My Personal Mental Health Journey
The journey of my mental illness started long before I even knew it as an illness that could be diagnosed and treated. The earliest that I remember of incidents that left deep scars in me is as early as 6 years old.
Life during elementary to middle school.
I used to be so fearful of meeting new people, including my teachers, my parents’ friends and my relatives. I remember running towards the closet and hiding behind the closed doors as soon as I heard the doorbell ring, panicking inside and dreading the moment when I would be discovered and dragged out of there. This happened many times and I would keep trying to find new places to hide but failing to be safe in those places as my parents kept finding me, forcing me out to meet new people who came to visit them and scolded me for being rude. I hated those moments when we had visitors or when my parents would take me to their friend’s house. My refuge would often be behind my mom’s saree until it would annoy her or behind a curtain or a couch while others were engaged in chatter. Occasionally I would make friends with the children of my parents’ friends and I also gradually started enjoying the company of kind and welcoming neighbors.
As I began settling into school life for a couple of years, my father got transferred to the city where he grew up and where I would live as a big joint family along with my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. It was a large house and always busy. The company of my grandparents was a welcome change and I felt safe with them. While this transfer was a big adjustment for me, I always felt safe burying myself into my grandma’s saree and clinging onto her tightly during the ordeal of meeting new people. She would never complain or get annoyed with me and would hold me back tightly the whole time until the visitors left.
One day, there was an unexpected and loud visitor. I was so afraid just hearing his voice, and not finding grandma anywhere, I fled to the bathroom and locked myself in. I stayed there the whole time and when it finally felt safe to come outside, I couldn’t open the door. I had locked myself in. I started screaming and yelling for help. My grandpa heard me and ran to my rescue. He tried to help by giving me instructions to try and open the door. He handed me a long stick through the window. Nothing worked. I stayed in there sobbing my heart out while a local carpenter arrived and had to break open the door. My parents were so mad at me for “misbehaving” and made me feel ashamed of my actions. I was probably in second grade by then. It was a defining moment in my life and stuck with me for a good part of my elementary to middle school life. I would always be the one who would disappoint, not keep up with the expectations of others or what should be done normally.
By the time I got to middle school, that overwhelmingly sad feeling became my baseline. I started feeling so alone, different and sad all the time. I completely lost interest in my studies and would just sit in class dreaming away or looking out of the window. I barely made it through the exams and would fail in math tests at least twice a year. My self-confidence started getting lower and lower with each passing year. My grandpa took a deep interest in my welfare and began coaching me. He was a writer and also an artist. He spent a lot of time with me, motivated me to read and write more and took me to book fairs. He would sketch for me so I could watch and learn. I found my love in the Arts and it changed my life.
High school and beyond.
In high school I had discovered strategies to stay away from confrontation, relied more on friends than my parents for comfort and had even managed to show off my skills in art and cultural competitions. I got into one of the best Art schools in the city and my life took a very different turn. There were ups and downs, but with the optimism and support of my grandparents, I made it through. I do not know how far I would’ve gotten without their help and support. The years after that (1998-99) and the beginning of my career as a designer, felt like the most ‘normal’ years I had ever experienced. You could even say I was happy.
Fast forward to 2012.
I delivered a baby boy in May of 2012 after a 6-month bed rest due to a high-risk pregnancy. No one, including my primary care physician told me anything about postpartum depression or asked me how I was feeling. I could not breastfeed because he was a premature baby and the thought of taking care of the little one completely overwhelmed me.
I would blame myself for not preparing in advance before the delivery. I would just sit and watch my mother-in-law handle everything and care for the baby’s needs. By then I completely lost all confidence and went spiralling into depression. I suddenly felt like I lost my identity. The ‘normal’ person I had worked so hard to become all those years was suddenly slipping away. I was missing my work life and the social aspect of being in a job, feeling independent, out and about.
I thought if I just get back to a ‘normal’ job, things would just fall into place. However, the unaddressed postpartum depression took a turn for the worse. I started experiencing anxiety symptoms, couldn’t handle my job like I used to and completely lost my focus. The next couple of years, I just kept blaming it on the company or unhelpful team members, blaming every other person in my family by making irrelevant connections. I would get so irritable and angry all the time. I kept job-hopping trying to find a better working environment and I would yell at my husband and my in-laws. My “misbehavior” would be called out by family members. The helpless and lonely feelings I had as a young girl came rushing back. My identity suddenly morphed back into those early years where I would again be the person to always disappoint everyone around me. I would get highly triggered during interactions with my husband or a family member. There were moments where I would suddenly be transported to this abstract yet all-too familiar place, where I would relive many incidents I experienced in elementary and middle school. The baseline that I had worked so hard to lift up all those years suddenly sank down lower and lower. I started experiencing feelings of anxiety and would have panic attacks very often. I would just suddenly wake up in the middle of the night and start crying for hours.
It’s 2016 and I’m still trying to ‘Ride it Out’.
Four years had passed since I started experiencing these strange symptoms. I was going nowhere, living with my sickness which was slowly debasing my identity with each passing year. I had no idea what was happening to me, all the while I was spiralling out of control without even realizing it. I was hurting a lot of people around me. My husband and I started moving apart from each other.
One day, as I was driving to work, I rehearsed in my head the presentation I had worked on the previous night. My brain just suddenly went blank. I was so disoriented and didn’t remember a thing. I also suddenly lost all sense of where I was on the road and I had a panic attack coming on in the middle of the road. I quickly pulled over to the road shoulder, parked my car and felt a sharp pain and a tightening in my chest. I thought I was having a heart attack and that I was going to die. For perhaps a minute or so, I lost all sense of time and space. It felt like an out of body experience until I suddenly found myself breathing rapidly. Realizing I was on the highway shoulder I tried to collect my thoughts together and get reoriented. I must have spent at least a good 30 minutes just sitting there and waiting for my racing thoughts to settle. I took a U turn in the next exit, returned home and quit my job the next day. That’s when I realized I needed help. No pun intended, but my attempt to ‘Ride it Out’ had failed so badly, it had literally pushed me over to the side of the highway.
The hunt for help begins
I was ashamed to tell anyone at home what I was going through. My sister-in-law is a psychiatrist. But I was so afraid to mention anything to her or ask for help. After failing to get the help and resources I needed, I turned to a friend who was brave enough to tell her story. She referred me to a counselor in town. My journey of self-reflection, learning and awareness began that year. I read books, watched TED Talks, took down copious amounts of notes and journaled my way into rediscovering my identity. I went back into my past as a way to begin healing from it. This was such an important step to the rediscovery process. By then, I had mustered the courage to tell my sister-in-law about my condition and seek some answers to questions I had. I found the counseling sessions extremely liberating and the positive habits I cultivated during those 6 months got me back on track.
It doesn’t end here.
2018…It’s been nearly 2 years since my path to recovery after that incident on the highway. My husband was extremely supportive throughout those 2 years and we were now a team. Things started looking up and my ambitions started growing to a point where I got a bit cocky. I slowly started skipping my routine and the habits that had helped me the last 2 years slipped away. Before I knew it, I was slipping back into depression again.
I started losing hope. I would sometimes go outside and stand in the cold in the middle of winter until my fingers and ears stung me. I would stay up all night, get a couple of hours of sleep and wake up just lying in bed, unable to get up. It felt like the whole world was against me. I stopped trusting people and would get so delusional believing that others are out there to harm me. A sense of paranoia starting setting in and I grew further and further away from reality. The panic attacks were more frequent, more severe with each passing month. The suffering was so unbearable, I would imagine scenarios where I just leave my home and family to go somewhere else and settle on my own. These thoughts started getting darker and more intense, it got to a point where I started thinking about ‘the other side’ and felt a sense of calm, like I would finally be free in that other place. I once took out my markers and sketched a ‘tattoo’ of blood dripping down a cut from my wrist. Being an artist, I drew a very realistic looking tattoo and started fantasizing death. My husband witnessed this, with horror and disbelief, and immediately rushed me over to see his sister (the psychiatrist). I was diagnosed with Major Depressive disorder and General anxiety disorder. She advised me to go on medication immediately and spoke to my PCP. My PCP prescribed the medication and after about 3 weeks, I started feeling so much better.
Summer of 2019
The medication worked wonders. The initial stigma against taking medication dissipated immediately and I realized it’s no different than depending on eye glasses for the entirety of your life. I promised myself, I would give myself a lot of self love and care. I started eating a very healthy, balanced diet and also started a running routine. During the course of 2019, I found such caring friends in my community who have helped me immensely through this process. I have been maintaining this lifestyle and continuing my medication for the last 2 years. I did great during Covid months. I have never felt this good in my entire life!