Growing up, I was a fairly stocky kid, peaking at a level that can be called “fat but short of obese”. By the time I reached college, my growth spurt meant that some of the puppy fat had melted away. It was a shock, nevertheless, for my friends to see me wither away to an alarming 48 kilograms (I’m 1.73 m tall and now weigh 80 kilos; back then, I would normally weigh about 70) during my fourth year in college. I was 21 years old, clinically depressed and in the middle of a full-blown meltdown.
It did not happen in a vacuum. For the two years prior to this, I had been feeling the pressure that came with studying at an elite, high-octane institute (IIT Kharagpur). It’s the sort of seemingly laid-back place that masks its intensity exceedingly well. There are kids running all over the place, rehearsing for plays, dancing to cheesy songs, smashing beer bottles against hostel walls or making insufferable little candidacy speeches for posts with negligible power outside their CVs. And yet, anybody who has spent a meaningful amount of time there knows that the place is as competitive as it gets — and not in a nice way. Paycheques are phallic stand-ins even as the students prepare for the biggest pissing contest in the country: Campus placements.
Now, it is no longer enough to get by with average marks and a positive attitude. To gain an edge, people put themselves through the grind every single day, clearing CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) exams, preparing for MBA entrance tests, using the most blatant exaggerations and falsehoods to snag prestigious internships. By the time I completed my first year at college, I grew so disgusted with this grotesque vaudeville show that I decided to remove myself from the milieu entirely.
By the end of my third year, I vowed not to sit for campus placements. I had no interest in being an investment banker or a business consultant (which is what most engineering students want to be). In my naiveté, I saw all of this a game — an elaborate, cut-throat one —but still a game nonetheless. If I didn’t play, I couldn’t lose.
It wasn’t that simple, of course. It never is.
I saw, soon enough, that the people in my batch soon sifted themselves into two groups: the haves and the have-nots. The haves were the ones with opportunities, prospects, achievements, jobs, smiles and café lattes to wake them up after a night of celebratory spirits. The have-nots hovered around the campus like Death Eaters, dark, hooded, with wrinkly hands, spreading a cold, miserable vibe in their wake, bringing up their current unemployment and future penury in the most unsubtle of ways. Of course, the ‘penury’, like much else at IIT, was subject to relative grading. What the Death Eaters feared was normalcy — making do with Rs 7-8 lakhs per annum, an unexceptional starting salary by IIT standards (circa 2006-7).
I hated both groups with equal passion. But people like me, people who belonged to neither group, were white tigers: rare, under the weather and liable to be hunted down by this bullet or that one. Already, my hitherto supportive parents had started making noises about ‘future plans’. By the time my fourth year in college began, their polite questions gave way to full-blown panic and aggressive interrogation. Some of my friends were worse, offering me catalogues and websites and ‘cheat sheets’ for internship entrance tests. Take it, just swallow the Kool-Aid, they’d urge me. You can read as many books and watch as many films you want when you are “settled” (read: filthy rich; anything short of it would be ‘wasting’ my talents, wasting a seat at this precious institute).
Eventually, I stopped leaving my room, stopped going to classes altogether for about a month or so. After I was informed that I could be forced to repeat the semester, I would wake up in the morning, attend classes with a blank expression, go home and stare at my ceiling fan, Jerry Garcia keeping me company at forbidding volumes.
I would not eat for days on end, and then binge-eat comfort food over a long weekend spent watching the Lord of the Rings films back-to-back (not even the most ardent of Tolkien fans can convince me that this was healthy behaviour). I would smoke and smoke and smoke until I was living in a perpetual mushroom cloud of misery and despair. I alienated a fair few of my friends during this phase and the ones I didn’t started to avoid me because my sunken eyes, matted hair and general zombie-like tendencies made them afraid that I would crack their skulls open and nibble at their brains.
It would be fair to say that my only true friends during these terrible three months or so were the cleaning and kitchen staff at my hostel. These kind souls would often surprise me with a knock on the door and plates heaped with food. They had noticed my absence in the mess and were anxious about the boy who would imitate actors and pull off a Bhojpuri accent for their pleasure. Even when the food went untouched, they never stopped coming, never stopped asking me if I needed anything.
And then, during one particularly terrible week, I found myself paralysed with fear and anxiety thrice: all three occasions during classroom lectures. I would show symptoms consistent with both asthma and claustrophobia. I could only calm down if I was immediately taken to a sunny place with trees around me. After the third incident, the doctor said I ought to see a psychiatrist or a therapist: preferably both.
Luckily, despite the Stone Age attitudes towards mental illness, the campus had a Counselling Centre, with both psychiatrists and therapists on their payroll. I was lucky enough to be assigned a doctor who was both — and treated both aspects of her job with equal respect. Soon, I was speaking to her thrice a week, doing the writing exercises she assigned me. Importantly, she put me on a course of mild anti-depressants for two months. The meds and her therapy sessions probably saved my life.
Best of all, she encourage me to write about my experiences, pointing out that she had only ever seen me sitting comfortably and naturally when I had a pen and a notebook in my hand (only two other people have made this observation, before or since: one is the woman I live with now and the other is an old and preternaturally observant friend). Before I knew it, I had written a play about failed suicides: dark, but funny, willing to laugh at things others would shudder at. It is the only thing I wrote back then that survives to this day. I showed it to some of my friends from the college theatre troupe, which I was a part of, too. They were excited about it and began rehearsals in real earnest, giving me the dramatic monologue that ended the play.
I was aware of how this looked like, of course, my coming out of hibernation armed with a play about suicide. But my renewed mental health — and this newfound confidence in my writing — had assured me that it was going to be alright. Not only was I healthy, I had realised that it was, in fact, okay to talk about my illness. A week before the play was performed, my doctor informed me that she had stopped my meds and that I did not need therapy anymore.
The play went like a dream. Later that year, I began writing book reviews for a Delhi-based newspaper. By the time placement season came around, I asked the editor if I could, perhaps, join the paper once I was done with college. He said yes and that’s exactly what I did. The money was a fraction of the average IIT graduate’s salary, but I was happier than ever before. I threw myself into the arena of journalism.
This was 5 years ago. Today, I am in the middle of writing my first book (for Oxford University Press India), an academic-cum-journalistic tour through the world of Indian comics and graphic novels. I write a weekly TV column for The Hindu, and handle the Arts/Culture pages over at BLink, a weekend supplement for The Hindu Business Line. My writings on culture, literature, art — and, on occasion, mental health — are read and appreciated by a wide range of people.
To people who are reading this and are going through difficulties of their own, I would say only this: I know it is the toughest thing in the world to talk about it. I know the doubt and the self-loathing and the inertia. But in the final equation, talking about to it to a friend, a loved one or a professional helps more than you would believe. It’s frequently humiliating and it hurts like crazy, but it’s worth it.
It’s okay to talk.
Aditya is a 28-year-old journalist/writer living in New Delhi. He works at The Hindu Business Line and writes “Universal Remote”, a television column for The Hindu. He is currently working on a non-fiction book about Indian comics.