My new psychiatrist explains, the first time I meet him, that anxiety and depression are brothers.
I smile relieved that at least one of the brothers hasn’t visited.
I smile also because I feel it’s propitious that I am with a doctor who understands and explains things through stories.
Cut to the generic stress of an international travel, a general breakdown of life values and support systems, and I experience what it is to chain smoke and a couple of what I now call low intensity panic attacks. They are difficult but bearable and they don’t last very long. Also, I have begun to recognize it immediately so it does not induce extreme panic or that feeling of hopelessness or helplessness. I swallow pills, and, in a few minutes, I am calm and everything is more bearable.
However, I know when not to push life now. So I crawl back into the country, cutting my month long vacation woefully short, and leaving a life-long relationship hanging in the balance, thinking only that I cannot end up with more health issues.
After I am back in India, I have three severe high intensity panic attacks (one where I lose memory for a few blissful hours) and two that mimic all the symptoms of a heart attack (which now I know necessitates Emergency Care, so do check yourself into a hospital if/when this happens).
I don’t do anything other than swallow my anxiety medication. By now, the anxiety pills are so routine, they could be mouth-freshners.
Naturally, all this stress threatens my already compromised immunity (thanks to immuno-spurresants needed for my rheumatoid arthritis) too much and I am in the throes of a flu so bad that it lasts a little more than a month. I am coughing, feverish, and faint through much of that time. I am perpetually exhausted.
The congestion is so bad, I begin to imagine that another living creature, with a distinct voice of its own, has taken residence in my chest cavity. I imagine the creature is singing horrific songs about my life when I try to sleep or move.
None of the medicines for a flu seem to work. I am so stressed out; I am entirely apathetic.
I decide dying would be welcome.
I wake up every morning contemplating killing myself.
It is very real.
I wistfully research all the ways one could kill oneself, and how painful or not each is. I gravely (pun unintended) smile at my apparent fear of pain.
Suicide is not something I can ever commit (I recognise this) but God, do I want to!
I don’t talk to many people but my closest friends who know try to get me to stop feeling so defeatist and thinking suicidal thoughts.
The parents watch and shrink, watch and shrink and shrivel a little each day, even as I am convinced that I am incapable of life. My father’s forgetfulness, confusion, and disorientation worsens. My mother loses more weight.
My therapist says that I have suffered a huge setback and lived through an incredibly traumatic experience, again. So there’s no recourse but to experience all the pain and simply endure.
I just have to give in and suffer through it.
The days pass.
I am on an extended break thanks to my meticulously planned international vacation. I can’t work even if I want to. It feels like a curse. But I try to think it’s a blessing because the funk is worse than anything I have known even during my burnout those years ago.
The ‘death as an escape’ thought is predominant.
Into this, I hear news of a few deaths.
Everyone seems to be dying in this world, except me.
A friend’s father has committed suicide, another boy is murdered.
A family friend close enough to be real family, dies of a heart attack in Chennai.
She’s only 49. Not an age to go.
Everyone is relieved and released except for us – the hollow men.
But for once, even Eliot offers little comfort.
There’s no sense in living, wanting, hoping.
Why do we live?
What is this life?
But before I utter the word ‘meaningless’ that trembles in my consciousness, life asserts itself with bills, invoices, and expenses.
There are applications and students who claw at my apathy.
I am terrified of entering a class room again.
But the business and the need to earn a living don’t allow indulgences.
I throw myself into books to heal.
The message of endurance in Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee’s, The Forest of Enchantments resonates on multiple levels.
As long as my mind can be diverted, things can be borne.
Life and its losses can be endured.
I watch TV, indiscriminately.
My close friends offer holidays and food and try to get me to attend fun events, even forcefully take me out to dinner, but nothing really interests me. I am simply exhausted to the point of not caring or feeling. About anyone or anything.
Eventually, I do have to work.
I finally get on an increased dosage of medication a week before I teach again.
The doctor is alarmed by my death wishes and research.
I reassure him that I won’t kill myself and the research is just research.
We chuckle together over the fact that maybe this will make me more successful as a writer.
The increased dosage does help.
When I finally enter a class room, it’s like breathing fresh air after days of living unawares in a musty room. But I am apathetic even when I make all the appropriate noises. I can still make people laugh. I have high-functioning anxiety. It’s no surprise that with depression, only a few know how hopelessly detached I am from all that I do.
I lose a phone almost, and in high drama and with stormy emotion characteristic of a past life, I manage to recover it. Other than a pity party, I don’t suffer much from this episode.
The medication cushions everything.
The thoughts of death and dying slowly ebb.
The sorrow is carved deep and it may never leave or it might leave a jagged scar, but for the moment, it’s covered up, bandaged prettily.
As the medications recede, and the emotions begin to surface again, I find that I am able to feel happy about my plants blossoming; there are lipsticks and books I want to buy again.
I visit my best friend at his place and a lizard scare that is initially equal parts horror and hilarity results in a sudden panic attack – a reminder of who and what I have been reduced to because of my own failing health and its treatments.
I know now that while life events may have compounded it, mental health issues are closely tied up with all the immunity disorders that I have been so richly blessed with. But it’s not too bad. Even as I am breathing into a brown paper bag as my psychiatrist taught me, the panic begins to recede, and my friend and I giggle over the lizard episode.
I realise I have a new found appreciation for gallows humour and the memes on Instagram.
Life is essentially meaningless and absurd, but there are moments that can make things worthwhile.
When you are at sea, these moments can be a faint light that guides you to the shore.
My laughter feels less hollow.
I know writing this is a way to thrive in spite of everything.
Sharing stories of ill health without shame or fear of judgment might help others.
So this is a happy end, after all.
I haven’t killed myself.
I have learnt to cope with (for now) the dreaded visit from the other brother too.