ENT specialist. Gastroenterologist. Nephrologist. Gynaecologist. Endocrinologist. Therapist. Psychiatrist. In that order.
I have been living with depression and anxiety for almost 3 years now. But the first two years I didn’t know it. My body tried to tell me. But I was not listening. Medications and painkillers, CT scans, MRIs, ultrasounds and the works. But test after test, there was nothing found organically wrong. Symptoms persisted. Pain increased. And still, medically, all clear. And then one of the doctors asked me – ‘Are you stressed?’. And I said, ‘Yes! Of course, day after day if I am living on painkillers and keeping sick, how will I not be stressed’? Doctors tried to further explain that they were not talking about the stress caused because of keeping unwell, but stress that may have led to the health issues in the first place. That irritated me. It seemed to me that doctors were just unable to think out of the box. If they failed to find a reason in the checklist of what their textbooks tell them, they just blamed it on stress. I stopped going to doctors, left my job and stopped the painkillers. I started feeling lonely, fatigued and a failure. I felt I was not good enough to handle the everyday stresses of life. And this was nothing but the stress of an existential crisis that everyone goes through in their late twenties. I started therapy. I still believed that it were the health issues causing the stress. But therapy revealed otherwise. And once therapy started, my body started talking to me more clearly. I started to get panic attacks. Where I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe and would just howl. Racing heartbeats and a knot in my throat. It would feel like I am going to die. The panic attacks were spread apart (sometimes twice a week and sometimes, once in three months). Sometimes lasted 2 minutes and sometimes 15. The 15 minute panic attack is what hit me, mentally. I couldn’t run away from this any longer. And therapy would not be enough. And then I took the step of going to the psychiatrist and taking medication.
Friends, colleagues, family helped a lot. In their own way, according to their own different understandings. But I have to be honest, I always felt that I was in it alone. I still do. And this is where I want to stress the importance of talking about mental health. I was the one to decide that I needed to join therapy. My therapist urged me to go to the psychiatrist. Post that, the responsibility of psycho-educating my family was on me. Don’t get me wrong, my parents care. They were in shock when I told them that I am on medication for what was diagnosed as ‘dysthymia’. They were concerned, but their blank faces told me very clearly that they were clueless about what they could do to help. They were proud of me for being active in taking treatment. But they didn’t feel they could do much to help me. This, I had trouble understanding. Why was it so easy to accompany me to the gastroenterologist and to the ENT doctor, but feel hesitant in even asking when my follow up appointment was for the psychiatrist? Because, we don’t talk about mental health. Why is it that I had to be the one to Google links on ‘How to support a loved one with depression and anxiety’ and send it to my parents, when they are perfectly internet savvy? Because it didn’t occur to them to find out how to deal with it, or that it is something to deal with. Because, mental health seems like a far away concept that people feel they are not equipped to directly even engage with.
Friends helped a LOT. This is probably because, I have a lot of friends who are interested in mental health and some even working in the area. Friends helped right from not saying anything when I bailed on plans and responsibilities, when I crouched into a corner randomly at parties, when I suddenly couldn’t get out of bed, when they had to hug me to make me calm down and breathe better, when they tried to reason and talk out what they thought could be causing me anxiety, and so on. My friends were able to do this, because they read about mental health and they talk about it. They never treated me as someone with issues. They made the issue their own, no different than if another friend has fever. Initially, I told about my condition to friends, one by one in private. But eventually it became a group conversation. Just like a fever or a stomachache would. I never thought twice before talking about my struggles and my friends reflected the same ease back to me.
I am doing better now. But I am still struggling. There are still mornings when I cannot get out of bed and bail on the most important things. There are days when I am out and about getting things done and then there are days when I just feel like I am all alone, can’t move and I break into anxiety and palpitations. But, the panic attacks are gone. I feel more in control. I know how to take it easy if I am in a difficult place. And the process goes on. I am aware that I have been luckier than most when it comes to my privilege in accessing expensive therapy and psychiatric care. I was privileged to give up my job and claim space for myself to recover. I was privileged to have understanding parents and supportive friends. Most people living with mental health issues, do not have all of these privileges. And the first step we can take to make life easier for them, is to start talking about mental health. It is okay to seek mental health help, even if you are having a bad week and even if you have been having a bad year. It is okay to seek help in case you have been having unexplained health issues for a long time. Doctors need to be more aware to refer such patients to a psychiatrist rather than just keep changing medications. We need to talk about mental health at various levels. With doctors, nurses, teachers, college professors, students and media.
We need to end the stigma. We need to increase information and awareness. So that more and more people can identify the issues they are facing and seek the right kind of help in time. It is not only okay to talk about mental health, it is an absolute necessity!