My father has been going through the manic – depressive illness for as long as I can remember.
We were young and some days he would get back home from work, super elated, with new things he had purchased, new investments in stocks and property he had made, and the new wonder idea he had stumbled upon.
Other days, he would get back and bash us up. Me, for not doing my “perfect handwriting homework”; Mom, because there was too much salt in the food, and sometimes my brother, probably because he was too young to resist him then.
Years passed and from his super ecstatic to super irritated moods, I began to learn to fear my father. He was no longer my friend. He was no longer my hero. I was just plain and simple scared of him. As a family, we did not know at that time that there was indeed a mental illness behind the way he behaved. More often than not, we kept placing the blame on his patriarchal and deeply misogynistic upbringing, where it was considered okay to beat up one’s female counterpart.
I still partly assert that the way he was probably brought up, affected everything he made us go through, especially his wife and his daughter. That said, we never really knew of his illness till one day, suddenly, he took to bed. He was depressed and would not talk, would not come out of bed, would not bathe and would keep sleeping. This was triggered by problems at his workplace. We all rushed to his support, praying for him, sensing our world about to collapse, expecting the worst. However, for me although this phase was scary, it also provided a sense of respite and liberation. For some time, we did not have to put up with the abuse, the physical, the verbal, the emotional… abuse. We were not belittled and did not experience constant existential dread (there was dread now too, but of another kind). Several visits to the psychiatrist and a month long dose of antidepressants later, my father was up and about again.
More recently, when I have looked back on what happened, these are the only sides of my father that I seem to remember. The weeping, cringing, bedridden father and the aggressive, abusive, all knowing father… there is no place in the middle where I can place him.
Life resumed, violence and abuse returned and so did his rounds of depression. Each time he would fall lower and then bounce back higher. It was stifling growing up that way, there were threats to our existence, there was a permanent threat to our mother’s physical safety and personhood, and there were bruises, shrieks and tears.
We were clueless and there was no help at hand. No school counselor to hear what was happening, no support at the workplace where my mother could seek help. No NCERT book ever mentioned that there are illnesses other than tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, that there are illnesses of the mind too, that these too can irreversibly damage, if not outright kill.
Years went by and we struggled, increasingly each day. Then one day, I snapped. I was 19 years old then. The mere sight of my father started to get me all worked up. I would cry, shriek and try to hide soon as I heard him or spotted him around me.
I was taken to a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety. I was prescribed medication and that was probably the first time in my life that I knew what calmness and respite felt like. It was as if I had been wandering, stumbling, going up and down the hill and never knew which way to take and things were suddenly put in place for me. The voices inside my head ceased. The zillion fears and failures looked surmountable, music was fun again, life was better, there were some dreams, aspirations and some sleep at night.
However, the process of recovery had only just started. Even as I was making progress, medicinewise, my father’s situation remained the same, more or less. Also, over the years, his diagnosis was clear, that of bipolar disorder, and it had been made clear to him on more occasions than one, that his illness would require lifelong management, care and possibly medication. This was not acceptable to him. Mostly because of the stigma of being on medication for a mental illness, and even more so, being a man.
Each time he snapped out of the depression, he would discontinue his visits to the psychiatrist and his medication. And each time, all of us shared the brunt. My illness, meanwhile, got better and worse in phases. It was never a linear path.
Due to sheer ignorance about mental illness, I often found myself left behind. Low levels of self esteem and the overall guilt, shame, burden and stigma of having depression landed me in an abusive relationship, which further aggravated the state of my mental health. I had managed to continue with my studies and obtained an admission for a postgraduate degree in social work.
In my studies too, I was nowhere close to acceptable. I would miss classes and not attend fieldwork. Unfortunately, due to a lack of awareness, this was construed as a personal failing. I was told to my face that- “depression was nothing but an excuse”, to “cheer up”, and informed that, “medicine was not the solution to depression”. This outlook and what I no longer regard as my own personal failing, led to my eventually being given a year back for the degree. Nothing was working. However, there was one professor who taught me mental health–Shweta Ma’am whom I confided in, and for the years to come, she always stood by me.
She is an experienced social worker, specialising in mental health. She motivated me to get back to the department and finish my degree. She arranged therapy sessions for me and all my much needed psycho-education came from her, about my own illness and also that of my father. Eventually, she went on to be my field work supervisor and on many occasions, I would turn up with my field work reports not written. She would let me use her cabin space and work and would inevitably get a chai and samosa in between. Eventually, relentlessly, hopefully and hopelessly, the postgraduate degree was completed and I even cleared my Junior Research Fellowship exam. I am working on my research proposal now and exploring areas of interest. Shweta Ma’am provides her expert feedback and opinion at each point; also, beyond a shred of doubt, I have chosen to work on mental health as my area of interest.
Life looks better now, the sense of mastery and self esteem have definitely risen for me.
As for my father, he is still not regular with his medication and my mother faces extreme burn out a lot of times.
However, during all these years, the thing of value that I have learnt is the subtle art of not giving up.
In the direst hour of my life, I was not given up on and that is inspiration enough to not give up ever. Also, because with mental health recovery, the turning point might just be around the corner.
Retrospectively and with a lot of reading and psycho-education, there is honestly not much to complain about. There are just a few things I wonder about…
If only my father was diagnosed earlier and there was no shame in taking his medicine and seeking support.
If only wife beating was unspeakable and unheard of. If only that biology textbook also talked about psychological first aid for when your head was about to rupture.
If only more people were trained to be like Shweta Ma’am. If only those people were found in our everyday communities and not just in numbingly overcrowded or painfully elite set ups.
If only we could all talk, of our fears, our hopes, our aspirations and most importantly, our imperfections without the looming threat of being tagged, stigmatized and ostracized…
I would probably still be writing this story… but its plot would have been very different!