Bell curve

Long ago, a diagnostic report appeared in my name, and it spat out the words moderate intensity manic depression. I was 17, I had just done the unthinkable and flunked a year in school. My parents all but gave up on me. I was supposed to be gearing up for Joint Entrance coaching classes and preparing for a degree in medicine. Most of my family studied science in some form, and I was expected to follow suit. With my failing the annual examination, my parents were shattered. Some relatives expressed their disappointment. I brought shame upon our collective educated, middle-class, Bengali upbringing. I hated myself, and was forced to take up Business Studies to finish my school education. Letting go of the reins, I loathed the two years of accountancy books and case studies, and drew myself into a shell.

Resentment and misplaced anger at my parents was my stance for years. It was later that I understood that my parents' decisions have been in my better interests. Given the situation, it was the best they could do. I have been guilty ever since, for blaming and pushing them away through the growing up years.   

A year's worth of tiny white pills were supposed to regulate my brain's dopamine cycle. I was skinny, but by the end of that year of antidepressants, I bloated up and became sluggish. I didn't seem to mind anything thrown at me. In time, the medical intervention was ruled ineffective, and I was put into counselling until the end of my school studies. The diagnosis was bipolar disorder with occasional bouts of depression.

My grandmother used to say that madness of some sort runs in our family. My father, despite being a healthy, active man in his early seventies, has his periods of crippling depression. I grew up hearing him insist that an idle mind is the devil's workshop. After his diagnosis 10 years ago, baba has been on a low-level course of Lithium tablets for life, walking up to the cupboard every evening for the small, white pill from the medicine drawer.

There would be days and weeks that I would want to curl up in bed and stay that way for as long as possible. I would loathe the notion of listening to music or reading, and instead spend long minutes staring at walls. There would be moments where the sounds of footsteps in the building would become intolerable, sticking daggers through the mind for no real reason at all. Being depressed does funny things to you. And when you realise just how silly it all sounds to anyone that is not yourself, you grow afraid. "Just how do I expect others to understand? How do I deal with this for the rest of my life?"

The condition is caused by minute, imperceptible changes in the brain chemistry, and is a genetic trait that appears in one in every 10-odd people. Periods of despair and hopelessness follow times of frenetic energy. Mania begins in the guts. You can feel the manic phase rising, rising, expanding, a warm, excited balloon growing inside you, prying against the ribs, leaving you tense, your muscles taut for action. The brain sparks with a million thoughts and you feel like you can do anything. To paraphrase Kay Redfield Jamison, who writes in her book An Unquiet Mind

"The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find better and brighter ones. Shyness goes, the right words and gestures are suddenly there, the power to captivate others a felt certainty. There are interests found in uninteresting people..."

Before long, the ebb sets. The balloon deflates, you can feel it shrinking, sinking, a vacuum where there should be none. And no matter what you do, you don't feel like moving a limb, and it doesn't bother you. To say that depression means feeling sad is incorrect. You feel selfish and pathetic, unable to connect with anyone. Days pass, and you watch your self-worth turn to a neat zero, but it is more than just sadness. There are times when you do not feel anything at all. 

One of the worst things depression does to a person is mess the brain's perspective of reality. In an instant, other people's lives seem tinged with a sort of glow, distant, unreachable. All of a sudden, folks around you seem to be better off in small, subtle ways. You stumble through life as if in a fog, unable to perform simple tasks like choosing dessert from a menu card. Although you know that this is just your brain picking up selected details from a larger picture, you cannot, for the life of you, get a better vantage point. And you keep mulling over the question of just how do they do it?

Depression makes you self-absorbed, you get locked into brooding on your own troubles. People telling you to cheer up becomes irritating. You shudder at the thought of long phone conversations, and get wracked with anxiety at the thought of a social gathering. "How on earth will I pass the time? How do I hold up the conversation? What is the point to this?" Simple tasks leave you drained. It takes tremendous willpower to wake up in the morning, bathe, and rush out of the door for work. The body feels heavy, and you hate yourself for not being those folks who go for a run every morning, travel the world, find time for social causes, and work hard.

Guilt follows. You know you have it better than others. Someone much older than me once told me that things such as depression are "modern diseases". That I just needed to get up and get going. That I was being lazy. Self-help books and optimism-laden websites emphasise on going out there and doing things that matter. But when you are in a trough, it feels like irrelevant noise. When you are in it, you do not want to go see the world, experience life, read, travel. You cannot
I have spent a large part of my adult life feeling guilty for being privileged. And truth be told, stuck in the top ten percentile of this massive, chaotic country does not make it easy. Somewhere at the back of the mind, there's an uneasy knowledge. A certain understanding that this life is little else than mediocrity, pushed and shoved in the right directions till it lands up in a respectable place. And because I am here not by heartbreaking struggle, but by chance and coincidence, I should work that much harder to make it worthwhile. But when the mania phase is over, I cannot. 

In all honesty, it is not all doom and gloom. I have learned that talking helps, and it's good to have someone you can trust and call up anytime. I am lucky to have an understanding wife who lets me off easy on not so great days and nights. My mother is happy to hear my voice over the telephone, and offers an encouraging word or more when I need it. 

It has become important to come to terms with the person I am becoming, and learn to live with the warts and the flaws. There is a growing understanding that this isn't meant to be easy, and that sometimes, the mind may get broken. And that dusting off and moving on can be tough. Very tough.

The second piece of wisdom in this rather literal rollercoaster ride was the understanding that the pursuit of happiness is in itself, incomplete and flawed. In the end, you just need to keep pushing against the most immovable of obstacles with the hope that it would yield some form of meaning. Emily Esfahani Smith explains this in a moving story from the Atlantic.

I have a long way until I make peace with manic depression, There is no easy way to reveal embarrassing details out in public without it all appearing silly. But I decided I'd write this either way, with honesty and without shame. In the larger scheme of the world, things such as mood swings seem so miniscule, insignificant. It appears as an obsession of the privileged who have lots of time and little actual crises to deal with in life (not true, as it turns out). 

I know this mental turbulence will be with me for the rest of my life. You might wonder, why the confessional though? Narcissism, I suppose is an explanation. Blogging is a lazy way to feed my ego. But maybe, just maybe, there is a point to it. Perhaps one day, I'll look back at this and think that I am okay with living like this. I have tried long to battle it, and I'll not feel guilty for having the right to be sad, or to tell that story to the world. I might come across as privileged and not look tough when the world is watching, but I am willing to have a conversation on it.

I am convinced there is no fear, and no shame in that.

Also read this lovely webcomic episode by Allie Brosh: Hyperbole and a Half.


Pushkar said...

Evil 17, that. Age which literally pushed me away from my parents. For similar reasons of course. The feeling of not making it to the IITs and rather settling down for a mediocre engineering coll. On top of it, getting a KT in the 2 nd year, really confined myself to my room to block away the parents. Yes I loved them but at that stage, I hated them more. Incan never forget That feeling of them holding the paper in the morning and reading out the names of some IIT topper, who happened to be their friends's son. I always lacked that sense of accomplishment. Thankfully met some really good friends and got addicted to 'don't give a fuck' eminem rap music,which helped me get out through my college days, unscathed.

Don't know why I am saying this, just that the post has simply moved me and reminded me of the most difficult times of my life so far. On thing it has taught me is, I am not shamed of it. Yes I still lack that feeling of not having accomplished what I was out for, and I can never do that, but for some reason I am not ashamed of that. Ans yes, talking helps, helps like anything.

Btw... I am so jealous of you, having th ability to beautifully express the feelings. I cannot read anything longer that 100 words at a stretch, but this post had me glued and literally touched my heart.


myriadmind said...

I'm quite awestruck! You did appear kind of on your on in college (UG), but when I saw you in Hyd I almost always got positive vibes from you.
I've been diagnosed quite a few times, strangely never ever for the substance abuse, but the blank staring at the wall and brooding. Before that I stammered so bad, I wouldn't make eye contact with most people lest they strike a conversation. I still plunge into my own levels and forms of manic depression, stopped medications ASAP. Also you can't do away with it if its in the family. Das just recouped after his post-retirement blues. But that was some heart-melting writing! Not to mention the photograph.I'm strongly against medication though, somehow I've never seen it work with Baba.

So said...

One can never really just say, I am proud of you after reading something like this. Neither is it possible to merely be touched. What one identifies with is the 'staring at the wall' moments, the constant struggle to reach out and talk but be unable to. All I can say is thank you for voicing it, for writing it. And thank you for being who you are.

Bharti Bedi said...

I now know why you were nominated for the award. No, it is not the writing. It is you. I have new found respect for you. I wish everyone was as strong as you. I wish everyone could overcome the guilt.