My cellphone carrier recently sent me a message warning me about the symptoms for swine flu (sore throat, fever, and a runny nose in case you’re interested). Later, at a dinner party that evening, we talked about the dengue epidemic and the swine flu wave that seem to routinely ravage our cities. But as we talked about the ailments that are now part of our times, we politely declined to talk about the ‘depression epidemic’ that has swept through India with devastating effect. According to the World Health Organization, India is one of the most depressed countries in the world with a whopping 36% of Indians likely to suffer from major depression at some point in their lives. We can talk about dengue and swine flu but for some reason, we refuse to talk about depression.
Depression is a big word and it can mean many things. For some, it can mean feeling marooned in a faraway place that makes you lose interest in everything. Time crawls like a drunken ant moving back and forth until even the most mundane task seems impossible; eating is exhausting, holding a conversation is exhausting, and paradoxically, sleeping is exhausting too. For others, depression can manifest itself in physical symptoms: a friend described it to me saying “I feel like there are elephants sitting on my chest while I gasp, keep gasping for air that just refuses to enter my lungs.” He spent consecutive nights checking himself into hospitals demanding ECGs because with its tightness and strangulation, my friend was convinced that his panic attack was a heart attack.
For me, it was neither marooned island nor hospital – it was a spinning vortex. For hours on end, I would lie immobilized as a spinning top of thoughts dragged me in and spun me around with dizzying speed. My worst nightmares would become real in those moments and no amount of deep breathing, pranayam or positive visualization would help. The vortex would pull me down to dark waters and I felt that I had no choice but to swim in these suffocating depths day after day. The days began to feel unsurmountable and perhaps what was most upsetting was the casualness with which most people treated it. “Just snap out of it” my confused family and friends would tell me and I would try but no amount of ‘snapping’ seemed to help.
Research has demonstrated that depression can be triggered by big ‘life events’ such as childbirth. (In fact, postnatal depression has become so common that an influential government-appointed panel recently recommended mandatory depression screenings for every new mother in the US.) Apart from major events, depression can even be set off by the small stuff such as a stressful week at work – perhaps a bad quarter or sluggish sales – events that ordinarily would have been manageable but all of a sudden, they become too much. And if that wasn’t discomforting enough, here’s the kicker: researchers agree that in many cases, depression might not even need a trigger since many of us are simply predisposed to be anxious personalities (now is the time to blame your genes!) True to this theory, I still don’t know what triggered my depressive episode. In fact, my depression came at a time when I had many tides in my favor. It simply arrived one morning like an unwelcome guest that refused to leave my house and then began to isolate me from everyone else.
As I spun around in that vortex, well-meaning friends would often ask “but what is wrong? Tell me what it is.” It was so hard to pinpoint a reason and and so I simply stopped talking about it to anyone. And that isolation, that aloneness presented the real danger. In all the people I have spoken to who have conquered their depression, not one did it alone. Every single one of them eventually forced themselves to articulate the problem and reach out to someone who got them through it. For me, that breakthrough happened one afternoon when I was insisting to a friend I didn’t need to see anyone for this depression, it was an insult to my ego that I might need professional help to manage my own mind. She stared at me for a long time. We’ve known each other for years and she has seen me in the morning devoid of both makeup and coffee and charitably, decided to remain my friend. Without breaking eye contact, she calmly asked if I would see a doctor if I had broken my leg. “Of course,” I replied “obviously, I’ll go for a cast or an x-ray or whatever is needed.” That’s when it hit me – I needed to get help because what I was trying to do was walk on broken legs. There was no point in wondering how and why it happened, a part of me was broken and instead of trying to cobble together some homemade clumsy cast, I needed to see an expert. And there was no shame in that.
Soon after, I found a therapist and we went digging like two detectives on a mission. We pieced together clues and facts until we found the roots of my anxiety. Like physiotherapy for a broken leg, this therapy was painful too. In fact, most times it felt like she and I had embarked on a long confusing road with no map and no GPS. Progress was awkward and at many moments, I thought the therapy was entirely useless. And then ever so slowly, I began to feel lighter, almost like someone had lifted off an iron blanket from my back. I was able to really laugh again, to think, to really participate in life and as I stretched out my once-broken leg, I was relieved to find that it hit solid ground instead of dark waters.
There are many like me who have had the courage to share their stories; a psychologist friend tells me that many of her patients now ‘recognize’ her as their doctor in public which is a new phenomenon. At a recent wedding, a friend talked about taking anxiety medication with the same ease as one would talk about taking blood pressure medication. Deepika Padukone publically announced that she has battled depression and started a foundation to support others. But unfortunately there are many millions of others who put on a brave face and still feel compelled to suffer in silence because of the taboo around mental health. Or perhaps they think that their broken legs can never heal. I know its hard to imagine silent suffering in a world populated by brazen Tweets, attractive DPs and high-wattage happy emojis. But be sensitive, go beyond what meets the eye and you’ll find that there is much that is left unsaid. After all, even a happy emoji is nothing but a mask.