory to this turmoil, why isolation affects me as extremely as it does. In 2013, I had moved to Chennai for work when I began to date a friend I knew since school (I was 23 then). What I didn’t know was the gaslighting that would ensue. Being away from home and friends and staying in an apartment by myself at the time all took their toll and affected not just my present but all my future relationships:
Trust doesn’t come easy. Surely not as easy as the need to say sorry—a result of months of gaslighting and the anxiety it inculcated in me. And being home alone allows my mind to wander a little too easily—as many might relate—and often leads to painful anxiety attacks. (Yes, painful. Because anxiety has physical symptoms like a pounding heart, stomach upsets, stress headaches and body aches.) Follow that up with being ghosted and feelings of neglect and abandonment, and my mind was not quite what it used to be.
So acknowledgement that there was a problem was the first step. Seeking help was the next. I knew I had to work on myself. Not just for my relationship, but for myself. I got in touch with a well-known psychologist in Mumbai the very day my partner and I had a fight. And we began to schedule sessions regularly. I think I scared her with the stories I told her of my past relationships, friends and childhood. She couldn’t keep a straight face as much as she tried. I had her concerned enough for her to refer me to a psychiatrist who could prescribe medication to set the balance of chemicals in mind right and help me cope better, feel better.
I must tell you that whatever transpired above was after a month of staying alone. That’s just 30 days. Though I had already lost track and often didn’t know what day or even time of the day it was. Living alone is alright when you have somewhere to be most of the day. (But work from home didn’t offer me that respite at the moment.) Otherwise, it’s isolating and severely lonely, no matter how many video calls you make in a day. It’s even worse when you have COVID scares in the form of recurrent high fever, loss of appetite, sore throat and absolutely no energy. I needed even more help at that point. It seemed like a never-ending streak of bad luck.
At this point, I turned to watch a lot of television, a habit I lost since moving away from home in 2011. I can’t say that I really watched anything, though. On most occasions, I kept the TV on only for ambient noise, to drown the silence and my uncontrollable thoughts. These lonesome days also had me turn to art. And I must tell you, art therapy is very effective. Hours of pen and brush strokes, with your mind filled with nothing but what the next pattern could be, made me realise I was a fool for having stopped sketching for lack of time.
In the midst of all the Friends and Big Bang Theory and artwork, I turned to cooking, as well. Making familiar dishes only made me feel closer to my mother, though I can’t say there was much of eating appetite was negative. Energy, even lower.
The phone calls continued. Persistent ones to my partner to win him back and countless ones to my parents, my one constant and ray of sunshine every morning, afternoon, evening and night. They were my primary connections to the outside world as paranoia (and more anxiety) kept me away from stepping out due to fear of coming in contact with an infected individual. Precautions or not.
Phone calls, art therapy and my culinary prowess aside, I found another lifeline amid the pandemic that helped me cope with depression and fight the urge to do nothing but stay curled up in bed: exercising. I won’t sugarcoat it nor pretend that I’m not proud of myself for being able to work out every day without fail despite the depression weighing me down and lack of fuel in the form of food. It wasn’t the healthiest tactic, I’m aware. Though my focus at that point was to be able to work on my mind, and exercising did just that. Endorphins work wonders.
This is where I tell you that things weren’t as productive as I’m making it sound. Getting out of bed in the morning was the toughest part of the day, followed by when it was time to try to close the door on my running, unwanted thoughts to try to sleep. Finding the motivation to start my work for the day drained me of what little energy I had. Knowing that I needed to cook and then eat was another taxing thought as it required getting out of bed. The depression weighed down every thought and activity, making every movement a struggle.
And so, 30 days turned to 50, 50 to 80 and finally, 80 to 100. And it was on the 100th day that I finally flew home to Kolkata after fights reopened and safety measures seemed adequate. After 100 days in isolation, I saw my father heave a huge sigh of relief when he saw me emerge at the airport. I saw my mother delighted at getting to feed me. I felt my shoulders relax. I was home.
So what’s the point of relating these events to you? There’s just one—to draw attention to the fact that it’s alright to acknowledge when something’s wrong and seek help. Mental health is a very real reality. There wouldn’t be an entire branch of science dedicated to it if it weren’t. People need to realise that no aspect of their life is going to be entirely alright unless their mind is. There are too many wires in our heads that need to function in tandem for our bodies to function optimally. Sometimes, people need help to untangle these wires. And that’s perfectly alright.
There needs to be a better understanding in society about what mental health really is. Depression isn’t just feeling sad. It’s far from it. It’s a paralysing feeling that kills the drive to do anything at all. Anxiety, too, is another paralysing form of fear. Fear of fear. Fear of not being enough, doing enough. Club them together and it’s a battle that very few truly understand.
I’m sure the lockdown hasn’t been easy to endure for many, some more than others. There’s far too much uncertainty, which, in turn, would make things harder for those who need things set in stone. Those with anxiety fall into this category.
The one consequence of this lockdown that I’m grateful for, as I mentioned earlier, is the number of voices speaking up for greater emphasis on mental health. Companies, too, seem to have opened up to the need for mental health days. The social stigma around it, though, is what remains to be flushed. As the writer of this piece, I’m giving myself the liberty to say that society is always going to have opinions and is always going to want to talk. People need to move past it. If you need help, it’s for yourself, not for anyone else. You need to think about your well-being and yours alone. You aren’t doing this for anyone but yourself. And you need to remember that.
Being isolated for 100 days, there are a few tricks I learned to make myself feel better when needed. Whenever I felt myself getting anxious, my heart beginning to race, I tried to look around my house at things that held fond memories—photographs I have up on the walls, the panda stuffed toy my father got me years ago, the little pooja setup my mother helped with, a little piggy bank I picked up on one of my trips with my partner… I cooked food that reminded me of my mother. I spoke to dad, whose wisdom and strength soothed me. I spoke to my partner whose voice alone calmed me. I reconnected with friends over video calls; increased my frequency of calls to my parents; worked out regularly; sketched; set up a routine.
Today, I’m on monitored medication for depression. And I’m happy about it. Of course, not happy that I need to fight with myself to just get out of bed in the morning, but that I’m taking the help I once didn’t know I desperately needed. And I can say for sure that every day, I feel much better, stronger than the day before. This thought alone keeps me going, keeps me regular at therapy and keeps me happy. Take my word for it. Seek therapy. And don’t suffer in isolation like I once did.